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Archive for March 17th, 2008

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In the November 19, 2007 issue of The New Yorker, in the Onward and Upward with the Arts section, there is an article by Claudia Roth Pierpont entitled The Player Kings – How the Rivalry of Orson Welles and Laurence Olivier made Shakespeare Modern. Along with the stated thesis the article consists mainly of a long list of Olivier’s successes (at least some of which were undeserved) and Welles’ failures (at least some of which were undeserved).

The piece opens with an account of the Old Vic’s 1946 American tour, starting with Henry IV parts one and two in New York. I was in the audience for part two and have a few memories of the event. This recollection got me to thinking about a number of my theater experiences, many of them Shakespeare performances, which had some significance derived either from the presentation or from some coincident event.

In part two as presented in New York, Ralph Richardson played Falstaff and Olivier played Justice Shallow. The theater was very large and my seat was very far back so that I could barely make out what was being said and mostly remember the consistent roar of laughter following Falstaff’s lines. It must have been a hell of a performance by Richardson – I wish I had heard it. I have added as an appendix Woolcott Gibbs’ review from the May 18, 1946 issue of The New Yorker. (I trust they will not object. I have this due to the thoughtful generosity of my stepson, Rex Ruthman, who gave me the Complete New Yorker on DVDs.) I must say that I am in almost perfect agreement with Gibbs on both the play itself and the performance as far as I was able to make it out.

In 1982 I saw Henry IV, parts one and two on a rather auspicious occasion. I arrived in London on one of my frequent business trips on Sunday, June 6 (D-Day for those of you old enough to remember). The pattern of these trips was that I would land at Heathrow around noon and right after checking into my hotel (usually the Park Court on Bayswater between Lancaster Gate and Queensway) would buy a copy of What’s On in London, which was a very good listing of all the upcoming week’s events of interest. This issue said that there was to be an opening of the Henry IV sequence at The Barbican, which I knew nothing about at the time. I had a hard time finding the place from the Moorgate station in the City of London, which was listed as the nearby Underground station in What’s On. It turned out to be nearly adjacent to one of my favorite haunts, the Museum of London. I went there late afternoon Monday and found myself walking immense corridors which were completely empty – I felt like I was wandering in some de Chirico landscape. When I finally found the ticket office I told the young woman I needed to see Henry IV parts one and two, preferably in that order. She asked, “Are your free Wednesday the ninth?” I said yes and she asked “And Thursday the tenth?” Yes. “I have two reviewers’ tickets which are unused.” So I had two tickets in the first row of the stalls, to me the best seats in the house, for about six pounds each. Wonderful.

I went early Wednesday evening to have dinner at the café in the Barbican, a buffet service (the Brits say “buffy”) with acceptable food and an outdoor dining area next to the artificial pond which makes up the core of the Center. The place is overrun by some of the boldest pigeons I have ever encountered. While I was having my meal and fending off pigeons some unusual people started arriving. The women were all done up in brocade gowns, dripping jewelry, and the men in tuxedos, which seemed out of place in the bright afternoon sun. When we entered the theater the program that was handed out said it was a Royal Gala honoring Prince and Princess Michael of Kent – this was the Grand Opening of the Royal Shakespeare’s tenancy at The Barbican (The Barbican Center itself had only been open since March 3 when the Queen did the honors). After we had taken our seats, suddenly everyone stood up and, not wanting to be out of step, so did I. Then the royal couple entered their box which was about thirty feet to my left at the same level. The Princess had one of the longest necks I have seen gracing a woman – she was wearing a four strand pearl choker (big pearls of course) and looked to have room for a couple more. (Her father was German and a Nazi and there was something of a scandal years later about allegations that he had been an SS officer.)

I thought the Trevor Nunn productions were abysmal. Patrick Stewart’s Henry was pedestrian at best. The Irish ingénue playing Hal was so puerile that I thought that he should have stamped his feet in the argument scene in part two. The worst thing, however, was the set and scene changes for Part Two. There was a big framework representation of The Boar’s Head and neighboring structures which were on tracks that allowed them to be turned this way and that. The stage hands were deliberately visible in the half-light between scenes and one found oneself more interested in the scene shifting than the actors’ performances. (I found this to be a common failing with Royal Shakespeare, overwhelming the performance with elaborate or tricky sets or other “clever” devices.)

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I saw Ralph Richardson just once more, about a year or so before his death, probably in 1981, in an arena style presentation of The Wild Duck in a small studio theater – the Cottesloe in the National, I think (it was too early to be the Pit in the Barbican). I have been unable to find any reference to this production on the Web, which is quite maddening. Richardson played Old Ekdal. His costume included a cap which he held in his hand much of the time. At one point he dropped the cap – and everyone in the place froze, actors and audience alike. He was rather rickety at this time and as he stood for several seconds staring at the cap absolutely no-one was breathing. He slowly, teeteringly, bent over and retrieved the hat and slowly, teeteringly, straightened up. Then the old ham looked around the house sporting an ear-to-ear grin and the audience and cast exploded with laughter, partly in relief and partly acknowledging the masterful bit of scene thievery.

I have seen Patrick Stewart just one other time as well. He was in a production of The Merchant of Venice at the Donmar Warehouse another studio theater used by the Royal Shakespeare Company as a training camp for its young actors. This place really was a warehouse and the seating was a done-on-the-cheap framework of iron plumbing pipes with boards laid across them, which were damned uncomfortable. The audience surrounded the performance space, so it was arena style staging, without sets. The productions always included one RS regular, probably with an eye to increasing attendance and, perhaps, to be an additional level of instruction for the student cast. Stewart played Shylock and resorted to the cheap trick of using a (bad) lower east side Yiddish accent which suggested Borscht Belt stand-up comics rather than the evil usurer. His whole performance seemed downright lazy and I have never been able to muster any respect for him since.

(A note on performing Shylock: When I was performing in the University of Chicago’s University Theater we did Oedipus translated by David Grene, a popular (!) professor of Greek and classics, who sat in on some of our rehearsals and provided advice, stories and good conversation. Grene professed to be such a Shakespeare nut that he was willing to drive hundreds of miles just to see a small college performance of any Shakespeare play.

In his youth he had been a hanger-on at the Abbey in Dublin – it was said that, asked about Grene, Barry Fitzgerald said, “Was he that little red-headed bastard that was always climbing over the seats during our rehearsals?” Grene said that the problem with most performances of Shylock is that out of the natural desire to be loved the actor tends to soften him, taken in by the “do we not bleed” argument. He said that he had seen a performance of Merchant in Ireland where the actor played Shylock as pure evil, like Barabas in Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta, and that this provided the most effective Merchant he had ever seen.)

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In 1943 I saw the famous Margaret Webster and Eva Le Gallienne production of Othello featuring Paul Robeson, Jose Ferrer, Uta Hagen and Webster herself. Although I am about to do bit of caviling, let me say at the outset that I think this was the most magnificent Shakespeare production I have ever seen – it stands out in my memory all by itself and still gives me pleasure just in the recollection.

Robeson had been performing and perfecting his Othello for several years in England but there was trepidation about showing a coupling of a real black man with a white woman in 1930s and 40s racist America. Robeson’s performance received universal acclaim (still does) on both sides of the Atlantic. While many reviewers of other performances of Othello fault the lead actor for not being regal enough, that certainly wasn’t the problem with Robeson.

As I recall, his entry in scene two was preceded by some of the initial dialog with Iago offstage right. You could hear the audience almost gasp in response to the booming bass voice. Onstage he was a head taller and much more massive than any of the other players – and very regal in bearing. Therein lay several problems. Robeson’s “regalness” was just this side of appearing wooden and his majestic bass voice, with only one dynamic, reduced volume, became monotonous, literally, and was on the verge of being tiresome.

It is difficult for the actor portraying Othello to maintain control, to remain central, in the face of the very lively and active Iago. In this case Ferrer, mustering an absolutely brilliant performance, took command of the stage and the drama. It was a great pleasure to watch him but it did upset the balance of the play. Lewis Nichols’ New York Times review makes a shrewd observation about Ferrer’s performance, “Mr. Ferrer also is excellent as Iago, his interpretation taking no sides in the long quarrel as to whether the Moor’s “ancient” had been inspired by thoughts of Cassio’s gaining a position he wished, or his wife’s having yielded to the Moor. By taking no sides, Mr. Ferrer follows the track that Iago is unexplained evil, and he holds that throughout.” Note the parallel to ‘David Grene’s’ Shylock. All of this seems to me to be just another paragraph in the long Coquelin vs Stanislavski (or its various Method offshoots) debate. I’ll come back to this later.

Uta Hagen (then Ferrer’s wife) was an engaging and melting Desdemona. In later years she conducted a very well known and respected acting academy. I found out only recently that my college friend and acting colleague, Fritz Weaver, studied with her. Margaret Webster not only did a great directing job but she was also was an excellent hot-blooded Emilia. Cassio, whoever he was, looked like a window dummy amongst this crew of firecrackers.

I have seen only one other stage presentation of Othello. That was in 1980 at the Olivier Theatre (Royal National Theatre, South Bank) with Paul Scofield playing the lead. It was in all respects but one a run-of-the-mill production. Scofield’s Othello was another matter altogether. I detected two technical details that were interesting and, to me at least, very effective. One was a hint of a Jamaican accent which not only was consistent with the fact that Othello was not a Venetian but, to a Brit, subtly evoked racial feelings. (This was very different in intensity and intention from Stewart’s Lower East Side mistake.) The second was that he delivered several speeches, most especially the final one, in a manner that suggested military officialese. The final speech sounded almost like a recitation of a military resume. You might not think that this was an effective ploy but I can tell you that at the curtain the audience stood while it applauded and when the lights came up I saw tears streaming down the cheeks of those veteran, hardened Shakespeare watchers.

(This just in: the current New Yorker (Jan 21, 2008 ) has a review by John Lahr of a new production of Othello with a Nigerian-Englishman playing the lead role. It is in the Donmar no less which I believe is no longer a Royal Shakespeare venue. I trust the seating has been improved. It also sounds like it now has a more conventional stage because the sets are mentioned. Lahr restates the arguments about Iago’s motivation and does mention the evil-for-evil’s sake theory.)

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One can’t get through this life without seeing a number of Hamlets (I often think T. S. Eliot wasn’t much off the mark when he said Hamlet is the Mona Lisa of the stage). Since it is Shakespeare’s longest play, more than 3900 lines, it can often turn into an endurance contest. Two performances stick in my memory for almost extraneous reasons. I saw Maurice Evans in a truncated version called “The GI Hamlet” which he performed for the troops during WW II. Evans was the prince of the “elecutionists” mentioned in Pierpont’s New Yorker piece. The way they popped their “p”s must have given the first row a bath. (I heard a recording of Barrymore doing the main soliloquies (“To be …“ and “What a rogue …”) and he was just as bad.) As far as I could make out, the whole purpose of this production was to glorify Evans.

I saw a Korean kid from Hawaii play the lead in a production at the Tyrone Guthrie in Minneapolis. It was a very entertaining evening. He got more laughs for Hamlet’s jokes than any other actor I have seen. He got one gratuitous laugh for the line that contains “with heavy lidded eyes …” when he paused and looked around the house, seeking a response. Nonetheless it was a pleasant evening.

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Woolcott Gibbs reviewed three plays in the April 19, 1949 issue of The New Yorker, the first was the opening of Death of a Salesman, which I will come back to in a while, and the second was a production of the Boston Repertory Association, Richard III. Richard Whorf produced, directed, performed the lead and designed the costumes and the sets for this remarkable performance.

The costumes were made of a stiff material, probably a thick felt, the main body being black and the whole costume being very geometrical looking with large triangular lapels and wide cuffs on the sleeves the color of the character’s house badge, red for the Lancastrians and white for the Yorkists. The whole appearance reminded one of the figures on playing cards. Aside from being visually striking and appealing, the costumes helped the audience identify affiliations in the confusing jumble of participants. The sets were abstract, very tall flats of a dark textured color, suggesting stone, placed in various offsets to provide paths for entrance and exit. The lighting only illuminated the lower areas and the dark looming walls disappeared in the darkness as they rose into the flies.

Whorf’s performance as Richard was just as striking as his design. He really played up the deformity of both body and motion (which is not that unusual) and his speech would rise almost to falsetto when a line indicating one of Richard’s evil intentions was spoken. The whole effect reminded me of German expressionist film performances (Conrad Veidt in Caligari or Max Schreck in Nosferatu come to mind) and was impressively effective. Clearly, Richard Whorf was firmly in the Coquelin camp.

This might be the best place to very briefly discuss the Stanislavsky v. Coquelin disputes. Roughly, very roughly, Coquelin’s approach to acting was for the actor to consciously and deliberately employ mechanisms to evoke responses from the audience. He called the mechanisms “conventions” even though they may have been invented in the performance rather than arising from any cultural context. (Some theater is entirely determined by cultural conventions – Kabuki for example.) Constant Coquelin’s exposition of his theories, Art and the Actor, is available via Google books (this is one of their digitized books from the Stanford Library – it would be gross understatement to say that I was surprised and pleased to find this book available – without cost no less! Google is to be praised and thanked for this wonderful contribution to our intellectual resources.)

Just as roughly, Stanislavsky methods (he had several and his various descendants have several) are based on the actor psychologically merging with the portrayed character. The ways of doing that are many. Sometimes the actor is told to identify aspects of his own personality in that of the character and others do the reverse, find aspects of the character’s personality in himself – it all comes out about the same. The idea is that if the actor and the character become one then the behavior of the actor will be the character’s and the visible and audible manifestations will empathetically evoke the “right” responses in the audience. These methods seem more appropriate for modern, “realistic” plays, with their heavy emphasis on character as the driving force for the events of the drama. Whether it is appropriate or helpful in portraying Richard III, Iago or Shylock is doubtful. Also doubtful is whether theories have any real consequence for the actor – they may be just props (in both senses).

In any event, Richard Whorf’s production and performance were very unusual and unusually effective, deserving more attention than Woolcott Gibbs afforded them.

In 1979 I saw a RSC production of Richard III featuring John Wood in the Royal National Theatre’s Olivier Theatre. This was the first time I had been to that auditorium. It is very large and has the largest staging area I have ever seen. When opened all the way the backstage area appears to reach the vanishing point and this production used every available inch of the space producing some very impressive scenes.

This performance was quite the opposite of the Whorf Richard, brightly lit, big and noisy and filled with vibrancy. The set was semi-abstract; in particular there was a wall-like structure stage left that had an irregularly shaped opening cut into it about waist high. When Richard becomes king there is a series of mimed executions where the victims’ heads were projected through the opening and a swordsman swings his blade. After that had gone on for awhile I noticed that running along the edge of the stage (which was at floor level) was a gutter which was (audibly!) running with a red liquid. I felt like jumping up and cheering. This sort of uninhibited theatricality was just right for this particular Shakespearean drama and one occasion where RSC’s “cleverness” paid off.

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As I mentioned above, the April 19, 1949 New Yorker also had a review of the first production of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman which I also saw during the early weeks of this initial run. When the final curtain came down I remarked to my companion that Lee Cobb should have been given credit for writing the play. What I meant was that Cobb accomplished more with beautifully timed silences than Miller did with his ham fisted dialog. That “attention must be paid” speech Willie’s wife delivers in the graveyard is the work of a dramaturgical lummox. Mildred Dunnock should have walked downstage, plunked her rear end down on the apron, legs dangling into the pit, and delivered it directly to the audience. It certainly doesn’t fit into the context of the play.

There was an interesting example of a Coquelin convention developed by Cobb. There is a well known Jewish gesture used to indicate resignation, submission to fate, the futility of resistance. The shoulders are shrugged, both hands, palms up, are raised almost to shoulder height – well, whadda ya gonna do? In the course of the performance Cobb created a modified form of this gesture, raising only one hand half way with a sort of half-shrug. He used it every time fate handed Willie a new insult: when the refrigerator breaks right after the last payment, when he’s fired and so on. In Willie’s final scene Cobb stands alone in the middle of the stage looking like a bull after the picador is through with it and he stands there and he stands there and then the shrug and very slowly the hand floats up. It was far and away the most powerful line in the whole play.

Lee J. Cobb came from the Group Theater of Stella Adler (studied under Stanislavsky), the empress of the actors, who influenced Harold Clurman, Lee Strasberg, Sanford Meisner and all the other Methodists.

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Macbeth is one of my favorite Shakespeare plays, partly because it is the least polished, the least reworked and, therefore, most spontaneous of all his works. Rather like David Grene, I would go to see any production of Macbeth under the belief that any reading of it is at least acceptable. I did see one amateur performance at the Bear Gardens Museum in Southwark which proved the above generalization, like all others, not to be true. The hard seats and the dreary performance and the late hour proved to be too much and I left in the middle of the performance.

I don’t think I could have seen the Judith Anderson performance in 1941. I was only 12 at the time and have no recollection of the play. But I do recall seeing her do the sleepwalking scene, with sets and costume, so it must have been on television, perhaps the Ed Sullivan show. It was not unlike her portrayal of Medea, Robinson Jeffers’ take-off of his own Tower Beyond Tragedy, which was a take-off of Euripedes’ Medea, which I did see. She gave scenery-chewing a good name.

The best Macbeth I have ever seen, another performance for which I can find no record, was presented in a reworked, undistinguished nineteenth century church in Islington, a working class enclave on London’s northeast. I believe the troupe was called The Shakespeare Repertory Company and one of its founding board members was Tyrone Guthrie. Across the street was a large group of multistoried residences that we in the US would call Projects and in Britain are modern forms of Council Housing. On the walk from the nearest Underground station, crossing under railroad trestles with ads for brake pads attached, I passed a number of food shops selling an age-old poor Englishman’s staple, boiled eels. Unfortunately, I had just had supper was not able to consider having some – I like very much some other eel preparations that I have had over the years.

In the church there was an excellent modified form of the hypothetical stage in Shakespeare’s Globe. All that was missing was the upper level stage over the inner stage to the rear of the main one. Lady Macbeth was played by Sarah Miles and I believe that, without qualification, she was the best I have ever seen. I don’t remember who played Macbeth but, for some unexplained reason, I keep thinking it may have been Jeremy Brett – I have absolutely no evidence to support that belief.

This was in all regards an excellent production. As far as I could make out the only text removed was that nonsense by Hecate in Act IV Scene 1 which is universally credited to someone other than Shakespeare, probably Middleton. In particular, the handling of the Witches was straightforward, avoiding any hint of self-consciousness, embarrassment or hokiness. This is important because, in a sense, the change in the Witches’ relationship to Macbeth is the very heart of the drama.

Miles made the motivation for Macbeth’s submission to her believable by making her sexy, as unlikely as that sounds. Most performances of Macbeth err in making Lady Macbeth the main, or even only, villain. At worst, she only gets him started on his evil course, thereafter his villainy is entirely self-generated. By act four he is a devil incarnate, a witch.

To explain that last remark I need to go on a long circuitous digression, so please bear with me.

Among Victorians, especially Shakespeare critics, there was something like a parlor game posing hypothetical questions such as ‘what courses did Hamlet take at Wittenberg and what were his grades?’ One of the most popular of these was ‘how many children did Lady Macbeth have?’ (One cannot start such a discussion without the obligatory quotation of Sir Thomas Browne’s famous line from the introduction to Hydriotaphia (Urn Burial) “What song the Syrens sang, or what name Achilles assumed when he hid himself among women, though puzzling questions, are not beyond all conjecture.” I should also point out that Robert Graves did, in fact, provide such conjectures.) In the early fifties, while I was living at the foot of MacDougal Street (see the post about Mama Savarese), I wrote a long paper to answer the question about Lady Macbeth which was really about the interesting things that came to mind along the way.

The strongest possible answer to the question is indicated in two passages: Lady MacBeth’s “I have given suck …” and MacBeth’s “… whilst I hold a barren scepter in my grip … To make them kings, the seed of Banquo kings” The answer is at least one but none by MacBeth.

In the process of trying to extract a stronger answer I found myself more and more examining the symbolism in Act IV, Scene 1, especially the contents of the Witches’ cauldron which is a seething pot of emasculation symbols (“…Eye of newt, and toe of frog, … tongue of dog, Adder’s fork, and blind-worm’s sting, Lizard’s leg … Nose of Turk, and …
Finger of birth-strangl’d babe Ditch-deliver’d by a drab … sow’s blood, that hath eaten Her nine farrow). The theme of emasculation and sterility is symbolically carried throughout the play from the hypothetical baby whose brains Lady MacBeth would dash out to the “abjuration” wherein Macbeth compels the witches to answer his questions, to the bloody babe, MacDuff, ripped from the womb. It is a leitmotif.

Then I got to wondering about the rest of the dumb-show in that scene. The armed head probably means nothing more than battle and the bloody child is MacDuff and the crowned child with branch is Malcolm but who are the eight kings followed by Banquo and why does the eighth hold a mirror in his hand?

At about this point I tried to find out something about the “real” Macbeth, the history behind the play. Fortuitously an article appeared in a Sunday newspaper magazine at about this time giving these “facts”: Lady MacBeth’s name was Gruoch; she was married to Gillecomgain who fathered her son Lulach; Gillecomgain was killed in the Viking fashion, his house and grounds with their staff surrounded and burned (the Sicilian Mafia also inherited this technique from the Vikings), perhaps by MacBeth; Duncan was the usurper, Gruoch had a rightful claim to the throne; Lulach died with MacBeth in the battle on Dunsinane and the hill is now called Lewis Height; Fleance ran to Wales where he became the royal steward to the Prince of Wales; his son, Walter Steward became the royal steward to Scotland; a long line of Stuart kings in Scotland descended from Walter right up to James VI of Scotland, James I of England.

A lot of this is speculation or surmise but the basics are pretty close. Lulach probably died years after MacBeth and I don’t know about Lewis Height. Lady MacBeth had some claim on the throne but it is a complicated business. It is unlikely MacBeth had anything to do with the death of his cousin Gillecomgain. There is an excellent explanation of the culture and history of the Scottish succession practices and a more accurate account of the facts as far as they are known, in “What Do We Really Know About MacBeth?”

There were more than eight kings in the succession – I found this in a forum on the web:

DESCENDANCY OF KING JAMES

Banquo
Fleance [married a daughter of the Prince of Wales]
Walter Steward [Lord Steward of Scotland]
Alane Steward
Alexander Steward
John Steward
Walter Steward [married Margaret, descendant of David I]
Robert II 1371-1390 King of Scotland
Robert III 1390-1406 King of Scotland
James I 1406-1437 King of Scotland
James II 1437-1460 King of Scotland
James III 1460-1488 King of Scotland
James IV 1488-1513 King of Scotland
James V 1513-1542 King of Scotland
Mary Queen of Scots 1542-1567 Queen of Scotland
James VI of Scotland 1567-1625 King of Scotland

James IV married Margaret, daughter of Henry VII
James VI became James I of England 1603-1625

I believe this play was written in considerable haste in response to a royal command from the new king of England a year or more before the customary date assigned, 1605, presented at Whitehall on an “arena” stage as described by the remarkable literary detective, Leslie Hotson (Shakespeare’s Arena – Sewanee Review, Summer, 1953), and that it is blatant political pandering to further the cause of Shakespeare’s performing group. The last king in the apparition is holding a mirror up so that James would see his own face – the last king in the line.

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On one of my many business trips to London I was surprised by a language oddity from the news readers on BBC regarding the pronunciation of “controversy”. Instead of saying con’-tro-ver”-sy (primary accent on the third syllable, secondary on the first) they said con-trov”-er-sy (with perhaps a slight secondary accent on the last syllable). I had never heard the word pronounced that way and had hard time believing it was acceptable. In any event, it seemed like a BBC affectation to me.

At some later time, I was in London with my wife, Barbara, and by coincidence our San Francisco friend and lawyer John Burke was also there. We all decided to see the Royal Shakespeare production of Coriolanus, directed by Terry Hand, at the Aldwych. The theme of the play is controversy and the word is used over and over and it was pronounced in the customary fashion.

We were in the third row of the stalls and when the first intermission lights came up I leaned across Barbara and said to John in my usual loud voice and distinctly New York accent “The British can’t speak English and I can prove it!” You should have seen the backs of the people around us stiffen! “On the BBC they say con-trov”-er-sy” The backs relaxed and the man in front of me turned around and said “You wouldn’t believe how many letters to the editor of The London Times have been printed about that!”

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Appendix

Woolcot Gibbs’ review of Old Vic’s Henry IV

It seems likely that more dismal critical nonsense has been visited on Shakespeare than any other topic in the theatre, and the reasons for this aren’t especially hard to find. ‘The Works are part of the early cultural equipment of every reviewer, with the exception of the occasional happy illiterate who has entered drama criticism by way of the sports desk or the night-club beat; the body of scholarly comment on them has been enormous, celebrated, and practically required reading for any-conscientious student of the stage; it is still growing and the temptation to add to it, to ally oneself cozily with the best thought of three hundred years, is nearly irresistible; and, finally, the actual composition of an article on Shakespeare needs to involve none of the usual hazards of trying to determine whether the play itself is any damn good-it is simply a matter of comparing interpretations, and in this, since one lay opinion about acting is just about as useful, or perhaps just about as preposterous, as the next, the writer is limited only by the richness of his vocabulary and the ingenuity of his syntax. The resulting prose was once discussed by Max Beerbohm, who has usually said whatever it is that I am trying to a great deal better, and generally about fifty years earlier. In this case, he was writing in 1898 about the dangers attending a revival of “Julius Caesar”:
“The thing will become a classic in the drama, and one will be able to regard it only as a vehicle for acting…. Its interest will be merely histrionic:-“Is M r.* so powerful as **? … You never saw **? Ah, what a performance! Not so subtle as ***’s perhaps-but oh! the way he said, ‘Was this ambition?’ He just put his hand in his toga and-why, * holds his hand straight in front of him-misses the whole point of it. For my own part, I always thought that, in some respects, ***vs idea-”,.. Nothing could be drearier than this kind of comparative criticism; yet a classic play makes it quite inevitable. The play is dead. The stage is crowded with ghosts. Every head in the audience is a heavy casket of reminiscence. Play they never so wisely, the players cannot lay those circumambient ghosts nor charm those well-packed caskets to emptiness.”

Being in cheerful agreement with all these remarks, I will try to deal with the two parts of “Henry IV,” the Old Vic’s initial American offerings, without reference to past performances and with a minimum of critics’ adjectives, those dubious coins that, though they have no precise values in the reviewer’s mind, are still customarily passed off as valid currency on the reader. This review, that is, will attempt to report on what Laurence Olivier, Ralph Richardson, and all their gifted associates are doing on the stage at the Century in a calm, journalistic manner, just as if they were no more than mortal men, engaged in mortal enterprise.

To begin with the material, then, it strikes me that both parts of “Henry IV” are rather trying samples of the Master’s art – involved in plot, not especially eloquent in expression, and broad and repetitious in humor, even for Shakespearean clowns, who habitually amuse me somewhat less than the comics on the radio. The beginning of the fifteenth century in England was apparently a time of confused border insurrections against the Crown, of which the one led by Hotspur may easily have been the hardest to follow. Obscure in origin (the King had exasperated Hot-spur by refusing to ransom his brother-in-law, Mortimer, from the Scotch on the somewhat reasonable ground that he was a pretender to the throne), the rebellion gathered momentum and complexity (I doubt whether anybody knew what the hell was going on at the Battle of Shrewsbury), faded away temporarily at the end of Part I when Hot-spur was killed by Prince Hal, carne to brief life again in Part II when the Archbishop of York took up the cause with Bardolph and Northumberland, and finally petered out forever in a rather silly engagement in a Yorkshire forest, This was really no more than a scuffle in the underbrush, but it served its purpose in that it left the nobles free to engage in a war with France, which, next to a good Crusade, was, of course, the chief delight of all their childish hearts.

Against this background of dubious battle, we have the personal histories of Hotspur and the young Prince, who eventually became Henry V and the subject of what is said to he the damnedest moving picture ever made. There is a good deal of drama in these contrasting careers: Hotspur, the perfect hero of a lost cause, the victim of cynical and treacherous allies as well as of his own violent and mercurial spirit; the Prince, conceivably the most insufferable prig in English letters, redeemed from low associates to save the Crown heroically in battle and in the end to comfort his father’s deathbed with the smug assurance that his heart had never really been in the revelry at the Boar’s Head Tavern – like any conscientious novelist, he had been consorting with vice purely for literary purposes, the better to scotch it in his own good time. Throughout both plays, we have Sir John Falstaff and his disreputable companions – Bardolph the Souse (as distinguished from Bardolph the Rebel), Pistol, Dame Quickly, Doll Tearsheet, Shallow, Silence, and all the rest of that noisy company of the damned. The comedy, at least in the script, consists mainly of the fat knight’s lusty speeches, full of elaborate paradox and bothersome Elizabethan terminology, in praise of drink and wenching; his friends’ comments about his shape, which have infinite variations, though “Go to, thou butt of sack” will probably do as a sample; and scenes of enormous gaiety in the tavern with everyone shouting and falling down as enthusiastically its characters in a comic strip. I know very well that all this is generally regarded as the pinnacle of gusty English humor. I can only maintain that I find it elementary and monotonous and that it seldom makes me laugh, a purely reflex or muscular judgment, of course, but one from which I find it hard to appeal.

The foregoing might he called my library opinion of “Henry IV,” Parts I and II. The Old Vic, I am happy to say, has improved it somewhat. In the first part, Mr. OIivier’s performance as Hotspur seems to me physically and intellectually almost perfect. From a bare hint in the text, he has invested his role with a nervous impediment in speech, and though this is no more than a nearly imperceptible hesitation before the letter “w,” it is curiously effective as a symptom of the interior desperation, of the spirit too quick and furious for the flesh, that drives him relentlessly to his end. It is also characteristic of the brilliant imaginativeness of the whole portrayal. Since Mr. Olivier is handsomely endowed by nature for heroics, his Hotspur has the additional advantage of being romantic visually, and altogether it is one of the real triumphs of the re-cent theatre. In the second part, as Shallow, he is strangely wasted and contorted in person and equipped with a putty nose, and while I admired his versatility, the humor of the part escapes me, so I have no reliable opinion to offer of his execution. Mr. Richardson’s Falstaff, burdened with even more than the traditional crepe hair and cotton batting, is, however, a vastly appealing figure in spite of the rather primitive nature of his wit. His words are often tiresome and incomprehensible, but his posture and expression as he tries to impose his lordly vision of himself on a disrespectful world are marvelously funny (I kept thinking of a broker I once knew who might have been Falstaff back in 1928), and he is not without real pathos, either, especially in the nightmare scene in which he is denied by his old play mate, the new King.

While Mr. Olivier and Mr. Richardson are, naturally, the chief personal attractions in the two plays, there are a lot of very satisfactory subsidiary efforts. Nicholas Hannen, as Henry IV, has a genuine regality, not too common in monarchs on the stage; Margaret Leighton is a sweet and touching Lady Percy; and the whole frowzy crew at the Boar’s Head seem to Inc admirable in behavior, if not in speech, especially Joyce Redman, who, as Doll Tearsheet, produces a wonderfully insane and boneless comedy that almost suggests that she has been animated by Walt Disney. In fact, if I have any real complaint about the cast, it is only in the case of Prince Hal, as played by Michael Warre, who seems singularly lacking in dignity and stature, so, unfortunately for one of the principal purposes of the plays, he is apparently a good deal more at home in the tavern than on the battlefield or in the palace. Altogether, however, I’m afraid that I was seriously disappointed in the Vic’s first two offerings. I can only say, on the brighter side, that the acting was generally of such superior quality that I am looking forward hopefully to seeing it applied to some less numbing works.

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