Cruelty makes good comedy. There’s something fascinating and often hilarious about watching one character tear into another.
And as the Song of Songs warns us, jealousy is as cruel as the grave.
The Guild/Sour Bride co-production of David Mamet’s Boston Marriage brought the opening night audience to helpless laughter.
I sat in the first row and looked across to the faces of other audience members. It seemed to me we were shocked at ourselves for laughing at cruelty, but ravished with laughter nevertheless.
There are two main sources of cruelty – jealousy and abuse of power.
Let’s set the scene.
The audience walks through a set which gives an overwhelming impression of roses. Stylized roses are stencilled onto the walls, and a brushy still life of a circular bowl of roses hangs above the fireplace.
A tiered tray of sweets sits on a little table beside a blue stuffed chair. A chaise longue sports fanciful cushions. A silver shrine to brandy sits in the corner and provides regular spiritual consolation over the course of the play.
On the back wall, boudoir photographs in chiaroscuro lighting lurk in gilt frames. Set designer Arabella Bushnell has created these women’s mannered yet naughty environment.
The photographs do, of course, elicit curiosity, but you have to wait till after the show to check them out.
Bushnell also designed the lush costumes. Moira Sauer (as Anna) was born to gloat on a chaise longue with an emerald around her neck, wearing a bustier with a bustle-like ruffle of lace, pantaloons and a purple peignoir.
Anna gloats exultantly at the position she’s won quite literally at the expense of her newly acquired “protector”, a male lover who’s settled a stipend upon her, as well as an account at the dressmaker’s and a large emerald – a family heirloom -which she sports gloatingly around her throat.
Her relationship with this man will fund her life with her “friend” Claire, played by Katherine McCallum. But Claire has “fallen in love” and wants Anna to provide cover for her seduction of this much younger woman. In her overwhelming desire, she has no real empathy for the cruelty this inflicts on Anna. And jealousy is so very unbecoming.
There is cruelty, too, in how Anna tears into Catherine (played by Bushnell), her Scottish maid whom she stupidly but wittily excoriates for being Irish.
And yet she does it so well. If you enjoy language, you will enjoy this play’s linguistic loop de loops.
As the title suggests, Claire and Anna’s relationship is the central concern of the play. The phrase “Boston marriage” was used in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in New England to refer to two women, often with university education, who maintained a household together, financially independent of a man.
A Boston marriage, based on a profound friendship, may or may not have been sexual. Claire does not, at least at the outset of the play, live with Anna. Perhaps the phrase in this case denotes not their starting point but their destination.
The two women have a mature and complex conversational style that seems to have evolved over years.
They’re not deeply educated but very well read. They ask each other for the meanings of words or sources of quotations. It’s like a game. Playing this game together is part of how they love each other.
Mamet allows them a spectrum of language that ranges from “rodomontade” and “parturition” to commoner words I can’t use in this article, but they’re so common you’ll know what I mean. They wrestle and fight with a full range of verbal moves.
Catherine’s more countrified contributions provide a vivid foil to the two women’s over-privileged, hothouse flower speech. But her language, too, becomes vivid when her mistresses allow her to get a word in edgewise.
Audience members at intermission found the language of the play shaping their own conversations.
At intermission in the Guild’s Other Room (OR), I also enjoyed Dawn Macdonald’s art show of about 20 colourful collages on a black ground depicting vaginas. I particularly enjoyed the ones whose labia were clipped from images of ruffles and crinolines. These made me think differently about the symbolism of those garments.
Boston Marriage, the second play in the Guild’s season, seems to share with God of Carnage an exploration of the cruelty humans inflict on one another, whether in drawing room or living room.
And yet, while watching God of Carnage, sometimes I didn’t understand why all the characters were staying in the same room, except that was required to make the scene continue. What repelled them was clear. What kept them together was not.
Claire and Anna are vain, selfish, hypocritical, irresponsible liars. But they are human. And they want something from each other.
The complexity of those desires develops over the course of the play, as the characters develop. This vastly entertaining play leaves us with a cynical, but not chilly, sense of interpersonal connection, or – dare I say it? – the possibility of love.