Chris and I went to see The Chalk Garden Friday night, our local expat production. Ian was out of town and Alex has a girlfriend to occupy his time, so it was just the two of us. Putting aside the weak acting, the message was interesting.
The Chalk Garden had its debut on Broadway in 1955. The setting is an English country house owned by an exceedingly wealthy woman who is parenting her sixteen year old granddaughter Laurel. They have a conscientious objector manservant and an incapacitated butler who lives upstairs. The play opens as new governesses are being interviewed to take charge of Laurel. No governess has stayed for long because, among other things, Laurel sets fire to things. Laurel also delights in telling anyone in earshot that her father committed suicide when she was twelve, she was sexually molested in a park around that time as well, and her mother has remarried for “love!” Laurel is, as we say nowadays, a “piece of work.”
The grandmother thinks Laurel is delightful and humors her. “Apart from a few fixations with fire, she’s a charming girl,” she insists. The greatest sin it appears, in the grandmother’s eyes is to be boring. Other than that, the grandmother comes across as engaged, liking people, confident in her own judgment (she doesn’t ask for references), but not terribly introspective. In short, she seems relatively “normal.” She encourages Laurel to run amok and poke her nose into other people’s business. Today she would probably be referred to as an “enabler.”
The reserved new governess, Miss Madrigal, is obviously hiding something. She is a knowledgeable gardener and horrified that nothing will grow in the garden. All the wrong plants have been introduced into soil that is essentially chalk. She catches on to Laurel rather quickly. Laurel’s mother makes a couple of attempts to visit and she and the grandmother quarrel constantly. She wants to take Laurel back to Suez live with her, her new husband, and Laurel’s soon to born be half-sibling.
The play was written in an era when people were fascinated with Freud’s theories. What I find interesting is that it wasn’t a heavy-handed caricature of motherhood, sex and secrets, but rather how obviously people can overlook problems brewing in children. Many parents want their children to be interesting, even a little bold, we often give them a long leash while they are growing up and we expect them in the end to come around. Parents are stereotypically portrayed as spirit crushing tyrants, but I feel this play shows the other side of child rearing that will often lead to problems in adulthood if tolerated. Laurel’s problems are an exaggeration of more benign traits in children that can still prove to be problematic in adulthood.
The action in the play really picks up when the grandmother’s old flame, the Judge, comes for luncheon. He’s seventy-five years old and still presiding at the criminal court. Laurel, the manservant and the butler are fascinated by murder cases. Laurel cleverly figures out during the luncheon that Miss Madrigal has appeared before the judge at some point in the past, and it quickly becomes evident that Miss Madrigal was tried for a murder. She was originally sentenced to death but the sentence was commuted to fifteen years solitary confinement. Miss Madrigal feels very strongly that she was unjustly convicted, since she had, for the first time in her life, told the truth, but neither the judge nor the jury wanted to hear it. So to jail she went, narrowly avoiding execution.
Time in solitary confinement has given Miss Madrigal time to change who she is, not just in hiding her past, but in her newfound commitment to truth. If she doesn’t get to Laurel, she, of all the people there, knows where lying can lead. She won’t give it a pass as just something Laurel will grow out of. She confronts Laurel about the incident in the park, and sure, enough, it didn’t really happen, and Laurel’s father died of liver failure, not suicide, when Laurel as three, not twelve. Miss Madrigal literally forces Laurel to leave for Suez with her mother, because she knows that Laurel will not grow in this house.
I remember when I was in my twenties reading in the newspaper of a girl I had gone to elementary school with, who was sent to jail for bank embezzlement. I hadn’t thought of this girl for years until I saw the headline. The first thing I remembered about her was that even back in third grade, you couldn’t trust anything she said. Her family probably thought she would grow out of this, too.
Chris’s “problems” in childhood flew under our radar screen. He was an intelligent child who did his best to remain invisible. He didn’t bother working in school, yet managed to do okay. Mathematics, the perennial Achilles heel up for a lot of students, wasn’t a problem for him. He simply didn’t try to excel, which Ian and I overlooked as typical of boys. We assumed he would clue in later. No teacher ever called us to say that Chris was having problems, academic or social. His problem from my perspective even then was that he was kind of invisible and he wasn’t putting himself out there in the game of life. Do parents drag their child to a psychologist with the complaint that he’s kind of bland and not putting himself out there? This is the opposite of Laurel’s problem. Laurel’s issues are nowadays the kind that are more likely to be brought to the attention of psychologists.
Would a psychologist have been able to do anything about my concerns? Maybe, maybe not. Would a psychologist have even seen where this could lead? I don’t know. If I knew then what I know now, I would have paid more attention to helping Chris come into himself and looked within myself more for its cause. I would have needed some help because I just didn’t see the dark side of this.