Lyons and Frenchmen and love, oh my

Pauline Deschapelles is just a Victorian girl living in a post-revolutionary French world. She wants the simple pleasures in life that can only come from an ideal marriage to a direct descendant of the French royal family, and she doesn’t mind specifying “prince.” Unfortunately for Pauline, royalty is hard to come by in a country whose aristocracy are all, as they say, sans tete.

Running for three days until its departure to the exotic shores of Britain, the University of Calgary drama department presents a classic Victorian melodrama which tries to prove love can transcend class and circumstance–Sir Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s The Lady of Lyons.

When the haughty Pauline (Kate Pakarnyk) spurns the affections of a former marquis named Beauseant (Gilly Urra), she becomes the object of his comically devious machinations and ultimately the wife of an enterprising but decidedly lower-class gardener’s son, Claude Melnotte (Johnny Love). Comedy and love ensue.

“The plot is a standard Victorian, gentlemanly melodrama,” says Barry Yzereef, artistic Director for the drama department. “Bulwer believed that art should be idealized, that realism was not only bad art, but also bad moral teaching.”

However, while Bulwer’s idealistic sentiment held the esteem of Victorian audiences for over 80 years, the introduction of realist works by playwrights such as Henry Ibsen largely upstaged his works. As a result, his most popular plays are rarely, if ever, staged by contemporary theatre companies and Bulwer is generally remembered simply as the author that coined the infamous cliche: “it was a dark and stormy night.”

“By the end of his life, he fell out of step. Realist plays were taking over and they were dealing with social issues that Bulwer never would have touched,” says Yzereef. “The real glory of Bulwer is that he gives us a terrific understanding of what Victorian popular culture was all about.”

Yzereef’s interest in Victorian popular culture has not gone unnoticed. Beginning May 20, the drama department’s production will serve as the centerpiece of the “Bulwer Bicentennial Birthday Bash;” a four day festival put on at Bulwer’s ancestral home, Knebworth House, celebrating the author’s 200th birthday.

The festival includes international scholars speaking on Bulwer’s various careers, readings of letters exchanged between the playwright and his close friend, Charles Dickens, and an original, one act play by Yzereef on the rocky relationship between Bulwer and his wife Recina entitled The Mighty Pen and the Blighted Life.

As Yzereef notes, the festival will also be an opportunity for drama students to develop their skills.

“There’s wonderful communication between all those years,” he says. “Everyone’s at different skill levels and they’re learning from each other and adapting, which is what a classroom experience is all about.”

For audiences, The Lady of Lyons is an opportunity to see a production that is taking the university to an international stage and a play that reflects the values of a culture whose idealism has been dismissed. As Yzereef points out, it is important that we remember that popular culture has not always been dictated by the angst of a post-industrial world.

“When times get cynical, sentimentality and idealism is not something that we admire.”

In a time when the drama department’s funding is being cut like so many necks in a guillotine, maybe a little Victorian romance is just what the doctor ordered.

The Lady of Lyons runs from May 14 to May 16 at the Reeve Theatre. For information or tickets call 220-7202. The May 16 performance has already sold out, though Barry Yzereef encourages students to pack the rafters.

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