Galsworthy’s ‘Windows’ at the Finborough

windows finborough

Galsworthy’s 1922 play Windows has not had a professional production for eighty-five years, and I can see why. It’s an uncomfortable play, one designed to make the typical West End audience of its time feel uneasy. Which is what makes it interesting. Those in charge of the Finborough Theatre are once again to be congratulated for finding a forgotten part of the British theatrical heritage, and testing it out on their tiny stage.
The play begins in familiar theatrical territory, in a solid middle-class dining-room in Highgate. French windows look out to the garden, and an upper-middle class family is amusingly at cross-purposes. Johnny Marsh, the son, is an ex-soldier and poet, declaiming his disillusionment rather theatrically, but his sceptical sister is the only person listening to him. Mr March is harrumphing at the state of the world, as revealed by his newspaper and Mrs March is concerned with the practicalities of mutton cutlets for lunch.
They are interrupted by the arrival of Mr Bly, the window-cleaner. The family disperse, except for Mr March. He ought to be writing, but Mr Bly is a pleasant distraction, especially when he turns out to be familiar with Mr March’s literary output. This window-cleaner turns out to be a remarkable man, a self-taught philosopher who drops the names of ’Aigel and ‘this Anti-Christ Neesha, what came in with the war’. He has his own philosophy, of being true to your nature. Maybe the character owes something to Doolittle, the philosophical dustman of Pygmalion. Anyway, he’s splendidly embodied by Vincent Brimble in this production. (In 1922, the part was played by Ernest Thesiger, the splendid character actor actor who took his embroidery to the Western Front, and when asked about the War in later years, is reputed to have raised his eyebrows and replied: “My dear, the noise! And the people!” )
Mr March is a decent man of sound liberal principles, and is intrigued when Bly talks about his daughter, just out of prison. Would the Marches give her a second chance in life by taking her on as a housemaid? Mrs March is against the idea, but is over-ruled by the rest of the family, and so Faith Bly joins the household, with disturbing effects.
The problem of being a good man in a difficult world is always a major theme of Galsworthy’s writing, and  Mr March is maybe a sort of self-caricature. He is a man of genuine principles and decent ideas who is disturbed when these come into conflict with life’s realities. As Mr Bly says:

‘This Mr March – he’s like all these novel-writers – thinks ’e knows ’uman nature, but of course ’e don’t.’

The Marches would like Faith Bly to stay in the role of grateful rescued victim, but she is too real for that. She has needs and yearnings that go beyond being a dutiful housemaid, and she has an appetite for life that leads her first to flirt with Johnny, and then to court disaster by taking up with another man. I liked the performance at the Finborough by Charlotte Brimble (actually the daughter of the man who plays her father). She is a girl who cannot see past her resentment at the world that has treated her cruelly.
The difficulty with the play is that the crime that put Faith in prison was infanticide. She smothered her two-day-old baby (The implication is that it was a war baby; one of these had been crucial to the plot of Galsworthy’s 1919 novel, Saint’s Progress.) If she had tried to keep the child, that would have been two lives ruined; if she had let it be taken away it would have been at the mercy of charity. (‘I didn’t want to kill it – I only wanted to save it from living.’) The killing seems to have been an instinctive act (which casts some doubt on her father’s philosophy of following your instincts). When Johnny hears about her experiences, he links them to his own experiences in the war:

I nearly screamed when I saved my first German from living. I never felt the same again.

Galsworthy’s problem as a writer is that it is  well nigh impossible to find a theatrical style that can include one the one hand philosophical window-cleaners and pleasant satire on literary gents, and on the other hand the raw horrors of infanticide and war. This production contains excellent performances and is continually enthralling, but it does not quite solve this problem. Maybe no production could.
The difficulty is shown most clearly in the character of Johnny, the soldier-poet. His poetry is shown to be poor stuff, yet I think we are supposed to take his feelings and his denunciations seriously. Galsworthy seems to want him to be at the same time the voice of feeling and the butt of comedy; he’s not quite in perspective.
But I’d say that the play’s faults come from its ambition. It’s as though Galsworthy is questioning the dominant theatrical style of his time. The play begins in conventional realism (I’d quote the immensely detailed first stage direction, with its meticulous explanation of what we see in the Marches’ living room and through their French windows, but it’s far too long.) Then he piles in material that this style will find difficult to handle, as though challenging the genre he is using. Maybe the play is not a complete success, but it’s consistently absorbing. You want to know what will happen next. (And the acting is most enjoyable – I haven’t even mentioned yet the performance of Janet Amsden yet as the serenely complacent cook.)
So hooray for the Finborough once again for road-testing another piece from the early twentieth-century repertoire. The performance I saw was technically a preview, by the way – but none the worse for that.

But again I ask – why is the National Theatre  so deeply uninterested in exploring this nation’s theatrical heritage? If the Finborough can do so much on a shoestring budget, why can’t the National use some of its huge resources to give us a production of one of the major Galsworthy plays – Loyalties, perhaps, or The Skin Game?

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2 Comments

  1. Tom Deveson
    Posted August 24, 2017 at 7:53 pm | Permalink

    Thank you for a vivid report, thoughful analysis and some excellent questions.

    • Posted August 28, 2017 at 10:54 am | Permalink

      Thank you for such an interesting review, which raises so many issues. I find it helpful to consider how much I enjoyed the play while watching it, as you obviously did by your comment – “You want to know what will happen next..”, compared to the after analysis. Surely that is part of the attraction of the theatre (and films) – this willing suspension of disbelief. A prime example of this is “The Monkey’s Paw” by W W Jacobs – quite terrifying when you watch it; slightly embarrassing afterwards when you realise how the play has carried you along with it!


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