Article · Review

The Canterville Ghost

The Canterville Ghost is a short story by Oscar Wilde which made its first appearance in America in The New-York Tribune on Sunday, March 27, 1887. [1]

Unfortunately, I was too young to read the original.

However, and to my shame, neither did I catch the 1944 film starring Charles Laughton, the 1962 BBC television drama featuring Bernard Cribbins, the 1966 ABC television musical with Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. and Michael Redgrave, the 1970 Soviet cartoon, the 1974 CBS radio drama, the 1975 made-for-TV film with David Niven, the 1985 film starring no one you’ve ever heard of, the 1986 film with John Gielgud, the 1988 animated television special, the 1992 BBC radio 4 adaptation, the 1996 film with Patrick Stewart, the 1997 TV film starring Ian Richardson, the 2001 Australian film, the 2007 BBC Radio 7 reading by Alistair McGowan, the 2008 Bollywood adaptation, the 2010 graphic novel, the 2011 audiobook narrated by Rupert Degas, the 2016 French-Belgian film, and nor, indeed, the 2017 animated feature film with the voices of Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie, for which I can be forgiven as it hasn’t been released yet.

That’s a lot of versions, and, before you wonder why has it not been made into an opera, I can tell you it has, and it will debut in New York at the Center For Contemporary Opera as one of a Scare Pair on October 19.

And no, I won’t be able to see that either.

So I determined I should make the effort to experience the darned thing somewhere if I could, even if this meant a community theatre production two-and-a-half hours drive away.

The Montgomery Playhouse is in “Kentlands”, a smart New Urbanist-planned community in Gaithersburg, MD. The theatre is housed in the Arts Barn, a renovated brick stable now home to the oldest continuously performing local theatre in the Washington Metro area, a repertory once favored by Eleanor Roosevelt and where Goldie Hawn cut her teeth. This latest offering, however, did little to enhance that storied legacy.

The production was billed as being ‘suitable for children’, which in my experience translates into being ‘not suitable for adults’. Thus, any such presentation is placed, due the avoidance of churlishness, beyond adult criticism. Under these circumstances the disappointed reviewer often damns with faint praise by saying it was a lot of fun.

The problem is that this production was a lot of fun. It just could have been a lot more fun than it was—which is why I think a few points of critique may be constructive.

Family Planning

It takes skill to adapt Wilde’s short stories, because while they are ostensibly children’s tales, they are often imbued with a grown-up subtext. One has to address both for the piece to be effective.

In the case of Canterville the balance lies in producing in the audience a playfully olde world fear of ghosts, while depicting in the characters a skeptically new world disdain for them. Unless the distinction is maintained the dramatic irony central to the story is lost. In other words, if the audience doesn’t take the ghost seriously, there’s no fun when the characters don’t either.

Unfortunately this production failed to deliver; the childlike interest was not maintained in the staging and the adult mind was not engaged by the text.

Stage Wrong

The set looked fine beforehand with painted castle walls, faux stained glass and a convincing suit of armor stage left. But the authenticity soon waned when the fun began.

Children these days know gothic when they see it and the reason they didn’t see it here was that there was too much in the way of lighting and too little in the way of special effects. Indeed, there were no special effects at all, unless you count the blood stain on the floor, which I don’t because the effect of Mr Otis’s patent stain remover on the bloodstain was undermined by Mrs Otis straying across the beam of light cleverly producing it. It disappeared at the wrong moment.

This lack of control in the atmosphere was matched by a lack of control in the storytelling. This development faltered because scenes were too short, with actors often on stage only long enough to leave it—but long enough, however, to evidence the customary Dick Van Dyke diction and stilted delivery that I found distracting in Earnest in the more august surroundings of the Walnut Street Theater.

There was one exception: the ghost himself, played vibrantly by Dino Coppa, who also introduced the evening in the guise of Oscar Wilde. So expressive was he that the ghost became, paradoxically, the most alive person on the stage, which served to emphasize the lack of any ethereal quality. His greatest achievement was to overcome the encumbrances of a grey plastic breastplate and a greyer and even more plastic helmet supplied by the props department at ‘Toys R Us’ while making unscary appearances and ‘disappearances’ through a hole in the wall covered by a sheet of fabric facing the front of the stage. It was as if the costume department had been vying with the set designer to see who could be the least spooky.

Text Message

Those looking for any verbal delight in the stageplay would also have been disappointed.

The original adaptation by Marisha Chamberlain transfers some of what is on the page but none of what is between the lines. And sometimes none of the lines at all. Indeed, all of Wilde’s key aphorisms seem to have been omitted.

This has the effect of not developing the humorous potential in a story that playfully contrasts British reserve with American pragmatism, an idea Wilde first explored in his essay and lecture Impressions of America. The resulting narrowing of the narrative neither entertains the spirit nor broadens the mind.

So to remedy this oversight, allow me to point you to my documentary archive where I look at two of Wilde’s observations in The Canterville Ghost.

First, a look at the origin of Wilde’s reference to ruins and curiosities.

Second, a review of how Wilde’s remark that Britain and America have everything in common these days apart from their language has been misattributed to others over the years.

© John Cooper

[1] I mention and link to its American debut because it is lesser known that its first appearance a month earlier in The Court and Society Review in two parts Vol. IV, No. 138, February 23, 1887, pp. 183–186 [Mason, 12]. Vol. IV, No. 139, March 2, 1887, pp. 207–211 [Mason, 13].

Illustration by F.H. Townsend from the Court and Society Review, February 23 and March 2, 1887.

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