The study and appreciation of the life, works and times of Arnold Bennett

2017 A Celebration of everything Bennett

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From the Art Exhibition’s launch on 18 February 2017 through to our Literary Lunch on 6 December, 2017 has been quite a roller-coaster ride celebrating AB’s 150th birthday. Thanks to everyone who took part.

The highlight of the year must go to the unveiling of the wonderful statue of AB and our thanks to Ray Johnson for all his hard work over the years, and special thanks to the Denise Coates Foundation for funding the project.

The Arnold Bennett Book Prize was also launched this year and the winner was Mr. John Lancaster with his book of poetry – Potters: A Division of Labour.

I would also like to thank Mrs Noshi Khan for opening up 205 Waterloo Road to members on October 21stand the wonderful buffet lunch she prepared for us. I know many members had never been in the house before, so it was a special treat.

THE VICTORIA THEATRE’S STAGE ADAPTATIONS
OF ARNOLD BENNETT

A Talk given by Les Powner at the Friends’ Meeting House,
Miller Street, Newcastle-under-Lyme
2 p.m., Saturday 25 February 2017

The 1966 adaptation of Bennett’s short story ‘Jock-at-a-Venture’ by Peter Terson as the play Jock-on-the-Go began a tradition of Bennett adaptations at the Vic over the next two decades and continuing at The New Vic from 1986. It used similar staging techniques to those employed in the musical documentaries which would bring the Victoria Theatre a justifiable national and international reputation.

Les looked at the Vic’s Jock-on-the-Go and the first three adaptations of the novels – Clayhanger, Anna of the Five Towns andThe Old Wives’ Tale– and the relationship and correspondence between Peter Cheeseman (director of the plays), Joyce Cheeseman (co-adaptor with Peter Terson of Clayhangerand sole adaptor of Anna…and The Old Wives’ Tale) and Dorothy Cheston Bennett.

The relationship began well. Dorothy showed flexibility towards Peter’s production plans for Jock…and he sent sample scenes during the rehearsal period. It was the only one of Bennett adaptations she would actually come to see – visiting the Jeanetta Cochrane Theatre in London to see the Keele Theatre Company production following its performances at the Edinburgh Festival in 1967. It was my privilege to meet her along with the cast, as I played Jabez, the Methodist preacher, in the play. She approved of the faithfulness of the adaptation to the original and stressed the integrity of the project.

Also in 1967Clayhanger was the Vic’s contribution to the Arnold Bennett Centenary, but it was also a time of massive upheaval at the Vic – Peter was dismissed by the management as Artistic Director, then re-instated after a vigorous campaign locally – supported by us upstart students up at Keele. Clayhanger went on, but this is where communications with Dorothy took on a stormy turn.

Bennett himself wrote of the difficulty he had in reading Dorothy’s letters, with her poor writing and constant complaining and the pen running away with her. Les gave a concise account of the Dorothy/Cheeseman correspondence over many aspects of the production in progress. Jock…had been a light piece, butClayhangerwas a serious, detailed engagement with the novel and its characters – and Dorothy had many issues with the project. Fortunately, the production was a triumph, and set a benchmark for the others to follow. “A novelty and a hit” said The Daily Mail, “It succeeds as pure theatre without distorting the story” said The Stage.

In 1968 the Vic embarked on the Anna…adaptation. Bennett’s own 1908 adaptation had to be staged in the traditional three-act, three-set structure of Edwardian theatre – missing much in the book. Joyce’s version has all the key scenes and used the theatre-in-the-round to its full potential – the lack of detailed scenery in the staging calling upon the audience’s imagination in the Elizabethan tradition:

…let us, ciphers to this great accompt,
On your imaginary forces work… (Henry V)

The run was a great success and did record business, despite Dorothy’s wanting more involvement with it. She herself had been an actress, but was unfamiliar with theatre-in-the-round. She thought it too long and in need of “substantial pruning” – suggesting such scenes as the Sunday School Treat be cut.

The 1971 ATV television adaptation – an 80-minute version based on the Vic version, and with the Vic cast – was not successful as such. It was studio-bound and Peter had limited access to working with the cast. Dorothy hated it so much she threatened to withdraw all rights to the Vic to make further adaptations – affecting the work on the forthcoming two-part version of The Old Wives’ Tale.

Both Peter and Joyce had to play a very diplomatic game with Dorothy, who continued to forward many complaints on technique and content. “It is so nice of you to take so much interest in our work…” Joyce wrote, and invited Dorothy to come up to Stoke to see the work in progress. Dorothy didn’t accept the invitation. There are “too many soliloquies” said Dorothy – giving a subjective perspective on the narrative as opposed to Bennett’s objectivity.

She went as far as to say of The Old Wives’ Tale that “a dramatization is an impossible undertaking” and that Joyce had failed to grasp the spirit of the novel. She disputed the credits for the production and wanted the adaptation credited as being “based on” the novel rather than it being “of” the novel.

Basically, she wanted it stopped. But this was late in the rehearsal period – all the publicity was out and tickets were on sale. Peter pulled out all the diplomatic stops and the project was rescued. Out of the blue, and three days before opening night, a letter was received from Dorothy; “I send my very best wishes for a successful performance of Part 1”!

The storm was over, and after that Dorothy would continue to send her “best regards”. Parts 1 and 2 of The Old Wives’ Talewere enjoyed by large audiences. Dorothy’s daughter – Virginia Eldin – came to see the productions and wrote a wonderful letter congratulating Peter and Joyce on the success of the adaptation and the great reception of the plays by the public.

The “Card” was to follow – and there were no more problems with Dorothy. There followed another production on Anna…in 1979, then Riceyman Steps, Buried Alive, The Pretty Lady and another The Cardin the New Vic. Now the forthcoming adaptation of Anna…by Deborah McAndrew is eagerly awaited. It opens at the New Vic on 26 May – the day before Arnold’s 150thbirthday.

A lively Q&A followed Les’s thorough and engaging talk and, in her vote of thanks, Pat Marshall congratulated Les on “illuminating the work of the Vic on the Bennett adaptations with verve and erudition”.
Ray Johnson

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