Why Edith Wharton Might Hate My Play

A mixed-race playwright reconsiders 'The House of Mirth' and its relevance (or lack thereof) for people of color.

Photo: Yale Collection of American Literature.

Last year, my first in graduate school, I needed to adapt source material into a play. Having almost exhausted my options for content, I came across a Dover Thrift Edition of Edith Wharton’s novel The House of Mirth that my grandma gifted me in 2012. My notes from the time of that initial read indicate, “Just finished The House of Mirth. Lily Bart is SO the Regina George of 1905. I heard Bertha Dorset pushed her in front of a carriage.” The House of Mirth glorifies its catty, high-society setting just as it skewers its rulers, displaying a kinship with the female-led social comedies I love (cue “thank u, next.”)

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The House of Mirth: A Problem Play

My grandma left me an inscription on the title page. She wrote, “You’re the only young person I know who would really appreciate Edith Wharton — and probably produce this.” Soon, I discovered an extant theatrical adaptation of the novel. Wharton herself penned the 1906 version with playwright Clyde Fitch, this publication’s namesake.

But the project didn’t go so well. According to Wharton’s letters, she asked Fitch in frustration why he thought her work would make a good play. Fitch replied that he never had high hopes for the work. Producer Charles Frohman had misled them into collaborating with one another, by all accounts tricking them with flattery — a Whartonesque twist. Like its protagonist Lily Bart, the ill-fated play lost its gamble, in every sense. The New York Times panned it as “doleful.” None of this boded well for my take.

Kaela Mei-Shing Garvin. Photo: Colin Kulpa.

With this background, I had no choice but to question my interest in the source material as a viable play. I kept circling back to The House of Mirth’s main character, Lily Bart. Born into great social standing but little wealth, Wharton’s Lily participates in a system that fails her. She modifies her behavior and priorities to fit in with her high-society friends. She constantly, frustratingly makes the wrong choices, keeping up with her acquaintances by gambling herself into ruin. Though she has the option of sustaining a middle-class lifestyle, she rejects that for aspirational wealth.

I identify with Lily’s constant code-switching and eternal exhaustion on a different plane. As a mixed-race person, I’ve often modified my behavior in order to preserve comfort (my own and others’), in order to keep or to get the job, in order to further my career. I, too, thought assimilating to wealth and whiteness would keep me safe, secure, happy. Like Lily, I’ve found that nothing could be farther from the truth.

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Taking on the Text

I became a playwright due to the lack of roles for people like me. While in my BFA acting studies, an assignment tasked me with finding a monologue for a character of my exact demographic. I’m a bigger, femme, mixed Asian American, and I pulled spine after spine off the library bookshelf trying to complete the assignment to no avail. With Mirth, people of color could not have conceivably run in the upper-class circles of the novel’s 1905 setting. Someone like me probably couldn’t be cast. And as much as I love white period dramas, did we really need another one?

With this in mind, my version transposes Wharton’s setting from 1905 New York to a near-future NYC. I give Lily a new identity: an ethnically ambiguous woman who must keep up with her white counterparts. The play’s world may be all-female, all-queer, but I look to the past in creating this speculative future: the dark sides of 1905 still prevail in 2019. Get in, loser, we’re going gambling.

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What Would Wharton Do?

Would Wharton and Fitch like my adaptation, or would they deem it doleful, too? Would they recognize what I’m trying to accomplish, or are they cursing me from their well-stocked afterlife coffers? We can’t know for sure, but I can certainly speculate.

L: Clyde Fitch as Lydia Languish in ‘The Rivals’ at Amherst College, 1885.

On one hand, Fitch was notoriously queer. Of his schoolboy days, Fitch said, “I knew… that everybody regarded me as a sissy, but I would rather be misunderstood than lose my independence.” His tells included an affair with Oscar Wilde, naked male statues as home decor, and a personal and professional relationship with lesbian couple Elsie de Wolfe and Elisabeth Marbury. During his Amherst College days Fitch often appeared in drag. Later in his career, he coded his work with queer themes, notably his plays Sapho and The City. Upon his early death, his mother destroyed many of his personal correspondences, presumably because of their contents. Though Fitch remained in circles of whiteness during his lifetime, he might have identified deeply with my version of Lily Bart: queer but hiding in plain sight.

Wharton was friends with Fitch until his 1909 death, which might mean something if only she was not “deeply conservative.” She eschewed the idea of female suffrage. Though one may read her novels as feminist, I think she might blanch at the term.

It is also unlikely that Wharton had a particular fondness for people of color. In fact, Wharton recalls Fitch’s “beautiful Oriental eyes” in her letters, which predisposes me to thinking she never saw an actual person of Asian descent in her life. Her work was frequently racist. I’ve been struggling with The House of Mirth‘s embedded anti-Semitism since my first day of work on the project. While there’s a chance that time would have softened her views, it’s likely that Wharton would have disliked both me and my work.

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Finishing the Hat

When my production Haus of Mirth opens on Feb. 27, I’ll be proud to stand as the fourth female playwright of color my university has produced in the last decade, professional or student. Along with Lynn Nottage, Yasmina Reza, and Naomi Iizuka (twice!), I’m in excellent company. But I also feel the weight of race and tokenization within my theater department. A palpable lack of diversity permeates the entire industry; it’s particularly vexing in an educational setting where production opportunities for students of color are often separate and unequal. As the sole student of color in my cohort across all theatrical disciplines, I’ve never felt more like Lily Bart than I have at grad school.

I’m thrilled to be writing for The Clyde Fitch Report. I hope you’ll join me on this journey as I take on theater, race, politics and pop culture (four subjects you should definitely discuss on first dates.) I hope our time together will be anything but doleful.