The old liturgical phrase hic transit gloria mundi in W.H. Smith’s 1844 The Drunkard becomes shortened to simply, “hic”. But while the glory does indeed pass away for young country squire Edward Middleton (Michael Hardart) through the various agencies of Satan, so, too do the degradations and indignities of his enslavement to the bottle, hence the subtitle, “the Fallen Saved.” This dramatization of a redemption, one involving a widespread social problem, makes this melodrama a highly significant artifact. The shadow of its influence runs from the explosion of copycat temperance plays in its immediate wake (including Ten Nights in a Bar-Room, in which I was pleased to play the villain in a 2007 production at the Waterfront Museum and Showboat Barge) to a never-ending spate of tv movies related to substance abuse — an important and healthy contemporary American genre, whatever its merits as art.
It’s by reviving plays like this that the Metropolitan Playhouse is gradually securing its position as an important cultural institution, I think. Having worked in, and been otherwise involved with, history museums for a good many years, I have had ample opportunity to observe how genre paintings can have duel functions as works of art and historical teaching tools. I think the Metropolitan is on the cutting edge of doing the same thing with theatre. Their production of The Drunkard is a case in point. On the one hand, they strive to serve the play artistically. Hardart has some definite technical challenges: a roller coaster emotional journey, plus inebriation plus delerium tremens to convey, and (as I have become accustomed to expect from him) he pulls it off beautifully. Likewise, Howard Thoresen is a riot as one of the most perversely evil villains conceived by the mind of man. (Thoresen’s character is not so much a mere villain as the very devil himself — ubiquitous, and going well out of his way to work evil just for its own sake).
The temptation (hah!) with plays like these, in fact the almost exclusive modern tradition, is to play it for camp. (That’s what we did with Ten Nights). Director Frank Kuhn takes on a much harder job — the method usually employed at the Metropolitan. He grapples with how to make the play work on its own terms. Granted, titters are inevitable. Many period temperance songs are exhumed for context and presented as a framing device around the show. The lyrics to one begins “See a million drunkards, marching toward their doom!” There’s no way an audience won’t laugh at that. But for the most part, the show is played straight, even down to Thoresen’s Richard III-like villainous asides to the audience. And I think much is gained by doing it this way. When you catch yourself laughing at the innocence of another time, you suddenly feel cynical and dirty. I know I’m certainly not IN FAVOR OF people ruining their lives with booze. If the play’s message seems extreme and simplified, I’m equally certain that “sophistication” will not serve the cause of sobriety any better. And to truly convey the historical experience, it must be done straight-faced (with concessions to the melodramatic conventions intrinsic to the genre). If anything, you could really sell the message at the play’s core by turning up the heat on the sordid aspects. Remember that scene in the much later Come Back, Little Sheba where the drunken Doc pursues his wife with an axe? Something like that. That would really get the message across, and I imagine, stifle titters before they even arise. At any rate, I enjoyed my can of soda during intermission very much.
The Drunkard s playing at Metropolitan Playhouse through October 17. Details here.