|My great aunt was a nun, so
I fancy myself an authority.
I’ve been attending the Aberystwyth Arts Centre productions ever since I arrived in this town after fifteen years of life in Manhattan. I had a bad attitude in my suitcase and thought that nothing could match Broadway, that this was just the sticks. Well, shows like Chicago and Hairspray proved me wrong. Actually, the very first show I saw here, Oliver!, did that. And it was great to see Mr. Bumble again, right there in that convent. Gary Davis, I mean, who plays Monsignor O’Hara. Indeed, there were a number of familiar faces in the cast, among them David Barrett and Robert O’Malley.
I walked out of the Lyceum Theatre thinking that I had just spent what amounts to a buck a minute on a rotten piece of ephemera – like that dead squirrel Tracy Letts picks up and throws into a trash bag, or the spoilt food Michael C. Hall takes out of the refrigerator – with little else but these few words of mine to show for it. If only that food had been served hot. If only the squirrel had lived. If only. Or maybe not.
That’s just the problem with the second half of James Lapine’s reworking of Hart’s book. It tells – rather than compellingly dramatizes – the story of how Hart and Kaufman collaborated on Once in a Lifetime (1930). Watching two guys sitting around drafting a play isn’t nearly as riveting as experiencing that play or the evolution of it. And, to me, at least, it didn’t help matters that, several years ago, I saw a lifeless National Theatre production of Once in a Lifetime, starring David Suchet. What should have been sheer madcap felt drowsily close to one nightcap too many.
If the play, in this production, at least, isn’t quite a cure for drama dependency, that may be because it isn’t sufficiently catching to be an antidote to theater madness. It has a cuteness about it that is merely subcutaneous. It doesn’t prick you, or hook you, or infuse you with the passion of which it can only speak in borrowed words.
“I don’t think he’s written a line that’s unnecessary,” Adrian Scarborough remarked about Henrik Ibsen during rehearsals for the latest production of Hedda Gabler at London’s Old Vic, in which Scarborough plays the part of Hedda’s husband. The endorsement is peculiarly out of place, considering that the Old Vic’s Hedda hardly distinguishes itself by—or even strives for—a line-by-line fidelity to Ibsen’s original. Rather than a rewording of previous translations, Brian Friel’s “new version” puts a few new words into the mouths of the old, familiar characters created by his fellow playwright, adding a line here and there that left me questioning their necessity.
Now, few theatergoers around the world are in a position to compare Ibsen’s Norwegian to the translation in which they hear those lines performed; and whether a character (in this case Hedda) says “But of course one has to grow accustomed to anything new” or “New surroundings take a little getting used to” seems to make little difference. Are such substitutions worth the bother? What’s more, are they worthy of a playwright like Friel?
“But of course one has to grow accustomed to anything new.” That line can be found in the American-English translation by Rolf Fjelde, who, in an effort of doing “the very best [a translator] can do,” kept “a conscience-file of revision” in hopes of getting the opportunity “Finally [to] Get It Right.” Fjelde got that chance—and the result seems not particularly in need of further emendation. Playwright Friel, though, is not about to offer his services as a mute transcriber whose job is to interpret without drawing attention to the interpreter and the challenges or impossibilities of arriving at any one definitive text in a given or taken language. Friel does not claim his English version to be the last word—and, rather than having us take his word for it being faithful, wants to have a word with us about it.
To do so, Friel inserts hints of himself into the action, which, aside from Hedda’s quest to destroy, quite literally, the text of patriarchy, involves the contest between two published writers, both western and male. Most overtly, he does this by taking liberties with the lines spoken by the middle-aged Judge Brack who, in Friel’s version, confounds his listeners with Americanisms like “making whoopee” and provides a running commentary on the currency and lifespan of written and spoken language. “Philadelphia, there you go!” Friel seems to say to Fjelde, suggesting that Broadway and the West End may well require or at least warrant alternate versions of Ibsen and arguing that neither variant of English can or should be considered transcontinental, let alone universal.
Unlike Fjelde, Friel reminds us that we are in Norway, having characters drop names of places or remarking on the quality of “Norwegian air.” Yet, also unlike Fjelde, Friel reminds us, by foregrounding the novelty or datedness of words and debating their suitability, that we are not in any particular, definitive place at all but that we are instead in the contested, dangerous territory of language. It is a territory that Hedda seems to control for a while with her probing questions and scathing remarks but that nonetheless delimits and ultimately overmasters her.
As scholar Anthony Roche puts it, Friel demonstrates himself to be “concerned with updating the constantly changing English language that will always require new adaptations of Ibsen, while making subtle additions that perhaps deepen our understanding of the rich emotional lives of the characters.” Friel’s Hedda is almost as much about Ibsen’s characters as it is about the act of reading them … and of interpreting Ibsen. It is a self-conscious take on the act of taking on a classic that, in its reflexivity borders on the by now rather tiresomely postmodern. Give it your best shot, translator, I felt like responding, and let Hedda get her gun and do the rest.
That Hedda couldn’t quite do her job—and that Friel hadn’t quite done his—became apparent from the laughter in the audience even as Hedda was about to do away with herself in the ingenious glass coffin the Old Vic production had prepared for that purpose. “This is my first Ibsen,” commented actress Fenella Woolgar (who took on the part of Thea Elvsted), “and I’m discovering that he is a lot funnier than I anticipated.” Perhaps, that’s because this ain’t quite Ibsen and because Friel isn’t quite the Ibsen-minded processor anyone expecting a traditional Hedda interpretation is likely to expect.
“Translation,” as I said elsewhere (in an essay on the subject) is too mild a word to capture the violent process whereby a text written in one language and time is taken apart and rebuilt in another. Hedda is a violent play; but given that I find myself preoccupied with the making of this Hedda rather than with the unmaking of its nominally central character, I wonder whether Friel has not inflicted some harm, necessary or otherwise, on Hedda and Hedda alike …
Once a year, in the run-up to Christmas, my better half and I make the seemingly interminable journey from Wales to London for some seasonal splurging on art and theater. Now, I don’t travel all the way east to the West End to waste my time on pap like Dirty Dancing. This isn’t snobbery, mind; I simply can’t thrill to a feast of re-processed cheese and the prospect of paying for it through a nose bigger than Jennifer Grey’s old one. Besides, why raid the bottom shelves of our pop cultural cupboard when I’ve got a heaping plateful of squandered opportunities to chew over? During the days of my graduate studies in English and American literature, I had little money to spare for Broadway theatricals, which is why I now tend to seek out revivals of plays I missed the first, second, or umpteenth time around—drama with some history to it, be that pedigree or baggage. James Goldman’s The Lion in Winter has a bit of both.
As an added attraction, the current Theatre Royal Haymarket production also has the ever Ab-fabulous Joanna Lumley, whom I first saw on stage in the 2010 Broadway revival of La Bête. Lumley plays caged lioness Queen Eleanor opposite Robert Lindsay’s Henry II, the husband who keeps her under lock and key. Witty and fierce, The Lion is a domestic drama fit for the tryingly festive season. All the same, the darn cat is in a confounded state of seasonal disorder.
What those stepping into the auditorium from the audio-visual onslaught that is Christmas time in the city cannot but gasp at is that even Henry’s halls are decked: his French chateau, anno 1183, features a regal Tannenbaum, no less. It certainly had my eyebrows raised to the alert level of WTF: you might expect a Green Knight, surely, but a bebaubled evergreen?
The proud Lion is prepared to pounce, though, ready to defend itself against “turbulent” critics crying bloody murder in the cathedral of culture. Goldman acknowledged that his “play contains anachronisms” such as the “way . . . Christmas is celebrated.” As he states in the notes duly reprinted in the playbill, the ahistorical trimmings are “deliberate”; “though it deals carefully with history,” The Lion “remains a piece of fiction.”
Towering over the assembled branches of Henry’s living family tree, the familiar, dead one serves as a reminder of the storyteller’s presence. The needling transplant from our present day tells not only of the author’s intervening re-inventiveness but also of his obligation to make that past relevant: the dramatist does not simply stage history; he fashions it. To withhold evidence of this intervention would mean to falsify, to deny the hand and mind involved in the process of transcribing.
Goldman was nonetheless concerned that this never-evergreen might overshadow his research and cast doubt on his responsible interpretation of verifiable historical events. “This play,” he pointed out to his audience, “is accurately based on the available data.”
The elephant of a dislocated trunk aside, The Lion is refreshingly unself-conscious; it is a deluxe soap free from the by now irritating additives of postmodernist reflexivity. For all its modern day translations—of which only its pre-gay lib treatment of the 19th century construct of homosexuality struck me as dated—it affords a close look at historical figures that rarely seem human to us in the accounts of battles and political maneuverings.
If Goldman reduces the sweep of history to an intimate first-family portrait, he chose a subject that warrants such an approach; as historian John Gillingham argued, what “really mattered” to Henry II “was family politics,” in the belief of the failure of which he died. Far from being a Peyton Placeholder, Goldman’s “Christmas Court that never was” has been assembled to bring historical intrigue home.
“What’s your great online discovery,” an interviewer asked Marcia Warren, star of the current West End production of Ladykillers. To this, the veteran of stage, screen and radio replied, “What does online mean?” It is just the kind of answer most of us expect—and want to hear—from someone past middle age, which makes hers such a sly response. Warren remains in character, as Mrs. Wilberforce, kindly old landlady to the killers, giving us what we find so reassuring and endearing about the senescence we otherwise dread. She may or may not be joking—but she sure has earned the right neither to know nor to care. Looked at it that way, being past it becomes a shelter, a retreat beyond trends, updates and upgrades whose seeming simplicity appeals to those who cannot afford to be quite so nonchalant about technology, who feel the pressure of performing in and conforming to the construct of the present as a digital age. Not to know or willfully to ignore—what luxury! Young and not-so-young alike find comfort in this deflecting mirror image of our future selves. It’s a Betty White lie we use to kid ourselves .
We enjoy making light of old age; and those of us who have half a conscience enjoy it even more to be presented with elderly people or characters who are not simply the brunt of yet another ageist joke but are in on it—and cashing in on it as well. We laugh all the way as they take our laughter to the bank.
We want older folks to be feisty because it comforts us to know that, even in our declining years, there are weapons left with which to fight, however futile the fighting. The middle aged, by comparison, are past the prime against which the standard their looks and performances are measured; it is their struggle to conceal or deny this obsolescence that makes them the stuff of deflationary humor. We don’t laugh at Mrs. Wilberforce; we laugh at the bumbling crooks whose willfulness is no match for her force shield of insuperable antiquity.
It is this nod to nostalgia as a weapon against the onslaught of modernity that makes Ladykillers such a charmer of a story. And what makes it work on the stage just as it works on the screen is that the 1955 original requires no update: the Ladykillers was born nostalgic. It hit the screens—in fabulous Technicolor, no less—at a time when, after years of postwar austerity, the British were ready to look back in amusement at their wants and desires and all those surreptitious attempts to meet them. Sneers turned to smiles again as greed was finally being catered to once more.
Eluding those who try to will it by force, fortune winks at those who wait like Mrs. Wilberforce, a senior citizen yet hale, clearheaded and driven enough to enjoy a sudden windfall. It is a conservative fantasy that appealed then as it appeals now, especially to middleclass, middle-aged theatergoers eager to distract themselves from banking woes and pension fears, from cybercrime and urban riots.
Familiar to me from radio dramatics, Warren’s name was the only one on the marquee I recognized as I decided whether or not take in what I assumed to be another one of those makeshift theatricals that too often take the place of real theater these days—stage adaptations of popular movies, books and cartoons like Shrek, Spider-Man, or Addams Family with which the theater world is trying rather desperately to augment its aging audience base. Written by Graham Linehan and directed by Sean Foley, this new production of The Ladykillers fully justified its staging. There is much for the eye to take in; indeed, it owing to an able cast—and the lovely, lively Ms. Warren above all— to prevent the ingenious set and special effects from stealing this caper.
In the real, honest-to-goodness make-believe beyond the online trappings of which she claims to be ignorant, Warren gives us just what we want. After all, acting for our pleasure and acting out our desires is her business. It’s the oldest profession in the world.
”Whatever your own political views in the matter may be. . . .” Diplomatic, cautious and propitiatory, those are hardly words you would expect to hear coming from the close-miked mouth of crooner Rudy Vallee, one of the 1930s most popular—and insipid—radio personalities. After all, Vallee was not emceeing America’s Town Meeting of the Air; his chief ambassadorial function was to promote middlebrow culture and represent the makers of a certain leavening agent. Yet that is just the preamble with which the old Vagabond Lover segued into the dramatic portion of the Fleischmann’s Yeast Hour, which, on this day, 25 June, in 1936 presented what sounded very much like an endorsement of one of the Roosevelt administration’s latest projects, notwithstanding Vallee’s assurance that the views of the program’s producers and sponsors—in contrast to the debates from the Democratic Convention broadcast elsewhere that evening—were “strictly neutral.”
The calculatedly catholic Fleischmann’s Yeast Hour took variety to the extreme that evening, featuring vaudeville song-and-dance duo Alan Cross and Henry Dunn, “Gags and Gals” cartoonist Jefferson Machamer (who would have liked to talk “sex” but was told that the subject was “never mentioned” on the air), comedian Bert Lahr (whom Vallee’s writers sent to the dentist), swing vocalist Midge Williams (referred to as a “small bundle of dark dynamite”) . . . and T. S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral. Natch . . .
Murder had come to Broadway some three months earlier, in March 1936. As stated by contemporary critics Ernest Sutherland Bates and Alan Williams in their book American Hurly-Burly (1937), Eliot’s play “as offered by the WPA was finer than anything produced during the season at any price.”
Yet rather than merely extracting scenes from the celebrated drama, Vallee’s program offered a dramatization of a “true story” that had “happened only a little while ago,” namely the behind-the-scenes story of how the Broadway production was cast.
As Vallee’s writers have it, an aging stage actor enters the offices of the WPA, declaring: “I’m looking for a job.” He claims to have been in the acting profession for thirty-three years; but lately he has only been pounding the pavement in hopes of treading the boards again. He is referred to the Federal Theatre Project, where, by the kind of miracle that smacks of Victorian melodrama, he is greeted by producer-manager George Vivian, an old friend of his from his days in London’s West End.
Soon, the actor is given the chance, however slight, of auditioning for Broadway director Edward T. Goodman, who is still trying to cast the role of the Archbishop. As many listeners tuning in to the Fleischmann’s Yeast Hour would have known, the old actor got the part—and, as Bates and Williams summed it up,
gave a magnificent performance in the role of Becket. When Murder closed he re-appeared with another splendid characterization in Class of ’29, but at the end of the season he was promptly reclaimed by the commercial theater.
That actor—playing himself in the broadcast version of his story—was Harry Irvine, who, aside from Murder and Class of ‘29, went on to appear on Broadway in several dramas by Maxwell Anderson, including Joan of Lorraine starring Ingrid Bergman and Anne of the Thousand Days starring Rex Harrison.
Vallee commented that “the sequel” to this story was “yet to be written,” by which he was not referring to any attempts to follow up Murder with Resurrection. “The name of Harry Irvine appears again,” Vallee predicted. “He is very much in demand now. You’ll see him in pictures before long. Hollywood is taking care of that.”
Irvine responded to these not entirely fulfilled prophesies and commented on his good fortunes by reciting one of his speeches from Eliot’s play:
We do not know very much of the future
Except that from generation to generation
The same things happen again and again.
Men learn little from others’ experience.
But in the life of one man, never
The same time returns. Sever
The cord, shed the scale. Only
The fool, fixed in his folly, may think
He can turn the wheel on which he turns.
As much as he was in the center of the Fleischmann’s Yeast Hour playlet telling his story, Irvine was little more than a cog in the wheel, an example of the “true story” extolling the wonders of the “relief project” that gave “the actor out of work” a “helping hand.”
“In the larger cities all over the country these past few months,” Vallee reminded his audience,
dark theaters have been opening, idle actors have been finding work. Reason: The Federal Theatre Project, a branch of the Works Progress Administration in Washington.
So why, radio having benefitted most from the Depression and the closing of popular playhouses, did an ersatz revue like Vallee’s program now celebrate the policies through which actors returned to newly reopened stages? Well, considering that the Fleischmann’s Yeast Hour was an East Coast production—whereas Lux Radio Theater had just left New York for Hollywood and abandoned its Broadway format—it stood only to gain from the renewed activity along the Great White Way. Given that the performers who appeared on variety programs of that period were deemed somebodies largely owing to the name they had made for themselves in other media, Fleischmann’s, far from being neutral, depended on its theatrical ties—and stage actors like Harry Irvine—to fill its weekly roster of acts.
Listening to slickly commercial variety programs such as the Fleischmann’s Yeast Hour, I realize that escapism is not so much a matter of production as it is a manner of consumption, a way of tuning out rather than tuning in. No form of entertainment, however trifling or shallow, can entirely escape the role an alert listener may assign to it—the role of telling us about the time in which it was created.