Ladykillers Instinct; or, Marcia Warren’s Profession

“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.

Murder on the Cathedral Radio: Rudy Vallee and the WPA

”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.

Letters of a [Class] Betrayed: Opera Without Soap

I am not inclined to manual labor. If I lift a finger, it is likely to come down on what isn’t grammatically up to scratch or else to add a few scrapes to my scalp as I take some rambling bull by the inkhorn. There has been a little more of that going on lately—teaching and editing—and, my furrowed pate notwithstanding, I am heartily glad of it. Yet as much as I relish being back in the game after suffering the indignity of being benched for the better—or, rather, worse—part of the past five seasons, the academy has never felt like a home court to me. It is as if, carved into the trunk of my family tree however rotten, puny and lacking in shelter it might be, are memos more emphatic than the certificates of achievement now gathering dust in the drawer I am so little inclined to tidy. Instead of considering myself invited as I enter places of culture and learning, I still feel at times as if I were crashing a party.

Program and ticket stub for Letters of a Love Betrayed

You see, I was born into that endangered social stratum known as the working class. It is an origin of which I am mindful, though neither proud nor ashamed. At least, I am not ashamed of it now. I used to be as thrilled about it as Ann Blyth’s character in Mildred Pierce, even though my parents bore a closer resemblance to Lana Turner in Imitation of Life—that is, too busy to notice that living up to their aspirations left their offspring in the dust they raised as they tried to shake the dirt clinging to their roots. At any rate, stuck in that cloud of dust was I, an asthmatic kid who couldn’t afford to hold his breath at the off chance of parental attention.

Not to suffocate under the rubble of post-Second World War Germany, my parents had to put their noses far closer to the proverbial grindstone than I ever did. Their generation, aided by American interests, pulled off the Wirtschaftswunder or “economic miracle,” a sleight-of-hands-on approach to the lasting trauma caused by total war and final solution, the coming to terms with which would have required equipment far more difficult to handle than shovel and broom.

I am not so disingenuous as to pass off my staying put as a form of sit-down strike, of giving the clean-and-cover-up efforts of my parents’ generation the spotless finger; but apart from the months I ill served my country working as a hospital orderly or the hours I spent cleaning apartments in New York City to help finance my college education, I remained sedentary for much of my life.

So far, it’s been a life spent lost in thoughts, ensconced in writing, and plunked down for performances that artists work on studiously for our delight and instruction—the kind of delight my father found it difficult to accept as serious work and the instruction he thought less of than the empirical knowledge that, along with calluses, is the badge and perquisite of the experience-hardened laborer.

I suppose it is easier for the worker—not to be equated here with the impecunious—to aspire to material possessions instead of culture and learning, since exposing yourself to something that poses a challenge rather than promising instant gratification requires still more work on the part of those who have little time and less energy to spare.

Now, my comparatively indolent existence permits me to spare that time; yet, as if my conscience and buttocks alike had been shaped by Protestant work ethics, I often feel rather uncomfortable. I’m not one to pooh-pooh the benefits of resting on one’s Popo (as dainty Germans call the posterior); but, there is nothing like wriggling in my seat in hopes of improving my mind to convince me that the calluses—and I—belong elsewhere.

I had that impression sitting through Letters of a Love Betrayed, a new opera by Eleanor Alberga (libretto by Donald Sturrock). Reading about it, I was intrigued by the promised fusion of Latin rhythms and a neo-Gothic romance based on a story by Isabel Allende, but felt let down by a score that to my untrained ear sounded forbidding, unmelodious, and, worse still, forgettable. Perhaps, the perceived cacophony was the result of a clanging together of too many stereotypes. Whatever melo- Letters possesses is all in the drama; derivative and contrived, it is creakier than a chair that has been squirmed out of too often.

I didn’t get it. I didn’t like it. I felt like a tired, vitamin deprived miner lured into a soup kitchen of the arts, the drama being a concession to what is assumed to be his tastes as he is being fed a presumably healthy diet with a none too musical spoon.

As I sat down again to express my thoughts on the matter of what’s the matter with me, I kept wondering whether what I was responding to so angrily was utter musical rubbish, dreck worse than the grime to which I chose not to expose myself, or whether my inability to open my mind was dictated to me by my past, a past unfolding in letters of a class betrayed.

“. . . in fire and blood and anguish”: An Inspector Calls Repeatedly

As I was saying: what is wanting here is continuity, some sort of story on the go, a sense of goings-on ongoing, of the so on and so on and so on. It would be laziest to claim, as I have done, that what prevents me from turning a seemingly random clipbook into the attraction that is the yet-to-come is largely owing to the kind of clippings for which this (mis)nominal journal is reserved. Instead of looking ahead, I keep on hearkening back. As I recall, which is what my kind of introspective retrospection calls for, my life always seemed to unfold in hindsight, not so much enveloped as developing. I know better than to regard history as a series of acts perpetrated rather than ideas perpetuated—but that knowledge does not prevent me from living ahistorically. According to J. B. Priestley, I am bound to regret this.

For the most part, mine has been a life apart; many are the instances, momentous events even, in which I just was not in the moment. What was I feeling when the Berlin Wall fell? My diary won’t tell you. It only refers to the event in passing—and with detachment—as something that would have been “noch vor kurzem undenkbar” (unthinkable even a short time ago). “Undenkbar,” perhaps, since I had never given it much Gedanke.

I recall being revolted by David Hasselhoff’s “Looking for Freedom,” a 1989 chart topper all over Europe, but was not aware that the song’s popularity was owing to political events then in the making, let alone that Hasselhoff was part of the revolution (as claimed, with tongue firmly in cheek, in a current BBC Radio 2 retrospective). I never made the connection. Nothing seemed to connect, least of all with me. My existence, as I saw it, was coincidental and inconsequential.

It is not for nothing that my generation was known as the “no future” generation. Life in the Western middle of Europe was, to many, solely dependent on the whim or disposition of two world leaders, on a red telephone, and a scientist’s finger on a long-range missile switch.

I came briefly into contact with my past self when, on a recent weekend in London, I looked into the fresh faces of my nieces, whom I had not seen in over twelve years since I steadfastly refuse to set foot again on German soil. I never did make peace with my native country, and, as much as I enjoy a good Schlachtplatte (literally, a battle or slaughter platter, which is a dish of assorted meats), I’d much rather rely on German exports than return to the scene of inner turmoil.

The belated realization that, growing up in the Rhineland, I had never witnessed a celebration of Armistice Day, seen a World War I memorial (of which there is one in nearly every village here in Britain) or witnessed the annual spectacle of lapels sprouting poppies, only deepened my suspicion that it was the shame of defeat that rendered causality ineffective in a post-1918 German construct of history, and that what was being commemorated elsewhere was victory rather than the failure to insure it.

As the fatalism expressed in the grating conclusion of the most recent installment in The Final Destination series of disaster horror suggested to me, causality without social or moral responsibility is a mere exercise in predictability. “We are responsible for each other. And I tell you that the time will soon come when, if men will not learn that lesson, then they will be taught it in fire and glood and anguish.” J. B. Priestley keeps saying as much in An Inspector Calls, the previously maligned 1990s production of which I caught again on said trip to London a few weeks ago.

“You’ve a lot to learn yet,” pragmatic and presumably self-made Mr. Birling advises the younger generation, anno 1912.

And I’m talking as a hard-headed, practical man of business.  And I say there isn’t a chance of war.  The world’s developing so fast that it’ll make war impossible. Look at the progress we’re making [. . .].  Why, a friend of mine went over this new liner last week—the Titanic—she sails next week—forty-six thousand eight hundred tons—and every luxury—and unsinkable, absolutely unsinkable.  That what you’ve got to keep your eye on, facts like that, progress like that—and not a few German officers talking nonsense and a few scaremongers here making a fuss about nothing.  Now you three young people, just listen to this—and remember what I’m telling you now.  In twenty or thirty years’ time—let’s say in 1940, you mighty be giving a little party like this—your son or daughter might be getting engaged—and I tell you by that time you’ll be living in a world that’ll have forgotten all these Capital versus Labour agitations and all these silly little war scares.  There’ll be peace and prosperity and rapid progress everywhere—except of course in Russia, which will always be behindhand, naturally.

Mr. Birling is blind not only to the signs of the time but also to his responsibilities in designing the future while consigning the present to waste and ruin. Even when given the chance in Priestley’s fantastic setup, he is incapable of turning hindsight into insight. Knowledge, after all, is not synonymous with understanding. As much as I keep rejoicing in Mr. Birling’s fall—a delight dimmed by the knowledge that his is our downfall by proxy—logic dictates that I fall well short of understanding the consequences of my own ahistorical ways.

“Anyone we know?”: An Absentminded Review of The Royal Family

What a tramp my mind has turned into lately. I would like to think that I still got one of my own, to have and to hold on to, for richer or poorer, and all that; but every now and again, and rather too frequently at that, the willful one takes off without the slightest concern for my state of it. It used to be that I could gather my thoughts like keepsakes to store a mind with; these days, I wonder just who’s minding the store. And just when I feel that I’ve lost it completely, there it comes ambling in, disheveled, unruly, and well out of its designated head. With a little luck, the suitcase of mementoes with which it absconded turns up again, similarly disorganized, rarely complete if at times strangely augmented. Perhaps, minds resent being crossed once too often. That has crossed mine, to be sure.

Anyway, where was I going with this? Ah, yes. Straight back to New York City. The Biltmore Theatre. Make that the Samuel J. Friedman, as it is now called. Built in 1925 and steeped in comedy theater tradition, the former Biltmore is just the venue for the current revival of The Royal Family, of which production, scheduled to open 8 October 2009, I had the good fortune to catch the second preview a few weeks ago. Classic crowd-pleasers like Poppa (1929), Brother Rat (1936-38), My Sister Eileen (1940-42), and the long-running Barefoot in the Park (1963-67) were staged here, where Mae West caused a sensation in October 1928 with Pleasure Man, a play they let go on for all of two performances.

While Ethel Barrymore might have wished a similarly compact run for The Royal Family, the play amused rather than scandalized theatergoers who appreciated it as a wildly flamboyant yet precisely cut gem of wit set firmly in a mount of genuine sentiment—which is just what you’d expect from a collaboration of George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber. Histrionics, theatrical disguises, a bit of swashbuckling—this screwball of a jewel still generates plenty of sparks, even if the preview I attended needed a little polish to show it off it to its full advantage.

Informed that her son may have killed a man, the matriarch of the family inquires: “Anyone we know?” Among the somebodies we know to have slain them with lines like these in the past are Broadway and Hollywood royals like Otto Kruger, Ruth Hussey, Eva Le Gallienne, Fredric March, Rosemary Harris, and . . . Rosemary Harris. As is entirely in keeping with the play’s premise—three generations of a theatrical family congregating and emoting under one roof—Ms. Harris is now playing the mother of the character she portrayed back in 1975. Regrettably, unlike Estelle Winwood in the cleverly truncated Theatre Guild on the Air production broadcast on 16 December 1945, Ms. Harris as Fanny Cavendish was not quite eccentric or electric enough, although she certainly possesses the curtains-foreshadowing vulnerability her character refuses to acknowledge.

Decidedly more energetic and Barrymore or less ideally cast were the other members of the present production, which includes Jan Maxwell as Julie, Reg Rogers as Tony, Tony Roberts as Oscar, John Glover as Herbert Dean and Saturday Night Live alumna Ana Gasteyer as Kitty. Whenever the pace slackened and the madcap was beginning to resemble a nightcap or some such old hat, I could generally rely on Ms. Gasteyer’s gestures and facial expressions to keep me amused.

There was a moment, though, when my attention span was being put to the test—and promptly failed. I looked at the fresh though not especially fascinating face of Kelli Barrett (as Gwen) and found myself transported to the 1920s, those early days of the Biltmore. I started to think of or hope for a youthful, vivacious Claudette Colbert performing on Broadway at that time, a few years before she left the stage to pursue a career in motion pictures. Why, I wondered, was my mind walking off with her?

Well, eventually it all came home to me—my mind sauntering back in with a duffle bag of stuff I didn’t remember possessing—when I perused the playbill to learn about the history of the Biltmore. Colbert, I learned, had performed on that very stage back in 1927, the year in which The Royal Family was written, enjoying her first major success in The Barker. Decades later, she returned there for The Kingfishers (1978) and A Talent for Murder (1981). So, there was something of a presence of Ms. Colbert on that stage, even though she never played young Gwen.

Today, researching a little to justify what still seemed like a mere digression in a half-hearted review of the play, I discovered (consulting the index of Bernard F. Dick’s recent biography of Colbert) that the actress did get hold of a minor branch of the Royal Family tree when she seized the opportunity to portray Gwen’s mother in a 1954 television adaptation of the play. That version, the opener for CBS’s The Best of Broadway series, was broadcast live on 16 September—which happens to be the day I stepped inside the Biltmore to catch up with The Royal Family.

Perhaps it is just as well that I give in and let my mind go blithely astray. For all the exasperation of momentary lapses, of missed punch lines, plot lines or points my thoughts are beside of, the returns are welcome and oddly reassuring. Besides, the old tramp wouldn’t have it any other way . . .

Twenty Men Singing—But Why?

Well, there they stood last night, singing a cappella, performing songs from Schubert to South Pacific, from the 13th-century Middle-English “Sumer Is Icumen In” to Alfred Schnittke’s “Adam Sat Weeping at the Gates of Paradise,” which premiered in 1988. Twenty they were; men of the Welsh National Opera, touring Wales with their aptly titled program Twenty Men Singing. Some of their sonic offerings were tonic, many (and for my taste rather too many) of them somber, reverent, and brooding.

Why were they singing? To amuse themselves, to entertain others, to earn a few quid or to enjoy the applause of an appreciative crowd? Why sing in unison when what you want is to stand out? If, indeed, that is what you want.

According to the program notes, those Twenty Men Singing explore just that: why men raise their voice together in song, whether to celebrate life, to protest or lament. In song, a hoped for unity is being realised in sonic unison. A chorus of disapproval is formed in resistance to voices and actions that may threaten community. Leoš Janáček’s “Sedmdesát tisíc” (1909), for instance (as translated by John Binias), many-voices the pressures inflicted on the national identity of a Czech bordertown by neighboring but less than neighborly Germans and Poles:

70,000 graves they dig for us
Outside Tesin
Beg for help from heaven
Herded like cattle
Like cattle we gaze about
Our own slaughter [ . . .]. 

Let our voices thunder out: [. . .].
Before we are finished [. . .].

This Saturday, performers around the world are singing to bring awareness to what may well be the greatest threat to humanity, regardless how much religion and nationalism, how much faith and terror (and the terror of faith) are being exploited by those who make a fortune keeping us at war with one another. On this day of Live Earth, festivities that coincide with the anniversary of the London suicide bombings of 2005, we are asked to consider the terra we share, not the terror that divides us, to let “our voices thunder out” before we are “finished.” I cannot think of a better reason for joining a chorus.

The Confidante Game: Trading on That Old Acquaintance

Well, here’s an acquaintance worth making. Old Acquaintance, that is, the Roundabout Theatre Company’s revival of which is currently in previews at the American Airlines Theatre. Judging from the walkers and hearing aids on display at last Tuesday’s performance—not to mention the gas passed noisily in the lobby—I suspect that quite a few of the folks in attendance that evening got to see John Van Druten’s comedy during its original run back in 1940-41, while some of the friends of Dorothy’s we passed in the aisle were most likely on intimate terms with the 1943 film adaptation starring Bette Davis and Miriam Hopkins, two leading ladies on less than friendly terms.

Whether or not you (think you) are familiar with this story of a longtime rivalry redefined as friendship, the Roundabout production is likely to teach you a lesson or two about the nature of that least clearly defined of social compacts and about Hollywood’s (s)elective affinities with Broadway.

I caught up with Vincent Sherman’s soon-to-be-remade melodrama (and one of its radio versions) only after seeing the play, which made me appreciate the stage version’s maturity all the more. Van Druten, who was involved in the screen adaptation of Old Acquaintance, sure learned how to compromise in order to make it in Tinseltown. That he turned his sparkling comedy into an even larger crowd-pleasing sentimental melodrama is all the more remarkable considering that the English playwright’s first drama, Young Woodley (1925), had initially been banned in Britain for its treatment of sexual awakening. Production code conformity in the case of Old Acquaintance—as in most cases—meant turning mature women with careers as well as sex lives into silly girls or stoic old maids.

The silly girl in the Hollywood version is Miriam Hopkins, whose Millie is so envious of the publicity enjoyed her novelist friend Kit that she, however ill equipped for literary fame, turns to the writing of romances. The old maid is Bette Davis, whose romantically luckless Kit is willing to hand down her much younger lover to Millie’s daughter, Deidre, for which sacrifice she is duly rewarded with a cup of human kindness, shared with a remorseful Millie by the fire that warms them when the heat of passion is no longer in the Hallmark cards.

All this bears little resemblance to Van Druten’s original three-act play, a witty, tightly constructed comedy of manners. As one astute online reviewer of the movie points out, it becomes difficult to understand why Kit and Mollie became such old acquaintances once their careers are pushed into the background. In the stage play, it is Millie who, though a trash novelist herself, enjoys Kit’s respect as a keen and candid editor of Kit’s ponderous, overly analytic storytelling. However different in temperament, Kit and Mollie come across as equals, which explains at once their closeness and their rivalry.

On stage, Old Acquaintance echoes La Rochefoucauld’s maxims that friendship is “nothing but a transaction from which the self always means to gain something” and that in the “misfortunes of our friends we always find something that isn’t displeasing to us.” Concurring with the latter, satirist Jonathan Swift remarked about his relationship with fellow authors:

To all my Foes, dear Fortune, send
Thy Gifts, but never to my Friend:
I tamely can endure the first,
But, this with Envy makes me burst.

In the 2007 Broadway revival, Margaret Colin’s Kit is less pathetic than Davis’s, while Harris’s portrayal of Mollie is more sympathetic than that of Hopkins (who reprised her role, opposite miscast Alexis Smith, in the 29 May 1944 Lux Radio Theatre production). If not nearly as assured and brilliant in her comic timing or line reading as Rosalind Russell, with whom in mind the rights to Old Acquaintance were secured by Warner Brothers, Colin is both real and regal. Davis, who was asked to drop her pajamas to expose her less-than-glamorous legs, is matronly by comparison, suggesting that she sacrificed her juvenile beau to play surrogate mother to her best friend’s daughter.

The marvellous Harriet Harris, in turn, hands Millie back her brains. Whereas Hopkins’s character comes across as an impulsive, overgrown schoolgirl, spiteful and pouting, Harris’s Millie is calculating, smart, and rather dangerous (not unlike her Tony Award winning Mrs. Meers, in Thoroughly Modern Millie and her scheming Felicia Tilman in Desperate Housewives). Not content to see her best friend succeed, Millie intends to succeed her in fame and fortune. Her dramatic outbursts are an expression of her frustration when she realizes that the unmarried and childless Kit is not only a better mother to her daughter, but that she might also have been a better, and more desirable wife to her former husband.

If you prefer expensive theatre seats to cheap Hollywood sentiment, the revival of Old Acquaintance is your ticket.

[At the time of writing this I was as yet unaware that, before becoming a playwright, John Van Druten taught in Aberystwyth, the Welsh town to which I relocated from New York City in 2004.]

Alexander Technique: A Matter of Queer Posture

Well, it’s been a few decades since my first (and only) toga party. Last night, I felt as if I were crashing one. A friend of mine took me to a way-off Broadway production of a play called A Kiss from Alexander (book and lyrics by Stephan de Ghelder; music by Brad Simmons). Billed as a “musical fantasy,” it is essentially a backstage stabbing farce—say, All About Abs—wrapped in romance and sentiment. Its tone is considerably less even than the spray tan on the cast’s collective hide.

Borrowing from the Rita Hayworth vehicle Down to Earth, which it references, this gay Band Wagon rolls along merrily enough, confident in attracting an audience steeped in Hollywood myth, in Broadway lore as well as lingo. “Alexander technique,” for instance, which served as a pun in the play, is a way of learning how to rid the body of tension. Alternative culture has been doing just that by leaning on traditions that produce anxieties, irreverence being the release.

Art not quite sure of its standing tends to be self-conscious. Witnessing the return of Alexander the Great in his mission to sabotage a bawdy, low-fidelity account of his private life (in a production called “Alexander Was Great!”), I was reminded of Norman Corwin’s radio fantasy “A Descent of the Gods.” In it, the god of Trivia recalls how Venus, Mars, and Apollo visited Earth, and how they were embraced and degraded by the media, the least respected and most prominent of which being the one in which poet-journalist Corwin operated.

By now, the god of Trivia has been knocked off his throne by the god of Camp. And while I am not a worshipper of either, it is difficult to deny the force of the latter.

My Evening with Queen Victoria

Considering that it is St. George’s Day (as well as the anniversary of the birth of the Bard), I am going to stay a little closer to home this time and, forgoing a return to Budapest, report instead on my audience with the Queen. Victoria Regina, I mean, whom last I captured towering over Birmingham’s German Christmas market (pictured) and imagined listening to her Electrophone. Yesterday, we went to An Evening with Queen Victoria, a one-woman show in which British stage, screen, and television actress Prunella Scales, accompanied by a lyric tenor and a pianist (who is also the husband of the play’s creator and director), has toured the new and old world, including England, Australia, Canada and the United States. So, it was bound to make it to Wales, eventually.

Just in time, I might add. Ms. Scales, whose life now spans as many decades as the play, was called upon to read, in character, selections from the queen’s published reminiscences (Leaves from the Journal of Our Life in the Highland) and personal correspondences, from her youthful comments on her German cousins to her reflections on marriage and motherhood, duty, loss, and old age.

Along the way, the star struggled with some of her lines and had to be prompted audibly at one point (Fawlty Powers, I could not help thinking), while the aged pianist, who at one time loudly cleared his throat as if he had quite forgotten that there was a performance going on, played pieces of classical pieces by Rossini, Schumann, and Mendelssohn, which were interpreted with much feeling by the tenor, who thus painted himself into the queen’s portrait. The three of them joined forces to sing “Duties of a Monarch” from Gilbert and Sullivan’s Gondoliers:

Oh, philosophers may sing
Of the troubles of a King,
But of pleasures there are many and of worries there are none;
And the culminating pleasure
That we treasure beyond measure
Is the gratifying feeling that our duty has been done!

The whole royal affair might have faired well on radio, I thought, since it is largely a first-person narrative involving little action, aside from the queen’s efforts to rise from her easy chair to pick up various letters and books, to fetch a cane or wrap herself up as she gradually ages before us. I was not surprised, therefore, to learn that An Evening has indeed been produced for BBC radio.

It was on the air that the Her (Imperial) Majesty had been introduced into the living rooms of America, voiced by Helen Hayes, who inhabited the part on the Broadway stage in Laurence Housman’s Victoria Regina (1934), a play initially banned in England for daring to impersonate British royalty yet living.

An Evening was based largely on actual reminiscences of the monarch, as this somewhat unfortunate line from the leaflet that served as a playbill informed me: “The words of this programme are compiled entirely from Queen Victoria’s own journals and letters, together with some additional material from contemporary sources,” which is like saying that a loaf of bread is whole grain, except for a few preservatives and added flavors, natural or otherwise, however difficult to detect.

A similar claim was made by radio announcer Ernest Chapell, who introduced the 2 June 1939 broadcast of Orson Welles’s Campbell Playhouse by declaring that in order to “complete the true picture of this great queen, Mr. Welles has used still another source, one which only a few years ago was still a closed book, locked away in the official archives of the royal family: the personal diary of Queen Victoria.”

Containing the same material and creating a similar effect, An Evening is essentially a non-dramatic version of Victoria Regina, which Hayes revived once again for her Electric Theater on 14 November 1948, the day the queen’s great-great-great grandson, Prince Charles, was born. Intimate without being indiscreet, informal without being vulgar, both sketches create the quiet sensation of familiarity by bringing alive, in her own words, a woman who is more often thought of as an institution or the name crowning an era.

In an age favoring uncompromising exposés and compromising snapshots, close-ups with which we distance ourselves, such personal introductions are a charming and welcome illusion.

Out of the Bag: The Fiction of Laetitia Prism

She could have run Hollywood. Miss Prism, I mean. You know, the governess in The Importance of Being Earnest who couldn’t tell a book from a baby. Summing up the ends (the conclusion as well as the purpose) of her novel, she explains: “The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily. That is what Fiction means.”  We know where her story ended up, of course; but what end did Miss Prism face, and what ends might she have served after and beyond Wilde? Where do fictional characters go once their creators are done with them? What do they think, dream, or do between chapters or acts? Where have they been before entering the story their creators had in mind for them? Those are the question tackled by Celluloid Extras, a series of sketches now playing on BBC Radio 4.

What every governess knows: It is impolitic to point.

The practice of picking up familiar characters from the world of literature, disentangling them from the plots that contained them, and getting them back onto a public stage to let them tell us something else about themselves is hardly a novel idea. In January 1937, for instance, the familiar characters of Alice in Wonderland were released from the confines of “Copyright Lane” to mingle with Hamlet and assorted originals from Dickens’s Pickwick Papers and Martin Chuzzlewit in the free-for all of radio’s “Public Domain,” a play produced by the aforementioned Columbia Workshop. It is a tongue-in-cheek approach to pastiche that is both liberating and controlling of the afterlife and private lives of imaginary personages, who, even without those efforts, often do quite well in the minds of those who recall them from their excursions into drama and literature.

Natalia Power’s “Miss Prism, or the Dreadful Secret,” the first of those five Celluloid Extras promises the untold story of the absent-minded governess, whom last we saw being embraced by Dr. Chasuble, much to her delight. Now, I might have picked up some queer vibes, given that the Miss Prism I last experienced on stage was impersonated by a male actor; but Power seems to have gotten a similar impression, however her conclusions were drawn. And yet, Miss Prism seems to have been coerced into speaking up, if indeed the words coming out of her mouth were not put there by another. If it was her mouth.

In “The Decay of Lying,” one of the fictional characters through which Wilde spoke in his dialogued essays, remarked that the “only real people are the people who never existed.” In a postmodern dismissal of boundaries and binaries that would not have done for Wilde, whose stage plays and word plays depend on them, Power suggests that Miss Prism did exist as something other than the prism or lens of our changing mores, that she was, in fact, an acquaintance of the playwright to whom we are indebted for immortalizing her. By telling the fictive truth about imaginary people, “Miss Prism, or the Dreadful Secret” seems to be degrading the art of lying to a practice as indelicate and vile as tabloid journalism.

Giving Miss Prism a dirty secret (aside from the ones already out of the bag when the curtain falls on Wilde’s comedy) and by extracting it in a moment of alcohol-induced carelessness means to imitate life and, according to Wilde’s logic, to take it. Now that is character assassination.