Frances Burney’s The Witlings Opens at Theatre Erindale, UTM
It was a comic novel that established the path for Jane Austen and Charles Dickens. Evelina was published anonymously in 1778, but it was such an instant hit that the identity of its author soon became known. Frances Burney, known to family friends as “Fanny”, was the daughter of a well-known composer. And overnight the greatest theatrical producer of the age, Richard Brinsley Sheridan (namesake of the village after which many local landmarks are named) was practically beating down her door. He wanted a comedy for the Drury Lane Theatre. And Frances was only too happy to comply.
The result was The Witlings, a Comedy of Manners that is about to become the next offering in Theatre Erindale’s “Uppity Women” season. The first draft was read in the Burney drawing room and applauded by the greatest wits of the age. Veteran playwright Arthur Murphy promised to see the novice work through the revision process to a successful staging. But instead it disappeared and was never seen again.
Frances’ father had forbidden the production. It was embarrassing enough that his daughter was now known as a successful novelist; having her work presented on the wicked stage was unthinkable! Aside from the damage to both their reputations, they might incur the displeasure of the powerful socialite and pseudo-intellectual who had inspired the character of Lady Smatter, villain of the piece. And so, while Burney continued to publish successful novels, the script for The Witlings was locked away to gather dust, where it was joined in time by half a dozen others that had met the same sad fate. They were not discovered and published until the 1990s!
But now at last, Theatre Erindale Artistic Director Patrick Young has adapted an acting version from Burney’s draft, and senior actors from the Sheridan-UTM Theatre and Drama Studies Program have been working delightedly on the Canadian Première for months. Bailey Green plays Lady Smatter, President of a fan club for dandy poet Dabler (Tomas Ketchum) and his gaggle of groupies. When her nephew’s fiancée loses her fortune, she sets out to prevent the marriage of the lovers (Samuel Turner and Mercedes Morris). But she hasn’t reckoned on the antagonism of her nemesis Censor (Christian Tribuzio), her nephew’s best friend. Not to mention the complications caused by a gossiping landlady, a witless fashionista, an anxious milliner, a doddering country gentleman, and a spry young fellow (Jovan Kocic) with an 18th-century case of ADHD!
For the first time ever, a complete set of original (and gorgeous!) period costumes has been designed and built by Barbara Rowe in the Theatre Sheridan costume shop under the supervision of David Juby. The set is by Patrick Young, who also directs, and the music by Haydn.
“It is no longer a secret,” writes U of T Professor Brian Corman, “that Frances Burney wrote some of the finest stage comedies of the eighteenth century.”
The Witlings runs February 13-15 and 27-March 2 (with a break for U of T’s Reading Week) at the Erindale Studio Theatre, with evening performances Thursday through Saturday and matinées on Saturdays and on Sunday March 2. Single tickets are still only $10-$15 and parking is $6.00. For tickets and information, call the Erindale Studio Theatre Box Office at 905-569-4369 or www.theatreerindale.com .
NOTE: The North entrance to the UTM campus is now closed for construction. Please use the Main or South (Collegeway) entrances and follow Outer Circle Road around to the CCT Garage or Lot 1.
Patrick Young at 905-845-9430 x2709
Learn more about programs in Sheridan’s department of Visual and Performing Arts here.