“Being Served”: Mr. Humphries, Mr. Dickens, and Me

Well, we’re “free”—all of us. John Inman, the outrageously queer men’s wear salesclerk Wilberforce Clayborne Humphries of Britcom fame, is free of all bodily cares after taking the inside leg of the grim reaper today at age 71. Mr. Dickens, whose words have long been spread somewhat too freely in the public domain, is currently being made free with in a new stage adaptation of Great Expectations, the world premiere of which I attended last night. And I? After having been Internet-free for yet another ten days (four weeks and counting so far this year), I am at liberty at last to go on about Mr. Humphries, Mr. Dickens, and myself . . . sharing the miseries of not Being Served well.

“I’m free!” That, of course was Mr. Humphries’s catchphrase, a phrase to catch his drift with. And while he wasn’t, really trapped as he found himself in that ultra-conservative world of the Grace Brothers emporium—oh, brother, the disgrace of Empire!—watching him sure felt liberating to those who shared his lot. Particular, prickly, and peculiar, Mr. Humphries came across as a none-too-distant cousin of Franklin Pangborn, the Queen of Paramount. You know, the kind of character you are free to laugh at, if only to remain in the chokehold of the stereotypes that brought him into being.

For anyone who, like me, grew up with an anxiety of being deemed abnormal, an anxiety that, to be endured, was best (that is, most safely) wrapped in the cloak of flamboyancy, Mr. Humphries was at once a model and a monster—a grotesque mask you felt inclined to pick up mainly because you lacked the fiber and fortitude to tear down the structure responsible for its manufacture and marketing. No, the likes of Mr. Humphries are never free. Mr. Inman, at least, got to celebrate his coming out, however late in life, by publicizing his “gay wedding,” thereby to dismantle what is the most insidious of all secrets . . . the open one.

Mr. Humphries is a thoroughly Dickensian character: a mores-reflecting surface that is buffed up to speak and account for the unspeakable and unaccountable: a caricature that sanitizes as it unsexes. In the Dickensian universe—which is no larger than a Victorian middle-class closet, a repository of so many readily retrievable garments—it is the figure of Pip that best demonstrates the pitfalls of trading one’s identity for a dangled, ready-made mask—a substitution of which its creator had made a trade. Pip is as much a mask of melodrama as it is an unmasking of its workings and limitations.

Pip’s struggle and ultimate inability of coming into his own become apparent in Neil Bartlett’s adaptation of Dickens’s story, in which the episodes of Pip’s life are staged with a minimalism that divests the melodrama of its thrills and offers nothing in their stead, a creative “zilch” for which “existential void” is a mere euphemism. A set of loudspeakers is filling in as a Greek chorus, robbing Pip of the only authority he enjoyed—the privilege to relate the tale in which he found yet failed to find himself.

The silhouettes of characters traversing the stage in front of a white screen suggest what is clear from the start of this production: that none of the figures in the play are treated as living individuals, an impression enhanced by the doublings of most of the eight cast members. The avoidance of overt reflexive gestures—a director in search of his characters, perhaps—render altogether lifeless what might have generated some energy as a Brechtian comment on the world Dickens inhabited and peopled, a world whose masks and conventions we have not quite managed to drop, as much as we delight in making a spectacle of it.

Please, Mr. Memory: Concussion on The Thirty-Nine Steps

I felt torn last night. Torn between The Falcon’s Brother (in which George Sanders passes the thriller franchise to sibling Tom Conway) and John Buchan: Master of Suspense, a television documentary about the author of The Thirty-Nine Steps. Quandaries like these are peculiar to life in a single-TV household. Considering that I am going on a New Year’s trip to Glasgow (where Buchan grew up) and just saw a dramatization of his classic spy novel in London, I decided in favor of the latter. Not that the documentary (part of BBC Four’s Adventures for Boys season) did much to clear the muddle my mind, at work under the influence of Patrick Barlow’s stage adaptation, has made of the Steps, one of those books everyone claims to know but few ever read, let alone without preconceptions.

Now, I have read Buchan’s 1915 novel (available online here); and, like most readers who come to it by way of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 adaptation, I was astonished at the film’s brazenfaced infidelity. I was disappointed, as well. Missing was the wit that Hitchcock and writer Charles Bennett brought to the original by reworking it in the screwball comedy tradition. It Happened One Flight, they might as well have called what amounts to conclusive proof that tying a male hero to a dame (absent in Buchan’s story) does not have to slow down a fast-paced chase. Infusing sex appeal rather than sentimentality, Hitchcock’s cinematic update created a new adversary for the already much-beleaguered hero, Richard Hannay, who finds that a lot can go wrong in the effort to do right.

Barlow’s dramatization, by comparison, aims at demonstrating that a lot can go right in the effort to do wrong. When I read that John Buchan’s “The 39 Steps” was playing at London’s Criterion Theatre (where it can bee seen until April 2007), I had reason to expect an update of the novel, rather than a recreation of the film, however farcical the treatment (as reviews and poster art suggested).

As it turns out, Buchan’s novel has little to do with the nightly frivolities at the Criterion. The attribution to Buchan in the title of Barlow’s play (based on an “original concept” by Simon Corble and Nobby Dimon) seems to be part of an elaborate practical joke—a set-up in which spectators gladly take the fall since they are being coddled by travesty into assuming themselves superior to the material, whatever its source. Being tongue-in-cheek is a convenient escape, a laughing away of what could—and perhaps ought to—have been an engagement or confrontation with Buchan’s story, a tale of espionage and persecution anxities so relevant in this age of terror and so-called anti-terrorism.

Aside from the material of which John Buchan’s “The 39 Steps” makes light, the main attraction of the play lies in its being performed by a cast of only four actors, who dare to take on well over a hundred characters. With a small supply of basic props, those nimble four are shown in the ludicrous struggle to recreate the screenplay as realized by Hitchcock (who, in one of the many inspired moments of silliness, makes a cameo appearance in silhouette). This minimalist-absurdist approach to adaptation was not entirely a novelty act to me, having previously attended a production of The Importance of Being Earnest acted out by a cast of two.

Overly familiar as well felt the play’s reflexivity, its awareness of and delight in the improbability of being equal either to Buchan’s spy story or Hitchcock’s screwball caper. Many self-conscious remakes operate in this manner, escaping the challenge of finding the new in the old by making a mockery of the attempt at renewal and a mess of what is presumably so outmoded that it deserves nothing more than a send-up.

There is enjoyment in seeing things go awry, no doubt; and John Buchan’s “The 39 Steps” rewards theatergoers for their knowledge of the Hitchcock version (one of three film adaptations of the story). Cineastes will appreciate the effort that went into finding ways of making it almost work, whereas those who read and respect Buchan may regret how much is being squandered by ignoring his paradigm. After all, his thrills, too, depend on the pleasure derived from seeing things go awfully wrong, albeit with far higher stakes for the protagonist and his world.

Calling the play John Buchan’s The 39 Steps obscures the fact that the first motion picture adaptation was already a comic revision of Buchan’s rip-roaring yarn. Going after Buchan, Hitchcock managed to be fresh (both new and irreverent) without losing sight of the hunter-on the-run formula that would serve him so well, without neglecting the task of dusting off this decades-old story for action-seeking motion picture audiences. Forgoing thrills, sentiment, and politics alike, Barlow is strictly after laughs.

That said, the bungled dramatization is a chuckles-filled joyride for those who take pleasure in playing fast and loose with supposed literary classics. I gladly go along, provided I can still pride myself in being able to tell a sly impostor from the real thing. Instead, the theatrical experience has given me somewhat of a concussion, leaving me in a state of confusion that neither the aforementioned documentary nor the numerous American radio dramatizations (by the Lux Radio Theater and the Mercury Players, for instance) are likely to clear up. Was Richard Hannay a South African, a Canadian, or a Scotsman? Was he driven by the impulse to save a crumbling empire, to counter boredom, or to clear his name? Come to think of it: just who built The Thirty-Nine Steps, an unstable architectural composite of which now arises before my mind’s eye?

Even Mr. Memory won’t be of much assistance to me, I suspect. Besides, he is . . . but you know the story.

A Moody Christmas: There’s Life Yet in the Old Scrooge

Eighty-what? Bah, humbug! Age does not deter film, stage, and television actor Ron Moody from going on tour in yet another dramatization of Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, the Wales Theatre Company production of which I caught at the Aberystwyth Arts Center. In fact, Moody adapted the story as well, in collaboration with director Michael Bogdanov (whose productions of Fiddler on the Roof and Amazing Grace I have reviewed on previous occasions).

What’s more, Moody not only took on the play’s largest role but enlarged it still by taking over as Dickens’s narrator as well.  He resurrected the old miser with wit, humor, and feeling, even though his voice came across rather faintly and his lines were at times mumbled or muddled to an extent that the character’s age and grumpiness could not entire disguise or explain. When Scrooge reminds one of his ghostly guides of being “mortal” and “liable to fall,” Moody’s frame made the line utterly convincing; yet he stepped surprisingly lively after his reformation, cheerfully urging the audience to rise for a standing ovation.

The production was a busy one, meticulously recreating the story’s memorable scenes and characters with numerous set changes performed by stagehands shifting the makeshift props, activities that distracted from the endearing fairytale simplicity of the narrative and very nearly defeated the object of creating a sense of proscenium arch realism. It was all too much for poor Mrs. Fezziwig, who slipped upon entering the scene in which she was introduced to Scrooge by the Ghost of Christmas Past.

All this stagecraft brought to mind the superiority of non-visual storytelling on radio and in public readings. It is in the spoken word, aided at most by music and sound effects, that a ghost story like A Christmas Carol is most likely to thrill and enchant, as it certainly did in many of the productions heard during the 1930s and ‘40s on US radio, including this Campbell Playhouse adaptation broadcast on Christmas Eve, 1939.

There is no use trying to keep the eyes dry; their services are not required for the enjoyment of plays by radio. If tears happen to blur your vision, let them run freely.  They are testimony to the vision and insight of your mind’s eye.

Mr. Benny Gets the Key to Baldpate

Well, I am rather less prickly than yesterday. My cold seems to be on its way out and, having spent some time out of doors in the warmth of the autumn sun, I feel somewhat more serene and benevolent. Speaking of doors (a transition more creaky than the farce I am going to write about today): Having complained previously (and elsewhere) about the conventional and therefore superfluous adaptation of Jane Eyre now flickering in weekly installments on British television, I am going to mark the anniversary of a decidedly more inspired variation on what was once a similarly familiar work of fiction, Seven Keys to Baldpate, a crowd-pleaser that was revived for radio on this day, 26 September, in 1938.

Granted, it is easier to rework a piece that does not warrant the reverence befitting a literary classic such as Jane Eyre, a respect that can be artistically stifling when it comes to revisiting or revising what seems to demand fidelity rather than felicitous tinkering. A mystery novel conceived by Earl Derr Biggers (creator of Charlie Chan), Seven Keys opened many more doors after going through the smithy of theater legend George M. Cohan. Unlike Biggers, Mr. Cohan did not play it straight, but turned the thriller into what he then sold as a “Mysterious Melodramatic Farce”—starring himself.

In Cohan’s farce, the thriller writer Bill Magee accepts the $5000 challenge of a friend who dares him to pen a novel within twenty-four hours. To achieve this, the author is being given what he believes to be peace and quiet—the only key to a remote resort shut down for the winter. During his night at Baldpate Inn, the supposedly single guest is disturbed by an assortment of singular strangers, lunatics and villains, until his friend shows up to confess that the bizarre goings-on were a practical joke designed to illustrate the ridiculousness of the author’s improbable plots. The epilogue of Seven Keys discloses, however, that the action of the play was a dramatization of the novel Magee actually managed to complete that night. He won the wager by fictionalizing the challenge.

Opening on 22 September in 1913, the play became an immediate and oft-restaged favorite with American theatregoers. It was subsequently adapted for screen and radio. When, some twenty-five years after its premiere, the producers of the Cecil B. DeMille hosted Lux Radio Theatre got their hands on this potboiler, they slyly revamped it as a commercial property fit for the latest medium of dramatic expression.

In his introductory remarks, DeMille promises the listener a “special treatment” of the play—and that, for once, was no overstatement. As I have discussed at length in Etherized, my study on old-time radio, the broadcast revision is not so much a rehash as it is an media-savvy update of the original.

Whereas Cohan’s version celebrates the victory of popular entertainment, of readily digested pulp fictions churned out for a quick buck, Lux writer-adaptor George Wells transforms Seven Keys into a radio story—a story about radio that parodies the anxiety of former vaudevillians-turned-broadcast artists to achieve lasting success, to be remembered long after the shows in which they starred week after week had gone off the air—to become cultural icons despite their invisibility. And those keys to uncertainty were handed to the man who had been through it all and stayed on top by knocking himself down, fall guy comedian Jack Benny.

Instead of a successful novelist, the artist now up for a crazy night at Baldpate is Jack Benny, as “himself,” a frustrated thespian who accepts the challenge of developing a suitable dramatic vehicle for himself after having been turned down for serious dramatic parts time and again. Benny’s challenger is no other than Mr. DeMille, who, in a rare stunt, not only introduces and narrates the play, but acts in it, and that without having to drop his director-producer persona. Throw in a few Lux Flakes and it comes out a clever bit of promotion all round.

The unpretentious yet self-conscious reworking of a play as old hat as Baldpate into a comment on the recycling business of radio entertainment—and a demonstration of how to lather, rinse, and repeat successfully—is one of Lux‘s most ingenious and engaging productions.

Gormenghast (Dis)played; or, How to Mount a Frame of Mind

The beleaguered sun appeared to have triumphed at last in a narrow victory over the long-reigning clouds, and I, a much deprived heliolater, ventured out with laptop and deckchair to luxuriate in the vernal cool of a brightly colored afternoon, absorbed in thoughts of . . . death, dread, and desolation. It was not the long shadows cast upon the weeds-corrupted lawn, nor the shrieking of the crows nesting in our chimney that evoked such gloomy visions; nor was it the realization that the skies were darkening once more as another curtain of mist was lowering itself upon the formerly glorious outdoors.

No, my mood was not brought on by any one thing I happened to be perceiving at that moment; it was something instead that I took away with me last night as the crowds poured out of the theater on the hill, sending them into the inky, rain-swept night with images of Gormenghast.

Appearing before me, on the stage of my mind, are scenes of last night’s production of Mervyn Peake’s Titus trilogy, a dark evocation of a world more forbidding, more rotten and miasmic than Hamlet’s Elsinore—a world of stifling traditions, soul-crushing dread, and futile ambitions. To say that John Constable’s adaptation of this world was a recreation in sound and images would be an injustice to this thoroughly engrossing spectacle—a theatrical event that struck me at times as a staging of Jacobean revenge tragedies by Cirque du Soleil. Matthew Bourne, who whipped Edward Scissorhands into such a frothy confection of over-hyped ballet-hoo should take note; as should anyone endeavouring to bring a fantasy like Tolkien’s alive in the “wooden O” of the theater. Under the direction of David Glass, Gormenghast is conceived as an imaginatively choreographed piece of melodramatic shadowcasting, a labyrinthine dreamscape whose grotesque denizens scurry about like frustrated rodents.

As Quentin Crisp suggests in an essay on Peake as author and artist, visualizations often fail in the attempt to capture the imagined. When illustrating or showing, when portraying and rendering concrete the world an imaginative storyteller creates in words, “a certain ludicrous quality is always liable to creep in; the eye begins to vomit sooner than the ear—far sooner than the mind.”

So, the prospect of ghastly gormandizing, on seeing novelistic food for fancy being processed into rancid eye candy was not something I looked forward to without serious misgivings. I had not expected anything quite as bold as this inspired translation, which relied neither on the spoken word nor elaborate props to assist the audience in seeing the castle of Gormenghast rise not so much before their eyes as before their mind’s eye.

There was silent screen horror in the movement of Phillip Pellew (above, as Flay) and in the long corridors suggested by panels and shafts of light; in fact, the production seemed to owe more to silent movies than to western stage melodrama; this Grand Guignol was at times Kafkaesque, at others reminiscent of Brecht’s epic theater, as meek and inconsequential Steerpike (played by Adam Sunderland) attempts to lift himself from squalor to political prominence—a ruthless revolutionary in a stagnant, corroding society insisting on “no change.”

David Glass’s Gormenghast is too bleak to be called brilliant; but it certainly is a memorable achievement in translation, which is the realization that being faithful is not being literal, the radical art of doing away with “no change.”

On This Day in 1944: Montgomery Clift Gets Lost in Radio’s “Wilderness”

Before heading out on this appropriately wild and gloomy evening to see a touring production of Gormenghast at our local theater, I am going to listen to one the lesser known drama programs of American old-time radio: Arthur Hopkins Presents (1944-45), which took its name from the noted Broadway producer-director who hosted the series. On this day, 24 May, in 1944, Mr. Hopkins presented an adaptation of Eugene O’Neill’s popular comedy Ah, Wilderness! starring Broadway legend Dudley Digges and featuring a young if experienced stage actor who would become one of the most sought-after actors of 1950s Hollywood—Montgomery Clift.

In the spring of 1944, Arthur Hopkins took to the airwaves in hopes of introducing to radio a “people’s theatre and a repertory theatre.” Hopkins held that radio offered a temporary “solution to the unavoidable extravagance of the commercial theater in shelving a play when the immediate audience has been served,” and to the “economic encumbrances” that made repertory “impractical” in a Broadway venue. By reprocessing recent stage successes, Hopkins sought to “create adult theatre audiences for them and eventually for Broadway.”

The series premiered promisingly that April with Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, whose use of a narrator makes it one of the most radiogenic of stage dramas. Subsequent plays were not nearly as ideally suited to the airwaves; at least, they were not suited to the demands of the one-dimensional (that is, sound only) medium. Hopkins was vehemently opposed to making changes to the original scripts. He insisted that the “two pillars on which dramatic productions stand are identical in theater and radio. They are text and cast.”

Rejecting the addition of a narrator and keeping both music and sound effects to a minimum, Hopkins deemed the challenge of adaptation to be no more than a matter of sagacious cutting. As a result of such ill-advised fidelity, “Ah, Wilderness!” begins in medias res and ends in somewhat of a muddle. 

The mind receiving no assistance in setting the scene—help provided by a guiding narrator like the one installed in Arthur Arent’s Theater Guild version of the same play—what is left of O’Neill’s nostalgic recreation of small town Connecticut in the year 1906 is a Babel of voices, a sonic jungle that at times suggests a forest of microphones behind which performers, whose scripts you can hear rustling, rush to and fro in a frantic attempt to recite as much of the original text as possible within the allotted fifty-five minutes.

For all their shortcomings, such transcribed theatricals are living records of a tradition we can otherwise only glimpse at in a couple of still photographs. Digges (as Nat Miller) and Clift (as his young son Dick) turn in fine performances, Clift being most convincing in the scene at the notorious Pleasant Beach House, where he is easy prey for one of the “swift” dames who prefer cash over matrimony.

The young man, we readily believe, doesn’t understand what is going on; nor is he corrupted by it. His father is pleased to forgive a son who has been naïve rather than wayward. “I don’t believe in kissing between fathers and sons after a certain age,” Nat remarks, having just received such a token of filial love; “seems mushy and silly—but that meant something.” To Nat, it meant that his son was “safe—from himself.” In Cliff’s case, it might have meant something else altogether.

Surprisingly, the man responsible for this Arthur Hopkins adaptation was none other than Wyllis Cooper (pictured above), whose thriller programs were the finest and most literary ever to be soundstaged for American radio. Now, there was a man who’d done well bringing a Gothic nightmare like Gormenghast to the public’s ear. I wonder how the visualization of Mervyn Peake’s 1950 novel will succeed tonight. But more about that tomorrow . . .

Rattigan’s “Tables” (Up)set at the Royal Exchange, Manchester

Well, I couldn’t get away from it after all, even at the theater. Not the protests-provoking Condoleezza Rice visit to Britain, from which, to my relief, business-as-usual Manchester is being spared during my stay there this weekend. The stereotyping, I mean. As I remarked in my previous entry, the English up north are tiresomely prejudicial in their approach to the Welsh. Now, I am not from Wales; but I happen to have moved there. And it is beginning to irk me that I am being subjected to scoffs, sneers, or petty remarks whenever my present residence, which is not readable in my Germanic features, becomes known.

Asked for my zip code at the box office of the Royal Exchange Theatre—a compliant response to which one ought to resist rather than giving it readily—I was treated to some mild sarcasm, partly encouraged by my generally self-deprecating sense of humor. Perhaps I am too sensitive, but I think a line is being crossed when a salesperson calls you “confused” for having relocated from New York City to Wales.

At any rate (and perhaps at a rather too high one, considering this low moment of high-hatting), I got myself a ticket for a production of Terence Rattigan’s Separate Tables (1954), which is on at the aforementioned Royal Exchange Theatre until 13 May 2006. The two plays so called are set at a hotel by the sea, just respectable enough to be tolerated by those who have seen better days and affordable enough to shelter them with a modicum of comfort in their waning ones.

The predominantly elderly clientele of the Beauregard Private Hotel, Bournemouth, exchange pleasantries—and unpleasantries—while seated apart from one another at their meals. Among them, the impoverished but stately Lady Matheson, the myopic, horse-betting Miss Meacham, the lonely ex-schoolmaster Mr. Fowler, and the formidable Mrs. Railton-Bell and her mousy daughter (excellently portrayed by Janet Henfrey and Clare Holman, respectively).

Now, the fastidious Mr. Rattigan, who insisted on writing plays of ideas—rather than character and narrative—had the seating arrangements all figured out, providing drawings of the stage with descriptions of each, reading, for instance,

Table (down L): white cloth, cruet, menu, napkin in ring, bottle of Vichy water, tumbler, sauce, table lamp, flowers, soup spoon, large knife and fork, small knife, dessert spoon and fork, side plate, roll, plate of soup, ashtray.

The Royal Exchange production does serve the food—which, if the staff is to be believed, is rather awful (“I shouldn’t have that, if I were you”); but does so with admirable swiftness and little clutter. While the tables are less personal than Rattigan prescribes, the isolation and forlornness of the characters and the tensions between them become more expressive, more tangible in an austere setting.

As it turns out, Rattigan’s play is far better suited to a theater in the round like the Royal Exchange than a more traditionally narrative drama like What Every Woman Knows, which I previously saw at the same venue. I felt like sitting at dinner (not at a dinner theater, mind you), at a table way in the back, observing fellow guests. Sure, I only saw the back of Mrs. Meacham for most of the time and did not catch her every word as a result; but I could appreciate the play’s ideas, its commentary on modernity, all the more for it.

Not having found a radio adaptation of this highly successful play, which was exported to America at a moment in theater history when radio was no longer seriously considered as a potential medium for drama, I am trying to imagine how a soundstaging of it could work, with varying levels of volume indicating the distance between the tables. Would the microphone sit in middle of the room? Would it move from table to table, along with the dishes being served? Would it favor any one character or would it eliminate differences in class and fortunes by having the neutrality of volume control?

Now, that’s what I call a play giving me ideas as I continue to think about my own attempts at radio playwrighting.

"This . . . is London": Florence Foster Jenkins, Again

Well, it doesn’t always take “practice, practice, practice” to get to Carnegie Hall. Sometimes, delusions of grandeur—and a few thousand gawkers in search of the proverbial train wreck—will do. If you are among those who still marvel at the American public’s decision to include Kevin Covais among this year’s American Idol finalists, consider the career of a tone-deaf diva who brought the William Hung-factor to classical music: Florence Foster Jenkins, a coloratura-blind soprano so astonishingly awful that audiences are still pricking up their ears in disbelief some sixty years after her silencing. Call it “Schadenfreude schöner Götterfunken.”

When last I was in New York City, I went to see Souvenir, a “fantasia on the life of Florence Foster Jenkins” starring Judy Kaye (and reviewed it here). A few weeks later, I was surprised to discover that another not-so-musical portrait of the miss-most-notes notable was on display in London, where it can be taken in at the Duchess Theatre until the end of April. Of course, I had to see and hear for myself how La-la-la Jenkins was being treated overseas, so far from the famed hall she brought down in the fall of 1944, within weeks of her exit at age 76.

As conceived by Peter Quilter, patched-together from what little he could find about the performer in print, Glorious is the sort of guilty theatrical pleasure few people permit themselves these days, given the exorbitant ticket prices that make the legitimate stage a recycle bin for acknowledged classics and crowd-pleasing musicals. Glorious doesn’t quite live up to its title. It is unambitious, trivial, and decidedly silly. Maureen Lipman, whom I had previously seen opposite Sir Ian McKellen in a rather chintzy reproduction of the pantomime Aladdin, delivers the broad jokes and broader slapstick with pitch-perfection. Only too rarely, when addressing us as Jenkins’s audience, does she become as captivating or “glorious” as the original herself must have been to 1940s concert-goers.

Unlike Souvenir‘s Judy Kaye, Lipman does not go far beyond shtick, not being required or encouraged to do so by Quilter’s cartoonish script, which at times seems little more than an assortment of rather ho-hum puns, few of which you would get away with even in intoxicated company.

Unlike Ms. Kaye—who was just and judiciously supported by a pianist-narrator based on Jenkins’s own accompanist, Cosme McMoon—Lipman is being surrounded by a host of sitcom characters: an irascible Hispanic maid, a womanising admirer, a ditzy confidante, and a society lady appalled at her caterwauling. The situations derived from these fictional foes and associates are far less inspired than the close-up of Jenkins at her self-delusional best.

And, unlike Ms. Kaye, Lipman is unable to end on the moving high note both Quilter and Stephen Temperley (the writer of Souvenir) chose for their flourish. Both playwrights attempt to bring home Ms. Jenkins’s blissful ignorance of her tone-deafness by letting us hear the dulcet tones the performers assumes to be producing. Musical star Judy Kaye gets an opportunity to sing “Ave Maria,” while Lipman merely lip-synchs to a recording. The audiences of Souvenir are offered a glimpse, at least, of the diva’s doubts and fears, while those seeing Glorious will encounter a consummate mis-performer sheltered by a stupefying lack of self-awareness.

“[I]t was certainly rather wonderful living in the head of this unique woman,” Quilter remarks in his notes on the play. Unfortunately, we get to enter neither his mind nor hers. Instead, we are being treated to two hours of Will and Disgrace.

Hoping for More Scandal; or, When the “head’s modern, though the trunk’s antique”

As I mentioned yesterday, I had the pleasure of being lectured on sentiment and sensationalism in one of the back rows of The School for Scandal. It was a lesson conveyed with great wit and delivered without frills by the Northern Broadsides theatre company. I didn’t expect Sheridan’s characters to gossip in marked northern accents and thought Maria was less of a prize now that she was shouting just as angrily as the “odious” and “disagreeable” people around her. Generally, however, the coarseness of tongue lent realism to the idle chatter of the upper crust.

The Radio Guild players in 1930

Gone was the Cowardian disparity between elocution and vulgarity, between high class and mean instincts. Rather than being vocal acrobats in a Wildean vein, the graduates of this School were crass, brazen, and dangerous mudslingers. Only Joseph Surface was given the slick treatment in voice and appearance, a suitable gloss to reflect his falsehood. What might an American radio production do with such caricatures, I wondered, and went in pursuit of more Scandal on the air.

When aiming at respectability, US radio of the 1930s and 1940s not infrequently availed itself of British drama. Soap operas were for the kitchen—but Shakespeare and Pinero were for the parlor. As I put it in Etherized Victorians, my doctoral study on so-called old-time radio, Sir Benjamin Backbite’s remark about Mrs. Evergreen is an apt comment on US radio drama, a novel form of production that often exhausted itself in re-productions.”

“[W]hen she has finished her face,” Sir Benjamin quips, the unseen Mrs. Evergreen “joins it on so badly to her neck, that she looks like a mended statue, in which the connoisseur may see at once that the head’s modern, though the trunk’s antique.” Now, radio drama truly was a “mended statue,” a patched-up art form that rarely resembled the genuine article it tried to copy.

In radio, the trunk (the smart console) was modern, but the head, the boardroom of executives in charge of programming, was decidedly “antique,” that is, backward-looking rather than avant-garde when it came to defining wholesome or commercially viable entertainment. To be sure, in the case of Pre-Victorian plays like Sheridan’s Scandal, mending the statue might have required some whitewash to tone down its display of adultery and cover up its hints of abortion.

Unfortunately, the productions of Scandal as heard on the Radio Guild program are no longer extant, since no transcription have been preserved or recovered. Indeed, nearly the entire series seems to have been destroyed, an act as scandalous as the reputation of Sheridan’s characters. This is all the more lamentable considering that the Radio Guild (pictured above, anno 1930) was the first major theater anthology on US network radio. Beginning in 1929, just days after Wall Street laid its infamous egg, it brought free theater into the homes of millions, producing plays ranging from Shakespeare to Wilde, from Goldsmith to Boucicault.

Even if its producers kept their heads mainly in antique trunks, Radio Guild surely sounds like a statue worth mending, if only its pieces had been scattered instead of obliterated. So, if you find a fragment, please fling it my way.

“Reviewing the Situation”: Catching Up with Fagin in the Way West End

Moving from Manhattan to Mid-Wales was bound to lower my chances of taking in some live theater now and then (not that Broadway ticket prices had allowed me to keep the intervals between “now” and “then” quite as short as I’d like them to be). I expected there’d be the odd staging of Hamlet with an all-chicken cast or a revival of “Hey, That’s My Tractor” (to borrow some St. Olaf stories from The Golden Girls). Luckily, I’m not one to embrace the newfangled and my tastes in theatrical entertainments are, well, conservative. I say luckily because even if you’’re living west of England rather than the West End of its capital, chances are that there’s a touring company coming your way, eventually.

What came my way last night was a well-oiled production of Oliver!, with Peter Karrie in the role of Fagin. It was my second reunion with Oliver Twist this year, having watched playwright/composer Neil Brand at work on a new score for the 1922 silent screen version in his London studio last June. Apparently, the age of political correctness has not yet torn down or effaced all the melodramatic caricatures in the western portrait gallery of villains and scoundrels.

Never mind the play’s eponymous tyke, who wriggled through the miseries of his youth predictably well, in keeping with the plans laid out for him by “Mr. Popular Sentiment” (as Dickens was mockingly called by fellow novelist Anthony Trollope). Aside from Lionel Bart’s eminently hummable tunes, it was Karrie’s con brio portrayal of Fagin that kept this superannuated warhorse of a melodrama from coming across as lame and lumbering.

While often considered sure-fire, revivals are not quite so easy to pull off; too often they are self-conscious about the dateness of the material. Apart from the half-heartedness of uneasy reverence (as achieved by the Old Vic production of The Philadelphia Story I saw earlier this summer), there’s nothing worse than camp, the postmodernist disease of arrogant, willful misreading and flaunted emotional impoverishment. Oliver! was refreshingly, that is unabashedly, old-fashioned, brought to life by force of Karrie’s sense of bathos, at full throttle in the musical number “Reviewing the Situation.”

Well, it was not difficult for me to identify with the situation under review, that is, with Fagin’s assessment of his outsider status and his pondering of the pressure to adjust: “I’m finding it hard to be really as black as they paint,” he sighs, addressing the audience. Twice authored—by the creators of the play and the society they depict—Fagin conforms both to melodramatic conventions and societal expectations (he’s a “bad ‘un” who cannot change) while all along defying such standards (aware of his “situation,” he grapples with it and implicates the class system that stamped him an outcast):

Left without anyone in the world,
And I’m starting from now,
So how to win friends and to influence people?
So how?
I’m reviewing the situation:
I must quickly look up ev’ryone I know [. . .].

So where shall I go—somebody?
Who do I know? Nobody!
All my dearest companions
Have always been villains and thieves.
So at my time of life I should start
Turning over new leaves?

There simply aren’t enough leaves in the book for old Fagin. So, having reviewed the situation, he is very nearly resigned to a condition that a less reflective person would call fated:

I’m a bad ‘un and a bad ‘un I shall stay!
You’ll be seeing no transformation,
But it’s wrong to be a rogue in ev’ry way. 

I don’t want nobody hurt for me,
Or made to do the dirt for me.
This rotten life is not for me.
It’s getting far too hot for me.
Don’t want no one to rob for me.
But who will find a job for me?
There is no in between for me,
But who will change the scene for me?
I think I’d better think it out again!

Between a rock and a hard place, between Scylla and Charybdis, Fagin is forever reviewing a situation he is at a loss to improve; for him, there’s no silver lining (like the one above, which I spotted in the sky this morning). Taking advantage of the anonymity and visibility technology can offer the latter-day rogue with a touch of Hamlet and Werther, he would probably be blogging about it today.