THE HOUSE OF MIRTH
Without knowing it, GILES HAVERGAL and TERENCE DAVIES were working on adaptations of The House Of Mirth simultaneously, one for the stage, the other for film. The List brought the two directors together for the first time to talk about Edith Wharton, Oscar Wilde and Gillian
Anderson. ‘.Vorc’s: Nigel Floyd
GILES HAVERGAL CALLS IT THE 'MOST extraordinary irony'. The artistic director of Glasgow‘s Citizens” Theatre had been working long and hard on a stage adaptation of Edith Wharton’s 1905 novel The Hullse ()f Mirth. It was a big job. but finally he‘d completed it. 'I had battled with the novel and when I finished writing I was exhausted.' he says. 'Tben I opened The Herald the very next morning and saw. "Terence Davies is going to make a film of The House Of Mirth . . . in Glasgow". I couldn’t credit it.‘
Havergal‘s adaptation was not for the Cit]. but for the American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco. He immediately phoned. saying: ‘The deal is off. there's going to be a movie’. But he was persuaded to continue. and the production enjoyed a successful run earlier this year. Davies. the director of Distant Iiiiees. Still Lives. meanwhile. was putting the finishing touches to a film that he had dreamed of making for fifteen years.
Both men had responded. in their different ways. to Edith Wharton‘s tale of beautiful young socialite Lily Bart and her ill—fated attempts to negotiate the marital. financial and moral pitfalls of turn-of-the-century New York society. The same viciously respectable social circles were seen in Martin Scorsese‘s opulent film of Wharton‘s The Age Of llllHN't’lIt't’. Brought tip to believe that her beauty would guarantee her happiness. riches and a place in society. the morally naive Lily finds that life is more complicated. people more duplicitous and their motives far murkier. Her prospective husbands. too. are a disappointment: the poor but handsome love of her life. Lawrence Selden. the rich but dull Percy (iryce. and the ambitious Jewish businessman Sim Rosedale all fall short of her unrealistic expectations. Later. Lily is compromised when she is seen leaving the house of a married man. (ius Trenor. while his wife is out of town. Socially ostracised. Lily begins a steep. inexorable decline into genteel poverty. misery and loneliness.
Giles Havergal: Have you always wanted to adapt the novel'.’
Terence Davies: Yes. I‘ve wanted to do it for fifteen years. I don‘t know why. You pick something up and you just think. I know it. It's as vague as that. You may pick up other novels
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and think. ‘Yes. this is wonderfully cinematic but no one will ever get it right.‘ Like the opening of Bleak House: its pure cinema. but no one will ever do it properly. Dickens is infinitely harder. because he creates caricature not character. whereas you absolutely believe in the characters in Wharton's novels.
GH: For me. it was the drama of each of those confrontations. The series of scenes between Lin and Rosedale. the scenes with Lily and Lawrence Selden. I love all the comedy scenes. too. but it was actually the drama which got to me. I thought. 'This is a play'. Whether rightly or wrongly. that was my
reaction. Did you find tremendous echoes of
Wilde‘.’ TD: Not so much. no. The problem for me.
with Wilde. apart from The Importance Of
Being Earnest. which is always glorious to listen to and watch. is that something like An Ideal Husband could have been a great tragedy. but it becomes a silly comedy. What I like about Edith Wharton is that there‘s a dark cruelty there.
GH: I think Wharton is fascinated by something that is in all of us. that Lily is partly moral and partly not. She makes moral decisions sometimes. like at the end when she rejects the money. but she‘s on the treadmill of ‘I've got to marry for money. I've got to be a socialite‘. Yet part of her is revolted by it all. And that‘s what screws her up all the time. I love the fact that she‘s so human. because we‘re all of as moral in certain departments and not in others. She hadn‘t been brought up. really. to know how morals fitted into life. She has a sort of innate morality. but she can't apply it.
TD: Yes. she does have an integral sense of what is right. There‘s a kind of integrity. and she reaches that apogee at the end when she suddenly realises that she can‘t trade one kind of abasement for another. And that‘s why she's a tragic heroine. because right from the outset. her fate is inevitable.
GH: From that first moment when she lies to Mr Rosedale about the dressmaker. when she doesn’t have to say it at all. She could perfectly well have said. 'l've been having tea with Lawrence Selden. le‘s such an old friend‘. And the fact is that Rosedale knows that she‘s lying makes it even worse. doesn't it‘.’ Because that means that from there on in.
he’s always got something over on her.
TD: What she doesn't understand. of course. is that you don‘t marry for love. You marry for money and position and then you have your peccadilloes. In a way she‘s naive. because she believes people must have married for money and position. but that they must have married for love as well. It’s very naive. because most of them didn’t. And like any great tragic figure. she has a ﬂaw. which is that she‘s been told. ’You are beautiful and therefore you are heir to the world. because of that beauty.’ And when that doesn't happen. what do you do'.’
GH: Are there parallels with the modern obsession with physical beauty'.’
TD: I don't think you can draw obvious parallels. it's just implicit. isn't it? As soon as you see Lily. she looks sensational. very elegant and desirable. The sub-text is all about beauty and venality. which is very modern. So it doesn't matter whether they're in funny clothes or talk in a funny way. we all see that their obsession with beauty and social position. and not losing it. is the same as what we have now. If you try to modernise it. it‘s deathly. What happens with a lot of