The tiny Finborough theatre near Earls Court is currently presenting a theatrical rarity. They call it Country Magic, and it is an adaptation of Pinero’s 1922 play about damaged men returning from the War, The Enchanted Cottage.
The central character is maimed and scarred John Bashforth, suffering from vicious headaches and corrosive self-pity. He has rented a cottage, miles from anywhere, with only Mrs Minnett, a stern and bony housekeeper for company. He wants to avoid the people he knows, but his interfering mother and stepfather arrive, with a plan to hire the local vicar and his wife to keep a quasi-parental eye on him. They treat him like an infant, and he resents it.
Another ex-soldier, John Hillgrove, is in the vicinity. He is blind, but a kindly local girl helps him on his way so that he can visit Bashforth. In contrast to the ill-tempered cripple, Hillgrove keeps up a serene front, and there are only occasional hints of his feelings about the suffering that has wrecked his life. There is a very effective scene when the two meet; at first Bashforth rants, but on realising Hillgrove’s blindness his demeanour totally changes. This is the first indication of the play’s theme, the community of sympathy.
After his parents’ visit, Bashforth suddenly comes up with a scheme. He decides that they would stop interfering if he was being looked after by someone other than the stern housekeeper, and on the spur of the moment proposes to the plain and dowdy local girl that she should come and live there – “We’d be married, of course.” She protests that she hardly knows him, and he must know plenty of pretty girls in London. He replies tactlessly that he doesn’t want a pretty girl. She is understandably offended, but they reach an arrangement, and make a marriage of convenience.
Then in the second act, the magic begins. After a few days of marriage, they find themselves changing. He becomes less crippled, and she becomes beautiful. They are frightened to reveal the change to anyone except their blind friend, Hillgrove, though the witch-like housekeeper observes them.
In the third act, Bashforth’s family and the local clergyman visit again, having been told that a miracle has happened. When they meet the couple, however, they see only a crippled man and an ill-favoured girl.
So Pinero’s message is that being loved makes you feel beautiful, that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and that when the unfortunate help each other more good is done than when they receive charity from above. Fairly conventional conclusions, but given piquancy by the postwar setting.
This production is, as I said, an adaptation. In Pinero’s original, there is more explicit magic, and more emphasis on the idea that the cottage is one where lovers have spent their honeymoons for centuries. The housekeeper’s witch-like appearance is referred to in this version; in the original she was definitely a kindly witch, overseeing the magical transformation like a stage-manager. There was magical fantasy presented on stage that reminded the Times reviewer in 1922 of a Christmas pantomime:
Pairs of dead-and-gone lovers go up the… staircase. Imps come down the chimney. Cherubs pop out of a box. There are witches with broomsticks.
This production reduces the magical spectacle to a minimum (and doesn’t have Bashforth facially disfigured at the start), which makes the play less of a fantasy, and perhaps puts too much strain on its presentation of human psychology. It is a good production, though, and well worth catching during its short run at the Finborough. The four central performances, by the couple, their blind friend and the housekeeper, are very good indeed.
The programme claims that the play “set the West End alight” in 1922. Did it? The Times says that its run only lasted seven weeks. The Internet Broadway Database indicates that its New York run was 65 performances. Not spectacular. I suspect that these theatrical versions were less successful than the 1924 film version with Richard Barthelmess. A commentator on the Internet Movie Database indicates how the film managed an effect not quite possible on stage:
there is a terrific shot of the beautiful couple descending the darkened stairs to meet his family. We see a glimpse of them as they descend and are shocked to see them as their ugly selves as they come into the light of the parlor.
It was remade at the end of the Second World War, with Robert Young and Dorothy McGuire.
A final thought. In 1924 there was this film about a magical cottage that romantically transforms people. In 1927 P.G.Wodehouse published Meet Mr Mulliner, including the story Honeysuckle Cottage (Ludwig Wittgenstein’s favourite). In the story, a writer of hard-boiled crime inherits a cottage, and finds it affecting his mind, turning him ridiculously soppy. Could Wodehouse’s story be a comic re-working of The Enchanted Cottage?
Arthur Wing Pinero, by Max Beerbohm,
with Shaw in the background