Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Candida, A Minister's Wife

Question 1:
I'm emailing for wisdom about Marchbanks. I'm coaching someone for A Minister’s Wife. I read your blog on Shaw and of course went back to Candida but thought I’d be silly not to write to you.

Response 1:
I saw A Minister's Wife [Austin Pendleton’s musical adaptation of Candida] in Chicago and I thought it was pretty darn good, that it kept Shaw fairly intact.
Candida is not so much about The New Woman as it is about The Young Poet. And while A Minister's Wife puts more focus on Candida, the character of Marchbanks is pretty much the same in both.
Marchbanks is a physically slight young man who is terrified of strangers and certainly of physical roughness from others. Note the description of his behavior (in Candida) when he first enters the room. Like a stray puppy, scared of everything, shrinking from physical contact. His opposite? A brilliant mind, the capacity of the artist for profound comprehension dramatized beautifully in his scene with Prossy when he perceives the truth beneath her surface behavior and understands her more truly than anyone ever has. 
His body gets ready to run from Morell but his eyes flash with the fire of his ideas and his voice lands those ideas with the impact of a physical blow.  
What's the secret in his heart?
The play could be subtitled: The Artist Finds Freedom.

Question 2:
I sat with the play last night and kept going back to Marchbanks' passions. How he has all of these thoughts inside him, and although he is articulate, he can't fully articulate his own poetry. He surprises, even himself, when he allows his passions to fuel his voice and stand up to Morell. Yes?
I hadn't thought about the secret in his heart. Yes, that is where the actor must go. Connect his own secret to what ignites Marchbanks to voice all that is within him.
I would love for you to blog on this. I think what has always troubled me about Candida is that is it less about her and more about what she does to the people around her. How they all react to her.

Response 2:
Marchbanks makes lots of realizations during the play (One way to map out the progress of the play is to go from one Marchbanks realization to the next right up to the last big one, which happens when?) and, yes, he surprises even himself when his voice finds his soul in perfect poetry.
Let your imagination play with his name a little. Note what a different character he would be if his name were, for instance, Maybanks.
Shaw had originally called him Marjoribanks.

Let’s take a look at four major scenes in Candida and some of the realizations that happen within them.

Marchbanks and Morell at the end of Act I.
Morell is everything Eugene is not: he is outgoing, handsome, vital, charming. After all, Candida loves him. His concerns are social and practical. I imagine him helping out at the soup kitchen and giving the foreman at the construction site a talking to about working conditions. His great good will and charismatic nature consistently win over both men and women to his side.
He recognizes the genius in the “wretched little nervous disease” of a young boy that Marchbanks is. It’s the power of that genius that unsettles Morell in their confrontation and leads him to question the strength of his marriage.
Marchbanks pushes all of Morell’s buttons, gets at insecurities Morell isn’t even aware he has, and at last forces Morell to lose his temper and, as Marchbanks later describes it, to shake him like a terrier shakes a rat. 
It is at the moment when Marchbanks shrinks from fear of a possible pummeling at the hands of minister Morell that he has his first great realization: I’m not afraid of you. You’re afraid of me! And the entire speech that follows is a series of incrementally mounting realizations as his understanding of the power he possesses builds, intensifies, energizes. 
Too often actors deliver these lines as a series of statements of fact rather than as a series of amazing, growing realizations that embolden him with the power of his ideas. At last the courage of his convictions is more powerful than the cowardice of his physicality. And this realization sends him directly on his path to the end of the play.

Morell and Candida Act II.
Candida has returned after a three-week absence and she goes about the house to make sure things are running properly. At last she comes to the study to check on her husband. She sees him sitting at his desk working on his next sermon. His face is troubled, his spine collapsed. How often when she has seen him so absorbed in writing a sermon has she wanted to intercede, only instead to bring him a lamp and then leave? But the thundercloud in front of his eyes tonight is darker and more troubling than ever. (She has no idea that it is his confrontation with Eugene that is plaguing him.) 
She decides it’s past time for him to face a painful truth about his sermons, his parishioners, their fidelity, and about his and their love of the trappings of religion. She assumes an understanding between the two of them: a loving wife sitting at her husband’s feet, the two of them working through a problem together. And the wife-mother-sister-companion-counselor proceeds with irony, with gentle humor, with painful accuracy.
Meanwhile, Morell hears everything she says from the perspective of his misgivings about her love for him, as Eugene had suggested concerning King David: But his wife despised him in her heart.
As they settle into what she thinks is mutual trust and affection and understanding, believing that he is in perfect sync with her, she wonders aloud if Eugene, since he is falling in love with her, will one day forgive her for not helping him into his sexual manhood.
Morell the man and the minister says only that he relies on her goodness and her Christian purity.
She pokes fun at his ministerial myopia. Don’t put your faith in my goodness and my purity, she says. I would abandon them in a second to help Eugene grow up. Put your faith rather in my love for you. That’s what’s keeping me from teaching Eugene about sexual manhood and romantic love.
Morell freaks and truly Candida does not understand.
It is a misapprehension to think that Candida either sees Eugene as a romantic rival with Morell or as at all sexually interesting to her. It’s because she doesn’t and because she assumes Morell is in full accord with her about the situation that she says and does the things she says and does. She is not deliberately tormenting Morell; she’s believing more strongly in him and in their marriage than at the moment he is able to.

Candida and Marchbanks at the Beginning of Act III.
Candida senses but does not fully grasp the profound depths within the fearful young fellow before her. But it is time for the teacher within her to lead him to an understanding of the truth about his feelings for her. It is delicate territory and she proceeds sensitively.
Marchbanks: May I say wicked things to you?
Candida: You may say anything you want so long as it’s the truth of your heart and not some second-hand attitude.
Marchbanks [realizing]: Ohmygod, everything I want to say at this moment is just some attitude I’ve adopted or picked up from reading. Only one word is the utter truth: Candida, Candida, Candida. And every time I say it it is a prayer to you.
Candida [carefully leading him one baby step farther along]: Does it make you happy to pray?
Marchbanks: Ecstatic.
Candida: Well, that very ecstasy is the answer to your prayer. [And gently, carefully, pointedly, she asks him to realize something further] Do you want anything more? [That is, do you want to kiss me? do you want us to go upstairs? etc.]
And Marchbanks makes his biggest realization yet: Ohmygod, no! What I’m feeling now is utterly what my heart has been wanting all along! I don’t need anything more!
Morell, the mere man, enters and misinterprets what he sees and what Eugene means during the contretemps between the two of them that follows Candida’s exit. The only way he can see out of his misery is to insist Candida choose irrevocably between the two of them, something it has not even remotely occurred to Candida might be part of the reality of this situation.

The Discussion among Candida and Marchbanks and Morell that Ends the Play.
Candida discovers that James does not realize the signal part she plays in the success of his life and his domestic situation and their marriage. He has assumed that as the male he has been both provider and protector and she the pampered beneficiary of his industry. (Shaw said that with Candida he demonstrates that in the doll’s house of a marriage, it is the man who is the spoiled doll child, not the woman.)
To describe the huge realization Marchbanks makes about the secret in his heart, let me quote a letter Shaw wrote in 1898 to the critic and Ibsen translator William Archer:
When Eugene, with his apprehensive faculty raised to the highest sensitiveness by his emotional state, hears that long speech of Candida’s about the household, he takes the whole thing in, grasps for the first time what it really means, what the conditions of such love are, and how it is essentially the creature of limitations which are far transcended in his own nature. He sees at once that no such life and no such love are possible for him, and instantly leaves them all far behind him.
To put it another way, he jumps to the position from which the Master-builder saw that it was all over with the building of happy homes for human beings. He looks at the comfort and sweetness and happiness that has just been placed before him at its best, and turns away from it exclaiming with absolute conviction, “Life is nobler than that.”
Thus Candida’s sympathy with his supposed sorrow is entirely thrown away. If she were to alter her decision and offer herself to him he would be unspeakably embarrassed and terrified.
When he says “Out into the night with me,” he does not mean the night of despair and darkness, but the free air and holy starlight which is so much more natural an atmosphere to him than this stuffy fireside warmth of mothers and sisters and wives and so on. 
It may be that this exposition may seem to you to destroy all the pathos and sanity of the scene; but from no other point of view could it have been written. A perfect dramatic command, either of character or situation, can only be obtained from some point of view that transcends both. 
The absolute fitness which is the secret of the effectiveness of the ending of “Candida”, would be a mere sham if it meant nothing more than a success for Morell at the cost of a privation for Eugene. Further, any such privation would take all the point from Candida’s sub-consciousness of the real state of affairs; for you will observe that Candida knows all along perfectly well that she is no mate for Eugene, and instinctively relies on that solid fact to pull him through when he is going off, as she thinks, broken-hearted. The final touch of comedy is the femininely practical reason that she gives for their incompatibility.

Candida is the wonderful woman who makes and maintains a perfect nest for Morell to explore his gifts for sermonizing and lifting the hearts of his parishioners--something she realizes during the play he is not aware of and that she must spell out for him.
Morell is a magnificent man, an eagle domesticated with his wings clipped and all his needs taken care of, which he realizes by the end of the play is the perfect life for him.
But it is not to the discovery of their blindnesses about their marriage nor to the domestic balance achieved when Candida embraces James in front of the cozy hearth at the final curtain that this play has been leading. Rather, what has been dramatized is what the revelations about marriage have led the young artist Marchbanks to realize, what the secret in his heart is: he must be not domesticated; he must be a free soaring eagle artist.
And so he flees their hearth for the glorious night in search of his destiny.
End of play.

Post Script
The sequel.
Candida II: Eugene Finds His Way.
In which the young poet Marchbanks makes the acquaintance of Lord Alfred Douglas and the whole of who he truly is comes exhilaratingly clear to him.