D.H. Lawrence began writing plays in 1909 but his kitchen sink genre of drama was so far ahead of his own time that his plays were not published until 1965, more than three decades after his death. They were rediscovered when his so-called Colliery Trilogy (A Collier’s Friday Night, The Daughter-in-Law and The Widowing of Mrs. Holroyd) was staged at the Royal Court Theatre in 1967 to great acclaim. Not surprisingly, The Royal Court Theatre was the same venue John Osborne and the Angry Men Movement caused a revolution in British Drama in the 1950’s replacing the typical drawing room plays of the period with gritty working class dramas. Lawrence had invented this almost 60 years before but producers did not have the daring to offer them to British audiences.
The Mint Theater Company which gave the first New York production of The Widowing of Mrs. Holroyd, Lawrence’s best play and one of the great British tragedies of modern drama, has revived The Daughter-in-Law which it first staged in 2003 in an excellent new production again directed by Martin Platt. While the authentic and thick Midlands dialect (developed with specialist Amy Stoller) may be a problem for some theatergoers, not only does it get easier as the play develops but the local slang is easy enough to figure out. Unlike the other two plays in the trilogy, the engrossing Daughter-in-Law is not usually considered autobiographical (Lawrence had not married Baroness Frieda von Richthofen Weekley at the time he wrote it), but it was written at the time of his very autobiographical Sons and Lovers which has similar themes: mothers and sons, and wives and husbands.
Set in 1912 in the coal mining town of Eastwood, Nottingham, where Lawrence grew up, Minnie Hetherington, a governess, has married beneath her to 30-year-old Luther Gascoyne, a coal miner. However, the retiring, slow-speaking Luther is still tied to his domineering mother’s apron strings. Things come to a head when six weeks into their marriage it is suddenly revealed that Luther has made the daughter of his parents’ neighbor Bertha Purdy pregnant before his marriage. Her mother wants £40 to keep the affair quiet and to give Bertha a nest egg.
Minnie has come to the marriage with £100 she recently inherited from her uncle, but will she give it to Luther to settle the debt? And how will she react to the news? Already the bloom is off the rose in their marriage as Luther, who has been a bachelor too long, has had trouble adjusting to Minnie’s genteel ways and marriage in general. The final straw is when he refuses Minnie’s offer of her money. Much like the later Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, The Daughter-in-Law examines marriage of two people from different walks of life who have thrown their lot in together but turned marriage into a battlefield. An upcoming coal mining strike adds another level of discord to their lives.
From the outset, Mrs. Gascoyne warns us that from her experience the honeymoon doesn’t last: “Marriage is like a mouse trap, for either man or woman – you soon come ter th’end o’ the’ cheese.” However, with the belief that “My son’s my son till he ta’es a wife/But my daughter’s my daughter the whole of her life,” she is unaware of how she has hobbled both of her younger sons, Luther and Joe, who have always been dependent on her for everything until now. In the play’s climactic scene, Minnie bemoans the fact that her husband’s loyalties are still to his mother: “How is a woman ever to have a husband when the men all belong to their mothers?” Though the Oedipal conflict is commonly accepted today, Mrs. Gascoyne is at first shocked, her son Joe not so much.
The play’s authenticity comes from Lawrence’s close observations of his parents’ unequal marriage: his mother Lydia was a former schoolteacher and his father Arthur was a barely literate coal miner which she never let him forget. The tension between them and later that between Lawrence and his wife, the aristocratic Frieda, was often the subject of his fiction. Lawrence was one of five children (Luther is one of six) and was his mother’ favorite after the early death of his brother Ernest. This closeness was also the subject of Sons and Lovers, his most widely read novel. Platt and his cast capture the intimacy of a family who are in and out of each other’s houses several times a day. With a production team that worked on the Mint’s 2003 premiere, the realism is further established by Bill Clarke’s faithful setting for the two kitchens, Mrs. Gascoyne’s and Minnie’s. The period costumes are beautifully realized by Holly Poe Durbin. Jeff Nellis’ subtle lighting design never gets in the way.
The cast is uniformly excellent with the characterizations, the accents and the historic 1912 time period. Amy Blackman is commanding as the educated wife who knows what she will not put up with though she loves her husband. As her mother-in-law, Sandra Shipley makes an excellent adversary, one who speaks a great deal of wisdom though she plays a character who has little self-knowledge. Tom Coiner and Ciaran Bowling make a strong contrast as the two Gascoyne sons, Luther, tongue-tied and sullen, and Joe, outgoing and flirtatious, respectively. Coiner convincingly captures Luther’s aspirations for something better than he has previously known as well as his need to be master in his own house. As Mrs. Purdy, the neighbor and mother of the off-stage Bertha, Polly McKie is both amusing and wily as a gossip and as a bargainer who wants the best for her daughter.
Using his two sets for maximum advantage so that the open stage at New York City Center Stage II is never a problem, director Martin Platt gives a riveting account of D.H. Lawrence’s The Daughter-in-Law as well as a portrait of working class life that is rarely seen on our stages. Due to their depicting lower class society, Lawrence’s plays were ignored in his own time when only upper class life was deemed acceptable for the British stage. Now we can see how truly cutting edge his dramatic writing was when we compare it to contemporaries like Shaw, Barrie, Galsworthy, Maugham, Lonsdale and Granville Barker. Hopefully, more of D. H. Lawrence’s unfamiliar plays will make appearances on our stages, particularly those that are variations on his novels.
The Daughter-in-Law (February 5 – March 20, 2022)
Mint Theater Company
New York City Center Stage II, 131 W. 55th Street, between Sixth and Seventh Avenues, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-581-1212 or visit http://www.minttheater.org
Running time: two hours and 30 minutes including one intermission