The Notorious Mrs. Ebbsmith

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The Notorious Mrs. Ebbsmith is a play by Sir Arthur Wing Pinero. It was first produced on 13 March 1895 at the Garrick Theatre, with Mrs Patrick Campbell playing the lead role of Agnes Ebbsmith. The theme of the play is social radicalism. The title character is a vehement critic of all social conventions, especially marriage, and an advocate of free love.

Characters[edit]

  • Agnes Ebbsmith
  • Lucas Cleeve
  • Sybil Cleeve, wife of Lucas
  • Sir Sandford Cleeve, Baronet, brother of Lucas
  • The Duke of St. Olpherts, uncle of Lucas
  • Mrs. Gertrude Thorpe, a young widow, friend of Agnes
  • Rev. Amos Winterfield, bachelor older brother of Gertrude
  • Sir George Brodrick, a prominent British physician
  • Dr. Kirke, a British physician in Venice
  • Fortune, manservant of Lucas
  • Antonio Poppi, servant of Agnes and Lucas
  • Nella, servant of Agnes and Lucas
  • Hephzibah, servant of Gertrude and Amos

Plot[edit]

Agnes, a 33-year-old widow, is staying in Venice with Lucas, to whom she is not married, though the servants and her friend Gertrude have assumed so. Lucas was a rising young Tory politician who abandoned his wife and career for Agnes. They met when she was sent to Italy to nurse him through a bout of malaria contracted in Rome. She had been married unhappily, and after her husband died became a prominent radical lecturer, and then a nurse to earn a living. Lucas was also unhappy in his marriage and they fell in love. Now they (or at least she) envision a future of writing passionate essays against marriage, lecturing and campaigning.

His relatives do not accept his decision. His uncle the Duke comes to Venice to "arrange" matters. He suggests a sham reconciliation between Lucas and his wife, and for Agnes, "The suburban villa, the little garden, a couple of discreet servants—everything à la mode." Agnes sneers at this, of course, but is horrified to discover that Lucas actually considers it. She reluctantly agrees.

Gertrude, though shocked by Agnes' open "immorality", has come to appreciate her philosophy. She now urges Agnes to reject this hypocritical arrangement, and instead to come with her and Amos to their home in Yorkshire. Amos also appeals to her, urging her to pray for guidance. Agnes agrees to go with them.

Lucas now rejects the Duke's proposal, and the Duke asks Gertrude and Amos to stop interfering.

Sybil Lucas now appears. She confronts Agnes, and—bizarrely—asks her to return to Lucas and get him to return to London. She despises Lucas, but she loved him once, and doesn't want to see him "utterly wasted". Also (though this is unspoken) an apparent reconciliation would relieve her of a great humiliation. This even though he made her as miserable as Agnes' husband did her. Agnes breaks down and agrees. But then Gertrude intervenes: this path will corrupt and destroy Agnes.

Sybil now breaks down and repudiates the deal.

Lucas makes a last effort to join with Agnes, and resume their "free love" life, but Agnes has had it; she thought she was a leader, a moral example, who would show the world "how men and woman may live independent and noble lives without rule, guidance or sacrament", but she proved weak and corruptible. And she can't sit in judgment of Sybil any longer; she will go with Amos and Gertrude, and she urges Lucas to learn to pray.

Themes[edit]

The chief theme in the play is criticism of conventional social institutions, primarily marriage: "the choked-up, seething pit", "the right to destroy years and years of life". Agnes justifies her adulterous "Free Union" arrangement with Lucas by telling of her miserable marriage, and by dismissing Sybil as "the shrew, the termagant he has now fled from..." She upbraids the Duke for his hypocrisy in marrying a wealthy woman to maintain his position while continuing his debauchery with other women. Gertrude confesses that her late husband made her unhappy, and that she was in love with another man (who is also dead). Sybil tells of her unhappiness with Lucas.

Agnes also upbraids the Duke for his life of unearned luxury, while the masses starve and toil.

But in addition, Agnes is hostile to traditional social conventions. She doesn't want to be "pretty", she is offended when Lucas buys her an elegant gown, and she is disgusted when Lucas waxes conventionally poetical about their future life as not public radicals.

However, the play also, more subtly, attacks the conventions of the radicalism of the time. The "Free Union" between Lucas and Agnes collapses. Even before the Duke proposes the "reconciliation", Lucas has already decided that he and Agnes should not become professional radicals as she had planned. Sybil shows that he is as much to blame for their estrangement as she is. The Duke reveals Lucas as "in morals - an epicure"; that is, a playboy posing as a reformer.

Agnes, in the end, abandons radicalism for at least a while, and turns to religion. Gertrude and Amos are the figures who are not exposed or condemned.

2014 Revival[edit]

In 2014, London-based production company Primavera Productions presented the first ever revival of the play at the Jermyn Street Theatre. Rhiannon Sommers played Agnes Ebbsmith and Christopher Ravenscroft played the Duke of St Olpherts, with Max Hutchinson as Lucas Cleeve. Abbey Wright directed the revival.

Sources[edit]

E-text at Project Gutenberg [1]