“This . . . is London”: Departures for, of, and at the Theater

Well, I’m afraid this journal entry is going to be all over the place—like my luggage, as I am preparing for tomorrow’s trip to London. I would have enjoyed sharing one of my “What Those Who Remembered Forgot” obituary footnotes to commemorate the radio career of Oscar and Tony winner Maureen Stapleton (1925-2006); but I could not find any recordings of her performances heard on Best Plays, a US drama anthology that premiered on 8 June 1952 with a production of Winterset. Nor have I come across Stapleton’s guest appearances on radio’s Quiz Kids program. So, after some searching, I had to give up on the tribute and continued to plan my theatrical entertainments for the days ahead.

I have yet to see a truly great stage production in London, most of the plays I attended during my previous visits having been less than scintillating. Let’s see, there were the lackluster revivals of The Philadelphia Story and Once in a Lifetime, starring Kevin Spacey and David Suchet, respectively. While colorful and quirky, Matthew Bourne’s adaptation of Edward Scissorhands (discussed here) was choreographically far less impressive than his Swan Lake.

Rather more to my liking was the staging of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, which, as discussed here, offered few surprises (being faithful to the novel), but a genuinely creepy finale.

Then again, I’ve always been fond of unabashed melodrama, even though, at today’s prices, theatrical thrillers are a decidedly rare and guilty pleasure. Gone are the days when everyday people flocked to the theater for some choric hissing of villains in plays with titles like The Worst Woman in London or The Ugliest Woman on Earth. I’d settle for a production of William Archer’s The Green Goddess, but doubt whether our politically correct climate—in which even a cast member of South Park balks after discovering his scientologically reconstituted conscience—still allows for the blossoming of such vulgar delights, now relegated to that slowly deteriorating hot house of popular culture, the movie theater.

Imagine a scene like this—as described by Charles Dickens—at one of today’s West End temples of drama:

We were a motley assemblage of people [. . .] . Besides prowlers and idlers, we were mechanics, dock-labourers, costermongers, petty tradesmen, small clerks, milliners, stay-makers, shoe-binders, slop-workers, poor workers in a hundred highways and byways. Many of us—on the whole, the majority—were not at all clean, and not at all choice in our lives of conversation. But we had all come together in a place where our convenience was well consulted, and where we were well looked after, to enjoy an evening’s entertainment in common. [. . .]
Between the pieces [a pantomime and a melodrama], we almost all of us went out and refreshed [. . .]. The sandwich—as substantial as was consistent with portability, and as cheap as possible—we hailed as one of our greatest institutions. It forced its way among us at all stages of the entertainment, and we were always delighted to see it; its adaptability to the varying moods of our nature was surprising; we could never weep so comfortably as when our tears fell on our sandwich; we could never laugh so heartily as when we choked with sandwich; Virtue never looked so beautiful or Vice so deformed as when we paused, sandwich in hand, to consider what would come of that resolution of Wickedness in boots, to sever Innocence in flowered chintz from Honest Industry in striped stockings. When the curtain fell for the night, we still fell back upon sandwich, to help us through the rain and mire, and home to bed.

Perhaps I could have done without those assorted noises and scents after all; but I sure enjoy an evening of unpretentious theater. Unfortunately, both Jerry Herman’s silent-screen musical Mack and Mabel and Noel Coward’s Hay Fever, starring Judy Dench, won’t open until April.

Instead of such revivals, I might be singing the Resurrection Blues. There is Robert Altman’s production of Arthur Miller’s play of that title, of course; but I have never been particularly fond of Miller, mostly due to his denunciations of radio, the medium that not only sustained him during the lean 1940s, but that influenced the mind-as-stage explorations attempted in plays like Death of a Salesman and After the Fall. I’d much rather see Altman’s latest movie, A Prairie Home Companion, Garrison Keillor’s own adaptation of his popular radio series.

I’ve still got my eye on Glorious!, that other play about the odd career of vocally challenged Florence Foster Jenkins, one version of which, titled Souvenir, I enjoyed when last I was in New York City. Well, we shall see what tickets I can manage to snatch up at the half-price booth. Next week, at any rate, I hope to share some souvenirs from what I trust will amount to a glorious time in the metropolis.

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