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Sunday, December 5, 2021

Moira Buffini: why I had to set my play in an English manor house

Our mum would sometimes take us to Tatton Park, a stately home near the small town where we lived in Cheshire. She’d set up a picnic and we’d run over lawns, through rose gardens and round the extravagant fountains. We’d jump over the “no entry” signs and play until we were exhausted.

The British landscape is peppered with these time-traps: moated castles, creaking Tudor manses, neo-classical chocolate boxes, turrets, towers and domes. They are treasure stores of art and artefacts, evoking a lost elegance. How can we not be seduced, sipping afternoon tea by the coach house as we watch dragonflies over the carp pond? But much as I enjoy the aesthetic of our manors, I feel a sense of unease when I visit them, a sense of not belonging, a sense of the muffled lives down the back stairs. There’s something stifling about them, too.

Manor houses currently occupy a difficult place in our national consciousness. They have recently been awakened to find themselves at the centre of a storm. Are they simply treasures that should be celebrated? Or should they be recognised as products of class oppression? I began to wonder whether one of these old houses might be fertile ground for a play. Was there anything new to say in such a place, or would I be swamped by the weight of the past?

Our dramatic canon has as many manor houses as our countryside. From the Shakespearean world of Twelfth Night and The Merry Wives of Windsor onwards, we find ourselves in a privileged domestic landscape of masters, mistresses and their servants. We meet obnoxious neighbours and uninvited guests. Manor houses work wonderfully as the settings for comedies. For centuries, they have been places where harmony triumphs, where order is gently shaken and then restored. In Oliver Goldsmith’s joyful She Stoops to Conquer (1773), the comedy centres around two young men who mistake a manor house for an inn. There is something honest about the eccentric life of this house, away from the artificial world of London, that leads these men to find love and self-knowledge.

The manor house comedy can show the rot in society, too. In A Woman of No Importance (1893), Oscar Wilde points a finger at the brutality and hypocrisy of a system that rewards a corrupt and powerful patriarch. Comedy can be subversive, and there is a plea in Wilde’s play for justice and moral truth.

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