Arthur Wing Pinero was one of the most successful pre World War I British dramatists. He lived until 1934, but the work for which he is best known was written beween 1890 and 1910. Like many of his contemporaries, he has been forgotten by all but British theater historians. There is an occasional revival of his delightful backstage comedy TRELAWNY OF THE WELLS, but all else has been dismissed as weak material, not worthy to stand with George Bernard Shaw and Oscar Wilde. Actually, Pinero was one of many fine dramatists of the period (Harley Granville-Barker, John Galsworthy, J.M. Barrie, Somerset Maugham). The Orange Tree Theatre's revival of his 1908 play THE THUNDERBOLT, like the recent Finborough production of THE ENCHANTED COTTAGE, demands a serious reappraisal of Pinero's work.
Pinero was something of an outsider to British society (a Jew who rejected a middle-class career to become an actor, then a playwright), THE THUNDERBOLT takes a close look at provincial life that celebrates the characters who go against the grain. At the beginning we see a prominent Midlands family waiting for the settlement of a brother's estate. Given that no will can be found, the family members are too eagerly awaiting their share of a large fortune. One brother is a building contractor, another owner of the town's conservative newpaper. Their sister sees herself as a prominent member of London society (not likely) as she has married a poor aristocrat. The older members and their haught spouses look down on their younger brother who has become a musician and has married a grocer's daughter whom they despise. The dead brother would have nothing to do with his family until his last days. Though we never see him, we can't help but think he must have been nicer than the lot we see. The family is delighted that no will has been found since that means they will share his sizeable estate. However, they discover that he had an illegitimate daughter who has been summoned from her art studies in Paris. She is more upset at not being recognized by the father she loved than in losing his fortune.
The family discovers that there was a will that named the daughter as sole heir but that the wife they despise has stolen and destroyed it. It is typical of Pinero that the real power is wielded by women -- by the wife who destroys the will and by the rightful heiress who negotiates a just compromise.
THE THUNDERBOLT is a strange but absorbing mixture of comedy and domestic melodrama. There may be too much legal discussion and the wife's tearful confession goes on too long for contemporary audiences, but the play works. The characters are well drawn and the dialogue is lively.
The Orange Tree is a 150 seat theatre-in-the-round in Richmond, a lovely London suburb, that alternates revivals of forgotten plays with new work. The level of acting is always high. I can't imagine a better cast for THE THUNDERBOLT and Sam Waters' direction was lively. He made sure that we saw characters, not caricatures. This production did the first thing a revival of a forgotten play must do which is prove that the play is worth reviving.
THE THUNDERBOLT by Arthur Wing Pinero. Directed by Sam Waters. Orange Tree Theatre. September 17, 2010.