I have expressed my admiration several times on this blog about The Mint Theater Company and its mission of uncovering unjustly neglected dramas of the past. But in its most recent production, The Price of Thomas Scott, which closed a week ago on New York’s Theater Row, I’m afraid that this plucky Off-Broadway troupe could not breathe life back into the inanimate body it came upon.
In fact, I came away thinking that there might have been more off-stage curiosity and even drama in the life of this period piece’s English playwright, Elizabeth Baker, than in the play itself, which has not been produced since its original 1913 production.
The play is simple enough: After decades of running a drapery shop with increasingly dwindling profits, Thomas Scott can finally get out of the drudgery when an old acquaintance, Wicksteed, appears on his doorstep, offering to buy him out.
Each of the rest of the Scott family, for reasons of their own, are eager for him to accept the offer: Wife Ellen wants to move to the suburbs; son Leonard, a promising student, could use the money to advance his education; and daughter Annie, sensing her flair for something more creative than the mostly mundane hats she trims in Thomas’ shop, wants to study fashion in Paris.
Unfortunately, Thomas, a Noncomformist, or non-Anglican Protestant, has very strict ideas about morality, including that dancing is sinful—and Wicksteed wants to turn the shop into a dance hall. Should Thomas take his money and not concern himself with what is done with the property—or stand on principle and dash his family’s dreams?
To her credit, Baker does not make Thomas Scott one-dimensional, as, for, instance, a playwright like the dogmatic Lillian Hellman might have done. And Banks and his cast have sensitively conveyed these characters’ hopes, hesitation, and disappointment in the fate they have been dealt. (A hurried, frenzied attempt at an in-house dance by Annie and her suitor, Johnny Tite, offers a welcome kinetic release, as well as an appropriate symbol of cultural rebellion.) But the characters swallow their various misgivings, so that the action never reaches the emotional climax one expects here.
Too often, reviewers write about a revived play they don’t like as being “dated.” I hate the term: it’s not only cliched but meaningless. (What, after all, is more “dated” than King Lear or Oedipus Rex?)
But I’m not sure how the Mint company thought it could make contemporary and relevant the intensely religious Edwardian milieu of Thomas Scott to overwhelmingly secular Manhattanites of the 21st century.
I would have welcomed the chance to learn more about the Noncomformists and the Liberal Party in Great Britain before World War I—a topic discussed by George Robb of William Paterson University in a post-show talk. Still, the post-performance lecture I attended, given by Maya Cantu, a member of the drama faculty at Bennington College and dramaturgical advisor to the Mint, was quite illuminating about Baker’s own life.
Like Annie Scott, Baker came from a strict religious background. Nor did her initial job in the workplace, as a shorthand clerk and typist, offer opportunities for what became a consuming creative interest: the theater.
Keenly observant, Baker quickly absorbed the conventions of the well-made theater of her time: sharp, realistic dialogue and unity of time and setting—facts reflected in the single setting and confined time period (two days) of The Price of Thomas Scott.
For a while, the London press hailed her as a “widener of frontiers.” But after a final one-act play in 1932, she fell into obscurity, except for a few telecasts of her plays by Britain’s Four ITV Television Playhouse from 1959 to 1961.
This production will be the first of a projected three that the Mint company will mount of Baker's plays over the next two years. One hopes that Partnership and Chains will fulfill the promise and soften the flaws present in this initial entry in the “Meet Miss Baker” project.