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.