The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton, adapted by Christopher Reason

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BBC Radio 7, 16-18 March 2009
This 6-part adaptation of Edith Wharton's classic novel, condensed into three hour-long episodes, emphasized the notion of loyalty. Newland Archer (Andrew Wincott) was expected to conform to his extended family's wishes, especially when it came to the subject of marriage. After much deliberation he obliged by choosing Meg (Kathryn Harrison), a member of his tight-knit social circle, and thereby perpetuated the tradition of intermarriage that was characteristic of early twentieth century New York society. However there was one fly in the ointment posing a threat both to Newland's and his peers' sense of complacency - the Countess Olenska (Suzanne Bertish), one of Newland's former paramours, now married unhappily to a European nobleman, who caused something of a scandal by leaving her husband and returning alone to America.
Christopher Reason's episodically constructed adaptation began by focusing on the conflict between public duty and private inclination. Recounted largely in flashback, as the now-elderly Newland looked back on his life after a thirty-year gap, it showed how social custom had forced him into a loveless marriage. Whether he was attracted to Olenska, or whether she represented an attractive alternative to his mundane existence was not made clear; all we knew by the end of the first episode was that Newland had no regrets about forging a relationship with the Countess, on the basis that he needed emotional fulfilment. May might be a loving and attractive spouse, but she seemed oblivious to his feelings.
In the second episode Newland's personality changed, as he became more concerned with manipulating his life - as well as those closest to him - so that he could be nearer the Countess. This means inventing ludicrous excuses (such as pressure of work), so that he could leave the family home for a few days, or taking advantage of his status as the Countess's lawyer to make love to her. The Countess tried her utmost to evade him - although attracted to Newland, she realized that she could not permit the relationship to flourish. Bertish's hard-nosed, practical interpretation of her role contrasted with Wincott's dewy-eyed optimism as he repeatedly informed listeners in asides about how much he loved her.
There was a frightening inevitability about the story's resolution in the final episode. Previously Newland had explained the novel's title thus: the 'age of innocence' was particularly true of New York society, which was so self-regarding and narcissistic in outlook that it lived in a state of innocence, understood in this case as a synonym for ignorance. Reason's adaptation demonstrated that it was the New Yorkers experiencing an age of innocence, but Newland himself, who remained blissfully oblivious to May's and the Countess's feelings. In a series of revelations his assumptions about them were rudely overturned: May informed the Countess that she was going to have a baby, which prompted the Countess to leave New York for good. Neither of them told Newland until it was too late, in the belief that he had already ruined their lives and it was now time to take a stand against him.
The adaptation ended with Newland, by now a disillusioned old man, returning to Paris with his son, but refusing to see the Countess once again. He could only reflect on the past, self-indulgently wishing that it had not been so cruel to him. Reason showed how men in polite society often take advantage of their social position in pursuit of the unattainable. By doing so they often destroy those less powerful than themselves - particularly women. It was a tribute to the Countess's and May's collective strength of will that they refused to let this fate befall them. In an ironic twist of fate, he failed to discover his new-land of love. This riveting adaptation from the mid-1980s was directed by David Hunter.