Howards End Review — A Sterling Adaptation of One of the Great Novels of the 20th Century

The cast of Howards End in Remy Bumppo Theatre Company's production at Theatre Wit.
The Wilcox Family: Actors Emily Tate, Michael McKeogh, Mark Ulrich, Tommy Malouf and Natalie Santor. All photos by Michael Courier.

You might think that because E.M. Forster’s Howards End is one of the greatest novels of the 20th Century, and one with a beautifully and most satisfyingly structured plot, that it might be relatively easy to adapt to a theatrical production, a medium where structure is of paramount importance.

But if you’ve had the good fortune to read Howards End, you’d know that what makes that structure so impressive is that Forster has woven together a great many plot threads and disparate characters in the service of an alternately stinging and amusing commentary on British social mores and class strictures shortly after the turn of the 20th century.  So Douglas Post, who adapted it for the Remy Bumppo Theatre Company in a sterling new production at Theater Wit, deserves enormous credit along with director Nick Sandys for streamlining Forster’s novel while maintaining its acid insights, unexpected humor and fine portrayals of flawed human beings teetering on the edge of a new age where automobiles are just beginning to choke the verdant country lanes with dust, fine old homes are falling to the wrecking ball in favor of new apartment complexes, and the British empire, in the years before the First World War, was at its height and yet stretched far too thin and just a few short and bloodily eventful decades away from final collapse. 

Eliza Stoughton in a warm and sympathetic performance in Howards End

Howards End is about the British Empire only in the most peripheral sense, focusing on a wealthy family, the Wilcoxes, who made their fortune in the colonial rubber trade, and their acquaintances, a pair of sisters named Margaret and Helen Schlegel (actually a trio of siblings in the novel), who are a bit more bohemian, and a bit lower on the social scale, who become acquainted with the Wilcoxes when they meet on holiday in Germany.  One of the Schlegel sisters, Margaret (a wonderfully warm and sympathetic portrayal by Eliza Stoughton) later marries the widowed patriarch of the Wilcox family, Henry Wilcox (Mark Ulrich.) 

Both before and after this marriage, the sisters, and later the stuffy Wilcoxes, become involved with a third family grouping, a timorous little clerk and cultural omnivore named Leonard Bast and his slatternly fiancee, whom the sisters try to help because they feel sorry for him and sympathetic towards his cultural interests and fruitless efforts, frustrated by the sclerotic British class system, to improve his lot in life.  The manner in which they, and Margaret’s new husband Henry Wilcox, actually “assist” Leonard Bast brings to mind the title of a recent non-fiction book by the black conservative writer Jason L. Riley titled Please Stop Helping Us; seeing what happens to Bast under the well-meaning ministrations of the Schlegel sisters will make you cringe, exactly as Forster intended.

The Schlegel Sisters and Henry Wilcox in Remy Bumppo’s production of Howards End

The Schlegel sisters have their own problems in their various collisions with the Wilcoxes – who are hiding a very significant secret about Howards End from Margaret Schlegel — but those conflicts are resolved in ways that are both highly unexpected and, in retrospect, plausible and satisfying. 

Eliza Stoughton and Mark Ulrich in Howards End

Altogether, it is a thoroughly absorbing and beautifully produced evening of theatre, marred only by a couple of flaws.  Less significantly, there is a moment of stage combat that is the least convincingly staged scene of its type since Al Pacino brained Christopher Denham with a plastic model airplane that couldn’t have weighed more than two pounds in David Mamet’s incomprehensible play China Doll.  Here, the onstage fight is equally lightweight-seeming, not only because it’s indifferently directed, but because the play leaves out a crucial detail about the physical condition of one of the characters that’s explained in the novel.  This would seem like an easy fix that would add immeasurably to the impact of the production.

Howards End is playing through October 5 at Theater Wit in Chicago.

Of more significance is a piece of color-blind casting (or color-conscious casting; it’s never clear which) that doesn’t exactly undermine the intent of the play, but certainly adds nothing to it.  Leonard Bast is played by an African-American actor (and thus is portraying, I suppose, a British character of African descent), but this makes no sense in the historical or social context of the novel or the play, because the colonialist Wilcoxes would surely have noticed, and commented with less than exemplary kindness, on Bast’s race given their shabby treatment of the character otherwise.  Because they do not do so, it makes the Wilcoxes, and indeed the more liberal Schlegels, seem not so much color-blind as literally blind.  While I suppose that Post and Sandys’ intent was to advance some sort of superfluous commentary on the colonial era, it doesn’t really stand up to any kind of scrutiny; while color-blind or color-conscious casting can certainly add rich layers of resonance and meaning to many contemporary or timeless plays, it adds nothing but a thin film of puzzlement to this otherwise exemplary – and highly recommended — production. 

For more information about Howard’s End

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