Thursday, September 6, 2007

Barksdale's First Woman Playwright - Nancy Mitford

Posted by Bruce Miller
The Member of the Wedding by Carson McCullers is the latest production in Barksdale’s ongoing Women’s Theatre Project. In honor of this important initiative, I’ll be profiling over the next few weeks the four remarkable women playwrights who were the first to make it onto the Barksdale stage. Their plays were produced in Barksdale's first decade – 1953 through 1962.

During that time, Barksdale produced 55 mainstage productions, but only four of the plays were written by women. The authors were Nancy Mitford, Vera Caspary, Mary Hayley Bell, and Anne Nichols. You may or may not recognize their names, but I’m certain you’ll be fascinated by their stories. Their strong-willed, many-faceted lives were emblematic of women playwrights in general during the middle years of the 20th Century.

NANCY MITFORD (1904 – 1973)

Nancy Mitford was Barksdale’s first woman playwright. She wrote the English adaptation of The Little Hut (based on La petite hutte, a popular French comedy by Andre Roussin). The Little Hut is the most frequently produced play in Barksdale’s history. Pete, Muriel and Nancy LOVED The Little Hut, producing it in 1957, 58, 59, 64 and 78.

The Little Hut is Nancy Mitford’s only stage play, but she was a prolific and popular British novelist and biographer. The original production ran for two years in Paris; Ms. Mitford’s English adaptation ran for three years in London, becoming a huge British hit. In 1953, it flopped on Broadway. In 1956, it was made into a poorly received film starring Ava Gardner, David Niven and Stewart Granger.

The story of The Little Hut concerns an independent, self-sufficient woman from Britain’s aristocracy who is stranded after a shipwreck on a deserted island with her husband and her lover. Soon thereafter, she becomes the object of the affections of a primal island native as well. When the aristocratic manners and primitive aggressions of all the men come to naught, it is the woman who must figure out how to save the day.

Nancy Mitford herself was born into the British aristocracy in 1904. She was the first of six daughters of Bertram Ogilvy Freeman-Mitford, the second Baron Redesdale (pictured to the right), who lived with Lady Redesdale at the family estate in Oxfordshire. Despite their pedigree (and inherited fortune), Lord and Lady Redesdale were uneducated and made no effort to educate their beautiful daughters. “We girls were taught only to ride and to speak French,” Nancy Mitford wrote. “I grew up as ignorant as an owl, came out in London, and went to a great many balls.”

Relentlessly pursuing self-education, Ms. Mitford became a tireless reader and soon joined the society ranks referred to by Evelyn Waugh as the “Bright Young Things” of the London social scene between the wars.

Nancy Mitford’s parents were fiercely conservative, and supported the British Union of Fascists. After WWI, the Baron purchased a Canadian mining operation and named it The Swastika Gold Mine. Three of the notorious Mitford sisters followed in their parents’ footsteps. Diana Mitford married the British Blackshirt leader Sir Oswald Mosley, and the couple (pictured to the left at a Nazi rally in Germany) was very friendly with Adolph Hitler. In 1940, Diana was interned at Croydon Airport on her way to Germany. An affectionately autographed photo of the Fuhrer was found in her luggage.

The German wedding of a second sister, Unity Mitford, was secretly held in the office of propaganda minister Josef Goebbels and Hitler was among the guests. When Hitler declared war against England, Unity attempted suicide, stating that Hitler had personally promised her that the declaration would never take place. (The photo to the right shows Unity and Diana partying with SS soldiers in Nuremberg.)

A third sister, Pamela Mitford, was also a Nazi sympathizer. (In the photo to the left, she's the Mitford sister on top.) Recently released pre-war records from MI5 indicate that it was Nancy Mitford herself (our playwright) who informed the British authorities about her three fascist sisters. “My sister Pamela and her husband Derek Jackson,” Nancy wrote in her report to the British government, “have been heard to declare that all Jews in England should be killed and that the war should be stopped now before we lose any more money.”

Nancy Mitford was a moderate socialist and an English patriot, and her sister Jessica was an outspoken communist. They despaired over the family’s fascism and treasonous activities. They both became noted writers, Nancy in England and France and Jessica in the U. S.

Nancy Mitford is best known for her comic novels affectionately satirizing upper-class life in England and France. Her two most popular books are The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate, which were combined to make a BBC television serial in 2002. Later in her life, Ms. Mitford wrote popular biographies and histories. Even three decades after her death, she is still a beloved British writer, and most of her books remain in print today.

Ms. Mitford’s first romantic relationship was with the homosexual Scottish aristocrat Hamish St Clair-Erskine. She later married Peter Rodd, the youngest son of the 1st Baron Rennell, supposedly a one-time lover of Oscar Wilde. Although they remained friendly throughout their lifetimes, the Rodds separated in the late 30s, and eventually divorced in 1958.

During WWII, Ms. Mitford found the love of her life in a French soldier and politician, Colonel Gaston Palewski, Charles de Gaulle’s Chief of Staff (pictured to the left). At the end of the war, Ms. Mitford moved to Paris to be near “The Colonel.” Her somewhat unrequited devotion did not end until 1969 when Palewski married a beautiful American railroad heiress.

In 1972, as governments became aware of her illness, Ms. Mitford was made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire and an Officer in the French Legion of Honor. Palewski was asked to invest her with her French title during the formal ceremonies. He was also at her bedside on the day she died.

Ms. Mitford’s books are still beloved, and we will have copies on sale in the Barksdale lobby during the run of The Member of the Wedding. We hope you will check out the timeless work of Nancy Mitford--an outstanding author and Barksdale’s first woman playwright.

--Bruce Miller

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