Diana of Dobson’s

The Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond is presenting Diana of Dobsons (1908) by Cicely Hamilton, who wrote the remarkable War novel William, an Englishman (1919). The play is a Shavian comedy about a young woman who can only get work as a shopgirl in a big department store. When she comes into a surprise inheritance of £300, she decides to spend it all on one month of really living, to see the world, and especially to visit the Swiss mountains. She is taken for a wealthy aristocrat, and soon an ex-Guards officer is chasing her for her money. Things develop unexpectedly.

Seeing the excellent Orange Tree production, I was very struck by how definitely the themes of Hamilton’s later writing are there in this pre-War play. This is a feminist work, written round about the time when she was writing her polemic Marriage as a Trade, but it’s not all-men-are-awful feminism. It’s a study of power, and of how money gives you power. There’s a character called Grinley, a charming middle aged baronet (He says that the title was worth every penny he paid for it, which got the biggest laugh of the afternoon at the performance I saw.) He owns one of the department stores that Diana worked in, and she charges him with treating his employees harshly. He gives her a short course in the realities of business that is as good as anything in Shaw. Business is war, he explains, and all means are justified.

The play also already shows her keen sense of the thin line between civilised life and the extremes of suffering. Unemployment means nights spent shivering on an embankment bench till the policeman moves you on. Hamilton’s sense of the fragility of civilisation inspires all her later work, from Senlis (non- fiction, about German atrocities in Northern France) through William, an Englishman, (about an innocent couple who suddenly find themselves in the middle of a war) to Theodore Savage (1922) a dystopian novel about a future war so terrible that the country reverts to barbarism.

At the Orange Tree, the play was produced with wit and inventiveness. This theatre, like the Finborough, where I saw Coward’s The Rat Trap a while back, is one of the few that manages to explore the byways of the English repertory. The Orange Tree makes a speciality of the Edwardian theatre, and past productions include rarities by Pinero, Shaw, Granville Barker, Barrie and others. It’s the sort of job you’d think the National Theatre ought to be undertaking, but they prefer churning out yet another version of Chekhov’s Seagull (Astonishingly, the three biggest theatrical subsidy-guzzlers, the National, the RSC and the Royal Court are all doing versions of The Seagull this year. Why? Don’t they ever co-ordinate?) or doing pointless things like a stage version of the great Michael Powell film A Matter of Life and Death. (Why? when we can get the definitive version on DVD for a few quid. Do they think they can produce a version better than Powell’s? Not very likely. Some friends saw their attempt to improve on Howard Hawks’s His Girl Friday a year or two back. It didn’t work.)

The next production at the Orange Tree is Galsworthy’s The Skin Game, a really interesting study of post-War England. I’ve seen Hitchcock’s film of this, but he abridged it greatly, so I’d like to see how it works on stage.

Post a Comment

%d bloggers like this: