The final presentation in the BFI Southbank Screen Plays season ‘Classics on TV: Edwardian Drama on the Small Screen’ is tonight’s screening of a 1995 production of D. H. Lawrence’s play The Widowing of Mrs Holroyd. It might be thought eccentric to include this in a selection of Edwardian plays. Yet given our interpretation of the Edwardian era as stretching until the start of the First World War, and also given a desire not to restrict the choices simply to society tales and examples of the ‘New Drama’, then there is a strong case for the inclusion of Lawrence’s largely naturalistic play. Written in 1910 and published in a revised form in 1914, it was not staged until 1920, when it was given by a group of amateurs. The first professional production was by Esmé Percy in 1926, but Lawrence did not see a staging in his lifetime.
Following Lawrence’s death in 1930, his plays were largely ignored by the English stage, although Claude Whatham directed a production of The Widowing of Mrs Holroyd for Granada in 1961, with Jennifer Wilson and Paul Daneman. Then in 1967-68 Peter Gill staged the three main Lawrence plays, including The Widowing of Mrs Holroyd, at the Royal Court. Reviewing that production, Ronald Bryden described Lawrence the dramatist as
. . . a master of concentration, of burning intensity, distilling from a naturalism homely as potatoes a fiery, white and ice-cold emotion which shocks like a gulp of liquid-energy. You can see how he does it in Mrs. Holroyd if you attend to the constant, unobtrusive detail of washing, cleaning and ironing. It falls perfectly naturally: what else was the life of a miner’s wife? But as Lizzie Holroyd pursues the endless purification of her house, you know without Freudian hinting or nudging symbolism why she is bound to prefer the genteel electrician who never goes underground, and also why she will never break her marriage for him. (Observer, 17 March 1968)
With strong echoes of both Sons and Lovers and of Lawrence’s short story ‘Odour of Chrysanthemums’, the play offers another version of the relationship of Lawrence’s parents, although it was the writer’s Aunt Polly who lost her husband in a mining accident. A decade before writing the play, Lawrence had also witnessed the bringing home and laying out of the corpse of his older brother Ernest.
The playwright was also undoubtedly influenced by J. M. Synge’s Riders to the Sea (a 1960 BBC Schools production of which was shown in the opening programme of the BFI Southbank season). In a 1913 letter, Lawrence described Synge’s short play as ‘about the genuinest bit of dramatic tragedy, English, since Shakespeare’.
Raymond Williams believed that, for all of his achievement as a dramatist, Lawrence was ultimately constrained by the forms of early twentieth century drama, and that the short story ‘Odour of Chrysanthemums’ is ‘so much stronger, in th[e] last crisis [of the play], .that there is hardly a comparison’. In his important analysis of Lawrence’s plays in Drama from Ibsen to Brecht, Williams continues:
… the dramatic climate, in audiences and expectations, in habits and external conventions, prevented him, clearly, from carrying through a very serious intention: to the disadvantage of English drama as much as to his own disadvantage. What he did, as many others have done, was to settle for that form – the novel – in which he could make his own rules, on his own, without negotiation: a liberation, since the novels are very important; but also a separation, a loss, since those voices, directly, had mattered so much, and needed, dramatically, to be heard. (London: Penguin, 1973, p.296)
Yet writing in New Society about Peter Gill’s production in 1968, the playwright Simon Gray was prompted by end of the play to exult:
It is as if Lawrence were rediscovering the source of those great choric threnodies in Greek tragedy. For a short time at least, the separate members of the audience become one, not only with the mourning widow, but also with the pathetic and still vulnerable body in her arms. The wretched, wearying battle between husband and wife is over, the division between the stage and the spectators vanishes, and something like a community is created out of the shared recognition of the race’s tragedy. (21 March 1968)
The 1995 production of The Widowing of Mrs Holroyd is a rare work for television by the highly distinctive theatre and opera director Katie Mitchell. She achieves remarkable performances from her stellar cast, including Zoe Wanamaker, Brenda Bruce, Stephen Dillane and, although his accent is a little wayward at times, Colin Firth. (For fans of Firth trivia, this BBC2 Performance production was shown on the same weekend as BBC1 first screened the episode of Pride and Prejudice in which the actor in his role as Mr Darcy emerges from his swim to surprise Jennifer Ehle’s Miss Bennet.)
Working with largely static cameras, Katie Mitchell defines with great precision an intimate and intense theatrical space, and in the closing moments, she employs to remarkable effect a single shot that settles on the screen for five and a half minutes. As before in this BFI Southbank season, the unique strengths of multi-camera studio drama are vividly demonstrated.