A case study on Mike Leigh’s television production of Abigail’s Party.
By Luciana B. Veit
Abigail’s Party premiered in London in 1977, but the party would continue for many years after. Even today, Mike Leigh’s work can be identified as a dark, yet funny period piece. This was set in 1977, when Queen Elizabeth II was celebrating her Silver Jubilee year and allowing James Callaghan to prepare the way for Maggie Thatcher. Britons had become used to bomb threats from the IRA, and were celebrating the first flight of the Concorde airplane from London to New York City. During this period, flare-bottomed pants, large eyeglasses and the Bee-Gees were all considered a necessity by most, irrespective of class. Abigail’s Party mocks the doubtful “good taste” of the middle-low classes, and in doing so reached a “classic status, becoming adjectival”, as director Richard Eyre describes, linking the play with “social horror”. Michael Walling notes that the characters talk big and “receive their identity from outside”. Leigh depicts a theatricalised way of living, and the characters in the play act as other characters. In this paper I provide an interpretation of how the characters interact in order to create the play’s most significant scene: when they all dance.
Susan, Abigail’s mother, shows up at Beverly’s party to allow her daughter to have her own. Divorced, Susan has become outwardly boring: functional clothes, classical hair-do, pale lip-gloss, short, and uninspiring dialogues (always in a scared low voice). She acknowledges that she should be social occasionally, without expecting to have fun. During the party she either stares at her drink from a stiff position in the corner of the sofa, or walks while trying not to make any noise, or dances like a robot, afraid of body contact and refuses to place her hand properly on her dance mate’s shoulder. During the dance she has a micro-talk about Paris; but she is too psychologically blocked for more than that. The only moment when Susan shows a wish for tenderness other than politeness occurs when Laurence (her dance partner and Beverly’s husband) shakes her hand violently, and she looks very disappointed: nevertheless, she only accepted to dance with Laurence because she knew Beverly wouldn’t let them alone otherwise, and Susan would find it embarrassing to see her hosts quarreling.
Tony, Angela’s husband, is a secretive character. Dressed in a brown suit (in 1970s fashion) he is polite, drinks without excess, and is helpful. He avoids eye contact and doesn’t talk much, indicating self-protection more than social fear. Tony is a man who dances to the music: he has got a job, is married, plans to raise kids, attends social engagements, but doesn’t let a flirting situation escape him. When Beverly asks him to dance, their body language turns tight and sexual, and the way they look and talk to each other suggests a great wish for intimacy. An awkward moment occurs when the second dance finishes, with Beverly and Tony looking at each other as if they had just finished a public love act. Tony’s placement in the room changes, indicating that he has gained confidence because of Beverly’s interest in him. First, he seats alone on the couch in the corner, and later he seats between Beverly and Susan. Tony talks to Angela with authority and treats her as if a third party had arranged their marriage. The audience sees, although Angela doesn’t, that Tony only married because of social expectation.
Angela might be the only happy person in the room. She sees life with optimism and makes Beverly and Laurence feel more valuable with her many compliments to the apartment. She feels inferior to Beverly, as if Beverly was her smarter and more beautiful older sister, although this is not presented as negative. In addition, she takes pleasure in small things, like curling her hair in an unfashionable way or choosing a party dress carefully even though the dress clearly shows Angela’s lack of style. Beverly’s party is an excuse for Angela to drink, to smoke, to listen to many records, and to talk freely. Awkwardly and on her own, is the way she dances with Laurence: Angela dances how she feels, regardless of who is watching, with whom she is dancing, and to what rhythm she moves her body. She is not without reserve, however, because she wasn’t initially sure whether Laurence would be willing to dance with her, although she quickly forgets her disinclination towards him. Her speech indicates that she is looking for approval, as she often repeats “isn’t it” and adopts a specific voice intonation: but she is just trying to make the best out of her reality. Angela feels comfortable moving around the set and she is so pure in intentions that she doesn’t realize what is going on between her husband and the host.
Laurence is Beverly’s object of torture. Their passion has presumably faded away with time, and Laurence has started hating himself for not becoming what he wanted to be. Laurence dresses to impress, wearing a waistcoat to the suit. He doesn’t read the books he buys, he doesn’t visit the cities he mentions, and he is married to a woman who despises him: he lives a lie. In conversation Laurence tries to show that his business is more important than his wife, but especially in the dance scene his regret for having allowed things to go from bad to worse becomes apparent. Beverly ignores Laurence when serving drinks, talks to him in a cold tone and bosses him around. But all this is not as hurtful for him as seeing Beverly flirting with another man, and thereby reminding him that he’s not good enough for her. Unlike Angela, Laurence is very much aware of Beverly’s provocation when she starts putting on the “record that turns my husband on”. When Laurence hears the sexy music, he hopes things could become good between them again; but when Beverly picks Tony to dance, and doesn’t even ask him, Laurence feels like an idiot. Laurence is disempowered to face Beverly despite his verbal protests, and obeys her every command, and the fact that Beverly is taller than Laurence is also a signifier of their relationship. Laurence’s conversation is explosive while remaining repressed: he is a fish out of water in his own suffocating home, not moving around much, and sitting alone in the couch by the corner. This is quite a contrast to the situation with Beverly.
Beverly suggests a “little dancing” and tries to intensify the party by forcing cocktails. She talks to her guests as if they were incapable or small children. She makes a point of reminding them that despite her kind talk, they are at her house with her rules. She asserts control over the bar, which is the most important place in the set, where the drinks seem to be a refuge for awkward moments. The music selection also signifies she is in charge. Of all the characters, Beverly is the most theatricalised. Dressed in a sexy gown, wearing extravagant accessories, high-heels, and having paid extra attention to her nails, up hair-do, and immaculate make-up, Beverly is ready to act. Beverly commands when everybody should drink, talk, eat, stand up, or dance. She moves all around the set acting the perfect host. Nonetheless, the idea crossed my mind that she wanted to throw the party just to humiliate Laurence in public, as she blames him for her unhappiness. When she decides to dance with Tony, with Angela naively giving way for her to approach him, Beverly doesn’t hesitate. She asks: “You don’t mind me mauling your husband, Ang?” already knowing that Angela wouldn’t mind. During the first song, Beverly is not that interested in Tony, and her cigarettes seem more important despite their close body language, but the second song becomes immoral, when no cigarettes and no drinks stand in their way. By allowing a man to smell, touch, and grab her in such a sexual way in front of her husband, she indicates a lack of respect and dignity. In the first dance her act was a message to Laurence, whereas in the second dance she wanted Laurence to be distracted with Susan, which didn’t happen. When second song stops, Beverly looks at Angela and thinks: “What a man you’ve got”. Then she looks at Laurence sitting at the couch and she seems to think: “That’s my sad reality.”
I decided to write this essay based around the characters, as this reflects the approach of director Mike Leigh: the plot was created after the characters. Leigh wanted to see, through improvisation techniques, what would happen if certain characters shared an evening in a compact room. Thus Abigail’s Party was devised by him but not written by him: the writing came after the produced play. This can be seen as a problem for such a popular play and TV production, as Michael Walling points out that “Leigh is the only one credited as playwright, never his actors.” The book Improvisation in Drama illustrates that “improvisation has to do with the exploration of the character’s inner nature and the accommodation of that nature to the actor’s own:” nevertheless, the same book suggests that the director always makes the early choices. In this sense, Mike Leigh’s direction of Abigail’s Party is a triumph.
Luciana B. Veit