Pistols for Two
By Justin Hayford
Georgette Heyer may have been one of the most prolific authors in British history--she published 57 books in 53 years of writing--but while her many historical romances set during England's Regency period made her a fortune, they didn't make her a great writer, at least in her own opinion. She knew that her stock characters and contrived plots were more diversionary than profound, and she was loathe to say much in praise of her own work. "Talk about my humour if you must talk about me at all," she once wrote.
Christina Calvit, in adapting three short stories from Heyer's 1960 collection, Pistols for Two, for the stage, takes the author at her word. In the first minute of her adaptation she makes it clear that deep truths will be noticeably lacking in the ensuing 89 minutes. She plunks her three heroines--Hetty from "To Have the Honour," Annabella from "Full Moon," and Dorothea from "The Duel"--front and center and gives each her own novella, color-coordinated with her dress. The three breathlessly read highlights from their adventures, underscoring just how formulaic and interchangeable those adventures are: mysterious strangers, mistaken identities, a midnight rendezvous or three, and, of course, thwarted love. As they read with girlish exuberance, the three male actors who portray their various foils and paramours appear in pools of light behind three enormous window units hung from the ceiling. They may as well be mannequins in a shop window.
It's an apt introduction to Calvit's lighthearted frolic of an adaptation, for as much as she lampoons her heroines--they seem to possess all the levelheadedness and pragmatism of 13-year-old girls at a slumber party--she bids them speak in utter earnestness. We may think they're silly, but they are dead serious about finding a well-built, well-monied Corinthian swooning in a moonlit copse. This carefully crafted balance between gentle parody and unapologetic romance makes Pistols for Two a resounding success.
And a surprisingly intelligent one at that, given the relative vapidity of Calvit's source material. The stories are far from Heyer's best work, lacking the sophisticated wit and intricate story lines typical of her novels. Instead, she employs plot devices so transparent that "surprise" endings are revealed in the first few pages. In "Full Moon," for example, Annabella means to elope with her childhood pal Tom as a means of escaping a forced betrothal to the beastly Lord Stavely, whom her father favors. She's never met Stavely, so when a dashing, aristocratic man purporting to be Tom's deputy appears to her at midnight in the shrubbery outside her father's estate--a man who, coincidentally, stopped at a nearby inn where a drunken Tom confessed his scheme to rescue Annabella before passing out-- it's not hard to guess who that mysterious stranger will turn out to be.
Rather than insisting upon the author's unwavering brilliance, Calvit and company delight in Heyer's inadequacies, poking fun at the gaping chasms of credulity into which every character falls. Everything here is a bit too arch, too urgent, too romantic to be true, and at every turn the actors seem to wink at the audience with conspiratorial glee, inviting us to play along for the sheer joy of it. In an inspired choice, Calvit puts various heroines on the sidelines now and then, scoffing that certain unlikely occurrences in the other women's escapades must be setups for impending narrative twists, criticizing the other adventures as wholly unbelievable while insisting that their own stories are "real life."
Yet no matter how much they ridicule each other's stories, no matter how myopic their outlooks on life, they can't help but watch and read along, caught up in the excesses of Heyer's imagination. They secretly long to be heroines in romantic novels--unaware, of course, that they already are--just as the characters in Heyer's novels repeatedly turn to the romantic literature of their day for guidance. This metaliterary device is an ingenious encapsulation of Heyer's artistry, and it playfully indulges the audience's yen for fantasy.
Under Dorothy Milne's sympathetic direction, the fantasy of unfettered romance is, at times, heart stopping. Milne coaxes rich, sincere performances from the same actors she pushes to cartoonish extremes. In "To Have the Honour," for example, the headstrong Hetty may make Auntie Mame look like a shrinking violet, and her cloddish would-be lover Alan may display all the joie de vivre of concrete, but the sparks between them could burn down a small village. In one of the evening's strongest scenes, the two spend a good ten minutes professing their utter lack of romantic interest in each other, yet through a thousand subtle suggestions in Milne's graceful staging--again and again accidentally winding up face-to-face, inches apart--it's clear how much they ache for each other.
It helps to have two actors as cunning and poised as Frances Limoncelli and Patrick Blashill to tease out the intricacies of this deceptively simple scene. Like all the members of this six-person cast, they seem so at ease in their oversize portrayals that the most ludicrous, overblown moments seem almost ordinary. The actors respect the romantic indulgences they lampoon, which permits them to speak the truth from the silliest of places.
Ultimately, despite all the ridiculousness, it is that truth that makes Pistols for Two so satisfying. Had Calvit asked us to take Heyer's tales seriously, the evening would have degenerated into melodrama within five minutes. But by acknowledging the absurdity of Heyer's romances--the same absurdity everyone feels when head over heels in love--Calvit lets everyone, cast and audience, off the hook, allowing us to honor our gentler, dreamier selves.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Suzanne Plunkett.