What the Public Wants
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
February 3, 2011
What the Public Wants was written in 1909, but in many ways it feels joltingly contemporary. It tells the story of Charles Worgan, a 40-year-old newspaper magnate who has amassed a large fortune by creating and selling dozens of publications of various types that cater to the popular taste, something Worgan seems to have an unerring instinct for. There's a bit of William Randolph Hearst in this character, who in the play's first scene boasts of stirring up a war if necessary to bolster circulation. But there's also much that resonates with the media world of 2011 in this man and his empire—Worgan anticipates figures like Rupert Murdoch and Mark Zuckerberg and, in his disregard for morality when it comes into conflict with his own attainment of power and money, the short-sighted, bottom-line-focused titans who have ruled Wall Street for the past 20 years or so.
Worgan is from northern England, of modest circumstances, and he is depicted as something of a climber—not merely a social one but an intellectual one, bent on proving that he's as "good" as the educated elite who lambaste his work. To this end, when an opportunity to take over a well-liked but floundering theatre company comes his way, he jumps at the chance. And, partly at the instigation of his brother Francis, who is less financially successful than Charles but seemingly more fulfilled and happy, he decides to woo one of the actresses in the company, a widow named Emily Vernon.
Playwright Arnold Bennett keeps us guessing as the plot spins out through the play's four acts. Francis signs on as the new drama critic for his brother's paper; will be give up his former life as a drifter and settle down in the family business? Will Charles and Emily get together and live happily ever after? Will Charles, who has already gotten a knighthood, get the self-esteem to go with the acquired social position?
The play is generally light, despite the serious undertones. Colorful characters help make it so: there's a disputatious drama critic called Simon MacQuaid in the first act, an egotistical theatre actor/manager named Holt St. John and a glamorous stage star named Henrietta Blackwood in the second; and a pair of Charles's provincial neighbors from his old hometown in the third.
This revival at the Mint Theater Company is directed by Matthew Arbour, who keeps the pace lively. A couple of the staging choices didn't quite work for me. There's a fair amount of double casting, understandable given budgets and so on, but I found it hard to believe that the relatively youthful Rob Breckenridge (as Charles) and Marc Vietor (as Francis) were contemporaries with the much more mature Douglas Rees (who plays Charles's assistant and his elder brother) and Jeremy Lawrence (who plays the drama critic, the actor/manager, and a pal of the Worgans'). I was also surprised that British accents weren't employed; it seemed to me that one of Bennett's key ideas, about class and status, would be hammered home more easily if we could identify which characters had it and which did not.
The four women in the cast have much less to do than the men, but all acquit themselves nicely: Ellen Adair as Emily, Birgit Huppuch as Henrietta Blackwood, and Laurie Kennedy and Mary Baird in what amount to cameos as Charles's mother and Mrs. Downes, a neighbor.
What the Public Wants is interesting for its depiction of a kind of entrepreneur that certainly hasn't gone extinct in the century since Bennett wrote it. As ever, the Mint provides valuable insight into the state of the world today by giving us a glimpse at what it looked like, on stage anyway, in our grandparents' time.