Jennifer Lale, stage director of the Missouri State University production of Clever Artifice, put together the following statement in preparation for staging the opera.
Preliminary thoughts about The Clever Artifice of Harriet and Margaret
Jenny Lale, November 30, 2016
This opera is about women who subvert their passions and drives in the name of acceptability and the interior lives that resist the subversion at every turn. In western cultures, women have traditionally been forced to sacrifice their own desires in order to be seen as delicate, feminine objects rather than the subjects of their own stories. All of the characters sing, “Set me free from pretending to believe what I don’t feel.” This is a central line to the play as well as to the lives of these women.
Harriet has made the choice to marry a man who can keep her well instead of keeping her happy. His name, Goodrich, summarizes his value to her—it is good that he is rich. She is elegant but cold as a result of being in a comfortable but passionless marriage. The intrusion of her interior self, Hetty, is a constant reminder of the choice she has made. I see Hetty as a younger version of Harriet in many ways—untamed and uninitiated into the world because she has seen so little. Harriet has experienced the world and knows that one woman cannot truly have everything, the pitfall that so many contemporary women face each day.
Margaret too has to hide her real motivations in order to appear gentile and respectable. The Bohemian attraction of being married to an artist is not one that holds any sway for her—she is practical by necessity. Her need to get the contract for John to paint Harriet is a need for survival—they are starving. She also is concerned about his well-being and that he will take his own life out of desperation. Maggie is the manifestation of the basic needs that Margaret has—she is direct and speaks plainly. Her focus on food is the connection of this character the animal needs that women so often deny themselves. Which of us wouldn’t like to eat a big slice of cake and fill her tea with sugar and cream? We don’t because it wouldn’t be ladylike and would add weight to our frames—which of course must be kept trim.
The goal for these women is fairly clear—to get Harriet to be painted by John—but the tactics they employ are indirect. Harriet overstates and condescends while Margaret flatters and pokes holes. Hetty and Maggie are the impulses behind much of this energy. Maggie’s act of pushing Margaret into spilling tea on Harriet’s dress is a prime example of following an impulse rather than exhibiting restraint. The push and pull of the entire scene is about revealing only enough to get what you want—no one puts all of her cards on the table.
The opera ends with Harriet and Hetty planning what to tell Charles about the painting. The ending line of “I will simply tell Charles the truth” is one that highlights the slippery nature of truth in this world of legerdemain and deception. The idea of Harriet’s truth might be vastly different from what the audience has witnessed. Both Harriet and Margaret sing, “The truth is better left unspoken” and for these characters, it is probably so.