Edgar Degas, French artist (1834-1917) who has been called an Impressionist but disavowed the term during his lifetime, is most known for his paintings of his ballerinas and dancers. His sculpture of “The Little Dancer of Fourteen Years” has become an iconic work whose miniature replicas parents purchase for daughters pursuing ballet. Mary Cassatt (1844-1926) was a maverick, forward-thinking and successful American painter who lived most of her life in Paris, France where she became friendly with Edgar Degas. The Independents currently at the Theater Center chronicles their extraordinary relationship and reveals fascinating information about the two artists who were geniuses in their own right.
Christopher Ward, director and writer conceives of these two individuals based on extensive research after being inspired by a 2014 Degas-Cassatt exhibit at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. Ward was compelled to write about their relationship which seems counter-intuitive until one revisits their biographies and understands what bonded them together. Ward’s characterizations and delineation of their interactions are grounded in fact and imagined by the truth and mores of the time which limited women’s options and designated they be wives and mothers, spinsters or prostitutes. However, Mary Cassatt’s uniqueness, intelligence and artistic abilities are most probably what triggered Degas’ interest in becoming friendly with her after he saw her work. Ward’s understanding of these two individuals makes for a profound historical view of great artists, their influence on each other and the time in which they lived, Belle Epoch, Paris.
As the play opens Mary Cassatt, portrayed with reserved control, grace and subtle, ironic humor by Natasa Babic arranges to meet Edgar Degas in her studio. Degas’ reaction is unpredictable; he leaves. Mary sighs disappointed, but is nonplussed. Then Degas returns to further comment. Already, Ward has encapsulated the particularity of their natures which he unspools with surprises throughout the play.
Degas, portrayed with an arrogant disdain by André Herzegovitch, softens and becomes more good humored as their relationship progresses. Eventually, he reveals that he respects Cassatt’s achievements as a woman painter, a rare breed. He also recognizes the strength, autonomy and fearlessness required to pursue a career in painting that eschews a family and husband in order to become great. In short he admires her industry and work ethic which is like his. They both sacrificed marriage and a family for the sake of their work to constantly innovate and evolve. In this they are like “two peas in a pod,” and indeed, Degas tells her he respects her more than he does the painters in his group of “Independents.”
For her part Mary Cassatt, as the playwright depicts, holds her own with the venerated, successful Degas. She calls him down in response to his churlish comments some of which fall just short of demeaning insults, a criticism he denies. She admires his work and secretly yearns for even a crumb of support from him when he looks over her work. Interestingly, Cassatt doesn’t fawn over Degas though she might very well have done so. But Ward reveals her to be a powerful woman, a feminist in her time. Her personal well-spring of confidence serves her as she goes head-to-head with Degas whose presumptuous demeanor, though based on true brilliance, is often hard to take.
Indeed, both artists were headstrong and complex individuals. Christopher Ward superbly unveils the dynamic of their unique friendship and mentorship, and he indicates that Cassatt even gave Degas ideas. The director acutely shepherds the actors who portray Degas and Cassatt authentically, as they move forward with their work sometimes with excitement but always with irony, suspicion, aloofness and reserved warmth.
The play is largely a character study about two renowned artists who circle each other in competition and veneration like atoms that need each other to form something new, but never get too close for fear of colliding and destroying themselves. Ward’s characterizations are fascinating in showing who they are and how they inspired and competed with each other. With their dialogue he succinctly captures the undercurrents-conflicts, strains, admiration, humor and collegial acceptance. The interchanges between Degas and Cassatt, adroitly acted by Babic and Herzegovitch engage throughout.
Various events highlight their relationship and Ward builds the arc of development around these. The most vital one occurs when Degas upon finding the Salon has rejected Cassatt’s last two works is thrilled and invites her to exhibit with his “Independents” (a group of artists who have broken away from the salon) that some refer to as ‘Impressionists,” a title Degas despises. Cassatt is excited, but manages to restrain her overwhelming joy in receiving the great honor. She keeps her stance with measured, balanced grace. Degas is intrigued.
During an intimate conversation about herself, Babic’s Cassatt reveals that she has had suitors, but refused to become engaged because her work was paramount. She could not allow a man to interfere with what she wished to accomplish. However, she leaves a door open for Edgar Degas when she indirectly proposes that he might be the right man to marry because they have painting in common and he would understand her driving passion for her work. Degas’ response is ironic. Indeed, it sets the tone for their future relationship. Their shared sensibilities kept their friendship intact for almost forty years, despite arguments and strains. But they obviously enjoyed sharing artistic experimentation and freedoms and had secrets between them which have gone into the ethers. Neither were letter writers, or they destroyed all their correspondence. Ultimately, their bond retains mysteries for us today.
Another event Ward expands is based upon a discovery and revelation by art historians and experts at the National Gallery over 130 years later. Cassatt is painting a work which is not finished. When Degas looks at it, while Cassatt is otherwise engaged, Degas corrects the perspective adding a corner to the painting that wasn’t there before. At first Cassatt becomes infuriated at Degas’ effrontery adding something to her work and implying she is an “inferior.” Then she realizes that it is an improvement and she apologizes and the enhancement remains. In the process of exploring Degas’ addition to Cassatt’s work, the curators and experts at the National Gallery established the Degas-Cassatt exhibition in 2014. See Art news!
Ward’s inclusion of such a scene in the play reveals volumes. Both Cassatt and Degas obviously supervised each other’s work critically and benefited from each other’s influence. This is one more important moment of many in this play. Such dynamic events illuminate both artists and their dependence on each other. As far as history has revealed, Mary Cassatt appears to be Degas only female artistic friend.
The set design is simplistic and appropriate. Paintings that Cassatt finished appear on easels and the walls of her studio. Interludes for costume changes work with music filling in the gaps. I particularly like the Erik Satie additions which I found haunting and expressive of how these two individuals were friends but kept a portion of themselves secret so that they were ultimately not completely accessible to each other. The costumes are exquisite and appropriate for that time. Additionally, Cassatt’s dresses mirror dresses worn by herself as a subject of Degas’ work. Cassatt modeled for him on a number of occasions, sometimes not appreciating how Degas rendered her.
Rather than go on with more detail, I will not spoil it. You must see this production especially if you love Degas and Cassatt. Your eyes will be opened and you will be amazed as I was at the portrayals beautifully effected by Ward’s writing and directing and the actors’ intriguing and nuanced work. But the show is in a limited run and closes 10th November. So make arrangements immediately! You will be glad you did.
The Independents runs at the Theater Center (210 W 50th St. at Broadway) with a very brief intermission. For tickets and times CLICK HERE.