“He felt like he was in another world”
And so my delving into the world of radio drama continues with this adaptation of Edith Wharton’s novella Ethan Frome. Serialised on Radio 4’s Woman Hour as was Possession, this didn’t appear to get the omnibus treatment so I had to listen to it in 15 minute chunks, but by leaving it until it had finished, I was able to listen to them all in one night. To be honest, I find the idea of listening to a part a day quite odd especially as they’re only 15 minutes long, but then the whole world of listening to the radio is alien to me and it obviously works well for them 😉
Ethan Frome is perhaps not as well known as Wharton’s other works such as The Age of Innocence and The House of Mirth, but actually contains the most autobiographical detail as it took large inspiration from her own sexless marriage and ensuing passionate affair with a younger man. (The story of which is covered in the accompanying Saturday play The Jinx Element which I’ll be listening to next.) And Lin Coghlan’s dramatisation plays on this by making Edith Wharton, voiced here by the incomparable Fenella Woolgar, the narrator of the story.
Set in rural Massachusetts, Ethan Frome is a poor farmer trapped in a miserable marriage to the highly hypochondriac Zeena. When her cousin Mattie Silver arrives to help around the house though, there’s an instant connection between the two which though never acted upon, becomes a burning passion. Zeena’s bitter acuity sense the connection and she seeks to have Mattie replaced by another girl and so Ethan resolves to leave her and start anew with Mattie. But his deep poverty limits their options and the stifling convention of their community make it difficult to cast off his marriage, however unhappy.
It’s all a bit doom-laden and depressed but gorgeously done in Sally Avens’ production. The device of the narrator works perfectly (my antipathy towards to it is slowly melting as it would seem my initial bad experience was the exception rather than the rule) as Woolgar’s empathetic Wharton is compassion personified. And it is impeccably acted: Dominic Mafham’s ever-frustrated Ethan given a new lease of life with the arrival of Jessica Raine’s kindly Mattie, the two dancing around their feelings in the most delicate ways and then finally bursting into beautiful bloom – her laughter as they go sledding down a hill is one of those things of loveliness that ought to be bottled in place of Prozac. And set against them is Laurel Lefkow’s pinched Zeena, sharp as nails and just as uncomfortable in her manipulations, her obsession with the pickle dish is highly believable in its randomness.
It is perhaps too much to say that it is really quite a bitterly heartbreaking story, Wharton pulls no punches in detailing the misery and lack of options that accompanied the desperate poverty of the time, and Ethan Frome ends up reflecting this severity. But this makes for excellent radio drama and combined with the opportunity to hear two actresses I love, Fenella Woolgar and Jessica Raine (whose forthcoming Changeling I am most excited for) plus revisiting the impressive Dominic Mafham, it made for compelling listening.