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Sunday, April 16, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Commentary

From page to stage, trying to capture Edith Wharton's Lily

Seattle Times theater critic

Lily Bart, an alluring and eligible woman of 29, is a glittering ornament of the Manhattan "smart set" who catches many a male mogul's wandering eye.

But Lily is no mere "It Girl" of the Gilded Age. She is, in fact, one of the most complicated of American literary protagonists. Ambitious and ambivalent, vain and virtuous, torn and ultimately tragic, she is often a puzzle — to herself, and to others.

Given Lily's beauty and charm, why does happiness escape her? And why, given all her rich admirers, does she end up poor and alone?

Lily's psychological intricacy, in relation to the rigid social strata she inhabits, make Edith Wharton's 1905 book, "The House of Mirth," one of the finest of American novels — and among the hardest to stage or film.

Yet "The House of Mirth" devotees can still dream that Lily's glittering, perilous saga in Old New York will someday translate into satisfying drama.

Coming up

"The House of Mirth," produced by Book-It Repertory Theatre, previews begin Tuesday, opens Friday and runs through May 13 at Center House Theatre, Seattle Center; $15-$30 (206-216-0833 or www.book-it.org).

That hope rises again, with the arrival of a new stage adaptation by British writer Marcus Goodwin. Produced by Book-It Repertory Theatre, and staged by artistic director Jane Jones, it opens Friday at Seattle's Center House Theatre, with gifted actress Jennifer Lee Taylor as Lily.

Goodwin earlier crafted a hit adaptation of Jane Austen's "Pride and Prejudice" and E.M. Forster's "Howard's End" for the company but knew this project would be harder.

"It's not that this isn't a great book," he says. "On grounds of social commentary and psychological insight it scores 10 out of 10.

"But when you're looking for dramatic thrust, and clear turning points in the story line, they get somewhat blurred and lost. It's a slightly convoluted book, and for theater one needs to find a clear dramatic spine."

On the page

A huge best-seller when first published a century ago, the book has resurged in recent decades to win new devotees — like me.

True, today it's not on as many "best American novels" lists as "Huckleberry Finn" or "Moby Dick." And many may only know Wharton from her atypical novel "Ethan Frome," a dour, rustic tale of ill-fated love in New England, rather than the Manhattan high-society circles Wharton knew intimately and portrayed more often.

But on the page, "The House of Mirth" is anything but "spineless" — in the usual definition of cowardly or wishy-washy.

Vastly entertaining in its sardonic analysis of the ultra-rich and hypocritical, it offers a finely etched treatment of boom-time greed, the fickle nature of social mobility and the elusiveness of love in a hyper-materialist culture with a sexual double standard. These are classic American themes, also prevalent in Wharton's "The Age of Innocence" (which was successfully filmed by Martin Scorsese).

But that novel did not have Lily.

Lily's journey

She is the belle of the ball when we first meet her, but Lily is really an interloper, even an imposter, in a circle of new-minted tycoons and their grasping wives.

Like the latter, Lily has been bred as a trophy spouse. Or as literary critic Marilyn French puts it, as "a beautiful object in search of a purchaser."

But she is an orphan, with little money of her own. Keeping up stylish appearances is a struggle. Harder still is the conflicted conscience which prevents Lily from "closing the deal" with suitors she can't love or respect.

The book boasts some out-and-out cads, but several more complex male characters, too, particularly two other social interlopers: Simon Rosedale, a cynical Jewish tycoon, and Lawrence Selden, a less affluent lawyer too proud to admit he loves Lily.

Lily's veiled romantic dance with Selden, and her uneasy affinity with Rosedale, are teased out through all 300-plus pages of the book. But the subtle emotional shadings in Wharton's prose are tricky to script, as is casting the right actress as Lily.

"She's complex, flawed, spoiled. But what makes her such an interesting character, and one we care about, is that her morality develops over the course of the story," says Goodwin. "Like all great tragic figures she has opportunities to save herself but on principal doesn't take them."

Neither Gillian Anderson in the 2000 film "House of Mirth" nor Geraldine Chaplin in a 1981 TV version conveyed Lily's shifting, multi-hued essence.

And of the plays based on the book, even the one co-scripted by Wharton did not fare well.

When Jones decided Book-It would grow its own version, she went to Goodwin, a writer for both stage and BBC-TV. To telescope the sprawling book, Goodwin says he snipped away many minor characters, "conflated" the many scenes of country house parties and city balls and added new dialogue.

But he declares himself "quite pleased with how true the play remains to the novel. Lily's story is hopefully very engaging, and in the end very moving.

"For me, it's a universal story, about someone trapped by her own background, and by people's perceptions of her. I think most of us can relate to that."

And how did Wharton see Lily? In her memoir, "A Backward Glance," she said the book was about how "a frivolous society can acquire dramatic significance only through what its frivolity destroys. ... "

The object of that destruction? "My heroine, Lily Bart."

Misha Berson: mberson@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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