HOUSTON -- Mounting the world premiere of a heretofore little-known 18th century comedy of manners is no easy task. First and foremost, there's the responsibility of honoring an overlooked voice. This challenge becomes all the more significant when the playwright in question is a woman denied her due partly because of the conventions of the day. But then there's also the issue of how to put the words into play: as a period piece or tongue-in-cheek? And what, if anything, should be edited, and why?
These are only some of the tasks that faced Rebecca Greene Udden, artistic director of Main Street Theater in Houston, with The Witlings, by Francis Burney (1782 - 1840), a woman of a satirical letters best known for diaries and such novels as Evelina and Camilla, but an unheralded playwright as well. A send-up of the societal mores Burney lived with (endured?), The Witlings opened February 5 and continues through March 15.
The Witling lampoons marriage and literature, runing a full three-hours in its attempt to straddle the dual send-up. A young man is admonished by his rich, supercilious providerAunt Lady Smatter, to break off his engagement with his intended when it appears the beloved has lost her fortune. Smatter can hardly tear herself away from her pretentious reading club, whose members include the plagiarist/poet Dabbler, the empty-headed Mrs. Sapient, and a befuddled old man named Codger. The young lovers end up happily ever after, of course, thanks to a friend called Censor.
Although Udden had to make extensive cuts, she directs the show "straight," as Burney intended, full bodied caricatures approaching actual personages.
In the program notes, Udden states, "The feverish pitch of activity in several scenes anticipate nineteenth-century farce." Underlying every moment of high drama and devastating humiliation is a comic sensibility and skewering irony. The Witlings continues through March 8 at Main Street Theater in Houston. For tickets, $12 - $17, call (713) 524-6706
By Peter Szatmary