Into Thin Eyre

Is it because it appears on so many school reading lists that Jane Eyre is a favorite with adapters into other mediums? Or is it because it is, as it was for its author, the great wish-fulfillment fantasy: Plain, orphaned, maltreated governess gets to marry, against all odds, the rich, remote, romantic dream man? Or is it just feminism avant la lettre?

Charlotte Brontë’s novel is not very different from typical gothic thrillers – everything from a sadistic schoolmaster to the arsonist madwoman in the attic. But it does have genuine artistic appeal, or at least did have until John Caird and Paul Gordon turned it into this deplorable musical, which queers even happy memories of the original.

Gordon’s music is anti-music: a gray, soggy mush that repeats and repeats its tuneless phrases ad nauseam. It is mostly recitative posturing as song, and almost makes Seussical sound good by comparison. Pile onto this lyrics by Gordon and Caird (the latter also perpetrating book and direction), in which trite sentiments and predictable rhymes are trotted out and reiterated like marvels of eloquence. In three hours, the show drags itself through much of the novel’s length, though none of its depth or heights.

One’s heart goes out to the Jane of Marla Schaffel, who sings and acts decently but has to be onstage nearly all the time watching and hearing this godawful stuff. James Barbour, formerly Beast in Beauty and the Beast, is a beastly Rochester. With his hair carefully tousled and glued into place, a loutish persona and a slack-jawedly cretinous look, singing that is either pallid or bellowing, he is more buffalo than Rochester. His best moment is when he portrays a gypsy fortune-teller in drag, but even that, short as it is, palls before it’s over.

Stout Mary Stout does stoutly by Mrs. Fairfax, but Elizabeth DeGrazia, for all her piercing soprano, is a stilted, bloodless Blanche. In fact, the supporting players are mostly of the provincial church-basement variety, and the chorus that hangs around singing some of Jane’s private thoughts in the first-person singular while she stands helplessly by is a mirthless joke.

Jane sings things like “It’s twelve o’clock in the pitch-black night / I can’t contain my wanderlust / I seek a new adventure / And search the skies because I must.” Little Jane’s coeval, the doomed Helen (played by an actress looking easily 30), intones: “Forgiveness is the simplest vow / Forgiveness of all their crimes / Is your deliverance now.” And here’s a chorus of arriving party guests: “Galloping up to the Drive / All of the beautiful people arrive / The cream of the crop / Clippity-clop.” Eat your heart out, Stephen Sondheim!

The action is mostly in the top-heavy stagecraft: fancy revolving or stationary screens sprouting elaborate, sometimes blurry projections; furniture, etc., flying in from all over; and a hyperactive turntable relentlessly moving everyone and everything around. (Sets by John Napier, lighting by Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer, all usually better than this.) The only things not moving in the least are the story and the characters. To err is human, to Eyre like Caird and Gordon unforgivable.

It must be said for Edward Albee’s Tiny Alice (1964) that with every reseeing it grows and grows – more repulsive. At its premiere, Philip Roth reviewed it as a homosexual daydream in which the hero is presented as “an angst-ridden priest, tempted and seduced by the overpowering female, only to be betrayed by the male lover and murdered by the cruel law.”

In his biography of Albee, Mel Gussow quotes the playwright: “The only play I’m … really indifferent to is Tiny Alice… . I don’t know whether it holds together intellectually.” And upon seeing the current production, as originally mounted at Hartford Stage in 1998, Albee said to himself, “Come on, you childish, foolish young playwright fond of the sound of your own voice.” Foolish especially because, amid all that grandiose palaver, the voice had nothing to say.

Now, however, thanks to Gussow’s book, we can deduce that the billionairess and her lawyer lover in the play are not so much the threatening female seductress and her other man as young Edward’s adoptive parents: the possessive, tentacular woman and her distant, ineffectual husband who adopted the baby that became Edward Albee. The cynical Butler (some characters have generic names) is harder to interpret – perhaps the stand-in for various latent or actual homosexual partners in the boy’s and, later, young man’s experience. This does not invalidate Roth’s assessment; it merely redirects it to events farther back in Albee’s development.

The work, in any case, remains hopeless, what with Albee’s self-deluded notion of orotundity and convolution as proofs of a superior style, as in the near-illiterate “wonders that may befall a man least when he is looking, least that he would have thought.” The play’s sexuality is always sadomasochistic, emphasized by Mark Lamos’s heated direction. Miss Alice is brutally bent over a tabletop and ravished from behind by her hated lover, Lawyer. Lay brother Julian (the word lay is punned on ad nauseam) is seduced by Miss Alice in grotesque fashion. Butler and Lawyer, presumably former lovers, acidly address each other as Darling and Dearest. The Cardinal and Lawyer trade venomous invective, as do also Miss Alice and Lawyer. Julian reminisces erotically about a horse groom whose hands were covered with hair, which prompts a suggestive discussion with Miss Alice about male body hair.

She and Julian have just returned from horseback riding, and he is still fiddling with his riding crop. When she inquires whether he would whip her with it, and his sickly laugh implies refusal, she complains: “Nobody does things naturally anymore… . A man takes a whip to you – a loving whip, you understand – and you know, deep and sadly, that it’s imitation… . No one has the natural graces anymore.”

The religious symbolism about infinite worlds boxed within one another, and Miss Alice as the fleshly surrogate of an invisible but ominous Alice to whose heavy breathing the dying Julian is abandoned, strikes me as pretentious hokum to overlay the sexual antics. Richard Thomas does nobly by Julian, and lovely Laila Robins, our most under- and misused actress, struggles valiantly with Miss Alice, all to no avail. What is said about Lawyer applies also to Author: “Give him the most sophomoric conundrum, and he’ll bore you to death.” Tiny Alice is just another shaggy God story.

Jane Eyre
Directed by John Caird and Scott Schwartz at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre.
Tiny Alice
Directed by Mark Lamos at the Second Stage Theater.

Into Thin Eyre