28 June 2015

'What I Did Last Summer'

For A. R. Gurney’s second Residency One production, the Signature Theatre Company is presenting a revival of his 1983 play, What I Did Last Summer.  (Gurney’s first Signature production was The Wayside Motor Inn, on which I reported on ROT on 1 October 2014.  A third, new play, Love and Money, is scheduled for this August.)  The play began previews on the Irene Diamond Stage at the Pershing Square Signature Center on Theatre Row on 28 April and closed on 7 June.  The production opened to the press on 17 May; I caught the show on the evening of 5 June. 

What I Did Last Summer, a largely autobiographical tale, has been a moderately popular script for Gurney, especially in colleges and high schools.  (In an interview, the playwright confessed that the play “always has been a secret favorite of mine; it’s like a child that had a very difficult upbringing, so I have particular fondness for it.”)  It premièred in February 1983 at Manhattan’s Circle Repertory Company—for a run of only 37 performances.  A 2003 revival was staged in Houston and Retro Productions mounted one in 2007 in New York City.  It’s popularity over the years seems to have come from a couple of attributes: a small cast, the prevalence of mostly young characters from 14 to 19, a very simple unit set, and only as much tech as a theater can muster.  (There was a lone drummer stage right in the Signature revival, but that seemed dispensable.)  Even the costumes, as we’ll see, are undemanding: rather standard summer wear (ca. 1945) that even the smallest of troupes can manage on a limited budget.  The play’s also heavily nostalgic for the time, place, and values of Gurney’s youth, the World War II home front, when the notion of the “teenager” was pretty much invented.  What’s not to love, right?

Well, Gurney, who was only 14 himself at the time the play takes place (and 52 when it premièred), has written a two-hour, two-act snapshot of life at the end of the war (Japan’s surrender is announced near the end of act two) in a summer resort for “the leisure class,” as one of the characters puts it.  The picture’s fully developed and sharp enough, but the figures and scenery in it are meaningful mostly to those who were there.  It’s also a pretty conventional shot—the one nearly every family takes on vacation.  I have some just like it—and you probably do, too. 

As for the self-portrait . . . well, it’s not terribly revealing, either.  First of all, the direction in which it’s going to develop, like watching a Polaroid become visible before your eyes, is pretty obvious fairly early.  Then, in the end, we get an assertion from the Gurney-manqué character that he becomes a playwright (“I wrote this play,” he tells us), but there’s no actual evidence that we’ve witnessed the birth of an artist. 

(In a curious coincidence, I saw my last play at Signature this season at the matinee the next afternoon.  It was Athol Fugard’s The Painted Rocks at Revolver Creek—a report on ROT will be coming soon—which shares some superficial aspects with Summer.  In both plays, a young boy—14 in the Gurney, 11 in the Fugard—is fundamentally changed by an encounter with an artist teacher who’s a kind of outsider.  The two boys grow up to be men who affect others: in the Gurney, he becomes . . . well, Gurney, the successful playwright; in the Fugard, he becomes a teacher.  The change and subsequent upheaval is more dramatic in the Fugard—it’s tied in with the end of apartheid—and we see what the boy becomes as a man.)

Okay, I guess I better get to the play itself so you’ll know what I’ve been talking about.  As I said, What I Did Last Summer is set in the summer of 1945.  The Higgins family from Buffalo (Gurney’s own hometown)—mom Grace, 19-year-old daughter Elsie, and 14-year-old son Charlie—are spending the season at a summer house on the Canadian shore of Lake Erie, a colony of mostly American well-to-do; their husband and father is fighting in the Pacific.   Looking for a summer job, Charlie, in the incipient stages of teenage rebellion, takes a job doing chores for the Pig Woman (so-called because her cabin used to be a sty), Anna Trumbull, a free-thinking, proto-hippie-ish sometime art teacher.

Charlie’s in a sort of puppyish competition with Ted, a Canadian townie who mows lawns, does yardwork, drives, and, at 16, is old enough to ride the nearby rollercoaster.  The two shock the sensitivities of the conventional WASP community, especially sister Elsie, by stuffing rocks in the fronts of their swim trunks, going skinny-dipping in broad daylight, and mooning the women and kids on the shore.  Charlie also has an innocent crush on Bonny, another summer resident his age, who returns his affections but tries to be fair to Ted (who wants to drive her to the rollercoaster where he’s told his friend, the attendant, that Bonny’s his “girl” so he’ll let the underage teen onto the ride).  This little side story precipitates the play’s climax when Charlie takes Bonny out in Anna’s old Reo, which he’s gotten to run for her, and crashes it when the brakes fail.  (To show how squeaky-clean Gurney’s memory of all this is, the accident isn’t Charlie’s fault—it was a mechanical mishap—and he didn’t steal the car—Anna let him drive it even though he doesn’t have a license yet.  Further, no one is seriously hurt; Charlie wears a temporary neck brace for the rest of the play.)

Anna, once a member of the “upper crust,” owns to being “of mixed blood” (she’s part Native American) and was the mistress of a prominent doctor, but she’s now lost both her money and her regard for the conventions of middle-class decorum.  Sensing a “potential” in Charlie, Anna puts him to work around her farm in the mornings and tries to teach him art—and metaphysical life lessons along the way—in the afternoons.  (Gurney’s acknowledged that not only was there a real Anna in his youth—a woman who remained a friend well into his adulthood—but that the scenes with the character “are pretty much verbatim what she taught me.”)  She exposes Charlie to vaguely radical and quasi-socialistic ideas about which his mother and sister become concerned (even though they’re hardly “dangerous,” as Anna’s been labeled by the American summer residents).  
Charlie’s increasing independence of mind impels Grace, who herself had a history with Anna before she married Charlie and Elsie’s father 20 years earlier (and which seems a bit contrived), to write her husband for advice.  He orders her to send Charlie away to boarding school to straighten him out—just as he says the experience did for him.   Anna’s influence and Grace’s decision eventually persuade Charlie to reject the idea of going back to school at all in favor of staying on Grace’s farm—he’ll sleep in the barn!—and a family crisis ensues and a showdown between Anna and Grace looms.  The anti-climactic meeting, which raises more questions than it resolves, is inconclusive but the Higginses return to Buffalo when the summer ends to prepare for Father to return home now that Japan has surrendered.  Before driving out of town, however, Charlie makes Elsie stop the car and he has a farewell with Anna—whom we suspect he’ll never see again (unlike Gurney and Anna’s real-life counterpart) as she’s being forced to move in with family elsewhere.  In the end, we’re led to sense that this summer has stimulated a self-awareness in Charlie that will shape the man he’s destined to become—a writer and, perhaps, a playwright.  (He acknowledges at the end that he’s written “this play.”)

The play itself is less impactful than I feel either Gurney or director Jim Simpson and producer James Houghton seem to think it is.  The story’s less compelling than it’s played up to be and the point Gurney appears to be making is less revelatory than a 2-hour play would suggest it ought to be or that Gurney thinks it is.  (As I wrote in my report on The Wayside Motor Inn, “I should probably confess here that I’ve never been a great fan of Gurney’s plays.  I just find them unengaging . . . .”  My limited experience with Gurney as a writer makes me feel that he’s something of a lightweight—more than I’d expect for someone who’s been around for 50 years.)  Anna’s far from a threatening figure—she’s no predator, just a kook—and her ideas would only seem radical to a member of the John Birch Society.  Charlie’s friendship with her is more comical and oddly sweet than fraught—she’s more Auntie Mame in hippie drag than Mephistopheles after Charlie’s soul—and his terrifying rebellion is no more than using the kind of vulgar language we take for granted today, even from 14-year-olds (it’d be PG-rated in a movie today), and refusing to go to a posh party at another summer resident’s house.  As for the final transformation . . . well, let’s just say that What I Did Last Summer isn’t Summer of ’42.  Nor is it Brighton Beach Memoirs, as Charlie demonstrates, at least during the play, no discernable talent at any kind of art; all his efforts under Anna’s tutelage (including an attempt at macramé) are abject failures.

Much of this was the source of the critical dismissal Summer got in 1983 (which may have accounted for its brief run of 15 days).  Signature director Simpson, founder of the Flea Theater in downtown Manhattan—he retires shortly—and a longtime collaborator of Gurney’s, has endeavored to paper over the script's obvious weaknesses with production, and he comes close to succeeding.  He’s devised a series of projections (which reviews of the Circle Rep’s mounting don’t mention, so I assume they weren’t used) of parts of the script being typed on a manual machine, accompanied by the sound of clicking keys.  The text of the projections (designed by John Narun) may be stage directions—which the actors actually refer to on the back wall of the set before executing them—or bits of dialogue.  When Charlie tells us he’s written the play, we realize that this is supposed to be the adult author typing the script.  It’s sort of Brechtian-lite—and more of a distraction than a theatrical enhancement, I found.

To go along with the projected text, Gurney includes presentational asides to the audience, some of which are minor exposition (Bonny has a speech about the dangerous thrill of the rollercoaster she’s legally too young to ride), but most, especially at the outset, are each major character—the three Higginses—turning to the audience and proclaiming that the play is about him or her.  This device didn’t seem to go anywhere, either dramatically (it’s in the last of these that we learn that Charlie is the play’s author, but that’s really the most we get) or theatrically.  It interrupts the flow of the play without providing anything revealing and Simpson didn’t come up with a technique to make better use of the device.  The rest of the performance is essentially representational Realism.

In another touch of Brecht, there’s also that solo drummer—no band, just percussion—who accompanies the dialogue to establish or emphasize the rhythm of the characters’ speech.  Performed by Dan Weiner, who also provides some sound effects like the slam of a car door and the ping of shelled peas hitting a pail as well as few rim-shots, this is also something I think has been added since the ’83 début (no mention again in published reviews) and I’m not sure what Simpson wanted it to accomplish.  It may have something to do with the acting style the director seems to have devised for Signature’s Summer, which I found a little mannered, especially among the actors playing the teens.  The actors—who are all young adults, not children—moved in a way that made them look choreographed and spoke in odd bursts of words as if they were doing cartoon adolescents.  It was a common characteristic, so I assume it was Simpson’s selection, not the actors’. 

I got the impression that Simpson wasn’t sure if the play was a form of straight Realism (as I think it is) or something like impressionistic Symbolism.  (Those interludes of direct address may have been a source of his confusion.)  It was probably Simpson’s way of diverting attention from the deficiencies of Gurney’s script, but it only partially worked.  (When Signature artistic director Houghton proposed both Wayside Motor Inn and What I Did Last Summer for Gurney’s residency, the playwright had his doubts that “those plays would quite stand up.”)  The near-eccentric acting style, the percussive accompaniment, the Brechtian projections, however, couldn’t cover the klutzy dialogue, sketchy characters, and flimsy drama. 

If I accept that the mannered acting was the responsibility of the director, I have to say that the cast executed their jobs well, despite the impediments supplied by Gurney and Simpson.  Noah Galvin (who bears a passing resemblance to a teenaged Gurney, as it happens) as Charlie was the most affected by the performance style; it made him seem a little fey.  (I also think Galvin, who’s only about 21 now and has been playing teens since he was one, has gotten in the habit of playing “cute,” an actor phenomenon I’ve encountered before in young performers who started out a child actors.)

The most pervasive problem in the performance was the relationship between Charlie and Anna.  As played by Galvin and Kristine Nielsen, there didn’t seem to be much passion in the pairing.  It was as if they came together merely to piss Grace off, not so much because they each had anything they needed to accomplish.  Much of this is (lacking) in Gurney’s writing, to be sure, and director Simpson didn’t do enough to build up the central relationship that should have been the core of this coming-of-age story, but the acting in general was so superficial that Galvin and Nielsen must take considerable responsibility for the hole in the middle of Signature’s Summer.  As Elsie, Izzie Steele (who replaced Kate McGonigle on 2 June) is no more than an annoying, self-centered older sister, exasperated by the very existence of her little brother.  Carolyn McCormick’s Grace is mostly a hovering cypher about whom we learn little beyond the fact that she feels bereft at the absence of her husband (and is having a casual affair).  (Any deep concern for dad off fighting in the Pacific isn’t portrayed in Summer; we only hear that he’s on a destroyer escort and, at the end, that he’s come home and Grace is going off by train to meet him in San Francisco.  Otherwise, he’s just the familiar empty chair at the dining table.)

Charlie’s two friends fare better, though neither character is fully fleshed-out in Gurney’s script.  Pico Alexander’s Ted, the Canadian local boy who feels like a sideman to the wealthier American summer residents on whom he and his family wait but who nevertheless is a role model for Charlie, is almost a cliché teenager, gangly and more bravado than substance.  We’re supposed to understand that there’s real boyhood affection between Ted and Charlie—the American is devastated when Ted announces that he won’t be around after this summer because his family’s moving to Toronto, but then the subject’s dropped for the rest of the play—though neither actor develops any kind of true relationship with the other that’s more significant than boyish horseplay and a little one-upmanship.  That competition focuses on Bonny, of course, the 14-year-old American girl on whom both boys have a crush.  But while Ted actively—at least within the restrictions of What I Did Las Summer—pursues his goal, a date with Bonny without Charlie tagging along, Charlie seems to be playing a very successful game of “I like you so much, I’ll ignore you.”  Bonny, as presented by Juliet Brett, is as typical a young teenaged girl as any in theater or film, and Brett manages to give her something of a personality.  Yet, she’s so underused as a character—her existence precipitates the incident that brings the play to its conclusion, though Bonny herself doesn’t actually do anything to cause it—that Brett has little do but serve as a sort of catalyst.  We know Bonny likes both Ted and Charlie, but there’s no actual connection between Brett and either boy on stage, almost as if she were in another, connected story that Gurney didn’t write.

Aside from Narun’s projection of the typing, the set was almost nonexistent; most props were mimed.  (“Pete [Gurney’s nickname among his friends] and I don’t like to see a lot of junk on stage when the essence of theatre is to say: ‘Can we join in this act of imagination together?’” said Simpson in an interview.  The director asserted that when staged “simply,” the play takes on “an improvisatory feel.”)  Michael Yeargan designed a two-level platform with a simple wooden bench which served as a number of seats (including, for instance, the front seat of the Higgins’s, Ted’s, and Anna’s cars).  Other incidental properties were toted on and off by the actors—a stand-alone steering wheel, some stools which also doubled as luggage and boxes for the car’s back seat.  Brian Aldous’s lighting kept it all sunshine bright—I guess it never clouded over on Lake Erie that summer—and with the nearly-bare stage, made the scene feel unvaryingly . . . well, sunny.  (Two scenes take place at night.)  Claudia Brown’s costumes, as I hinted earlier, were perfectly unsurprising summer dress for a lakeside community of the time (and, really, perhaps except for the length of Grace’s dresses, anytime since the middle of the last century).  Ted wore Bermuda-length shorts and Charlie almost always wore khakis and a tee.  Except for Anna, whose attire was standard bohemian/country eccentricity, nothing gave away individual character detail—which, of course, is typical of Gurney’s habitual turf: the conform-minded, middle-class WASP.

An inescapable element of Simpson’s production of Summer, one that is part of Gurney’s original script, is the music played in the background of many scenes and interstices.  (This is unrelated, by the way, to the drums which accompany the dialogue.)  Bonny speaks of listening to Your Hit Parade, a popular radio program on Saturday evening that played the top-selling pop songs of the week, and Gurney mandates a soundtrack for Summer of these tunes, most of them now familiar even to later generations.  It was still the Big Band era in the U.S., and songs like “I’ll Be Seeing You” (recorded by Tamara Drasin, 1938), “Swinging on a Star” (Bing Crosby, 1944), and “The Last Time I Saw Paris” (Ann Sothern, 1941) were the soundtrack of 1945 just as what we now characterize as classic rock was the soundtrack of my teens.  As coordinated by sound designer Janie Bullard, it was a very effective evocation of the period and with the minimal scenery and simple costumes, was significant in evoking the milieu.

In the press, the reception was extremely mixed (as it was in 1983, though the current consensus is overall less dismissive.)  Elisabeth Vincentelli of the New York Post, calling Summer a “Valuable Lesson play” that’s “predictable,” wrote that “it’s easy to overlook the story’s banality since the show’s warmly engaging, inventively staged and elevated by a wonderful cast.”  Vincentelli also said Summer’s “sepia-toned” as it “explores well-trod terrain” to “its inevitable bittersweet end,” but “well-crafted” (because the playwright “knows what he’s doing”).  “But you’re happy to go along,” the Post reviewer assured us, “because those clichés are so nicely wrapped.”  She summed up by adding that Summer “isn’t going to win any points for audacity, but either is mac and cheese.  But that doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy them.”  In Long Island’s Newsday, Linda Winer’s review began with the “Bottom Line”: “A.R. Gurney's problem play is still a problem.”  The Signature revival, Winer wrote, has been “directed with intentionally exaggerated histrionics and strained stylization” which Simpson “stretches into a style that feels gimmicky and superimposed on the essential naturalism of the play,” which “only becomes meaningful in the final scenes.”  “Rather than a play about an annoying time of life,” concluded the Newsday reviewer, “this is an annoying play.”

In the Daily News, Joe Dziemianowicz dubbed Summer a “modest 1981 memory play” and the Signature revival “easy-to-like” and named Simpson’s additions of the drummer and the projection of the clacking typing writer “deft.”  In the end, Dziemianowicz affirmed that while the play itself provides “some laughs but little sting,” the “strong acting and staging” give the production “a mellow buzz.” According to the New York Times’ Ben Brantley, Summer is “a very forgiving play”—for everyone except Charlie, it’s “author,” and a “guilty memoir” for its actual writer, Gurney.  First labeled “a particularly undernourished work” in 1983, Brantley asserted, but in the hands of director Simpson, the play “turns out to have something more than what many critics first saw.”  The Timesman reported that that was “a half-baked story of adolescent growing pains,” but added that Simpson “asks us to consider these shortcomings” as a kind of metatheatrical examination of “a playwright’s coming of age.”  (From my own perspective, that seems a little heavy for this slender effort.  But then, I’m not Ben Brantley.)  Brantley felt that Simpson’s “self-conscious” insertions “give ‘Summer’ an emotional substance it might otherwise lack” and, if viewed from the proper perspective, “an unexpected poignancy.”  Nevertheless, said the Times review-writer, “the script . . . remains fairly clunky” and a “sketchy, watercolor-by-numbers reminiscence.”  The characters, too, “are outlines in search of flesh” and even the cast “never quite disguise” this. 

In the New York Observer, Rex Reed revealed that he thinks What I Did Last Summer “is not one of [Gurney’s] greatest achievements, but it is entertaining, narratively polished and well worth seeing, even for a second time.”  Still, Reed observed, Summer “shows some of the wrinkles in his struggles.”  “Slender as a thread, the play is nevertheless riveting and funny and worthwhile,” Reed concluded, and “you go away sated.”  New York magazine’s Jesse Green reported, “The lightness of the social comedy almost excuses the self-consciously weak dramatization,. . . undisguised exposition . . . and a predictable rhythm of crisis and revelation.”  He found the staging additions Simpson invented “needless” and “a distraction . . . that you eventually tune out.”  Nevertheless, “this moth-eaten, presentational style is enjoyable and convincing,” added Green, though “surface verisimilitude is generally left untethered to anything accurate at a deeper level.”  More significantly, though, the New York review-writer asserted, “The play seems confused about how seriously it wants to be taken,” resulting in an ending that Green found “slightly smarmy and slightly obtuse.”  In the end, however, the play “never makes the case that its two halves are even related, let alone that they add up to something important.”  The New Yorker’s “Goings On About Town” observed that the STC revival “can’t elevate the play beyond the maddeningly inconsequential” even though the “acting is generally fine”—special praise for Galvin and Nielsen—“and the dialogue practiced” while director Simpson “offers a few stylistic eccentricities.”

In Entertainment Weekly, Melissa Rose Bernardo deemed Summer “cozily familiar” in its “tender revival” at the Signature Center, even if the quasi-Brechtian elements “don’t work” and the lines are “less clever than annoying.”  Time Out New York’s David Cote called the revival of Summer “rather lovely and complexly articulated .”  The director, Cote found, “turns Gurney’s jokey audience asides and the watercolor-like haziness of his structure into an advantage” and “gives the bright, presentational staging a neatly abstracted sense of ritual.”  The “attractive and intelligent design,” reported the man from TONY, paired with the “excellent acting” to make the production “a pleasant discovery, the sort of show that almost feels like a vacation.” 

Among the cyber reviewers, Elyse Sommer credited “a pitch perfect cast and the insightful direction” on CurtainUp with giving Summer a “vivid new” life.  As if to contradict New York’s Jesse Green, Sommer asserted that under “Simpson's direction the essentially realistic family drama is fluidly integrated with the presentational style.”  Her only complaint about the “handsomely staged and well acted production” was “the contrivance of the way the plot twists.”  On New York Theatre Guide, Kathleen Campion stated that the Signature revival “benefits by charming staging and graphic effects that are brilliant in their simplicity and whimsy.”  Jonathan Mandell called Summer “knowing and affectionate” on New York Theater and added that it had been “given a deliciously acted production” at STC, one that is “deliberately simple and old-fashioned, but it is also deceptively so.” 

Samuel L. Leiter described Summer as a “frequently appealing but dramatically slight piece of nostalgia” on The BroadwayBlog.  “What makes this revival work,” said Leiter, is the “imaginatively stylized direction,” including “Simpson’s almost dance-like staging.”  He noted, however, that “little in the two-act play . . . is more than skin deep” even though “the dialogue is often amusing.”  With praise for the acting, the cyber reviewer lamented, “Simpson’s work is like a shiny veneer painted over a flimsy product that might not quite be all it seems if you could see beneath the surface.”  In the end, though, he found that Summer “makes it a pleasant way to spend a mid-spring evening.”  TheaterMania’s Hayley Levitt discerned that the play “is an imaginative riff on this era of cookie-cutter living” though it’s hidden beneath “an archetypal period piece.”  She noted, “The world of the play is sparse, but the world of the playwright is vivid with exaggerated memories playfully brought to life” by the acting and the directing.

23 June 2015

Simon Callow

by Kirk Woodward

By now, ROTters should be very familiar with who Kirk Woodward is and why his writing appears so often on this blog.  (His last piece, “Some Of That Jazz,” was posted on 7 June.)  This time, Kirk returns to one of his regular pursuits, the art of acting.  Kirk’s not only an actor himself, as well as a director, but he’s also both a teacher of acting and a perpetual student of the art and craft.  He makes it his practice to read books by and about actors, especially ones whom he personally admires.  This time, it’s the British actor Simon Callow, familiar to Americans who watch PBS.  I won’t say anything about Callow—I’ll let Kirk take of that himself—but I’ll note that Kirk’s “Simon Callow” is both a discussion of Callow’s acting, his ability to analyze his performance, and his book on acting, Being an Actor.  If you all are anything like me, you’ll find this a fascinating introduction to all three, and an incentive to pay more attention to Callow on screen (and on stage if you happen to be lucky enough to catch him live) and to go out and read his book.  For the rest, I’ll turn you over now to Kirk.  ~Rick]

It seems natural that there would be a connection between acting and writing. Both rely on highly verbal arts, and both are expressive – acts of both self-expression and of impressions of life, as well as of work. Many actors have written autobiographies, and many have written books about acting. Some have branched out into other kinds of writing – Julie Andrews, for example, writes books for children with her daughter, which seems appropriate in several ways.

Simon Callow – surely one of the best names ever for an entertainer – is an English actor, born in London in 1949. He is I believe better known in the United Kingdom than here, where the role he seems most noted for is his exuberant portrayal in Four Weddings and a Funeral of Gareth, whose death precipitates the funeral of the title. Americans, however, especially those who follow PBS, have certainly seen him many times; his list of credits, in theater, film, and television, is extensive. He also directs.

And he is a splendid writer. He writes so well that the only fault I can find with his work is that it’s so easy to read, that I suspect I finish his books faster than I should, carried on by his seemingly effortless and flowing style. He has written books about Charles Dickens, Oscar Wilde, Charles Laughton, and Orson Welles; he has written a highly praised book about his relationship with his close friend, an agent, the late Peggy Ramsey; he has written about classical music; and he has written invaluably about acting, in the process answering for me a practical question about acting technique that has always puzzled me. More about that below.

The two books by Callow that I’m most familiar with are Being an Actor (Penguin, 1985) and Charles Laughton: A Difficult Actor (International Pub., 1987), and I will use the first of those here to illustrate the quality of Callow’s writing about acting – an activity that is not an easy subject to write about. Many fine actors write entertaining books about the field – it is hard not to – but are not terribly useful in describing how their own acting works.

There are certainly exceptions – Uta Hagen’s book Respect for Acting (written with Haskel Frankel, Macmillan, 1973) has now been treasured by several generations of acting students.

But describing the art of acting presents challenges. For one thing, there’s no scientific way to describe what a good actor does, since each role is different, so by necessity the approach to each role will be at least a little different from the one before.

And actors genuinely don’t always know how they do what they do. Laurence Olivier’s book On Acting (Simon and Schuster, 1986) is an example; it is great fun to read, and since Olivier wrote it, it’s important, but it’s hardly a textbook; it leaves much more to be said about acting.

On the other hand, I’ve found that anyone who reads Callow’s interesting and entertaining book can gain a knowledge of acting approaches and challenges that greatly enriches the theatrical experience.

The approach that Callow, in Being an Actor, uses to confront the nature of acting is ruthless autobiography. He is ruthless in at least three ways. He acknowledges his homosexuality, which when his book was published was an unusual thing to do. He wages war on directors who insist on forcing plays into molds created by their own imaginations and not by the playwrights – as he says, “the all-knowing director” (applying the term, in his discussion of a play by Alan Bennett, to himself!).

And he acknowledges that he desperately wanted to be a member of the top rank of British actors, like Sir Laurence Olivier, who was a leading figure in Callow’s early career. Callow’s theatrical life began when he wrote Olivier a fan letter, and Olivier suggested that he come and work in the box office of the new National Theatre. From that point on, one can follow Callow’s career almost as an anthology of approaches to acting.

His first acting experiences came at Queen’s University in Belfast, in Northern Ireland. His mentors were Micheal MacLiammóir [sic] (1899-1978), an Irish actor of the old actor-manager type, a performer who dominated the stage by force of his own personality; Callow says, “He never for a moment stopped being scandalous, provocative, and downright naughty. . .”; Victor Henry (1943-1985), “the caricature of the self-destructive, demon-driven artist . . .”; and Bernard Miles (1907-1991), the unpredictable, dynamic leader of the Mermaid Theatre in London.

These three can be taken to represent, not only the first phase of Callow’s experience of acting (and that of many of us), but also an age in acting when commanding personalities dominated the stage, surrounded by subordinate figures, an age that continued in many ways well into the Twentieth Century.

Callow notes the effect he saw as late as 1970 when Peter Brook’s groundbreaking production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Royal Shakespeare Company forced many in British theater “to reconsider everything in their approach to their own work,” as thoroughgoing ensemble work replaced the “star system.”

At that same time Callow enrolled in a drama school in London called the Drama Centre, and began to learn the approach to acting taught by Constantine Stanislavsky (1863-1938). Again like many of us – or at least me – he had problems with this approach even as he saw its value. “The early work, in every class, was simplicity itself. Stanislavsky is based squarely on the concept of Action: that everything in a play is done in order to achieve a want of some kind. . . . We all had the most enormous difficulty in thinking in terms of actions; just to formulate them in terms of transitive verbs, as they obviously must be, seemed brain-bustingly difficult.”

He finally achieved a breakthrough using the technique, but found it difficult to apply in all situations. “It seemed,” he says, “that my breakthroughs must always come obliquely.” I suspect he is not the only actor who has found this to be true.

In the town of Lincoln he worked in repertory, a form of theater programming that does not exist in the United States, and in Edinburgh, and in his opinion he did work of varying quality; sometimes he approached a role successfully, sometimes not. His description of the next few years of work on stage, ending up in London, is almost a catalog of the kinds of difficulty a good actor can face when confronting new roles. There’s no such thing as saying, “I did well in the last role, so this time I'll do better.” Each role is a new challenge.

And in the next stage of his performance life, Callow took a path that many other young actors have followed: his approach to theater became political.  He joined a group called Joint Stock whose plays were intended to reflect real social situations; the acting company was to be run as a collective, not as a business directed from the top.

It was, Callow says, a feisty group, “including a number of romantic individualists, a Marxist, an anarchist and an EST Graduate.” “What we want,” one of its organizers said, “is openness and maturity from everyone.”

They induced rioting in Dublin; they conducted “research and interviews with ‘real people’” to find material for their roles; they questioned ”every aspect of their lives, and above all their theatre practice.” Everyone was an equal part of “the group” – “stage managers, lighting, designers, actors, administrators, directors.”

“We tried to find a political slogan for every scene,” Callow reports. “In every scene,” a director said of one play, “you must ask, what is being learned?” It was exciting work, but ultimately, “Joint Stock stood for the taste of its directors,” and it collapsed, suggesting perhaps that politics and theater may not be a natural mix.

Callow continued to work, encountering issue after issue that he details in his book. Dedicated to the theater, he nevertheless did some television; worked on As You Like It with, for the first time, the overwhelming director John Dexter; and created the role of Mozart in the first production of Amadeus – where it took him six months performing the role before he felt he had fully realized it.

He found a new challenge in a one-person performance of Shakespeare’s sonnets. He performed in other noteworthy plays as well. But he frequently felt a certain sterility in his work. “My career lost all semblance of coherence – which is only to say that in doing so it now resembled 90 percent of all other careers.”

“Once I might have wanted to become the Laurence Olivier of our times . . . . Now I had to acknowledge that nobody else saw me in this way. That had not stopped the young Olivier. . . . But he had a clear context in which to work: rep, Old Vic, West End. I had none. Or so I said to myself.”

Callow did not miss his goal entirely, although he writes about “my failure to become a classical actor.” He is also aware of his ambitions: “. . . some significant part of my nature is drawn to the huge, the grand, the epic, the life-changing.” He is aware, however, that he is not a top name like Olivier, John Gielgud, Ralph Richardson, or, more recently, Kenneth Branagh.

However, throughout his book he mines his experiences for gold by determinedly cataloguing his faults, his failures, and his limitations, as well as his successes, as in this comment on his performance in a play called Single Spies:  “I was trying for an effortlessness that is not entirely natural to me; to achieve it requires, in fact, a great deal of effort on my part.”

There is a great deal more in the book, including his discovery of the theories of the drama teacher Michael Chekhov (1891-1955) and his advice on the use of the imagination in acting.

Callow is also instructive on the everyday life of a working actor. For example, at one period in the early nineties, “At a critics’ preview in London . . . I overheard the man from the Mail say, ‘Isn’t he a sitcom actor? He should stick to that.’ The movies that I acted in either failed to appear or were disappointing. No theatre parts were offered. I was yesterday’s ham. By 1993, I had had to sell my house. My relationship with my partner was teetering. My secretary sacked me.”

Ah, well. Things got better . . . and worse . . . and better. That’s life in the world of entertainment.

As I’ve said, Callow’s book is full of insights about the theater. Here are a few additional examples chosen at random:

“. . . when the director is also performing in the play, everyone else becomes part of the directorial effort.”

“Some of the most precious time in the development of an actor’s work on a character is spent simply staring at himself in the dressing-room mirror, subtly shifting shape according to impulses that he doesn’t quite understand, rolling the taste of the person he is playing around his tongue.”

“Often you fall in love with a play, as with a person, but closer acquaintance reveals a serious incompatibility.”

[About an idea about a character in a play:] “. . . there were two questions: could I bring it off? And did it serve the play (as opposed to the character, a critical distinction)?”

(On playing clown roles in Shakespeare’s plays: ) “I thank my stars that I have never been asked to play one of these, because I might perhaps have been tempted to accept it. Watching the joyless routines devised by wonderful actors to try to make these elusive personages deliver their goods is among the most excruciating experiences that theatre has to offer.”

One senses that as Callow has approached each role he has played, he has looked for the key, the magic formula that would open up any play and make it available to him as an actor, and that would open him up to the play. He found many approaches that worked in various situations, but no instance where “one size fits all.”

Like snowflakes, no two theatrical experiences – not even two theatrical performances – are exactly alike. The gains an actor makes in technique in one production may make no difference in the next – or they may. In this respect the theater is like life – we cannot be sure from one moment to the next what’s going to happen.

As a result, Callow spends a great deal of Being an Actor describing his failures. He is too alert an artist to allow himself to take credit for work he knows didn’t live up to his hopes for it. On the other hand, by sharing his experiences with us, successes and failures alike, he takes us into the heart of his craft. It’s hard to imagine that actors and non-actors alike won’t learn from this book.

Following up on one theme: I mentioned above that Callow has strongly objected to the idea of what we might call the “genius director” – the director who comes into the first rehearsal armed with a “concept” that he or she is determined to fold the actors into.

My memory of Being an Actor was that Callow engaged that kind of director in battle early in the book. Actually it’s not until about a third of the way through the current edition (the original book, plus an update on his subsequent career, published by Picador in 2007) that Callow encounters the director John Dexter and begins to define his position on a director’s role. It’s worth quoting at some length:

The director’s skill . . . should be at the service of the company, realizing the group’s understanding of the play and its needs. . . . Otherwise, they’re simply a pool of actor-drones, called upon as if they were faceless functionaries with no brain or understanding of their own, glorified galley-slaves. These people are artists at the pinnacle of their profession. Until actors are accorded equal responsibility with the director, the theatre will always be the fitful expression of one man’s understanding. But theatre is not that kind of an undertaking. . . . A play needs to be discovered, uncovered, one might almost say, liberated. Every single actor has a personal responsibility in this matter; every scene, every part needs to be implied from the bare text. This is an active undertaking, not a passive one. Much of the circumscribed creative excitement of the present theatre stems from this passivity.

The phenomenon of the Great Director is still with us, fed substantially by the hunger of the press for heroes.  Callow is correct: actors spend years, no, decades, learning their craft, and then get cast in plays where directors tell them where to stand, how to speak, and what to think. It seems like an extraordinarily wasteful process, even in an art known for its wastefulness. Can’t we find a way to allow actors to use what they’ve learned about acting? Some directors, of course, do.

Callow humorously quotes Ralph Richardson: “My idea of a director is a chap who puts me in the middle of the stage, and shines a bright light on me.” That may be going a little far.

I shouldn’t close this article without mentioning that I found in Being an Actor the solution to an issue of acting technique that has always puzzled me. What’s the best thing to do, the moment before you walk onto the stage and into a scene? I always assumed that somehow I should have a conscious thought about my character in my mind, perhaps the character’s primary “want” at that particular moment.

Callow doesn’t think so. Instead, he says, “It is not, as you stand in the wings, a question of being in character . . . but being ready for the character to take over.”

“Any attempt to go through lines is disastrous, robbing them of freshness, dulling the brain,” he says.
Instead, “. . . right at the beginning of this strange, eventful journey [should be] . . . openness, availability to impulse. By the time one hits the stage, one must be alive in every fibre, alive as one rarely is in daily life; the brightness of eye, the glowing skin that you see as a hot couple face each other over the dinner table – that is the state in which one should approach the encounter with the audience.”

I think this is excellent advice, and now try to follow it myself. The lines, the situations, the motivations are already in your head as you wait for your entrance. What you need is to be ready to interact and talk and listen and respond. The rest is the result of rehearsal, and will take care of itself.

One of the wonderful things about theater is that it is a world of shared experiences. Actors can and do learn from each other, by what they say and also by watching what other actors do. And experience can be passed down from generation to generation; young actors can learn from their predecessors. Simon Callow’s book is a sterling example.

18 June 2015

Home Alone 3

[This is the final section of the series of letters my dad wrote home to Mom before she came to Germany to share their new life there with him.  Dad makes some observations about the Germans that might seem harsh, but I’m here to tell you, they aren’t inaccurate.  Things may have changed in the 50 years since, but the truth hasn’t.]

Wednesday, Oct. 10, 1962
My darling,

No letter from you today, so I don’t have to concern myself with getting the answers to a lot of questions; this at least is somewhat of a compensation.  I can spend my conversation with rambling on about experiences and observations.

The German uses his fork as a shovel, his knife as a broom, his mouth as a vacuum cleaner and his stomach (I am sure) as a sewer.  He approaches food with complete and dead earnestness, and his only real concern about a menu selection is how he wants his potatoes.  Generally he likes them cooked, but I suspect he will eat them raw if necessary.  He consumes them in great quantities [and this was a good 15 years before Dan Aykroyd and Jane Curtin did “The Coneheads” on SNL!], and a meal is often meat and potatoes without any vegetable or other attendant food.  He carries the continental habit of eating with both knife and fork at the same time to ridiculous extremes.  I have seen them use the knife to put food in their mouth, and of course to help pile ridiculous mounds on the fork for inhalation.  He cuts his food only into pieces small enough to be manageable.  This means that tremendous chunks of stuff are taken at one gulp.  Large pieces also provide excellent platforms on which to place potatoes and any other items which are imbibed at the same time.  My momentary observation is that Douglas at his worst looks positively regal at the table compared to many Germans.

The German is fond of animals.  They have many dogs for pets, and never bother to take them to the curb when walking them.  This makes walking something of a challenge.  You find yourself constantly sidestepping the evidence of their presence.  [And my dad was a dog-lover.  My mother, not so much, but Dad loved dogs and we’d had several before we left the States.]

All German waiters and waitresses carry a money purse just slightly smaller than an attache case.  All checks are paid directly to the waiter who makes change immediately, and then presumably settles with the restaurant later.  For this reason he carries with him enough money to make change, and during the day this purse keeps getting fatter and fatter.  [This was, of course, in the days before credit cards were common, especially in Europe.]

I failed to mention to you in earlier letters that I have seen the signs with THAT WORD.  At several places around town a local jeweler has placed clocks which read simply his name Martin, Uhr (clocks) and Schmuck (you know).  [Okay, everyone probably gets what Dad found amusing here.  Schmuck is German for ‘jewelry’ or ‘ornament.’  It has a different meaning in Yiddish, which has bled over into English slang.]

I suppose you read of the passage by Congress of the postal and pay raise bills.  This means that we get about a 10% pay raise as soon as JFK signs it.  It goes into effect the first pay period following signing, and then an automatic additional raise in January 1964.

I must tell you of an absolutely shattering experience I had yesterday morning.  I was scheduled to pay my respects to the head of the local DGB (the association of labor unions, similar to our AFL-CIO [Deutscher Gewerkschaftsbund, or the Confederation of German Trade Unions]).  When I arrived he ushered me into the conference room where he had assembled the heads of seven unions and proceeded to introduce me to each of them and then go into a formal speech of welcome and good wishes.  This was fine, albeit slightly unexpected, and I replied as best I could.  Then came the bottle of cognac and toasts had to be drunk all around.  This at about 11 in the morning.  Believe me love, when I left that place I was not even touching the ground with my feet.  It was as bad if not worse than the Army Navy Club episode.  [I don’t know what this episode was, but I can guess.  So can you, I imagine.  The Army and Navy Club is a social organization in Washington of which my father was a member.  (They called him “Capt. K*****” there, which always amused me!) ]  I was shattered for the rest of the day—absolutely no good.  It was a good thing that I had answered your letter earlier; I never would have made any sense after that.  [It was conventional wisdom that alcoholism was the occupational disease of the diplomatic service.]

I wonder of you would try and bring something with you of my clothing.  Only if you have room and need not crowd or go over weight—I can use a sport jacket and a pair of slacks for week ends, and for working around the house, some sneakers and blue jeans.  Everything I have with me is somewhat on the dressy and formal side.

*  *  *  *
 [Thursday,] Oct. 11, 1962
My dearest,

No mail today—these must be the weekend days, and you are in Princeton so I won’t hear from you until tomorrow at the earliest and possibly Saturday.

Today there will be a slight break in the routine of calls and administrative duties here in the office.  I had a call yesterday afternoon from Frankfurt which gives me the opportunity of going there today.  Some budgetary matter[s] for the forthcoming year are to be discussed, so I shall make the trip.  In all probability I shall return this evening.

I dropped a note to Rick this morning—he told me about his unfortunate test results.  [I don’t remember what these “unfortunate test results” were—obviously a low grade; in my case, it probably was a C, I imagine.  It happened.]  I hope he isn’t having too good a time this year.  Maybe this is done purposely to bring the boys up short and get them to settle down to serious business[I doubt this.  I probably just didn’t study or something.]

I haven’t heard from Doug since last week; I can’t tell you how I envy you your trip this weekend to Pottstown [the Pennsylvania town in which my brother’s school was located].  Relate every moment and incident when you write me about it.  I must know everything.

There isn’t any more news or information to dispense at the moment.  If I got started about missing you I might go on indefinitely and first thing you know I’d start feeling sorry for myself.  Just take it for granted that I do.

*  *  *  *
Friday, Oct. 12, 1962
My dearest darling,

May I first wish you the happiest of Columbus Days.

Yesterday, as I wrote you, I had to go to Frankfurt for the afternoon.  How happy I am that I did.  There waiting for me were three letters from you, one from Auntie Mac in Israel, and the envelope from Monroe Karasik.  [“Auntie Mac” is my father’s baby sister, Marion, who lived near Boston; she must have been visiting Israel, although I don’t remember that.  I’m not sure who Monroe Karasik was, but there was a lawyer and lobbyist in Washington, a fellow Chevy Chase resident, by that name.  What he might have sent Dad is a mystery to me.]  I know that you write regularly, and I am aware that the delay and bunching up of mail is all due to the pick up and delivery systems [of that APO mail system I noted in part 2].  The proof is in the receipt of three letters at one time.  This morning I got the package of bills and other items which you sent me.  This got sent to another Amerika Haus by mistake and had to be forwarded to me here.  [The German mail system is so precise and accurate that Germans know exactly when a scheduled piece of mail is supposed to arrive and if it doesn’t get to them on the day expected, they call the post office and complain immediately!]

I’m sorry about the cards.  I did have business cards printed here (sample attached) but before I left D.C. they told me I would not have to have formal engraved cards since I was not at an embassy or consular post.  When I arrived I was told to make a formal call as soon as possible after arrival; cards for both of us will be required.  I figured you must have a plate which can be used rather than have a new one made.

About the clothing: you can leave in storage the cotton poplin suits (tan and blue), the seersucker striped suits, the linen suits and a checked light weight wool and dacron suit.  Send along the gabardines (tan, brown, and blue), dark gray stripe, and two pebble weave cotton and dacron from Brooks Bros. (one gray and one brown).  You may leave all the gay cotton and flannel slacks for summer and all the shorts (take maybe one or two pair of shorts, in case).  Also leave all the very light colored summer jackets.  Also leave the white loafers, hiking shoes, riding boots, a pair of light weight wing tip leather shoes in black and dark brown.

The weekend is coming up and that is the loneliest of times.  No office activity to make the time move along.  No car to go off touring, and no social contacts yet to spend time with.  I have had no dinner or evening invitations as yet—with the exception of tonight.  An English judge who stays at the “Club” while the international tribunal is in session, is having a small party tonight for his daughter who is arriving.  He invited me to take part and I must say I am looking forward to it. 

[The “Club,” of course, is the French Club, where Dad was still living.  The “tribunal” he mentions was an international court of reparations, known as the Arbitral Tribunal, that sat in Koblenz.  It heard suits over property seized by the Nazis during the Third Reich and I believe it had five judges, each from a different country which changed periodically on a rotating basis.  Dad eventually got friendly with the Italian judge.]

Now a few more items about the house furnishings etc.  The living room is light gray, has 2 green sofas, 5 upholstered chairs, 1 coffee table, 1 round end table.  It has a large dark wood breakfront with open shelves and small cabinet sections about as follows: [A pencil outline of the breakfront follows showing details, with dimensions and the notation: “shaded area is open.”]

The dining room is blue.  There are two side boards which line up end to end along one wall (I guess), a long oblong table (it should have leaves to insert, but I haven’t seen them), 8 side chairs and host and hostess chairs all of dark wood with blue plastic backs and bottoms, a china closet about as follows: [Another diagram is included.]

This is about 5 feet in height and approximately 4′ long.

There is also a long chest with two pair of cabinet doors.  One side of one cabinet contains six drawers (for silver and other items, I guess) about like this: [Yet another sketch.]

There was also on the dining room a low table on wheels with a glass top (tea cart) and a square table with drop leaves also on wheels.  The latter has a shallow drawer and cabinet which opens at opposite ends, front to back.  In other words both the back and front have a drawer and a cabinet which opens.

There is a large breakfront standing in the bar alcove which is like this: [A fourth drawing.]

In addition I found 8 straight and two wooden arm chairs similar to the dining room chairs only with rust brown plastic backs and seats.  There appear additional ones like this around the house for odd chairs (bedroom, etc.).  Also a brown upholstered small easy chair.

The den is light tan.  It has a blue high back sofa, leather topped desk, small coffee table, pair of end tables (small cabinet type) and two nesting tables.  Also a blue upholstered easy chair and an odd upholstered chair with wooden arms.

The breakfast room is peach and has only an open shelf cabinet.

The kitchen is light green, has an old wooden table, two above the counter double door cabinets, 3 double door below the counter cabinets and one single door.  I broom cabinet, 1 full length storage cabinet with shelves (canned goods, etc.), 5 shallow under the counter drawers and one bread drawer.

In each of the two small bedrooms on the third floor there is a single bed, a closet cabinet, a night table and a chair.

Maybe this inventory combined with the second floor information that I sent to you the other day will help decide what to take.  All in all the furniture is pretty worn and shabby.  It may be possible to request replacement or at least recovering.  I understand the thing to do is go up to Bonn and fight with the procurement man to give you some of the newer things he may have on hand in exchange for the shabbier things you may have.  In view of all the downstairs cabinets maybe you had better reconsider my suggestion about our breakfront.  At any rate, even if we do go over our allowance, I would rather pay some money to get some of our more desirable things here for the next few years.  It is always a fair gamble that we will stay longer than three years.

Does any of this make any sense to you other than I love you and I miss you terribly.

*  *  *  *
Monday, Oct. 15, 1962
My darling,

How was the weekend?  Did you manage to have both Doug and Rick together or didn’t it work out?  [I don’t recall a weekend with my mother and my brother.  (Columbus Day was on Friday, the 12th, in 1962, and that was before the holidays were all moved to Mondays, so no three-day weekends.)  Our schools weren’t that close to one another; it was a 75-mile one-way trip, a 1½-hour drive.]  I just got a delightful note from Doug this morning.  The best and most amusing part of it was the receipt of the clippings which I also sent to him.  He says “I got your letter with the pictures and I hung them on the wall behind my bed but no one can read them.”  [Doug’s talking about the German newspaper articles about Dad’s arrival in Koblenz.]  I found this terribly amusing.

He says he is doing very well and is terribly busy.  The grade average which he wrote me certainly indicates better than even very well.  It sounds like he is doing stupendously.

Now, don’t get yourself all excited about a maid.  I didn’t say I had one, I only indicated I was on the trail of one.  It may not work out since she lives out of town and has a family.  This involves commuting which may not be either possible or satisfactory.  The embassy finally gave me the go ahead on the floors and general cleaning in the house.  And I hope to get started on that this week.  If they can finish it up within the next ten days, I will move in and start getting things ready for your arrival (I personally, am quite ready).  You might jot down some food items that you think I can stock up on.  I will be in Bonn the 18th and 19th and I can use the commissary.  [Commissaries are military grocery stores, operated by the army’s Quartermaster Corps, the supply branch.  (PX’s are like department stores and are run by a Department of the Army civil service agency, in Europe called the European Exchange System, or EES.)  The embassy compound in Bad Godesberg had a small commissary.  In Koblenz, where we had no access to a PX or commissary, my family lived “on the economy,” doing our shopping just like the Koblenzers.]  I thought I would get some American canned goods (fruit juices, fruits, etc., and some cereals).  These things are generally quite expensive on the German market but the fresh foods such as vegetables and meats, butter, bread and milk are just as good [as] and not any more expensive than [at] the commissary.  [That’s not entirely accurate: the milk in Germany then was pasteurized, but not homogenized.]  I’ll also bring in some cleaning soaps and powders.  If I get the place in order and the maid is available I shall hire her and put her right to work getting things set up.

I had a rather pleasant weekend.  I mentioned in my last letter that I had been invited to a small party on Friday night by the English judge stationed here.  He had his daughter come to town to help him move his household from Berlin, where he sits on another court, and from which he has resigned, to Koblenz.  She is a very nice newly married young lady who is living in Bucharest with her husband (an Englishman) supervising some British operations in Roumania.  As a result of the little supper on Friday there was another invitation for Saturday night dinner, which helped make the weekend more pleasant and not so lonely.

This morning I called on the leader of the local SPD (one of the two major political parties in Germany [Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands, or the Social Democratic Party of Germany]) and again the cognac routine.  This time coffee came with it, so it didn’t hit me quite so hard.  I know what they mean when they talk of alcoholism being an occupational disease.  [See?  I told ya.]  I regret that I have only one liver to give for my country.  [Do you suppose Dad made that up himself?]

Tonight we are sponsoring a chamber music concert.  [This was probably a group of American musicians, either ones working locally or on tour for USIA.]  Since this requires more space than is available in our own auditorium, we use one of the local schools.  I don’t have to do anything except be there and act as host—matter of fact I am looking forward to the concert.  The quartet has an excellent reputation and it should be my dish of tea.  [Actually, they serve tea in glasses in Germany.]

I love you, I miss you, I wish the 27th were already here.

*  *  *  *
[Tuesday,] Oct. 16, 1962

No appointments today, so I have remained relatively sober.  Today another jackpot.  A lovely letter from Doug, one from Mort (your substitute husband?) and two and a half from you.  The half being the little note with the cartoon addressed directly here.  It was postmarked Oct. 13, so it only took three days; its mate has not yet arrived.  [“Mort” would be Morton Rabineau, husband of Vivian, and the other half of the couple who were my “second” parents; see letter of 8 October.  (Sidelight: “Uncle” Mort and my dad had the exact same birthday: day, month, and year; the two couples always celebrated together—except, of course, in the years my family was abroad.)  I don’t know what the cartoon was.]

I’m inclined to agree with you about Nichols [despite the variant spelling, this is certainly the real estate agent Dad wrote about earlier].  I think he is hungry enough to possibly [be] doing a better job for us than anyone else.

I think your thoughts on bringing more of the smaller pieces over is good.  After talking to a few “veterans” I find that you fight with the procurement officer on a fairly constant basis (keep after him, that is) and you manage to get furniture replaced, recovered and repaired so that eventually you get things looking pretty decent.  It’s the small little touches that make the difference.

The next few days will be busy ones for me, and you may find mail slacks off a bit.  I go to Bonn for two days of conferences (all A.H. directors in Germany).  I get back on Saturday and on Monday I go to a small town in the area named Zeltingen where we are sponsoring a three day seminar of teaching students from the two normal schools [teachers’ colleges] in this area (Rheinland-Pfalz).  [Zeltingen, a town of about 2,000 inhabitants, is on the Mosel River about 60 miles southwest of Koblenz.]  We have supplied the lecturers and subjects for these conferences and I must appear and make a welcoming speech.  Back to Koblenz on Tuesday in time for a lecture at our A.H. auditorium that night, and again the introductory remarks from me.  After that I relax and wait for you——.


P.S.  An enclosure with self-explanatory notes.  [The enclosure was a letter from Beatrice Perry, who I had guessed was the person to whom Dad referred the “English lady” who was an amateur painter; see the letter dated 5 October.  (Dad added a few wry remarks to Beati’s letter, but I won’t detail them.)  I was correct, and the British couple’s name was Melville.  Beati opened her note to Dad with: “It was wonderful . . . to know that you are really there bringing our culture to those hopeless natives (or vice versa).”  I hope she was joking!  (Whatever else people can say about Germans and their culture, it is the land that gave us Goethe, Schiller, Mann, Klee, Ernst, Beethoven, and the Bauhaus—not to mention Mercedes-Benz, Porsche, and the VW.)  Beati also mentioned Stuart Davidson, another of the partners in Gres Gallery.  He went on to start Clyde’s eateries in Washington—though he sold the company many years ago now.]

[Wednesday,] Oct. 17, 1962

The enclosed form and accompanying letter arrived from school this morning.  Since you visited Doug over the weekend I’m sure you know the whole story about his exhaustion.  That kid will play his heart out for something.  I have filled out the form except for checking the diseases on the front and his immunization dates on the back.  The latter you should take from the immunization record with his passport.  The part to be filled in by a physician does not have to be done.  Please mail it on to school. 

[Enclosed with Dad’s letter was one from my brother’s school doctor dated 13 October 1962.  The day before, Doug “played soccer until he became exhausted” and was admitted to the school infirmary.  I don’t remember this incident at all; it’s possible that I never knew about it—my folks may just not have told me Doug was sick.  (The form Dad mentions was a “preentrance [sic] health report form” that either hadn’t been filed or went missing.  Doug was scheduled for a physical at school soon, which is why my parents didn’t have to complete part of the form.)  In any case, he recovered the next morning and the doctor “dismissed him to school.”]

Since I received three (really two and a half) letters yesterday I am not surprised that there are none today.  My only complaint is that I will go off to Bonn this afternoon and not have any mail until I return on Friday night or Saturday morning.

By now the packers should be at the house completing the packing and shipping job, unless the original schedule you gave me has been changed.  This means that the decisions have been made and we no longer have to worry about them.  I’m sorry about my clothes.  I know there are a lot of them, and I’m sorry that they are my weakness.  [Dad was a clothes horse, his own kind of fashion plate!]  I apologize but there isn’t much else I can do except assure you that for the next three years my purchases will be at a minimum.  My big trouble is that I never get rid of anything—just add.  [That was true.  It helped that Dad’s style never really went out of fashion, so he could keep wearing whatever he owned until it wore out.  And he did!]  You’ll have to accept me with my shortcoming and problems.  [Too late!  They’d been married for almost 17 years by this time.]  I’m sure there must be some Freudian explanation to my clothes mania.

All my love for you is contained in each suit and pair of shoes.  Will that indicate some measure of its extent?

*  *  *  *
[This is the last letter that I have; as he wrote, on 18 and 19 October, Dad was at a conference of Amerika Haus directors at the embassy.  I don’t know if Dad didn’t write any more after that (that doesn’t seem likely) or if Mom didn’t keep the letters or if they just got lost.  Mom was due to arrive in Germany on the 26th or 27th (Dad made two different references to her arrival date), six or seven days after Dad got back to Koblenz.  In any case, this was the prelude to a wonderful family adventure and the next stage began when Mom joined Dad and continued when my brother and I came over some months later.

[A sidebar to all the preparations for shipping my folks’ personal belongings.  Sometime between the packing and the shipping, a dockworkers’ strike shut down all the Atlantic ports in the U.S. and nothing sailed.  When my brother and I arrived for our first visit, over Christmas 1962, Dad’s clothes hadn’t arrived and all he had was a trench coat for warmth.  We traveled to Paris in an unprecedented cold snap with Dad shivering and shaking all the way.  We were also forced to drive a rented Peugeot—Avis and Hertz hadn’t reached Europe yet—which was a wreck with windows that wouldn’t roll up and a heater that didn’t work—because the American car my parents had bought (an American Motors Ambassador: raise your hand if you remember American Motors!) was also sitting on a pier somewhere stateside.  Eventually the household goods and clothes arrived and everything settled down to a kind of normal.]

*  *  *  *
[The period from September to October 1962 when Dad was in Koblenz alone and Mom was in D.C. was the only extended time my parents were separated after their marriage.  (My mom and dad met on New Year’s Day 1945, soon after which my dad, who was already in the army, was shipped to Europe.  The couple corresponded regularly for the next year—they married in January 1946—and Dad later collected their letters and bound them.  I hope one day soon to write a post based on selections from that correspondence.)

[My brother and I made our first trip to Europe, as I’ve said, during Christmas vacation in December 1962.  We were surprised with a trip to Paris for the holiday—my 16th birthday, as it happens—which was an adventure of its own.  (I recount some of that trip in “An American Teen.”)  After returning to the States for the rest of the school year, my brother and I joined my folks in Koblenz in the summer of 1963 to live, going to an international school in Switzerland when the academic year started in the fall.  My parents remained in Koblenz until the spring of 1965 when Dad was transferred to the U.S. Embassy in Bonn as the Cultural Affairs Officer; he was at the embassy until 1967, when he returned to Washington and resigned from USIA.]