Cathy Tempelsman's

A MOST DANGEROUS WOMAN

Monday, April 15, 2019

7:30 PM
Lucille Lortel Theatre
Directed by Pamela Berlin
Featuring Julia Coffey, Carson Elrod, Stephen DeRosa, Andrew Garman, Ben Mehl, Rachel Pickup, Griffin Sharps, Derek Smith, David Ryan Smith, and Sara Topham

"Even people who don't know George Eliot from George Sand are likely to be intrigued by the struggles that Ms. Tempelsman relates in her study of a celebrated English novelist whose rugged prose and unconventional private life scandalized the hypocritical society of her day."

      ~Michael Sommers, The New York Times

Middlemarch has been declared by fellow writers, and a BBC world poll no less, the greatest British novel of all time. But perhaps even more fascinating is the life of its creator, Mary Anne Evans—and her alter ego nom de plume, George Eliot—who scandalized Victorian society with her unconventional relationship with another George (George Henry Lewes). Based on the novelist’s letters and journals, Cathy Tempelsman has created for the stage a fascinating “portrait of a valiant artist,” (New York Times), seamlessly interspersed with George Eliot’s characters from such beloved works as Silas Marner and Mr. Gilfil's Love Story.

This reading is generously sponsored by the Off Broadway Angels.

"Perhaps the most difficult heroism is that which consists in the daily conquests of our private demons, not in the slaying of world-notorious dragons."

"We are each one of us the dramatis personae in some play on the stage of life."

-From George Eliot’s letters

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ABOUT GEORGE ELIOT

 

George Eliot, the great Victorian novelist, was born Mary Anne Evans in 1819 in the provincial center of England, which she was to make famous in a series of works culminating in Middlemarch, among the greatest of English novels.  As the daughter of an estate manager in Warwickshire, she would have seemed an unlikely figure for such achievement.  But while she has too often been thought of as a conventionally moralizing and respectable author, she was in fact, as Cathy Tempelsman dramatizes it, “A Dangerous Woman,” her life full of radical and daring choices.  She became the real, if unacknowledged genius behind the Westminster Review, the voice of free-thinking and liberal sentiment at the time.  She turned from early Evangelical intensity to reject Christianity, at great personal cost.  She dared to elope with a married man, knowing it would entail condemnation from both society and family.  Tempelsman captures the contradictions of her daring life in its often tormented engagement with social norms, and movingly dramatizes, often In George Eliot’s own words, the way she managed to create from that torment — and from her own imaginative sympathy — some of the greatest novels of the century.

 

An astonishingly precocious child, George Eliot was not a rebel by choice. When she rejected Christian doctrine after reading the most advanced German Biblical “higher criticism,” she outsmarted and out-talked the preachers sent to convince her of the truth of Christianity.  But out of love for her father, in the interests of “truth of feeling” instead of mere intellectual truth, she went to church and tended her father until his death in 1849. Released from that past, she moved to London, into the house of the official editor of the Westminster, John Chapman.  There she was the real brains behind the journal but was quickly driven out by Chapman’s mistress and wife, who both saw her as an intellectual and sexual threat.

 

Torn by self-doubt and dismayed by her sense of her unattractiveness, she nonetheless hoped to marry Herbert Spencer, the most famous philosopher of his time, but he icily rejected her explicitly because of her looks. But Spencer introduced her to the brilliant and dandyish G. H. Lewes, himself a married man, and they became the most notorious couple of their moment. The risks were enormous.  Defying society and family, they built a lifelong relationship of mutual brilliance, dependence, and love. Scratching away together at reviews, essays, scientific treatises, the two earned enough to survive, but it was Lewes who encouraged her, at the late age of 37, to turn to writing fiction. As a defense against what certainly would have been absolute rejection of a free-thinker and notorious woman, she adopted the pseudonym George Eliot, the very respectable name by which she is universally known today.  By the time she was driven to make her identity known, “George Eliot” had already published Scenes of Clerical Life and Adam Bede and was safely established.  For the rest of her life, through the publication of The Mill on the Floss, Silas Marner, Romola, Felix Holt, Middlemarch, and Daniel Deronda, her reputation as the greatest novelist of the period grew.  The girl from the provinces took her place among the world’s great writers.

 

Lewes died in 1878.  In 1880, “Marian Lewes” married John Cross and achieved official respectability at last, only to be touched by a final scandal, when Cross, twenty years her junior, jumped from the balcony of their Venetian honeymoon apartment into the canal.  That same year, she died from a sudden illness. A Most Dangerous Woman mines all of George Eliot’s writings — novels, essays, poetry, letters — and turns them into concentrated drama, demonstrating by the most subtle juxtapositions the way in which the drama of George Eliot’s life is embodied in her great works. It evokes fully that divided provincial woman, whose novels helped transform English literary history and continue to move new generations of readers.

 

George Levine

Professor Emeritus, Rutgers University

Editor, Cambridge Companion to George Eliot

FROM THE PLAYWRIGHT

I was in my thirties when I read my first George Eliot novel, and I’ve been hooked ever since. The more I learned about the writer, the more fascinated I became by the paradoxes of her extraordinary world.

In the 19th century, critics placed Eliot on a level with Shakespeare. And what a life she led: Passionate. Productive. Unconventional. This brilliant, notoriously unattractive woman had the courage to defy every expectation for women. She also made startling personal choices—and suffered the consequences. Reading about Eliot, I thought, Now here is a woman feminists must adore!

Alas, I was wrong.

In the 20th century, feminists found fault, bordering on betrayal. In their eyes, Eliot lived one life—and wrote another. In a biography, Kathryn Hughes describes “the puzzle about Eliot” that continues to bother critics. While she flouted orthodox social roles in her intimate life, Hughes writes, “her politics and her novels dealt with the status quo, with life as it is rather than how it might be.”

But in fact, Eliot (née Mary Anne Evans) never forgot that her own extraordinary life was the exception. To her credit, she continued to write about ordinary women and their limited lives. And let’s be clear: she exposes—she does not endorse—a typical woman’s lot. But Eliot doesn’t stop there. She reveals how gender expectations stifle the growth and the promise of men and women alike. And if that isn’t feminist, I don’t know what is.

In the play, I explore the unusual circumstances of Evans’ life and the difficult choices she made—not least of these the decision to reveal herself as the real George Eliot. But I also hope to shed light on her work. A fierce realist, Eliot may have succeeded too well in capturing her world. To a modern reader, the novels can appear conservative and nostalgic.

But don’t be fooled. Eliot saw beneath the veneer of Victorian society and the face people present to the world. There is a subversive streak in all her stories. Eliot’s characters tend to be spiritually severed from the society she carefully renders. And, like their creator, they find true affinities—true happiness—outside the hearth and home they’re born into.

“For all the achievement and the success,” a recent biographer has written of George Eliot, “the meaning of that person has not yet exhausted its influence nor the larger future life she should have had, and may have, in the world."

I couldn’t agree more. This is a moment for Eliot.

All around us, people who feel marginalized and hidden are claiming the right to be seen and heard. And this is exactly how Eliot sought to radicalize the English novel, which she did in fact change forever. “If Art does not enlarge men’s sympathies,” she wrote, “it does nothing morally.” Reading her stories, ordinary people felt seen and understood (deeply, psychologically) for the first time. Eliot created heroine after heroine who must wrestle with ambition and desire in a society that not only denies these, but actively seeks to

control a woman’s sexuality. In the novels, such feelings may be veiled or coded according to 19th-century convention—but they are there nevertheless.

And they are there because Eliot, in her own life, was made invisible. It is a great paradox that, living in isolation—censured and cast out by society—Eliot would finally unlock the mystery of what makes us human. In discovering her own humanity and sexuality, she writes about and reveals ours as well.

A century and a half later, we continue to wrestle with many of the same issues: the importance of female beauty, the definition of marriage, the consequences of revealing to our own family who we really are. Did George Eliot hide behind her pseudonym and her common-law husband’s protectiveness? Or did she wisely conceal her identity from a critical and unforgiving society? A Most Dangerous Woman is about a figure misunderstood then and now—a woman with a lifelong desire for legitimacy, determined to fulfill that need on her own terms.

ABOUT THE PLAYWRIGHT

In her writing, Cathy Tempelsman is drawn to hidden figures and events from history. Her first play, A Most Dangerous Woman, was inspired by the little-known life of George Eliot.  A new script, The Eleventh Hour, is based on a partisan investigation into the final day of combat during World War I.  Cathy received a NYSCA commission to develop As You Loathe It, a one-act written in rhymed couplets, into a full-length play. She has also been a finalist for the Terrence McNally New Play Award and Francesca Primus Playwriting Prize, and twice nominated for the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize.  Her work has been seen at Barrington Stage Company, Barrow Group, Boston Playwrights Theatre, Echo Theatre, Luna Stage, the New York Theater Festival (upcoming), Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey, Stageworks/Hudson and now, happily, Red Bull Theater.  

Our OBIE Award-winning Revelation Readings series provides a unique opportunity to hear rarely-produced classic plays performed by many of the finest actors in New York. 

 

Casting subject to change.

 

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