30 September 2012

The Beatles Box

by Kirk Woodward

[On 19 July, I published Kirk’s report on The Best Man on ROT, at the end of which I acknowledged the death of his wife, Pat. I said then that a more suitable and specific memorial was sure to come along. In a large sense, “The Beatles Box” is that memorial since it’s inexorably tied to Pat’s special affection for the Fab Four back when she was a teenager.

[I’ve known Kirk since our freshman year at college, so it’s closing in on the half-century mark, but I’d only known Pat for a little over 30 years. That’s when Kirk joined the theater company Pat and some of her college schoolmates had started, Stage Left, and I started coming to see their productions. In 1982, I directed Pat in a Stage Left production of Neil Simon’s
California Suite—the only time she and I worked together. (Pat was Hannah in “The Visitor from New York.”) But I always tried to see her shows, whether they were public performances of plays here in New York City, or student productions she directed at Pace University downtown, where she taught musical theater acting, or community theater at the churches in Upper Montclair and Montclair, New Jersey, which she and Kirk attended and where they always helped launch theater groups. I went to concerts in parks or community centers, mostly in New Jersey, in which she and Kirk performed. Pat was also very active at the high school in Montclair where her children went. She directed shows there even after her daughters and son had graduated, and gave of her time and interest and expertise to help any student with an interest in theater—and from the turn-out at her memorial service, it’s unquestionable that the students and parents, the faculty and administration, welcomed and appreciated her gift. Any artist who gives of herself to schools and students gets my enthusiastic vote.

[Most of my contact with Pat, aside from our one mutual production, was at her home when I visited to see something she, Kirk, or one of their kids was doing. Both their daughters have become theater professionals, one principally a performer, the other a director and teacher. The youngest child, their son, claimed he wanted to be an ordinary businessman, though he’d stuck his toe in the theatrical waters during high school—but Kirk recently informed me that he auditioned for a local production of
You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown, and got the title role. Resistance, obviously, is futile: the theater seed has been planted and will inevitably blossom somehow, somewhere. In a family of Pat and Kirk’s, it probably couldn’t happen otherwise!

[Pat was clearly a good person—people gravitated to her, if the attendance at the memorial service is any indication—but she was a great theater person. Kirk wrote about two “Saints of the Theater” last December; Pat’s one, too. Theater was not just a part of her life, it was the guiding principle of her life. I’m sure she did all the ordinary things an American woman does—buy food, shop for clothes, go to restaurants, fill the car with gas, attend parent-teacher meetings, walk the dogs (they had two), see the doctor, yadda-yadda-yadda. I don’t know. I never saw her do those things. Whenever I asked Kirk what his family was up to, Pat would always be involved in something theatrical. Always. If she wasn’t acting, she was directing. If she wasn’t directing, she was teaching. If she wasn’t teaching, she was leading a group of theater students on a trip to London. If she wasn’t doing that, she was befriending a new theater student and giving free advice. She was starting a theater group somewhere. She was doing costumes or props for someone else’s show—often one of her kids’ or some other high-schooler’s after the Woodward trio had left the building. She was arranging and performing in concerts (of usually mostly theater songs, of course). As far as I know, the only thing I don’t think she did—and maybe I just missed it—is write plays; that’s Kirk’s gig. (One other thing: try as I might, I could never convince her to write something for
ROT about what she was doing. I regret that I failed at that. It would have been excellent.)

[“The Beatles Box” is Kirk’s homage to his wife on
ROT. I think you’ll find it remarkable because she was. Attention must be paid.

[Exit Pat Woodward, stage left. Fanfare.

My wonderful wife Pat, who died on April 2, 2012, was remarkable in many ways. A lifelong theater artist, she was a terrific director, choreographer, and actor. She was a first rate teacher, as numerous messages from her students testify. She could write, she could produce, she could design. She was remarkably beautiful, in my opinion, with huge eyes and a mobile face perfect for the stage – she could look like practically anything. She had a great heart and fought fiercely for people she cared about. She raised great children. She put up with a problematic husband.

All this, however, is as I knew her, in the second half of her life. In the first half, as she grew up in New York City, she had another distinction: she was a passionate Beatle fan in the passionate era of Beatlemania. I have written about my experiences with the Beatles in this blog (http://rickontheater.blogspot.com/2010/10/beatles-and-me.html). What I’d like to write about here is Pat’s experiences with them, in the middle of her teenage years.

A few years ago she and I came across what immediately became known as the Beatle Box. It was a large, ragged collection of pictures, magazine articles, diaries, and memorabilia that chronicled her rock experiences, including, remarkably, close encounters with the Beatles themselves, and with the Rolling Stones and others, too.

What was it like being a fan (a word related, we should remember, to the word “fanatic”) in those days? Her diary, which she maintained through the entire period, would tell the story best. Unfortunately it appears to have been lost when we moved last December. If it ever turns up, this blog will gain a new contribution, that’s for sure.

Meanwhile, we have a sort of detective story. What can we learn, from the surviving contents of the Beatles Box, about Beatlemania in the days when it ruled the world? For evidence we have, first, the contents of the box itself, and second, recollections – mine, that is – of what Pat wrote and said about that remarkable time. First, from the box:

MAGAZINES – by far the most numerous items (if you don’t count cards in sets). There are about fifty, more or less equally divided between 1964 and 1965. There’s only one issue of 16 Magazine from 1964 but almost a year’s worth from the following year. The Beatles are always somewhere on the magazine’s cover, and 16 also published an issue entirely on the Beatles (“Complete Story From Birth To Now,” but I can’t find the date of “now” – probably 1965), which among other things provides, or claims to provide, their home addresses. 16, I will say, is quite well done, with a number of what appear to be actual interviews. Teen Talk, presumably a rival of 16, also published a “Collector’s Edition” on the Beatles, not as well done but with a number of good photographs. (To tell the truth, there are few if any uninteresting photos of the Beatles.)

There are several magazines, like Teen Screen, that Pat clearly saw on a newsstand and bought because they mentioned the Beatles on the cover. Modern Screen, basically a movie magazine, features “I Give Liz and Burton Six Months” by Eddie Fisher and “I Was A Sinner” by Debbie Reynolds on its cover, and its Beatles article is called “Should the Beatles Be Banned For Their Virgin Islands Escapade?” If you’re having trouble remembering just what that escapade was, well, apparently Maureen Cox’s parents – that’s Ringo's girlfriend and later his wife – hadn’t been told that she was going there with Ringo. I’d say Modern Screen ranks well below 16 in quality, and Pat only saved the one issue. Among other one-offs: Teen World (“Group Gossip You Won’t Believe,” “Soupy’s Wife Snitches”) and Rave (“Stones Split Up,” meaning they took their vacations in different places).

Equally interesting to me are the British magazines in the box, especially Big Beat (eight issues) and Fabulous (two issues). How did she get them? England was, so to speak, farther away then than it is now. Big Beat appears to have published a US edition eventually, in a smaller size than the British version, but for the rest, Pat must have bought them at an international newsstand. One issue has a sticker that says “Acme” on it; do any readers remember if that was the name of a newsstand, or some other business, that sold British magazines? As is the case today, there were many British bands in 1964 and 1965 that we never heard of in the United States – Johnny Kidd and his Pirates, the Go-Go Goons, Freddie Garrity, the Barron Knights, all diligently covered in the British press of that time.

A number of the magazines in the box were clearly one-shots, sometimes with simple titles like The Beatles or The Rolling Stones Book. There is a series of four small individual magazines on each of the Beatles – or at least two, on Paul and George, but I assume John and Ringo got theirs as well. Even the New York Journal-American, a New York City daily newspaper, did a special, glossy insert magazine on the Beatles after their first visit to the US. Beatles ‘Round the World made it to two issues, or at least Pat kept two. The Beatles at Carnegie Hall is the best coverage of that somewhat under-recognized event that I’ve seen, with a startling photo of them performing on the famous stage, with several rows of fans crowded into chairs behind them, and their three amplifiers (three!) flanking Ringo on his drums.

Pat’s father was a jazz pianist – he was no rock fan, or Beatles fan either – and I suspect the October 3, 1964, copy of Music Business, with Jack Jones on the cover, was his, and that he gave it to his daughter in disgust after he’d read the article “Beatles Go Home — But British Steamroller Rolls On.” But maybe not – I see that inside the magazine, Pat has worked on the schedules for various visiting British bands, including the Rolling Stones (she has crossed out their three New York dates – had she attended them?), the Dave Clark Five (she’s circled their two New York appearances, including the Ed Sullivan Show), and the Animals (all crossed out – including the October 9, 1964, date in Louisville where I saw them – but I know she saw them at least once).

There are several gems in the collection. In that category I’d include the two issues of Life in 1964 that devoted articles to the Beatles; Pat cut one of them up for her scrapbook, which we’ll discuss below. Not to be outdone, the Saturday Evening Post published its own piece in March 1964. “They can’t read music, their beat is corny and their voices are faint, but England’s shaggy-maned exports manage to flip wigs on two continents,” says the subhead, which probably shouldn’t be attributed to the article’s author, Alfred G. Aronowitz, later a well-known Dylan expert and the one who introduced Dylan to the Beatles. The article itself is snide, though not really a slam. I can’t imagine Pat getting much pleasure out of it. Still, it was about the Beatles!

And one genuine find is a 50-cent item on rough paper called Ringo’s Photo-Album, optimistically described as “published Annually.” Impressively, the photos appears to actually have been taken by Ringo, a well-known camera nut (he’s only in a couple of shots, both identified as time-exposures). Many of them clearly aren’t professional quality, but they’re all personal and revealing, and even the introductory message at least sounds like Ringo wrote it.

There’s only one magazine in the box from 1966, an April issue of Look, and the only article on entertainment in the magazine is on Barbra Streisand. Pat was moving on.

BOOKS – Pat kept two, both from 1964, neither covering anything later than their first US visit. The Beatle Book (which was widely advertised, and which I also used to own) lists no author, and takes only a quick look at their history, but it contains extended individual biographies of the four of them. All about the Beatles is by Edward De Blasio, and it covers their group story a bit more. Neither, it should not need mentioning, say anything the Beatles wouldn’t have wanted them to – “nothing to shock the most fastidious lady,” as the old vaudeville saying has it – but neither do any harm, and some of the bits taken from newspaper stories of the time are fun, like the story of the kid at the American Museum of Natural History who told a reporter he was George Harrison, leading to headlines and flurries of misleading excitement. All in all, neither book rivals the Hunter Davies biography, which was still to come, much less the intensive Beatles scholarship that’s followed.

CARDS – collectors’ sets, that is, not playing cards. Of the six sets in the box, all have pictures on one side of each card, which means a lot of pictures. Three sets are in color, three in black and white. Three sets have text on reverse sides, “vital statistics” or questions and answers about the Beatles and a “Beatles Diary” of entries I’d assume the Beatles didn’t really write. My friend Paul Guzzone, bass player for the Bacon Brothers, points out that Pat must have deliberately collected the sets, which can take a lot of work, and he found one card on which she has listed the numbers of all the cards in the set and crossed them off as she collected them.

PROGRAMS – there are only five in the box. Two are “tour books” sold at concerts, neither with any text, only photographs, both from 1964. One is of the Dave Clark Five and one, quite elegant, is of the Beatles, titled Beatles [U.S.A.] Ltd. Then there are three programs that come from the portmanteau concert shows that radio stations used to sponsor, featuring a dozen or more acts. Two of the programs are from Murray the ‘K’s Big Holiday Show and one from the WMCA Good Guys’ Easter Parade of Stars. Needless to say, the Beatles weren’t on any of these tours. In fact, as far as I can tell, there was only one performer from England on any of them, the redoubtable Dusty Springfield.

SCRAPBOOK – Few things show a person’s enthusiasms like a scrapbook does. There’s no such thing as an accidental scrapbook. You have to want to cut or assemble the contents, paste them in, and so on.

On her scrapbook Pat has written the word “Beatles” five times on the cover, along with the song titles “She Loves You” (her very favorite Beatle song), “Please Please Me,” and “I Want To Hold Your Hand.” On the inside covers, front and back, are written the names of the Beatles, as follows: “Paul,” “Johnnie,” “Ringo,” and “Baby George.” Some sort of nascent maternal instinct at work there?

The front pocket of the scrapbook, full of items that never got put on pages, shows Pat’s interests at work. Not just the Beatles – she was closely tracking the Disney movie The Moonspinners starring Hayley Mills, a film she continued to enjoy. However, the Beatles are primary. One item in the front pocket was apparently part of a school presentation, with “Patricia Conway, 4-309” written in a corner. It’s a stapled-on picture of the Beatles, and above it smaller cutout pictures of the British flag and seal, and the Queen. Pat has written carefully on the paper, “England’s top singing group is presented to Princess Margaret, the Queen’s Sister, after the Royal Command Performance at the London Palladium.” I’d love to know what the assignment was, and how the teacher felt about the result.

The scrapbook shows Pat’s interest in new ways to describe The Boys. An article refers to Paul as the “bouncy Beatle,” presumably referring to his habit of bopping up and down to the beat as bass players are wont to do. A sketch of Paul that she drew is then captioned, “Paul (Bouncy Beatle) McCartney.” A good artist, she did many sketches, or copies of photographs, of the four.

As early as March 15, 1964, the Daily News was speculating, “Will Wedding Bells Break Up the Beatles?” (It does note that John is married already.) A later photo shows George with Patti Boyd, whom he has just married. The article mentions that a Beatles film (destined to be A Hard Day’s Night) is going to come out. Ringo is quoted as saying, “We haven’t the foggiest notion what the flicker will be about. But our manager assures us that the money is good.”

But I was startled when I saw an article about Paul’s wedding, which in my recollection took place long after Pat assembled her scrapbook. The article (March 15, 1964), by Walter Winchell in the Journal-American, begins, “Girls! Girls! Girls! I have some terrible news for you all… Paul McCartney, 21, of the Beatles (the source of this news said: ‘He does most of the singing’) was secretly married in London about 72 hours ago. The beautiful bride is Jane Asher, 22, a newcomer to British films. End of happy-sad skewp.” “Skewp” is Winchellese for “scoop,” which the article – sorry, Walter – wasn’t, although I remember it got a lot of attention. Nor did Paul do “most” of the group’s singing, as wouldn’t have been too hard to find out, but probably Winchell didn’t spend a lot of time hanging around Beatles concerts.

A number of the articles in the collection concern Jane Asher, Paul’s girlfriend at the time. In one she complains of threatening phone calls from fans of Paul’s. A photo in that same article shows her acting with Vincent Price in the horror film The Masque of the Red Death. Pat shows no anger or jealousy toward Jane; my guess is that she was mostly just interested in any information about the Beatles.

Sheila Graham, the gossip columnist, meets the Beatles in Paris and writes an intelligent article about them. On the other hand, Bill Whitworth, writing for the Herald Tribune, says “A Beatle, of course, is a British rock ’n’ roll singer who looks like an Old English Sheepdog and bays like an American Foxhound.” Whitworth, like many before and after him, is struck by the length of their hair – “Each Beatle has let his hair grow out so long and thick that he appears, at a distance, to have a dust mop on his head,” a clear demonstration of Einstein’s theory of the relativity of the object and the observer, since today the length of their hair seems moderate at most.

Did Pat think the following (source unclear) was funny? She tore this small section out of a larger article: “One girl broke through a police barricade there and kissed Paul McCartney’s cheek. She was mobbed by her friends afterwards. They screamed when she told them, ‘I had my hands around his stomach at the time.’” One is tempted to wonder if the girl was Pat, except that she wasn’t; Pat would have told the story if she was.

A Macy’s ad touts the store’s “exciting collection of BEATLEMANIA,” including Beatles “scarfs,” pennants with chains, towels, wigs “for Boys and Girls” ($2.81), and Young Juniors’ Turtle Neck Beatle Jerseys.

The general manager of radio station WNEW, John Sullivan, is quoted as saying, “I think the Beatles are among the worst group [sic] I’ve ever heard. But then I’ve got two daughters in their fan age bracket and they think the Beatles are tremendous.”

Sometimes one can’t tell how to take an item; it appears that people will say almost anything. For example (source again unclear): “A Treasury aide was frankly worried about the ‘gold drain’ caused by the Beatles, who may take out as much as $2 million in profits on record sales and personal appearances during this 10-day tour. ‘But I don’t see anything we can do about it,’ the Treasury man went on. ‘This is just massive retaliation for what our citizens – Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra and the rest – have been doing to foreigners for years.’” Really!

The Journal-American carries a series of articles allegedly written by the four Beatles themselves. My guess is that they were crafted by “Beatle press agent Briant [sic?] Summerville” or someone like him who knew them well enough to mix together some accurate observations, some overheard remarks, and some decent imitations. “George,” for example, begins “his” piece, “You know, at first I thought it was going to be a bit tough writing an article. Well, I don’t reckon myself to be a literary genius. But having seen the load of old rubbish the other three wrote, I think this is going to be dead easy.” Not a chance he wrote that, I’d say. But not too bad.

Perhaps Billy Graham should have gotten someone to write some material for him. “‘They’re just a passing phase,’ he said. ‘All are symptoms of uncertainty of the times and the confusion about us.’ The evangelist said he did not have much hope of ever fathoming Beatlemania. ‘I hope when they get older, they will get a haircut,’ he said.” Presumably he agreed with a Miami mother who was quoted as saying, “I’m getting Beatlenausea.”

On the other hand, Nora Ephron, way back in 1964 (I think), wrote a piece about Paul in which Pat has double or triple underlined every mention of every Beatle’s name, every place it appears. Ephron gets some facts wrong but does manage to convey that McCartney is not one-dimensionally “cute” or “nice” or anything of the sort, but smart, and dismissive of subjects he’s not interested in.

This sampling of what Pat did not paste in her scrapbook may give a feeling for what she did. Mostly photos, sometimes of the Beatles, sometimes of Beatles fans. The Beatles with Joyce Brothers. Articles about the Beatles, almost always with their names carefully underlined by Pat. More magazines: All About the Beatles No 1, Meet the Beatles (“written and compiled by TONY BARROW”), Dave Clark 5 vs the Beatles, The Beatles Talk. An article called “The Inside Story of Love & the Beatles” (not sure from which magazine) seems as interested in Ann Margaret as it is in The Boys. Articles about George’s sore throat. Lots of articles about the Beatles at Carnegie Hall. A quotation by a policeman: “At least the locusts only come every 17 years. . . . It’s not fair. The Beetles [sic] are young and strong. But, I’m getting old and weak trying to keep up with them and their fans.” A postcard of the Dave Clark Five, with the following note on the back (the first three items crossed out):

6:15 – Dress
6:25 – Make-up
6:40 – Finish dressing
6:50 – Nails
7:20 – Finish make-up

That’s my girl.

RECOLLECTIONS – Since I can barely remember what happened to me yesterday, my memory of what Pat told me about her Beatle days has to be questioned, but I’m sure of the big items, anyway. When she and I first found the Beatles Box, we read the first few pages of the now-missing diary, where Pat recorded how as a fifteen-year-old she listened to a “Vote for your favorite song” show on the radio one night and heard “I Want To Hold Your Hand,” phoned the station to vote for it, and called all her friends telling them to do the same.

The phone campaign (well, the record) succeeded, and the song was #1 on the radio station for weeks. That first Beatles diary entry must have been written in December 1963 or January 1964, around the time that “I Want To Hold Your Hand” was released in the United States.

Remarkably, it was only a month or so later that she saw the Beatles in person, and not just in a concert, either. (She did see them perform both at Forest Hills Stadium and, eventually, at Shea.) In early February 1964, the Beatles flew to the United States for their famous first appearances on the Ed Sullivan Show, staying at New York’s Plaza Hotel – where, by an astounding coincidence, Pat’s family was holding a wedding, in residence at the hotel! OMG!

The shock of that fact can hardly be overstated. Only weeks after the Beatles first turned Pat’s life around, she was in the same room (well, hallway) with them. I might think she overstated what happened, except that we have photos she took as the Beatles made their way through the hotel. She stood close to Paul . . . she talked with Mal Evans, their road manager, who was nice to her . . . she was next to Ringo . . . at one point she and her cousin jumped in the elevator with George Harrison. They could have ridden in the elevator with him! Only Pat lost her nerve, jumped out again, and her cousin followed.

Who cares. The whole thing must have seemed like a miracle to them. Fans don’t just automatically have opportunities to be next to their idols – although, to be fair, it’s more likely to happen in New York than in some other places.

To demonstrate that lightning occasionally strikes twice, in June 1964 the Rolling Stones came to the United States for the first time. Pat was one of the screaming teenagers at the airport, and, again amazingly, some publicity people asked her and other girls if they’d like to get in to the Stones’ press conference inside the terminal, so the room would be filled with attractive and appreciative fans.

So Pat was virtually the first person to talk to Mick Jagger in the United States. With nothing else to say, she asked him how he liked the country. “It seems fine so far,” he said, or words to that effect. “We just got here.”

Do Beatles fanatics remain fanatical forever? Not necessarily, I guess. When we first fell in love, Pat made me promise that if Paul McCartney ever asked her to marry him, I wouldn’t stand in her way. A few years ago, when Paul was single again, I began to worry. Fortunately he married a lady who lived out on Long Island, for which I will always be grateful.

Otherwise Pat never tried to relive her days of early Beatle admiration; in fact, she was a little puzzled why I followed them so closely in later years. My reasons were primarily artistic; she had followed them because, at a certain time in her life, being a part of the Beatles excitement was a wonderful thing. As her experience in theater grew, that time passed for her, although she enjoyed recalling it, and loved the movie I Want To Hold Your Hand (1978), which gives a sweet, funny fictionalized picture of some fans’ adventures that isn’t all that different from what happened to her.

We went together once to see Ringo and his All Starr Revue, bringing the children, but ordinarily I went to Ringo’s concerts by myself. Thanks to a friend who worked the shows at the old Giants Stadium, she got to see the Rolling Stones twice more, and we saw two of Paul’s long, exhilarating solo appearances, one at Giants Stadium, one at Madison Square Garden. I’m grateful that we did.

And that’s that. So long, honey. See you later.

[Pat’s Beatles fandom as Kirk described it was special, of course, because it was hers. But like many of us who were teens in the mid- and late ’60s—I’m almost exactly three years older than Pat—when the Beatles were the most popular recording stars of all time (with the exception, I think, of Elvis—and maybe still Sinatra), it had its parallel in all of us. Pat, for instance, was caught up in Beatlemania, the sparkling celebrity of the rock phenomenon they were, spearheading the British Invasion. Kirk, as he’s told you, was also a huge Beatles fan—but he was drawn to their musicality and musicianship and remains a devotee all these years later. I fell somewhere in between. I don’t have the musical background that Kirk has, but I was taken not just with the Beatles’ fabulous star turn because I truly love their songs. I became a partisan of the Brit Invasion when I first heard the Beatles’ music and then the Stones’ and the Kinks’, and so on, as a high school student in Europe, some months before they were even released here. When I first got to Europe, American (and, therefore, European) rock ’n’ roll was still Leslie Gore and Frankie Valli—there was no true indigenous European rock then, it was either American records or French, German, or British covers of American songs. Within a year, our dorm resounded with the new music (and I, one of the newest arrivals from the States, was no longer the go-to guy for pop music—but I didn’t care a bit). I was hooked.

[I regret I never got to see the Beatles in person when they were appearing on the Continent before their American stardom exploded. I don’t know if they played in Switzerland, where I was in school, and if they performed beyond Hamburg in Germany, where my folks lived, I never knew about it. But I began buying their records right away. My copy of Meet the Beatles, the first album I believe, is actually Mit die Beatles, the German release. (My Rubber Soul is the French pressing, with, I think, two additional tracks.) Among my own Beatles mementoes is Die Beatles, the 45 recording they made for Odeon Records (Cologne) of “Komm gib mir deine Hand” and “Sie Liebt dich,” the “Erste deutsche Original-Aufnahme” (first German original recording) The Boys made of “I Want To Hold Your Hand” and “She Loves You” as a tribute to their German fans, the first outside Britain to take the band seriously. I also still own the 45’s of “Can’t Buy Me Love” backed with “You Can’t Do That” and “A Hard Day’s Night” backed with “I Should Have Known Better,” both on Capitol. But two other curiosities are in my collection, too, something that was rare in the U.S.: a pair of 45 rpm extended-play disks from Odeon. The Beatles’ Hits has “From Me To You” and “Thank You Girl” on the A side with “Please Please Me” and “Love Me Do” on the B; The Beatles contains “She Loves You” and “Do You Want To Know a Secret” on one side and “Twist and Shout” and “A Taste of Honey” on the other. All sung in English, of course, three of the songs on The Beatles were listed on the disk’s jacket with their French titles in parentheses: “J’ai un secret à te dire,” “Twiste et chante,” and “Un homme est venue” (literally, “I have a secret to tell you,” “Twist and sing,” and “A man has come”). Oddly, that last is “Taste of Honey,” but don’t ask me how come. I must have bought at least that last record in Geneva; I don’t know why else it’d have French titles and not German. Die Beatles was a souvenir, a keepsake; the other four I bought because I wanted the songs to play in the dorm. (None of these records is dated, but I’d guess I got all of them in 1964 and 1965.)

[The recording of “Hard Day’s Night” has another connected memory. The movie was released in Europe in July 1964, less than a year before I took a trip to Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union over spring vacation with a group from school. (The French title was
Quatre garçons dans le vent, literally “four boys in the wind,” but its idiomatic sense is “four boys in fashion” or, more colloquially, “four hip guys.” The German title, by the way, was simply Yeah Yeah Yeah.) The songs from the film were in all our heads, and one of our group, a boy from a really wealthy family, had brought along an electric guitar and a complete portable amp system (which we had set up in the train compartment for our cross-continental journey from Geneva to Warsaw). I’m sure he played the soundtrack and we sang that song over and over on that long train voyage. Skipping ahead a couple of days, we were in Moscow and on our way to Leningrad when I remembered something vital: our adult chaperone was supposed to have arranged to pick up my visa for Hungary from the Hungarian embassy in Moscow! The Hungarians had refused to issue me a visa through the embassy in Bern the way all my schoolmates had gotten theirs—I carried a diplomatic passport and visas for Western diplomats had to be issued by the foreign ministry in Budapest—so I was supposed to pick it up in Moscow. But the faculty leader had forgotten and so had I (I was all of 17 at the time), and we were en route to Leningrad. When we couldn’t get the visa at the Hungarian consulate in Leningrad or, next, in Kiev, we had to arrange for me to fly over Hungary and meet the group in Vienna. So they all took off by train to Budapest and I waited in Kiev for a plane to Vienna the next day. Alone and without rubles except what I needed to get through the day, I had to kill time somehow. So I wandered around the city—I spoke a little Russian but no Ukrainian—and sang “Hard Day’s Night” to myself over and over. I was a little relieved to get to Vienna—Austria was a relatively free country and I spoke German by then, so I could get around and talk to people—but I still had almost no cash until the group arrived in town some hours after I did. So I walked and sang “Hard Day’s Night” some more! To this day, I can’t hear that song—which I still love like most Beatles tunes—without flashing back to that spring trip to Warsaw, Moscow, Leningrad, Kiev, and Vienna . . . but not Budapest; I never got there.

[Kirk says that Pat stopped following the Beatles as an adult. I haven’t. Not like Kirk—I don’t go off to concerts by the remaining Beatles—but whenever I hear a Beatles song on the radio (I’m a frequent listener to WCBS-FM), I have to stop and listen. And sing along. Sometimes I even tear up. Talk about the soundtrack to my youth!]

25 September 2012

Two Shaw Plays (Shaw Festival, 2006)


[Last spring, when I published Kirk Woodward’s “Noel, Noel” on ROT (24 March), I followed it up with an old report I written on the production of Coward’s Design for Living (posted on 29 March), excerpted from a longer article on the Shaw Festival. Now that my friend and frequent contributor to ROT has added an article on George Bernard Shaw (5 September), I thought I’d follow again with two more excepts on the two Shaw plays in that year’s festival from the same report.

[From 7-14 August 2006, I took a trip up to Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, for the annual Shaw Festival. The Round House Theatre of Bethesda and Silver Spring, Maryland, to which my mother used to subscribe, sponsored the trip bi-annually (in alternate years, they went to the Stratford Shakespeare Festival), and they made all the arrangements from Baltimore-Washington International Airport to Niagara-on-the-Lake (about an hour’s drive north of Buffalo, New York) and back. The Round House reserved six shows (
High Society, the 1997 stage adaptation of the 1956 film musicalization of Philip Barry's 1939 Philadelphia Story; Arthur Miller’s The Crucible; Ruth and Augustus Goetz's The Heiress, adapted in 1947 from Henry James's 1881 Washington Square; Shaw’s Arms and the Man; Michael O'Brien’s The Invisible Man, the première of the festival-commissioned 2006 stage adaptation of H. G. Wells's 1897 novel; and Shaw’s Too True To Be Good), but several afternoons and most mornings were free if anyone wanted to add performances. I selected two additional shows, Design for Living and Henrik Ibsen’s Rosmersholm to make a total of eight performances.]

The 2006 Shaw Festival included two Shaws, Arms and the Man and Too True To Be Good, which I gather is the practice. Let me make a few general remarks—some, perhaps, only semi-justified generalizations based on minimal evidence. (I'll brave it—so sue me.) First, the quality of the productions was excellent. The acting and directing was top-notch, and the festival appeared to promote ensemble playing over star-turns—and it accomplished this remarkably. Festival artistic director Jackie Maxwell, who addressed the Round House group at a cocktail party, said that she wouldn't do a play like Lear (wrong festival, of course, but what the hey . . .) if she didn't have a Lear available, but I didn't have the impression from this season that they focus on star roles. Of course, they weren't doing Candida or Major Barbara, and maybe that would have left a different impression. She said the same thing, sort of, about directors: if a director she wants to match with a play isn't available, she postpones that show until the director’s free. It's possible also that actors who want to be stars don't make the Shaw a home the way most of the company seems to. It wouldn't be their kind of work environment, I wouldn't imagine. (But I also get the impression, both from ordinary life observation and from some recent reading about Canadian theater, that this is part of the Canadian cultural character.)

It also seemed characteristic, at least of the Shaw, that directors don't put themselves and their artistic personalities forward and stamp the productions. Several of the productions we saw were "adaptations" (not wholesale reworkings, but changes of setting and period)—Rosmersholm was moved to "somewhere in Europe between the wars" (it looked about 1930 to me); Arms and the Man was reset in the "turn of the century"; and the Chekhovs were designated "adaptations" in the program, though I didn't see them so I don't know what changes were made (the pictures all look 19th-century to me). But those were essentially design decisions (and some language in Rosmersholm); in all other respects, the directing was straightforward, though I don't know if that's a provision of the Shaw, or if it's a general characteristic of Canadian directors. I don't say this is a fault—the work was solid all around—but there was nary a hint of idiosyncratic directorial interpretation on any festival stage as far as I could see.

As good as the acting and directing was—and there were no big names in either category that really stood out, though a few were generally familiar (Bernard Behrens, for instance, who did a wonderfully fractious Giles Corey in The Crucible)—the design and tech was truly superb. One of my conceivably unwarranted generalizations is that Canadian theater's major accomplishment is not acting or directing, which is good but not astonishing (secondary generalization: potentially star Canadian actors end up in England or the U.S.), or even writing (name two internationally famous Canadian playwrights—John Herbert is one; who's another?), but in production work. I don't want to give the impression that the sets overwhelmed the acting—that wasn't so—but the design and tech was outstanding in ways the acting and directing wasn't. (I remember going to a show at a nearby school when I was in college—a production of Cocteau's The Wedding Party at the Eiffel Tower—and a friend and I left afterwards saying to each other, “What a wonderful set. Too bad the actors kept getting in front of it.” That isn't the case in Niagara-on-the-Lake.)

On Friday evening, 11 August, we saw our first Shaw at the Shaw. (Sorry.) Arms and the Man, as I may have mentioned before, is my favorite Shaw play, and one of my all-time favorite plays altogether. (When I was still trying to be an actor—and young enough to consider it —I really wanted to play Bluntschli. Just another disappointment in my life.) Though I actually heard someone from our group say she didn't like the show (I didn't ask her why not), I, at least, was not disappointed. (I was surprised to hear several people comment that they didn't know Shaw could be this funny. I have no idea where that came from!)

Before evening performances at the Festival Theatre, the 850-seat proscenium house a few blocks east of “downtown” Niagara-on-the-Lake, it was the practice of the Shaw to have a pre-show introduction by one of the company on the Members Terrace out back. Since we’d arrived in time for the chat, we went out to listen, and it wasn’t anything most of us wouldn't already know—except a little about the director's choices and, in this case, the design inspiration (which I'll hit later). The directing intern who delivered the intro, however, told an anecdote a friend told me 2½ years ago: the one about the heckler who booed when GBS appeared at the 12 April 1894 première of Arms in answer to calls of "Author! Author!" and GBS replied, "My dear sir, I quite agree, but what are we two against so many?" (The heckler later became GBS's American agent.)

Arms (for those not up on their Shaw) is set in Bulgaria during a war. The country’s been invaded and on a dark winter night, Raina Petkoff, a well-born young woman, saves Captain Bluntschli, a Swiss mercenary fighting for the Serbs and more committed to saving his skin than in being a hero, from the pursuing Bulgarians by hiding him in her boudoir. In the spring, when the war is over, Bluntschli returns to call on Major Petkoff, the dimwitted commander of the Bulgarian army, and wins Raina from Sergius, her fool of a fiancé. Bluntschil, who carries chocolate in his cartridge pouch (the play is the basis for the 1908 comic operetta The Chocolate Soldier by Oscar Straus) instead of bullets, is of a practical turn of mind and helps Petkoff out of his difficulties while Sergius consoles himself by marrying Louka, Raina’s maid. A deliberately anti-Romantic comedy, it was an altogether charming production.

I won't repeat what I've already said about the ensemble acting except to note that it applied here as well as in any festival production. Even the presence of Mike Shara, who’d played Morris Townsend, Catherine Sloper's suitor, in The Heiress earlier, didn't mar this aspect of the production. As Sergius, the “hero,” the traits I spotted there were again in evidence in Arms—though less detrimentally due to the character and play. Since none of these characters is American, I had no problem with his (very pronounced) Canadian accent (the cast didn’t do British for this Shaw, any more than they did for Ibsen—or, I presume, Chekhov or the Argentines of Magic Fire, which I didn’t see). Shara’s second problem is his voice. I’m not sure I can describe this adequately, but he has a very strange voice—it almost sounds phony (the way Carol Wayne, the woman who used to appear on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show and claimed she couldn’t talk above a baby-doll whisper, seemed fake). He has kind of a high tenor—I guess that’s a lyric tenor—but it doesn’t sound quite natural. It’s a little like he’s doing Dudley Do-right (from the cartoon—I don’t know what Brendan Fraser in the movie sounded like) for real! The best way I can characterize Shara’s voice is to say that it sounded to me like a musical actor delivering lines between songs. (He had no musicals in his credits—and he’d been at the Shaw for 13 seasons.) I don’t know if that communicates. Shara’s “Dudley Do-right” voice, while still inconsistent with the other actors on stage with him, wasn’t quite as out of place here; it worked well enough for Sergius, who’s a kind of dimmer Dudley in a way. If I’d seen this production before I saw Heiress, I might have assumed Shara was doing this voice as a character choice.

In any case, within the ensemble, the two parents really conjured delightful characters—a sort of Shavian Ma and Pa Kettle, without the hillbilly twang. Nora McLellan’s mama reminded me a lot of the comedienne from SCTV, Andrea Martin—as Edith Prickley, perhaps. (I believe Martin’s also Canadian, by coincidence.) She’s bossy, frequently flustered, and in complete control of her husband, the highest-ranking officer in the Bulgarian army (he’s a major!). Peter Hutt’s Major Petkoff was just a little numb in the head. Not outright stupid—that wouldn’t really be funny, I guess—but oblivious. Except when he’s in the field (mostly because she’s not around), he takes his orders from Mrs. Petkoff, even about military matters. But as farcical as the set-up is—and Arms is really a farce (though, apparently, GBS had intended to write a serious anti-war comedy; he resigned himself to having created a successful farce when he couldn’t convince people that wasn’t his intent!)—Petkoff Père and Mère were a truly entertaining couple.

Patrick Galligan’s Captain Bluntschli was solid and commonsensical, which is how I believe Shaw meant him to be—the un-romantic un-hero (not in the sense of the modern “anti-hero,” however), in contrast to the buffoonish Sergius (who becomes a hero in battle not so much by accident as by inanity and dumb luck). What interested me here, though, was the casting—and it was an element of the Shaw in general it seemed. (Again, I’m basing a conclusion on limited evidence.) Galligan isn’t any kind of standard leading man—he’s not especially handsome, he’s short, he’s balding, and he’s prematurely (I assume) gray. The fact that I noticed this shouldn’t suggest that it affected me in any way—the fact that it didn’t is my point. The same casting characteristic was evident in Design for Living, too: neither Graeme Somerville (Otto) nor David Jansen (Leo) are matinee idols, yet they were cast as characters who are presented as inescapably attractive to Gilda, a woman who is supposed to be desired by all men who meet her! (The same casting decision didn’t seem to hold for the women, by the way—the actresses were all as attractive as their characters. I don’t know what that says—maybe the Canadians are as sexist as the rest of us.) I guess I liked this apparent practice because I was never a Leading Man myself, and the notion that we ordinary folks can still play those parts pleases me. (I did have an acting teacher who told me I should go out for what he called “the sex-pot roles.” Right! Like any director would actually have considered me for them. Although, I did once play Chance Wayne—much to my mother’s consternation—but those were peculiar circumstances.) By the way, I never heard anyone in the audience remark on this casting.

Now, as with most of the festival shows, I have to talk about the set. First, I’ll note that there was a stated artistic reference in this design: the paintings of Gustav Klimt were the inspiration for the costumes (by William Schmuck—unfortunate name) and set (by Sue LePage—and I gather it was her idea). As I mentioned earlier, this is one of the plays adapted for the festival, moved from GBS’s 1885-6 (the Serbo-Bulgarian War, an actual European conflict) to “the turn of the century.” Jackie Maxwell, who directed, did give some sort of explanation for doing this, but I don’t see any need except that she and LePage apparently wanted to use Klimt (who’d been in the news at the time, coincidentally) as an artistic model for the production. Well, I can’t object to that—I did it myself for nearly identical reasons, more for practical convenience than specific artistic references—when I moved Oscar Wilde’s Lady Windermere’s Fan from the 1890s to the 1920s. (Instead of Klimt, I got to evoke Mondrian and Modigliani. I like them better anyway.) Mrs. Petkoff, especially, looked as if she might have popped out of one of Klimt’s canvases.

Actually, on a purely realistic—not to be confused with Realistic—basis, Klimt probably isn’t the most apt model for Shaw’s interpretation of Bulgarian aristocracy. He’s way too hip and with-it for a culture in which being able to read is a notable asset and in whose house a library contains only three books! Mrs. Petkoff is thrilled to pieces to have just had an electric call bell installed in that library so she can summon her servants without shouting for them—which is what Major Petkoff thinks is sufficient. Oh, that Shaw! Nevertheless, I can’t complain about a little artistic license. I sort of figure, when you do the same Shaw plays over a span of years, as the festival does—they eliminate some Maxwell called unproduceable (Back to Methuselah, Androcles and the Lion, Great Catherine)—they probably have to shake up the creative juices now and then or get bored repeating themselves. And, as I’ve said in other contexts, it’s not drawing a mustache on the Mona Lisa.

(That library bit reminds me of an old joke from my home territory. When Spiro Agnew was governor of Maryland, before he was nominated to be Nixon’s V.P., people used to tell this one: Did you hear? There was a terrible fire at the governor’s mansion in Annapolis. The library was destroyed. Both books were burned! And Agnew hadn’t finished coloring in one yet!!)

In any case, the set as a piece of theatrical technique was stunning. At curtain, the stage was a wintry forestscape at night with a tiny house far up center whose doorway was lit with a warm, yellow glow. (With no disrespect to LePage’s design, it sort of reminded me of one of those hyper-sentimental cottage paintings by the late Thomas Kinkade. As art, it’s execrable, but as set design, it’s charming. But wait . . . .) The little house started moving slowly toward the front of the stage; about midway it was joined by a larger set piece and the former little house became the front door of a larger version, with a lighted window in the second story. The new construction moved further downstage and other set pieces, all in a Wedgwood blue, moved in from the wings, plus furniture for a fantasy princess’s bedroom. The former front exterior of the house was now the interior wall of Raina’s bedroom, the former front door now the French doors to the balcony (onto which Bluntschli would soon climb). The whole process was like a little magic show, reminiscent of the old movies, usually by Disney, I think, in which a cartoon hand sketches a black-and-white scene, then a cartoon paintbrush swishes over it and transforms the drawing into color and, immediately, reality. I described the set as “marvelous,” I think—that’s right: it was a little marvel! (The opening sequence wasn’t used again in Arms but each set-change was accomplished by swirling set pieces moving into place in a perfectly effective use of an old-line staging technique.)

I can’t understand why anybody wouldn’t like Arms under any circumstances (barring a really terrible production), but there was absolutely nothing in this staging that I could see that might turn a spectator off. There was a lot of laughter in the audience, so I can only assume that most of them were enjoying Shaw’s humor (whether or not they got his anti-war point). I certainly enjoyed it, even with Shara’s Sergius. (I must say, to Shara’s credit, that director Maxwell had him constantly exercising—doing push-ups, leg-bends, and other calisthenics, including one set with his feet on an ottoman and his hands on the floor, and he executed this behavior commendably. It reminded me of dancers when they’re not working: they never stop moving. Sergius can’t stop flexing and bending! He also does that Capt. Morgan’s Rum thing—from an old TV advertisement: every time he was near a chair, a bench, or something like that, he put his foot up on it and struck a pose—almost always in profile.) It was only his voice (and, when playing an American, his accent) that displeased me. (It’s odd, but Sergius, also a cad, is the farcical version of Morris Townsend, the character Shara played in Heiress. One worked acceptably, the other didn’t.)

By the way, three of the Arms cast were also in Ibsen’s Rosmersholm, which we saw the next afternoon at the small Court House Theatre, and it was interesting to see them do such different material so soon after seeing the Shaw comedy: the fallen minister and pillar of rectitude and morality Rosmer was Patrick Galligan (pragmatic and forthright Bluntschli in Arms); Alex Kroll, the unwavering conservative ideologue (that’s sort of redundant, isn’t it—‘unwavering ideologue’?) was Peter Hutt (dimwitted Major Petkoff); and Ulrich Brendel, the philosophical liberal writer, was Peter Millard (the servant Nicola). They were all quite laudable. (I think it must sound repetitive that I keep using ‘excellent’ or some synonym to characterize the acting, but except for a very few—and minor—exceptions, I really think it’s accurate. None of this company may have been stars—whatever that really means—but they were all master actors. It was quite impressive. And I should add that the casting seemed universally astute, too.)

Our final show in Niagara-on-the-Lake was the matinee performance on Sunday, 13 August, of Shaw’s Too True To Be Good, also at the Court House Theatre. I’d never seen or even read this play (and I couldn’t read it before I went to Niagara-on-the-Lake—it’s not in my collected Shaw), so I was surprised to learn that it’s a pretty late play—1932—and what’s more, premièred in the States. (Poland, apparently, staged the second production! The reason was timing, apparently. Shaw wrote the play for the Malvern Festival, which was launched in 1929 and dedicated to the plays of GBS. The problem was that the festival occurred only once a year during the summer so the Theater Guild in the U.S. copped the first production, which was in Boston in February; it came to Broadway on 4 April.) Anyone who knows the play probably knows it’s tied up with, among other topics, T. E. Lawrence (“Lawrence of Arabia”). (Lawrence had a relationship with GBS—who seems to have had relationships with almost everyone living at the time. The association was so strong that TEL used T. E. Shaw as one of his aliases and even eventually changed his name legally to Shaw. He used to visit GBS on his motorcycle, the vehicle on which he was eventually killed, three years after Too True premièred.)

Anyway, Too True is a delightfully perverse little play—up to a point. With no plot to speak of, the play’s constructed of impossible situations, lengthy conversations full of clever Shavian dialogue and witty epigrams. A rich young convalescent catches a pair of burglars in her bedroom, but instead of calling the police she decides to run off with them after stealing her own jewels, and live off the proceeds of her own burglary. As her over-protective mother chases after them, the three embark on a permanent beach holiday, a life of fabulous wealth and total freedom. As its title reverses a common cliché, the play reverses many common values and accepted behaviors as the 76-year-old Shaw takes on fad diets, the medical profession, the military, war, religion, and sex. The Lawrence character (Pvt. Napoleon Alexander Trotsky Meek, played nicely by Andrew Bunker) is great fun—more or less running everything in his isolated army unit to the complete consternation of his colonel. Once again, the festival cast pulled off the silliness, the Britishness (this play, unlike Arms, depicts inescapably British types Shaw is satirizing), and the individual characters with smoothness and adroitness. The program essay cited Shaw’s preface as describing Too True as “funny in the beginning, serio-comic in the middle and ‘a torrent of sermons’ at the close.” That ending concludes with a very long monologue by “The Burglar” (a former priest whose father is an avowed atheist) which just goes on and on, delivering Shaw’s philosophical points in the most undramatic and untheatrical way conceivable, despite actor Blair Williams’s valiant efforts to enliven it. The program also included an excerpt from Shaw’s note from the Malvern Festival program, and he wrote: “When people have laughed for an hour, they want to be serio-comically entertained for the next hour; and when that is over they are so tired of not being wholly serious that they can bear nothing but a torrent of sermons.” Where’d he get such an idea? I couldn’t disagree more, I’m afraid. (This could very likely make someone conclude that Shaw isn’t funny!) I’ve learned that Shaw is very hard to cut, but I’d have been very tempted to try in this case. It really ruins the production; however important Shaw’s points are, I, at least, stopped hearing them after a minute or two. What a come-down! (And an unfortunate way to end our theater experience in Niagara-on-the-Lake.)

In tribute to Shaw, director Jim Mezon, and actor Benedict Campbell—whom we’d previously seen as John Proctor in The Crucible—though I expected a total Colonel Blimp caricature, gave us a Colonel Tallboys who was only a partial Colonel Blimp. He kept surprising me, as did all the characters. This is the big plus of the show—not only the situation, but the characters themselves subvert your expectations. GBS didn’t name many of them—”The Patient” (played by Nicole Underhay, Gilda in Design), “The Nurse” (Kelli Fox, earlier Elizabeth Proctor), and the aforementioned “Burglar,” for instance—so they appear to be types or allegories; but they quickly go off their tracks. (The fellow who gave the intro to Arms in that pre-show chat said that GBS had originally wanted to call those characters by labels like “The Soldier” and “The Daughter.” That was when he still thought he was writing a serious anti-war comedy.) The Too True production design, a Cubist landscape of blond wooden planks (except the opening scene, which was an ostensibly Realistic sick room in a London townhouse—it was sort of like Kansas in black-and-white and Oz in color!), turned the whole experience into a kind of off-kilter dreamscape. If only it hadn’t been for that interminable oration!

[The question above about Canadian playwrights is kind of a cheat: John Herbert (1926-2001) isn’t as well known as his play, which became an international success in 1967—Fortune and Men’s Eyes. It's probably a mark of something about Canadian culture that the play’s not only unrecognized by most people as a Canadian creation, but that its world première was in New York City because no theater in Canada would produce it until 1969.

[The Shaw Festival was started in 1962 by Brian Doherty, a lawyer and theater-lover in Niagara-on-the-Lake, as a “Salute to Shaw.” The first performances were staged by amateurs in a disused courthouse that became the site of the black-box Court House Theatre. The festival soon attracted critical and financial attention and became a companion to the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, two-and-a-half hours west, which was inaugurated in 1953. (There is, in fact, a third theater festival in Canada, the Charlottetown Festival on Prince Edward Island, devoted to “new Canadian musicals.” I didn’t know there were Canadian musicals, much less new ones!) The Shaw is considered one of the two largest repertory companies in North America—the other being, obviously, the Stratford Festival.

[The Shaw runs from April through October and November—some shows opening later and others closing earlier. Like most theaters, the festival is dark on Mondays, but during the performance week there are at least two shows a day at all three theaters, and often an 11:30 a.m. “lunchtime” performance. That comes to 36-54 performances a week (I did the math); you can figure out how many shows a season that makes. (There are also script readings, poetry and song presentations, discussions, chats, workshops, lectures, and demonstrations going on many days as well. These folks keep busy.) The festival is a true seasonal rep: no play is performed twice in a row, which means some theaters change productions three times a day. Most actors are in two plays (a few are in only one; no one I could spot was in more than two), and there’s no apparent attempt to consider which theater houses which show when it comes to casting, so an actor might have to change theaters as well as roles during the day. The theaters are strung out along Queen Street in Niagara-on-the-Lake: the little Court House and the Royal George are only a couple of blocks apart in “downtown”; the Festival Theatre is a few blocks east on Queen’s Parade, an extension of the main drag. (Nothing in Niagara-on-the-Lake is all that far away from anything else. It’s an easy walking town—and relatively flat) The company comprises some 60 actors (directors and designers, as well as other artists such as composers, are hired individually for each show), but all don’t appear every season; about 30 or so work each year, and they are on contract for the season. Many actors live in Niagara-on-the-Lake now and consider the Shaw their permanent artistic base, doing other work like films and TV (all those U.S. TV programs that are taped in Toronto and Vancouver are in many of the company’s credits) as well as other stage work from time to time, but returning to the Shaw regularly. Some of the actors in 2006 were in their fourth or fifth season in Niagara-on-the-Lake, but others were into double digits. (The other artists also come back year after year, but they aren’t part of the permanent company.) Loyalty from both sides—the current artistic director, Jackie Maxwell, was in her fourth season in 2006 and continues to work with artists who started at the Shaw before her arrival—is clearly an attribute of this community. The actors who live in Niagara-on-the-Lake have bought homes and are raising families there.

[The Shaw Festival mandate, as they call it, is to showcase the plays of GBS and his contemporaries. (I don’t know if the idea when the festival was originally conceived was to restrict itself to Shaw’s plays only, but the inclusion of plays “written in Shaw’s lifetime” has been part of the concept for decades, in any case.) Considering that GBS lived almost a century (1856-1950; the festival celebrated his sesquicentennial earlier the year I was there), the definition of “contemporary” leaves a lot of leeway—and covers a lot of territory stylistically! In 2000, the festival expanded its mandate to include plays written about the period of GBS’s lifetime, so now they do modern plays set in that almost-century. The 2006 season included two Shaws plus an Ibsen (1828-1906) and a pair of Chekhovs (1860-1904). Also coming, I suppose, in the category of plays by GBS contemporaries (though at the end of his century) were the Noel Coward (1899-1973) and the Arthur Miller (1915-2005). (I’m guessing that’s
Crucible’s “in,” since it isn’t “about” Shaw’s lifetime and was written three years after GBS died. It’s kind of a stretch, I guess—a policy evidently known as “Jackie’s elastic mandate.”) Two adaptations from novels could go either way—the source material is contemporary to GBS and the setting is, consequently, of that period, too, though the adaptations are much later. The Heiress was adapted from James’s 1881 novel in 1947, which would barely qualify as “Shaw’s lifetime,” but the story is set in 1850. The Invisible Man, from an 1897 novel, qualifies because the modern play is set within GBS’s life. The other new play, The Magic Fire, is set in the 1950s, barely fitting into GBS’s life span. Of the final entry of the 2006 bill, Cole Porter’s High Society, the source material, the 1939 Philip Barry play, fits into the Shaw life span, but the qualification is again the setting: 1930’s Long Island (the musical having been transferred from Philadelphia’s Main Line for reasons comprehensible only in Hollywood).]

20 September 2012

'The Train Driver'

As I noted in my recent report on Sam Shepard’s Heartless (10 September), the first play of our subscription in the Signature Theatre Company’s new season, Diana, my usual theater partner, and I saw the last play of the 2011-12 season after the first of the 2012-13 season.  That’s what brought us over to Theatre Row for the second time in eight days, to see Athol Fugard’s The Train Driver in its New York première, Friday evening, 7 September.  Performed in the Romulus Linney Courtyard Theatre, the small, variable-space theater in the Pershing Square Signature Center, the company’s new complex on West 42nd Street, the 2010 play is directed by the playwright (as was Blood Knot, the first play in this season’s Signature Fugard series, reported on ROT on 28 February). 

The world première of The Train Driver  was on 19 March 2010 at the Fugard Theatre, a new theater in Cape Town named in the playwright’s honor; Fugard directed the production, which was transferred to the Hampstead Theatre in London for a 9 November opening.  The U.S. première was staged at the Fountain Theatre in Los Angeles on 16 October 2010, directed by Stephen Sachs, the company’s co-artistic director.  The Signature’s production began previews on 14 August and opened on 9 September; it’s scheduled to close on 23 September.  Based on an actual event, the play recounts the quest of Roelf Visagie, the train engineer of the title, who killed a mother and the child strapped to her back when she walked onto the train tracks, to find out who she was.  The last he saw of the woman, whom he only knows as Red Doek for the scarf she wore around her head, was the expression of despair on her face which continues to stare up at him, depriving him of sleep.  Fugard had read an article in the Johannesburg Mail & Guardian about a woman named Pumla Lolwana who committed suicide that way on 8 December 2000 and took her three children with her, and it set him to thinking about the hopelessness the woman must have felt in the squatter camp where she and her children were forced to live.  Not for the first time after reading a newspaper story, the playwright began “thinking about the possibility of a play, of dealing with an issue, . . . trying to bear some sort of witness to what was happening to people in my country.”  A year later, he began keeping a journal about the play, as is his practice.  He tried for three months “to get inside the life of that woman and understand why she did a thing like that.”  He finally saw he wasn’t ever going to be able to do that and he abandoned the idea. 

Some months later, however, Fugard realized that Lolwana and her children weren’t the only parts of the story: the man driving the train was part of it, too.  “And suddenly that was different.  I knew I could get inside him.”  The writer saw that there were many ways he could connect with the engineer of that commuter train, shared experiences of their lives as fellow South Africans.  “And the moment I did that the play started to happen on paper . . . .”  He drew material from his outsider’s exposure to the squatter camps and “slowly but surely, the play took shape.”  It took the dramatist nine years.  Fugard tells the story by having Roelf explain his search to the gravedigger of the cemetery where the woman had been buried, near the squatter camp of Shukuma outside Port Elizabeth.  Simon Hanabe is Xhosa and Roelf is Afrikaner, and Fugard sees this as another “opportunity for taking the play to altogether yet another level, which is the relationship between black and white in my South Africa.”  Roelf spends several nights in Simon’s corrugated-metal hut, his pondok, in the amangcwaba, the graveyard, and little by little he comes to see Simon as an equal, at least in terms of his humanity and his care, in his own way, for “the nameless ones” buried in his corner of the cemetery.  One way or another, this accommodation has been the leitmotif of the dramatist’s playwriting career, both during apartheid and now, under the country’s majority rule.  (The Train Driver is set in 2010, though much of what happens could be a reflection of the South Africa of 1961.)   Even in the “New South Africa,” the relationship is “still bedeviled” by old prejudices. 

According to Fugard, The Train Driver is his most important play because “the journey that Roelf Visagie makes over the course of the play . . . from prejudice to compassion and understanding, is, in a sense the journey I have tried to make in my life.”  He sees this play as the other bookend in a pair with 1961’s Blood Knot (which he says is the play in which he “found my own voice”).  Both are plays about two men, one black and one white, he points out.  (The Train Driver isn’t Fugard’s last play, but at the time it was chosen to be the final presentation in the Signature’s first Residency One series, it was his latest.)  The writer doesn’t say so, but what I think he’s suggesting is that these two plays, and others with similar pairs of characters, represent Fugard’s constant attempt to reconcile the two halves of his African soul.  With an Afrikaner mother and an Anglo-Irish father of Huguenot descent, he was raised, he says, in “a not exactly liberal family . . . being conditioned unconsciously, by the world in which I lived, acquiring all the prejudices that come with being a privileged member of the white minority, of a white people.”  He says he’s still struggling against his own prejudices, “but I do know that I’ve tried, I’ve dealt with a lot of my prejudice.”  Blood Knot and The Train Driver, with half a century of playwriting between them, are, I believe, Fugard’s accounts of his private struggle—which he says is also his country’s struggle. 

The play itself is also interesting—which is not to say it entirely succeeds as theater.  Only 90 minutes long (staged without an intermission), it’s virtually all conversation with very little action.  There are three things that keep The Train Driver from becoming nothing more than talking heads or a preachy classroom lesson like My Children! My Africa!, the second play in the Signature’s Fugard season (see my report, 11 June): it’s a particularly animated conversation, Athol Fugard is the composer of the dialogue, and it’s deeply, deeply felt—not just by the characters, but by the author.  Since he directed this production himself, I can’t help but feel that he imbued the performances with some of his own passion for this situation and how much he’s said it means to him privately.  (That the two actors, Leon Addison Brown as Simon and Ritchie Coster as Roelf, are superb in all respects in no small measure enhances the effectiveness of the presentation, but I’ll get to that in its own time.) 

Clearly from what Fugard’s said about the play and its origins, it’s an important endeavor for him.  The suicide of Pumla Lolwana, when the playwright first read about it, obviously moved him—so much that he couldn’t get it out of his head.  Even when he saw that he couldn’t get inside Lolwana’s thoughts, he couldn’t drop the idea.  He carried it around with him for nine years, so you know it must have grabbed hold of something inside him.  Furthermore, Fugard’s said that this play bookends his first important work, creating an opening and closing of sorts to his struggle to come to grips with his South Africa.  Even if I hadn’t had some little experience with this kind of commitment in a playwright, I’d sense just from reading what he’s said about The Train Driver that his dedication to this project would affect its stage life.  It indubitably added a level of excitement and energy to the performance that’s probably impossible to quantify.

Fugard’s writing is a significant element in the dramaturgy of The Train Driver, of course.  This writer’s one of those few operating today whose prose is elevated to the level of lyricism and poetry.  (Others in that category: Tennessee Williams, August Wilson, and, in his inimitable style, David Mamet.)  Whether consciously or unconsciously—and I don’t know how Fugard composes his plays—his words are put together so that the sound, the rhythm is as important in performance as the sense.  In the case of Train Driver, Fugard uses a lot of both Afrikaans and Xhosa words that add their own lilt and resonance to the lines (though it also helped make following the dialogue difficult at times).  In addition, the contrast between the Afrikaner Roelf and the Xhosa Simon, the way the prosody of one bounces off the speech of the other, accentuates the lyricism of the play.  If almost any other playwright had written this play, it would probably have been inert and static, but in Fugard’s hands, combined, of course, with the other elements, The Train Driver was compelling and absorbing.

Finally, while little happens on the stage other than the conversation between Simon and Roelf, the two men are so dynamic, so energized that for the 1½ hours it takes to tell this story, they seem to be more active than they are.  (I don’t mean physically: Simon, in fact, is pretty restrained.)  Of course, Fugard has the actors moving about the stage and the men do things, but the drama, the conflict, is all internal and verbal.  Nonetheless, that inner struggle is so vital, so anguished, it’s hardly passive.  After all, what Roelf’s searching for is far from idle curiosity: it took him away from his home, his family, and his job.  He needs to know who this woman he killed was, why she did such an extreme thing, and why she made him part of her act.  Verbal though the play is, it’s not two guys sitting around talking. 

Thinking about it afterwards, I see that there’s not a little aspect of Japanese Noh in Fugard’s play.  I have no idea if the dramatist has ever been influenced by Japanese classical theater, or if he even knows Noh drama, but he’s incorporated some of the elements here: a mystical place (the graveyard of the unnamed dead, the ones who died anonymously); a “man of the place,” a sort of guardian spirit who knows its story; a traveler-seeker who’s made a long journey to bring him there (Roelf’s been crossing the country trying to find Red Doek’s identity for about a year).  In Noh, there’s a transformation of the person of the place who becomes a spirit figure, and that doesn’t happen literally in Train Driver, though Simon does undergo a sort of change, but there is a kind of crisis which ends Roelf’s search in an unexpected way.  The actual spirits that haunt the amangcwaba are the dead woman and her child and the transformation is Roelf’s gradual realization, like Fugard’s own, that he can’t ever know anything about Red Doek’s life because his world is so different from hers.  Noh is notoriously inactive and slow-moving, so highly refined that, compared to the more raucous Kabuki, it can seem tedious.  But it’s an intense form of drama (closely bound up with Zen Buddhism) and, if you are attuned to it, extremely moving.  Fugard’s one-acter isn’t so philosophical, it’s much more earthbound; and it’s less serene, so it moves more quickly—but I can’t escape the few parallels once I spotted them.

Dramaturgically, The Train Driver contrasts with the other two plays in STC’s Fugard residency, Blood Knot and My Children! My Africa!  Though it resembles Blood Knot superficially because both plays are about two men, one white and one black, who have a peculiar connection, there’s at least one huge difference.  In Blood Knot, the conflict at the center of the drama is between Morris, the white brother, and Zachariah, the black brother.  Their respective roles in apartheid society split them along racial lines.  In The Train Driver, the conflict isn’t between the two men, but within Roelf—and less so within Simon, who’s a reducing-mirror image of Roelf in a way.  The source of the conflict, interestingly, is the same: the official apartheid system in Blood Knot; the echoes of that system in Train Driver.  Because, however, the dramatic conflict in Blood Knot is between the brothers, it’s a more physically active play (and, thus, I think, can sustain a 2½-hour length); Train Driver’s internal conflict limits the play to the 90-minute length, or it would have become enervating.

That’s what happened in My Children!, I think.  It’s also a 2½ hour play, and it even has a third character, but its conflicts are all intellectual and internal and it becomes a talky, preachy treatise all of whose potential action takes place off stage.  While My Children! becomes diffuse and airy, The Train Driver remains tightly conceived in its hour-and-a-half format so that it works like a fist.  You can’t keep a fist clenched for too long, but while you do, if it’s at the end of the right person’s arm, it can be mighty effective at making a point.  Granted, The Train Driver’s fist is used to slam on a table top in frustration, anger, and helplessness, but the point gets made nonetheless. 

All this is helped tremendously by the acting.  As a director, Fugard must have a way with two-actor ensembles.  He also directed the STC production of Blood Knot last January and February, and that pairing of Colman Domingo and Scott Shepherd established an astonishing stage relationship.  Leon Addison Brown’s Simon and Ritchie Coster’s Roelf are just as connected and each actor delineates a vibrant and vivid character.  When Diana and I were leaving the theater and she remarked on the accents, I told her that from the actors’ program bios, it sounded like both are American.  (I’ve seen Brown in a couple of STC productions, namely August Wilson’s Two Trains Running and Horton Foote’s Orphans’ Home Cycle, and both actors’ credits, including film and TV, are U.S. productions.  The dialect coach for Train Driver was Barbara Rubin, as she was for Blood Knot and My Children! as well.)  Of course, the accuracy of stage accents isn’t as important in a performance like this (though consistency and commitment are essential) as the relationship the actors create and the power of each portrayal, and Brown and Coster knock this out of the park. 

I think it’s significant that Roelf is an Afrikaner, rather than a British South African.  I know that South Africans of English heritage can be as bigoted and resistant as any racist anywhere, but the Afrikaners invented apartheid and led the governments that implemented and maintained the system of repression and exclusion that infested South Africa for over 40 years.  In the new South Africa, after the dismantling of official apartheid and the rise of majority rule, that heritage still haunts the country, and what Fugard is depicting in Train Driver is the slow growth of understanding between white Roelf and black Simon as they learn to see each other as people, not representatives of some amorphous group (“White Men”; “Bantus”).  “They’re human beings, man,” says Roelf often of the nameless dead buried in Simon’s graveyard—but he’s also talking about the people who live in Shukuma and beyond.  In the old days, I imagine, Roelf wouldn’t have even started out on the journey of discovery he’s made to learn who the suicide was; he certainly wouldn’t have spent a year on his quest.  Coster depicts the gradual change in Roelf from anger at Red Doek for drawing him into her tragedy to compassion.  His whole body, including his face, softens.  That he’s an Afrikaner, I think, makes this effort all the more momentous.  Coster portrays this haunted man with an almost frightening darkness and gives a performance of such intensity that he almost turns the play into a monologue.  Variety’s Marilyn Stasio calls Coster’s portrayal “searing.”

Simon’s growth is subtler—mostly because Brown’s gravedigger is a more patient man to start with, but in the beginning, he doesn’t really see Roelf as much more than an interloper, a white man who has no business in his cemetery.  “There are no white people buried here,” he explains to Roelf when the train operator first wanders into the graveyard.  But he lets Roelf stay in his pondok, not that Red Doek’s visage actually lets the visitor sleep, and eventually shows him how he cares for the people buried in his care, protecting them from the marauding dogs and marking the ingcwabas, the graves, so he doesn’t accidentally dig one up to burry a “new one” where someone’s already “sleeping.”  Simon doesn’t actually welcome the intruder, but he accepts Roelf’s presence in his private world and Brown plays the part with quiet resignation as Roelf bares his soul in his effort to exorcise his private trauma.  Simon’s principal function in the play is as an audience for Roelf, and he frames the play with an introductory monologue and an epilogue.  Brown, who’s not a small man, manages to become almost a spectral presence himself. 

There are parts of the performance that are painful, and even though Roelf may have found Red Doek’s burial ground, he doesn’t find her actual ingcwaba or learn who she was.  Brown loses his meager job because of Roelf’s presence in the amangcwaba, leaving him with nowhere to go and no work.  In a way, however, Coster shows that he’s come to terms with what he has learned—though the final outcome, which seemed to me to be gratuitously shocking, isn’t a good one.

Christopher H. Barreca’s graveyard set is about as bleak a stage environment as I’ve seen in recent memory.  Charles Isherwood of the New York Times even calls it Beckettian.  (In the New York Post, Elisabeth Vincentelli describes the set as “post-apocalyptic,” but I find that reductive.  If this landscape were the result of a science-fiction apocalypse, we could just shrug it off as sort of normal.  But it’s not.  The devastated terrain exists in an ostensibly prosperous, democratic South Africa at peace.)  Barreca also designed Fugard’s shanty set for STC’s Blood Knot, but while that was dismal and cheerless, the Shukuma cemetery is Fugard’s version of a blasted heath: a dirt plot stretching over the whole stage—the Linney is configured as a proscenium with the playing area along the wide length of the room with the spectators arrayed in six rows along the front—with small mounds inches apart, randomly placed with what looks like bits of junk and debris strewn on top.  In the upstage center is a square panel of corrugated metal which Simon later rotates 180 degrees to reveal the inside of the tiny shack where he eats his meals out of a can heated over a single candle and sleeps essentially sitting up.  At the far right of the stage is a large heap of rubble the foundation of which is a rusting shell of a car.  Everything is a sort of grayish brown—not a lick of green or any other color whatsoever; nothing has grown here for decades or likely will any time again.  It’s not hard to imagine what the rest of the squatter camp looks like.  This is where Simon not only works, but lives, on a dead ground covering dead people.  It’s where Roelf ends his search. 

I found that the press largely dismisses the play too quickly and with too little consideration.  For instance, the New York Post’s Vincentelli, who calls Train Driverponderous” and “snoozy,” censures the play, which she asserts Fugard says “is about guilt,” by objecting that “Roelf is tortured by deaths he couldn’t have prevented.”  But, of course, that’s not the guilt Fugard’s exploring: it’s the guilt—if that’s even the right word—that Roelf feels as a white man for forcing people like Red Doek into lives of such inescapable despair, represented by places like Shukuma, that their only imaginable recourse is an unthinkable act.  It’s not her death for which Roelf, not to mention Fugard, feels responsible—it’s her life.  Vincentelli declares, “You can tell it wants to say something big and deep about the desperate mess South Africa is in, but the metaphor isn’t grounded.”  I say that’s only true if you miss Fugard’s point.  While it’s certainly possible to criticize The Train Driver for having failed theatrically, even dramatically, I’d argue that Fugard didn’t miss his mark intellectually.  His metaphor is well grounded, indeed.

In the Times, Isherwood says the play’s “a modest but eloquent addition to Mr. Fugard’s oeuvre” even though it “often feels like a monologue.”  Joe Dziemianowicz of the Daily News describes the play as “[e]asy to admire for its sensitivity, but hard to recommend for its sluggish repetitiveness,”  bringing the 2011-12 Signature season “to a yawning conclusion.”  Back Stage’s Erik Haagensen says Fugard’s play is “not his most effective” and characterizes it as “barely dramatic, too obviously symbolic, and so self-consciously Beckettian that I imagine the Nobel Prize–winning playwright’s estate could sue for royalties.”  Matt Windman in AM New York also raises the absurdist influence, saying the play is “a bleak Beckett-style drama.”  The reviewer even concludes by suggesting that “you might even be tempted to fall asleep—if you haven't already.”  (Windman is clearly not a fan of Fugard, whose work he characterizes as “repetitive and excessively didactic.”  He pans all of Fugard's “disappointing trilogy” of this past Signature season, which he dismissed as “boring.”)  

On the flipside, Newsday’s Linda Winer calls Fugard’s The Train Driver, “one of his least forgiving,” a shattering drama” that “sends out tentacles to the psyches of unseen individuals . . . to the questions that connect us all.”  And as if to contradict AM New York’s Windman directly, David Cote of Time Out New York declares that the STC series was “deeply rewarding and satisfying.”  He describes The Train Driver, despite “repetitive patches or thematic hammering,” with terns like a “sober examination,” a “purgative new work,” and “potent, engaged theater.”   Stasio in Variety praised the STC production as “agonizingly well acted and directed with unflinching honesty.”  Direct, determined, with an openness just shy of obviousness,” writes New York magazine’s Scott Brown of Fugard’s play, which Brown calls “a sort of fugue on themes of flagellation” that’s “unsubtle” but not “ineffective.”   On the ’Net, Simon Saltzman describes The Train Driver on Curtain Up as an “emotionally intense play,” labeling it among Fugard’s “arguably best plays.”  Saltzman insists that it “resonates on a dramatic frequency that is uniquely Fugard’s.”