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 for 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 stories 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.

Bloodshed: Did Freddy Kruger Slay Cocteau?

It can do serious damage to one’s sensibilities. Popular culture, I mean. I sensed its deadening force tonight when I attended a screening of Jean Cocteau’s first film, Le sang d’un poète (1930). It was shown, together with the Rene Clair short Entr’acte (1924), at the National Library of Wales here in Aberystwyth, where it was presented with live musical accompaniment by composer Charlie Barber, who also conducted. However animated the score, the images left me almost entirely cold. Why? I wondered.

There was a time when I was thrilled—or at least tickled—by surrealism. Reproductions of Magritte’s paintings lined the walls of my room. In my drawings and watercolors, I ransacked the surrealist inventory, ripping off Dali’s shadows and reshaping the landscapes of Tanguy and de Chirico. Getting experimental with the camera, I posed in front of designer-cracked mirrors, something standing in for blood oozing from my cheek or brow. That was just about the time when early 20th-century art was being reprocessed on MTV, in music videos and horror film franchises like Phantasm, A Nightmare on Elm Street, and The Evil Dead. This New Wave swept over and wiped out what was once avantgarde but nowadays generate about as much excitement as a can of Campbell’s soup.

Our jaundiced eyes have stared down a multitude of visual assailants. How many times can you be surprised by a mirror turning into a pool of water, startled by violent juxtapositions, or amazed at facile paradoxes? How long does it take to turn an outrage of images into an outage of imagination? Video, it seems, killed something other than the radio star.

Popular culture can make Cocteau’s Poet look like Mr. Potato Head. It exterminates the life of art in the very process of reproduction. Was it this frustration with the fading power of pictures that made me turn to the non-visual arts, to broadcasting in the pre-television age? If so, video did not kill the radio star after all. When you run those digital pictures until the recycled blood on the screen runs dry, you might begin to hunger for a blank slate on which to give new expression to your personal terrors and intimate desires.

Give the poet in you a blood transfusion by taking your eyes from the plasma screen. Close them a while . . . if you have the sang-froid to open your mind’s eye to such a world of possibilities.

Delayed Exposure: A Man, a Monument, and a Musical

Well, I don’t know why I took it. This picture, I mean. Over the years, I must have walked past that plaque hundreds of times without paying attention to it. A few months ago, returning for a visit to my old neighborhood in Manhattan, it insisted I take notice at last. I went to an exhibition at the Cooper-Hewitt Museum on the corner of Fifth Avenue and 91st Street. Erected in memory of the journalist W. T. Stead, this modest cenotaph stands opposite the museum, on the Central Park side of the avenue. I had no knowledge and little interest in the life of Mr. Stead, which (the plaque tells you as much) ended spectacularly aboard the Titanic. Last weekend, some three months after my return from New York, the man insinuated himself into my life once again, this time in the guise of a character in a Welsh musical.

Amazing Grace, staged at the local Arts Centre, tells the story of Evan Roberts, a Welsh miner turned preacher who, in the words of Mr. Stead, became the “central figure” of the early 20th-century “religious awakening in Wales.” Stead followed the movement, interviewed Roberts, and reported about this so-called Welsh Revival. In Mal Pope’s play, he appropriately serves as narrator and commentator on Roberts’s fabulous rise and his equally sudden disappearance from public view.

Unfortunately, Stead doesn’t get all that much to say or sing about Roberts, and the musical, which, in this particular production, featured the aforementioned Peter Karrie as a fierce reverend envious of the enigmatic upstart, suffers from a serious case of anticlimax: whether daunted by his fame or no longer driven to preach, Roberts simply shuts up—a silencing that doesn’t make for a rousing finale. Unimpressed by Pope’s 1980s-styled power ballads and his by-the-numbers approach to biography, I was easily and gratefully distracted when I saw Mr. Stead walking across the stage and back into my conscious, as if to demand the leading role denied to him in this production. Now I find myself compelled to follow up on Stead’s life and writings.

As it turns out, Stead was fascinated by the spiritual, by premonition and second sight, by ghostly doubles and “long-distance telepathy.” For instance, he wrote about a case in which a telegram, then presumably the fastest means of telecommunication, was several hours slower in conveying a story than a message alleged to have been transmitted by a “disembodied spirit.” It is the extra-scientific (rather than the supernatural) speculated about by those growing up in the age of Darwin, an age of industrialism and shattered systems of belief. Researching Etherized Victorians, my study on old-time radio, I came across one such comment on modernity by one of Stead’s contemporaries, Rudyard Kipling, whose 1902 short story “Wireless” marvels at psychic phenomena while questioning scientific progress: telepathy as the ultimate wireless connection.

It seems Mr. Stead is anxious to continue the debate from the beyond. I have unwittingly become a ghost writer for the late journalist; recalling him to life in word and image, I am merely his chosen amanuensis.

Fiddle/Sticks; or, When Broadway Comes to Town

Well, there’s milk in the old cow yet. The cash cow that is Fiddler on the Roof, I mean, which started giving in 1964 and ran for a record-breaking 3,242 performances. Forced to abandon the town of Anatevka, Tevye and his neighbors have travelled the world to inhabit the small but rich territory that is the theatrical stage. One of those theaters giving a temporary home to the Fiddler is the Arts Center in Aberystwyth, Wales, where the plight of the Russian Jews and their threatened “Tradition” are now being re-enacted by a mostly Welsh cast, headed by Welsh-born Peter Karrie in the role of Tevye.

Karrie (“The World’s Most Popular Phantom”) performed in the same venue last summer, when he impressed me with his sensitive portrayal of Fagin in Lionel Bart’s Oliver! (as discussed here). This time around, the show truly revolves around him, which is somewhat of a problem for his fellow actors, who can’t hold a candlestick to him. Karrie is a musical actor; he does not merely saunter or dance across the stage to belt out tunes like the familiar “If I Were a Rich Man.” Even with a microphone coming unglued and protruding from his cheek like a handle on a paper bag, he is thoroughly convincing and engrossing.

Holding up well enough opposite him as his wife is Andrea Miller, who takes on Golde with a long-faced, comical severity that reminds me of Edna May Oliver. Her sentimental duet with Tevye, “Do You Love Me?” is one of the highlights of a show whose greatest shortcoming is that it is rather devoid of darkness. After all, the pogroms, the razing of entire villages and the exodus of the Jews from their Russian homes, are not to be treated like an occasion for so many routinely staged showstoppers. This Fiddler came across like a Jewish version of Pride and Prejudice, with hard-up Golde, like Jane Austen’s Mrs. Bennett, trying to get her five daughters married to well-to-do suitors while her permissive husband caves in to the youngsters’ concept of matrimony as a union of loving partners.

Central to this plot is the matchmaker Yente, a role originated by Golden Girl Bea Arthur (whom I last spotted autographing DVDs at a Manhattan bookstore). In this production, a shtick-figure of a Yente slips in and out of her Yiddish accent. Less fitting still were most of the wigs and beards, rendering the Rabbi, as performed by a juvenile, so laughable as to compromise the sincerity of the entire production. Now, Aberystwyth is a summer resort for Hassidic Jews, who take over one of its beaches during the month of August. Should any of them venture out to see this production, as directed by BAFTA-award winning Michael Bogdanov, they might very well hiss this unfortunate miscast off the stage.

Studying the playbill, I came across one intriguing radio dramatic connection–a wireless connection I invariably seek and find without fail. Apart from Andrea Martin, who is an award-winning writer of radio plays, the playbill names Arnold Perl as the man by whose “special permission” the Tevye stories of Sholem Aleichem were adapted for Fiddler.

I am not sure how Perl got to acquire the rights to these late 19th/eary 20th-century tales; but, as a writer whose old-time radio play “The Empty Noose” commented on the inconclusiveness of the Nuremberg Trials (as mentioned here), he was undoubtedly drawn to them due to their special cultural and political significance, a heritage of horrors now playing itself out in the uneasy compromise that is Israel, a heritage that Bogdanov, himself a descendant of Ukranian Jews, merely fiddles with his amiable roof hoofers for the sticks.

Dark of Day: "Danger" and the Drama Invisible

Well, it was a scorcher of a day—the first I experienced here in temperate Wales. The unexpected heat brings back memories of my many summers in New York City and will prepare me for my return to the asphalt jungle this August. Moving to rural Wales from that bustling metropolis took more of an adjustment than adding a few layers of clothing; but anyone ready to weave life according to E. M. Forster’s motto “Only connect,” which is not a bad motto to live by, there is the comfort of that web of relations that, however remote or isolated you might believe yourself to be, will place you smack in the middle of the world, like a spider resting in the assurance that flies are bound to drop in, by and by. Here is one such moment in the web in which I find myself. You might have to stretch your antennae a bit to get caught up in it.

Picture this: New York City, on this day, 18 July, in 1936. It’s the premiere of The Columbia Workshop, the most experimental and innovative of all the radio dramatic series produced during the so-called “golden age” of . For that first broadcast, the Workshop revived what is generally considered to be the first original play for radio: “The Comedy of Danger,” by British playwright-novelist Richard Hughes, better known for A High Wind in Jamaica (1929), an adventure story that has been ranked among the hundred best novels of the twentieth century.

“Danger” is a sort of Poseidon Adventure staged in utter darkness; a spectacular melodrama of disaster involving three people about to drown in a collapsed coal mine. It is a scenario mined for the theater of the mind, evoked by sounds and silence alone. “Danger” was first produced by the BBC on 15 January 1924, but was still a novelty act when the Workshop chose it for its inaugural broadcast more than twelve years later. Back in 1924, US radio had no use for such theatricals, Hughes remarked in an article about “The Birth of Radio Drama”:

A few months [after the BBC production], finding myself in New York, I tried to interest American radio authorities in the newborn child. Their response is curious when you consider how very popular radio plays were later to become in the States. They stood me good luncheons; they listened politely; but then they rejected the whole idea. That sort of thing might be possible in England, they explained, where broadcasting was a monopoly and a few crackpot highbrows in the racket could impose what they liked on a suffering public. But the American setup was different: it was competitive, so it had to be popular, and it stood to reason that plays you couldn’t see could never be popular. Yet it was not very long before these specially written “blind” plays (my own “Comedy of Danger” among them) began to be heard in America, and on the European continent as well.

Other than creating a situation in which the characters are as much bereft of sight as the audience, “Danger” has no artistic merit. It purports to be philosophical about death; but the fifteen minutes allotted for this piece of melodramatic hokum are hardly time enough to probe deeply, and much of the dialogue is ho-hum or altogether laughable. What makes this seemingly generic if radiogenic play more personally meaningful to me is that it was written by a Brit of Welsh parentage, by a man who chose to live in a Welsh castle, and who chose, for this, his first dramatic piece for radio, a story set not far from the very hills where I found myself after these long years of writing in New York City about American radio drama. Is it a coincidence that I came home to the birthplace of radio drama?

“Goodness knows!” exclaims one of the trapped visitors,

I’d expect anything of a country likes Wales! They’ve got a climate like the flood and a language like the Tower of Babel, and then they go and lure us into the bowels of the earth and turn the lights off! Wretched, incompetent—their houses are full of cockroaches—Ugh!

In the background, Welsh miners face their fears by singing “Aberystwyth”—the name of the town near which I now reside. The Welsh, of course, are known for their oral tradition, for their singing and poetry recitals; their most famous poet is Dylan Thomas, author of the best know of all radio plays, “Under Milkwood.” It is here that American radio drama is still being thought of and written about: Rundfunk und Hörspiel in den USA 1930-1950 (1992), for instance, by fellow German Eckhard Breitinger, was written here, as was Terror on the Air, by Richard J. Hand, published in 2006. It is here, in Wales, that I started communicating with radio dramatist Norman Corwin; and it is here that, after a short break from my journal, I will continue my visits to the theater of the mind.

Yes, it is a web all right, even though I am not sure whether it was woven by or for me. I am merely discovering connections that, upon reflection, are plain to see and comforting to behold.

“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.