Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Yet Another Tale from the Wandering Fulbright: Likely the Last



                        A High Old Time at the Old Vic

    That Fulbright year, we went to everything the Old Vic produced: Hamlet, Twelfth Night, the three parts of Henry VI, Lear, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Measure for Measure, and closing with Henry VIII.  We got the Underground from Kew to Waterloo Station on the South Bank of the Thames and hoofed it on down the road, farther south to the beloved Old Vic theatre. All three of us, to sit up in the gods on benches for, I think it was, five shillings. I, in my professional zeal, sometimes went twice to see them.
   Our six-year old Linnea, at the matinee intervals, got her ice cream, and had a fine time.  Especially at the end of Hamlet, when, with John Neville, as that prince of all the princes, lying there dead in as beautiful a pool of light as I had ever seen, I saw Linnea’s eyes flood with tears. In a rapture she upped onto her knees on the bench, threw her arms around me and blurted out, “O, Daddy, thank you for bringing me”. I knew then that her education was assured.
   But what I wanted to talk about is the production of Henry VIII  with Edith Evans, sovereign lady of the English stage back then, as Queen Katherine and none other than John Gielgud, thought by many to be the greatest living actor, as Cardinal Wolsey. It was all the talk of the town. The opening would be a gala.
    Betty and I decided, as soon as we heard of It, that we must bust the budget, just this once, and book really good seats in the center of the orchestra. We just could not miss this sure-to-be historic performance.
   And so, there we were, on opening night, dressed as best we could and nearly breathless. A friendly young usher whispered to us that everyone in the English theatrical establishment who had the night off was in attendance to pay court to Evans and Gielgud. We shuddered a bit as we were shown to our so excellent seats, maybe twenty feet from the stage and center. And the performance began-- with the ritual playing of God Save the Queen.
  
    All went well. At the interval we even splurged on a glass of sherry in the theatre’s upper class bar and were minding our own business…. when we began to hear this remarkable female voice behind us, warm, refined, musical, of deep timbre-- and faintly New York American.
    I sneaked a look and there she was, Maria Callas, the diva of the century, perhaps of several centuries. She also was drinking sherry and bantering with her companions, Lord and Lady Harewood, her closest English friends-- and only ten feet away! I feigned an excuse to turn around. And there the great lady stood, graceful, relaxed, beautiful, all in the grand manner.
   As I dared to stare-- and it was a calamity for me-- there beneath her conservative, smart cocktail dress were… thick ankles! I recoiled inwardly and suddenly with a broken heart. I learned in an instant that the world was indeed badly flawed. The great soprano had been able to get rid of all her excess youthful weight except from around her ankles, and there was nothing under the sun that she could do about it.
   I had to pull myself together for the rest of the play and, upon returning to our seats, saw that Callas was sitting in the row just behind us and a seat or two deeper into the row! Imagine! She was in town to sing Violetta at Covent Garden in a couple days-- to which we had tickets up in the gods of the Royal Opera. Ever since we began listening to her recordings back in Wyoming, I had been besotted with her-- and, I am proud to say, still am.
    And so-- we managed, in the thrill of it all, to behave ourselves. When what to my wondering eyes should appear but Ralph Vaughn Williams just across the aisle from us. And so it went. We were surrounded.
   On stage, Evans and Gielgud were coming up on the famous scene in which the Queen begs Wolsey for his support-- which, of course, he refuses. Everybody in the house was waiting for this great moment.  When it came and the two great actors got into it, suddenly, the stage went dead quiet. Evans and Gielgud froze up, neither able to remember a word of their lines. The audience froze up with them, in that wonderful terror of  the theatre when things go wrong. The Queen and the Cardinal made faint little tries at getting back on track, but no good. They were entirely lost.
   So what did Gielgud do?  He offered Dame Edith his hand; she rose from her chair and its dais, stepped down, and accompanied Gielgud, on his arm, off the stage! Just as though that were the way it was supposed to play. They left the stage  in the grand manner.
   How long were they gone? Who knows?  Time stood still. Until, probably under thirty seconds, they swept back onto the stage and tore the place apart with a performance that truly did “ascend the brightest heaven of invention”. The audience cheered. Callas, right behind us, applauding away like any good old American gal, just like the rest of us. No doubt that she too, in her momentous career, had forgotten her lines.
   We are all of us together in this great mess called life.
   The theatre can be the site of a particular sort of forgiveness.

  We mused on this as we made our way home on a late train to our ancient flat in cold and cozy Kew--  now with this tale to tell.  
                                                       ~~~



Yet Another Tale from the Wandering Fulbright:



Yet Another Tale from the Wandering Fulbright
                                Likely the last                         

                        A High Old Time at the Old Vic

    That Fulbright year, we went to everything the Old Vic produced: Hamlet, Twelfth Night, the three parts of Henry VI, Lear, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Measure for Measure, and closing with Henry VIII.  We got the Underground from Kew to Waterloo Station on the South Bank of the Thames and hoofed it on down the road, farther south to the beloved Old Vic theatre. All three of us, to sit up in the gods on benches for, I think it was, five shillings. I, in my professional zeal, sometimes went twice to see them.
   Our six-year old Linnea, at the matinee intervals, got her ice cream, and had a fine time.  Especially at the end of Hamlet, when, with John Neville, as that prince of all the princes, lying there dead in as beautiful a pool of light as I had ever seen, I saw Linnea’s eyes flood with tears. In a rapture she upped onto her knees on the bench, threw her arms around me and blurted out, “O, Daddy, thank you for bringing me”. I knew then that her education was assured.
   But what I wanted to talk about is the production of Henry VIII  with Edith Evans, sovereign lady of the English stage back then, as Queen Katherine and none other than John Gielgud, thought by many to be the greatest living actor, as Cardinal Wolsey. It was all the talk of the town. The opening would be a gala.
    Betty and I decided, as soon as we heard of It, that we must bust the budget, just this once, and book really good seats in the center of the orchestra. We just could not miss this sure-to-be elemental performance.
   And so, there we were, on opening night, dressed as best we could and nearly breathless. A friendly young usher whispered to us that everyone in the English theatrical establishment who had the night off was in attendance to pay court to Evans and Gielgud. We shuddered a bit as we were shown to our so excellent seats, maybe twenty feet from the stage and center. And the performance began-- with the ritual playing of God Save the Queen.
  
    All went well. At the interval we even splurged on a glass of sherry in the theatre’s upper class bar and were minding our own business…. when we began to hear this remarkable female voice behind us, warm, refined, musical, of deep timbre-- and faintly New York American.
   I sneaked a look and there she was, Maria Callas, the diva of the century, perhaps of several centuries. She also was drinking sherry and bantering with her companions, Lord and Lady Harewood, her closest English friends-- and only ten feet away! I feigned an excuse to turn around. And there the great lady stood, graceful, relaxed, beautiful, all in the grand manner.
   As I dared to stare-- and it was a calamity for me-- there beneath her conservative black cocktail dress were… thick ankles! I recoiled inwardly with a broken heart. I learned in an instant that the world was indeed badly flawed. The great soprano had been able to get rid of all her excess youthful weight except from around her ankles, and there was nothing under the sun that she could do about it.
   I had to pull myself together for the rest of the play and, upon returning to our seats, saw that Callas was sitting in the row just behind us and a seat or two deeper into the row! Imagine! She was in town to sing Violetta at Covent Garden in a couple days-- to which we had tickets up in the gods of the Royal Opera. Ever since we began listening to her recordings back in Wyoming, I had been besotted with her-- and, I am proud to say, still am.
    And so-- we managed, in the thrill of it all, to behave ourselves. When what to my wondering eyes should appear but Ralph Vaughn Williams just across the aisle from us. And so it went. We were surrounded.
   On stage, Evans and Gielgud were coming up on the famous scene in which the Queen begs Wolsey for his support-- which, of course, he refuses. Everybody in the house was waiting for this great moment.  When it came and the two great actors got into it, suddenly, the stage went dead quiet. Evans and Gielgud froze up, neither able to remember a word of their lines. The audience froze up with them, in that wonderful terror of  the theatre when things go wrong. The Queen and the Cardinal made faint little tries at getting back on track, but no good. They were entirely lost.
   So what did Gielgud do?  He offered Dame Edith his hand; she rose from her chair and its dais, stepped down, and accompanied Gielgud, on his arm, off the stage! Just as though that were the way it was supposed to play. They were full of bravura and in the grand manner.
   How long were they gone? Who knows?  Time stood still. Until, probably under thirty seconds, they swept back onto the stage and tore the place apart with a performance that truly did “ascend the brightest heaven of invention”. The audience cheered. Callas, right behind us, applauding away like any good old American gal, just like the rest of us. No doubt that she too, in some performances in her momentous career, had forgotten her lines.
   We are all of us together in this great mess called life.
The theatre can be the site of a particular sort of forgiveness.

  We mused on this as we made our way home to our ancient flat, waiting for us all cold and cozy, in Kew, supremely gratified and now with this tale to tell.  
                           ~~~



Sunday, June 10, 2012

From the Splendors of the Past


                    Nugent Monck in Norwich

      I was told he was old, crotchety, and unpredictable. and who knows how he would receive me, once I got there-- to Norwich, to visit and learn what I could from the noted Nugent Monck, who had single-handedly established the long tradition of fine, non-professional regional drama in England. There were those who said that Monck knew as good as everything about staging plays. Be that as it may, he had surely known as good as everyone in the grand old days of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  I was told that he knew all the good old gossip-- and the dirt.
   So, I took the train down to Norwich and by hook and crook found the old man’s house. At eighty-one he was in what would turn out to be the last year of his life: He died two months after I visited him.
    I knocked at his door and in due time this shriveled, awful looking, little old man, 100% frontally naked, opened the door and, with not the slightest sign of interest or enthusiasm, ushered me in. With no preliminaries; he thrust into my hand an old, worn text of King Lear and a fresh Penguin copy of it, saying that some “dreadful man” wanted Harley Granville-Barker’s cutting of the play, and I was to sit right down there in the hallway of his quite ordinary middle-class English domicile and transfer Barker’s cutting to the new copy. Me! standing right there, holding in my hand the great Granville-Barker’s own prompt book for one of the most important productions of Shakespeare in all the modern movement!
   Well, I usually do as I am told, and so sat at a small table in the hallway and went to work, line by line, while old Monck went upstairs to put himself together (put some clothes on) for our visit.
    By the time he came down, I was almost finished with the first act and shocked at how heavily Barker had cut the text. It was a revelation.  And Monck somehow owned the prompt book of that storied production!
   He took me to dinner at a good hotel and seemed to be enjoying himself, even with me. I mused on the slightly salacious turn in his conversation on a young woman and her young gentleman at a nearby table. When  he had outlined our next day’s tour of Norwich, it was back to his house where he had a comfortable room ready for me. I believe I was a little afraid of him….
   Next day, we were off to his famous Maddermarket Theatre that he had founded in 1921. The old hall in which the theatre had been built, Monck told me, was on the site of a medieval oratory where a bad priest had been murdered by his inamorata right in the middle of his mass. And since a mass may never be left unfinished, the ghost of this rotten cleric keeps coming back, “appearing” on the stage, over the site of the altar,  trying to finish his mass.  Monck and all the people of his theatre swear by this: their bona-fide, residential ghost. It really was spooky.
    Then Monck wanted me to see the exact spot in the square where tradition has it that Will Kempe, Shakespeare’s famous actor of fools and clowns, after his break up with the company, dazzled all England  by Morris dancing, non-stop, from London all the way to Norwich. He ended his dance, “right there!” Monck said, pointing at a marker in the cobbles. As I love lore like this, I fell for this juicy bit, imagining that famous funny man with a moving mosh-pit, pressing en masse, behind him, raucous and obscene, following him to the end, to see him drop to the ground in the grand manner, in performative triumph.
    I think I was most seduced (and I must be careful with that word when in reference to Monck) when I learned that Monck had spent ten days in jail in Birmingham, in, I think it was 1919, for the crime of blasphemy. Think of that! He had dared, for the first time ever, to show on stage, one of the medieval mystery plays, the Nativity Play from the beautiful York Cycle. Just think, he sat in jail, doing time, for presenting a piece of medieval religious drama!  What could be more distinguished!
   On my own, I prowled around town a bit, went in awe of the cathedral with its gray-black flinty fa├žade, and felt that I was coming to like Norwich, way out there, facing the eastern fens and the North Sea beyond. Cold, wet, and dark by definition..
   Monck insisted on our having a cab to the station and there he put me on the train back to London. He seemed reluctant, almost tender, to let me go-- poor old guy, so valiant, so brilliant, and now so alone-- and soon, so very soon, dead for all his pains.
    He had even cooked breakfast for me.
                                          ~~~~

By the way: Some yeas later in London, in Covent Garden, a performance artist took an empty store-front space, painted it from top to bottom in bright, flat, featureless white, then spread white sand over all the floor and swept clean an oval race course track around the fairly large room.
    Dressed  in black pants and shirt, his face whitened, he proceeded to walk continuously, with an absolutely unchanging pace and without the least expression, for seven days and seven nights. How he solved the problems of his biology, I have no idea. I know only that he walked continuously and steadily.
   He was compelling, beautiful, meaningful to watch in his perfect composure. People came in off the street to watch a bit; some looked in from the sidewalk (pavement) outside. 
I went to see him three times during the week. On the last day. I stood up close to the track. When, in his trance-like  concentration, he passed by me, I whispered at him, “Thank you.” He flinched with the faintest suggestion of a smile and went on. He had heard me!
    At the end his work of art, there was to be a party to which anyone might come. I’ve always regretted that I did not, but on the other hand, the lovely spell of his work might have been wrecked. As it is, I have remained thankful for what he had shown me of the human creature.
   Much as a woman, four years ago, walked home from Denver to Powell, Wyoming-- 520 miles. She was and is still dear to me. I regard her long walk as a work of art that, like the performer’s In London. It thrills and illuminates. I should have thought of Will Kempe.



Saturday, June 2, 2012

BREAKING NEWS: A BIG DINNER EVENT

 
JUST TO LET YOU KNOW WHAT WE ARE UP TO.
WE HOPE IT WILL BE AN HISTORIC EVENT
IN A MYTHIC AMERICAN SETTING.
AT THE VERY LEAST IT WILL BE AN IMMENSE PLEASURE
FOR US CLUB MEMBERS ON THIS SIDE ATLANTIC
TO GET TOGETHER, THINK HARD ABOUT OUR BELOVED SPORT,
AND TOAST THE QUEEN.