1990s >> 1999 >> no-1139-july-1999

Theatre Review: Foolish Totem of a Hapless World

Money by Edward Bulwer-Lytton. National Theatre.

The National continues to boast proudly in its programmes that “The National Theatre is for Everyone”, whilst its newish director, Trevor Nunn, seems increasingly to pander to safe bourgeois tastes.

Last month Noel Coward’s Private Lives joined the repertoire, and audiences were invited to identify with two spoilt members of the “upper set” whose egotism and selfishness leads to the break-up of not only their own marriage but also threatens the wellbeing of their subsequent partners. The critics in the broadsheets had a field day affecting to see “significance” in the puerile machinations of the two combatants, whereas arguably the real significance lies in the fact that by producing such witless tosh in favour of other fare, the theatre offers an experience of stunningly irrelevance to the lives of most of their audience: Mills and Boon for the chattering classes. And this month Money by Bulwer-Lytton, Victorian son of a rich aristocratic mother, one-time Liberal Member of Parliament, novelist and playwright, Conservative MP for Hertfordshire and briefly Colonial Secretary, and latterly Baron Lytton of Knebworth.

 If Bulwer-Lytton’s biography is hardly encouraging, neither is his play Money. In what seems a long evening Bulwer-Lytton is at pains to make what he sees as a crucial point: that money conjugates with success; poverty with failure. When Evelyn, the play’s central character, is in the funds he has friends by the score; once seemingly bankrupt his friends desert him like rats from a sinking ship. Bulwer-Lytton takes nearly three hours to ram his message home. Three hours in which to expose hypocrisy, but not a minute to question the economic and social structure which lies at its base. Cosy sentimentality in lieu of analysis. A triumph of escapism.

The talented cast do wonders with a turgid script. Bulwer-Lytton may well have been a successful novelist but on the evidence of this play he is an indifferent dramatist. His characters don’t so much speak as give voice to lines of prose. Close your eyes and you might be listening to someone reading a book rather than speaking.

Writing in the programme Peter Ackroyd paints a warts-and-all picture of Victorian London, and I wondered what the audience made of this. In easy, uncomplicated language Ackroyd describes everyday life in mid-century London “in terms which Lytton’s contemporaries would have preferred not to recognise”. Here is a real picture of Victorian London—”the streets filled with teeming and struggling life; the city as a prison, with walls and buildings towering above the people”—not the fay, prissy fantasies of Bulwer-Lytton.


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