Leave it to those bloodhounds at the Mint to unearth a forgotten but quite stageworthy play by the English novelist Arnold Bennett. Originally produced in 1909, “What the Public Wants” was drawn from the author’s extensive literary background as a journalist, drama critic, and theatrical producer, and takes all those professions as his satiric subjects. Although the Mint has honored its custom of mounting a faithful period production, this high-minded morality play about a powerful newspaper publisher of little taste and few scruples has a decidedly contemporary feeling.
Sir Charles Worgan, the lowborn but phenomenally successful newspaper magnate played with much dignity by Rob Breckenridge (“The 39 Steps”), is said to have been inspired by Lord Northcliffe, the founder of England’s scrappiest tabloid, “The Daily Mail.” Contemporary auds should feel free, however, to substitute any modern-day media tycoon of their choice, so long as it’s Robert Maxwell or Rupert Murdoch.
When first met in his London office (set designer Roger Hanna’s fine period study in muted brown woods and leather furnishings), the great man is fuming about the only poor performer among his 40-some publications. The religious journal “Sabbath Chimes” is not pulling its weight and Sir Charles aims to know why.
“Let me tell you, there’s a lot of money in religion,” he upbraids his business manager, and proceeds to show him how to coin it. Instead of devoting its prime feature space to boring topics like “Are we growing less spiritual?” the under-performing “Chimes” should address questions like “Ought curates to receive presents from lady parishioners?”
That anecdote says a lot about Sir Charles, who is boyishly proud of his natural-born talent at predicting (and catering to) public taste. There’s no shame in being a businessman — a “manufacturer” of whatever the public wants, as he puts it. Even if that happens to be such vulgar reading matter as a lurid series on “Famous Crimes of Passion.”
It takes a visit from his feckless but well-traveled brother, Francis (a condescending intellectual snob in Marc Vietor’s deliberately mannered perf), to shake the self-confidence of this self-made millionaire. And it takes an impoverished but lovely widow named Emily Vernon (her ladylike charms very nicely captured by Ellen Adair) to awaken Sir Charles’s nascent yearnings for respectability.
Once Sir Charles falls in love with Emily, he is encouraged to become a patron of arts and letters by donating money to Oxford University and buying a theater in London’s West End. This leads to some amusing (if at times blustery) encounters with self-important actors, drama critics, and theatrical managers, who smugly assert their artistic superiority over Sir Charles, with his lowbrow taste and uncanny instinct for giving the theatergoing public what it really wants.
A more nuanced performance with a touch of honest vulgarity from Breckenridge (who maintains his dignity through thick and thin) might have given some poignancy to Sir Charles’s inevitable downfall — and his total ignorance of the moral vacuum at the core of it. But overall, helmer Matthew Arbour has done an entirely respectable job for the Mint with this well-cast, handsomely designed, and knowingly acted production.