Looking for a way to stop obsessing over the 2020 electoral count, I landed on watching this 1925 play about a fictional election. I previously had resisted this Mint Theater recording because its plot sounded too frivolous for my pre-Election Day mood, but it seemed a fitting distraction now: In the Roaring 1920s, Lady Dare Bellingdon is secret mistress to Sir Major Ronald Clive, who is running for Parliament as a Tory, but then she meets his Labour Party rival Tom Smith, and there are sparks.
I confess I interrupted my viewing of this political love triangle with brief but frequent side glances at news updates. But “Conflict” turned out to be more satisfying than I had expected, as theater and even as politics.
Its author, Miles Malleson (1888-1969), was known more for his later acting than his relatively youthful playwriting; he was a comic English character actor who appeared in more than 100 films, including Kind Hearts and Coronets. “Conflict,” premiered in London in 1925, was made into a 1931 movie “The Woman Decides,” and then reportedly disappeared – until the Mint resurrected it in its stage production two years ago.
If “Conflict” is not what anyone in 2020 would call a cutting-edge comedy, nor is it at all times plausible, the script is both witty and substantive. The playwright makes comic hay from the most salient personality traits of his characters – Lady Dare’s flapper insouciance (made obvious by her name), her lover Sir Ronald’s stuffiness, her father Lord Bellingdon’s conservative attitudes and his lordly demeanor, “Oh my God,” Lord Bellingdon reacts to a free-spirited remark by his daughter, “I’d rather be ruled by Bolsheviks than by women.” But these are not in the end dismissed, farcical figures.
We first meet Tom Smith as an intruder on Lord Bellingdon’s estate; he’s there to beg. He was a Cambridge classmate of Sir Ronald’s but fell on hard times, because of the deaths of his parents and his injuries during World War I. He is ill-fed, ill-clothed, and at his wit’s end. Eighteen months later, he returns – having been restored to health (and to a fine suit) and reborn a committed Socialist. His arguments for Socialism sound like the playwright’s, but it is to Malleson’s credit that Lord Bellingdon’s and Sir Ronald’s arguments against it are just as cogent. Both are delivered, separately to Lady Dare.
In his argument, Tom passionately aims to reach beneath the “thin surface of unending comfort,” and sometimes hits a note of sharp relevance (“If you’re rich these days you could be a rogue, or you could just be lucky.”) It is his political arguments, not (just) his good looks, that draw Dare to him. Hers is primarily a political awakening.
It’s no surprise to those that know the Mint Theater that this production is ably acted and directed, handsomely designed, and even unusually well-filmed for what was intended simply as an archival video. Jeremy Beck gets the most passionate lines and the leading-man aura as Tom Smith; Jessie Shelton has the most challenging role to navigate as the leading lady. But all seven actors feel completely persuasive as their characters, and make their mark. Graeme Malcolm is priceless as the well-meaning, flabbergasted Lord.
The ironies involved in watching this 1925 play at this particular moment begin even before the drama does. In the opening announcements, a pleasant English voice tell us to shut off our cell phones and unwrap our candy, and that we should do it right now. “We don’t mind waiting.”
Conflict is available for free (use password vote!) at The Mint Theater website through November 8th.
Running time: 110 minutes
Written by Miles Malleson
Directed by Jenn Thompson
Sets: John McDermott
Costumes: Martha Hally
Lights: Mary Louise Geiger
Sound: Toby Algya
Props: Chris Fields
Graeme Malcolm as Lord Bellingdon
Jessie Shelton as The Lady Dare Bellingdon, his daughter
Henry Clarke as Major Sir Ronald Clive,
Jasmin Walker as Mrs. Tremayne
James Prendergast as Daniells
Amelia White as Mrs. Robinson.
Jeremy Beck as Tom Smith