Miss Wilkins's “Giles Corey” on the Stage

From The Critic Vol. 19 No. 584 (Apr 29, 1893)

The Drama

It is not likely that the Theatre of Arts and Letters will soon find another such an opportunity of justifying its name and pretensions as it had in the case of Miss Wilkins's play of “Giles Corey,” and it is quite certain that it will not be able to waste it more completely. After its treatment of this remarkable work, in Palmer's Theatre here, and elsewhere, it must either reform itself altogether, or forever abandon its claim to be considered as something far removed from the ordinary theatre by reason of superior intelligence, culture and purpose. The best friends of the Society have been compelled to confess, more or less unwillingly, that it has failed to live up to its promises, or to show any particular advance upon the ordinary, every-day methods of mere vulgar money-making theatrical management; but it was urged in excuse that bricks could not be made without straw, and that if the Society presented plays for the most part of third-rate calibre, it was simply because nothing better was to be had. It is unfortunately too true that literary and dramatic masterpieces are not to be picked up at every corner, and all experienced persons know that the vast majority of the unacted plays which test the capacity of managerial closets are indescribable rubbish, but a good play, in the literary and dramatic sense, does turn up now and then, and if a Theatre of Arts and Letters has any mission at all it is to discover these rare gifts of a not too beneficent providence and help them to gain the public recognition, which is their due, by giving them proper representation.

Concerning the value of Miss Wilkins's play, “Giles Corey,” there has been little or no difference of opinion among those who have been privileged to read it. Some may estimate it more highly than others, but all are agreed that it is written with classic directness, simplicity and force, that it reproduces the atmosphere of a place and period with extraordinary fidelity, and that it is essentially dramatic in the best sense, while it is absolutely and most delightfully free from all the cheap and vulgar expedients which nobody supposes to be dramatic except the curious folk who write melodramas and act as stage-managers for the inferior theatres. One would have thought that the Theatre of Arts and Letters at least would have been as quick as the great body of readers to recognize the merits of this true and touching American tragedy, and would have been proud to do themselves, and Miss Wilkins, honor by putting it on the stage in its integrity, or with such few modifications as might prove unavoidable, and with the most suitable cast that could be secured. Instead of this they preferred to adopt a mangled version of the piece, prepared by a young man who has had some experiance as a stage-manager, apparently regards everything from the spectacular point of view, and is, consequently, one of the very last persons to whom so strong and fine a piece of work ought to have been intrusted. He was scared, presumably, at the thought of six acts, so he condensed them into three, transposing several of the scenes, omitting others and adding some of his own. He did not even hesitate to tamper with the characters themselves, or to substitute dialogue of his own for that originally written. Whether Miss Corey ever gave her consent to this abominable procedure is a matter of little moment so far as the responsibility of the Theatre of Arts and Letters is concerned. That institution, certainly, had the choice between the true version and the false, and surely ought to have had judgment enough to discern the difference between the tragic and truthful simplicity of the one and the cheap tricks and charlatanry of the other. As to the performance, that was not much better than the adaptation, but it is scarcely worth while to discuss it. It is only fair, however, to recognize the good work of Mr. Plympton. The important point is that “Giles Corey” has not been produced yet, and that its reputation as a tragedy for the stage is likely to suffer through the faults of the monstrosity exhibited under its name.