Radio 4 Woman's Hour Drama Homepage
BBC Radio 4, 16-20 January 2012
Lin Coghlan's version of Ethan Frome began with a short speech in which Edith Wharton (Fenella Woolgar) told listeners that the story of Ethan (Dominic Mafham) had been previously told to her by the Hale family; now she would recount it for the listeners' benefit. We understood that she would act as an omniscient narrator, both commenting on yet sympathizing with her characters. Through this device Coghlan underlined the fact that many of the events depicted in Ethan Frome mirrored those in Wharton's life; she felt close to her protagonists because she had experienced a similarly passionate love-affair.
The action unfolded in a close-knit rural community, whose lives were linked to the seasons; planting in the spring, harvesting in the autumn. The affair between Ethan and Mattie (Jessica Raine) took place in the depths of winter, when snow lay on the ground for months on end, and transport between neighbouring villages was difficult, if not impossible. Director Sally Avens emphasized the bleakness of the setting - mirroring the bleakness of the affair - through sound effects: the quark-quark sound of crows could be regularly heard as they flew through the trees.
The identification of the characters with nature indicated that they did not have control over their lives; on several occasions they were the victims of fate. Mattie accidentally broke a pickle dish, the most treasured possession of Ethan's wife Zeena (Laurel Lefkow); Zeena returned home unexpectedly early from a visit to the doctor, thereby giving Ethan no chance to repair the dish; while Ethan and Andrew Hale (Paul Moriarty) both struggled to make a living due to poor weather and unxpected expenses. Ethan and Mattie were driven apart, as Zena followed her doctor's advice and engaged someone to work full-time around the house without telling her husband. The consequences of all these events were emphasized by a single violin that played a melancholy air in the background while the characters spoke.
However there was one ray of sunshine in Ethan and Mattie's lives; the senusousness of immediate, lived experience. When Ethan kissed a piece of cloth that Ethan was holding in her hands, we heard the soft rustle of the cloth accompanied by Ethan's rapid breathing. Mattie experienced similar pleasures as she fed Ethan's cat, who miaouwed contentedly in the background as the lovers continued to talk. For Ethan, stuck in a sterile marriage with his hypochondriac wife, such moments would never be forgotten; they provided visions of an alternative way of life that sustained him even when he became a crippled old man. Woolgar's Wharton understood how he felt, and expressed considerable sympathy for him as she concluded the melancholy tale.
Told in a series of short dialogues, linked by Wharton's narration, this Woman's Hour Drama was a haunting dramatization of a great novel.