Just before the hostilities that would come to be known as World War II kick into inexorably high gear, the annual tradition of a pageant intending to observe and celebrate British history is the high point of June at Poyntz Hall. The ancestral manor of the Oliver family becomes the focus of the entire village most years and 1939 is no different.
The Oliver family is composed of Bartholomew, the patriarchal widower and veteran of the English wars to contain various attempted uprisings by the Colonial Indians. Bartholomew’s sister Lucy, also widowed after the death of her husband Mr. Swithin, brings a certain insipid eccentricity to the Poyntz Hall. Giles, scion of the patriarch, is dealing with the effects of having a lost a job in the city and this year’s celebration only adds to his sense of frustration. Another source of his irritation is the fact that his wife Ilsa is another occupant along with their two children. This is irritating because she has pretty much cut herself loose emotionally from her husband and is not exactly discreet about her attraction to a farmer named Haines.
Other key characters introduced are the mannish and domineering author of the pageant, Miss La Trobe, the Bohemian Mrs. Manresa, her Jewish husband and her suspiciously foppish friend William Dodge, Albert the requisite village idiot and Eliza Clark, shopkeeper in her normal life and Queen Elizabeth during the pageant. The event leading to the actual performances are marked by Lucy’s obsessive devotion to making sure the decorations and food are just right. At one point, the Old Man nearly scares his grandson into a state of apoplexy merely with the unexpected revelation of his face from behind his newspaper. Mr. Oliver’s reaction to this reaction is to ensure the child devolves into a flood tears by insulting him with accusations of cowardice. Both Bartholomew and Giles are the target aggressively flirtatious behavior by the free-thinking Mrs. Manresa.
And finally, it is time to settle in and enjoy the show.
Miss La Trobe’s portrayal of crucial events in British history take the form of a montage of tableaux that requires form match content as a means of connect modern day England back through time to the Middle Ages. For instance, the Restoration become a satire of Restoration stage comedy and navigation through the complexities of Victorian Era are personified in the form of a police officer directing traffic. Bookending these various tableau are a prologue recitation by a young child and a finale that literally forces the audience to examine their place in the timeline by having the mirrors turned toward them.
As the production ends, Miss La Trobe’s idiosyncratic interpretation of history is met with all the confusion and bewilderment of those picking up a Modernist novel and wondering just what all this experimental stream-of-consciousness stuff was supposed to be mean, exactly. Convince that she has failed to open minds to the possibilities of creative expression, Miss La Trobe heads to the local pub to drown her sorrows only to realize in a moment of epiphany what form her next creative endeavor will take.
As for the residents of Poyntz Hall, the ending of the play mean nothing more than life can go back to normal until next year.