Wit's Last StakeEighteenth-century farce delights 21st-century audiences. Todd Norris describes timeless comic themes. March 17, 2008
Lloyd Dobyns: Hi, welcome to Colonial Williamsburg: Past & Present on history.org. This is "Behind the Scenes" where you meet the people who work here. That's my job. I'm Lloyd Dobyns, and mostly I ask questions.
Perhaps nothing connects us to the past more immediately than watching characters find their way through new love, jealously, deception, conflict, and comedy. On stages throughout Colonial Williamsburg's Historic Area, theatrical interpreters do just that, reanimating the 18th century for modern audiences.
This is the business of Todd Norris, and at Colonial Williamsburg, he's manager of evening programs and performing arts. Todd joins me today to talk about raising the curtain on 18th-century plays.
Of the 18th-century plays that are still performed, what does the audience like? What plays are most enjoyable, do you think, to the audiences?
Todd Norris: Well they have a big appetite for farce comedy. So we like to provide a lot of that for them.
Lloyd: That's been true for a long time, though. Farce has been very popular because it makes people laugh.
Todd: And it helps them forget their troubles. They can sort of tune out of their world and tune into the world of what's happening onstage and just have a great time. It's great escapist comedy.
Lloyd: Well there's nothing like escapist comedy. I've been involved in it myself from time to time, often not intentionally. What's the one that you are presenting now?
Todd: Currently we have a farce called "Wit's Last Stake" running, by Thomas King.
Lloyd: From when?
Todd: It was written in 1768 and it was performed in the colonies in 1770.
Lloyd: Do we know how it was enjoyed?
Todd: We know that it was very, very popular in England. It remained popular in England for the entire 18th century. In America it was not performed often. It was only performed once, and it was performed in Philadelphia as a benefit for the actress who was playing the lead roles that evening. So we don't know why it was only performed once in the states, but it was very, very popular in England.
Lloyd: Actually it would be interesting to find out, which is sort of impossible at this point. Just one performance. So actually, you are doing more performances than the farce ever had.
Todd: Well, we have one documented performance. One of the problems with theatrical history, especially in the colonial period, is there's so little written documentation available. So we're never sure, but we know there was only one documented performance.
Lloyd: If you say there was only one performance, the truth is, nobody knows.
Todd: That's true.
Lloyd: It may have been one, or it may have been 103.
Lloyd: Why did you pick this one?
Todd: I picked it because we wanted something that had not been done before here for our guests. We wanted something that was very fast paced, something that was very funny. After reading a lot of scripts, this one seemed to be an opportunity to meet all those criteria.
Lloyd: Would it be funny to modern audiences?
Todd: It has been very funny to modern audiences. We had its debut during our last holiday season and it played to sold out audiences that spent an hour laughing nonstop.
Todd: Not bad at all.
Lloyd: You've got one hour, eight or nine characters. What's the plot?
Todd: The plot is really the stuff of traditional 18th-century farce. In a nutshell – it's a little complex – but in a nutshell, you've got a very rich old man named Mr. Linger. And as the name suggests, he's not long for this world, but he's taking his time about it. He has a young nephew who does not have much money, but does have a great deal of affection for his uncle. So the nephew's a little torn. He doesn't want his uncle to die, but he knows it's coming. He's very anxious for the money he knows he will inherit. He needs it. He is in love with a young lady who Mr. Linger has also set his eye on. So there's some potential conflict there.
You've got some old servants, not some old servants, but you have some servants. One is the nephew's, and one is Mr. Linger's. They also have their eye on each other. They are trying to do anything they can to facilitate the transition of this wealth. Linger is thought to have died, and all is lost because he has died before he has made his will. So the servants cook up a plan to create a stand-in for the old man for the lawyer to take a will from, and then all will be well. All stays well until Mr. Linger is found to be very much alive.
Lloyd: There's something about farce, as you said, standard characters. An old man, a young man, a beautiful young woman, and between the two of them … There's something enjoyable about the predictability of it.
Todd: I think that's part of what our audiences laugh at, is the familiar with new tweaks and new twists.
Lloyd: We're going to hear a scene from the play, can you sort of set it up for us, where it's taking place, what the idea is?
Todd: This is towards the beginning of the second scene of the play. Mr. Linger's servant, Lucetta, has just discovered that he is, in fact, alive after they have tried to execute this false will. She talks to the audience for a moment or two about how she discovered this and what this means. Then he makes his way on to the stage. They have a brief scene where she tries to buy a little bit of time before the nephew finds out. So they have a little scene together that is basically her telling Mr. Linger that he was dead and how he responds to that.
Lloyd: Who are the theatrical interpreters we'll hear?
Todd: Well we will hear Abigail Schumann as Lucetta the maid, and we will hear John Hamant as old Mr. Linger.
Abigail Schumann: After placing the proctor at the table in the parlor and supplying him with all the necessaries for the work, I was going up the back stairs to my own apartment -- the garrett – when bless my eyes, what should I see, but the old gentleman?
John Hamant: (Coughing.)
Abigail: Oh, he is coming! Oh, was ever anything so unfortunate, that a scheme so quickly planned, so perfectly well executed? Oh, there can be no more reflection, for here he comes, and I must to business.
Oh, dear sir.
John: Oh yes, ahh.
Abigail: Are you restored to us? Heaven be praised, who can only truly know the sorrow felt by the entire family at your late severe stroke and supposed death.
John: Death, Lucetta?
Abigail: Oh aye, sir. Why you was dead to all appearance. Witness the sighs and groans of those you left behind. The scene of woe from which your recovery has happily released us.
John: Oh, dead? Astonishing. Well, but where is my nephew?
Abigail: Oh, sir.
John: What "oh, sir?" He's not dead too, is he?
Abigail: Well, in truth sir, I could not swear the contrary. For upon being convinced, as he was, of your death, he immediately ran and threw himself.
John: Threw himself? Out of the window?
Abigail: No, sir. On the bed, where he has remained, bathed in tears. We have not prevailed upon him to eat or drink. But sir, I shall go and inform him of your recovery and make him as happy as you have made me. Oh, dear, oh dear, oh dear. (Leaves.)
John: According to this girl's account, mine has been a surprising recovery, if I may call it so in my present state. Oh, I find myself extremely weak still. Oh, I can hardly bear the light. Oh, my head swims! I have a mist before my eyes! (Burps.) Oh, I am strangely vapored. In short, I'm convinced I must have been a long time in this same lethargy.
Lloyd: "Wit's Last Stake" opens March 20th at the Kimball Theatre. That’s Colonial Williamsburg: Past & Present this time. Visit history.org to learn more. Check back often, we'll post more for you to download and hear.