Society, by Tom Robertson

After reading so much about the Bancrofts and the Prince of Wales’s theater, it was pretty amazing to read my first Tom Robertson play, Society. The Bancrofts depended heavily on Tom Robertson in a time when it was unusual for a theater to have such strong ties to a single playwright. I put Robertson on my quals reading list because he is credited with bringing into vogue the “cup-and-saucer” style of drama, which is famous for its detailed and realistic plots, sets, and props. In a photograph from Society, Squire Bancroft and Marie Wilton drink tea on stage–not a big deal nowadays, but definitely a subject of comment in the 1860s. I also put this play on my list because it’s probably a good example of “realism” on the mid-century stage, and it’s a genre that’s contiguous with sensation drama.

Here’s a Character List:

Sidney Daryl: He’s a penniless barrister who’s in love with his childhood sweetheart, Maud Hetherington. He’s a good guy with a lot of fancy friends in “society.” In fact, he’s such a good guy that he raises his cousin’s daughter after she becomes orphaned–in an attempt to gain the favor of the daughter’s grandmother, Lady Ptarmigant, so that he can marry her ward, Maud…. but still. He comes from a good family, but he gave up what was left of his fortune to help his dissolute brother keep the family estate, so he has nothing, and therefore Lady Ptarmigant doesn’t want him to marry Maud. But things turn around when he runs for MP in his home town, wins, and then his brother dies. He and Maud are presumed to live happily ever after.

Maud Hetherington: She returns Sidney’s love, and agrees to marry him, money or no money. But her aunt, Lady Ptarmigant, has other plans for her: she wants Maud to marry the vulgar but rich John Chodd Junior, who’s a pretty odious guy. Maud resists, but Lady Ptarmigant puts the announcement in the papers anyway. Sidney sees the announcement, assumes Maud has betrayed him, and then makes a scene while dancing with her at a ball. She gets offended that he made such an assumption, and then goes on to make an assumption of her own, when she meets Sidney’s ward, Little Maud, and assumes that she is Sidney’s illegitimate daughter. Enraged, she agrees to marry Chodd Junior. When she finds out the truth (thanks to Lord Ptarmigant), all is forgiven, she forgets about Chodd Junior, and lives happily ever after with Sidney.

John Chodd, Senior: He’s a commoner whose brother made a fortune in Australia, which he inherited after his brother’s death. He decides to devote his wealth to trying to make his son, John Chodd, Junior, into a gentleman and get him into Parliament. He also buys a newspaper, with the help of Tom Stylus (friend of Sidney Daryl), who has started 18 newspapers in the past, each of which has failed. When he fails to give Tom the sub-editor position he wants, Tom gets mad and, while covering for the editor while said editor is sick, prints a story in favor of Sidney’s bid for the MP position, despite the fact that John Chodd, Junior is running for the same position.

John Chodd, Junior: After trying to employ Sidney as a writer in his father’s newspaper, he notices that Sidney has lots of invitations to “society” events. Knowing that Sidney needs money, he offers to pay Sidney to take him around in society and introduce him to all of his friends. Sidney refuses, saying: “I cannot entertain your very commercial proposition. My friends are my friends; they are not marketable commodities” (1.1, p. 47). Chodd Jr. gets offended, and this initiates several acts of competitive chest-thumping, including Chodd Jr’s proposal to Maud, Chodd Jr. buying all of Sidney’s debt and trying to have him arrested, and Chodd Jr. running for MP in Sidney’s home town.

Lady Ptarmigant: She’s Maud’s aunt, and also a relation of Sidney. She’s mostly concerned with money and status–she’s a gentlewoman, but without much money. She tries to force Maud to marry Chodd Jr. for his money, but once Sidney turns out to have money AND status (dead brother and MP), she discards the odious Chodds pretty quickly. Lady P., however, isn’t just about the money. She also hates men. We later find out that she was jilted at the altar at 23, and married Lord P. pretty much in order to make his life miserable, which she does. She advises Maud to do the same with Chodd Jr.

Lord Ptarmigant: He’s mostly a nonentity throughout most of the play. He’s so henpecked by his wife that he just falls asleep wherever he goes. But toward the end of the play, Sidney tells him Little Maud’s story: Lord Ptarmigant’s son, on this way to the Crimean War, told Sidney that he had fallen in love with a common woman, and he was confiding their child to Sidney’s care, since he felt that he would die–which he did. Sidney convinced him to marry the woman before he left to legitimize the daughter–which he did. When the wife died, Sidney placed Little Maud with a motherly woman and continued to oversee her care. Lord Ptarmigant is so happy to have a grandchild that he insists on making sure that Maud, his niece, knows how honorable Sidney is. Thanks to his intervention, Sidney and Maud are able to reconcile and get engaged.

After reading so much about the various class dynamics in theaters, I can see a lot of that playing out in Society. This play definitely favors the aristocracy, portraying the Chodds–who think they can write a cheque for their entrance into “society”–as naive rubes. Sidney’s election speech is an obvious moment of aristocratic superiority, since he basically relies on the winning formula of landowning aristocracy: “hey, c’mon everyone, you all know me and you’ve known my family forever. The end.” This is essentially a play about all the things that money can’t buy. And actually, it can’t buy anything, really. Even the newspaper–which the Chodds do buy–ends up belonging to the aristocratic Sidney. Money gets passed around all over this play, but it never really buys anything. The irony is that all the money that the Chodds flourish ends up supporting Sidney in one way or another. Definitely an assertion of dominance over the rising mercantile class, but a deeply cynical one, since Robertson spent lots of his life living hand-to-mouth, and the life of a playwright was far from glamorous, or even financially comfortable.

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