China Scene, Take One

by Jim Farrar (1986)

Though The Country Wife may not be the most skillfully crafted play we've read so far, there is one scene in it that piques my theatrical sensibilities. Given the play I've chosen, the particular scene I've picked to discuss will hardly come as a surprise.

It does seem to me, however, that the famous "China Scene" of The Country Wife does act as a metaphor of sorts to the spirit of the play: all is not always as it seems and those that are most convinced of the contrary are often deceived and become, like Sir Jasper, a victim of their own design.

Though the text infers that Horner and Lady Fidget "inspect" the china offstage, with Sir Jasper conversing with them through a closed door, I think that the double-entendres in the dialogue can be made even more effective and amusing by having any offstage action involving Horner and Lady Fidget actually occur onstage.

The set that I would design for this scene, then, would require partitioning the stage into two rooms. This can be best accomplished by constructing a wall (a scrim with movable doorways would also work if a wall is impractical) that bisects the set and runs u.c. to d.c. stage. Also, for this scene to play properly, four doors are needed: two along the center wall itself, with one u.c. and the other d.c.; one along the back wall facing the audience; and one along the stage right wall.

In this scheme, Horner's inner chamber, the room in which all the "fun stuff" takes place, is on the (stage) left side of the set. The screen that the Quack hides behind to observe Jasper's cuckolding is also in this room, on the u.l. side of the stage.

Another interesting touch, I think, is the inclusion of a china closet in the left chamber. Depending on how explicit a director wishes to be (or what a director thinks he can get away with), a good deal of bumping and grinding can and should be done against it. At any rate, Horner should at least catch and then embrace Lady Fidget in front of this china closet, perhaps even knocking a piece to the floor as he does so.

The overall appearance of the set, then, should remind the audience of a movie screen, or, more accurately, a split-screen in which the action in two different locations is viewed simultaneously. The "fourth wall" that the audience represents becomes, in effect, a fifth wall as well, in which this all-is-not-as-it-seems feeling that I spoke of earlier is made even more ironic (not to mention obscene) than even the text suggests.

An earlier draft of this essay included a dialogue copy of the scene, with my own stage directions inserted in boldface. However, I noticed that most of these directions were nothing more than paralinguistic notations at the front of the speeches. Which is silly, I think, because a reader--not to mention an audience--gets an excellent feel for the characters from the dialogue itself.

Furthermore, if this scene is performed within the set described above, the action moves even further toward broad comedy, since action is essentially added to a section of the play that, as written, pretty much relies on the audience to visualize in their minds Sir Jasper's cuckolding. When the scene is played with this split-set method, I think the deceit that is implicit in each character's words is further underscored by events onstage, most notably by Horner and the ladies, but also to a lesser extent by Sir Jasper, who willfully participates in his own cuckolding, a result of his own conniving.

I did encounter several technical problems when I first started thinking about the scene this way.

The most important consideration is how best to move the characters onto the set and, that being done, how to get them from one room to the other. To these ends, there are four doors on the set. There is one on the c.r. side of the stage. This is the door that leads to the outside, through which all characters enter and leave the set.

The other three doors are used for entrance and exit to the room that contains the china. Lady Fidget enters the room through the door on the wall closest to the audience (d.c.). This is the door that Horner tells her to lock behind her. Horner then pursues her through the other door on the wall (u.c.), the so-called "back door." My reasoning for this placement is that the door farthest from the audience is more readily perceived as being a back door, or secondary entrance, given its distance from the front of the stage. Something can also be said about the effect on an audience of seeing Horner and Lady Jasper literally pass through the wall or scrim that divides the stage and, though I'd prefer to eschew any symbolism, it also seems to act as a barrier of sorts between Jasper's ignorance and to what is actually happening to him, by his own consent, in the very next room.

Finally, the door that is located on the back wall is the one that Mrs. Squeamish mistakenly takes when she tries to find Horner and Lady Fidget. She also returns through this door.

Another difficulty with staging the scene this way is determining which room to hide the Quack. Should he conceal himself in the same room with Jasper and merely listen, with Jasper, to the conversation in the next room, or should he actually be in the other chamber with Horner and Fidget and see with his own eyes how well Horner's ruse works?

Very good arguments can be made for both. I decided, however, that it would be best to have the Quack hide in the same room with Horner and Lady Fidget. My reasoning is twofold. The first and most obvious is that such a hiding place offers the Quack firsthand observation, as already mentioned. Second, and most important to my mind, is that placement in the same room with Horner makes the Quack a sort of silent participant in Sir Jasper's cuckolding: everyone is aware of Horner's duplicity except, of course, the man being duped.

There is one other thing, a throw-away observation, perhaps. This is a play that I'd like to see taken out of period and adapted. Though I usually abhor such a practice, having seen some pretty bad productions of Shakespeare done in this fashion, I can't help thinking that this play is particularly suited to updating. Maybe it's because the plays that were written in this period, these Comedies of Manners, seem very similar in spirit to many of today's situation comedies. That's not a put-down, but rather an acknowledgment of our dramatic heritage. At any rate, the London of the seventeenth century that is portrayed and satirized in The Country Wife can be transplanted to Beverly Hills in 1986 with nary a missed beat. Believe me, I've seen plenty of dandies showing their parts in Southern California in my day.

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