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July 30, 2007

TT: Henry James slept here

It's a good thing I finally figured out how much fun it is to travel, since The Wall Street Journal now expects me to do so as often as possible in between Broadway openings. There being precious few Broadway openings in the summer--damned few of which are precious--I've been tearing around New England. Last week, for instance, I visited two summer theater companies in Massachusetts, Barrington Stage Company (about which I wrote enthusiastically in Friday's paper) and Shakespeare & Company (whose productions of Rough Crossing and Blue/Orange I'll be reviewing this coming Friday).

In addition to seeing plays, I took a backstage tour of Pittsfield's Colonial Theatre, a handsome, meticulously restored 1903 playhouse that once presented the likes of Sarah Bernhardt, Ignace Jan Paderewski, Anna Pavlova, Noble Sissle, and Laurette Taylor. The Colonial is now used as a multi-purpose venue for concerts and touring shows, and those who appear there say it's unsurpassed for sheer intimacy. I saw a poster for a concert by Luciana Souza hanging in the wings, and smiled to see her familiar face in an unexpected place.

I stayed at the Thaddeus Clapp House, an 1871 mansion around the corner from the Colonial Theatre that has been turned into a comfortable, well-run bed-and breakfast whose friendly proprietor goes out of her way to make sure you get more than enough to eat. (Her scones melt on the tongue.) Over breakfast I met an artist from Hawaii named Jodi Endicott who was in Massachusetts to deliver four of her paintings to a gallery in Lenox. I liked the way she talked about her work and was impressed by several of the pictures in her folio, so I stopped by the gallery a few days later, looked at the paintings, and was even more impressed. This is, I gather, Endicott's first East Coast show. I hope it isn't the last.

Speaking of old houses, I finally paid a long-overdue visit to The Mount, the fifty-acre estate and gardens that Edith Wharton designed and built for herself and her then-husband in 1902. The Mount figures prominently in Hermione Lee's recent Wharton biography, and it also happens to be a mile or so from Shakespeare & Company, which used to perform on its grounds before moving to its present location. I didn't have time to go there when I went to see the company last summer, so I made a point of stopping by last week. It is, not surprisingly, spectacular, and though the restoration of the interior of the main house is very much a work in progress, the gardens look much as they did when Wharton lived there a century ago.

One of the forty-two rooms is described on the official Mount map as "Henry James Guest Room." I lingered there, though there's nothing much to see. The room in which the Master stayed on at least three occasions has not yet been restored to its original condition, and currently houses a tableau of period objects illustrating a scene from Wharton's 1907 novel The Fruit of the Tree. I didn't care. I was standing where James had slept, and until the day finally comes when I'm lucky enough to visit Lamb House, that will be enough for me.

All of which reminds me of my favorite Henry James anecdote, famously recounted by none other than Edith Wharton herself in her 1934 autobiography. Wharton and James liked to go for long, leisurely rides in her motor car, and one evening they lost their way while driving through the village of Windsor.

As Wharton told it:

We must have been driven by a strange chauffeur--perhaps Cook was on holiday; at any rate, having fallen into the lazy habit of trusting him to know the way, I found myself at a loss to direct his substitute to the King's Road. While I was hesitating, and peering out into the darkness, James spied an ancient doddering man who had stopped in the rain to gaze at us. "Wait a moment, my dear--I'll ask him where we are"; and leaning out he signalled to the spectator.

"My good man, if you'll be good enough to come here, please; a little nearer--so," and as the old man came up: "My friend, to put it to you in two words, this lady and I have just arrived here from Slough; that is to say, to be more strictly accurate, we have recently passed through Slough on our way here, having actually motored to Windsor from Rye, which was our point of departure; and the darkness having overtaken us, we should be much obliged if you would tell us where we now are in relation, say, to the High Street, which, as you of course know, leads to the Castle, after leaving on the left hand the turn down to the railway station."

I was not surprised to have this extraordinary appeal met by silence, and a dazed expression on the old wrinkled face at the window; nor to have James go on: "In short" (his invariable prelude to a fresh series of explanatory ramifications), "in short, my good man, what I want to put to you in a word is this: supposing we have already (as I have reason to think we have) driven past the turn down to the railway station (which in that case, by the way, would probably not have been on our left hand, but on our right) where are we now in relation to..."

"Oh, please," I interrupted, feeling myself utterly unable to sit through another parenthesis, "do ask him where the King's Road is."

"Ah--? The King's Road? Just so! Quite right! Can you, as a matter of fact, my good man, tell us where, in relation to our present position, the King's Road exactly is?"

"Ye're in it," said the aged face at the window.

I sincerely hope that tale is true to the very last detail--and if it's not, I don't want to know.

Posted July 30, 2007 12:00 AM

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