31 May 2009

Romeo Coates, Part 2

Now ready to face a London audience, Coates appeared at the Haymarket Theatre on 9 December 1811 in the role of Lothario in Nicholas Rowe’s The Fair Penitent for the benefit performance. Coates was making his London stage début in a role he had not played in England before and which was commonly regarded as a difficult part. The theater had to turn thousands of would-be patrons away. Some rich ticket-seekers offered as much as £5, an enormous price for theater tickets, to stand backstage; they, too, were disappointed. Among those who attended were ambassadors, dukes, barons, earls, viscounts, and other members of the aristocracy, including friends of the Prince Regent, the future King George IV.

Among the Regent’s friends attending that night was Baron Ferdinand de Géramb who, for some reason, had become an ardent Coates supporter. (Baron de Géramb was himself a man with a peculiar history; some historians question both the place and date of his birth, and his claim of noble descent.) The crowd at the Haymarket seemed to take an instant dislike to the baron as soon as he appeared in his box and began hissing and screaming at him. This was matched in intensity by others who felt this treatment was undeserved by a distinguished foreign visitor and friend of the Regent. This cacophony continued as 6:30, the scheduled curtain time, came and went. After 7, Coates came on stage and made a special bow to Baron de Géramb, provoking the crowd to a cataclysm of whistles, applause, and shouts of “cock-a-doodle-doo!” Undaunted, Coates faced his audience, dressed again in an incredible outfit:

The habiliments of Mr. Coates were very rich, his dress being of a species of silk so woven as to give it the appearance of chased silver; from his shoulders hung a mantle of pink silk, edged with bullion fringe; around his neck was a kind of gorget, richly set with jewels, and at his side was a handsome gold-hilted sword. Coates' head-dress was composed of a Spanish hat surmounted by tall white plumes, while his feet were encased in shoes of the same material as his dress, and these were fastened with large diamond buckles.

As to his acting, Bell’s Weekly Messenger observed:

This Gentleman’s neck has the appearance of having been twisted, as he swings his head round with wonderful velocity, with great apparent ease. He frequently spun it round, like a harlequin in a Pantomime. His head, in fact, seemed accommodated with an excellent swivel, as it moved about first one way and then the other, like a monkey’s on the cowl of a chimney, in a windy day. His deportment altogether was inconceivably ludicrous.

Coates managed to get through the first four acts of The Fair Penitent despite the atmosphere in the house. By the end of the fourth act, however, the spectators who were intent on disrupting the performance grew so loud that the actors could no longer be heard. Coates had paused each time the uproar got too loud, but this tactic no longer worked and the Amateur of Fashion finally stepped forward and offered, “If it is the wish of the nobility and gentry present that the play shall go on, I will pay the price if those noisy people will go out.” There was a burst of applause and the house quieted for a moment, only to explode into deafening sound again. One review of the evening described Coates amusing himself during the interruption by standing center stage and twirling his sword, which, the journal said, “he did with wonderful dexterity,” to the amazement of the audience. The other actors on stage walked off and Coates, seeing he was alone on stage, “gave another speech, made a very fine bow, and left the stage, snapping his fingers at the audience” and the curtain fell at the end of Act Four. A few supporters waited briefly in the hope that the play would resume, but eventually, everyone, dignitaries, rowdies, and ordinary playgoers, left the theater as the lights were turned off.

It’s unknown whether Coates simply returned to his home alone to a solitary dinner or if, as some suppose, he was accompanied by his friend, the Baron de Géramb. In any case, the critics were especially cruel the next day. One description characterized the evening as “the most ludicrously extraordinary dramatic exhibition at the Haymarket Theatre, that was ever beheld on a London or any other stage . . . .” The same critic concluded: “It is, we might almost say, a lamentable instance of human imbecility, to see any person so far forget himself, as thus unnecessarily to expose himself to public ridicule.” But the papers attacked not only Coates’s performance, ignoring the charitable purpose of the appearance, but his features as well. Cartoonists made fun of his costume, of course, but critics also targeted his native country and there were doubts cast on his lineage, hinting that he was black and even suggesting that he was gay. Coates, who never before or after even acknowledged any criticism of his acting or behavior, felt compelled to respond. He wrote a long letter to the Morning Herald, the one paper all of fashionable London read. Published on 11 December, the letter declared in part:

In regard to the innumerable attacks that have been made upon my lineaments and person in the public prints, I have only to observe, that as I was fashioned by the Creator, independent of my will, I cannot be responsible for that result, which I could not control.

The last scene in The Fair Penitent is usually a crowd-pleaser, especially in Coates’s hands. A later observer describes what the audience at the Haymarket missed:

Who shall describe the grotesque agonies of the dark seducer, his plastered hair escaping from the comb that held it, and the dark crineous [sic: yellowish-brown] cordage that flapped upon his shoulders in the convulsions of his dying moments, and the cries of the people for medical aid to accomplish his eternal exit? Thus, when in his last throes his coronet fell, it was miraculous to see the defunct arise, and after he had spread a nice handkerchief on the stage, and there deposited his head-dress, free from all impurity, philosophically resume his dead condition; but it was not yet over, for the exigent audience, not content that when the men were dead, why there’s an end, insisted on a repetition of the awful scene, which the highly flattered corpse executed three separate times, to the gratification of the cruel and torment-loving audience.

In Coates’s second appearance as Lothario, this is perhaps what the audience saw. (I don’t actually know when the observer, probably a newspaper critic, saw the performance described above.) On 11 September 1812, Coates repeated his performance at the Theatre Royal, Richmond, again for charity, this time finishing the play. Once again, the house was packed; in fact, the theater was so crowded that the pit was even occupied by upper-class spectators who couldn’t get seats in the boxes. Among the high-ranking viewers was the Duke of Clarence, the future King William IV, who had expressed a wish to see Coates in this role. The duke, of course, attended with a large, impressive retinue. A review in the Morning Herald the following day described the scene:

The tragedy of The Fair Penitent was performed at the Theatre Royal, Richmond, last night, when that fashionable amateur Mr. Coates appeared in the lady-killing character of the gay, the gallant Lothario! and there never was so brilliant an assemblage ever seen within the walls of this theatre, since its first establishment.

(All these royals are hard to keep straight, especially here in the anti-monarchical U.S. George III--that’s the one who lost the Revolution to our own George--was still king in name, but he was nuts, so his oldest son, George, Prince of Wales, became Regent in 1811. The Prince Regent had a slew of siblings--plus a few no one mentioned--who included Frederick, Duke of York; William, Duke of Clarence; Edward, Duke of Kent; and several princesses and princes, some of whom went on to rule other European principalities. G3 died in 1820 and the Prince Regent became G4, but he died in 1830 without leaving a legitimate male heir. So younger bro William succeeded G4 as W4. Then he died in 1837 with the same deficiency as his older bros, so guess who inherited the throne, the last Hanoverian monarch. Here’s a hint: She lived a long time, gave her name to an era, and her name wasn’t Elizabeth. Got it? William’s niece, the daughter of his younger brother, Edward, Duke of Kent, Princess Alexandrina Victoria. All this went on during Coates’s life in Britain.

(Victoria reined until 1901--63 years, the longest rein in English history, though Elizabeth II, who stands at 57 and counting, is catching up. Victoria’s son and heir, Edward VII, was the first British monarch in the House of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha which his son, George V, changed to Windsor during WWI so that the British monarchy wouldn’t have a German name. In turn, G5’s son and successor was Edward VIII, who reined for less than a year in 1936 because he abdicated in favor of his brother to marry the woman he loved. He became the Duke of Windsor and his brother became George VI, the father of the current queen, E2. Everyone caught up now?)

Also in attendance, at the request of the theater’s manager, was a policeman named Lavendor, engaged in fear of an uproar like the previous time Coates performed The Fair Penitent. Everyone was fortunate, however, since so many seats were taken by the gentry and supporters of Coates that the rowdies who would have fomented a disturbance were only present in a very small number. Between acts, Coates treated his audience to a recitation of “The Hobbies,” a practice in which Coates (and other performers of the day, I believe) frequently engaged.

Coates gave his performance in relative calm and several scenes were very well received by the friendly audience. “[W]hile the princely and noble critics applauded with their hands,” reported the Morning Herald, “many an elegant fan was fractured by the ladies, in the amiable zeal of their approval.” The duke was reported to have been “well pleased” with the evening’s efforts as well.

Coates appeared again at the Haymarket on 11 January 1813 as Lothario and again on 29 January in the same role, both for the benefit of widows who had applied to him for help. The performances were well attended; Coates recited his favorite poem, “The Hobbies” as had become his practice; and the appearances were without incident, other than excessive delight on the part of the spectators. One of the journals that had been especially critical of the Amateur’s theatricals, however, published an observation a few days after the later performance:

We consider the gentry who pick up a living by shows of this kind, do not introduce some other animal in the part of the gallant gay Lothario. A baboon, dressed up for the character, would perhaps not be a novelty sufficiently striking, immediately after Mr. Coates; but we should think a bear, a Newfoundland dog, or a full sized tom cat, might prove very attractive, and well deserve the title of “the celebrated amateur of fashion.”

On Monday, 1 February, Coates welcomed an honor he had long sought: he was presented to the Prince Regent at Carlton House, the prince’s residence. Though he had been among the select friends of the prince’s brothers, the Dukes of York and Clarence, he had wanted for a long time to be counted among those welcome at the Prince Regent’s home; now, he thought, his dream would be realized. On Thursday, 4 February, Coates wasn’t surprised, then, to receive “a portentous missive sealed with the Royal arms, and left, so the attendants stated, by a ‘gentleman’ in a scarlet coat.” He ripped open the envelope and found an ornate engraved card with royal insignia which read:

The Lord Chamberlain is commanded by His Royal Highness the Prince Regent to invite Mr. Robert Coates to a ball and supper at Carlton House on Friday evening. The company to appear in the costume of the manufacture of the country. Hour of attendance ten o'clock.

Coates ordered a magnificent new suit and had his diamonds polished in preparation. On the appointed evening, he left his residence in full regalia, diamonds blazing from his clothing, his fingers, and the hilt of his sword. He rode in a hired sedan chair born by two expensively liveried footmen. Upon arrival at Carlton House, Coates was allowed to pass the first of the prince’s attendant officers, but the second stopped him. The coveted invitation, the colonel informed him politely, was a forgery! Coates withdrew and, upon starting for home--his chair had been dismissed--he was halted by a muffled stranger who asked why Coates was leaving so early. The disappointed Coates replied that there had been some small irregularity, and that he was going to ask his friend the Chevalier Ruspini, who lived almost directly across from Carlton House, to allow Coates to watch the arrival of the rest of the illustrious guests from the chevalier’s balcony.

What Coates couldn’t know was that the man who accosted him outside Carlton House was the infamous hoaxer Theodore Hook. Having obtained an invitation card for a few hours, Hook had used his talents as a counterfeiter of signatures to make Coates the butt of a joke. It was even rumored that Hook had dressed up in borrowed military finery to deliver the phony invitation to Coates himself. There’s no report whether Hook ever paid a price for his cruelty, though the prince was very angry that Coates was treated so badly. It is said, however, that Hook never mentioned his joke at Coates’s expense without an expression of guilt. And the joke fell somewhat flat because the intended butt never seemed to recognize that that’s what had happened. Coates was hard-pressed to find bad in anyone and seldom recognized malice when he met it.

The next morning, having been informed of the incident, the Prince Regent sent his secretary to call on Coates and apologize for the slight and to invite him to come to Carlton House to see the party decorations, which were still up. Coates, of course, graciously accepted both the apology and the invitation.

About a week later, Coates was asked to perform his recitation of “Bucks, have at ye all” during a performance of The Devil's Bridge, a three-act opera by Samuel James Arnold, at Drury Lane. It became routine for Coates occasionally to deliver a recitation at a performance in which he had no other hand. Coates’s presence on the bill--as “The Celebrated Amateur of Fashion”--guaranteed a full house. Following this, Coates again performed Lothario at the Haymarket on 24 February, to a standing-room-only crowd, packed with both admirers who came to see the famous amateur act--among them Coates’s friend, the Baron de Géramb--and rowdies who came to disrupt the performance. The noise was so fierce before the curtain rose that three other members of the cast came out to address the audience and plead for courtesy. The noise abated briefly and Coates came out to start the play, only to be greeted with applause from the supporters and shouts from the noisemakers. The performance was interrupted constantly until, in the scene where Horatio confronts Lothario, the actor playing Horatio nearly stopped the show entirely. Instead of saying his lines as written, “When you are met among your set of fools, talk of your dress, of dice, or horses, and yourselves; it's safer, and becomes your understanding better,” the actor substituted the word "curricles" for “horses,” and the house cracked up! Not a word could be heard for about 15 minutes; Coates walked downstage but couldn’t get a hearing and walked back up towards Horatio, who also couldn’t make himself heard. Horatio left the stage, and Coates took advantage of a short lull to address the audience:

Ladies and gentlemen, I was solicited to play for a lady who I was informed was an object deserving of attention. (Applause.) I further beg leave to state that there are several performers in this place who belong to our great theatres, and let me add that one of them has taken a most unwarrantable liberty with me. Many of you may have doubtless read the play of The Fair Penitent, and, if not, you may do so tomorrow, but there you will find something about horses and merriment. But a performer has no right to endeavour to hurt my feelings by inserting allusions to me not [sic] in his part. Let my equipage be laughed at by those that choose; my father, who left me a large fortune, wherewith I indulge my whims, likewise taught me good manners. I am little given to boasting, but if I may be allowed to say a few words on my own conduct, I can say I consider myself a most useful character; for, if my dress be extravagant, and my equipages expensive, let it be remembered it is this that supports the working-classes. Does it not assist the tailors, mercers, and coach-makers? In these respects I set, what I think, a laudable example.

The audience applauded (with a few of the troublemakers continuing to make noises), and Horatio came forward to state that he had explained to Coates that he hadn’t intended any offense by his ad-libbing. Coates shook the actor’s hand, ending the episode, and the play concluded without incident. In the audience that night was the actor Charles Mathews the elder, a popular comic actor of the day who was famous for his impersonations. Coates considered Mathews a friend, though Mathews’s subsequent conduct might throw some doubt on Coates’s judgment.

On the next day, at Covent Garden, the production of a two-act farce by Sir Henry Bate Dudley called At Home opened. One of the characters in the play, which apparently had an illustrious cast for a trifle, was named Romeo Rantall, a parody of Coates. For 25 nights, At Home was greeted with peals of laughter as Rantall held Coates up to ridicule for his acting. One 19th-century magazine describes some of At Home:

In a drawing room scene Romeo amuses the company with recitations from the dramatic poets. He is loudly applauded, and makes a speech after the manner of Mr. Coates: “Cheered by your exhilarating applause, I proceed; but know I possess a soul that scorns to bend to interruption!” He then gives a dying scene--in which he demonstrates great solicitude as to his hat and feather, and is careful to raise his right leg so as to display his diamond shoe-buckle to the best advantage.

Rantall was played by Mathews and the Amateur was in a box on opening night to see the parody. Just as Coates had done on his first Haymarket appearance, Mathews came down front and shook hands with the Amateur. Dressed as Coates had been the previous evening, mimicking the Amateur’s actions (including a parody of Coates reciting “The Hobbies”), Mathews “enacted the principal scenes of Lothario; in the whole of which, even to the death, he was Coates all over, and to the very life.” According the the impressionist’s “memoir,” written shortly after his death by his widow, Anne Jackson (no relation to Eli Wallach’s wife, as far as I know), “The effect was amusing to the highest degree, convulsing the great majority of the audience with laughter. A considerable party, however, manifested a strong opposite feeling.” As usual, Coates took the ridicule with good humor, though reports suggest that Mathews went further than Bate Dudley had intended with his travesty.

Many publications, which were not always friendly toward Coates, took exception to this form of ridicule. The European Magazine of March 1813 made a special effort to defend the Amateur by publishing a “Memoir of Robert Coates, Esq.” with which they printed an engraving of one of the few portraits of the actor that was not comic. Characterizing At Home as “coarse buffoonery” and “vulgar imitation,” the editors wrote:

Most men have their peculiarities, some latent, others more apparent; but surely, when the latter are neither immoral nor offensive to society, they can scarcely be deemed, however obnoxious, fair subjects of ridicule, the toleration of which . . . seems a degradation of human nature, and is, in itself, a travestie of the best passions of the human heart.

While the European Magazine acknowledged that Coates’s acting was less than laudable in terms of talent and execution, the editors recognized that “if he chooses to make his humour subservient to a charitable purpose, to engraft virtue upon his whims, and give the solid worth of a benevolent act to harmless eccentricity, who is to prohibit or blame him” and then concluded: “Mr. Coates deserves very great credit for the motive of his performances, whatever difference of taste may exist as to their merit.”

Mrs. Mathews asserts that Coates bided his time to take his revenge on the impersonator, making an appearance at the Drury Lane Theater to recite “Bucks, have at ye all.” I haven’t seen any record of a second appearance at Drury Lane, and Coates’s biographers state that his recitation there after the performance of The Devil's Bridge was a fortnight before At Home was staged at Covent Garden. At any rate, Mathews’s memoirs record that after Coates’s recitation, the Amateur declared:

Ladies and Gentlemen, -- Having had the honour of being imitated at another theatre by a performer of great celebrity, I will now, with your permission, imitate the imitator. If I do not succeed, I hope you will pardon me. As it is my first attempt, (imitating Mr. Mathews,) it
will be “
Hit or Miss.”


Hit or Miss is the title of a musical farce by Isaac Pollock in which Mathews had appeared some years earlier, and Mrs. Mathews writes that Coates changed into a costume resembling the one her husband wore in that performance and “strutted about the stage cracking his whip, and recited several passages in that farce to the great amusement of the audience.” Calling her husband “inimitable” and proclaiming that he couldn’t be caricatured, Mrs. Mathews labeled Coates’s parody an “outrage on all sense and propriety.” The pot calling the kettle black, maybe? She went on to “exhort” the management of the Drury Lane “never to permit a similar outrage” on its stage again--though apparently it was all right for the management of Covent Garden to permit its stage to serve as the venue for a travesty of Coates. Hmmm . . . .

(At Home wasn’t the only stage parody of Coates that London audiences saw. In 1816, the year Coates would make his final public appearance on stage, a two-act musical farce called All at Coventry by W.T. Moncrieff was performed at the New Olympic Theatre in London. In Act Two, a character named Lively, speaking in different voices, says:

"Ah, Romeo! my rum one, how are you?" -- “Eh! why how the plague did you know me?” -- “Why by your Coates, to be sure.” -- “Yes, they're the thing, 'ent they ? -- Diamond buttons, cost me five hundred a-piece. -- Here, John, give that beggar a penny, and be sure you tell him it comes from the Philanthropist of Fashion.”)

Coates, who occasionally styled himself “the celebrated Philanthropic Amateur of Fashion,” made his fifth appearance at the Haymarket solely in a recitation following the presentation of Othello on 1 March 1813. He was roundly applauded and called back for a brief encore. (Before commencing, the actor poured himself a drink, walked downstage, and with good humor toasted his enemies, “whom he desired might live to see him prosper.") On 26 April, Coates appeared for the sixth time at the Haymarket, returning to his favorite role, Romeo, which he hadn’t performed since Bath. The house was packed, and the first act was performed in a deliberately shortened version, but the play proceeded well until the marriage scene. A commotion began in the gallery as the actress, Miss FitzHenry, who played Juliet and was the beneficiary of the performance, exited. The actress shot the gallery a glance of anger, and when she came back, the pit had joined the gallery and the disturbance had grown to such a level that she became distressed at the boos and hisses directed at her. Miss FitzHenry clung to the set, her arms wrapped around a stage pillar until the commotion died down. She addressed the audience to ask why they responded this way but she was drowned out and left the stage. The audience quieted and the cast chose to complete the play, which finished relatively calmly. FitzHenry never understood what caused the audience’s reaction, but she was ultimately happy with the financial benefit she received from the show and was grateful to Coates for his generosity.

On 10 May, Coates made his seventh appearance at the Haymarket, again as Romeo, and faced an especially noisy house. There was apparently an organized effort to disrupt the performance and members of the conspiracy were seated in every section of the theater. Every time Coates appeared on stage, he was met with hoots and crows as well as insults and catcalls. The Amateur ignored these for most of the performance, but when the duel between Romeo and Tybalt was about to start, the actors were interrupted by a rooster, which one of the conspirators had sneaked into the theater and released at just the right moment, strutting along the edge of the stage, almost at Coates’s feet. The audience broke into riotous laughter and a collaborator shouted out, “O most gallant Romeo, stain not thy sword with the blood of Tybalt, but kill the cock before you," initiating another burst of laughter. Just as the rooster was about to crow, which is what the rowdies were all waiting for, Old Capulet disappointed them. The actor grabbed the bird in his arms and threw it off stage. Deprived of their prize gag, the troublemakers shouted at Capulet and banged on the sides of their boxes with sticks or rattled other noisemakers they had smuggled into the theater. Despite the commotion, however, the actors completed the scene, Romeo killed Tybalt, and Coates exited the stage. He paused just visible enough at the wing, however, for the conspirators in the box from which the rooster had been released to see him, and he shook his sword at them. The rowdies in the box demanded Coates apologize for this action, but he refused, of course, and completed his exit. The disrupters pelted the remaining cast with orange peels and the actors made quick exits.

One of the occupants of the box came down onto the stage and tried to address the house. The spectators in the pit, angered that these people had disrupted their enjoyment of the play, shouted him down and he returned to his seat. When Coates reentered, the same young man stood up and again demanded an apology from the Amateur. Coates again refused and the spectators in the pit took this opportunity to pay the disrupters back in their own manner: they threw orange peels at the young man until he retreated into his box. The rest of the play went on rather dully, the steam obviously having gone out of the cast, until the scene in which Romeo kills Paris. As Paris lay “dead” on the stage, he was jarred back to life when he was battered on the nose by a whole orange. The actor, incensed, rose and, pointing to the orange, stalked off the stage to further uproar from the house. When Coates returned to the stage to enact Romeo’s death, his signature histrionics brought forth a chorus of “Why don’t you die?” from the gallery.

Coates again played Romeo in a benefit for an actor named Eyre of the Drury Lane company. Eyre asked Coates to appear at the Lyceum Theatre on 29 March 1813, and the only glitch this time around was that the actress who originally agreed to play Juliet had to withdraw at the last minute. Eyre was able to find a replacement on a few hours’ notice, however, and the performance proceeded with no more than minimal interruptions and concluded well.

(There’s still more to the story. Part 3 will be up in a few days. Keep waiting--in fact, hold your breath!)

[A blog doesn’t seem the right place for footnotes and such-like source documentation. When I put together these kinds of historical posts--the ones on Everybody Comes to Rick’s/Casablanca and The Group of Hissed Authors are in this same vein--I do have the citations for all the research. If anyone feels the need to challenge me on any of this, go ahead and maybe I’ll clue you in. I ain’t no Doris Kearns Goodwin!]

30 May 2009

Romeo Coates, Part 1

Back last February, I went over to 59E59 to see Primary Stages’ New York preem of Donald Margulies’s Shipwrecked!, a performance piece about the fantastic adventures in the South Seas of Louis de Rougemont. De Rougemont was in reality Henri Louis Glin (1847-1921), and his “adventures” were indeed “fantastic” . . . because they never actually happened. De Rougemont was unmasked as a fraud and in 1899, Glin toured music halls in South Africa billed as “The greatest liar on earth.” A 1945 biography of Glin is also called The Greatest Liar on Earth.

In 2004, the York Theatre Company premièred Souvenir, a play by Stephen Temperley about Florence Foster Jenkins, the worst singer ever. It seems to me that with a performance based on the life of the world’s greatest liar and a play about the world’s worst singer having been produced, we’re now more than ready for a play about the worst actor ever on the English-speaking stage: Robert “Romeo” Coates. If any of you knows the “classic” acting text, Michael Green’s immortal The Art of Coarse Acting, which first appeared in the ‘60s and made a comeback in the ‘80s, you will have some idea of Coates’s stage style. Except that Coates didn’t leave his execrable performance style in the theater: he lived as outrageously as he acted.

Michael Green describes a coarse actor as "one who can remember his lines, but not the order in which they come. One who performs . . . amid lethal props," and goes on: "The Coarse Actor's aim is to upstage the rest of the cast. His hope is to be dead by Act Two so that he can spend the rest of his time in the bar. His problems? Everyone else connected with the production." If that doesn’t sound like “Romeo” Coates, I’ll eat my hat! See what you think.

There are plenty of first-hand accounts of Coates’s appearances on the English stage as he became a kind of succès de ridicule. It seems that everyone went to see his over-the-top performances to laugh at him and jeer--though Coates doesn’t seem to have seen that he was the object of derision. The man truly thought he was the greatest artist to tread the boards of England.

Amateur actors, or “gentlemen players,” were part of a grand tradition in England and its colonies for centuries. In August 1865, a journal called Once A Week did a two-part series entitled “Notes on Amateur Actors,” beginning its history with Oliver Cromwell, who did a turn on the stage possibly as early as 1616 when he was at Cambridge or even earlier. In the second part of the history, Dutton Cook, the author, observed: “Hitherto [gentlemen players] had met with consideration, even generosity, from their audiences: but now they were to become ridiculous in the eyes of the public--now one of their number was to be followed throughout his performance by shouts of the most tumultuous derision.” Cook was about to relate the tale of the man who called himself the “Amateur of Fashion,” “Romeo” Coates.

Robert Coates (1772-1848) was born in the West Indies, the seventh child of a wealthy Antigua sugar planter, Alexander Coates, and his wife, Dorothy. Alexander Coates, born in 1734 in one of the British colonies of North America, had 20,000 acres of land and a huge fortune. (Once, when King George III approached Alexander Coates for a £5,000 loan to help protect Antigua from Spanish and French raiders, Coates casually sent the royal envoy off with £10,000.) The Coateses weren’t happy in everything, however: eight of their children died in infancy or early childhood; only Robert survived to adulthood. It’s probably only natural that Alexander and Dorothy would dote on their only surviving son, and when Robert turned eight, his father escorted him to England to attend school among the sons of British aristocrats and upper classes for the education expected of a young man of station and means. Young Robert returned to Antigua at the end of his schooling, presumably to take his place beside his father as heir to the Coates plantation and fortune. Disinclined, however, to take up such an occupation after the exciting years in England, Robert informed his father that he wanted to take a commission in the guards regiment commanded by the Duke of York. But Alexander Coates didn’t relish the idea of his only remaining child going off to fight in Europe, which was then in a period of military turmoil, so he sent Robert off on what was known then as “The Grand Tour,” a circuit of Britain, Europe, and, in Robert’s case, the United States.

Young Coates returned to Antigua a few years later only to find his experiences abroad had made him feel the provinciality of his homeland more intensely and he looked around for amusement and entertainment. The first theater in Antigua had opened in 1788 and, like most of the European colonies in the New World, the island had its approximation of European cultural outlets, including an orchestra and theatrical troupe, composed mostly of the local residents augmented by some of the soldiers in the British garrison on the island. Occasionally there was also the touring professional from Europe or the United States. Coates gravitated to the stage troupe which performed the classical plays the islanders loved, especially the bloodier and more violent of Shakespeare’s tragedies such as King Lear, Macbeth, and, most particularly, Romeo and Juliet. He was especially partial to the role of Romeo. The island audiences liked their theater “rare and bloody” more than “well done,” but they and the amateur actors enjoyed the crude staging and rough acting. Coates said he didn’t participate, however, until he made a momentous speech some years after his return.

In 1805, Antiguans decided to celebrate the British victory at Trafalgar and memorialize the death of Admiral Lord Nelson (21 October). Nelson had called at the island with his fleet on 4 June on his way to the Battle of Cape Finesterre (22 July) and the islanders had assembled a deputation to greet him; Alexander Coates, as the island’s leading resident, was part of the delegation, accompanied by his son, Robert. The younger Coates was much impressed with Nelson’s demeanor and often mentioned this encounter later. When the Antiguans mounted a festival to commemorate the momentous events, it included a dramatic presentation. Robert Coates delivered two speeches on the occasion, one a patriotic paean and the second, a celebration of the Battle of Trafalgar and a lament for Nelson’s death. Coates’s orations were greeted with effusive applause and the would-be performer was infected with the bug of public appreciation and acclaim. Unhappily, Coates’s love for the theater would be unrequited.

Alexander Coates died in 1807 at 73 and Robert inherited the estate, which brought him an annual income of £40,000, an immense fortune at the turn of the 19th century. (I don’t know how much £40,000 in 1807 comes to in dollars in 2009, but it has to be a helluva lot since £40,000 even today is a considerable income!) He immediately returned to England, settling first in Bath some time late in 1808. He took up residence in stylish Gay Street but appeared daily in the coffee room of the York House for breakfast and lunch and quickly became a figure of curiosity and interest. First of all, he was dark-skinned, a stark contrast in a society where women still used arsenic to make their skin pale. (There were always rumors, given his origins, that he was partly of African heritage, but there is no real evidence to support this. Still, considering the historical behavior of slave-owners in the Americas, it’s not out of the question.) Though his figure was good, Coates’s face was lined with wrinkles, perhaps from his life in the sun of the West Indies, and at 37 years old he looked 50. He also seems to have worn a mustache when he first arrived, though he apparently shaved it off, perhaps at the behest of a lady, before he began to perform on the stage. He went out in daytime attired in furs, irrespective of weather or season, always carrying a thick walking stick with a huge, diamond-studded knob on top. In the evening, he went about in a uniform composed of a pale blue overcoat festooned with braids, tasseled Hessian boots, a high-collared shirt adorned with a brightly-colored bandana, and a large cocked hat. The entire costume was encrusted with diamonds: diamond shirt buttons, diamond knee buckles on his breeches, diamond-studded buckles on his boots, and his ubiquitous diamond-headed cane. Coates sparkled when he moved and seemed to be surrounded by “a halo of rainbow-changing colours like those of the Antiguan moonlight.” In fact, this partiality for diamonds provided him the alternative nickname "Diamond" Coates.

He was driven around town in a huge, heavily gilded, custom-built carriage shaped like a scallop shell. His outlandish appearance, even before he took to the stage, made Coates the object of great interest and renown. Everyone knew of him, but no one knew who he was or where his vast fortune came from. Coates was also sought after for social occasions, as Max Beerbohm, the British caricaturist and wit of the late 19th century, wrote:

His attendance was solicited for all the most fashionable routs, and at assemblies he sat always in the shade of some titled turban. In fact, Mr. Coates was a great success. There was an air of most romantic mystery that endeared his presence to all the damsels fluttering fans in the Pump Room. It set them vying for his conduct through the mazes of the Quadrille or of the Triumph, and blushing at the sound of his name.

By many accounts, Coates was also quite a storyteller himself. A journal editor who met the Antiguan early in his time in Britain and who called on him at his home related that Coates recounted feats of courage he “pretended to be engaged,” such as the time

that a French fleet once appeared off the island, in the West Indies, on which his estates were situated, and that the boats were putting off with the troops to effect a landing, when he put himself at the head of the planters, and all the force they could muster, and, rushing to the shore, drew his sword, and flourished it in the air in defiance of the invaders.

He could have been the subject of one of the novels then in fashion--until, of course, he began his stage career.

Memoirist Pryse Gordon happened to be in residence at the York House when Coates was in the habit of dining there. He described the phenomenon that brought the Amateur of Fashion to his attention:

He shortly attracted my notice by rehearsing passages from Shakespeare during his morning meal, with a tone and gesture extremely striking both to the eye and the ear; and, though we were strangers to each other, I could not help complimenting him on the beauty of his recitations, although he did not always stick to his author's text. On one occasion I took the liberty of correcting a passage from Romeo and Juliet. “Aye,” said he, “that is the reading, I know, for I have the whole play by heart; but I think I have improved upon it.”

Discovering that the fascinating stranger was particularly devoted to the role of Romeo and even kept a costume for the part, which Coates explained he played often in Antigua, Gordon pressed his new acquaintance to perform the play in Bath. “I am ready and willing to play Romeo to a Bath audience,” declared Coates, “if the manager will get up the play and give me a good Juliet." And he added, “[M]y costume is superb and adorned with diamonds, but I have not the advantage of knowing the manager, Dimond.” Gordon reports that Coates was quite amused at his “excellent” pun on the name of the manager of the Theatre Royal, William Wyatt Dimond, whom Gordon explained he knew well and offered either to arrange the performance with Dimond on Coates’s behalf or to write his new friend an introduction. Finishing his breakfast, Coates went off to meet Dimond.

Coates scheduled his British début in Bath on 9 February 1809 and Dimond distributed a handbill announcing that for one night only the Theater Royal would present “ROMEO, BY AN AMATEUR OF FASHION.” The theater sold out as everyone in Bath who had been noticing this odd stranger in their midst for three months came to see the event. In addition, word had leaked out that the rehearsals were more comic than tragic and that Coates’s oral interpretations were, well, unique. In his first performance as Romeo in England, Coates appeared in a costume of his own design, described by the Welsh dandy and memoirist Captain Rees Howell Gronow, a spectator on that night:

[H]e came forward with a hideous grin, and made what he considered his bow--which consisted in thrusting his head forward and bobbing it up and down several times, his body remaining perfectly upright and stiff, like a toy mandarin with moveable head.

His dress was outré in the extreme: whether Spanish, Italian, or English, no one could say; it was like nothing ever worn. In a cloak of sky-blue silk, profusely spangled, red pantaloons, a vest of white muslin, surmounted by an enormously thick cravat, and a wig à la Charles the Second, capped by an opera hat, he presented one of the most grotesque spectacles ever witnessed upon the stage.

To top it off, the hat was festooned with ostrich feathers and the whole costume was, indeed, encrusted with diamonds from head to toe. The audience roared with laughter at this absurdly inappropriate presence as Coates literally snuck onto the scene, Romeo’s first clandestine visit to Juliet’s house, as if in imitation of a burglar, with his face concealed from view. But that wasn’t the end of it. Coates’s costume was so tightly fitted that his arms and legs bulged out in what sounds like a live representation of Popeye. So tightly wrapped, Coates was able to move only stiffly and he jerked across the stage like a faulty robot. What drove the audience out of their stunned state into riotous laughter, however, was the bursting of a seam in the seat of Coates’s trousers “and the sudden extrusion through the red rent of a quantity of white linen sufficient to make a Bourbon flag, which was visible whenever he turned round.” At first, spectators thought this was a deliberate effect, a nose-thumbing at conventional mores, but then they realized how oblivious Coates was and the crowd burst into uncontrolled hilarity. Through the first act, the audience wasn’t sure the performance wasn’t an intentional spoof of Shakespeare, as Coates read every line wrong and moved about the stage in such a ludicrous manner, even standing still awkwardly. According to Beerbohm, the Amateur “cut little capers at odd moments.” Eventually, however, the spectators realized that this was no joke and the jeers, catcalls, and shouts of “Off! Off!” began and the rowdies in the balcony began throwing orange peels and apple cores. The balcony scene was stopped by laughter from the house when Coates paused during Juliet’s passionate speech and took out a snuff box. After the actor took a pinch, one wag in the audience shouted out, "I say, Romeo, give us a pinch," and Coates strode over to the boxes and offered his snuff to the gentlemen, then to the ladies. The actor acknowledged the uproar from the house with a nod and a grin and returned to Juliet’s balcony. But the rest of the scene, with Coates’s absurd gestures, was performed as if in dumb-show because the spectators’ roars of laughter drowned out the actors’ voices.

Finally, in the last scenes, some of Coates’s odder conceptions of Shakespearean acting were displayed. First, to retrieve Juliet’s body from her tomb, Coates pried it open with a crowbar. Then, when Romeo is supposed to carry Juliet’s corpse away in sorrow and grief, Coates “dragged the unfortunate Juliet from the tomb, much in the same manner as a washerwoman thrusts into her cart the bag of foul linen” and threw her aside. Before Romeo takes the poison and prepares to die--according to Shakespeare, that is; our Amateur of Fashion . . . well, let’s let Capt. Gronow, who was there, describe Romeo’s death scene:

Out came a dirty silk handkerchief from his pocket, with which he carefully swept the ground; then his opera hat was carefully placed for a pillow, and down he laid himself.

The audience, as might be imagined, roared with laughter at this sight. Coates, nonplussed, challenged them, “Ah, you may laugh, but I do not intend to soil my nice new velvet dress upon these dirty boards,” and returned to his business. Ready now to take the apothecary’s potion, Romeo delivers a soliloquy--but Coates, for unknown reasons, decided to walk downstage and deliver the entire speech in a whisper to one of the boxes as the rest of the house strained to hear a single word. Coates’s actions, however, were plainly visible to one and all: he “died” for minutes, “gasping and grimacing over and over again as he lay writhing on the floor, groaning his way through every stage [of] agony imaginable.” As you might guess, the audience broke into howls of laughter. Gronow provided more first-hand details:

After various tossings about he seemed reconciled to the position; but the house vociferously bawled out, "Die again, Romeo!" and, obedient to the command, he rose up, and went through the ceremony again. Scarcely had he lain quietly down, when the call was again heard, and the well-pleased amateur was evidently prepared to enact a third death; but Juliet now rose up from her tomb, and gracefully put an end to this ludicrous scene by advancing to the front of the stage and aptly applying a quotation from Shakspeare: "Dying is such sweet sorrow, That he will die again until to-morrow."

Well, the house broke out into arguments about whether this was a comic travesty or the buffoonery of a talentless and oblivious fool. Manager Dimond, fearing for the outcome, dropped the curtain abruptly and the audience sat stunned for minutes. Then they broke into uproarious applause! By all accounts, Coates, now known universally as “Romeo” Coates, was more than pleased with his British début and his reception. It’s a wonder how this rank amateur of no observable talent could get onto the stages of England, but if he couldn’t persuade a theater manager to book him--as his fame spread, the Amateur of Fashion’s presence on a bill would guarrantee an SRO audience--Coates simply bribed him. The audiences’ response was often so raucous and unpredictable, that the managers frequently had the police on hand in case the spectators got out of control. The audience habitually responded with angry taunts and jeers--and plenty of laughter. Through it all, Coates blundered ahead, ignoring the ridicule shouted from the auditoriums, and, by all accounts, enjoyed his notoriety immensely. If Coates thought the spectators were becoming too rowdy, he spoke directly to them in the same tone. Nonetheless, he repeated the performance over the next few years--Brighton in 1810, Cheltenham in 1811. Of the Brighton performance, presented, apparently, to a select few friends, the local newspaper said: "[H]is performance . . . astonished the aquatics and submarines of the Sussex coast."

In Cheltenham, however, when Romeo is supposed to exit after one scene, Coates remained on stage, crawling around on all fours. “Come off, come off,” hissed the prompter to no reply. After a time, Coates responded that he had lost a diamond knee-buckle and would leave the stage when he had found it. The audience was delighted, apparently in the hope that something like that would happen again.

It was also at about this time, 1811, that Coates moved to London, taking a residence in the Strand. A rich bachelor, fond as he was of displaying his wealth and attire, Coates drove all over town from the immediate vicinity of his residence to the center of the city where he stopped to do business at the Bank of England. His shell-shaped carriage, known as a curricle (a light, two-wheeled open carriage, drawn by two horses abreast), became so well-known in London that it provided Coates with yet another familiar nickname: “Curricle” Coates. Coates’s biographers gave a detailed description of the vehicle:

Its shape was that of a scallop shell; the outside was painted a beautiful rich lake colour, and bore its owner's heraldic device--a cock, life-size, with outspread wings, and over this the motto, "While I live, I'll crow." The step to enter the vehicle was also in the form of a cock. The interior was richly lined and upholstered, and the whole mounted upon light springs with a pair of high wheels picked out in well-chosen colours. The vehicle was drawn by two white horses of faultless figure and action, and which must have been matched and acquired at great cost. Their trappings were of the latest fashion and ornamented with the crowing cock in silver. The horses were driven in pair, and the splinter bar was surmounted by a carved brass rod; on top of this stood a plated cock, crowing.

Such a carriage, which Coates called his “triumphal car,” could not help but attract curiosity and attention from anyone who saw it anywhere in London. As “Curricle” Coates drove by, onlookers would shout, “Cock-a-doodle-doo!” Long before the Amateur of Fashion presented himself on a London stage, he became even more famous than the reports from Bath had made him, much, it can be assumed, to his gratification. He became the subject of frequent newspaper gossip.

Coates’s notoriety also made him the object of appeals for loans and charity from hangers-on--the 19th-century equivalent of his posse. And just as his father had been a generous and benevolent benefactor in Antigua, Robert Coates lent his money freely, seldom expecting repayment. The more pitiful the supplicant, the more generous was Coates, who never looked for any social gain from his generosity. For all his obliviousness to criticism of his acting and mode of dress, Coates was a guileless and honest kind man. So when he was approached for help by a poor widow, he immediately lit on the best solution: a benefit performance. He needed to warm up first, however, so, at the request of friends in Richmond, outside the city, Coates arranged a one-night stand at the Theatre Royal there. On 4 September 1811, Coates reprised his performance as Romeo to a packed house. The gentry came to applaud their friend and benefactor and rowdies--the period counterpart of soccer hoodlums--came prepared with pockets full of ripe fruit.

For the most part, this performance went along smoothly--or at least without significant interruption. Until, that is, Romeo’s death scene. When Coates took the poison, several young men, probably drunk, broke out into such paroxysms of laughter that a doctor who was in the audience, concerned for their well-being, ordered them removed from the theater to be treated for “excessive laughter.” Coates was so annoyed by this display that at the end of the performance, he came down to the proscenium and recited “Bucks, have at ye all,” a poem reportedly used occasionally by David Garrick. Coates’s recitation included lines written for him to use in just such circumstances, delivered while pointing at the boxes from which the disturbance had come: “Ye Bucks of the boxes there, who roar and reel, / Too drunk to listen and too proud to feel.” The house broke into applause as the spectators lept to their feet. As untalented as Coates might have been, he had one attribute rare in the theater of his day: total ingenuousness. (But then, we must remember, this also describes Bottom the Weaver of the Rude Mechanicals . . . and we know what a travesty he and his cohorts made of a classical play!)

(There’s much more to tell, but because this post grew so large as I was preparing it, I’ve split it into three parts. I’ll be posting Part 2 in a few days and Part 3 a few days after that. Can you bear to wait?)

[A blog doesn’t seem the right place for footnotes and such-like source documentation. When I put together these kinds of historical posts--the ones on Everybody Comes to Rick’s/Casablanca and The Group of Hissed Authors are in this same vein--I do have the citations for all the research. If anyone feels the need to challenge me on any of this, go ahead and maybe I’ll clue you in. I ain’t no Doris Kearns Goodwin!]

17 May 2009

'Everybody Comes To Rick’s'

I was up at the performing arts library at Lincoln Center recently and since I had only a few tasks I needed to get into there, I took the time to do something I’d wanted to do for a while: I read the typescript of the unpublished play Everybody Comes to Rick's by Murray Burnett and Joan Alison. In case you don't recognize it, that's the basis for the screenplay of Casablanca. Generally, I was just curious about it, but I also wanted to see if it was playable (and how much was changed for the film). Surprisingly, it's not bad for its kind. It's only slightly different from the movie and it could be played, though it'll never become a major play like, say, Incident at Vichy or Watch on the Rhine, two other World War II plays of the same vintage. (Everybody Comes to Rick’s, combined with elements of the film, was produced as Rick's Bar Casablanca in London in 1991. There was also a staging under the title They All Come to Rick’s at the Casino Theatre in Newport, Rhode Island, 12-17 August 1946.)

I wonder, if someone wanted to stage it again, if you could still get the rights. (I also assume that there aren't many copies of the typescript around. The NYPL copy is a mimeograph, so multiple copies were produced, and the University of Southern California in L.A. has one in its film archives. The studio that made the movie, Warner Brothers, must have had one on file, since it owns the rights to the play, but I doubt it's still there. I imagine, though, there's some way to get NYPL to make a copy if you had the rights to produce it.) When Burnett and Alison sold the rights to Warners for the film, they lost all control over the script as well—there was a 1983 lawsuit that determined the two playwrights no longer had any claim on the script, the characters, or the story; they’d sold everything in 1941, and they signed a “formidable” contract stipulating that the authors “give, grant, bargain, sell, assign, transfer and set over” to Warners all rights “of every kind and character whatsoever, whether or not now known, recognized or contemplated, for all purposes whatsoever.” (This sounds disconcertingly familiar: Eric Overmyer wrote a terrific play called In Perpetuity Throughout the Universe, a phrase taken from the standard authors’ publication contract.) When David Kelsey, an actor, director, and playwright who died in 1996 at 63, decided to stage Everybody Comes to Rick’s he had to apply to Warners and had a hard time persuading the studio to give permission for a production in London.

According to Herb Greer, an American writer, dramatist, and critic who saw the London show, Warners suppressed the play for decades, keeping the script locked away in a file. They presumably didn’t want the play staged because they thought it might somehow compete with or diminish the movie. Kelsey, who had loved the movie since he was a boy, began trying to find a copy back in 1974 and happened to meet Burnett at the Players on Gramercy Park in New York City. Burnett had a script squirreled away (he had actually planned to write a sequel, but when the courts declared he no longer owned the original characters, it died for fear of a lawsuit from Warners) and Kelsey’s agent, George Weiser, grabbed it. Then Kelsey began his assault on Warner Brothers. The studio was “obstructive” in the beginning but, after what Kelsey called "a jigsaw of negotiations,” eventually agreed to allow a production in London. Rick's Bar Casablanca, directed by David Gilmore, finally opened at the Whitehall Theatre on 10 April 1991 and ran until 11 May.

Burnett, a stage-struck English teacher at Central Commercial High School, a Manhattan vocational school, was on summer vacation with his wife, Frances, in 1938. He’d inherited 10 G’s from an uncle that year and he used part of it to finance the trip. Frances Burnett’s stepfather lived in Antwerp and she had been growing increasing anxious about him and other family still in Europe as reports of Hitler’s rise reached the U.S. At the request of Mrs. Burnett’s Belgian family, she and her husband delayed their trip to southern France to help some Jewish relatives in Austria, annexed by the Third Reich in the Anschluss the previous March, smuggle money out of Nazi-dominated Europe, and they traveled to Vienna. (Jews could leave Nazi-controlled Europe in those days as long as they took no money or valuable property with them.) Burnett was horrified by what he witnessed there and he met “a new breed of people”: refugees who were about to become “stateless people,” unwelcome in their homelands and unable to escape Europe easily. While in Vienna, too, Burnett learned about the “refugee trail,” a circuitous and perilous route from Nazi-controlled Europe across the Alps into France (not yet occupied by Germany in 1938) to Marseille and across the Mediterranean to Morocco then back to Lisbon, the capital of neutral Portugal and the center of espionage and intrigue in World War II Europe. From there, the displaced people hoped to escape to safety in the United States. The stress of what he saw in Vienna even made Burnett physically ill.

Later, fulfilling their vacation plans, the Burnetts went to Juan-les-Pins, a small town on the French Riviera. (Southern France, like French North Africa, would be part of unoccupied France, known as Vichy France. After the fall of France in 1940, it was nominally free but was administered by a German-controlled puppet government.) They visited a nightclub, not coincidentally called La Belle Aurore, where they heard a black piano player entertaining a clientele of Germans, French, and refugees with jazz songs. “You know, this would make a really terrific setting for a play!” Burnett commented to his wife.

When Burnett got back to New York, he told his long-time friend Joan Alison, who would be his collaborator, “No one can remain neutral, God damn it, Joan. No one can remain neutral.” He was determined to write a play about the Nazi threat in Europe based on what he’d seen that summer but his first impulse was to write a spy-thriller, to be called One in a Million, as the appropriate vehicle.

Burnett had met Alison, who had a local radio talk show before she turned to writing plays with Burnett, a few years earlier during the summer. Burnett, unlike many other middle-class New Yorkers in the pre-war years, was able to afford a car, due principally to his steady job as a teacher and, later, that bequest from his uncle. During his summers off, he drove out to Long Island where he joined the Atlantic Beach Club and he spent most days relaxing in the sun and going over in his head the play he hoped would bring him Broadway success. He made friends with another sun-worshipper named Joan Alison, an attractive divorcee with three children, almost a decade older than he. Alison, whose real name was Joan Appleton, was wealthy by Burnett’s standards and more worldly—Burnett’s model, she said, for Lois Meredith in the play, the character that becomes Ilsa Lund in Casablanca. Burnett told Alison about the play he was writing, An Apple for the Teacher, based on his experiences at Central Commercial High, and she expressed enthusiasm. Alison socialized with a more glamorous and sophisticated crowd than did Burnett, and one of her friends was Broadway producer Delos Chappell. Alison offered to ask Chappell to read Burnett’s script and, at the least, give him some professional advice and comments. Burnett agreed, and to his surprise, Chappell optioned the play for Broadway. The producer felt the play needed some additional work, and he put Alison and Burnett together with an associate to help them prepare the script for a Broadway staging, but the collaboration didn’t work in the end and Chappell dropped the option on Apple. (Apple did make it to Broadway years later, in a revised version entitled Hickory Stick. It ran from 8 to 13 May 1944, Burnett’s only Broadway production. He had a successful career writing, producing, and directing radio plays, including one in 1952 for Marlene Dietrich called Café Istanbul, a clone of Casablanca.) Burnett wasn’t discouraged, however, as he had found in Alison an active supporter who had given him his first hint of Broadway success. They went on to work together on other scripts. The first one of significance was the play Burnett based on his experiences in Europe the summer of 1938.

When One in a Million was completed, Burnett and Alison shopped it around Broadway. No less a personage than Otto Preminger, known for his work in Hollywood but a successful Broadway director and producer as well, read the script and optioned it in June 1941. Once again, fate snatched away Alison and Burnett’s chance at theatrical fame, this time largely due to politics. Preminger, despite his history of playing Nazis on film, was a vehement opponent of Hitler and fascism, but the times were not ready for his kind of activism. The United States was officially neutral and there was a strong voice in congress and society that believed the U.S. should leave European problems to Europe and stay out of the fight altogether. These conservatives pressured the arts to steer clear of projects, films and plays, that took sides or assumed an assertive anti-Nazi stance. Preminger fell under this pressure from Washington and in August abandoned One in a Million, which was never produced. Still undiscouraged, however, Burnett and Alison switched tacks and tried again. Everybody Comes to Rick’s was born almost two years after Burnett’s fateful trip to Europe.

By the time the two playwrights settled into Alison’s Manhattan apartment, Burnett had already written the play, but he asked Alison to help him revise it. (The Letters of Transit had been Alison’s invention.) They completed the script in six weeks during the summer of 1940. Burnett’s experience in Vienna inspired him to write a play about Rick Blaine, a hard-bitten bar owner helping the idealistic leader of the anti-Nazi underground, and the nightclub in France became Rick’s Café Américain in Casablanca, Morocco, an actual stop on the “refugee trail” from Nazi-occupied Europe; La Belle Aurore itself lent its name to the café in Paris where Rick meets Sam and Lois/Ilsa. (By this time, France had fallen to the Germans so Burnett moved the action from the Riviera to northern Africa. Burnett, who had never actually been to Casablanca—the only person connected with the film who had ever visited the city where the story was set was Dooley Wilson—reportedly originally planned to set the play in Lisbon. Then we’d have had a movie called Lisbon. Not the same panache, somehow.)

Everybody Comes to Rick’s is something of a phantom play in many ways. I mean, obviously it exists since a) I’ve read it and b) Kelsey did produce it, but it has left a very small footprint over its nearly 70 years. (Critics of the film frequently referred to its source as a Broadway flop, to which Burnett strenuously objected since the play had never run on Broadway or, until 1991, on any stage other than the five-day run in Newport in 1946.) After Burnett (1911-97) and Alison (1902-92) completed the play in 1940, they tried to find a stage producer for it. Producing partners Carly Wharton and Martin Gabel optioned the script in May 1941 but they were worried because neither writer had any professional credits that would help sell the play to Broadway audiences. The producers thought that if they could enlist a known writer to put his name on the play, it would assure success in the theater; Alison and Burnett agreed and some of the playwrights consulted were Ben Hecht and Robert Sherwood. All the well-known pros had the same response: the script didn’t need revising. Wharton, however, was also uncomfortable that Lois would sleep with Rick to get the Letters of Transit. Burnett and Alison rejected a rewrite and the potential producers backed out. No one else was interested. Now, Ilsa also seems pretty clearly to have spent the night with Rick in the movie, but Warner Brothers (despite the Hays Code, which was in force then) was a little looser than Wharton, it seems. (The scene in the movie was carefully manipulated—no bed is visible, for instance, and it ends in a dissolve, at the suggestion of the Breen Office, instead of a fade-out—to make what happened in Rick’s apartment ambiguous, leaving the truth up to each viewer to decide.)

(There may also have been a political/patriotic aspect to the rejection. In the final scene of the play, after Victor Laszlo and Lois get away safely, just as their counterparts do in Casablanca, Rick is arrested by Strasser and presumably sent to a prison camp. Ending the play with a Gestapo victory, even a partial one, may not have sat well with Broadway producers at a time when the country was close to entering the war on the Allies’ side. Anti-Nazi feeling in the entertainment business on both coasts, despite official neutrality, was strong. Before Pearl Harbor and the entry of the U.S. into the war, the Breen Office, the overseers of the Hollywood Production Code, walked a precarious line of official neutrality and objected to any insult to another nation’s regime or people, even the Nazis and Fascists, but both Hollywood and Broadway were liberally oriented and also heavily populated by Jews—with not a few escaped anti-Nazi Germans and refugees from occupied lands and endangered peoples. The Warners, for instance, were among the staunchest anti-Nazi activists and under that studio’s guidance, Everybody Comes to Rick’s not only retained its anti-German stance, but the political leaning was enhanced and developed significantly for Casablanca. It was in part for this reason, for example, that Rick shoots Strasser at the end of the movie and Renault and Rick walk off arm in arm to fight the Nazis elsewhere in Africa. By the time the movie was made, of course, the Germans were our enemies and even the Breen Office didn’t have to maintain the fiction of neutrality or evenhandedness. Burnett and Alison’s original ambiguous ending, leaving Rick to an uncertain fate in the hands of the Gestapo, would not have been accepted by movie audiences. Possibly Wharton and Gabel felt this, too, even as early as May 1941.)

So, failing to find a stage producer for their script, they turned to the movies. In a week, the writers’ agent, Anne Watkins, sold the play to Warner Brothers for the munificent sum of 20 grand, a record amount in December 1941. (Dashiell Hammett only got $8K from the same studio for The Maltese Falcon, another immensely successful Bogie flick.) After that, however, and aside from screen credit, Burnett and Alison were effectively cut out of the record of Casablanca, receiving no recognition when the Oscars—even the one for Best Writing—were handed out in 1943, and never being further acknowledged until Burnett sued in 1983 to regain ownership of his characters and plot. (An unsuccessful TV series, starring that great actor David Soul, AKA: “Hutch,” as Rick, had just shut down after airing only three episodes. This was the second attempt to serialize the story for TV; the first had failed in 1955.) New York courts ruled in favor of Warner Brothers but Burnett and Alison had fortuitously copyrighted the play in 1941 (and renewed the copyright in 1969), so the rights were about to revert to them anyway. They threatened to withhold their signatures on a new agreement with Warners, so they each did get another 100 grand out of the studio in 1997. They also wrested the right to produce the original play, which, until the 1991 London staging, had also sunk into obscurity (except as the answer to a Hollywood trivia question). So obscure had Burnett and Alison’s play become that in an interview in 1974, Bergman actually said: “Casablanca based on a play? No I don't think so . . . for we didn't know how the movie would end." In 1973, Howard Koch, one of the three main screenwriters, had said in New York magazine that Everybody Comes to Rick's had provided him and his collaborators, Julius and Philip Epstein (the only twins to have ever won Academy Awards), with nothing more than some character names and an exotic locale. (Incensed, Burnett unsuccessfully sued Koch for $6½ million over the remark. In 1991, the year of the London staging, Koch, who died in 1995, acknowledged in the L.A. Times that Burnett had been “to some extent, justified.") As a gag in 1982, the year Bergman died, the movie script of Casablanca was sent to over two hundred agents under the title Everybody Comes to Rick's. Thirty-eight rejected it as an unworthy film project; only thirty-three recognized it as the screenplay of the famous movie.

In truth, as I indicated, Everbody Comes to Rick’s contains all the major elements of the plot and characters that showed up in Casablanca. Alison estimated that the screenwriters used almost 70% of the play script (72 of the script’s original 97 pages). Some of the character’s names were changed, but Burnett even included “As Time Goes By,” a favorite of his as a Cornell senior, as the iconic song Sam plays for Lois/Ilsa because it reminds her of Rick and Paris. (The song is from a 1931 stage musical, Everybody’s Welcome, based on the 1930 stage comedy Up Pops the Devil.) Even the plot device—the vital plot device—of the Letters of Transit was Burnett and Alison’s creation: there was actually no such thing; Alison made it up! The screenwriters opened up the script to include scenes outside Rick’s café, and they wrote all the wonderful lines that Burnett and Alison hadn’t thought up. The oft-quoted lines ("I'm shocked, shocked . . . . ," "Round up the usual suspects," "The Germans wore gray, you wore blue," “Here's looking at you, kid,” "The problems of three little people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world," "I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship"—and oh, so many more) are all missing from the playscript, making it a little prosaic by comparison. (Casablanca may be the most quoted—and, in one famous case, misquoted—movie ever produced in Hollywood. I have no scientific evidence for this, but I can’t think of another film with as many famous lines which are so often spouted in public discourse. Even that famous misquote, the line no one ever says in the screenplay, “Play it again, Sam,” has gotten its own provenance, having become the title of a Woody Allen play and movie!) Epstein, Epstein, and Koch also cut some dialogue from Everybody Comes to Rick’s, primarily to accommodate the Hays Code. This mostly affected the character of Lois/Ilsa who was not only not married to Laszlo in the play, but had also been living with a married businessman when she and Rick were together in Paris. (The screenwriters turned Naughty Lois into Virtuous Ilsa who thought her husband, Victor, was dead when she hooked up with Rick in Paris. This barely passed Hays Code muster, but slipped by.) The character of Rinaldo/Renault, who originally was very clear about trading exit visas to young women in return for sex, was another problem for the Breen Office. Several of Claude Rains’s lines were cut or changed for the film. And the actors also contributed immensely to the success of the movie, which Warner Brothers didn’t expect to be anything spectacular when it was first released. Both Bogart and Bergman wanted to get out of making it and Henreid was unhappy about playing a second banana. (Conrad Veidt, a staunch anti-Nazi who fled Germany because his wife was Jewish, had by this time gotten used to being cast as a Nazi or other villainous German character.) Casablanca was a World War II potboiler, one of dozens churned out by the studios during the war years made mostly to employ the stable of stars the studios had under contract; it was even rushed into release early to take advantage of the actual Allied invasion of North Africa in November 1942.

The first obvious variations have to do with character names: Sam (Dooley Wilson) for instance, is also called "the Rabbit" (because he’s known for his rendition of “Run Rabbit Run,” an audience-participation novelty song popular in World War II); Ilsa Lund (Bergman) is called Lois Meredith in the play; Louis Renault (Claude Rains) is Luis Rinaldo; Signor Ferrari (Sydney Greenstreet) is Senor Carlos Martinez. (The character Peter Lorre plays also has a Spanish first name—Guillermo—and is called “Senor”—the playscript doesn’t use the tilde—like the Greenstreet role. With Rinaldo/Renault, that makes three of the major roles with Spanish or half-Spanish names, two of them with Italian last names. Rinaldo is still French in the play, and Ugarte’s and Martinez/Ferrari’s nationalities are ambiguous just as they are in the film, but I don’t know why the Spanish and Italian influence was so common. The only connection I could think of is inadequate: French Morocco was right next door to Spanish Morocco. Where the Italian in the playscript came in, I have no idea, though when the movie was filmed, a deliberate decision was made to make Ugarte and Ferrari Italian since Italy was now an enemy country and no insult to friendly or neutral nationalities could be inferred.) Surprisingly, though, the characters are otherwise pretty much the way they ended up in the movie—except, of course, for the important contributions of the actors. I could easily hear Bogie saying Rick's lines, Rains doing Rinaldo, and Paul Henreid and Veidt doing Laszlo and Strasser (he’s only a captain in the play; he’s a major in the film); even Bergman could have been Lois, though the play made her an American. The Ugarte character, despite his description at the beginning of the script, is exactly like the one Peter Lorre played in the movie. (The Martinez/Ferrari role was considerably expanded for the film to entice Greenstreet.)

The major plot differences with the movie are that the Germans want money from Victor Laszlo and he and Lois Meredith aren’t married in the play. The Germans claim Laszlo'd made $7 million from the anti-Nazi writings he'd published in Europe before he fled, and they claim it as their due. In the play, if Laszlo turns the money over to the Third Reich, he gets to leave Casablanca; in the film, he must rat out the other resistance leaders in his network and Strasser makes it very clear that Laszlo and Ilsa will never leave the city. This makes the play much more banal and lowers the stakes considerably compared to the movie. The other major difference is that the play all takes place inside Rick's café: there are no scenes in the street, at the airport, or in Paris (the flashback doesn't even exist in the play; there are few details of the backstory).

The four main characters—Rick, Rinaldo/Renault, Lois/Ilsa, and Laszlo—are the most altered from the play to the movie. Rick, a married man in the play who had cheated on his wife, a lawyer with a self-pitying streak, becomes . . . well, he becomes Bogie, the cynical, tough, secretive loner. The film role had been tailor-made for Bogart. The immoral womanizer Rinaldo becomes the teasing, sophisticated, slightly sarcastic Renault. Victor Laszlo, the least changed of the four, was bolstered mostly by plot enhancements, particularly the omission of the monetary motive for the Gestapo hunt for him and the insertion of the demand, which he refuses, that he reveal the names of his resistance colleagues. But he is more cynical in the play: he sends Lois to Rick, for instance, knowing she will sleep with him for the Letters of Transit. The Lois of the play, as I’ve noted already, was the most changed: she got a new nationality (mostly to accommodate Bergman’s Swedish accent, but turning her into a European had been discussed even before anyone knew Bergman would get the role) and a new personality. Lois is a tramp with no sense of loyalty, much less duty; Ilsa is as noble in her way as Laszlo, though she’s ready to sacrifice herself not for a cause in the end, but for love. Overall, the subtle differences in the characters in the play with their counterparts in the film, especially their backgrounds and their styles of speech, make the play’s characters coarser and less noble than the film’s. I don’t doubt that some of this is due to the acting (and directing of Michael Curtiz) as well as the screenwriting, especially since so much of the script was unfinished while the movie was being shot and scenes were written or, often, improvised on the set as the cameras were rolling. Although many of these changes were engineered to please the Breen Office and others to accommodate the actors playing the roles, they served to create enduring—and endearing—characters who are much stronger and more memorable than the ones Burnett and Alison created. Nonetheless, the higher tone of the movie versus the play suggests that Hollywood’s jingoism, in this case put to good ends, improved on the original for a change.

As for writing quality and playability, Everybody Comes to Rick’s doesn’t measure up to Casablanca. (Critic James Agee wrote in The Nation that the movie was a clear improvement over “one of the world’s worst plays,” an opinion Agee formed without having ever seen the play or its script—as, of course, no one had. I’ve read that Rick’s Bar Casablanca, the play that was staged in London, was enhanced with elements of the film, and the London reviews seem to bear this out. If so, I can’t say if the revised script is more substantial that the original Everybody Comes to Rick’s; it may be heftier.) Although Burnett and Alison’s original writing was more than acceptable of itself, the characters, as noted, are coarser, and less nuanced, and the dialogue flatter and less layered than that which Koch and the Epstein twins composed for the movie. If, by some chance, someone had never seen Casablanca and read the script of Everybody Comes to Rick’s, she might consider it an interesting period piece. (Several of the London reviews bear this out.) Finding an audience full of naïve spectators like that would be unlikely, though, and I suspect most viewers would feel the absence of the film’s enhancements. (Michael Billington, the Guardian reviewer, admitted that he hadn’t ever seen the film so he saw the play without the shadow of Casablanca hanging around him.) Rick’s lack of nobility, Ilsa’s missing virtue, Rinaldo’s lechery, and the omission of Laszlo’s lofty motivation all lessen the power of the play. It is here, too, that the stamps placed on the roles by Bogart, Bergman, Henreid, Rains, Veidt, and even Greenstreet and Lorre—and all those wonderful character actors the studios had on call in the ‘40s, ‘50s, and ‘60s—is unavoidably evident. I said I could hear the film’s stars doing the roles Burnett and Alison wrote, and I could. But that only means that any actor would be competing with their ghosts from the stage, too. (Benedict Nightingale said virtually the same thing in his review in the London Times.) And whatever Michael Curtiz gave them in terms of direction and whatever Koch and the twins invented for them to say, those actors helped create those characters indelibly—and that would also be missing in any production of Everybody Comes to Rick’s. (David Soul is no great actor by any measure, but I remember that series and a great part of why it failed was not the acting of the lead, but the inability of the TV production even to approximate the movie’s overall power. No one could have accomplished that.)

No doubt the movie’s ultimate dynamic was a complete accident, given the way Warner Brothers planned and produced it. (By the way, the persistent rumor that the studio had originally considered Ronald Reagan, Ann Sheridan, and George Raft for the roles of Rick, Lois/Ilsa, and Renault, is false. One story is that Warners put out the release announcing that in order to pique interest in the casting and promote its stable of actors; another version is that the publicist for those three actors put out the announcement to get his clients’ names in the trade papers. Either way, Bogie was the only actor considered for Rick, Bergman was the first choice for Ilsa and the only hold-up was that she was under contract to another producer, and though Raft campaigned for a role in the film, he was never seriously considered.) Too much of the final movie was made on the fly in order to get it ready for release and to accommodate the actors’ next scheduled projects for the final accomplishment to have been planned. Nevertheless, it was certainly a happy accident, and recreating that magic again would be, and already has been, impossible. None of that’s in the play, and any director would be starting at a deficit because of the results of the movie magic. And that's not even dealing with the lesser quality of the play’s writing as compared to the text of the screenplay. Now that's certainly a bass-ackwards situation, ain't it?

By the way, that 1991 London staging, Rick’s Bar Casablanca, was billed as an unproduced play (that is, a world première). Assuming the reviews are accurate—and since Billington has nothing with which to confuse the play, I assume they are—what Kelsey put on the stage of the Whitehall Theatre wasn’t exactly Everybody Comes to Rick’s. Burnett himself revised the script, reducing the original three acts to two, and it did have some elements taken from the movie: Nightingale mentioned some movie lines that aren’t in the script I read and many reviewers described some plot details that are drawn from the screenplay. Lois, for instance, is not only married to Laszlo when they get to Casablanca, but she was married to him when she and Rick were in Paris. In addition, Lois believed Laszlo was dead when she and Rick meet in Paris; in Everybody Comes to Rick’s, this whole back story doesn’t exist: Lois was involved with another man when she and Rick were in Paris. (Rick, of course, had the same name in both scripts, and the female lead on the London stage was named Lois as in the playtext, but the police captain was called Louis Renault in London and Strasser was promoted to major as in the film. Martinez, like Lois, retained the name from the stage play.) Other details that weren’t in Burnett and Alison’s original text but which appeared on the London stage include Rick’s history as a freedom-fighting activist who supported the Ethiopians against Mussolini and fought against Franco in Spain.

Most of the London reviews were cool; no one found the play a smash. Most of the reviewers saw the same drawbacks in production that I sensed in the typescript: the loss of the stronger dialogue contributed by Koch and the Epsteins, the after-images of the Hollywood cast, the coarser, more artificial life of the stage play compared to the smoother, more flowing film world. What struck me, reading the reviews of Rick’s Bar Casablanca, was that where the reviewers found merit in the stage play, it was derived from elements absconded from screenplay. (Oddly, I did not get the impression that any of the reviewers knew that what they were praising had been added to Burnett and Alison’s script. Not one writer mentioned this, and since the text of Everybody Comes to Rick’s isn’t published—there is a synopsis in Frank Miller’s Casablanca: As Time Goes By: 50th Anniversary Commemorative—I suspect none of the reviewers knew the differences between the original playtext and the screenplay and assumed, probably, that what they were hearing was all the work of Burnett and Alison. In a turn-about, Kelsey didn’t give any credit for the stage production to the screenwriters.) In other words, Kelsey obviously saw that the original text wouldn’t succeed on stage so he used the enhancements that helped make the film and retrofitted the stage version to approximate the movie. It sounds to me as if he succeeded to an extent—none of the reviewers hated the play and a few pronounced it a small success. In its original form, I doubt it would have done as well.

The script that was presented in Newport in 1946, though it was billed as the world première as well, may have been different from Burnett and Alison’s original version, too. One announcement called it an adaptation by the director, Hudson Fausett, and the agreement with Warner Brothers apparently gave producer Sara Stamm, who ran the Casino Theatre, permission to make any changes she wanted as long as she turned them over to the studio, whose property they would become. (In fact, that agreement forbad Stamm from using the names of the original playwrights in her publicity for the production.) And though some references to the Rhode Island production, which was reported to be a pre-Broadway try-out, say it used the title of the movie, Casablanca, it actually seems to have been billed as They All Come to Rick’s. (It’s a sort of ironic joke, given the obscurity in which the playscript and its creators languished in contrast to the glory that has been heaped on the movie, but many people don’t seem to be able to get the title straight. Kelsey expressly changed it for his production, of course, but I don’t know where the title used in Newport came from and other listings call the play Everybody Goes to Rick’s. I even found a recording of a 1992 interview Burnett did at Cornell—he was a 1931 alum—which is listed as Why “Everyone Comes to Rick’s”: The 50th Anniversary of “Casablanca.” Even they got it wrong! One of the difficulties that comes from this fact is that searching for information on the play, whether on line, in databases, or in printed materials, requires looking up all the permutations of the title. I can assure you that the evidence of my own two eyes affirms that the play Burnett and Alison submitted to Wharton and Gabel and then Warner Brothers, the typescript that’s on reposit in the Billy Rose Theatre Collection up at Lincoln Center, is entitled Everybody Comes to Rick’s. Trust me.)

07 May 2009

The Group of Hissed Authors

On Tuesday evening, 14 April 1874, five illustrious writers--novelists and short-story writers, essayists and journal writers, and poets--gathered around a “table bien garnie” in the Café Riche at 16 Boulevard des Italiens in Paris. The men, four Frenchmen--Émile Zola, Gustave Flaubert, Alphonse Daudet, and Edmond de Goncourt--and Ivan Turgenev, an honorary Frenchman, came together to celebrate, if you will, their common failure. You see, for all their success in letters, these men, perhaps the most renowned writers in France at the time, had all suffered the ignominy of hearing their first efforts at writing for the theater booed off the stages of Paris (or, in Turgenev’s case, Moscow and St. Petersburg).

Turgenev’s novel Fathers and Sons (1862) is considered one of the finest pieces of 19th-century fiction ever written. His play A Month in the Country (produced in 1872) was a major success and remained in the repertoire of theater troupes throughout his life and after. But his early dramatic forays were of a decidedly romantic nature, often in verse, and were far less well received. Where It Is Thin, There It Breaks was produced at St. Petersburg’s Alexandrinsky Theater in 1851; Broke (or A Poor Gentleman), also at the Alexandrinsky, was staged in 1852; and The Family Charge (or The Parasite) premièred at the Bolshoi Dramatic Theater, Moscow, in 1862. None were successes--though Daudet quipped of Turgenev’s reported theatrical failures: “Russia’s far away, we can’t go there and see.”

(The truth of Daudet’s observation is, as it happens, part of the explanation for the difficulty in pinning down the details of the first productions of Turgenev’s early plays. While there is documentation for the Paris premières of the stage works of the French writers, 19th-century records from Moscow and St. Petersburg are hard to come by. The other part of the problem is translating and transliterating the titles of his plays: there are just too many permutations. More precise information is certainly available in Russian, but my computer doesn’t handle Cyrillic type very well and my Russian is weaker than my French.)

The Brothers Goncourt, Edmond and his younger brother Jules, were famous for their Journal des Goncourt, a fascinating (and often very personal) view of the Paris society of their age from 1851-96, the blog of its day. They also endowed the Prix Goncourt, France’s most prestigious literary award. But in 1865, Edmond’s play Henriette Maréchal was panned at the Comédie-Française (though it was revived more successfully in 1885). It opened at the house of Molière on 5 December and closed after a hostile reception on 16 December.

Daudet wrote L’Arlésienne (The girl from Arles) in 1872, based on one of his sketches in Lettres de Mon Moulin (Letters from My Mill, 1869), and it failed miserably (until Georges Bizet, composer of Carmen, put it to music and it became a minor hit in 1885). It was first performed at the Théâtre du Vaudeville on 1 October 1872 and withdrawn after fifteen performances (21 October). Daudet returned to novel-writing and never tried to write another play.

Zola’s novel Thérèse Raquin, his first major work, was published in 1867. The writer became renowned as the founder of literary Naturalism (which influenced Ibsen, who transferred the writing style to the stage). Zola, wanting “to kick life into the theatre's moribund procedures,” adapted his own novel for the stage; the play opened at the Théâtre de la Renaissance on 11 July 1873--and promptly closed after nine performances. Thérèse Raquin was not revived for ten years after its initial failure, but it continued to be played afterwards and has been recognised as an early example of stage Naturalism, a precursor to Strindberg (who acknowledged its influence) and Ibsen (who didn’t).

Flaubert’s attempt at playwriting, Le Candidat (The Candidate), a dramatic comedy, appeared on the stage at the Théâtre du Vaudeville on 11 March 1874 and, after critics complained of the wooden dialogue and flat, caricaturish characters and audiences stayed away in droves, it closed on 14 March after only four performances. It was the only play Flaubert, author of the classic Madame Bovary (1857), ever wrote on his own and the only one staged during his lifetime.

It was apparently Flaubert’s notion, after Le Candidat was “booed off the stage,” that the would-be dramatists meet at what he dubbed “Dinners for Hissed Authors” and the first colleague he invited to join him was Zola. The gang eventually grew to five and Turgenev came up with the sobriquet le Groupe des Auteurs Sifflés. The Group of Five (or simply “The Five”), as they were also called, sometimes met at Daudet’s home at the Hôtel de Lamoignon at 24 Rue de Pavée and occasionally at cafés, but they usually met on a Sunday at Flaubert’s house at 240 Rue du Faubourg St.-Honoré. There was always plenty of good food and drink, and the hissed authors were undoubtedly well lubricated with wine and brandy. (Hey, they were French, weren’t they? Mais, bien sûr!) Turgenev was usually the first to arrive, and Flaubert would “embrace [him] like a brother.” The long, raucous evenings often lasted until 2 or 3 a.m.

It has been in the back of my mind that writing the scene that depicts these extraordinary gatherings would be a fruitful task. It has to be innately theatrical given the personalities involved and the milieu--a well-oiled, wide-ranging, unrestrained, and literate conversation. Perhaps not a lot of action, but the wit should flow almost endlessly! I even have a companion piece for the scene: In the summers of the early 1940s, Tennessee Williams vacationed in Provincetown, Mass., on Cape Cod. He and his drinking buddies used to gather in the evening at Captain Jack’s Wharf, a wooden pier that jutted out into P’town Harbor behind a bar above which Williams rented a room. This group was composed of a really varied crew, including painter Jackson Pollock; Lee Krasner, a student of Hans Hofmann's P'town art school and later Pollock’s wife; Kip Kiernan, Williams’s dancer-lover who modeled at Hofmann’s school; Joe Hazan, another dancer friend who modeled for Hofmann’s students; Valeska Gert, a German immigrée nightclub owner who performed satirical political caricatures; poet Robert Duncan; Fritz Bultman, the New Orleans-born painter and another student of Hofmann; Bultman’s wife Jeanne; music and dance critic Edwin Denby; and maybe even Hofmann as the elder statesman. (Williams at this time also became friends with Tallulah Bankhead while she was appearing at the Cape Playhouse up the Cape in Dennis, so she could make an appearance, just for the theatricality of it.) Unhappily, I’m no playwright, so I haven’t really attempted to write the scenes--just imagine them. (Anybody got a holodeck I can use?)

The meetings of les Sifflés, full of wit and satire by all accounts, continued monthly until Flaubert’s death of a brain hemorrhage on 8 May 1880. The men were all more than mere colleagues and fellow writers--they were friends; Flaubert and Turgenev were even best friends and Zola was considered Turgenev’s spiritual son. Their stage failures only served as an excuse to tease one another and dream and theorize with great enthusiasm. “From three o’clock to six o’clock we went at a gallop through different subjects,” wrote Zola. De Goncourt, for example, once scolded Turgenev that he was “saturated with femininity,” to which the Russian writer replied, “With me neither books nor anything in the world could take the place of a woman. How can I make that plain to you?” (Turgenev, by the way, never married, but one of the reasons for his long stays in Paris is often said to have been his lifelong love of a married woman, the singer and actress Pauline Viardot whom he first met when he heard her sing in Russia in 1843. He followed her to Paris two years later.) On another occasion, de Goncourt records, “We began with a long conversation on the special aptitudes of writers suffering from constipation and diarrhea.” But much of the conversation was literary. According to Henry James, a friend and occasional visitor to the salon, the Dîners des Auteurs Sifflés went like this:

What was discussed in that little smoke-clouded room was chiefly questions of taste, questions of art and form; and the speakers, for the most part, were in æsthetic matters radicals of the deepest dye. . . . This state of mind was never more apparent than one afternoon when ces messieurs delivered themselves on the subject of an incident which had just befallen one of them. "L'Assommoir" of Emile Zola had been discontinued in the journal through which it was running as a serial, in consequence of repeated protests from the subscribers. The subscriber, as a type of human imbecility, received a wonderful dressing, and the Philistine in general was roughly handled. There were gulfs of difference between Turgenev and Zola, but Turgenev, who, as I say, understood everything, understood Zola too, and rendered perfect justice to the high solidity of much of his work.

Les Sifflés were a somewhat motley bunch, however, despite their connection as men of letters (and failed playwrights). For all Turgenev’s seriousness and intellectuality, Daudet, for instance, was something of a roué and reprobate. The youngest of the Five, born a month after Zola, Daudet lost his virginity at 12--and he is rumored to have slept with all his friends' mistresses. He died of apoplexy brought on by advanced syphilis at the age of 57.

Ivan Turgenev (1818-83) was something of the éminence grise among les Sifflés, it seems. Even as a foreigner, as one of les Cinq he was accepted almost as a French writer. An imposing figure--he was 6’ 3” with an athletic build--he was known among his comrades as “that Russian giant.” But he was soft-spoken, with an almost feminine voice. He was handsome and charming, but timid, restrained, and gentle. Despite the prominence of the others, however, even Zola seemed to feel Turgenev’s leadership. He cherished harmony and restraint, avoiding extremes of manner in both his life and his art, and remained a balanced, cultured gentleman all his life. He held himself aloof of political and philosophical creeds, and espoused a kind of agreeable atheism. Guy de Maupassant, another visitor, recounts:

Tourgenev [sic] used to bury himself in an arm chair and talk slowly in a gentle voice, rather weak and hesitating, yet giving to the things he said an extraordinary charm and interest. Flaubert would listen to him with religious reverence, fixing his wide blue eyes upon his friend's fine face and answering in his sonorous voice, which came like a clarion blast from under that veteran Gaul's moustache of his. Their conversations rarely touched upon the current affairs of life, seldom wandered away from literary history.

Turgenev was born into a wealthy, aristocratic, landed family and was sent abroad for his education; after studies at both the Universities of Moscow and St. Petersburg, he went to the University of Berlin where he read philosophy. (Most of the other Sifflés either left school at young ages or finished only a secondary education. Only Flaubert, the son of a successful surgeon, had a comfortable youth and was sent to Paris to study law--a profession for which he determined he was unsuited.) Fluent in French, German, Spanish, English, and Italian, the Russian would bring along books by Goethe, Pushkin, or Swinburne and translate poetry from them. He regarded Flaubert as the most extraordinary writer in France and Madame Bovary the most forceful piece of writing of the century. Like Zola, Turgenev wished to make his mark on the world as a dramatist rather than as a novelist (though his theatrical reputation is founded on a single play, A Month in the Country). The oldest among the Group of Five, Turgenev served as a sort of unofficial ambassador to the Russian émigré community in Paris, helping out young writers, often at his own expense. Like all the Five, he had a wide and varied circle of acquaintances, even in Paris: in 1879, he was, for example, invited by the actual Russian ambassador, Prince Nikolai Orlov, to lunch at the embassy with Czarevich Alexander--later Czar Alexander III (1881-94), father of the last Czar. (On the other hand, he feuded with two of the other most illustrious writers of Russia, Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, until shortly before his death.) A lifelong hypochondriac, he was diagnosed with an actual fatal illness, spinal cancer, as early as 1876. He died of the disease just shy of the age of 65.

Gustave Flaubert (1821-80), it seems, liked to read aloud at the gatherings. He especially liked to read examples of bad writing and jeer at the author’s poor sense of rhythm. He’d point out needless repetition, clichés, and infelicitously resonant passages. The author of Madam Bovary had the build of a guardsman but his health had been precarious since childhood. He was neurotic and worked in hermit-like seclusion, devoted to his writing. Like Daudet and Jules de Goncourt, Flaubert was infected with syphilis. But it was bouts of epilepsy that endangered his life, and he was constrained from strenuous activity and, especially, emotional excitement. For this reason, he felt he must become an observer of life, not a participant, and he became a tireless worker who imposed upon himself high standards for his art. He worked in solitude, sometimes taking a week to complete one page. He was famous for persistently searching for le mot juste--the appropriate word. Flaubert was also shy, though extremely sensitive and arrogant. He could pass from silence to indignant rage, emitting a flow of language. Flaubert detested anything bourgeois, petty-respectable, platitudinous, or self-satisfied. He can be said to have made cynicism into an art form.

Edmond de Goncourt (1822-96) was the elder half of les Frères Goncourt, who collaborated so closely that even after the death of Jules (1830-70), they were almost never mentioned separately. Neither brother ever married, and they prided themselves on sharing a Rubenesque blonde mistress. Polished, aristocratic, neurasthenic, Edmond was of an artistic and nervous temperament and, with his brother, cultivated a sense of persecution. Their first novel, En 1851, was published the day after the coup of 2 December 1851 (which brought Louis Napoleon to power as Emperor Napoleon III and in which Daudet’s patron, the duc de Morny, had been instrumental) and quickly sank into oblivion; the next year, the brothers were arrested and tried (but acquitted) on the charge of outrage à la morale publique for quoting a mildly erotic 16th-century verse in an article; and when Henriette Maréchal opened in 1865, it generated anti-government demonstrations when students from the Latin Quarter lined up on opening night to jeer the play because the de Goncourts were considered anti-Republicans and intimates of Princess Mathilde, a niece of Napoleon I. The student-protesters believed that only the influence of the princess had made it possible to stage the play. Gradually the furor over the play died down, but then an attack was mounted from the opposite camp. Empress Eugénie, wife of Napoleon III and an enemy of Princess Mathilde, succeeded in having the play banned on 17 December 1865. Between 1851 and 1870, the brothers published their famous Journal together, a chronicle of the Belle Époque in Paris as they witnessed it at first hand. As a last tandem effort in the Goncourt Journal, Edmond recorded the details of Jules’s excruciating death from syphilis. Edmond continued the Journal on his own until his own death, when he endowed the Académie Goncourt, a group of ten writers of great esteem in France who each December award the Prix Goncourt, the most prestigious French literary award, given for "the best imaginary prose work of the year" in the French language. Winners have included Georges Duhamel, Marcel Proust, André Malraux, Simone de Beauvoir, Roman Gary, Michel Tournier, and Marguerite Duras.

Émile Zola (1840-1902) became friends with future Impressionist painter Paul Cézanne when they were youths, but the friendship foundered over Zola’s portrait of Cézanne in L’Œuvre (The Masterpiece, 1886). He worked as a political journalist and was very opinionated, a harsh and outspoken critic of the government (until the establishment of the Third Republic in 1870). Like Victor Hugo, to whom the younger writer was a sort of political apprentice and follower, Zola did not hide his dislike of Napoleon III, who had used his presidency of the Second Republic as a springboard to become emperor in 1852. At the same time, though an intense moralist, he was staunchly anti-Catholic. He was, nevertheless, a best-selling author and a French literary star in his day and appeared among the literary elite of Paris as a statesman and bon-vivant. Zola was intrigued by contemporary scientific theories, especially Darwin’s evolutionary system but also the writings of Prosper Lucas on heredity and the ideas of critic and historian Hippolyte Taine. He was struck with the relevance of Darwin's theories to everyday life, particularly the life of the poor, who had to struggle constantly to survive. (Zola’s early existence in Paris was direct experience of this reality.) The writer, considered the founder of the Naturalist literary movement (though he began writing as a Romanticist), believed that the tenets and methods of science were applicable to other disciplines, including art and writing, and that artists should use their art and other means to construct "the best society." Toward this end, Zola sought to reveal social injustices and societal failings in his novels and plays. Zola championed a "slice of life" drama presented with a minimum of artifice, applying what became known as “scientific naturalism.” He believed that the quickest and surest way for a budding author to achieve recognition was through a successful play so, like Turgenev, it was in the theater that Zola wanted to make his mark. In “L'Argent dans la littérature” (“The Influence of Money in Literature,” 1880; part of The Experimental Novel), Zola writes that financial rewards in theater are greater than a novelist could ever hope to achieve and such "bread-and-butter" considerations were as important in the author’s decision to write for the stage as was his genuine passion for the theater. At the end of his life, Zola’s most notable act was his advocacy for Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish army officer accused in 1894 of treason and imprisoned on Devil’s Island, the only prisoner there. In behalf of Dreyfus, whose actual guilt was dubious from the start, Zola wrote “J’Accuse” (1898) and campaigned for Dreyfus’s exhonoration (which came in 1906, four years after Zola’s death). During the process of Zola’s advocacy, however, he became a target of the government himself and was sentenced to imprisonment for libel in 1898. He escaped to England, and only returned in 1899, after Dreyfus had been cleared and the charges against Zola had been dismissed. The great author died of accidental carbon monoxide poisoning from a faulty chimney (though there always remained suspicions that he had been murdered by political enemies). Dreyfus attended the funeral, but had to come in disguise.

Alphonse Daudet (1840-97) was short of stature: Dickens, to whom Daudet was often compared, called him "my little brother in France" and de Goncourt called him "mon petit Daudet." Born in Nîmes, he grew up in Provence (hence, L’Arlésienne--The girl from Arles), the same region that enraptured Vincent van Gogh. Daudet came to Paris in 1857, at the age of 17--and almost immediately contracted syphilis from a lectrice de la cour, a woman employed to read aloud at court. (At least, he bragged, his disease came from “a classier, indeed more literary, source” than that of his friends.) In 1861, Daudet became a private secretary to the duc de Morny, the Minister of the Interior and illegitimate half-brother of Napoleon III, then Emperor of the Second French Empire; he remained in that position until de Morny’s death in 1865. (De Morny had helped organize the coup d’état of 2 December 1851 which brought Louis Napoleon to the throne, a circumstance which Daudet’s future colleague, Zola, abhorred.) Daudet collaborated in writing a number of one-act plays (La Dernière idole, 1862; Les Absents, 1864; L'Œillet blanc, 1865), all helped toward the stage by de Morny's influence. Despite his reputation as a reprobate, however, Daudet was kind, generous, and sociable. He was a passionate observer of his surroundings and an unstoppable talker. He was an intimate friend of Edmond de Goncourt, who seemed to have adopted Daudet as a surrogate sibling after his younger brother, Jules, died of syphilis. (Ironically, de Goncourt would have to witness his dear friend suffer the same affliction that took his brother.) De Goncourt died in Daudet’s house, 18 months before Daudet himself died, collapsing at the dinner table and expiring almost instantly of a cerebral hemorrhage. Today, Daudet’s writings are mostly overlooked, though he kept a remarkable account of the progress of his illness which wasn’t published in France (as La Doulou, the Provençal word for la douleur, or ‘pain’) until 1930 and wasn’t translated into English (as In the Land of Pain) until 2002.

That’s the cast of characters. The setting would be Flaubert’s house, of course, around the dinner table and in the salon after the meal as the men smoked and drank and jousted. (All the participants being writers--most of them chroniclers and reporters of one sort or another as well--many of them recorded their accounts of this time one way or another; many also left letters that have been published.) The larger setting, however, the world of Paris and Europe around the Five, was a busy and tumultuous place during this period, giving the writers plenty of material to talk about. In the 30 years between 1850 and the end of les Dîners des Sifflés in 1880, much of their world shifted drastically. The Second Republic, born in 1848, came to an end in 1852 when Louis Napoleon took the title Emperor Napoleon III and launched the Second Empire. Napoleon III put a puppet emperor, Maximilian I, on the throne of Mexico in 1864, only to see him overthrown and executed in 1867. Shortly before the Dîners began, France was engaged in the Franco-Prussian War (1870) and Paris was occupied by German troops through 1872. This ended the Second Empire and the Third Republic, which would last until World War II, was declared in 1870. A year later, the Paris Commune, a coalition of the working class, took over the government of France for three months.

Turgenev’s native Russia went to war against France, England, and the Ottoman Turks in the Crimea from 1853 to 1856 and then saw the serfs freed, an act for which Turgenev had long campaigned, in 1861. Next door, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, or the Dual Monarchy, was formed in 1867 and elsewhere on the continent, Italy was unified as a kingdom in 1861 and Germany as an empire in 1871. From 1877 to 1878, Russia was again at war with the Ottomans in the Russo-Turkish War. On the other side of the world, Japan, the Floating Kingdom, was somewhat forcibly opened to the West in 1852. Karl Marx published Das Kapital in 1867, a small event that would soon help change the world for decades.

Politics wasn’t the only field in which turmoil was enlivening the world in those few years. Science and medicine were making huge advances with discoveries by the likes of Pasteur, Lister, and Mendel. Darwin published On the Origin of the Species, a profound influence especially on Zola’s thinking, in 1859. Anthropologists and archeologists were making discoveries about the human past almost annually it seemed. And the world les Cinq were learning more and more about was getting smaller at the same time: steamships were replacing sail and increasing in size and speed; railroads were opening all over Europe and the rest of the world; the Suez Canal opened in 1869 shortening the time to travel between West and East by weeks. And communication was getting better and faster: the telephone was invented in 1876 and the telegraph was tying the world together ever more tightly: the Transaltlantic Cable was completed in 1866. Newspapers were proliferating: The New York Times was founded in 1851, Figaro became a daily in Paris in 1854, the Daily Telegraph began in London in 1855, the Atlantic Monthly was launched in 1857, The Nation in 1865, the same year as both the San Francisco Chronicle and Examiner. At the same time, photography was becoming so simple that even amateurs were able to take pictures of all the new worlds they were visiting and show others exactly what things were like in exotic, far-way places.

The effect these technological developments had on the worlds of art and literature was shattering. The curiosity over what other parts of the earth looked like and how the people there really behaved and lived began to shift the perspective of writers from Romanticism, the world of dreams and flights of imagination, to Realism and Naturalism, the world of facts and observation. The Five were at the forefront of the shift, forming the conventions for the new writing and spreading the principals abroad and into the field of dramatic writing. Witnesses to the changes in politics, technology, and industry, les Cinq were the movers of the change in written art.

Around them, other changes were happening, too. In painting and sculpture, Realism was giving way to Impressionism--almost an opposite reaction to that of the writer’s art. My theory has always been that the spread of photography was greatly to blame for this. As long as it was decreasingly the responsibility of the artist to capture life as it is, and increasingly the job of the photographer, then the artist was driven to do what photographs didn’t do: portray the world as only an artist could see it. As objectivity became the domain of the photographer (and eventually the cinematographer), the artist turned to subjectivity: impressions. (There were other influences, too, of course. The focus on the middle and working classes, for example, and on the workaday world, the world of the street, the field, the café, were often the subjects of the Impressionists--but seldom of the Realists or the Romanticists.) In 1863, the official, established galleries in Paris mounted an exhibit of the approved artists, rejecting work by new aritists. Napoleon III decreed that these artists, who included Gustave Courbet, Edouard Manet, James McNeill Whistler, Camille Pissarro, and Zola’s school chum Paul Cézanne, should show their work in a gallery adjacent to the main Salon. It became known as the Salon des Refusés, the “exhibition of rejects.” (Zola wrote a fictionalized account of this event, L’Œuvre, the work that split him and Cézanne.) Eleven years later, the year les Sifflés began their gatherings, the Exhibition of the Impressionists--so titled by an art critic who took the name from one of Claude Monet’s paintings, Impression: soleil levant--was the sensation of Paris. The Impressionists had arrived and successfully stormed the gates of Paris.

This was the world in which les Cinq met each month, the world they wrote about, talked about, and argued about.