What The Public Wants: Journalism Ethics and Newspaper Mogul Romance

02/08/2011 4:00 AM |

What The Public Wants
Written by Arnold Bennett
Directed by Matthew Arbour

The Mint Theater's mandate to excavate forgotten plays can result in the staging of some arcane material, but it also affords the re-discovery of some plays that have aged so well they could almost be contemporary period pieces. Such is the case with Arnold Bennett's What The Public Wants (through March 14), a satire of sensationalist journalism and the political meddling of Murdochian media mogul Sir Charles Worgan from 1909. Bennett, who worked for many years as a journalist, is said to have based the character on London tabloid magnate Lord Northcliffe.

Rob Breckenridge privileges the part's contemporary resonances by dropping the British accent that his co-stars deploy with varying degrees of seriousness and satire. Marc Vietor, as Charles' wandering, more principled brother Francis, stays cool and soft-spoken while Breckenridge rattles off enough words at varying pitches and volumes to fill all his newspapers. "I'm a manufacturer," he explains, "My specialty is what the public wants in its printed form." Charles, a millionaire when such financial success was still unusual, uses deluges of words to drown out his opponents; Francis speaks more sparingly, thoughtfully, and on balance to much greater effect. Their subtly dueling performances, kept in increasingly perilous balance by director Matthew Arbour, form the play's core. A return to their rural hometown brings all their conflicting feelings towards family out in the open.

The leads' solid portrayals of rivaling, estranged siblings are upstaged by the more audacious performances of their co-stars Ellen Adair and Jeremy Lawrence. The former as the childhood friend, struggling actor and widow Emily Vernon, conceals desperation and uncertainty under layers of ebullient kindness and dogged optimism. Though apparently destined to be Charles' bride, she's closer to Francis in temperament. She first comes to the newspapers' offices—a stunning arched set by Roger Hanna—in hopes of securing funding for a fledgling theater. Lawrence, in the second of his three comic parts, portrays the company's tyrannical, visionary artistic director Holt St. John, who proclaims proudly as he unsentimentally fires an actress: "I'm not a philanthropist, I'm a brute." In the first act he plays the snootiest of snooty drama critics (Bennett wrote a great deal of theater criticism before flourishing as a novelist and playwright) and in the third a blabbering townie who invites himself into the Worgen family home. All three characters have a sniveling, whiny manner, but Lawrence turns the trio of bit parts into the evening's dominant performance, inhabiting each with great stylized physicality. Adair, turning increasingly raw as tensions mount and conflicts become irresolvable, dominates the final act.

Politically extremely apt, Public also offers a precursor to the hard-boiled dialog of American pulp novels, with great motor-mouthed comedy during scenes in which Charles spins news out of nothing, and a welcome glimpse of the dramatic realism that was popular on London stages in the first decade of the 20th century. In the lineage of journalists writing barely fictionalized attacks on the news organizations that once employed them, Bennett seems a precursor to David Simon's The Wire, especially when Charles is exposed for trying to incite pro-war sentiment by planting stories and employing political lobbyists—he maintains that "the public enjoys the prospect of war," a comment that stings an audience faced with daily war reports. Bennett textures the media criticism with taut romance and clashes between cold cosmopolitanism and rural values, making this, in fact, exactly what the public wants.

(photo credit: Richard Termine)