One of the most characteristic strains of much great American art, from Mark Twain to George Lucas, is the striving of what Susan Glaspell refers to in The Inheritors as "the robust spirit". Sometimes, as with Walt Whitman and Robert Frost, it is engaged in dialogue with the intellect; on other occasions, such as in the films of Frank Capra, it heads straight for the heart. Glaspell's play (first performed in 1921) not only inhabits this area but directly addresses it as subject matter.
The first act, set in a small but growing Illinois town in 1879, reminds the audience of the true pioneer spirit of the earlier nineteenth century, in which altruism was a vital ingredient in the settlers' determination to build new lives in the middle-west; this is a history in which, before "the red man" was subjugated by greater forces, he co-existed with the likes of Sheila Burrell's Grandmother Morton, who approached the Indians not with fire but (literally) with cookies. Her son Silas, dedicated to the betterment not of himself and his family but of the community as a whole, resolves to use the prime land he owns for the foundation of a college.
The play then fast-forwards to the fortieth anniversary celebrations of Morton College, in which the ugly realities of early legislative fever against "un-Americanism" and the Realpolitik of state appropriation committees collide with the author's view of the real American spirit: freedom of thought and expression (in the form of Patrick Drury's maverick professor) and a fiery determination to uphold such freedoms in the face of both official and vigilante constraints. This conflict is personified by the student grandchildren of Silas Morton: young Horace (Damien Matthews), who cannot believe, much less cherish, Abraham Lincoln's words about the right of the people to remake their government by revolution if necessary, versus his cousin Madeline, the impassioned embodiment of the continuing struggle to uphold liberty.
Madeline would be perfectly played by a young Holly Hunter, and Lisé Stevenson gets mighty close to the required blend of reluctance and puzzlement overruled by a marrow-deep belief in noble principles. Francis Matthews plays her uncle, the president of the college board, caught between the rock of ideals and the hard place of its struggle for funding (plus ça change), having in the first act played that character's father, Silas Morton's friend and mentor, a Hungarian nobleman exiled as a result of the 1848 revolt; Glaspell cleverly and discreetly sets up parallels between Felix Fejevary Sr's belief in the betterment of his people and the events in 1920 which most of his descendants wish to see put down, or at best swept under the carpet.
The play resonates richly between events on College Hill and at the
Morton family farm on a rise opposite, as intellectual arguments blend
with folksier discourse (reminding us implicitly along the way that "folksy"
can also be a term of approbation rather than condescension). Mark Kingston
turns in a fine pair of performances as Silas Morton, the huge bearded
bear who lacks the words to describe the great dream in his heart, and
his son Ira, driven nearly insane by the loss of his wife and son and taking
almost autistic refuge in breeding better strains of corn... an activity
which supplies the final metaphor of the play.
Sam Walters and the Orange Tree's directorate were inspired by their productions last year of two other Glaspell plays to return to her work; The Inheritors is evidence that the general neglect of this Pulitzer prize-winner and colleague of Eugene O'Neill is less than deserved.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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