GUILFORD >> In the Guilford Center Stage tradition of presenting plays with Vermont ties, its third production set to open Friday, "A Battle of Wits" was written in 1915 by Guilford-born Charles W. Henry, Vermont's most well-known scenic curtain painter and showman of his era. "A Battle of Wits" is one of only two of Henry's scripts known to have survived, both now preserved in University of Vermont's archive collection.
To complement the play by Henry, the 100-plus-year-old curtains painted by him that still remain in the Broad Brook Grange are being used as the scenic backdrops, adding to that sense of going back in time in a play set during the outbreak of World War I. These curtains may very well have been the same curtains used in the grange's heyday of live performances prior to World War I, the dividing point between eras socially and culturally, before movies pushed this form of entertainment aside. Then, the Broad Brook Grange was a hot spot of social activity for area residents, before they had electricity, when they would go out on a Saturday evening to the grange to socialize after a week of millwork or farming.
Plays like "A Battle of Wits" was also a popular way to consume history and current events of the time. When this play was written there was a lot of interest in Americans and whether they would get involved in the conflict in Europe. Henry helped the audience with context by referring to the politics at the time. In "A Battle of Wits" American travelers in Lorraine, then a part of Germany, saw the urgency of getting out as war was coming, setting the scene for the universal situation of a romantic triangle. Although categorized as a melodrama, there is a tremendous amount of comedy with a classic comic setup of the wife who want to experience Europe's castles and cathedrals and the finer things that Europe has to offer along with her typically Yankee husband who would just as soon be at home, finding all the fancy stuff bunk. There is an undercurrent of American patriotism, that the Yankee way is a better approach to life that the audience is sympathetic to.
According to Guilford Center Stage's co-founder Don McLean, "'A Battle of Wits' has a way of drawing you back in history, about Americans in Germany. It's part of the classic idea of homespun Americans traveling through fancy Europe. It's fun for the actors to be a part of."
Although Henry was not a literary playwright, as a showman, he knew what worked in a play. His thinking was practical and logical, and although the play is considered a melodrama, it is not a "curses, foiled again" kind of drama, but rather more sophisticated
Born in 1850, Henry lived in Brattleboro near Fairgrounds Road when the Civil War broke out. The fairgrounds became a training site and later an army hospital during the war. At 8 years old and laid up with a broken arm, he watched soldiers enlist and train and later wounded soldiers coming and going. He began sketching the soldiers, discovering his talent for art. His father, however, never saw the importance of art and made him work at a sewing machine factory in Florence, Mass, instead of sending him to art school. There he learned about fabric and sewing.
Always interested in art and acting, he met his future wife Martha at a community theater. Together they traveled Vermont, Martha stitched pieces of muslin together to form the roll drops and sewed the costumes, and he painted and treated the curtains. He realized he wasn't making enough money and found there was more money to be had in the entertainment field. The family, that now included four children, toured, singing and acting. He built up a troupe with other adults traveling Vermont as the Henry Family Company, bringing minstrel shows and pre-vaudeville performances to local stages. At first they put on standard plays such as the popular "Uncle Tom's Cabin," then Henry began writing his own. Henry died in North Ferrisburgh in 1918, a few short years after he wrote "A Battle of Wits."
The curtains installed at Broad Brook Grange are not the only scenic curtains by Henry still in Vermont. Christine Hadsel of the Vermont Painted Curtain Project discovered, catalogued and help refurbish painted theater curtains throughout northern New England. She also secured a copy of the script from UVM's archives that had been hand rewritten by Henry's daughter Grace in an attempt to preserve some of her father's work. Hadsel is the author of a 2015 book, "Suspended Worlds," which details the history of this genre, with beautiful color plates. She will be joining us for the Oct. 7 opening performance.
Of the 38 Henry curtains known to remain, the stage at Broad Brook Grange contains four Henry curtains, one of which is signed by Henry, and a set of ears and flats, all of which will be used in this production. Henry developed a distinctive artistic signature. The drapery on his grand drapes is always red with gold highlights and underskirts in white and blue. They often feature European-style visions of castles, mountains, lakes and a stage coach with galloping horses. William Stearns directs a group of familiar area actors, and a few new to area audiences for a nice mix including: Anders Burrows as Captain Bloom; Joel Kaemmerlen as Dr. Seward Bradford; Gay Maxwell as Sereny Shumway; Marvin Shedd as Azro Shumway; Glenn Letourneau as the German Officer/Orderly; Joshua Cunningham as Captain Dedrich; Julie Holland as Sara (Miss Fields); Bob Tucker as Peter: Skyler Heathwaite as the French General; and Glenn Letourneau
as the French Orderly. Broad Brook Grange is still the social center for the town, and Guilford Center Stage is celebrating a time when this form of entertainment was the focal point of social life there. But most of all, McLean noted, "We are having a good time."
Performances of "A Battle of Wits" will take place Friday and Saturday, Oct. 7 and Oct. 8 at 7:30 p.m., and on Sunday, Oct. 9 at 2 p.m. at the Broad Brook Grange, 3940 Guilford Center Road, Guilford. Tickets are $10 general admission either at the door or in advance at guilfordstagebpt.me or call 800-838-3006.
Contact Cicely M. Eastman at 802-254-2311 ext. 261.