Also see Sharon's recent review of Reunion
Fact: In 1802, William Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy lived in Dove Cottage, in Grasmere, in the Lake Country in England. Fact: Samuel Taylor Coleridge lived some thirteen miles away and spent much time with the Wordsworths. Fact: Although everyone who sat through an English Lit class is familiar with the names of William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, not everyone is aware that Dorothy herself warrants a small section in the Norton Anthology, largely due to the journals she kept, some at Grasmere, and the fact that it is very clear that a good deal of her prose inspired poetry from Wordsworth and Coleridge.
These are the makings of a good play: two poets and one journalist -- the latter a woman who might well have been a better writer than the men, but who had to content herself with playing second fiddle because of her gender. Kristina Leach's play, Grasmere, investigates this literary triangle, and, at its best, sparkles with intelligent wit as it imagines what it must have been like for best friends Wordsworth and Coleridge to exchange criticism or jokes.
At its worst, the play ignores historical fact to make a feminist statement and creates in Dorothy a tragic heroine that she apparently was not. History tells us Wordsworth married Mary Hutchinson, Dorothy's childhood friend, in 1802; so does Grasmere. But history also tells us Coleridge was deeply in love with Hutchinson's sister Sara, although he was unfortunately married to someone else at the time. Grasmere ignores both entanglements, preferring instead to have Coleridge fall in love with Dorothy. History also has Dorothy accompanying her brother to France in July of 1802 in order to resolve things with Annette, a woman with whom Wordsworth had an illegitimate child. Yet, this too is inconvenient for Leach, as she prefers to have Dorothy justifiably angry when Wordsworth refuses to even discuss Annette with her, and justifiably outraged because men get to travel the world while women do not. History firmly in the rubbish bin, Leach can safely have Coleridge propose marriage (and world travel) to Dorothy, and hang her play on Dorothy's dilemma as to whether to accept or remain with her brother.
The problem isn't that the play is historically inaccurate; there's nothing wrong with perfectly good dramatic license in the interest of a better play. The trouble with Grasmere is that it's a worse play for it. Simply as characters in the play, regardless of any historical realism, Coleridge and Wordsworth are considerably more engaging than Dorothy is. Coleridge is the epitome of the tortured artist - brilliantly talented yet painfully unsure about his work. As portrayed by Aaron G. Lamb, he is extremely charismatic, both as the self-assured prankster pulling one over on Wordsworth, and as the insecure poet, desperate for Wordsworth's approval. Wordsworth, we are told, is the better poet and is also better at personal relationships. As played by Logan Sledge, he's not an egotistical genius, but an easygoing, affable fellow.
Grasmere could be about Coleridge and Wordsworth. The men have delightful scenes together as they engage in friendly debate, both intellectual and silly. When we first meet Coleridge, he has just begun work on his Rime of the Ancient Mariner, and he seeks help from Wordsworth. (The poem is untitled at this point, but we know he's having trouble with "the albatross.") Coleridge is addicted to laudanum by this time, and finds it difficult to finish the work. Wordsworth does not want to hand Coleridge the answers to his questions, but to force Coleridge, as best he can, to find them himself. This process of literary creation certainly would make for an interesting play.
But Grasmere gets sidetracked when it decides to make Dorothy its lead. Indeed, Dorothy brings the rapid dialogue to a halt whenever she steps onstage. Rather than the easy give-and-take of the men, Dorothy's language seems forced, as though actress Annie Di Martino were consciously trying to make her voice sound musical. It is as if she has been instructed that upper class women at the turn of the 19th Century sounded a certain way, and punctuated their speech with girlish giggles, so she's trying to do just that. Later in the play, it becomes apparent that this is not a case of bad acting, but a case of character. Someone hasn't told the actress that there is a way she's supposed to talk, laugh, and express herself, but someone has told Dorothy (and every other woman) that there is, and she's pretty ticked about it. When Dorothy finally lets loose with a feminist tirade, angrily chastising the men for wasting the freedoms they take for granted because of their gender, it is a convincing scene precisely because she is, for the first time, freely letting loose with the emotion of the moment.
The problem is, although Leach's point about the subjugation of woman has been eloquently made, it doesn't make the rest of Dorothy's affected moments onstage any more enjoyable; it simply excuses them. And even after her outburst, Dorothy still remains the least interesting of the characters, and the play's continued focus on her and her limited options is ultimately unsatisfying. That this disappointing turn of plot occurrs not because of history but in spite of it makes it all the more inexcusable. Grasmere has the potential to be a great play; Leach has a wonderful ear for casual dialogue, and makes terrific use of a technique in which characters in two different conversations repeat the same lines to dramatic effect. But, as it stands, the truth in Grasmere is better than the fiction.
Chautauqua Theatre Alliance in association with California State University Fullerton presents Grasmere. Directed by Dr. Joe Arnold; Written by Kristina Leach. Costumes by Bruce Goodrich; Graphics by Diane Gavine' Lighting by Nathan Jones; Publicity by Phil Sokoloff; Set by Megan Foster; Stage Manager Heather McClain; Sound by Patrick Johnson.
Grasmere runs at the Egyptian Arena Theatre in Hollywood through September 22. Performances are Saturdays at 8:00 p.m. and Sundays at 3:00 p.m. For reservations and information, call (323) 960-8865.
Photo by Nathan Jones