I have been asked a rather complex question: Why is it that in the production of a period play the costumes, though definitely in period, nevertheless seem dated to the time of the play’s presentation'?
At an early theatre visit of mine when seeing a classical revival, my father was deeply disturbed by the costume and hairstyle of the heroine, which did not tally with his recollection of the part seen about twenty years before that date. To me it seemed a wholly satisfying effect and in its design genuine period. Looking back now twenty-five years later I realise that the costume and hairstyle had the unmistakable flavour of the 1920s.
This, then, is a question which only arises in retrospect. At the time of seeing a play we may be quite conscious of the effects the designer intended and of his particular style, yet convinced that they are true to the period presented. It is only many years later that there seems to be a certain relationship between, say, Cecil Beaton’s costumery for a Wilde production and the same year’s autumn collection by Christian Dior. And I would like to add it is this very relationship which pleases us subconsciously at the moment.
Though this seems very flippant and perhaps just a statement, a look at a photograph of any actress about the beginning of the century, wearing what was believed to be a period costume, will bear out my point. Similarly, no Rosalind or Viola has ever been as boyish as in the 1920s.
Let me be explicit: I am referring to the costume as such and not to the style chosen for a revival. Illustration: Anthony Quayle’s production of Antony and Cleopatra in 1947 seemed a weird mixture of styles in costumes. I am not questioning here its choice; when chosen 1 am contemplating its design.
At first sight one may be tempted to find an easy answer in the choice of new materials; on the successful side Lynn Fontanne’s Greek silk jersey garments for her pre-war presentation of Amphitryon 38; on the unsuccessful side The Questors’ attempt to clothe Poseidon, the Prologue in The Trojan Women, in plastic material; but the answer remains unsatisfactory. There are always rich companies investing in beautiful materials and able artists who can turn drab cottons into gorgeous silks.
NOTE ON THE AUTHOR AND THE PLAY
“It appears from the matriculation-register of Trinity College, Dublin, that “Georgius Farquhare, Sizator, filius Gulielmi Farquhare, Clerici” entered that seat of learning on July 17th, 1694. It further records that he was born at Londonderry and we find the entry “Annos 17,” whence the year of his birth is usually given as 1678. When he entered Trinity College, it was with a view to studying for the Church, in which he would have had good chances of preferment through his relationship to the Bishop of Dromore. But that prelate died in 1695, and in the same year Farquhar's academic career came to an end. He is said to have “acquired a considerable reputation” at college; but other traditions represent him as "dull.” What is certain is that he “began very early to apply himself to the stage” and became an actor at the Smock Alley Theatre, where he is said to have made his first appearance as Othello!
Farquhar’s words were produced in a few years of comparative immaturity between the ages of twenty-one and twenty-nine and he was in the full flush of production when his life was cut short.
He was much less nauseous in his coarseness than Wycherley, Congreve and Vanbrugh; he showed clear traces of an advance in moral sensibility, nowhere discernible in the other three; and the alleged lack of “sparkle” in his dialogue in reality means a return to nature, an instinctive revolt against the sterilising convention of “wit.” The ethical standards of The Beaux' Stratagem cannot certainly be called high, but there is a general tone of humanity which is far above the level of the age and even above that of Farquhar's early plays. There are traces in this play of an actual interest in moral problems, wholly different from the downright contempt for the very idea of morality which pervades the Restoration Comedy as a whole. When Farquhar seriously (and wittily) set himself to show that a certain type of marriage was loathsome and immoral, he broke once for all with the irresponsible licentiousness of his school. He admitted a moral standard, and subjected social convention, not to mere cynical persiflage, but to the criticism of reason. Having reached this point at twenty-nine, how far might he not have advanced if another twenty years had been vouchsafed him? ”
(Extracts taken from William Archer's book on George Farquhar.)