When great artists die, does ownership of their art pass
onto the family or into the public sphere? This is the question posed by Alison’s
House, Susan Glaspell’s Pulitzer prizewinning play, sensitively revived
at the Orange Tree by director Jo Combes, following a spirited
production of Glaspell’s Chains of Dew last year.
The Alison of the title is Alison Stanhope, a celebrated poet
of Emily Dickinson mould, twenty years dead as the play opens. It is New
Year’s Eve 1899 – the final day of the 19th century – and the
Stanhope family are packing up the house Alison shared with her sister Agatha to be sold onto developers.
Old, ill and confused, Agatha (Georgine Anderson) is reluctant
to leave, but her well-intentioned brother John (Christoper Ravenscroft) believes
he is acting for the best, despite the efforts of his two sons and a visiting newspaper
reporter to disrupt the task. Everyone seems to want a piece of Alison, be it a
teapot, an anecdote for a college essay or, most elusive of all, an unpublished
With the sudden arrival of daughter Elsa, banished from the
family for her affair with a married man, an already tense situation stretches to
breaking point. But while the heart and soul that characterised the poet
initially seem absent from her family, the emotional sacrifices the other Stanhopes
have made are slowly revealed.
When Agatha entrusts to Elsa a pouch of Alison’s private poems,
there ensues an agonising tug of war for her memory, morals and ultimately, her
artistic legacy. Held together by a
stirling performance from Ravenscoft as the sympathetic yet flawed patriarch, the
cast are near pitch-perfect, with Gráinne Keenan surprisingly mature in
her professional debut opposite the moving veteran Anderson.
Forward thinking as ever, Glaspell’s success is in couching her fairly radical artistic manifesto in a family drama that, while
sombre, pulses with subtle, shifting dynamics. And as the clock chimes in a new
century for her characters, she even leaves us with a glimmer of light for the future.