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July 07, 2010

A play poised on the threshold of a new, Victorian, world: London Assurance - Dion Boucicault

Posted by David Womersley

Dion Boucicault's London Assurance
directed by Nicholas Hytner
National Theatre, London
Olivier Theatre
in repertoire 10 March - 29 June 2010

Victorian comedy is not much performed, although (to judge from the reviews it receives when it is) critics and audiences seem instinctively to understand and enjoy it. However, Dion Boucicault's London Assurance (1841) has been revived more often than most. There was a celebrated RSC production in 1970, with Donald Sinden almost too-perfectly cast as the male lead, Sir Harcourt Courtly. More recently in 1989 Sam Mendes put on a production as part of the Chichester Festival, with Paul Eddington in the role of Sir Harcourt - by all accounts, a slightly more low-key interpretation which had at least one critic hankering after [Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph]:

the fruity relish which Donald Sinden must have brought to the role.
Boucicault was Dublin born, and came to London to make his way in the theatre. He is thus a minor figure in that line of Irish dramatists who have enriched the London stage which begins with Congreve, and continues through Farquhar, O'Keeffe, Sheridan, Wilde, Shaw, Beckett, Behan, and Friel.

The story (as told by Boucicault himself) is that he presented himself at Covent Garden, and proceeded to read a tragedy of his own penning to the manager, who showed both judgement and insight and sent Boucicault away with a contract to write instead a five-act comedy. The result was London Assurance, which was an extraordinary success. Although Boucicault went on to write many more professional and competent plays in a playwrighting career which lasted almost to the end of the century (he died in New York in 1890), it is arguable that he never wrote anything again which quite matched the play which marked his arrival on the London stage. Certainly, at the close of his life he reviewed his career in a melancholy mood:

I'm just beginning to see the pathos of it. I have written for a monster who forgets.
Boucicault himself was not given to forgetting, and London Assurance is in part an embalming of its author's theatrical memory.

Kenneth Tynan, reviewing Brendan Behan's The Hostage in 1958, characterised the Irish contribution to the London stage as that of periodically supplying violent, innovative energy:

it seems to be Ireland's function, every twenty years or so, to provide a playwright who will kick English drama from the past into the present.
This, however, was not the line Boucicault took in London Assurance; rather, he chose to kick comedy firmly towards the past. For this play is constructed almost entirely from received materials.

The plot, which begins in London before transplanting itself to the country, looks back to Vanbrugh's The Relapse. The characters also have lengthy pedigrees: Sir Harcourt is at least in part a fop in the manner of Etherege's Sir Fopling Flutter, or Vanbrugh's Sir Novelty Fashion; Charles Courtly, his feckless and impoverished son, the splendid virago Lady Gay Spanker, and the aged husband over whom she domineers, Mr Adolphus Spanker, have comic lineages which go back even further, to Plautus and Menander. Many of the situations and plot-devices are also drawn from European drama's common stock - for instance, the absurdly-drafted will which provides the scaffolding for the entire play.

But to note this is to say nothing against the play, which succeeds brilliantly in this latest production at the National because of two wonderful performances: Simon Russell Beale as Sir Harcourt, and Fiona Shaw as Lady Gay Spanker. Beale - looking uncannily like Lawrence's portrait of George IV in the National Portrait Gallery - produces a performance of superb comic invention in which no opportunity for humour goes to waste. The physicality of his performance recalls anecdotes about Garrick's extraordinary ability to conjure comedy from materials which seemed barren. Fiona Shaw's entrance as Lady Gay struck the auditorium like a comet - again, wonderful physicality was to the fore here. And Beale and Shaw are supported by some excellent supporting performances, such as Nick Sampson's superbly imperturbable valet, Cool, and Matt Cross's engaging but also menacing (at moments even Pinteresque) Richard Dazzle.

It is however Richard Briers's warmly-received cameo as Mr Adolphus Spanker who most repays reflection. We are told that Spanker saw action at the siege of Copenhagen in 1807, which makes him of the same generation as Sir Harcourt, but he represents a different facet of that generation. In the doddery Mr Spanker, Boucicault portrayed the exhaustion of the British martial vigour which had triumphed over Napoleon little more than a quarter of a century before the play’s first performance.

In 1841, that might have been a sharp, even a controversial, point. Wellington still had eleven years to live, had been Prime Minister ten years and Foreign Secretary six years before, was still a minister without portfolio in Peel's cabinet, would in the following year be made head of the armed forces (a post he held until his death in 1852), and as late as 1845-6 played a decisive part in the crisis surrounding the passing of the Corn Laws. To some, it might have seemed as if Boucicault were ringing down the curtain on that heroic phase of British life a little too soon. Certainly, Mr. Spanker's discovery that he positively enjoys being dictated to by his wife is in sharp contrast to the well-documented brutality shown by the Iron Duke towards his wife, and the recreational promiscuity by which it was accompanied.

London Assurance is, as its date implies, poised on the threshold of a new, Victorian, world with very different values, and like Thackeray's Vanity Fair (1847) - a novel with which it has affinities of mood and tone - it peers forward. What Boucicault sees emerging is the world of Richard Dazzle, who embodies the new, unsentimental, unattached energies which will ravage the fading Regency splendours so beloved by Sir Harcourt. It seems that, on his arrival in London, Boucicault had put his finger in the wind with some shrewdness.

David Womersley is Thomas Warton Professor of English Literature, University of Oxford. His previous reviews for the Social Affairs Unit can be read here.

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