30 March 2009

History of 'Waiting For Godot'

This being the 20th-anniversary year of Samuel Beckett’s death, and with the Roundabout Theatre about to open the latest all-star production of his Waiting for Godot (on 30 April), I thought a little advanced discussion might be interesting and perhaps useful. The production, directed at Studio 54 by Anthony Page, will begin previews Friday, 3 April, and star Nathan Lane as Gogo, Bill Irwin as Didi, John Goodman as Pozzo, John Glover as Lucky, and Matthew Schechter as the messenger (boy). I have been interested in Godot, possibly the most famous absurdist play in the repertoire, since I first saw it in college, my university’s theater director, the late Lee Kahn, having been a pretty avid envelope-pusher. (This having been the mid-‘60s, the play was still relatively new.) Decades later, when I was in grad school (for the second time), I did a course project that involved a lot of historical research, dramatic interpretation, and theatrical analysis of the play. Here’s some of what I learned from my contemplation of Waiting for Godot, starting with some history of the play’s productions.

En attendant Godot was composed between 1947 and 1949 when Beckett was experiencing the first of two sustained creative bursts. The French version, whose title actually means “while waiting for Godot,” was published in 1952 and opened in Paris on 5 January 1953, for a run of more than 300 performances. The English version was published in New York in 1954, played at the Arts Theatre in London the following year, and had its American première at Coconut Grove Playhouse in Miami on 3 January 1956. Bert Lahr, star of the Florida presentation, played Gogo again when the show moved to New York on 19 April, with E. G. Marshall as Didi, Kurt Kasznar as Pozzo, and Alvin Epstein as Lucky--all of whom repeated their roles for the Columbia Masterworks recording produced the same year. The play ran only 60 performances at the John Golden Theatre, but since then has been performed in twenty tongues--in such scattered parts of the world as Japan, Sweden, Yugoslavia, and Israel--and in all types of theaters: on campuses, in summer stock, in “little theaters,” and in prisons.

But almost every opening night of Godot has been marked by extreme reactions. The Paris production was hailed by many critics as a major dramatic breakthrough. No less a literary figure than Jean Anouilh declared in Arts-Spectacle on 27 January 1953:

Godot is a masterpiece that will cause despair for men in general and playwrights in particular. I think the opening night at the Théâtre de Babylone is as important as the opening of Pirandello in Paris in 1923 . . . .

En attendant Godot was first performed in the small auditorium of the Théâtre de Babylone in Paris after a workshop presentation, broadcast on French radio, in February 1952. It was directed by Roger Blin, a respected French director in the years after World War II, who also played Pozzo. Typical of the enthusiastic response--and most prophetic of all--was the opinion of Sylvain Zegel, who wrote in La Libération:

Theater-lovers rarely have the pleasure of discovering a new author worthy of the name; an author who can give his dialogue true poetic force, who can animate his characters so vividly that the audience identifies with them; who, having meditated, does not amuse himself with mere word juggling; who deserves comparison with the greatest . . . . In my opinion Samuel Beckett’s first play Waiting for Godot, at the Théâtre de Babylone, will be spoken of for a long time.

English-speaking audiences, which had not seen as much avant-garde drama as had the Parisians, reacted with mixed feelings. (The British première was heavily expurgated, as censorship in England was strict. Not until the end of 1964 did an unabridged version of the script get a British staging.) Peter Bull, who played Pozzo in the original British production directed by a young Peter Hall in 1955, witnessed a daunting occurrence. In his memoirs, I Know the Face, But . . ., he wrote:

I have a habit of comforting myself on first nights by trying to think of appalling experiences during the war, when terror struck from all sides, but the windiness felt on the Italian beachheads . . . was nothing to compare with one’s panic on that evening of August 3, 1955 . . . . Waves of hostility came whirling over the footlights, and the mass exodus . . . started quite soon after the curtain had risen. The audible groans were also fairly disconcerting.

Harold Hobson concluded his review in the London Times by saying: “Go and see Waiting for Godot. At the worst you will discover a curiosity, a four-leaved clover, a black tulip; at the best something that will surely lodge in a corner of your mind for as long as you live.” In The Observer, Kenneth Tynan, Hobson’s fellow doyen of London criticism, asserted, “It is vividly new, and hence I declare myself, as the Spanish would say, Godotista.” But the American critic Marya Mannes wrote acidly in New York’s The Reporter about the same London production:

The play concerns two tramps who inform each other and the audience at the outset that they smell. It takes place in what appears to be the town dump, with a blasted tree rising out of a welter of rusting junk including plumbing parts. They talk gibberish to each other and to two ‘symbolic’ maniacs for several hours, their dialogue punctuated every few minutes by such remarks as ‘What are we waiting for?’ ‘Nothing is happening,’ and ‘Let’s hang ourselves.’ The last was a good suggestion, unhappily discarded.

And surveying the London theater in 1957 for The Sewanee Review, Bonamy Dobreé said flatly about Godot:

. . . it is time to affirm that anything that can be called art must ultimately be in praise of life, or must at least promote acceptance of life, thus indicating some values.

Dobreé thus epitomized the widely-accepted view of the time that Beckett’s work, because of its “nihilism,” could not “be called art.”

In Miami, a large segment of the audience left in disgust before the curtain rose for act two. As director Alan Schneider put it in the Chelsea Review two years after the production closed:

Doing Godot in Miami was, as Bert Lahr [the original Gogo] himself said, like doing Giselle in Roseland. Even though Bert and Tommy [Ewell, who played Didi in Miami] each contributed brilliantly comic and extremely touching performances, . . . it was--in the words of the trade--a spectacular flop. The opening night audience in Miami, at best not too sophisticated or attuned to this type of material and at worst totally misled by advertising billing the play as “the laugh sensation of two continents,” walked out in droves. And the so-called reviewers not only could not make heads or tails of the play but accused us of pulling some sort of hoax on them.

The New York production of 1956 garnered a mixture of critical response. In the Herald Tribune, Walter Kerr wrote, “. . . Mr. Lahr has . . . been in touch with what goes on in the minds and hearts of the folk out front. I wish that Mr. Beckett were as intimately in touch with the texture of things.” In the New Republic, Eric Bentley dubbed Godot “like all modern plays . . . undramatic but highly theatrical.” He declared that “what has brought the play before audiences in so many countries--aside from snobberies and phony publicity--is its theatricality.” (Eleven years later, Bentley revised his estimation upwards.) On the other hand, for The New Yorker, Kenneth Tynan, already on record in London as praising the play, described the audience reaction: “And when the curtain fell, the house stood up to cheer a man [Bert Lahr] who had never before appeared in a legitimate play . . . . Without him, the Broadway production . . . would be admirable; with him, it is transfigured.” And the dean of New York critics, Brooks Atkinson of The New York Times, calling the play “a mystery wrapped in an enigma,” wrote:

Although “Waiting for Godot” is a “puzzlement,” as the King of Siam would express it, Mr. Beckett is no charlatan. He has strong feelings about the denigration of mankind, and he has given vent to them copiously. “Waiting for Godot” is all feeling. Perhaps that is why it is puzzling and convincing at the same time. Theatregoers can rail at it, but they cannot ignore it. For Mr. Beckett is a valid writer.

At San Quentin Prison, on 19 November 1957, the inmates gathered in the converted gallows room responded as never before to a theatrical piece. The anonymous reviewer for the San Quentin News described this scene:

The trio of muscle-men, biceps overflowing . . . parked all 642 lbs. on the aisle and waited for the girls and funny stuff. When this didn’t appear they audibly fumed and audibly decided to wait until the house lights dimmed before escaping. They made one error. They listened and looked two minutes too long--and stayed. Left at the end. All shook . . . .

This presentation marked a link in the chain of productions of Beckett’s plays in prisons, something in which the writer took special interest. A few years earlier, a prisoner in Lüttringhausen Prison in Germany had staged a translation he had made from the original French edition. After the 1953 performances, the prisoner wrote Beckett:

You will be surprised to be receiving a letter about your play Waiting for Godot, from a prison where so many thieves, forgers, toughs, homos, crazy men and killers spend this bitch of a life waiting . . . and waiting . . . and waiting. Waiting for what? Godot? Perhaps.

The Irish première at the Pike Theatre in Beckett’s native Dublin, directed by Alan Simpson, was on 28 October 1955. The BBC having aired the play on radio in 1960, NET (the precursor to PBS) broadcast a TV version in 1961 directed by Alan Schneider from his Miami production script. The stars of the telecast, also shown in the U.K., were Zero Mostel as Gogo and Burgess Meredith as Didi with Kasznar and Epstein repeating their stage roles. Becket pronounced himself displeased with the television staging, principally because of the confinement of the small screen.

In more recent years, the play, still controversial, has continued to be produced all over the world. In 1984, Israeli director Ilan Ronen and the Haifa Municipal Theatre presented a bi-lingual production of Godot in Hebrew and Arabic (with Arab actors as Didi and Gogo and Jewish actors as Lucky and Pozzo). Mike Nichols directed a much-publicized staging of the play in New York at Lincoln Center in 1988; it starred Robin Williams as Gogo, Steve Martin as Didi, F. Murray Abraham as Pozzo and Bill Irwin, in what I believe was his first dramatic stage role, as Lucky. In 2001, British director Michael Lindsay-Hogg made a film version--despite Beckett’s own admonition in 1967 that he did not “want any film of Godot.” “An adaptation would destroy it,” the playwright insisted. British director Sean Mathias is directing Ian McKellen as Gogo and Patrick Stewart as Didi as his first production as artistic director of the Theatre Royal Haymarket Company. Dubbed the X-Men Godot (because both stars appeared in that film), it is touring Britain prior to opening in London on 30 April 2009.

Just as Sylvain Zegel predicted over half a century ago, Godot is still being “spoken of.” Regardless of the direction of the response--for or against--no one seems to be able to leave it alone. It stirs something in all audiences--be it anger or praise, but it stirs. Somehow that seems appropriately Beckettian--and, as the French say, godotesque.

28 March 2009

Ian McKellen’s 'King Lear'

PBS is broadcasting Ian McKellen’s King Lear under the auspices of its semi-regular program Great Performances. (The first airing on WNET, chanel 13 in NYC, was Wednesday, 25 March, but it's being repeated on WNET and other area PBS outlets.) I thought it would be worthwhile to revist the stage performance on which the video is based and which I caught at BAM’s Harvey Theatre on 15 September 2007. (The 2½-hour TV version was recorded at Pinewood Studios in Buckinghamshire, not on a theater stage, but all reports indicate that the production and the cast are essentially the same as the stage production. It was performed in 2008, at the end of the RSC tour, after the performance I saw.) I scored a ticket to the Royal Shakespeare Company presentation starring McKellen in the title role at the last minute when a friend had to give up her seat. (They were doing Lear in rep with The Seagull in which McKellen shared the role of Sorin with another actor, William Gaunt--who played Gloucester in Lear.) I think that, for once, Ben Brantley got his evaluation exactly right in the Times on 14 September. My only quibble would be that he was harsher on the rest of the company than I would have been; perhaps they hadn't settled into the new space as comfortably when Brantley saw the show as they had by the time I got to see it at the Saturday mat.

I had tried to get seats for Lear back when BAM opened their box office for single tickets, but the show had sold out in subscription already. (My theater-going friend, Diana, and I couldn't put together the minimum number of shows required for a subscription this time around. That happens sometimes, but the last time, when Vanessa Redgrave came in with Hecuba, we had no trouble picking up single seats to see her.) Anyway, Diana called the week before to say that a friend of hers, an actress whom I also know, had a ticket but had a rehearsal that afternoon and couldn't go. Since Diana also had a conflict, she offered me the seat, and I grabbed it. (Fortunately, I have no life, so I was available at no notice to go on a Saturday afternoon!)

The stage production ran 3½ hours (with a two-hour first act!), but the time moved quickly, despite what Brantley described as "a heightened costume melodrama" with "overbaked acting." Director Trevor Nunn created a compelling momentum--and when McKellen was on stage, it was filled with vibrancy anyway. In fact, in my opinion, if McKellen hadn’t been so terrific in the role, the production would have seemed fine; he just showed everyone else on stage up. Not his fault--though perhaps Nunn could have cast a higher-caliber company to support McKellen. He had the RSC to draw on, after all--yet none of this company had a name I've ever heard before. (I don't know if this was a touring cast, different from the one that played the roles back home, but I sort of doubt that.)

So, let me save my description of McKellen's work till the end or so, and get the small observations over with first. I didn't see Seagull, so I don't know what that production looked like, but Lear seemed to have been designed to save on costume expenses. Everyone was dressed like characters out of Tolstoy! (Costumes were "supervised" by Stephanie Arditti. Why this distinction was made for costumes, rather than "designed" as the other elements were credited, I don't know. The Voice said the costumes were mostly "pulled" from stock. Did RSC ever do a stage version of War and Peace?) Lear looked like a Cossack king and all the others, except the French soldiers Cordelia brings back with her, looked like they were plopped down somewhere in the steppes of Russia. (I assume the uniforms the Frenchies wore were based on period French military dress, but I wouldn't know. The British soldiers looked like they might rush off to fight in Crimea or some place!) The women's dresses were late-19th-century gowns, as if they were all about to take off for the ball. (Goneril had a stunning red-and-black velvet outfit she wore throughout the second act.) Edmund and Edgar, and Albany and Cornwall were costumed pretty much as matched pairs (until Edgar, played by Ben Meyjes, became mad Tom, when he was nearly naked and curiously resembled Golum in the films of Lord of the Rings--in which McKellen appeared, coincidentally)--all Cossacks; Burgundy and France were paired, too, except for some trim on Burgundy's uniform: a couple of panels which were . . . well, burgundy! (I'm not sure this was meant to be a joke--but I thought it was funny.)

(Side remark: Cornwall was played by Guy Williams. Didn't he play Zorro on TV in the '50s?)

The set (designed by Christopher Oram) was of this image, too. The basic element, which remained in place throughout, was a kind of balcony running from down right around to up left. (Otherwise, the stage was mostly bare, except for set pieces--tables, the beggar's hovel, the stocks, etc.--that were carried on and off for specific scenes.) It looked like marble, with wine-colored drapes across the openings like the boxes at an ornate opera house and the same fabric draped beneath the balcony rails like bunting. (This was torn down in one scene and carried around the stage when Lear's men behaved raucously in Goneril's castle--you know, drunken carousing.) As the play proceeded, the framing set piece became more and more decrepit as if it were decaying as the kingdom fell to ruin (The Picture of Lear's Kingdom?). The opening scene was resplendent in gold robes and rich costumes in grand ceremony, as if to set up the visual decline that began almost immediately. In the second act, it looked like Grey Gardens, especially when the ceiling collapsed. It was a tad obvious, and I'm not sure what any of it meant--Brantley suggested "the audience-wooing" Nunn was just doing "popcorn" theater and he may have been right. In any case, it was not destructive or disturbing.

I was put in mind of the last time I saw McKellen on stage, also at BAM. It was the Royal National’s fascist Richard III, and in that 1992 production, the costuming had real significance. Making Richard a military dictator à la Hitler, Mussolini, or Pinochet enhanced the interpretation and gave an added dimension to the production. (Costumes had been supervised by Anne-Marie Winstanley.) I'm reminded of an essay Robert Brustein published in the New York Times back in 1988 in which he contrasted what he dubbed "simile" productions of classics with "metaphor" stagings. "Simile directing," Brustein wrote, "is a prose technique. Its in­novations are basically analogical--provid­ing at best a platform for ideas, at worst an occasion for pranks." This seems to be what Nunn accomplished in Lear, just laid a look and set of images over the text without doing any real reinterpretation. "Metaphorical directing," Brustein continued, "attempts to penetrate the mystery of a play in order to devise a poetic stage equiv­alent--a process considerably more radical in its interpretive risks . . . ." This lines up with Richard Eyre’s R3 17 years ago (and which became a film, I recall). It accomplishes a deeper reimagining and tells us something new or unrevealed about the play. Nunn didn't seem to have attempted to do this, it seemed to me; he just dressed it up. I certainly don't know why Nunn decided 19th-century Russia was a useful image (except, as I suggested, that it dovetailed with Chekhov). It did no harm, and it looked nice, even if it didn't really add anything. (My one objection was that, since Lear is set in pre-Christian Britain, the Imperial Russian look is just a little too spiffy. I'd have preferred something rougher, more elemental.)

Now let's get to the acting. (I don't really have anything to say about the directing, except from the point of view that the actors' work was Nunn's ultimate responsibility. I can't say he made any wrong choices or interpretations; he just didn't seem to have pushed his cast to do anything extraordinary.) I'm not really going to single out anyone here--no one excelled or fell egregiously short. I'm just going to capsulize the whole thing--with the exception of McKellen, of course. Everyone did pretty much what you'd expect--no one surprised me or startled me with a novel idea or interpretation. Philip Winchester's Edmund was a little too actorly in his technique, especially his gestures. (The New York Post called him "hammy," though the Village Voice said he was "strong" and "lucid.") In his first scene, when Edmond extols his assets and says, "My mind as generous," Winchester made a sweeping, graceful arc with his arm, all his fingers extended, to point to his temple. This is the action of an actor trained to make gestures visible from the back row of the balcony--but it's not the gesture of a man talking heatedly to himself alone. If I'd been playing the part--and Edmund is one that I always wanted to play, second to Iago (I like the villains in Shakespeare! I got to play Don John, a sort of Iago-manqué)--I'd have done a simple short, sharp jab at my head with one finger (two, if the visibility demanded it--some theatrical adjustments are necessary!) That's just an example, of course, but Winchester did this same kind of thing all the time, and the other actors were only slightly less stagy, punching their dominant character traits (e.g.: Frances Barber and Monica Dolan's Goneril and Regan's villainy and treachery). It was always clear that they were in a play, while McKellen was in a world. (I'll get to that in a moment.) Considering that this was the RSC and this is their bread and butter--what they do with their lives, as it were--I expected much more. If this production were on the stage at the Public, say, or the Shakespeare Theatre in D.C., I'd have said, 'Okay, it was a little flat, but good. It was a nice show.' But the RSC--they're supposed to be like the Comédie-Française doing Molière or the MAT doing Chekhov. It's what they do.

And none of this would have been all that obvious if it hadn't been for Ian McKellen. He was Lear--and I don't mean that in the clichéd way Hollywood uses it. He was a real man, aging, weakening, failing, floundering, lost, grasping for his waning strength and stolen dignity. However he did so, McKellen used both emotion and intellect to make Lear infuriating and sympathetic--by turns and often at the same time. McKellen was only 68 in 2007 (less than eight years older than I am--good grief!), but I never for a nanosecond doubted Lear was 80. I don't know if this was at all intentional, but there were times, after he'd turned over his kingdom to Regan and Goneril and been wandering about the land depending on their hospitality, that he appeared to be suffering from the beginnings of Alzheimer's. I saw this with my father in his last years--McKellen even looked a little like my dad, with his longish white hair and full white beard--and in the early days of the illness, Dad sometimes seemed lost and confused, but he was aware this was happening and it made him angry and afraid. That's what McKellen was doing. I brought my opera glasses with me this time, and I was able to watch McKellen's face. His eyes changed from fierce and angry to afraid, to lost, to insane, to determined--and then through all those responses again as fate buffeted him about. Not a moment was false or "acted." (He must be either brilliant or oblivious--I couldn't figure out how the other actors, who weren't really giving him much, didn't throw him at least now and then. If he was doing all this technically, not only did he fool me good, but he must be as great an acting technician as Olivier was said to have been.) I know this sounds like puffery--as if I were overwhelmed by the Great Actor or something--and maybe I was. I don't think so, though. I watched him--having read Brantley's review beforehand--to see what he was doing, and when I began to feel he was giving this incredible performance, I tried to see if I could figure out why or how. (I couldn't: whatever technique McKellen used, he's mastered it beyond analysis by me. I can tell you the results, but not the method.)

I was particularly impressed with McKellen's performance of the two big speeches--"Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks!" (for which he stripped naked before the storm's elements) and "Howl, howl, howl, howl!" when he carried Cordelia's body on stage at the end. Again, I can't really analyze the technique, but he managed to make these moments both significant and ordinary. I mean that he didn't underplay them so as to downplay their iconic theatrical nature and he didn't overplay them to signal their momentousness. I can only say that he conveyed the impact of the moments by the force of his voice--though not principally through its volume--and his face and body, but at the same time, they were part of a man's experience--however soul-rending that was. Of course, the play, being Shakespeare and Lear, is oversized, even melodramatic, but within the world of the play, McKellen was going through it all--while the other characters were portraying images--showing what it should look like.

I used to keep a mental list of the greatest individual stage performances I had seen. I don't do that anymore, but at the time it included James Earl Jones in Great White Hope, Alec McCowen in Hadrian VII, Virginia Capers in Raisin, and Cronyn and Tandy together in The Gin Game, among a few others. I'd have considered adding McKellen's Lear to the list, I think.

26 March 2009


On Thursday, 5 March, a friend and I went over to the Clurman on Theatre Row to catch the New York première of Heroes, the latest European import. (It's French, via London and Tom Stoppard, who translated.) The play, by 48-year-old writer Gérald Sibleyras, had been a hit in Paris, where it was nominated for several Molière awards (including Best Author) in 2003, and London, where it played two years later and won the '06 Olivier for the Best New Comedy. Its Los Angeles production (the U.S. preem, staged by the original London director, Thea Sharrock, with a cast of Len Cariou, George Segal, and Richard Benjamin) was also a popular success in 2007. (There have also been productions in Australia, New Zealand, Uruguay, and Germany.) Now its New York production is being presented by the Keen Company, one of the smaller rep companies here, under the direction its artistic director, Carl Forsman. In the roles of the three WWI vets--the play is set in 1959 at an old-soldiers' home in France--are John Cullum as Henri, Ron Holgate as Gustave, and Jonathan Hogan as Philippe. (Holgate replaced Tony Roberts who dropped out of rehearsals at the end of January "due to personal matters,” according to the company's announcement.) Holgate and Cullum, as you all may know, are principally musical stars, though Cullum has done considerable straight theater, too. (Cullum and Holgate are also both in their 70s, close to the right age for the characters. I was surprised to find that Hogan is younger than I am--he's only 57. If the character were that age, he'd have been 12 when WWI began in Europe! Hogan looks older, of course--and I had no idea until I checked out his credentials when I got home later.)

The original French title is Le Vent des peupliers, which translates literally as "The Wind in the Poplars." Stoppard (and, I assume, the London producers) decided this was too similar to The Wind in the Willows (to which the French play bears absolutely no resemblance) and since Stoppard's choice, Veterans, was already taken (in 1972, by Charles Wood), it became Heroes. (I assume someone also thought of Soldiers, used in 1967 by Rolf Hochhuth. I don't get most of this, really: titles can't be copyrighted so there's no bar to using one again, and many plays over the years have had titles the same as or similar to previous ones. There are at least four movies and a play, all unrelated, called King of Hearts--plus one musical play based on one of the movies; no one cares. Someone was being prissy, I think.) Nonetheless, in the end, Heroes is no more appropriate as a title than any of the others since the play's not about heroism. (Hmmm . . . Not about Heroes. No, wait--Stephen MacDonald used that one already, too. Bad luck!)

Okay, enough nonsense. (But this is a comedy, isn't it? Well, never mind . . . .) Anyway, the play's a sit-com about three old vets living in a home run by nuns. (Hey! There's a title: Vets. No, I guess someone'd object it'll make people think the play's about animal doctors.) They're essentially waiting to die (or, as Philippe believes, for the head nun to knock them off when their birthdays conflict with another's on the same date) as they plan a new assault--a trip to a stand of poplar trees on a hill in the distance beyond the town cemetery. The three are taken by the trees' swaying in the wind (hence the original title) despite their observation that "here not a breath." (No breath of wind--or, perhaps, of life.) Sibleyras calls Heroes a play "about the universal desire to escape the confines of life," a condition, I think, that is symbolized here by the infirmities each man suffers: Henri, who walks with a cane, has a bum leg from his war and is terribly nearsighted; Philippe has fainting spells from shrapnel still lodged in his head, sometimes feels that he's on a rolling ship, and thinks a stone statue of a dog on the terrace moves; Gustave, who seems perfectly sturdy at first, if a little arrogant (Miles Gloriosus and Richard Henry Lee--the roles he played in Forum and 1776--return!), until we watch as he increasingly treats the stone dog as if it were alive. Gustave is also afraid to go beyond the walls of the home, even to walk in the grounds; despite his bluster, he's terrified of having to engage other people than his two comrades. Yet, we see that the men aren't physically weak: Henri pulls the stone statue of a dog, which they estimate to weigh 200 pounds, several feet out of the way and Gustave carries Philippe piggyback in a test for crossing a stream because Philippe can't swim.

Stoppard's translation is fine: unobtrusive and perfectly clear and straightforward. (He apparently worked with Sibleyras in attendance, consulting with the French playwright regularly.) I don't know if the script has been further adjusted for American audiences, but there didn't seem to be many Britishisms, if any at all. In fact, I didn't find myself paying very close attention to the text-as-text, so I have to say that Stoppard rendered a perfectly playable, unselfconscious English version. (French plays are often awkward when rendered into English. Even the popular Molière can be very Gallic in translation, and more contemporary playwrights are often either not produced here or have great difficulty in crossing over.) Stoppard, of course, doesn't just translate, he adapts somewhat, so it is an accomplishment in itself that his translation doesn't call attention to itself. He didn't, for instance, turn Heroes into a Stoppard play. (Stoppard, with Sibleyras's acquiescence, did one thing the original playwright couldn't do in Paris: he shortened the play, which now runs 90 minutes.)

The vets are distinctly different from one another, which makes the roles plum acting parts for (ahem) older actors. Henri, who is the most reasonable of the three, is a practical man and a genial one, a proud son of the middle class. (When we learn this factoid, Henri tells Gustave he is the son of a pharmacist. That's not a profession frequently invoked in plays as far as I can think of--with the notable exception of the apothecary in Romeo and Juliet--but this is the second character in a recent batch of plays whose father was a pharmacist: Peg, Kathleen Turner's character in Charles Busch’s Third Story, reveals she is also the child of a pharmacist. That probably isn't terribly significant, of course, except for one tiny matter: I am the grandson of a pharmacist--so I pick up on these things!) Henri, who's been in residence at the home for 25 years, is the least interesting of the three, but he's the mortar that hold the trio together--or prevents it from flying apart. His infirmities are all physical, though they make him cautious and reticent. He goes for walks--his "constitutional"--around the grounds, and even ventures beyond the perimeter wall of the home to walk into the village (auspiciously, past the cemetery) where he's delighted by the discovery in the town of a school for girls; he even singles one pubescent pupil out to describe to his friends--though he would never actually approach her! Cullum portrays Henri as soft-spoken and moderate in speech and manner; he is the peacemaker among all the parties, trying not to rock the boat or offend anyone unnecessarily. When one of the three--usually Gustave--comes up with a ridiculous idea, Henri points out the impracticality of the notion. (Henri keeps reminding Gustave, for instance, that the dog on the terrace is a statue.) But for some reason, Cullum had considerable trouble with his lines, though the show was scheduled to open in three days. (Possibly this was because Cullum, in an unusual bit of New York casting, is still performing east of Theatre Row in August: Osage County at Broadway's Music Box Theatre on 45th Street. This is also probably the reason the curtain for Heroes was at 8:30 p.m.; I saw Cullum arriving at 8:05 while I was waiting for Diana in the Clurman's small lobby).

Philippe, Henri's companion for 10 years, is almost a non-entity much of the time--he's unable to take sides in any argument and he switches positions from that of Henri to that of Gustave or vice versa depending on who spoke last. He's most passionate about his conviction that Sister Madeleine is letting residents die according to their birthdays. While the men all celebrate the birthdays of their fellow vets--an 85-year-old is having his cake the evening on which the play opens--there never are two birthdays on the same date, Philippe observes. Sister Madeleine won't allow it. If two men have the same birthday, she holds back the meds of one of them, essentially permitting him to die to avoid the conflict. At the end of the play, a new resident arrives (the 85-year-old from the first scene having killed himself the next morning), and Philippe is aghast to learn the new man has the same birthday as he--12 February. (I don't suppose it's significant that this is also the birthday of both Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin.) As the new man is in robust health and Philippe suffers from blackouts and other disabilities because of his war injury, he's certain he's next for the sister's elimination. He won't act, of course; he'll just wait in fear for the inevitable. With his doughy appearance and frizzy, but thinning, white hair (I said he looks older than he is), Hogan embodied Philippe convincingly. (I can imagine Richard. Benjamin being a much more mannered Philippe, though I suspect that could work well, too.)

The newcomer who turned the pair into a trio (or, as he has it, a quartet . . . counting the dog!) six months earlier is Gustave, the bluff, cocksure ex-solder. As proud of his common roots as Henri is, Gustave is proud to be a member of the aristocracy. (1959 was the dawn of the Fifth Republic in France, the de Gaul era. The aristocracy by then, of course, was of little importance; but in the WWI period, it would still have been socially significant.) Holgate's stentorian baritone--I can still hear him singing "My name is Richard Henry Lee, Virginia is my home . . . .")--is perfect for Gustave, who could be the (semi-)modern version of the braggart soldier on which Miles Gloriosus was based. The actor also has a full head of perfectly coiffed white, white hair and an equally white (and immaculately trimmed) mustache and goatee--the only man of the three with facial hair. He's certainly an imposing figure (Holgate's 6'3") and stands almost ramrod straight--an old soldier to the hilt. But Gustave's afraid to leave not just the grounds, but the terrace on which the three meet daily or his room, where he retires immediately after eating his meals. He associates with no one but his two friends, even alienating the nuns--he socked Sister Madeleine one day, for no apparent reason except "to show her who's boss." When Henri finally convinces Gustave to walk into the village with him, to see the young object of his fantasy, he goes, but is so afraid of an encounter he barely nods to the girl from a great distance away. (Before they left on this jaunt, Gustave even practices his potential greeting several times.) Nonetheless, it is Gustave who comes up with the plan to make a break for freedom--his original idea is to sail for French Indochina (not really a good place to go in 1959, of course!)--and the three men start to plan their "assault" on the poplars on the hill. (This is a compromise between Gustave's first suggestion and Henri's proposal of a picnic just beyond the perimeter walls.) Gustave also reads Philippe's letters from his sister, which Philippe gives him unread because he can't stand his brother-in-law. Gustave even answers the letters--in his own name, which the sister takes as just another sign of Philippe's mental deterioration--and gets involved at long distance in the family affairs. He neglects to tell Philippe, however, that his sister had died recently, though Gustave tried to arrange the funeral until he fell out with that same brother-in-law. Unable to establish or maintain close-in relationships (he was married back in 1906, but his wife left him for a laborer, much to his embarrassment), he adopts Philippe's family in secret and at arm's length. Holgate's whole demeanor and appearance contradicts this characteristic, which makes it all the more powerful as it emerges. (I just can't see Tony Roberts in this role, which may be why he left the production. I take "personal reasons" as a euphemism for "artistic differences" and my guess is that Roberts decided he was miscast and wasn't right for the part. I can see him doing either Philippe or Henri, but Gustave seems wrong for him.)

(A conjecture about "Sister Madeleine": I don't know if this is at all significant--though the fact that it occurs to me means that it is, at least in my apprehension--but since the play is in part about memory, especially recalled distant memories, the fact that the chief personage of the residence, though we never meet her in person, is named after the little cake that brought forth the flood of recollections for Proust's narrator in A la recherche du temps perdu seems moderately important, and almost certainly intentional, assuming Sibleyras has a literary bent.)

The play's setting is restricted to the back terrace of the home--the larger front terrace is the domain of the rest of the residents--and the men's activities beyond the terrace are all related in expository dialogue. This is also how we learn of other residents of the home; there are no other cast members than the three old vets. There are small actions they perform on stage, but most of the play is conversation. Sibleyras and Forsman have managed to keep the play engaging, though sometimes it's obvious that movement for movement's sake has been added to prevent the performance from becoming static. The Clurman has a pretty small stage anyway, and the terrace, designed by Beowulf Boritt and lit by Josh Bradford, is further confined by an ivy-covered wall in the rear and on stage right (stage left is blacks). There are a couple of green metal chairs, a stone bench, some shrubbery . . . and the stone dog, of course. The poplar stand is out over our heads (the actors frequently have to repeat the well-known fourth-wall exercise). This little plot is the refuge the vets control and protect. The other residents may enjoy the larger front terrace, but the three have their own, virtually private base. When they learn that construction will temporarily close the larger terrace, Henri explains that that will inevitably lead to a displacement of the others to their redoubt. This eventually--though not immediately or directly--leads to the escape they plan. The most action that takes place on stage is connected with the planning and preparations for the assault on the poplar stand. As the trek will require several days, two river crossings, and a climb, the men practice lashing themselves together (using a convenient fire hose as a substitute for the rope) and Henri liberates several excellent blankets. (They keep a journal of the proceedings, in which each of them is expected to make entries. Gustave reveals that he has been making notations on behalf of the dog as well! You see, he plans to take the 200-pound statue along, too.) I guess it goes without saying, that the departure never actually happens--but while they are making plans, the old soldiers are once again alive and active.

Heroes, which closes on 12 April, is hardly a laugh riot under any circumstances. The humor, after all, comes from such innately hilarious conditions as Philippe's (increasingly frequent) fainting spells and other symptoms of his dementia, the deaths of other residents (one of Philippe’s spells occurs at the suicide’s funeral and Philippe tumbles into the man’s grave!), Gustave's conviction that the stone dog is real, the men's inability to leave the grounds, and other details that, elsewhere, would be pitiful. As it is, despite the worldwide success of this comedy, I found the proceedings more amusing than funny. My companion laughed a lot but I think she enjoyed it more because our last several shows were so disappointing than because the play was inherently funny. I found myself chuckling often enough, but overall, I don't think that the play is worth all the attention it has received from all over the world (aside from the English, Spanish, and German translations, Heroes has also been rendered into Russian and Polish). It is a slight piece, and even though the acting was fine--aside from whatever line problems Cullum was suffering--the characters are just too shallow to make them really interesting or empathetic. (At the preview I saw, the actors still seemed to be working very hard to make something of their roles, although maybe I was projecting.) The most significant failing, in my judgment, is the lack of a clear point. If all Sibleyras wants to say is that old age can be shitty . . . well, don't we know that already? If he's trying to tell us that old age can be funny, then I have to say that's a bit tacky as a play subject (what's next: a play showing how funny cripples are?)--and isn't that what The Golden Girls on TV was all about 20 years ago? There is something embedded in the script about mutual support and respect despite differences of personality and approach to life, but it didn't seem to have been stressed in the Keen Company production. As a portrait of loneliness, The Gin Game did it better; David Storey's Home was a harder-hitting exploration of that old-age affliction. (I think that the silly debate over an English title emblemizes this problem--if there had been a stronger theme, the title would probably have been self-evident.) In the end, then, though there is a genuine sweetness in the play, it comes out lightweight: enjoyable but inconsequential.

The New York Times ran a review of Heroes on Monday, 9 March; Wilborn Hampton gave it a pretty wan (and short) appraisal. I think he was pretty accurate--and I also think that the fact that Hampton (third string) was reviewing and not Isherwood (second string, and the usual Off-Broadway critic) or Brantley (first string) suggests that the editors didn't think Heroes was worth a lot of coverage. I had a look on line and found the Daily News coverage on the 10th--it was poor--but couldn't find reviews in the Post or Newsday; the Voice came out on the 18th with a very brief, mostly negative notice and the New Yorker only ran a capsule review in “The Theatre” column on the 23rd. I took a look on line at reviews from L.A., London, and Sidney (and one from New Zealand) and most were mild to good--the Variety notice for L.A. was the weakest (though its New York notice was positive for the play, less so for the production). The L.A. Times was also middling. This all suggests to me that the play has more appeal to theater artists--actors and directors--than critics. I can't explain all those prizes and nominations, except to ask what the competition was.

I am disturbed, by the way, that so many of the reviews and articles covering this play from London to Sydney to Wellington, N.Z., to L.A. invoke Beckett and Godot. (Yasmina Reza's Art also gets mentioned, but that's only because both plays are French and have a cast of three men.) Okay, Henri, Gustave, and Philippe are waiting, and the play is about what they do while they wait--but beyond that, the resemblance to Becket and his masterpiece (and, yes, I say it's a masterpiece) is tenuous and fleeting. Heroes doesn't come within a mile of Godot and Sibleyras, even in Stoppard's translation, doesn't match Beckett's poetry, earthiness, or truthfulness. Or, I must add, his spareness. Some critics used to complain that Tennessee Williams was too blatant in his symbolism; well, everything you need to interpret Heroes is in Sibleyras's script, right out in the open. Williams, I think, was able to overshadow this characteristic, if it's a failing or not, by the lyricism of his language and the utter humanity of his characters. Sibleyras doesn't accomplish this, and he doesn't manage Beckett's more intellectual and visceral symbolism, either. The comparison, to borrow from another better writer, is "odorous."

22 March 2009

On Reviewing

It is the worst-kept secret in journalism that reviewing is not reporting but personal-opinion writing. It’s a secret because neither reviewers nor their publications acknowledge it. Many reviewers insist that it is, in fact, reporting. It’s badly kept because readers only need to compare several reviews of the same event--say a play--with each other and with their own perceptions to recognize that this is so. Most readers don’t take the trouble to do this, I imagine, essentially putting out of mind reviews with which they don’t agree, and remembering only those with which they concur. (The converse of this are the spectators who rail at reviews that contradict their own responses, as if the reviewers had no right to different opinions.)

Before I go any further here, let me make a distinction some of us recognize--that between “critic” and “reviewer.” I am differentiating between dramatic or literary criticism and performance reviewing. Critics of dramatic literature are not reporters, either, but they make little pretense to being so. Most writers or broadcasters of daily notices about current theatrical productions, according to several surveys and studies, consider themselves reporters, though some think of themselves as practitioners of the particular art of criticism. (Some others think of themselves as consumer reporters.) Almost none openly label themselves opinion columnists like the writers who appear on op-ed pages of newspapers.

(I should acknowledge, in the interest of full disclosure, that I once published an essay called "The Power of the Reviewer: Myth or Fact?" [Theatre History Studies 18 (June 1998): 13-38].)

Reviewers, however, continue for the most part to present their opinions as if they are substantiated statements, disguising the individual nature of their pronouncements by the grammatical dodge of never (or at least very seldom) using first-person pronouns. The difference is that responses such as “I found the play confusing” or “The ending choked me up”--acknowledging that others may have reacted differently--become statements like “The play is confusing” and “The ending is emotionally affecting.” These last statements sound universal, as if everyone agrees and the reviewers have some special sources that provide data on how the whole audience reacted to what they saw--even that they all saw the same thing, which is not always true in live performances.

When I was writing regular reviews, the truth of this dichotomy was driven home for me and I continue to see it when I go to the theater. Writing about performances which were also reviewed by other reviewers made me acutely aware of the personal nature of what reviewers respond to and write about. It isn't just the difference in overall evaluation--good vs. bad; praise vs. pan--that’s fairly obvious. More revealing are the details we note and how we react to them. In a number of recent notices, reviewers have remarked on aspects of a production that I also observed. We frequently reacted very differently to them. I would find a musical score appropriately supportive of a scene--one reviewer would find it intrusive; I would note a costume that seemed anachronistic--someone else would see it as true to the character. In some cases, I might even have agreed with a reviewer that a hairstyle or line reading was out of place, but decided the apparent error wasn't worth mentioning in the face of other, more significant production elements. The reviewer had raised it as a seriously damaging episode.

When I published, I consistently tried to phrase my evaluations as expressions of what I saw and what happened to me, not necessarily what anyone else in the audience may have experienced. (It is unfortunate that editors often shifted my unabashed first-person writing into third- or second-person, making my reactions sound like universal judgments, too. I kept trying.) I have even admitted when I didn't understand a play, suggesting that others with different sensitivities might tune in where I couldn't. It’s simply that I don’t feel comfortable dismissing something I haven’t understood--I don’t know everything, after all, and try to be honest enough to admit it in print.

Honesty is really the kernel of the matter. I feel it’s dishonest to pretend, even only grammatically, that I can speak for other spectators. What I can do is describe my own perceptions, occasionally finding evidence of how others feel about what we've seen. What I hope is that my readers will form some picture of what I saw and make their own decisions regarding their own interest in it. I can’t tell people I don’t know, what they’ll think or feel simply because I thought or felt a certain way.

For this reason I advocate not only forthright first-person reviewing, but descriptive reviewing rather than purely evaluative. No description is really judgment-free, but if I tell you what I saw, you can decide whether you want to pay to see it, too. That’s more honest than telling you whether or not I think you should see it. But for this to work, I have to be up front that I'm only speaking for myself, the only person to whose reactions I have ready access.

Why don’t reviewers write in grammatical first-person when all along they’re presenting subjective, first-person responses? There are certainly many reasons, but among them are probably tradition, vanity, and entrenched editorial policy. Reviews have always been written this way, and only a few reviewers write in first person regularly. When I studied criticism many years ago, we read reviewers from G. B. Shaw to George Jean Nathan to John Simon. (That’s how long ago it was—Simon was as current as we could get!) Most wrote as if they were speaking for the whole world. No one questioned this phenomenon. I never knew there was an alternative until, years later, I encountered people like Kate Davy, Marcia Segal, and the late Michael Kirby who advocated various forms of non-judgmental reviewing. (Davy’s and Segal’s reviews are published in many periodicals; the pertinent essay by Kirby is “Criticism: Four Faults” [The Drama Review 18.4 (T63 - Dec. 1974): 59-68].) Though some, Kirby most particularly, abjure any kind of judgment in reviews, I don’t feel we must go that far. It’s fair to present an opinion--as long as everyone knows that’s what it is.

What I propose, along the lines of Segal’s dance reviewing, is that reviewers must acknowledge that we are offering our own, individual responses to performances and provide the descriptive evidence to support those responses. Even if we can’t use the grammatical first person because of editorial style, we can acknowledge, as Segal usually does, that what we are not doing is expounding a universal assessment which we somehow have received from on high. Let reviewers be honest with their readers and the prospective audiences they’re trying to reach. After all, your response is really no less legitimate than mine--who’s to say which one’s right? Let’s leave pontificating to the guy in the white yarmulke.

16 March 2009

A New Venture

Hello. This is a new venture for me. I've never written a blog--or really ever read one! For the past several years, though, I've been sending long e-mails to a few friends who asked me to keep them apprised of what I see in the theater back here in New York. (They all used to live here and now live far away, including abroad.) Some of them keep telling me I should try to publish my opinions, but since I only write when I see something and I write about only what strikes my interest, it's not likely anyone would pay me to do what I do. The idea of a blog came up, so here's the result so far. I have no idea where this will go.

Two things need to be clear for anyone who happens on this blog. First, as I suggested, I only write about what interests me. This is a decidedly first-person account of my private experience at the theater. It's not a review and I make no pretense at universality or omniscience, or comprehensiveness. It's not unlikely that someone who reads my entries will disagree, even strongly, with what I say. So be it. As I have often told my writing students, your perceptions are always true--because you had them. No one can tell you that what you felt didn't happen. Of course it did. My experience might be diametrically different from yours, but we both experienced what we experienced. That doesn't mean I didn't miss something, misunderstand something (though I try to acknowledge my own ignorance if I'm aware of it), or overlook a connection someone else spotted.

This approach also means that I don't always cover everything about a show that a reviewer would make a point of describing. I'll write only about what caught my eye, so to speak. Sometimes that means focusing almost entirely on the script, sometimes on the acting and directing; sometimes, though, I touch a little on many aspects of the production. I may also throw in some history (theater or general), commentary, or even personal asides. Some of this may seem irrelevant or frivolous--but that's the way it'll be. You'll get an idea of how my mind works--or fails to (depending on your point of view). In other words, this will be a very personal take on stuff.

The second thing you should understand here is that I don't write my reports with any regularity. Sometimes weeks or even months go by between productions that warrant a write-up. Sometimes I see two or three shows in a row, and I save them all for one report. Occasionally, after seeing two shows in a short period, I decide one is more interesting than the other, and spend most of the report discussing that one and giving short shrift to the other. That's the luck of the draw (even if someone else might disagree with my appraisal). I get to decide what's interesting to me.

Though the initial impulse to start my theater reports was to tell my friends about New York shows I've seen, I expanded that charter to include theater I attended out of town as well. I go to Washington often and usually see something while I'm there--the Kennedy Center, Arena Stage, the Studio Theatre, the Shakespeare Theatre, the Round House, and others. Other reports I've composed in the past have included the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, and the Contemporary American Theatre Festival in Shepherdstown, W. Va. I also spent a long weekend in Staunton, Va., to see the Shenandoah Shakespeare Theatre, which had then just opened its new home, a reproduction of Shakespeare's winter theater, the Blackfriars. As I indicated, things strike my fancy.

You might also like to know that I sometimes don't confine myself to theater. I've always enjoyed going to art museums and galleries, and when I see an exhibit that intrigues me, for good or bad, I sometimes include it in one of my reports. My training and experience is in theater, and I have no academic background in art--but I sound off on it anyway. I have had some little experience, as an amateur, since I began this interest as a small child when my parents invested in a private gallery in Washington, where I grew up. (My mother still counts among her acquaintances several local artists. Most people don't know, I think, that Washington has a fairly well established and renowned art community of its own. There was even a "Washington Color School" back in the mid-20th century.) That makes about a half century of seeing art all over the world, and I seldom miss an opportunity to check out the art of some place I'm visiting. Like trying the food and drink, it's a way of learning more about a place and a people than looking only at their monuments and relics. Besides, it's fun! Since New York is not only the theater capital of the U.S. but one of the world's great art centers, I see some really marvelous exhibits here. I also go to Washington often to visit family, and the Nation's Capital is a pretty hefty art museum town; the National Gallery and the Smithsonian alone account for a good half dozen galleries. (After his retirement, my father served as development director of the Museum of African Art in Washington--the predecessor to the Smithsonian's National Museum of African Art on the Mall.) So don't be surprised if you stumble on a report of a show at an art museum sandwiched between theater reports. It happens.

It's also possible, as I see how things develop here, that I will fill in the time between shows with other commentary, such as trips I've taken (I did a lengthy e-mail a few years ago describing my 17-day visit to Alaska to see the fjords and glaciers) or personal history (I wrote a friend a multi-part message recalling the 2½ years I spent as an intelligence officer in West Berlin). I may also share some of my research if I think it's especially interesting. Who knows.

It also happens that I may describe something else entirely--like a strange little house my mother insisted on showing me when I was visiting Washington one time. I think of it as the Hobbit House, but it's commonly known locally as the Mushroom House. It's so odd, I had to share the experience with my friends, so it found its way into the next theater report. I get to do that if I want, self-indulgent though it may be.

So, if you all are going to share my thoughts on theater and check in from time to time, you should know what to expect. Well, what to expect most of the time. Since no one's editing me, I get to meander wherever the notion takes me. In the Southwest, the Chicanos call this "going paseando" (and, if you know about the Situationists, you might recognize this as what they called the dérive--going off the plat). Since I've never done this on a blog before, I have no idea where it may lead. So, I guess we'll find out together.

To get things started, I'm thinking of posting my last e-mail report, or maybe parts of it, until I have a fresh play to write about. (In the middle of next month I'll be seeing one, but I don't want to spoil the surprise so I won't preview it now. Besides, I may decide not to write about it--though that's not very likely.) Then we'll see how things work out.