The Heiress, starring Jessica Chastain in the title role, is now in previews at the Walter Kerr Theater on Broadway. It will run for a limited engagement of 18 weeks.Based on Henry James’ novel Washington Square, it is such a powerful story that audiences can’t get enough of it. The novel is one of James’ most popular and certainly one of his most readable books. In 1947 Ruth and Augustus Goetz wrote a play based on the book called The Heiress, which opened that year on Broadway and ran for a year. A movie, starring Olivia de Havilland, who won an Academy Award for her portrayal of the pathetically shy Catherine Sloper, came out in 1949. In 1995 the play returned to Broadway with Cherry Jones turning in a stunning performance for which she won a Tony. The play itself also won a Tony for Best Revival of a Play. In 1997 another movie, this time called Washington Square with an ending that adheres more closely to the novel than does the play, starred Jennifer Jason Leigh. And now we have another chance to see the story unfold on the legitimate stage. I can’t wait! But here is the icing on the cake. Theatergoers can make the trip downtown to see the street where the heiress lived—virtually unchanged since the time of the story, which is the 1850s. Greek Revival houses line the north side of the square just as they did when Morris Townsend came calling on Catherine Sloper. The buildings are now owned by New York University and house administrative offices, so you can’t go poking around inside. However, if you walk just two blocks south and three and a half blocks east, you come to The Merchant’s House Museum at 29 East Fourth Street. In 1835, the year Catherine Sloper’s widowed father and his daughter moved into their new home on Washington Square, the flesh-and-blood Seabury Tredwells moved into this house on Fourth Street. It has been preserved intact, complete with original furniture. Just climb the marble stoop, ring the bell, and magically step into the world of The Heiress.
And there’s more. If you want to know the details of daily life in the Washington Square neighborhood when the Tredwells and the Slopers lived there, read An Old Merchant’s House: Life at Home in New York City, 1835-65, by me. Dr. Sloper was suspicious of Catherine’s lover, as well he might have been.
From An Old Merchant’s House, Chapter Three, “Setting the Stage: The Parlors”
With the expansion of trade, more and more young men were needed to fill positions in the countinghouses. But the young men entering commercial life were a different breed from the old merchants who had inhabited the compact, closely knit town where Seabury Tredwell and those of his generation had built their businesses. The new men were brash, opportunistic, and impatient. . . .To make matters worse, lurking among the simply crass interlopers was the truly venal figure of the confidence man. The merchants were increasingly in danger of being duped by an unscrupulous cheat. It was critical for them to know whom they could trust. One of their greatest concerns was that a confidence man would win the affections of their daughters—and Seabury Tredwell had six of them.