The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James, dramatized by Richard E. Davis

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NBC University Theater, 2 October 1949
Dramatizing a 900-plus page novel for a one-hour slot is no mean task.  The difficulty of the process was highlighted in announcer Don Stanley's introduction to Richard E. Davis' version in the NBC University Theater anthology series.  Rather than bearing fidelity considerations in mind, this version offered a series of snapshots from the book, highlighting James' concern with human emotions and how they changed over time.
The narrative traced Isabel Archer's (Michael Ann Barrett's) progress from innocence to experience.  She began the adaptation as a wide-eyed ingénue, wanting to escape the rather parochial atmosphere of the United States as soon as possible but not quite knowing what she could do instead.  She was thus easy prey for the fortune-hunter Gilbert Osmond (Tony Barrett), who took advantage of her trusting nature to entrap her into an unhappy marriage.  Although Isabel retained her love for Ralph Touchett (Larry Dodkin), there was no way she could escape; at the end of the adaptation she had no other option other than to return to Osmond.  Experience had taught her to understand how aspirations were invariably frustrated; instead, she had to make the best of what she had.
In keeping with other entries in the NBC Anthology Series, this production emphasized the story's romantic elements - chiefly through the musical interludes (played by a live studio orchestra) linking the various scenes.  Isabel expected that her marriage would be romantic; but found herself painfully frustrated by a husband who seemed solely concerned with marriage for money.  Although in love with Warburton, she realized that she could never fulfil her desires; all she could do was to reflect rather wistfully on what might have been.
The production made this point clearer by emphasizing the story's patriarchal elements.  Isabel's life was not only controlled by Osmond, but by the Narrator (Gavin Whitmore), who kept referring to her as "our young lady," as if she belonged to him (or the listeners), rather than possessing a mind of her own.  While sympathizing with Isabel's plight, the narrator seemed to regard frustration as inevitable - especially for women.
In keeping with other entries in the series, this production was introduced to listeners by an expert - the writer and critic Henry Outland, who drew a parallel between Isabel's travels and those of the author.  Both of them moved from the United States into Europe, and then led peripatetic lives.  The only difference between them was that James, as a man, had more capacity for self-determination.  He learned a lot about the practice of novel-writing from luminaries such as Turgenev, Flaubert and George Eliot, which helped him to create great works.  While listening to this short talk, I felt sorry for Isabel: would that she could have enjoyed the opportunity to follow a similar intellectual progress.