There’s a character in The Grace of Mary Traverse, the 1985 play that helped bring Timberlake Wertenbaker to the public eye, who neatly prefigures the themes that repeat and recur in varying forms throughout the playwright’s later works. The character’s name is Mrs. Temptwell, and she gleefully, maliciously and single-mindedly leads young Mary through a dark world of despair and corruption in 18th-century London, where sex and gerous. Mary’s journey costs her her innocence, but she gains in turn a redemption that can only be born out of suffering.
Virtually all of Wertenbaker’s central characters undergo a similar journey and, like Mary, they don’t merely lose their innocence; more often than not, it’s forcibly wrenched from them. But no matter how much they suffer–and they do suffer–pain brings self-knowledge, which can in turn bring transcendence. Mary determines to forgive history and love the world; in The Love of the Nightingale (1988), Wertenbaker’s retelling of a Greek myth, Philomel–who has been lied to, raped and had her tongue cut by her sister’s husband–literally gains a new voice; the abused convicts of Our Country’s Good (1988) discover the worth of their own dignity while rehearsing a play in an 18th-century Australian penal colony.
A chorus of voices
Her 1991 play Three Birds Alighting on a Field–now having its American premiere at the Manhattan Theatre Club, where it runs through March 27 with its original director and star, Max Stafford-Clark and Harriet Walter, imported from London–unfolds in a contemporary London that has been shaken by the late ’80s collapse of both the art market and Eastern Europe.
Like Our Country’s Good, Three Birds does not have one central character but a chorus–all of whom have legitimate points of view, and all of whom are allowed to have their say–of which two or three inevitably stand out. Both plays were originally directed by Stafford-Clark, and developed through the method he helped pioneer with the revolutionary British theatre company Joint Stock. Intent on breaking down barriers between writer, director and actor, Stafford-Clark (with William Gaskill and David Hare) devised a system wherein the actual writing of a play follows a research and workshop period in which all artistic collaborators participate.
In the simplest terms, Three Birds observes the foibles and frailties of three characters: Biddy (Walter), an upperclass woman who becomes an art collector to please her husband, and in the process discovers the value of art and her own identity; her husband Yoyo (Zach Grenier), a social-climbing Greek millionaire who romanticizes the fictional England of Austen and Thackeray; and Stephen (Jay O. Sanders), an artist who, years earlier, had fallen out of fashion, and is resentful of the contemporary art market’s desperate attempts to woo him back.
Surrounding these three are a wide range of characters from the worlds of art (painters, critics, dealers, buyers and sellers), British high society, and politics (most evocatively, a Romanian who crashes into an art gallery and the play, bringing with him some of Wertenbaker’s most impassioned writing). “The play is discursive, and that’s both a strength and a weakness,” Stafford-Clark says; and indeed, Three Birds leaps about, with nearly as many themes as characters, and styles as themes.
Gospel of uncertainty
The one figure whose journey most closely follows Wertenbaker’s model of self-knowledge leading to transcendence is Biddy, and Harriet Walter carries her from denial to awareness, from an inability to see to something approaching wisdom, in a delicately balanced, high-comedy performance. Missing from this play, however, is the pain that so characterizes Wertenbaker’s earlier writing; Three Birds is the least angry of her major plays. Even Stephen (played by Sanders, a hulking giant, as an unstoppable force of nature) ceases railing and begins to relish a gospel of uncertainty.
At its best, it is an unsettling as well as unsettled play: The plot comes together in a tidy resolution, but the characters themselves are left without answers. If Three Birds can be maddening–there are so many “central characters” that the one we care most about, Biddy, gets lost for frustratingly long periods of time–it’s the play’s seeming digressions, particularly its debate about political responsibility, that ultimately best serve Wertenbaker’s wide-ranging arguments.
And although the art world setting provides the play’s easiest targets as well as its satirical punch–from the opening scene, when an “authentically white” painting entitled No Illusion is auctioned for more than one million pounds, Wertenbaker skewers the commercialization and pretensions of art–it also drives the play’s overriding emphasis on the necessity of individual judgment, interpretation and discrimination.
Stafford-Clark is quick to point out that “the danger of the play is that the laughs about the pretensions of art are very easy for the audience to pick up, and yet the play’s not simply about that; it’s also about the value and worth of art, and that has to be made clear, too, or it will be too bland and reassuring.”
Who are we? No answer.
Where Wertenbaker most refuses to be reassuring is in the question of identity that is carefully drawn throughout the play, yet ultimately remains elusive. In the course of Yoyo’s climb into high society, a member of an exclusive club begins to ask his opinion about European politics. “You can’t ask him, Philip, he’s one of us now,” another member interrupts, to which Sir Philip replies, “Yes, but who are we?”
Wertenbaker never answers Sir Philip’s query, which hangs in the air and over the play, and Three Birds ends with all its characters in as much a state of flux as they began. The importance of the question, however, is there in Grenier’s remarkable performance as Yoyo, a man who is terrified by his own absence of an interior life, who is a bully in private but withdrawn and stiff-necked in public; and, most of all, it’s there in the insecurities and enthusiasms that flicker across Walter’s face. As in all of Werten-baker’s plays, it isn’t the resolution that matters but the journey.