East of Constantinople, West of Shanghai

One evening with Epifania Ognisanti di Parerga

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Sometimes we need to get away from it all. From the writing and from genre fiction and everything else.
The fans, the other writers, the social networks.
Just get away from it all.
Maybe it’s the heat and the humidity, or the tiredness of too many months spent working full tilt, or the fact that I always get melancholic on the weekend.
Anyway, yesterday I went looking for something different, and found (again) Epifania Ognisanti di Perega, the main character in The Millionairess, a comedy written in 1936 by George Bernard Shaw that was, at the time 80 years old.

The plot in a nutshell, courtesy of the usual IMDB:

Epifania is the richest woman in England. She’s also strong-willed, highly intelligent, fiercely determined and an expert at Judo, which makes her hard to live with. She’s also married, but her husband is now in love with another woman. She’s also seeing another man socially, but he seems to be more interested in his food than her. Will or can this poor little rich girl ever find true happiness? A chance meeting with an Egyptian doctor may prove interesting…

So yes, it is basically a romantic comedy, featuring a formidable central character. The story was not new to me. There is an adaptation, filmed in 1960, starring Sophia Loren in the title role and Peter Sellers as the Egyptian Doctor.

I saw it many years ago, as part of a cycle of movies starring Sellers, and found it insufferable. I found it sad and downbeat, and particularly hated the main character portrayed by Loren.

But what I saw last night is not the 1960 movie, but the 1972 adaptation, part of the BBC Play of the Month series.
Epifania is Maggie Smith, Tom Baker is the Doctor (of course), and we even get Charles Gray in the role of Epifania’s would-be paramour, Adrian Blenderbland.

And of course the cast would be enough to sell me the show. I love Maggie Smith, and in this comedy she is absolutely perfect: cold, superior, self-centered and self-assured. The character should be hateful (and was, indeed, in the Sophia Loren interpretation), but as played by Smith, Epifania is marvellous.

And of course we get the dialogue, and even in what might sound like a piece of fluff, Bernard Shaw is as cutting as ever…

EPIFANIA. I am the most interesting woman in England. I am Epifania Ognisanti di Parerga.
THE DOCTOR. Never heard of her. Italian aristocrat, I presume.
EPIFANIA. Aristocrat! Do you take me for a fool? My ancestors were moneylenders to all Europe five hundred years ago: we are now bankers to all the world.
THE DOCTOR. Jewess, eh?
EPIFANIA. Christian, to the last drop of my blood. Jews throw half their money away on charities and fancies like Zionism. The stupidest di Parerga can just walk round the cleverest Jew when it comes to moneymaking. We are the only real aristocracy in the world: the aristocracy of money.
THE DOCTOR. The plutocracy, in fact.
EPIFANIA. If you like. I am a plutocrat of the plutocrats.
THE DOCTOR. Well, that is a disease for which I do not prescribe. The only known cure is a revolution; but the mortality rate is high; and sometimes, if it is the wrong sort of revolution, it intensifies the disease. I can do nothing for you. I must go back to my work. Good morning.

So yes, this is a romantic comedy, a love story of sorts, a political satire and a meditation on money and idealism, all rolled into a tight little package filled with great lines…

EPIFANIA. Knowledge is no use without money. Are you married?
THE DOCTOR. I am married to Science. One wife is enough for me, though by my religion I am allowed four.
EPIFANIA. Four! What do you mean?
THE DOCTOR. I am what you call a Mahometan.
EPIFANIA. Well, you will have to be content with two wives if you marry me.
THE DOCTOR. Oh! Is there any question of that between us?
EPIFANIA. Yes. I want to marry you.
THE DOCTOR. Nothing doing, lady. Science is my bride.
EPIFANIA. You can have Science as well: I shall not be jealous of her. But I made a solemn promise to my father on his deathbed–

The promise made to the father is the gimmick at the core of the whole business: Epifania promised to her father that she would marry any man capable of turning 150 pounds into 50.000 in six months. The first time it did not go well: the guy made it by building a scam “kiting” cheques (the things one learns from the classics, uh?)
But the doctor made a symmetrical promise to his mother: he will marry any woman capable of surviving for six months with a starting capital of 200 piastres…

EPIFANIA. How much is two hundred piastres?
THE DOCTOR. At the rate of exchange contemplated by my mother, about thirtyfive shillings.
EPIFANIA. Hand it over.
THE DOCTOR. Unfortunately my mother forgot to provide for this contingency. I have not got thirtyfive shillings. I must borrow them from you.
EPIFANIA. I have not a penny on me. No matter: I will borrow it from the chauffeur. He will lend you a hundred and fifty pounds on my account if you dare ask him. Goodbye for six months. [She goes out].
THE DOCTOR. There is no might and no majesty save in Thee, O Allah; but oh! most Great and Glorious, is this another of Thy terrible jokes?

Bernard Shaw is, with Oscar Wilde and Max Beerbohm, responsible for a strange illusion that lingers in my mind: that in the past everybody talked in witty, snappy lines, extremely intelligent and smart, caustic and to the point.
But indeed, sometimes we need to get away from it all, and this mythical past of wit and sophistication is as good a safe haven as any other.

In case you are curious, the whole comedy can be found on YouTube, in a decent watching copy. As soon as I can I will try and track a DVD, because this is the sort of thing one needs to re-watch in times of stress.

Author: Davide Mana

Paleontologist. By day, researcher, teacher and ecological statistics guru. By night, pulp fantasy author-publisher, translator and blogger. In the spare time, Orientalist Anonymous, guerilla cook.

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