When we meet Mary Cassatt in playwright Chris Ward’s new production, The Independents, playing now off Broadway at the Jerry Orbach Theater, she is at her studio awaiting a visit from Edgar Degas.
A fervent admirer of his work, Cassatt is eager to impress him at their first meeting. But things don’t go exactly as she planned. After a few terse exchanges, he stalks out abruptly, offering only a curt review of her work: “a woman should not be allowed to draw like that!”
Ward has imagined a rather inauspicious meeting between Cassatt and Degas, two of the leading lights of the Impressionist movement of the late 19th century. His play takes place entirely within the confines of Cassatt’s studio, and is simply staged with just two actors, Natasa Babic (playing Cassatt) and André Herzegovitch (as Degas).
There are few firsthand accounts of Cassatt’s relationship with Degas, but the pair collaborated closely, even working together on an unrealized journal of prints that became a fruitful new direction for Cassatt.
To tell their story, Ward spent a year researching, reading their correspondence, and incorporating reproductions of their actual words where possible. He was inspired to write the play by a 2014 exhibition at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, that paired the two artists.
The play depicts a stormy relationship between two strong-willed, fiercely independent individuals with a shared drive to capture fundamental truths through art. On the one hand is Degas, an artist who sees beauty where others do not; he is cutting, brusque, and inconsiderate. On the other is Cassatt, a woman used to fighting for space in a man’s world; she is judgmental, defensive, and easily offended.
On stage, the energy between Babic and Herzegovitch is electric, suggesting a connection that goes deeper than mutual respect. Like Robin Oliveira’s 2014 book I Always Loved You: A Story of Mary Cassatt and Edgar Degas, The Independents hints at the possibility of love—but, as the play’s title suggests, to give in to such a connection may ultimately have been against both artists’ natures.
The Independents is on view at the Jerry Orbach Theater at the Theater Center, 210 West 50th Street, New York, October 17, 2019–January 5, 2020.
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