Salient. An Organ of Student Opinion at Victoria College, Wellington, N.Z. Vol. 8, No. 12. September 19, 1945
Winterset — Review
"Winterset," by Maxwell Anderson, was a commendable production. Which may seem to damn it with the faintest of praise. Yet the play, though earnest in theme, is at times indifferently conceived and carelessly written. It is difficult to see how any production of it could be wholly satisfactory. This does not prevent it from being the best Repertory show in a long time.
"Winterset" is a modern morality charade with a few stock characters fighting among themselves, yet all held in the grip of the Great Antagonist. Society. These characters are Authority, in Judge Gaunt; Hopeless Old Age, in Esdras; Embittered Youth, in Garth Esdras; Vice, in Trock Estrella; all representing the forces of darkness, who range against, and finally overcome. Idealistic Youth (Mio) and innocence (Miriamne). This would be admirable if it were consistent. But the characters step in and out of their moralities, at times right out of the play. Action and plot are naturalistic, yet the dialogue is an inflated blank verse without rhythmic beat, with the aim, no doubt, of lifting the play from the limited realistic level to something transcending it, but with the result only of making it impossible to believe in. Road boys quote Tennyson and make Jonsonian epigrams; young lovers make knowing remarks about Freud and the glands, while for the others, toughs mostly, there are pieces of gratuitous bawdry thrown in for "atmosphere."
Here is the situation. Murder is done, by Trock and his gang, for which Romagua is wrongly accused. Gartli Esdras, a witness, though not a participant. Withholds the testimony which would have saved Ro-magna, Judge Gaunt sees him less as a man than as a danger to the way of life he believes in, judges him guilty, sends him to death. Twelve years later, the case is re-examined, and it is thought that the missing testimony of Garth Esdras might bring new light to it. For various reasons the "interested parties" seek Garth Esdras; the judge, half insane, haunted by guilt, to assure himself that his decision was right; Trock, the gangster out of prison, and near death, to make sure that Garth has and will keep his mouth shut; then Mio, son of Romagna, comes, Hamlet-like, determined for revenge, though he calls it justice: revenge on the people and the forces who have denied him a place in society.
The Judge is the only character clearly conceived. The man of authority who can no longer believe in himself is a peculiarly tragic figure at any time, and even more now, when a way of life is disintegrating, and many, particularly the old, are finding that their versions of truth, liberty, and justice, have been elaborate casuistries, sufficient only for the day. Few have the courage to discard them altogether, or to seek-new definitions. Judge Gaunt takes refuge in incipient insanity from which he intermittently emerges, oppressed by guilt, yet clinging despairingly to worn-out ideals, vainly trying to hold to the self he has irretrievably lost. This is the real drama of "Winterset." In playing, the Judge could very easily have been made comic or pathetic, either of which would have obscured his nature and cheapened the conflict in his mind. Mr. Lees Bullot wisely-avoided these, but not a studied articulation, nor a tendency to force his meaning where the script carried itself.
Mio is a most unfortunate character. The play hangs on the struggle in his mind, which is, after all, only a big gripe against a world refusing him a place. Mio often refers to this explicitly, showing that he was possessed of an awareness which would allow him, if he so desired, to resolve his struggle on his own. Why doesn't he? Because he wanted to hurt, and hurt again, and to justify it, developed an implacable idealism. There is little to choose between Mio and the gangster Trock, except that Mio can kid himself into a cast-iron morality where Trock has neither the mental agility nor the vocabulary. Yet this is hardly as Mr. Anderson conceived his character, therefore the whole play fails to hang together. Mr. Campion cannot be blamed for reading the part of Mio from the outside. He tended also to keep the tone too high, which made the second act, tedious already, a bit more than that.
The other characters hardly stepped out of their "morality suits." Esdras expresses the hopelessness of Mr. Anderson himself when he wrote it, the impasse in social relations over which we have fought the second world war. His last speech, which closes the play, is fine writing, but what does it say? That the world is a vast nothingness, where no hope nor meaning is possible. Miri-amne is another contrived character. Possessed by a hopeless fear which shuts everything else out, she can nevertheless betray Mio, who is also fear-bound, for her brother, Garth, for whom at no time has she shown any affection. Miss Hannah played too tremulously, but she did convey very well the feeling of something small and birdlike caught in a vast alien hand. Trock, Garth, and Shadow were played as they were written, as sketches. And I thought the Hobo very good indeed.
The bridge set was very impressive, certainly good enough for the audience to burst into its routine applause. It is time something was said about this foolish custom of applauding the frame of a picture, since it dispels all illusion, and makes the task of the players much more difficult.