30 June 2009

'August: Osage County'

On Friday, 19 June, my visiting friend Helen and I went up to Broadway to see Tracy Letts's Pulitzer Prize- and Tony Award-winning play, August: Osage County at the Music Box, where the play moved (from the Imperial) in April '08. (The play closed on Sunday, 28 June, after over two-and-a-half years on Broadway, but it's going on tour with Estelle Parsons as the matriarch, Violet Weston. She took over the part from Deanna Dunnigan, the original lead from Steppenwolf, and then Phylicia Rashad, whom I saw, took over on 26 May.) AOC won many awards here--I'm sure it won many more in Chicago as well--and it is unquestionably an epic piece of theater, running nearly three-and-a-half hours with two intermissions (how many plays have two intermissions anymore?), with a cast of 13 characters, but it has serious dramaturgical problems as far as I'm concerned. (I guess I'm just a curmudgeon. Too bad!)

AOC is an old-fashioned play, recalling such family dramas as Little Foxes, Glass Menagerie, Mourning Becomes Electra, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, and many others that date from the '60s and earlier. It shares themes with many of those plays and its characters are drawn in ways that reminded me of some of the people in them, too. Dramaturgically, AOC also looks a lot like those oldies. These similarities and resemblances aren't faults, mind you, but the playwriting on display here is less a post-modern look at a family coming apart at the seams, a 21st-century take on a perpetual situation in this country (and, I daresay, most others as well), as a throw-back to a tried-and-true method of examining family dynamics. Stanislavsky would feel right at home with this script, I'm sure. Take out all the cursing and adult language, color it black-and-white, and it'd make a fine '30/'40s movie with the likes of Lionel Barrymore, Kate Hepburn, and other screen stars of the era. (Okay, the Breen Office would have real problems with some of the topics, but let's overlook that for the time being, shall we?) This is not a complaint, of course. I love those old-time plays and I see no reason a contemporary playwright can't draw on the styles of the past if they suit his needs. Theatrically speaking, I'm a pragmatist: Go with what works. I'm not even above a little artistic theft, short of outright plagiarism, here and there if it's useful.

Letts was an actor before he turned to playwriting a few years ago, and he still is. (This is his first Broadway transfer, I believe, though he's had some Off-Broadway successes as well as hits in Chicago, particularly at Steppenwolf where he's a member. He has a new play coming to Broadway soon.) Like many actors-turned-writers, Letts writes terrific roles for actors. He obviously knows what actors like to do on stage, what they can get their teeth into--especially the actors he's worked with on both sides of the footlights at Steppenwolf, for whom AOC was written. Without detracting from the work of director Anna D. Shapiro (who herself won a Tony for this effort), the cast of AOC knocks the ball out of the park in this play--and the cast I saw included many replacements of the original Steppenwolf company that came here with the play. Letts has created 13 separate characters, each with at least one moment to shine on stage, and the actors all developed clearly delineated personalities that were believable within the world Letts had created for them. (We all know that the families in these multi-generational dramas are . . . well, eccentric is the kind way to put it. They're not like you and me. At least I hope not.)

Speaking of the world of the play, I have to note here the environment that set designer Todd Rosenthal created for Letts's characters to inhabit. The three-story house from which the front wall had been sliced away was at once defining and confining. (I was a little confused by the configuration of the ground-floor rooms--I didn't know where the interior "walls" were supposed to be, but that wasn't terribly distracting or damaging.) Though we knew from the dialogue that the characters, especially the daughters, have lives elsewhere, the house in Pawhuska, Oklahoma, is the world they all inhabited together. At one time, they did so literally; now they do it emotionally and psychologically. (That's not an unfamiliar device in old-time dramaturgy, either--the family home to which everyone returns for some momentous event. Think, for instance, of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof or All My Sons.) Rosenthal's representation of this homestead evoked both the past history the Westons all shared here and the claustrophobia the place exudes. We could look in through the missing wall, but the Westons are boxed in when they are inside that house. It wasn't even open to the sky--Rosenthal roofed the top floor to be sure. A pressure-cooker might be a good analogy. (The costuming and lighting, by Ana Kuzmanic and Ann G. Wrightson respectively, enhanced the effectiveness of the world Letts's imagined without calling attention to themselves.)

Before Rashad, I believe the newest cast member was Elizabeth Ashley, who had joined the family as Violet's sister Mattie Fae in February. John Cullum (who I mentioned in my report on Heroes hightailed it from the Music Box, where he had recently started his performances as Beverly Weston, the patriarch, over to Theatre Row to appear in the French comedy) had been in the play for months by this time. So only Rashad was really new to her part, and she displayed some tentativeness here and there, but not detrimentally. At worst, she was a little superficial, maybe a little glib in her line readings, as if she were trying to get through the scene without screwing up. Helen remarked the actress was "playing to the audience," and maybe that's what was happening. Violet's big moments, her emotional explosions, were mostly solid and right-on, and I suspect that he had more rehearsal for those--and the one really huge scene when everyone in the family was on stage together eating the fateful dinner that's the centerpiece of the Letts's drama. She was probably still finding her bearings in the other scenes, having been performing the role for less than a month with a cast that had been doing it for up to three years or more in some cases. (Some members of the cast were still the Steppenwolf actors who originated the roles in Chicago.) I won't fault her at all for some nervous moments--she's a pro, and probably only another actor would really notice anyway. (I was at first a little unsure Rashad would have the intestinal strength to pull this role off. She's not known for playing ballsy characters; her strength is different. But, given her newness to the part, I'd say she managed quite well indeed.)

Overall, I can't say anything detrimental about the production. I think it was exactly what the play called for, and it deserved all the accolades and recognition it got. (It's perfect material for film, by the way--or, really, a TV movie if it weren't for the language, I guess--and it would surprise me if that doesn't come to pass in a few years.) I'm not thrilled with the three-hour-plus length: that's a very long time to sit, but that's a small quibble, I guess. But, as I said, there are problems in my opinion, and they're in the playwriting. For all its strengths and dramatic impact (it's really a melodrama, I think), AOC is weakened in the end by one tactic Letts uses all through the script. I don't know if this is a writing habit of his, as I haven't seen any of his previous plays, but it does strike me as the practice of a relatively novice dramatist. He drops bombs. That's what one of my acting teachers used to call it when a student, in an improvised scene, throws up a dramatic fact for which there has been no preparation or forewarning: "Dear, we're having a baby!" or "I've got cancer, Mom; I've only got six months to live!" (The teacher's point in the acting class was that no actor can deal competently with such a revelation dropped into the scene unrehearsed. As a playwriting tactic, the results are a little different.) At almost every turn, at every moment when the play seems to be moving along one track to a logical conclusion, one of Letts's characters drops a bomb--reveals a new, unlooked-for fact that stirs everything up again, and we start the throughline all over again on a new trajectory. Two salient examples: After Beverly Weston has disappeared and his body turns up, the family is all gathered and the old recriminations and resentments are brought back to the surface. The youngest daughter, Ivy, reveals that she has a secret romance no one in the family knows about. We soon discover that her lover is her cousin, the son of Violet's sister and brother-in-law. That's the first bomb--Ivy is dating her first cousin. (Remember, this isn't Kentucky or Arkansas--it's Oklahoma. That kind of thing isn't supposed to happen.) Because of that and the fact that no one in the Weston family really thinks much of "Little Charles," Ivy insists her sister Barbara keep the secret, but when Ivy comes to the defense of Little Charles (these people are in their 40s, by the way), the family starts to get the idea there's something going on between them. When Mattie Fae, Little Charles's mother, asks Barbara if there’s a relationship, and Barbara acknowledges it, Mattie Fae cries out that Barbara must stop it. When Barbara hesitates, Mattie Fae reveals bomb number two: Ivy and Little Charles aren't cousins. (Can you guess now?) They're brother and sister! Mattie Fae had had a brief affair with Beverly 40-some years ago, and Little Charles was the result, though no one, not even Mattie Fae's husband, Charlie, knows. So, a whole new line of conflict now opens, and new recriminations and angry outbursts ensue . . . and we're off to the races yet again. (A third little bomb connected to this series occurs a few scenes later when Violet, who has allowed that she knows everything about all her family, reveals she knows about both Little Charles's relationship with Ivy and his parentage. She doesn't care a whole lot, but she knows.) I didn't count, but I'd guess there are a half dozen or more of these bombs and bomblets in AOC. Now, maybe Letts thought this would be an amusing tactic: whenever the play seems to be leveling off, he injects an entirely new irritant into the mix and starts things up again. (Didn't Carol Burnett do that in many of her comedy sketches?) Maybe I'm just a fuddy-duddy (okay, I am a fuddy-duddy . . .), but unless this is intended to be a farce, and it was meant to be a joke, I get annoyed. I'm not keen on even one plot bomb as a dramaturgical device, but when they start to proliferate, I get pissed at the writer.

And finally, perhaps the most difficult problem I had with AOC is that none of the characters, with the possible exception of Johnna Monevata, the young Native American woman Beverly hired to keep house and care for him and his aging, cancer-infected, pill-addicted wife, is at all likeable. I said of the recent Fifty Words that I wouldn't want to spend any time with that couple; the family in AOC and their circle of acquaintances multiply that seven-fold. I get a headache listening to them yell at each other all the time. It didn't strike me as at all strange that Beverly, who drinks to excess anyway, would choose first to disappear and then to drown himself in the lake. How he lasted as long as he did is a mystery to me--one I probably won't try to solve. I can easily understand why actors would want to do these roles--we do love histrionics and scenery-chewing--but I'm not at all sure why spectators would want to watch them do it.

23 June 2009

'Coraline'

On Thursday, 18 June, Diana and I went into the West Village to catch the last of our 2008-09 season subscription shows, MCC's Coraline at the Lortel. The New York Times had run it's review on 2 June, and I wasn't entirely sure what to expect. The play, a musical, is an adaptation of a popular children's book of the same name by Neil Gaiman, but Ben Brantley didn't make clear to me if, first, he liked the result or not, and, second, if the stage adaptation was for an audience of children or not. (The same children's book had been made into an animated children's film earlier this year. I haven't read the book--and I won't--and I haven't seen the movie--and I won't.) As I've reported before many times, I have problems with Brantley's reviews, so I don't accept his evaluations at face value, but I do rely on the review to give me an idea of what I can expect to see, and in this instance, I had no idea. (My friend Kirk told me he likes the author and that his older daughter, a young woman in her 20s, read and liked the book.)

I have no idea who David Greenspan (book) and Stephin Merritt (music and lyrics) figured their audience for Coraline, the musical, would be. The base material is strange to begin with, from what I can tell. Gaiman has won several prestigious awards, including the Newberry, the major award here for children's literature, and Coraline won a few in '02 and '03 its own self, among them two for sci-fi/fantasy. One of the awards the book got was the Bram Stoker prize, an award for horror stories! Stoker, for those who don't recognize the name, is the originator of Dracula. In other words, Coraline isn't just a children's book, it's a children's horror story. I can't begin to guess how appropriate that is, not being a parent, but I'd guess that its appeal is to 'tween boys--10, 11, 12 years old. I'd think real little ones wouldn't get it or it'd be too scary for them. (Some reviewers and critics have compared Coraline and Gaiman's other works to Lewis Carroll's Alice stories, but from what I can tell from synopses and summaries, Gaiman's stories are much, much darker and much more threatening.) Maybe I'm being a fuddy-duddy--it's more than possible--but in any case, if the book is aimed at 'tweens or youngsters, and I gather the animated movie was geared to little ones (I'm not sure how big 'tweens would go for a cartoon, even a 3-D cartoon), then who's the stage musical for? Leaving aside for the moment the storyline and its scary atmosphere, the storytelling of Greenspan and Merritt is very complex and stylistically sophisticated. I'll get to a description of the set, and costumes, and so on later, but they aren't straightforward or self-explanatory. There's little differentiation between some of the two worlds Coraline inhabits and the shifts in dimension, if you will, are not easily distinguished. The music is more along the lines of what I'd call recitative. (I'm not musically educated, so I may be misapplying the term, but they're not "songs" with distinct melodies and lyrics that set one kind of song off from another.) They're all very much the same in tone and all the characters sound very much alike musically, and I have the feeling that really young ears might just begin to tune them out as boring and indecipherable. But the 'tweens for whom this material might be most appropriate wouldn't seem to be attracted to the story of a 9- or 10-yr.-old girl lost in a big old house which encompasses two separate worlds. And an awful lot of the dialogue strikes me as too adult for the audience who might be attracted to the story or the themes. But (speaking as an adult--or almost), I have to wonder what Greenspan and Merritt thought we'd get out of this, except its pure theatricality (the way I was thrilled with Julie Taymor's creations in The Lion King when I took my mother, who was also delighted, to see it some years ago). The problem there is that there's not as much effective theatricality employed to tell this eerie story as there might have been--it quickly became repetitive. It was like a clever idea Greenspan and director Leigh Silverman came up with on day one, and then never managed to expand on and take beyond the idea stage to a full-blown accomplishment. So who does MCC expect to come and see Coraline? Ya got me! (I can tell you, it weren't me, that's fer sure. At an hour and a quarter, I couldn't wait to get out of the theater.)

I've hinted at some of the story already, but maybe I need to do a little plot synopsis since, unlike Mary Stuart, Coraline isn't likely to be familiar to some of you all. Because of the book's popularity and the existence of the movie, you can find a detailed summary of the story, so I'll make it really brief; the play is an abbreviated version of the novella's plot, but it's close enough if you really want to know more. (Both the book and the movie have Wikipedia pages, as does Neil Gaiman, too. IMDb.com has a site for the film, of course.) So: Little Coraline Jones, who's moved with her parents to a new apartment in an old house in a new neighborhood, walks through a mysterious door and discovers an alternate version of her life. On the surface, this parallel reality is eerily similar to her real life--only much more attractive. But when her adventure turns threatening, and her Other Mother and Other Father try to keep her forever, Coraline must count on her resourcefulness, determination, and bravery to get back home--and save her real family. Greenspan/Merritt and Silverman obviously put a lot of thought into how to stage these two worlds and the creatures that inhabit them. These latter include not only Coraline's neighbors in the house-turned-apartment building (there are parallels for the neighbors in the other reality, of course), but animals such as a mystical cat and a circus of mice, and ghosts of lost children.

Like the recent Shipwrecked!, MCC's Coraline is story theater. The set, by Christine Jones, is a jumble of abandoned and discarded objects, including four or five pianos in various states of disassembly. (Two, one of them "prepared" to sound like a toy piano or a harpsichord, are actually used by pianist Phyllis Chen who accompanies the songs and helps out with the sound effects which are all created by the cast one way or another). Except for Coraline and Other Mother, the actors all play multiple characters in the story and each character is differentiated by a bit of Anita Yavich's costume here or a hat there (there's no elaborate cat make-up, for instance, as in Cats) and, mostly, vocalizations and physicalizations by the actors. (Greenspan himself plays Other Mother. His long, ratty, black wig and the eye covers that represent the "buttons" sewn in place of eyes make him look a lot like Ozzy Osbourne in drag!) Realism isn't the style at hand here by any stretch--it requires the imagination of both the company and the spectators to make it all work. (This is part of why I question the appeal of this show for little kids: the clues are minimal and subtle to differentiate one character from another much of the time. Yet the story is pitched at their level.) Theatrically, it's all very intriguing--in a way, more like real story theater than Shipwrecked! was. I can't fault the work of the cast at all--that mixed bunch did yeomen's work. My complaint for director Silverman would be that she does a fine job with what was there, but never develops some variations (or encourages Greenspan and Merritt to add some) in the stage work, music, storytelling techniques, and so on, which become repetitive and predictable after a few encounters. I've done a few story-theater shows in my day, mostly children's fare, and the trick was to find the right--or a right--storytelling style for each tale. It wasn't just a matter of variety for its own sake, of course, but that every story has its own dynamic. The episodes of Coraline's explorations (that's what she called them) are like separate stories in a way, and each one should have at least a slightly different style. Even on the two sides of the magic door, in the different realities, the performance style is the same.

The one major gimmick in this production is the casting of Coraline. As I said, she's a 9- or 10-year-old girl; in the film, the voice was supplied by a real child, Dakota Fanning (if a child actor with her list of credits can ever be called a "real child"), who was 10 when the movie was produced (she's 14 now). In MCC's musical Coraline, the title role is played by Jayne Houdyshell, a 50-ish, stout, plain actress (of decidedly prodigious talent and energy). Now, this casting choice doesn't in any way add to the problems of the show, but I just wonder what the point of doing that is. Unless, of course, the intended audience is other middle-agers like me. (Yes, I know, they used adults as children in the very popular and successful 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee--but that wasn't a children's play. It was a play about children for adults. It ain't the same thing. Unless . . . .) Now, Houdyshell, who literally burst onto the theater scene only a couple of years ago, is quite wonderful, all other considerations aside. She does a more than credible 10-year-old without pretensions or apologies or winks, and it sure gave me something to watch. But why do it that way, except as a gimmick? (I sort of have the same question about casting Phylicia Rashad as Violet Weston in August: Osage County. It's event casting, I guess. There are other ways you could go, but this choice makes people take note.)

Another question I had, though of little final significance, I suppose, is why the show is performed in British accents. Yes, I understand that Gaiman is originally British, though he now lives in Minnesota or someplace, but there's no mention of place in the play (I don't know about the book) and there are no cultural elements that dictate that this must be a British locale. (Given the cast of the animated film, I'm guessing they didn't perform in accents.) No one does the accent badly or inconsistently, even in the songs, but I just question whether it's a necessary imposition on the cast. I couldn't see a reason for it. (The American actors in Mary Stuart all adopt British accents, but that was an existing production in which the two leads are British--and most of the major characters are Brits--except, of course, for Mary, who's Scottish raised in France. On the other hand, if Coraline uses British accents because the author is British, then the Mary Stuart cast ought to be performing in German accents! Go know!)

When the show was over, Diana, my companion, turned to me and asked if I knew Greenspan's work. I said, "Yes, and so do you." We had seen his adaptation of The Frogs last season at CSC--and we both thoroughly disliked it. She remarked, "Remind me the next time we come across one of his plays not to consider it." At the same time, the man sitting behind me, as he was putting on his jacket to leave, said, "It was enchanting." I believe most of the reviews were good to excellent, even enthusiastic. (I understand the New Yorker had reservations, but I haven't seen the notice myself.) I feel like I had witnessed a lot of creative energy pressed into service on material that wasn't worth the effort in the end. Greenspan and Merritt seem to have grabbed onto something that was a wonderful idea in their heads and worked at it, thinking, Ah, I know just how to do this bit, or something like that, but they lost sight along the way of the fact that the material wasn't being served by their creativity. Obviously I don't know how any of this came about, but that's what it felt like I had been sitting through.

22 June 2009

'Mary Stuart'

My friend Helen, who lives in Tel Aviv, and I went up to the Broadhurst Theatre on the evening of Wednesday, 17 June, to catch Mary Stuart, the new translation of the 1800 Schiller classic produced in 2005 at the Donmar Warehouse and in the West End in London (to great acclaim, I must add--which, of course, it why it came here in the first place). I can easily see why it got all that attention and praise, too. The translation, by Peter Oswald, a playwright of some accomplishment in his own right, is excellent: eminently actable, contemporary without being anachronistic, forceful, clear. It isn't verse, however, which I assume was a deliberate choice of either Oswald's or the Donmar leadership’s. (The program doesn't say that the script was commissioned, but I assume it was.) Schiller, of course, is the German Shakespeare in a sense, but Oswald's prose is elegant and worthy of the historic figures Schiller portrays in his play even though it lacks the flight of poetry.

I'll assume that all of you know the basic plot of Mary Stuart, so I'll dispense with a summary except to remind you all that it centers on a meeting of the two cousins, both queens who each has a claim to the English throne that is supported by many and powerful people. Mary, famously, is Catholic and would return the county to that faith; Elizabeth is Protestant and intends to preserve England in the faith founded by her father, Henry VIII. Mary is under house arrest in Fotheringhay Castle where she has been stripped of all her royal prerogatives and accouterments. I will let you all look up the history that put Mary in Elizabeth's hands this way, but I will note that the charges were treason stemming from several attempts on Elizabeth's life for which Mary was held responsible. The year is 1587, the last year of Mary's life. (For the record, though I'm sure you all already know this, Mary and Elizabeth never actually met; Schiller invented the meeting for dramatic purposes--highly dramatic, I might add.)

There are lots of juicy parts in Mary Stuart, and the largely American supporting cast handles them very well. From Maria Tucci, who plays Hanna Kennedy, Mary's sole waiting woman (and the only other female character on stage aside from the two queens), to the courtiers, nobles, and royal retainers in Elizabeth's court, every actor carves out a character that is not only appropriate to the role but consistent, strong, and credible in the circumstances. I couldn't detect any dialect problems (the cast all matched the British accents of the two leads), for which feat credit must be accorded dialect coaches Kate Wilson and Erika Bailey as well as director Phyllida Lloyd (whose best-known previous achievements were the stage and film versions of Mamma Mia!--not what you'd call adequate prep for this task). As theater people all know, casting is half the battle when it comes to eliciting good performances from an ensemble, and that's even more the case when the show is a real challenge, whether classical or contemporary, and the featured players are all stage (and Broadway) vets of some accomplishment and rep. (The company includes, among others, Michael Countryman, the actor I saw in a recent production of Donald Margulies's Shipwrecked! who is a long-time favorite of mine. He didn't disappoint me.)

Of course, as everyone who's seen a newspaper that covers theater must know, the draw here isn't Schiller or the play or even the characters, but the performances of two top (British) actresses in the lead roles, the rival queens of 16th-century Britain. The cool, steady, almost bloodless Harriet Walter is Elizabeth I; opposite her (in more ways than one) is a passionate, tempestuous, emotional Janet McTeer as Mary, Queen of Scots. Possibly not since Glenda Jackson and Vanessa Redgrave faced each other on screen in the same roles (but a different vehicle) have two so-perfectly matched actors been so perfectly cast. (Of course, since the two never met in history, only in Schiller's play does this extraordinary dramatic pairing come to fruition. It's the only vehicle--not counting the opera Maria Stuarda which Donizetti adapted from Schiller's play--in which the Stuart and Tudor queens have a scene together. That sort of makes Mary Stuart a set up for a 19th-century cat fight!)

In a way, you could look on Mary Stuart as a kind of theatrical/dramatic/verbal boxing match. Or maybe, better, a fight movie. All the other characters are the promoters, touts, sidemen, trainers, managers, and so on. They orbit the two fighters doing whatever it is they have to to set the fight up and get the boxers ready to mix it up in the ring. The boxers shadowbox, punch the bag, jump rope, do road work, and go through all the prep a Rocky Graziano goes through in Somebody Up There Likes Me, maybe. (Feel free to fill in your own fight flick--they all work.) Then the two fighters meet in the ring, and the movie comes to a huge climax, usually after a blow-by-blow depiction of a cosmic bout. Well, that's what Schiller did--without the blood, sweat, or tears. (Well, okay, there are tears--but the blood comes later and off stage.) Elizabeth/Walter meets Mary/McTeer in the courtyard of Fotheringhay in a driving rain (courtesy of set designer Anthony Ward and the water effects creators at Showman Fabrications and Water Sculptures). And a grand battle it is, too. Elizabeth is cool, almost cold-blooded, steely, controlled--only she is untouched by the pouring rain--and Mary is hot-tempered, mercurial, pleading, demanding--and soaking wet, like a drenched cat, because she reveled in the rain when it started to fall before Elizabeth’s arrived. And like all dramatic contests between two matched fighters, the bout ends in a sort of draw: Mary explodes at Elizabeth, destroying any chance she has for eliciting mercy and freedom; but Elizabeth is cowed by Mary's powerful spirit and knows that she has been bested before her courtiers. (In essence, it is because Elizabeth, the female king who rules over men, has been so humiliated before the male subordinates of her court that she ultimately realizes she must sign Mary's death warrant. There is a strong element of the battle of the sexes inherent in Schiller's play, especially in Oswald's translation. I'll get to that bit later.)

It is in this scene, the dramatic raison d'être for Schiller's play, that the reason we need actors like McTeer and Walter becomes obvious. The reason we have to put them on stage in roles like Elizabeth and Mary every now and then (as often as we can, really) and show them off to the world. It shows us what it's supposed to look (and sound) like when it's done right. (I used to keep a little mental list of the greatest individual performances I'd seen. James Earle Jones's Jack Jefferson in Great White Hope is on the list, and Alec McCowan as Frederick William Rolfe in Hadrian VII, and Virginia Capers as Lena Younger in Raisin, among a few others. This pair would probably have made the list.) As far as an evening in the theater, this scene is worth the whole ticket price, no question. (Dramatically, it is the embodiment of the whole play: it not only displays the competing central characters at their clearest, most unguarded, but it lays out the theme of the drama and is the climax of the production. Just like the main bout in that boxing movie--except with words).

Damn. That was something to behold.

Now, let me sneak in a word or two about some of the tech. The set, designed, as I noted, by Anthony Ward, is about as spare as I've ever seen in a classic play. (I saw a Hamlet at the old ATL, when it was housed in a former railroad station, that was performed on construction scaffolding. That comes pretty close, I think, but it's still more elaborate than this Mary Stuart. It was, though, lit by house lights and flashlights--but that was an accident!) The walls of the set, which encompassed both Elizabeth's court and Fotheringhay Castle, are rough, black-painted brick. I think it's literally the back wall of the stage and whatever bare structural elements holds up the theater's ceiling in the wings. The proscenium arch is also black brick, and I presume that's artificial to coordinate with the "natural" back wall. Along that back wall is a dark-stained, simple wooden bench, attached to the wall itself (that is, no legs--like a ledge). Otherwise there are only occasional tables or chairs brought on and off. The image I got from this rough, plain, black playing area is that both Mary's confinement and Elizabeth's royal court are prisons. Even when Elizabeth wins the mortal combat (am I spoiling the play by saying that?), she's still a prisoner herself. Mary, in a sense, has been released from her confinement--to meet her God. (One plot element is that Elizabeth, the unforgiving Protestant monarch, denies Mary a Catholic priest to hear her confession and tend to her spiritual last needs. One of Mary's supporters, however, has had himself secretly ordained so he can give her the sacraments of her faith, and she is prepared to meet her death with a peaceful soul.)

The costumes, which were reportedly designed with budgetary considerations in mind, have a metaphorical aspect nonetheless. (I know how that works! You understand that there's no way in budgetary hell you can do what you really want to do, so you look around and find what you can manage, then devise an artistic explanation for what was originally an economic necessity. Sometimes it works great. I once directed a school production of The Skin of Our Teeth for which all the costumes had to be pulled from stock. Henry appears in act three after returning form the war, and I knew we couldn't put together a complete uniform that was all from the same period. So we pulled a jacket from one war, pants from another, a helmet from a third--and voilà: our Henry had been a soldier not in a war, but all wars. It was perfect. As a TD I knew in college used to like to say, "Necessity is a mother . . . .") What Ward (who did the costumers, too) did in Mary Stuart was dress all the men in 21st-century suits (all black, natch), and only the women wore period dresses. It took me a while to figure out what that could mean (aside, of course, from a low budget), but it has to do with Elizabeth I having been the first female monarch to rule England in her own name. (Historically, there was a brief reign of Queen Maud in the 12th century, but I doubt anyone in 16th-century England would have remembered her, or recognized her precedent.) Men were meant to be ruled by men; Elizabeth, called a female king several times in the play, was an aberration and she needed to keep reminding her courtiers that she was their monarch, their ruler . . . their superior. The oversized skirts of the Elizabethan gowns in contrast to the simpler silhouette of the 21st-century modern man's suit highlight the fact that the ones doing the bowing are wearing pants while the one being bowed to is wearing a dress. (As I said to Helen when she asked what I thought of this costuming choice, I'd probably have put Hanna Kennedy in modern dress, too, along with the men and leave only the two queens in billowing gowns. It's not a big point, though.)

One additional costume note: though almost all the costumes are basically black--the men's suits are nearly all black; there's some gold patterns or trim in Elizabeth's gown--when Mary removes her rude cloak to meet her executioner at the end of the play, she is revealed to be wearing a wine-red silk dress--the only real color in the whole play. (I understand that this is a historical fact and that red is the color of martyrs in Mary's Catholic iconography. But I don't respond to any of that, since I'm not up on all the minutiae of English history and I'm not Catholic. What I do respond to is theatricality, and a major female character in a play who wears the only color on the set definitely hits me upside the head. Red is also the color of passion!)

Now, the problem. I spent all the report of Mary Stuart on the meeting scene for one reason. It's the only truly theatrical moment in the play. The rest of the play is all talk. The words are terrific, and the actors speak them wonderfully--I can't fault either Oswald or the cast or Lloyd. It's Schiller. Mary Stuart is a 19th-century play (because it came out in 1800, one toke over the line), and it has clear elements of the rising 19th-century Romanticism that would dominate the first two-thirds of the century (until Realism and Naturalism came along in the 1870s), but it's also a throw-back to the 18th century and Neoclassicism. Violent action, any action, really, takes place off stage. After the dramatic meeting between Mary and Elizabeth, Elizabeth is attacked in an assassination attempt on the road back to London. The attack is thwarted and the assailant is captured due to the bravery of the elderly Earl of Shrewsbury . . . but we never get to see any of this derring-do! In Shakespeare, there'd be a choreographed fight (which a director would make more or less of, depending on her proclivities), but Lloyd has no choice here, as Schiller only sends back a messenger to describe what happened. The entire first act of the production is laying the groundwork for the fatal meeting as the two sides manipulate and scheme. But that's all words, words, words. The Declaration of Independence is a magnificent, stirring document, but it isn't theatrical. So, as much as I might hate to say this, as good as the elements of the production of Mary Stuart are--the acting, directing, set design, translation--it ended up being mostly enervating, except for one electrifying moment. Is that fair? I dunno, but it's true. For me, anyway. (I will acknowledge that Helen didn't feel this way. She thought the performance was as great as all the reviews said it was. The audience gave the company a standing ovation at the curtain call--but, then, audiences today stand for every performance so I don't consider that a valid indicator.)

13 June 2009

Mushroom House

I have to tell you about a local oddity my mother showed me one time when I was in D.C. a while back. It's really just a private house in Bethesda (the neighborhood known as Glen Echo, to be precise--where there used to be an amusement park by that name when I was a little kid), off of Western Avenue at 4940 Allan Road. According to some of the sites I hit on the ‘Net, the house was built either in the '20s or the '50s, like most of the houses in its neighborhood (the exact date is variously reported)--but the current owners, Eddie and Frances Garfinkle, who bought it in 1967, turned it into what is variously dubbed the Mushroom House or the Hobbit House (or by some, a Smurf home)--because that's exactly what it looks like!

Back in the ‘70s, many families insulated their houses against the energy crisis. Most injected the insulation into the vacant space between the outer and inner walls. Not Eddie and Fran Garfinkle. They hired Futurist architect Roy Mason to put the insulation on the outside of the farmhouse and mold it “into a swooping pattern” that completely reshaped the house’s silhouette. Mason redesigned the house inside and out in the mid-'70s and, using environmentally-friendly polyurethane foam, he sculpted a Tolkienesque structure with oval windows sunk into thick gray walls. The whole house, roof and sides, is covered in the polystucco, as the material is called. No other material is visible on the outer structure. The chimney is molded into the building and so are the windows and doors, which are also the only rectangular shapes on the structure’s façade. In fact, there are reportedly no straight lines inside or outside the building (though there are few published photos of the interior to confirm this). The renovation took three years, starting with the interior and then moving on to the exterior. The idea, Eddie says, was to build the house of their (admittedly idiosyncratic) dreams, and to keep costs low. With respect to the latter criterion, however, history upset their plans: the oil crisis intervened and, because polyurethane is petroleum-based, the cost tripled almost immediately. Plans shrank.

The Garfinkles were thinking along the lines of “circus tent,” but they accept the “Mushroom House” sobriquet. "It's a magical space," Eddie said. "The main living area goes up to a peak of 30 feet. We've got an interior pond and a garden, a bridge. It's a fantasy world. The house is very earthy and free and natural." I doubt I can describe it adequately (or at all, really), so here's what it looks like (the flag wasn't out when I saw the house; I don't know when the photo was taken):


Now you see, I hope, why I went off topic to tell you about this place. It's a hoot (and kinda theatrical)--though I don't know if the neighbors all agree. Of course, it's been there like that for decades now, so they must either have decided to enjoy it or they gave up fighting. It seems to be mostly known in the D.C area--and it is known, at least “among long-time DC residents or high school kids smoking pot in their cars who happen to drive by it”--as the Mushroom House, but if you're a LotR fan, you know immediately, despite the lack of round doors, that it's a Hobbit House!

Fran and Eddie Garfinkle administer and teach the outreach program of the Dennis and Phillip Ratner Museum in Bethesda. (The Ratner is devoted to fostering love of the Old Testament through the graphic arts.) Eddie is a sculptor and Fran is an interior designer, and they owned a contemporary-art gallery and were caught up in the avant-garde scene of the 1960s and ‘70s, so the aesthetics of the new house may have derived from the combined creative minds of the couple and architect Mason. “We were looking for something . . . out of the ordinary,” said Eddie. “We didn’t want to live in a traditional box.” The couple also blame the times and their youth to a degree: “You do a lot of things in your youth that you don’t do later on. . . . It was the ‘70s. Believe it or not, it was never an issue in our minds that this was out of place in the neighborhood.” Neither Fran nor Eddie mentioned anything about intoxicants or drugs--though maybe that explains some of the, ummm, “youthful abandon” of the era they experienced in the moment. (I cast no aspersions. I’m just sayin’ . . . .)

The Garfinkles are reportedly reluctant to answer questions about their house. “We had no idea we’d stick out like a sore thumb then,” said Eddie in Washingtonian magazine--though that strikes me as somewhat disingenuous. How could they not see, even in the 1970s when the work was done, that their house would contrast dramatically with the little colonials and ranches on the rest of the block? Small children whose parents drive them by the Mushroom House, just as my mother did with me, bombard their folks for weeks with questions like, “Who lives there?” “What goes on inside?” “When can we go again?” and “Why can't we live there?” Some of the neighbors apparently hate it, but others have said, for example, “I . . . live across from this house. I like it. It accurately reflects the world view of its artist owners, who are also warm and generous neighbors.” Eddie Garfinkle says appreciation is a matter of proximity: the closer the neighbor lives to 4940, the less she likes the house. One neighbor conceded, however, that he hadn’t liked the house at first but does now. Eddie Garfinkle explains: “It’s a mushroom that grows on you.” The Garfinkles assert that they decided to remake their house for practical reasons--they say it costs much less to heat and cool it than the smaller houses of their neighbors cost their owners. “It’s like living in a thermos bottle,” Eddie has said. But that hardly accounts for the aesthetics they selected, does it?

Architect Mason--apt name, I think, for his profession--is a bit of a mystery himself. The year of his birth is uncertain (ca. 1938), somewhat odd for a contemporary American figure, and he was murdered on 19 May 1996 for reasons I haven't learned. He was also a lecturer and writer, and he designed futuristic and environmentally-friendly housing and other structures in the 1970s-80s, using inexpensive alternative materials and alternative-energy sources. He was a founder of the World Future Society and served as architecture editor of Futurist Magazine. Among his other projects was one called the Xanadu Houses (1979-1983; with Bob Masters), which featured computer-automated homes, a concept he promoted. (Mason helped introduce the idea of the "smart house" that adjusts to the needs of the residents.) Three of these experimental "homes of the future," which became tourist attractions until they were demolished in the 1990s, were built in Kissimmee, Florida; Wisconsin Dells, Wisconsin; and Gatlinburg, Tennessee. (Another emblematic design was the "Star Castle" in New Fairfield, Connecticut.)

03 June 2009

Remembering Brooks McNamara (1937-2009)

Brooks McNamara, a theater historian and a professor in the Department of Performance Studies at NYU, died on 8 May (though I didn’t learn about his death until his obituary appeared in the New York Times on 26 May). Brooks was one of my teachers at NYU back in the mid-‘80s when I was working on a Ph.D.; he was my academic adviser and one of the two principal reasons I chose NYU for graduate work over Columbia. The other reason was Richard Schechner. He and Brooks had been schoolmates of my undergrad theater teacher and director, Lee Kahn, and it was that connection that swayed my decision (along with the curriculum, which was more to my liking than Columbia’s). Because I liked and admired Lee so much 20 years earlier, and these men had been his friends, I felt good coming to them when I decided to return to school after a hiatus of six years. (I had completed an MFA in 1977.)

Brooks, who was only 72 at his death, was also one of my three strongest influences at NYU. I took more from him, Richard, and Michael Kirby than from any other teacher there, though there were many from whom I learned important things. Those three men pretty much invented the discipline, indeed the very concept, of “performance studies,” but Brooks, Richard, and Michael showed me ways of thinking, writing, analyzing, and teaching that I have used in almost every endeavor since I met them. In one way or another, whenever I start out on a project of almost any kind--an essay, a class, a performance, a review, whatever--I think, often quite consciously, What would one of them do. I owe each of these men some things very specific--Michael was the first person who ever told me that I could write and published my first piece of writing (in TDR, which Michael then edited for the department); Richard encouraged me to get my first essay published outside of the performance studies department; Brooks taught me a “note-taking” process and research method that changed everything I had been doing--but what they all left me with was a more sophisticated, far-reaching way of understanding things I saw, read, or heard, to see implications and ramifications that I’d never have noticed or considered or comprehended before I met them. It’s not that I didn’t learn important things from other members of the faculty, such as Kate Davy, Marcia Siegel, and Barbara Kirschenblatt-Gimblett--I did, but the only other teachers from whom I learned such profound things were acting teachers, back when I was training for what I hoped was going to be a brilliant career on the stages of America. Though I still draw on what I learned in practical acting classes, that didn’t work out as I planned; on an intellectual or academic level, however, Brooks, Richard, and Michael showed me things I can’t imagine having found out any other way.

After discovering those three men pretty much by accident--I knew Brooks’s and Richard’s names, but I didn’t know what they taught in a classroom--I never let a semester go by without taking a class from at least one of them, and I often audited one as well. (I was a preceptor in the Washington Square College Expository Writing Program, so I got tuition remission from the university. I could afford to audit at least one course a term. Besides, Performance Studies permitted “unofficial” audits as well--no fee, but no talking in class--if the professor agreed. I always found a way to squeeze one in. Sometimes I managed to negotiate special deals: Michael’s classes always included lots of slides, so I agreed to work the projector for him if he’d let me ask questions in class.) I wasn’t a kid by this time--I started at NYU the year I turned 37--but I was in awe of the new things I was finding out, not just about the subjects, but the way these guys approached ideas and even sets of facts.

I also found a fascinating way of teaching--well, learning first, then teaching. One of Richard’s courses I audited was on deconstruction. It was a new class for Richard, so he didn’t know how he was going to approach the subject. Since we were all grad students, either MA or Ph.D. candidates, he decided that we’d all teach each other and explore the topic together as equals, scholars. He broke the subject into topics so that each registered student had one as her or his research focus and each would prepare the class for that topic--reading assignments, hand-outs, visual aids, all of it--and be the expert for the rest of us. The students who had the first two or three topics had a tough assignment, of course, but the idea of turning the course into a sort of research seminar was wonderful. Obviously, some students were better scholars and teachers than others, but no one lacked for rigor or discipline, and many had really innovative ways of communicating a subject that was, well, slippery to start with. (Oh, that Jacques Derrida! Zut, alors!!)

Brooks did something similar in a class on Documentary Performance. I was an official (that is, registered) auditor on this one, so I was partnered with another student for the class on the documentary play (a topic I have continued to keep up on). As with Richard’s deconstruction course, each student’s topic was also the subject of his or her final paper. (Writing was, and I presume still is, a major emphasis in the performance studies department. It is not insignificant, I think, that all three of my mentors at NYU were not only often-published authors, but editors of TDR at one time or another.) The Documentary Performance course was intended to be illustrated, so all the students prepared not only their lecture--and the question-and-answer session that followed--but the projections as well. The fact that I still remember these classes this way is proof, I think, of just how exciting they were for me.

I can’t really say I became friends with any of these men, though I liked them all in different ways. (I’m not so sure they all liked one another, at least not all the time.) Richard and Michael were idiosyncratic men, difficult to get close to, I imagine. I can’t gauge how Richard regarded me, but I think that Michael, who died in 1997, respected me as a scholar and writer. He called me, shortly after I started at NYU, and asked me to write my course paper in his class for TDR, which I hadn’t intended to try to do. (He was preparing a Group Theatre issue and if any student wrote a term paper on a Group Theatre topic, it could be submitted for consideration for publication. The prospect daunted me too much in my first semester there, so I had dismissed the idea.) I asked him why he would ask me that, and he said, bluntly, “I think you can write.” No one ever said that to me before; it had never entered my head. Some time later, Michael asked me to participate in a reading of a play he’d written because he knew I had been an actor and could speak German. He ended up being my dissertation adviser before his death.

Brooks, by contrast, was a nice man. I don’t know another way to say that, and I don’t mean it to sound like faint praise. He was a genuinely nice man. I had jury duty once many years ago now, after I left NYU, and while I was sitting around in the jury waiting room, I spotted Brooks there, too. He was in a group that had been called a week or so before mine, so he was nearing the end of his two-week obligation, and we only had a few days overlapping. But we had lunch in Chinatown for the couple of days we were downtown together. I don’t remember talking about anything important--we just chatted and passed the time. Two (middle-aged) guys, just shootin’ the shit.

Brooks’s specialty was American popular entertainment (such as vaudeville, minstrel shows, burlesque, medicine shows, and so on). It was a subject most theater scholars ignored as pedestrian, but which Brooks saw as fundamental and elemental. While I was taking courses at NYU, he had expressed an interest in interviewing my dad for an oral-history record of the productions and performances at the Howard Theater in D.C. Dad had been VP of District Theaters Corporation, starting right after WWII until he joined the Foreign Service in the '60s and went overseas. District Theaters owned theaters in the "inner city" (it wasn't called that back then, of course) and they still put on a stage show before the movie, especially at the Howard and the Lincoln. The theaters were part of the so-called Chitlin' Circuit, the black vaudeville circuit, which featured such performers as “Moms” Mabley, “Pigmeat” Markham, Sammy Davis, Redd Foxx, and others who later became famous on TV and mainstream clubs and movies. (Pigmeat Markham got a second wind in the mid-‘60s when Sammy Davis started doing some of his bits--like “Here come da judge, here come da judge!”--on Laugh-In. All of a sudden, he was in demand again on college campuses and TV variety shows!) Hometown artist Duke Ellington appeared at the Howard and Pearl Bailey made her début there. Brooks wanted to get on record whatever Dad remembered about those days--the Chitlin' Circuit was already gone and most of the performers were dead or dying. It never happened. We--I--didn't follow up fast enough, and Dad developed Alzheimer's a few years later and most of his memories were lost to the dementia. I have always regretted not moving on that.

The New York Times obit focused on Brooks’s work on the Shubert Archive, which opened the last year I was at NYU so I saw some of the huge (and fascinating) endeavor that was, but he was a much more interesting man than that. The Rockefeller Foundation brought him down to the Colonial Williamsburg excavations way back in their early days to help interpret the remains of the town theater when they uncovered them. They were planning to reconstruct the theater, and since Brooks was also an authority on early American theater architecture as well as popular entertainment, he was the go-to guy. After examining the foundation, he helped determine that the building had been little more than a shack--of no interest architecturally or visually--so, based on Brooks’s analysis, the foundation decided not to spend the money to rebuild it.

Brooks and I didn’t completely lose touch with one another after I left NYU two decades ago, but our contact was pretty much relegated to holiday cards with little notes in them each year. But there’s not a week when I don’t think of something he taught me or look at something and think how he’d examine it. He, Richard, and Michael, I guess, will be part of my intellectual life until I don’t have one anymore.

02 June 2009

Romeo Coates, Part 3

Coates’s next recorded theater appearance was not so calm, however. The Amateur wasn’t even performing on this occasion, a presentation of Enrico IV at the Opera House on 1 June. (I’m not sure what this performance was; it may have been the opera based on Shakespeare’s Henry IV or the comic opera La caccia d’Enrico IV by Giacomo Rust. The only thing of which I’m sure is that it wasn’t Pirandello!) Angelica Catalani, the prima donna who was to play the lead role, refused to appear (because, according to some reports, the manager hadn’t paid her). The management decided to proceed with the production with no one taking Catalani’s part, but the audience, having learned this, began murmuring in indignation. The disturbance snowballed until parts of the set actually began toppling onto the stage and spectators began leaving their seats to search for the manager. The fugitive spectators, too many to be contained backstage, spilled onto the set and the actors, fearing for their safety, fled. The confusion and fervor escalated into a full-fledged riot. Finally, after several speakers had tried in vain to restore order, at nearly midnight, a member of the audience who had retained his seat rose at the behest of others in the house: Romeo Coates. The crowd quieted, and the would-be peacemaker spoke: "Ladies and gentlemen,--It is a great misfortune, we must allow, to be deprived of the talents of Madame Catalani, but it is of no use for us to go a-rioting." Unfortunately, the crowd occupying the stage felt they were taking the right action and forced Coates off the stage. The rioters rejoined their friends in the house, and the curtain fell at just after midnight. Coates made another few remarks from the pit, saying that he had “hoped some treaty would be entered into about [Madame Catalani]; and . . . that it would be of no use for us to go a rioting . . . ; as I had seen the bad consequences of that, in my acquaintance with the public theatres . . . .” No one else coming forward to speak, the crowd dispersed.

Between stage appearances, Coates, a devotee of dances, parties, and festivities of all kinds--particularly ones where he could show off his finery and, especially, his diamonds--traveled to Brighton around October, the end of the season there, to attend a ball. He had ordered a set of diamond coat buttons from a prominent jeweler and he had them put on a new dress coat for the occasion. He arrived, doubtlessly with his customary pomp and flash, and everyone’s attention was on him as soon as he entered the ballroom. Then the dancing began, and Coates suddenly realized that with his focus on displaying himself, he’d forgotten to find a dancing partner. All the women’s dance cards were full and Coates was faced with the prospect of not only standing alone at a dance without participating, but of missing the chance to sparkle and glisten as he and his diamonds spun around the floor--an effect to which he was especially partial because it enhanced the impact of his jewels. Then an attractive young woman arrived late, and Coates grabbed the opportunity and asked her to be his partner. At first she refused, but Coates waited a suitable interval and asked again, and this time the woman accepted. The commotion that accompanied their entrance onto the dance floor led the lady to see that she had apparently lucked onto the evening’s prize. Pleading that her plain dress was no suitable match for his splendid attire, she begged her partner to let her withdraw. Coates begged her to finish the dance, but the lady demurred, and the dancers were about to separate when Coates made one more plea. She would consent to remain his partner, the young lady replied, if Coates would give her one of his brilliant coat buttons to wear in her hair. Coates hesitated, but he felt trapped in the moment and took out a penknife, snipped off a diamond button, and fixed it in his partner’s hair. The act earned him great accolades from the partiers, but Coates was afraid that now all the other ladies present would desire his diamonds for hair ornaments and he would return to London bereft of his valuable adornments.

On 1 December, Coates appeared again at the Lyceum in a new role and play for him in Britain: Belcour in The West Indian by Richard Cumberland. As usual, it was a benefit performance, this time for Mrs. Bury, the wife of a junior army officer serving in Spain. I don’t have any report on how the performance went, but the real focus of this appearance is what happened before the play began. Just after the curtain rose, a young man stood up in the gallery and called for everyone’s attention. I don’t know if he identified himself by name at that time, but he said he was an admirer of Coates’s and that he was presenting this information so that Coates could respond. In truth, the speaker was a newspaper editor, Gibbons Merle, who 27 years later would publish his own version of the event in Fraser’s Magazine. Merle had, in fact, been a follower of Coates and had even visited the amateur actor at his home. Merle had seen Coates frequently for several months, then not for over a year, during which time Merle lived abroad. He was back in London now, and called on an acquaintance at the Morning Post whom Merle asked to get him a pass for the theater. The Morning Post friend suggested he get over to the Lyceum: “Coates is to perform and it is high time that he should be exposed. From my situation, I cannot do this act of public justice; but you are little known in London, and can interfere without any unpleasant feelings to yourself.”

This all begins to sound like a set-up, but Merle seems to have taken his friend at face value. The Morning Postman told Merle “that although Coates might not be receiving any money directly for his performance on charitable occasions, a certain person who had influence over him was disposing of his services for money; and stated that the widow of an officer for whom he had performed had been compelled to give a bill for £20, which she had paid, and which was then in [the journalist’s] possession.” If Merle would go to the theater and confront Coates, the newspaperman would be there with the evidence. Merle was persuaded to do the deed--he says it was out of concern for Coates’s reputation and to give him the chance to answer the charge--and he appeared at the theater a half an hour before the curtain went up. "Ladies and gentlemen,” declared Merle, “the charge against Mr. Coates is that he does not act upon a principle of philanthropy, but directly or indirectly gives his services for remuneration." The crowded theater was stunned and the audience raised some objections but eventually quieted and Merle recounted the story of Mrs. Bury’s appeal for help:

About the latter end of April, a lady, the wife of a subaltern in his Majesty's service on duty abroad, who was in much straitened circumstances in spite of every effort she could make to improve her position by giving music lessons, thought she would try and raise some funds by a theatrical entertainment. Having heard of Mr. Coates' generosity in these matters, she applied to him, through the medium of Mrs. Lyall, that gentleman's landlady. Your surprise will be as great as mine was, ladies and gentlemen, on learning that this aid was persistently refused, through the same medium as it was asked, until the bénéficiaire agreed to give Mrs. Lyall £40 for the Amateur's services: £20 to be paid by bill before the performance took place, the other half was never called for. I have, ladies and gentlemen, professed myself Mr. Coates' friend. I have proved this by bringing this business forward, thus giving him an opportunity of proving to the public whether he is in deed and in truth a philanthropic 'Amateur of Fashion.’

The crowd hissed and shouted back, “Produce your proofs.” Merle looked around the theater for his friend from the Morning Post but couldn’t see him. Just as Merle feared he was going to be dragged from the theater and bounced on the pavement, the journalist showed up with the putative bill and handed it to Merle, who read the document aloud and showed it to several spectators. The audience called for Coates, who was so dumbstruck that he at first thought the incident was a gag performance, put up by some of his tormentors. He came down to the footlights and said to Merle: “I don’t know who you are. You have the dress of a gentleman; but I can tell you, sir, that it is in my power to give you a thousand pounds to leave the theatre.” (Merle assumed Coates had forgotten their past acquaintance “in his agitation.” He also said he asked Coates to donate half that amount to the theatrical charity, and he would leave the theater.) But when the audience shouted, “Answer the charge,” Coates understood that they were serious. He withdrew to the rear of the stage and quickly wrote a response, which he read to the audience:

I, Robert Coates, do upon my honour declare that I never did, directly or indirectly, receive money for acting, and that all the tickets that I have in the house are paid for.

This didn’t entirely satisfy the audience, given that the bill for the £20 had been shown around, and Coates invited anyone who still wanted more information to go see Mrs. Bury. Then he sat down while the house debated whether he should be allowed to perform. The spectators, having decided that they had paid to be entertained, wanted their money’s worth and so the show went on. Despite (or perhaps encouraged by) the presence of Coates’s fellow actors Charles Mathews and John Liston in the boxes, the audience raised a commotion each time Coates came on stage until the end of the play.

The next day, the Morning Post ran the story of the incident (which it had engineered) at the Lyceum and it was picked up by the other London newspapers. The managers of Covent Garden capitalized on the scandal by staging a parody of Coates and the challenge. The Amateur watched each performance from a box, and though he looked as if he enjoyed the caricature, he didn’t perform another play for three months (though he did deliver a recitation before that). In the meantime, Coates, very hurt by Merle’s charge, set out to find out what might have underlain the accusation the editor made on behalf of the Morning Post. (Merle, for his part, asserted in his 1840 memoir of the event, “that I had good reason to believe, only two days after the exposé which I had made, that Coates had been made the victim of the cupidity of the person at whose request he had performed for the officer’s widow; and that neither on that nor on any other occasion had he received one farthing for his services.”)

It turns out that that Martha Lyall, Coates’s landlady, had earlier come to the Amateur for financial help and that he’d been generous with her, staging one of the early performances at the Haymarket (billed as a benefit for an unnamed “widow”). When Mrs. Lyall saw how liberal Coates was with his assistance and how many others there were who came in search of his philanthropy, she conceived the idea of charging a fee to bring their pleas to her tenant. Coates, of course, never knew of Lyall’s con, and when Mrs. Bury first came to his residence, she found he wasn’t home and Lyall, as had become her habit, interceded. Bury told Lyall her wish for Coates’s help, and the usual procedure unfolded, Bury being none the wiser. The account of this routine and others like it made its way to the offices of the Morning Post and when Merle arrived, essentially innocent for having been living outside London but trusting his colleague, became the perfect vehicle for the exposé. (Whether Merle really tumbled to the truth on his own as soon as a couple of days later or only learned of it with everyone else the next year is a matter of conjecture.)

Having learned the truth, Coates confronted Lyall and demanded not only an apology, but a sworn affidavit acknowledging her guilt and affirming Coates’s innocence. He threatened to take legal action if she refused, and Lyall complied completely. The statement (published in full in Coates’s biography, The Life of Robert Coates) was sworn before the Lord Mayor of London, William Domville, at Mansion House, the “Gracie Mansion” of London, on 16 February 1814. It was published in several periodicals in the city and was sufficient to remove all doubt of Coates’s honesty and forthrightness with respect to his charitable performances. His friends, of course, never believed he was taking money, but the fact of the accusation couldn’t help but damage Coates’s reputation despite Lyall’s confession. Even later, some publications referred to the charge without ever mentioning the refutation. (Does this sound like any news organization we know and love in modern-day America? I’m just sayin’ . . . .) A rumor even circulated, an adjunct to the false corruption charge, that Coates had no fortune and lived off the incomes of his rich friends. No one could live as well as Coates did for as long as he did on a con. I mean, it’s not like they had computers and electronic funds transfers in those days: if you bought diamonds (especially in the quantities Coates did) and bespoke clothing--not to forget that fabulous curricle--you’d need a lot of very real cash. And the Bank of England, the Amateur’s bankers, would certainly know if he was a charlatan, don’t you think?

The false accusation, however, didn’t prevent further demands for Coates’s services, and he responded with the same generosity he had always displayed. He was just more careful about how he arranged his benefits--and for this reason stayed off the London stage for several months.

Coates’s next appearance on a London stage was the recitation mentioned above. On 28 February 1814, he had been solicited by a lady in need whom he had helped before to read “The Hobbies” at the Haymarket Theatre following a performance of The Tragedy of Tamerlane by Nicholas Rowe. Then on 7 March, the Amateur appeared once again as Lothario in The Fair Penitent at the Haymarket. Unfortunately for Coates and the company, the Amateur’s return to the London stage was marred by a large contingent of troublemakers who had come for the express purpose of disrupting the performance. Most of the play proceeded despite the noise, though the actor playing Horatio was so rattled by the disturbances that when he was supposed to say the line "Would I were a beggar and lived on scraps!" he substituted the words "Would I were a baker and lived on sprats!" bringing down the house in laughter. At Lothario’s death scene, however, the rowdies bombarded the character’s corpse as they had Paris’s dead body in an earlier performance, hoping to obtain the same reaction: the dead man would rise and quickly exit the stage. Coates, however, disappointed his tormentors this time and the final act of the play was performed against a horrendous din. Coates was so incensed that he left the theater at the end of the play, skipping his promised rendition of his favorite recitation, despite calls for his appearance from his supporters in the house. Reports say that spectators stayed in the theater for two hours waiting for the Amateur to return.

So distressed was Coates at this latest uproar that he determined that however beneficial his theatrical endeavors were in behalf of people in need of his help, it was no longer worth endangering himself and the other actors. He resolved to redirect his philanthropic efforts more toward cash endowments and less on performances, even though he still harbored a great love for acting. He continued to attend the theater, of course, but more often as a spectator than a participant. That March presentation of The Fair Penitent would be his last London performance. In the following months, however, the Amateur of Fashion fielded requests from theater managers from all over England. He mostly acquiesced to the invitations and there were probably scores of appearances in provincial theaters. Coates’s biographers mention a half dozen as probably typical of the performances he gave between his final London gig in March 1814 and December 1816.

In mid-September 1814, Coates went to Birmingham to perform The Fair Penitent. According to his biography, he was well received by the local audience and since his usual tormentors weren’t there to disrupt the show, it went off with no distractions, though Coates’s biographers note “the rendering of several passages in a different way from that adopted by professional actors.” I can only guess what that’s a euphemism for! Bell’s Weekly Messenger on 18 September, however, reported a somewhat different estimation: “[T]he audience there, much to their credit, refused to tolerate a counterfeit actor. He received merited disapprobation.” When Coates got to the death of Lothario, he received an ovation and calls of “Encore! Encore!” This prompted the manager to come on stage and have a word with the “dead” Lothario. The manager, thinking Coates had agreed to repeat the death scene, announced this to the audience and the curtain fell. When it rose again, the house expected to see the reprise of Lothario’s death, but were met with the final act. The spectators shouted and called again for “Encore,” and the manager came forward to apologize for having misunderstood Coates. The Amateur would gladly deliver a speech he never got the chance to give before the Prince Regent and the Czar of Russia, but he would not repeat the death scene. The audience being satisfied by the alternative, the play was allowed to conclude. After the final scene, the band played "See, the conquering hero comes" and Coates strode on stage in regimental dress. The house hushed, but no sooner had Coates uttered the first words of the speech than a wag in the audience shouted out, “Sing it!” and Coates, miffed, walked off stage not to return. Bell’s even reported that the Amateur displayed a look of contempt and said “[h]e would be d--d if he spoke any more!”

On 1 December, the Amateur of Fashion traveled to perform Romeo in the birthplace of the great poet itself, Stratford-on-Avon. The performance was well received, and Coates took advantage of being in the Bard’s hometown. Charles Mathews, who played there a few weeks later, wrote his wife of the events, couching them in a sarcastic and sneering tone:

After he had acted he was determined to have a procession all by himself, a minor pageant in imitation of the jubilee; and walked, dressed as Romeo, from the barn to the butcher's shop, where Shakspeare was born. Here he wrote his name on the walls, and in the book kept for that purpose, called himself "the illustrator of the poet;" complained of the house; said that it was not good enough for the divine bard to have been born in, and proposed to pull it down at his own expense, and build it up again, so as to appear more worthy of such a being! He went to the church; wrote his name on the monument; and being inspired, on the tablet, close to the pen in the right hand of the bard, wrote His name in ambient air still floats, / And is adored by Robert Coates.

The 1 December appearance having gone so well, the manager of the Startford theater requested a second presentation, and Coates did Lothario on 3 December in behalf of some charitable cause or other. He was also scheduled to recite “The Hobbies” following the play. The house sold out.

Having satisfied himself that he was still loved in the provinces, if not so well in London, Coates decided to take a break from his theatrical endeavors. He was not forgotten by those who petitioned for his help, but as he’d resolved earlier, he was more forthcoming with cash than performances to help those who came to him in need. 1815 was given over in England to celebrating the defeat of Napoleon, but the Celebrated Amateur of Fashion didn’t make many appearances on the stage during that year. He did return to Bath to do The West Indian on 3 and 15 February in the town where he started. At one performance, the great actor William Charles Macready was present, and his memoirs include this rather derogatory passage:

One of the very worst [amateurs], who owed his notoriety chiefly to his frequent exposure of himself in the character of Romeo, Lothario, Belcour, &c., was Coates, more generally known as “Romeo Coates.” . . . . He displayed himself, diamonds and all, this winter [1815] at Bath in the part of the West Indian, and it was currently believed on this occasion he was liberally paid by the theatre, which profited largely by his preposterous caricature. I was at the theatre on the morning of his rehearsal and introduced to him. At night the house was too crowded to afford me a place in front; and seeing me behind the scenes, he asked me, knowing I acted Belcour, to prompt him if he shouild be “out,” which he very much feared. The audience were in convulsions at his absurdities, and in the scene with Miss [Lady] Rusport, being really “out,” I gave him a line which Belcour has to speak, “I never looked so like a fool in all my life;” which, as he delivered it, was greeted with a roar of laughter. He was “out” again, I gave him again the same line, which again repeated, was acquiesced in with a louder roar. Being “out” again, I administered him the third time the same truth for him to utter, but he seemed alive to its application, rejoining in some dudgeon, “I have said that twice already.” His exhibition was a complete burlesque of the comedy, and a reflection on the character of a management that could profit by such discreditable expedients.

The only records I’ve found of performances in 1816 were also at Bath. Coates was apprently in Bath for other reasons when the manager of the Theatre Royal approached him to make a return appearance on the stage. On 14 December 1816, the Amateur of Fashion performed Belcour in the The West Indian again and the portrayal was so well received that Coates remained in Bath to play two performances as Lothario in The Fair Penitent to profit the manager if the latter would stage a third appearance for the benefit of a charitable society in town. On Monday, 21 December, the first performance of Coates’s second production in Bath was not so smoothly presented as The West Indian had been a week earlier: a spectator, who stated he bore Coates no animosity personally, expressed his dislike of the actor’s interpretation of the role. When the hissing got louder, Coates declared that he planned to appear in behalf of a local charity later, but if he couldn’t finish this night’s show without further disturbance, he would cancel his other appearances. The interruption ceased. The presentation of The Fair Penitent on Tuesday evening proceeded without interruption and on Wednesday, 23 December, the Amateur of Fasion returned to his most favorite role, Romeo, for his charitable performance. The play was well received by the audience, which included many who had seen Coates’s début performance in the same role seven years before. It was the last appearance of Robert Coates, the Celebrated Amateur of Fashion, on a public stage. He retired from public performing at the age of 44.

However charitable his motives--and there’s no indication that the Amateur himself ever made a penny from his theatrics--Coates’s idiosyncrasies must have made him exasperating to act opposite, and it confounds me that he could find actors to appear with him. I presume he paid them enormous sums, just as he bribed the managers, but still, it must have been excrutiating not only to be seen with Coates--it can’t have been good for an actor’s reputation--but to try to work in one of his productions. It was also dangerous, considering the upheavals that were inevitable whenever Coates appeared on stage. The Amateur may have performed out of a sense of benevolence, but he also had a “crazy” vanity. He was well-known all over Britain for his eccentric actions both on stage and off, and his acting, well-intended though it may have been, “was nothing better than burlesque,” according to one 19th-century report. Capt. Gronow characterized the performance he saw as “ludicrous” and Max Beerbohm called his acting “grotesque”; a contemporaneous critic called him a “counterfeit actor” and expressed approval of the audiences’ rejection of him. Eventually no actress would play Juliet opposite him and I suspect a lot of the men had second thoughts as well. Perhaps that accounts for his abrupt departure from the stage after just seven years.

Following the last performance at Bath in 1816, his notoriety eventually faded with the remainder of his inheritance. He continued to appear privately and give recitations when requested, but theater audiences were deprived of the pleasure of seeing the celebrated Amateur of Fashion. As an actor, Coates’s notoriety faded as the public’s attention shifted elsewhere. In addition to the ridicule and critical attacks he suffered for his love of acting, Coates also garnered a lot of admirers and supporters--some quite illustrious--who defended not only his character and motivation, but his talent and skill as well. Among the published accounts of Coates’s life on the stage, the periodical press was generally among those who heaped disapprobation on him. Memoirs by the actor Charles Mathews and Capt. Gronow both sneered at the Amateur’s acting as well as his habits and behavior in public. But others recorded a different man. Coates’s biographers, John R. and Hunter H. Robinson; Pryse Gordon; and Max Beerbohm all found reason to praise the Celebrated Amateur of Fashion--or at least to mitigate the criticism. Gordon had a stake in Coates’s reputation as he laid claim to “having been the means of first bringing out the celebrated Romeo Coates on the British stage.” He had initiated Coates’s agreement to appear on stage in Bath; arranged the introduction to William Wyatt Dimond, the manager of the theater in Bath; organized the attendance of society ladies at Coates’s début; and “contrived . . . to plant in the centre of the pit a score of abigails and butlers” who were essentially recruited to act as a claque. It’s not surprising to read that he stood up for Coates, considering how much of his own ego he invested in the Amateur’s success and reputation.

I don’t know what brief the Robinsons held for Coates, but they were generous with him in The Life of Robert Coates and frequently took Coates’s detractors to task for their criticism and insults. I couldn’t find anything out about the two Robinsons--I don’t even know if they were brothers or father and son, or what. They share a name with Coates’s wife, Emma Robinson, and I wondered if they were nephews, cousins, or even brothers of hers, but their names aren’t mentioned in connection with her history so if they are related, it’s pretty distant, I guess. They never cop to having seen the Amateur on stage, so I don’t assume their accounts of his performances are first-hand, so their judgment of his acting skills is not based on observation. Apparently, they just liked his story.

Beerbohm found himself intrigued with the dichotomy of the press reports of Coates’s performances and that of people like Gordon. He set out to discover why there was this disconnect, and he blamed it all on Coates’s first love in England. It’s a little far-fetched for me, but maybe the turn of the 19th century was a really different time. According to Beerbohm’s research, Coates met a young lady, Miss Emma Tylney Long, the heiress of a baronet, in 1811. Miss Long was something of a guy-magnet, and many young (and not-so-young) men in society pursued her. Robert Coates was among the men who fell in love with her. (One of Coates’s rivals was his friend the Baron de Géramb. Another was said to be the Duke of Clarence, the future King William IV.) In 1812, Miss Tylney Long married someone else (and was never reported to have encouraged Coates or any of the other suitors), but Beerbohm writes that the lady basically set Coates up to make a fool of himself out of revenge for a slight she claims he did her at a garden party. Beerbohm found this journal account of the event:

Mr. C**t*s, who will act Romeo (Wherefore art thou Romeo?) this coming week for the pleasure of his fashionable circle, incurred the contemptuous wrath of his Lady Fair at the Fête. It was a sad pity she entrusted him to hold her purse while she fed the gold-fishes. He was very proud of the honour till the gold fell from his hand among the gold-fishes. How appropriate was the misadventure! But Miss Black Eyes, angry at her loss and her swain's clumsiness, cried: “Jump into the pond, sir, and find my purse instanter!” Several wags encouraged her, and the ladies were of the opinion that her adorer should certainly dive for the treasure. “Alas,” the fellow said, “I cannot swim, Miss. But tell me how many guineas you carried and I will make them good to yourself.” There was a great deal of laughter at this encounter, and the haughty damsel turned on her heel, nor did she vouchsafe another word to her elderly lover.

In a letter Beerbohm found, sent by Tylney Long to Coates, the lady confesses that she had “compelled” the Amateur to adopt the performance style and costume he displayed on the night of his theatrical début in Bath, as pay-back for his behavior at the garden party. Beerbohm believed that because Coates had no sense of humor, he didn’t see what Tylney Long was doing, and after he made his début performance, he continued to keep to the same style on stage out of some sense of loyalty to the young lady. It all seems a little thin to me, even if Coates was too dense to see what the lady was up to. Besides, that outrageous, diamond-encrusted costume was his from Antigua--Tylney Long didn’t suggest that to him at all. And why in heaven’s name would Coates continue to perform in a style suggested by Tylney Long years after her marriage to someone else if all it brought him was ridicule and boos? No, I suspect Coates just liked the way he acted and had developed his own style, which was already on display at the York House in Bath before Pryse Gordon ever asked Coates to go on the stage, back in Antigua and wasn’t about to change for anyone, especially not a woman who threw him over.

In 1823, Coates met Emma Anne Robinson, the daughter of a naval officer, and married her on 6 September; they had two children, a son and a daughter, neither of whom, like Coates’s own siblings, lived to adulthood. As early as 1830, Coates’s fortunes began to turn somewhat: in May, his fabulous diamond-and-ruby-hilted sword, which he carried both on stage and at social occasions, was sold at auction. When slave revolts in Antigua and other West Indian islands in 1831 resulted in reduced fortunes for Coates, he moved to Boulogne-sur-Mer in northern France, where impoverished British nobility went to lick their financial wounds. (The slave trade was prohibited in the British Empire in 1808, but the institution was not abolished until 1834. Rebellions occurred in the West Indies sporadically, including in the 19th century starting in the 1810s.) The Manchester Guardian ran a report on the English ex-pat’s lifestyle while he and his wife were still living abroad; it included this passage:

He is greatly respected by the inhabitants, both French and English, and acts with great liberality and courtesy to all, and to his poor countrymen he is a kind benefactor. In many respects, so great is the influence of Romeo Coates at Boulogne, that he sets the fashion there. . . . The dress of Romeo Coates is still very peculiar. On Saturday morning he was walking on the pier at Boulogne, which he frequently does for hours, dressed in a blue velvet frock coat, yellow pantaloons and Hessian boots. . . . They evidently do all they can to attract notice at Boulogne.

So respected were the Coateses in their temporary home, where he lived in relative comfort in the best suite at the Hotel du Nord, that when King Louis Philippe paid Boulogne a visit on 21 August 1840, Coates offered his rooms for the use of the royal party. The account of this and the brief exchange between Coates and the King of France was widely reported in the British press. In old age, however, Coates and his wife moved back to London. One day in 1843, a man looking out the open window of a gentleman’s club in London spotted an elderly man, oddly dressed in clothes that were 30 years out of fashion. “It’s Romeo Coates!” the man exclaimed in recognition. The man on the street, walking past the window, stopped, turned to the small crowd that had gathered inside the club, and doffed his hat. “My name, gentlemen, is Robert Coates,” he said sternly. He put his hat back on his head and walked on with great dignity.

The former Amateur of Fashion returned to his old haunts and made the circuit of social events and visits with his old friends. He was occasionally persuaded to recite, especially for those too young to have seen him at his height. On Tuesday, 15 February 1848, Coates was on his way home from an annual concert at Drury Lane when he realized he’d forgotten his opera glasses at the theater. He had barely dismounted his famous curricle when a hansom cab hit him and after knocking him down, ran over him, causing many broken bones and internal injuries. The cab driver sped on and was never found. The badly injured Coates was tended at King's College Hospital until Wednesday, 16 February, and, when it looked as if he was recovering, at home until Sunday, 20 February, when he developed erysipelas. Robert Coates died the next day, Monday, 21 February; he was 75, a ripe age for the day. Amateur acting in England would never be the same again for, as Dutton Cook concluded: “After Mr. Coates’ wonderful performances, the efforts of other amateurs seem to be but pale and feeble.” Some analysts suggest that he prefigured melodrama, the theatrical style that became popular after Coates’s return to London from France. What Coates had been doing on British stages in the early 1800s, however, was something for which no one even had a word at the time, “but we certainly do today,” one 20th-century biographer observed:

Robert Coates had, in utter innocence, invented Camp.

[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!]