The Chalk Garden by Enid Bagnold

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BBC Radio 3, 13 March 2011
Written by Enid Bagnold (Lady Jones), The Chalk Garden received its premiere on Broadway in 1955 with Gladys Cooper and Siobhan McKenna, where it won several Tony award nominations. The London premiere took place a year later, with Edith Evans and Peggy Ashcroft in the principal roles and John Gielgud as director. This production was described by Kenneth Tynan as "a display of theatrical equitation which silenced all grumblers .... [The Chalk Garden] may well be the finest artificial comedy to have flowed from an English (as opposed to an Irish) pen since the death of Congreve." Most recently the play received a successful revival in 2008 at London's Donmar Warehouse Theatre with Margaret Tyzack and Penelope Wilton, directed by Michael Grandage. This radio version reunited the 2008 cast, with Tyzack and Wilton, Suzanne Burden as Olivia and Clifford Rose as The Judge.
As I listened to this revival, the word 'Chekovian' kept coming to mind. All the characters made strenuous efforts to create a facade of politeness, using words not to communicate but to obfuscate. If they ceased to talk, they would have to contemplate the grim reality of their various pasts. As the play progresses, howver, so this facade kept breaking down: we learned of Mrs. St. Maugham's (Tyzack's) difficult relationship with Olivia, and her almost obsessive desire to hang on to her grand-daughter Laurel (Felicity Jones), in an attempt to prove that she could be a good mother. However Mrs. St. Maugham's hopes were dashed as Olivia returned to claim her legitimate rghts as a parent.  Miss Madrigal (Wilton), who had been engaged as Mrs. St. Maugham's paid companion, turned out to be an ex-convict, who had been sentenced to death by the Judge, but had escaped due to a last-minute reprieve.
The characters' sufferings were symbolized by the eponymous chalk garden (strongly reminiscent of Chekhov's cherry orchard), which remained barren, in spite of Mrs. St. Maugham's attempts to plant it with roses and rhododendrons. The soil was simply not fertile enough.
At the same time The Chalk Garden is very un-Chekhovian in terms of its style. None of the characters experience emotional extremes - for example, where laughter turns to tears; they exhibit that kind of peculiarly British sang-froid that was characteristic of mid-1950s drama before Look Back in Anger burst upon the theatrical scene. While experiencing a considerable degree of suffering, they make every effort to sustain an atmosphere of politeness - even while arguing with one another. There is nothing of the sustained anger and/or resentment that characterizes Jimmy Porter's speeches in Osborne's play. More significantly, Bagnold creates an optimistic ending (where Mesdames St. Maugham and Madrigal resolve to tackle the garden together), in the quite justifiable belief that the feelgood factor was important to West End audiences of the mid-1950s. This helps to explain why The Chalk Garden was such a success both in the West End and on Broadway.
While The Chalk Garden might seem rather dated today, it nonetheless offers considerable possibilities for actors. Tyzack's Mrs. St. Maugham came across as something of a grande dame, determined to enforce her authority over everyone - her daughter, her granddaughter and her companion. Even when she faced the truth about herself, she maintained an illusion of strength; that she could cope with any eventuality, whether good or bad. Wilton's Miss Madrigal's tight-lipped politeness evaporated, once she had had a drink or two; her long speech, where she revealed her shady past was full of suppressed emotion. She wanted to scream, but understood that the occasion was inappropriate to do so. Suzanne Burden's Olivia turned out to be something of an emotional cripple; denied any love by Mrs. St. Maugham in her early life, she had spent most of her adult years looking for someone to share her pain with.
While The Chalk Garden might not be the classic that director Grandage claimed - in his introductory piece to the radio version - I have to say that I thoroughly enjoyed it.