Cynthia v. Vera


The Atlantic Theater Company’s staging of the New York Idea left me with a far different impression of the characters than the reading we did in class. After reading the original -complete with its overbearing stage directions- I was pushed to favor Cynthia (the woman, not the horse) as the protagonist and eventual ‘winner’ in the play. As capricious and spritely as Cynthia was in the original Mitchell text, ATC played her equally flaky and childish. I found Vera to be much more appealing in the staging than in the original text, and found her to be the closest thing to a winner in the end.

The implication of the differing staging is that the ATC chose to redefine the “New York Idea”.  When we are led to empathize with Cynthia, the message is a conservative one: Although Cynthia commits an indiscretion and attempts to dissolve her marriage, she eventually realizes her error and returns to the throes of her one and only, Jack. How does this change when Vera is favored? Is this to be taken as an endorsement of marriages as temporary, non-binding agreements? The social culture of this city holds a long tradition of defying tradition. As a setting, this city is the best hope for a character like Vera to be the unlikely hero, given the staid customs of the time period.

As hotbeds of cultural non-traditionalism, cities like NYC serve a critical role in the formation of a national culture. While the liberalism characteristic of NY may not permeate to the rural parts of the country, cities are able to experiment with breaking social norms in a way that rural areas cannot. As Philip and the older women are left alone as the curtain drops, it is not their unwillingness to accept a change in marriage, but rather an overall resistance to change that positions them as the left behind.

Despite his lack of citizenship, Cates-Darby appears more of a New Yorker than Phillimore (E.B. White would agree…). Perhaps this idea – that membership to the idea of the city is not a question of residence but rather of social attitude – can considered the New York Idea. Social pragmatism trumps loyalty to tradition.

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