- Waste by Harley Granville Barker
Sex, abortion, and a political fall from grace—these are the provocative issues at the core of Harley Granville Barker’s still relevant, troubling, and thought-provoking Waste. Originally written in 1907 and denied a license by the Lord Chamberlain, Barker’s revised version of 1926 was recently and compellingly staged by the National Theatre. Waste tells the story of politically ambitious and idealistic Henry Trebell (Charles Edwards) and the loss of his political dreams when his affair with Mrs. O’Connell (Olivia Williams), a married woman, becomes public knowledge when she dies after an abortion. Distraught and disillusioned by his political [End Page 466] shunning, Trebell takes his own life. Directed by Roger Michell, this production admirably demonstrated how to vibrantly and engagingly stage a historic play for a contemporary audience; however, somewhat disappointingly, it also embraced a type of female character from theatre history’s past that diminishes some of Barker’s remarkably progressive insight with respect to women’s lives.
One of the greatest challenges faced by any director of Waste is that its protagonist—a self-absorbed, coldly detached, ambitious man—is hard to like. Even the other characters struggle to appreciate him. How, then, does a director invite an audience to care about Trebell’s troubles and ultimate demise? Michell’s solution lay in skillfully representing Mrs. O’Connell as a female hysteric. Popular in nineteenth-century drama, female hysterics serve the dramaturgical purpose of presenting a psychological foil to other characters (usually men), who thus seem all the more rational by comparison. Female hysterics likewise serve to cast other characters as sympathetic because they have to cope with the hysteric in their midst. This is the card that Michell seemingly played.
The director was aided in his efforts to craft Mrs. O’Connell as a raw, psychological, emotional nerve in contrast to Trebell’s cool, detached rationalism by the very strong performances of Williams and Edwards and the stunningly abstract and minimalist set of Hildegard Bechtler. The first scene between Mrs. O’Connell and Trebell took place on a nearly empty stage overhung by a large moon. The only set piece was a bench. Throughout this scene of flirtation and seduction Trebell casually leaned back against the bench as Mrs. O’Connell flitted about like a lost butterfly, wringing her scarf in her hands. The bare setting served to highlight his composure and her agitation. Significantly, this depiction of her erratic nature appeared before her troubles begin. Their next scene took place in Trebell’s home office. The beige walls of the set were stark, empty, and towering; running parallel to the wall was a very long desk; at the other end of the stage stood the same bench. At the height of their confrontation about her desire to terminate the pregnancy, Mrs. O’Connell sat on the bench, convulsed by emotion, her voice shrill. Standing erect and perfectly still at center stage, his face in profile, Trebell gazed in anxious bewilderment at the wreck of a woman before him. As with their previous scene, Michell’s thematic positioning of his actors starkly resonated within the minimalist spaciousness of Bechtler’s set. The audience was drawn to Trebell’s gaze, to view Mrs. O’Connell through his eyes. Williams’s performance overwhelmed the clarity of her dialogue, reducing Mrs. O’Connell’s claim that her pregnancy had deprived her of autonomy to the irrational rambling of a hysterical woman.
By the beginning of the third act of this four-act drama, Mrs. O’Connell has died and Trebell’s agonizing fall from political grace has begun. The true thematic import of Michell’s crafting of Mrs. O’Connell in a hysterical light now begins to tell. Heretofore calm, cool, and detached, Trebell began to slowly unravel. In subsequent scenes with the various politicians who people the political plot of the play, he paced, scratched his head, and even bit his nails. Back in his office, he touchingly came to grips with the loss of his ambitions in conversation...