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Full text of "Curtains; selections from the drama criticism and related writings"

UNIVERSITY 
OF FLORIDA 
LIBRARIES 




COLLEGE LIBRARY 



m 



Digitized by the Internet Archive 

in 2011 with funding from 

LYRASIS IVIembers and Sloan Foundation 



http://www.archive.org/details/curtainsselectioOOtyna 



BOOKS BY 

KENNETH TYNAN 



CURTAINS 1961 

BULL FEVER 1955 

PERSONA GRATA I953 

ALEC GUINNESS 1953 

HE THAT PLAYS THE KING 1950 



I 



(raiBUMI! 



KENNETH TYNAN 



SELECTIONS 



FROM THE 



DRAMA 



CRITICISM 



AND 



RELATED 



TVRITINGS 



ATHENEUM 



1961 



NEW YORK 



(MriBffMn 




For permission to reprint most of what follows the 
author is grateful to the editors of twelve 
publications, six of them English — the observer, 

THE EVENING STANDARD, THE SPECTATOR, ENCOUNTER, 

SIGHT AND SOUND and BAND WAGON — and six 
American — the new yorker, holiday, harper's 

BAZAAR, harper's MAGAZINE, MADEMOISELLE and THE 
ATLANTIC. 



Selections beginning on pp. 285, 288, 290 copyright © 1958 
by Tlie New Yorker Magazine, Inc.; on pp. 228, 229, 295, 
299, 301, 303, 306, 309, 313, 316, 319, 322, 325, 327, 330, 
333, 336, 411, copyriglit © 1959 by The New Yorker Maga- 
zine, Inc.; on pp. 337, 340, 344, copyright © 1960, by The 
New Yorker Magazine, Inc. 

Selection beginning on p. 10, copyright 1951 by The Hearst 
Corporation; on p. 56, copyright 1952 by The Hearst Cor- 
poration 

Selection beginning on p. 90, copyright 1954 by The Atlan- 
tic Monthly Company 

Selection beginning on p. 154, copyright © 1956 by The 
Curtis Publishing Company; on p. 190 copyright © 1958 by 
The Curtis Publishing Company; on p. 365 copyright © 
1959 by The Curtis Publishing Company 
Selection beginning on p. 266, copyright © 1956 by Street & 
Smith Publications, Inc. 

Selection beginning on p. 425, copyright © 1956 by Harper 
& Brothers 



Copyright © 1961 by Kenneth Tynan 

All rights reserved 

Library of Congress Catalog Card Number 61-6377 

Manufactured in the United States of America by 

Kingsport Press, Inc., Kingsport, Tennessee 

Designed by Harry Ford 

First Edition 



But men must know, that in this theatre of man^s life, 

it is reserved only for Gods and angels to be lookers on. 

Francis Bacon, Advancement of Learning 



PREFACE 



Since the winter of 1948, when I came floating down from Oxford, 
I have earned most of my Hving by writing about the theatre. Long 
before I became an undergraduate I enjoyed setting down my impres- 
sions of plays in performance; it seemed to me unfair that an art so 
potent should also be so transient, and I was deeply seduced by the 
challenge of perpetuating it in print. Both at school and at the university 
I reviewed plays; whenever it was possible, I acted in them and directed 
them as well. In the autumn of 1950 I brought out a book on the theatre. 
Its style was ornate, and many of its opinions were outrageous, but it 
launched me as a drama critic, in which capacity I have since worked 
for The Spectator, the Evening Standard, the Daily Sketch, The Ob- 
server, and — from 1958 to 1960 — The New Yorker. This volume is a 
self-compiled anthology of theatre pieces I have contributed, over the 
past ten years, to these and other newspapers and magazines on both 
sides of the Atlantic. I have corrected some factual slips, expunged some 
repetitions and redundancies, and ironed out the odd grammatical flaw; 
otherwise, the articles (and excerpts therefrom) are reprinted as they 
originally appeared. I have also included a few studies of film people, 
and a handful of essays that, for one reason or another, never got into 
print. 

I have tried to arrange these chunks and splinters of prose so that 
they form a sort of personal mosaic. The order in which they are set 
out is partly chronological and partly geographical. There are five sec- 
tions, devoted respectively to the theatres of Britain, the United States, 
France, Russia and Germany. A special problem was created by articles 
about British productions of American plays. I have solved it, somewhat 
arbitrarily, by placing such reviews in the British section except in cases 
where the emphasis was so exclusively on the playwright that a transfer 

vii 



viii Preface 

to the American section seemed logical. Another part of my purpose 
verges on the autobiographical. Most critics, when they make collections 
of their work for publication, are astonished to find how consistent they 
have been; their reviews turn out to be held together by an unbroken 
thread of conviction that the years have not frayed. My own experience, 
as I went through my files, was very different. I found a great many 
inconsistencies, and was not in the least surprised. Since I set up shop 
as a taster of plays, my palate has undergone a process that some may 
call a development and others a degeneration; it is, anyway, a process of 
change. I still have the same hunger for theatre (which is, after all, the 
art that keeps me off the streets), but to assuage it I nowadays look for a 
different kind of dramatic cuisine. 

Ten years ago I was in love with the theatre of fantasy and shock. 
I wrote in a university magazine that "this sad age needs to be dazzled, 
shaped, and spurred by the spectacle of heroism. ... If heroic plays 
take the stage, life may produce, in honest emulation, its own poor 
heroes of flesh and fact." I revered poetic plays about the deaths of 
kings, especially if they had not been performed since the seventeenth 
century; I suspected that all really first-rate drama was about great men 
and dying and mourning; beyond that, nothing. It rarely occurred to me 
that theatre could be more than a combination of technical brilliance 
(on the part of directors and designers) and personal extravagance 
(on the part of actors and actresses). For me, in short, drama was apart 
from fife, instead of a part of it. 

Since then, like many of my contemporaries, I have swung over 
to another viewpoint; or, to put it more accurately, I use a wider lens. 
Travel — in France, America, Russia, and Germany — contributed a 
good deal to this broadening of outlook; so did the threat and pressure, 
no longer escapable, of world events; and so, no doubt, did the mere 
fact of growing up. Whatever the reasons, I became aware that art, 
ethics, politics, and economics were inseparable from each other; I 
realised that theatre was a branch of sociology as well as a means of 
self-expression. From men like Bertolt Brecht and Arthur Miller I 
learned that all drama was, in the widest sense of a wide word, political; 
and that no theatre could sanely flourish unless there was an umbilical 
connection between what was happening on the stage and what was 
happening in the world. That, roughly, is where I stand today, and this 
book may give some indication of how I got there. 

Most good plays, when you boil them down, deal with the problem 
of coming to terms with life — of adjusting, without surrender, to hostile 
and menacing circumstance. Today the theatre itself is confronted by 



Preface jx 

the same problem that has racked so many of its heroes and heroines. 
Our business is to urge it to face realities, even though the realities in 
question are more complex and appaUing than the worst nightmares of 
Hamlet or Oedipus. 

KT 

Neil) York, i960 



CONTENTS 

1 1 The British Theatre 3 

II ! The American Theatre 245 

III I The French Theatre 383 

W\ The Russian Theatre 425 
Vl The German Theatre 445 

Fer oration 47 3 

/72(i^x of P/^y^, Flayers and Flayivrights 477 



I: 



THE 



BKITISH 
THEATRE 



Bartholomew Fair, by Ben Jonson, and Henry V, by William 
Shakespeare, at the Old Vic; The Gay Invalid, adapted 
FROM Moliere's Le Malade Imaginaire, at the Garrick. 

The Old Vic sailed, broad-bottomed, into the New Year with Jon- 
son's Bartholomew Fair, and went down fighting. The muddled dash and 
defiance of this play is out of quite another world than that of Shake- 
speare's lighter pieces — it has its finger on the pulse, its ear at the key- 
hole, and its nose in the privy: it is, in fact, a documentary. I don't find 
much of it very hilarious, except the occasional, unexpected use of a 
long word which has since come to mean something slightly different; 
but I doubt whether this production, by George Devine, really helped 
matters. The play, to stand up, certainly needs crutches, but to judge 
from the crowd Mr. Devine assembles at the fair, nearly everyone in the 
lower orders of Jacobean England was in dire need not so much of 
crutches as of stretchers. They all snuflBe, limp, or have gap-teeth; and 
noses this season are going in all directions. The frisky pox, methinks, 
hath been at them. 

Almost everyone uses the same dead device to milk laughs from 
lines which have ceased to be funny : the actor delivers his collapsed quip 
as if he alone found it amusing. "What Wyn will, that Wyn's will will 
win, quotha!" he will say, cackling neurotically, to be greeted by frosty 
silence from his partner. He then coughs apologetically. This trick is 
doubtless legitimate from time to time, but I can't believe that Jonson 
meant all his characters to be played as club bores. It is all very animated 
and grimy, if a little too much like a drunken leper colony to be really 
fun. Somebody might make a revue number out of it, though: 

I was born in the reign of Queen Bess 

And I'm looking a bit of a mess: 

I thought it just a little much 

When someone gave me that third crutch. . . . 

3 



4 Part I: The British Theatre 

Three actors, each unassisted by nose putty, come well out of it. 
Robert Eddison, as the nouveau-riche Bartholomew Cokes, uses his in- 
nate gawkiness to fine effect, and invents for this performance a fat, in- 
gratiating child's laugh — the tense, explosive chuckle of a small boy full 
of anticipated delights. Then there is Roger Livesey, whose immense 
sloth is here perfectly matched to his part, that of a perambulant J. P. 
who, heavily disguised, investigates the "enormities" of the fair. The 
disguise, of course, renders him about as effectively incognito as a walrus 
in a ballet-skirt; fearing discovery, he shrinks beneath his cloak, turning 
up the collar in the manner of a flustered dowager in a high wind. Primly 
outraged, he looks Hke Dr. Watson trying clumsily to do a Holmes; the 
whole performance is portentously Victorian, as if Pinero had written a 
part for a porpoise. 

The third good thing is Alec Clunes' thoroughly eccentric playing 
of Humphrey Waspe, Cokes' servant. Waspe has a ferocious maternal 
regard for his young master, which he expresses by reviling him. Clunes 
behaves as if there were a hornet's-nest in his stomach; he is openly furi- 
ous, for very little reason, for the greater part of the evening. Intemper- 
ately excitable, he jabs and darts about like a galvanic King Rat suffer- 
ing from ulcers, and wears a perpetual squinting frown which says: 
"Where did I put those spectacles?" You feel that when he finds them, 
he will grind them to dust. At times Clunes appears to be crying, so 
deep-seated is his mysterious anger. And, finally made tipsy, he weaves 
and lurches through balletic patterns which would not have disgraced 
Sid Field. But the production elsewhere is wretchedly slow. 

Henry F is a much more solid job, perhaps the best all-round 
Shakespeare production the Vic has presented since the war. The play 
drives straight to those emotions of soil, birth, and breeding which we all 
profess to have outgrown, wonderfully spanning the gulf of feeling be- 
tween Kipling and poems like "No passing bell for us who die as cattle," 
The mercy and the savagery of war, the peace-lover and the warmonger 
— each point of view gets a good airing, and the final synthesis seems to 
me akin in compassion to Binyon's "Recessional." Glen Byam Shaw's 
production, heraldic, static, and bare, works up a cumulative nobility 
which convinced me, almost for the first time, that heroic plays need no 
trimmings. His second-act curtain, with the survivors of Agincourt sing- 
ing a gruff "Non Nobis" as they march away, was a miracle of simple 
tact. 

Alec Clunes' Henry starts out as a ripe rose in the bonnet of kingship. 
Though this actor can look ominous, he lacks wrath; he respects his own 
urbanity, and likes most to be at ease, a long-lipped beaming boy of 



Part I: The British Theatre 5 

thirty-six or so. Realising intelligently that the fire and bite of battle 
are beyond him, he chooses to emphasise instead the godhness of this 
repentant prince: he sanctifies his charm by putting it "in God's hands," 
and often sounds curiously like Saint Joan. The play warms at once to 
his touch; but at the end of the first act this graciousness (most strikingly 
expressed in the huge sigh of regret with which he condemns the traitors 
at Southampton) was beginning to make me anxious. He could unbend, 
but could he stand up? And the answer is that he couldn't quite. Persua- 
sively as he presents it, rueful piety alone would not have dragged that 
bedraggled army back into the breach. But he weakened nowhere else: 
godliness is next to priggishness, and this Clunes escaped wonderfully, 
keeping about him the mischief of Henry's youth to soften the holy dis- 
cipline of his maturity. My only quibble with this triumphantly "gentle 
gamester" is a look that settles on the actor's face in moments of intense 
brooding — a bulge-eyed glare which means, to me at least: "I think I've 
swallowed the spoon!" 

The Motley sets and costumes were first-rate, preserving a studious 
contrast between the honest-kersey Enghsh and the sUken-daUiance 
French. Roger Livesey (Chorus) moaned quite genially, trotting on and 
offstage hke a St. Bernard; WilHam Devhn was a trenchant and laconic 
Fluellen; Leo McKern made me laugh at the impossible humours of 
Nym by presenting him as a frustrated Disney dwarf; and Rupert 
Davies had a reverent and moving moment as the old soldier who 
finds that he has unwittingly challenged his king. Maybe the completest 
performance, apart from dunes', was Dorothy Tutin's spry little Queen- 
to-be : a frisk of impertinent babyhood, but a princess withal, with com- 
manding Oriental eyes. 

The Gay Invalid, a harlequinade based on Moliere's play about a 
hypochondriac who is pauperised by doctors' bills, might have been 
jockeyed into a passable evening's fun; but its casting, wasteful and un- 
pleasant, ruined its chances, and for this the blame must rest on Peter 
Daubeny, the manager responsible. 

The play's one joke depends on the fact that Crank, the central 
character, is an imaginary invalid; and we laugh because we can see he 
is in the prime of life. Mr. Daubeny has called on A. E. Matthews to 
play the part; and not only is Mr. Matthews, for all his eighty-one years, 
an actor of the modern school, whose casual method fits Moliere about 
as well as the glass slipper fitted the ugly sisters, he is also, quite obvi- 
ously, not in the prime of fife. It becomes nastily offensive when the 
quacks besiege this easy, creased old gentleman with his wafer-thin 
shell of a voice: they hammer him, pound and shake him, and tell him 



6 Part I: The British Theatre 

that his lungs are weak and his heart is flimsy. Hereabouts the smell of 
the bearpit gathers over the evening. Mr. Matthews goes through the 
hoops with unfussed tact, but he should never have been asked to do it. 

I don't wish to be ungallant, but Elisabeth Bergner cannot be a day 
under twenty-five, and it is nice to record that she has at last decided to 
stop playing girls in their teens. Miscast as Toinette, Crank's scheming 
housekeeper, she yet contrived to burrow into my heart as a young and 
nubile houri: those flowing arms and fingers, that eagerness to beguile, 
that sheer reUsh of joy were all as unspoilt as ever. The pity is that Mr. 
Daubeny's flair for opening cans with diamonds led him to offer her a 
part which any of a hundred repertory actresses could have played. 
Someone must soon approach her less wildly and use her special gifts 
(Bergner open-mouthed, Bergner transported) in some of the parts that 
belong to her — Frou-Frou, for instance, or Camille. 

The title bestowed on the play is totally misleading: it used to be 
called Doctor's Joy, and I think I trace the hand of Mr. Daubeny in the 
blithe inaccuracy of The Gay Invalid. Why not The Merry Prank of Mr. 
Crank? Or perhaps, for a lark, They Shoot Horses, Don't They? 



The Wedding, by Anton Chekhov, and Electra, by Sophocles, 
AT THE Old Vic, 

In their volatile new offering the Old Vic company prove, to our 
delight, that both they and Chekhov are still capable of astonishing us. 
Who, this side of infatuation, would have thought The Wedding would 
act so well, with such desinvolture? Certainly nobody since the revolu- 
tion has given us a more robust, more tenderly destructive vignette of 
the little bourgeois. The curtain whisks up on a provincial wedding-feast 
in the banqueting-room of a seedy hotel. With a free flapping of swing- 
doors and a clinking of bead curtains, the guests, prim and immodest, 
brimming and parched, swarm in. The gas-brackets spread a derisive, 
jaundiced glow over them, and as each toast is drunk a mutually indiffer- 
ent two-piece orchestra obliges with a chord. The bridegroom, fussy as 
a poodle, pops his eyes and pecks his pinch-faced, quivering wife (Doro- 
thy Tutin); an amiable Greek (Leo McKern) sweats through a won- 
derfully embarrassing speech, floundering in that vague, repetitious 
politeness to which the linguistic booby is for ever condemned; mean- 
while, mother dithers and father tepidly rambles. 



Part I: The British Theatre 7 

But the chair on the bride's left is empty; the guest of honour is 
late. Mother is for exploding; has she not sent out Andrey Andreyevitch 
with twenty-five roubles to capture the nearest available celebrity? At 
last his approach is announced, the party is fanfared into a stiff receptive 
group, and, hoar-bearded and mumbUng, the lion is shuffled on. He is 
(praise Heaven) an admiral, and must be cajoled, willy-nilly, into a few 
words. He speaks, peacefully, endlessly, about his experiences. A chair 
scrapes; he cries out joyously, discerning a sailor in the throng. Now be- 
side himself, he will demonstrate with what agility naval orders are 
obeyed. His ancient voice is strained and fluted into delivering a series 
of gibberish commands which momentarily recall Danny Kaye's excur- 
sion into Gogol. Dumbfounded, the sailor stares. The admiral continues. 
He is seventy-two, he tells us, and a plump girl in green chuckles — not 
contemptuously, but as a just comment on his senility. Out of an odd 
gratitude he begins again, an excitable telegraph clerk interrupting to 
establish his own professional zest by hammering out Morse code on the 
table. We hear more possessed, moonstruck yells at the rigging. The de- 
nouement, in which the admiral, now exposed as a mere captain, stumps 
off in fury on hearing that his twenty-five roubles have been embezzled 
by his captor, bears that unmistakable patina of compassion which al- 
ways, in Chekhov, overlays the jaggedness of farce. The party continues. 

In the virtuoso part of the admiral Paul Rogers gives his roundest 
performance of the season, and George Devine's direction imparts to the 
whole the speed and wit of the early Rene Clair comedies. As period 
piece and as production piece this is a success : at last a Ught-weight com- 
pany has found material to match its own excellences. The sets and cos- 
tumes (by Motley) are most touchingly ugly. 

The curtain-raiser, Sophocles' Electra, is a valuable example of the 
kind of work the Old Vic Theatre School has been doing in the past few 
years. It is naturally a little hard on the audience. There is no doubt 
that for many centuries after it was written this was a very remarkable 
play; one may justifiably guess that even at the height of the Renais- 
sance its stringently outspoken treatment of a legendary scandal had 
some claims on the attention of the new playgoers. But an author does 
not necessarily add a cubit to his stature with every century that passes; 
it could be urged that at a certain distance from his own country, time, 
and conventions his theatrical impact can never be commensurate with 
the effort required to bulldoze away the mounting drifts of dust and de- 
cipher his long-dead zeals and patterns. Michel Saint-Denis' production, 
slow and curiously unrhythmical, does not succeed in making the iter- 
ated griefs of this doomed house of anything more than anecdotal im- 



8 Part I: The British Theatre 

portance. The stock response of terror in the face of matricide has van- 
ished. 

The play remains an unrivalled training-ground for novice actors. 
Its enormous recitations test voice and body to the utmost, without too 
brutally testing the mind; and there are no awkward props or pieces of 
furniture to confuse the beginner. Having seen Sophocles at the Vic, one 
wants to say: "With reservations, splendid. Now let us invite an audi- 
ence and do a play." Meanwhile Peggy Ashcroft is spanning some amaz- 
ing arpeggios as Electra, showing unsuspected vocal strength and vari- 
ety; but she is unable to convince us that the middle part of the play, 
wholly taken up with lamentations over the reported death of Orestes, is 
much more than dignified padding. Catherine Lacey (Clytemnestra), 
perhaps the most striking styUst of our theatre, appears in the costumes, 
the manner, and even the voice of Gloria Swanson: and it is surely an 
error, in an age when the platform-sole suggests the shopgirl, to put your 
tragedy queen into cothurni. The Tutor's elaborate lie about Orestes' 
death is fiercely and unblushingly reeled off by Leo McKern. 



Caesar and Cleopatra, by George Bernard Shaw, and Antony 
and Cleopatra, by William Shakespeare, at the St. James. 

Overpraise, in the end, is the most damaging kind of praise, espe- 
cially if you are an actress approaching forty who has already reached 
the height of her powers. Who now remembers Rose Elphinstoune, of 
whom it was said in 1865: "Nothing can ever have moved the passions 
more than her Belvidera in Venice Preserv'd"? And in whose head does 
the name of lovely Lucy Mead, who in 1889 "seemed to attain a fuller 
greatness with each new performance," now strike a chord? 

With these ladies in mind, it may be time for a sober consideration 
of Vivien Leigh, for whom similarly vivid claims have been made. This 
summer she celebrates probably the climax of her career, a climax to- 
wards which she has climbed, with unflurried industry, for many seasons 
past. Stoically, she has absorbed her share of ill-judged malice. "Vivien 
is a galvanised waxwork," gibed an old and bitter friend; and how cun- 
ning her detractors have been to point out that the flower-freshness of 
her face is belied by her sturdy, businesslike wrists and ankles! One 
cynic, biting his nails furiously, described her as being as "calculating as 
a slot-machine." In the face of all this her calm has been complete, and 



Part I: The British Theatre 9 

we must admire her for it. 

Now, with Miss Leigh drawing the town, it is time to scrutinise her 
dispassionately. Fondly we recall her recent peak, when, in 1945, she 
held together the shaky structure of Thornton Wilder's The Skin of Our 
Teeth. She used her soul in this display; and was sweet. About this time 
Laurence OHvier became an actor-manager, and almost at once I felt 
forebodings that the lady might protest too much and cast her net wider 
than her special talents would permit. Sir Laurence cast Miss Leigh as 
Blanche in A Streetcar Named Desire. She accepted the responsibility, 
worked with Trojan intensity, and failed. After the initial shock at hear- 
ing WilUams' play described by the critics as "a shallow shocker," we 
shut our eyes tightly and forgave Miss Leigh. This year, emboldened, 
she has invited the highest kind of judgment by venturing on both 
Shaw's and Shakespeare's Cleopatras. And several authorities have 
reached out for me ultimate word in the dictionary of appraisal, and 
found her "great." 

She remains sweet. In all her gentle motions there is no hint of that 
attack and upheaval, that inner uproar which we, mutely admiring, call 
greatness; no breath of the tumultuous obsession which, against our will, 
consumes us. In Caesar and Cleopatra she keeps a firm grip on the nar- 
row ledge which is indisputably hers; the level on which she can be 
pert, sly, and spankable, and fill out a small personality. She does, to the 
letter, what Shaw asks of his queen, and not a semi-colon more. And 
how obsequiously Sir Laurence seems to play along with her, never once 
bowing to the command that most great actors hear, the command to en- 
large on the flat symbols of the text. 

Antony and Cleopatra is another world. This is a leaping giant of a 
play which demands "greatness" of its performers and sleeps under any- 
thing less. "You were a boggier ever," says Antony at one point to his 
idle doxy; and one can feel Miss Leigh's imagination boggUng at the 
thought of playing Cleopatra. Taking a deep breath and resolutely focus- 
ing her periwinkle charm, she launches another of her careful readings; 
ably and passionlessly she picks her way among its great challenges, pre- 
senting a glibly mown lawn where her author had imagined a jungle. 
Her confidence, amazingly, never flags. Once or twice in the evening 
the lines call for a sort of palatial sweetness; and she scents these mo- 
ments and excels in them. 

Yet one feeling rode over these in my mind; the feehng Mr. Bennet 
in Pride and Prejudice was experiencing when he dissuaded his daughter 
from further pianoforte recital by murmuring that she had "delighted us 
long enough." Though at times, transported by Shakespeare, she be- 



10 Pa^t I: The British Theatre 

comes almost wild, there is in Miss Leigh's Cleopatra an arresting streak 
of Jane Austen. She picks at the part with the daintiness of a debutante 
called upon to dismember a stag, and her manners are first-rate. "She 
plays it," as someone said, "with her little finger crooked." This Cleo- 
patra is almost always civil. 

Miss Leigh's piercing, candid blankness is superbly pretty; and for 
several years to come it will not be easy to refrain from wishfully equat- 
ing her prettiness with greatness. Hers is the magnificent effrontery of an 
attractive child endlessly indulged at its first party. To play Cleopatra 
the appealing minx must expand and gain texture; and she puts on a 
low, mournful little voice (her first wrinkle) to suggest seediness. But 
for the outrageous, inordinate Queen of Egypt one must return, every 
few seconds, to the published version. 

Miss Leigh's limitations have wider repercussions than those of 
most actresses. Sir Laurence, with that curious chivalry which some time 
or other blights the progress of every great actor, gives me the impression 
that he subdues his blow-lamp ebullience to match her. Blunting his iron 
precision, levelling away his towering authority, he meets her halfway. 
Antony climbs down; and Cleopatra pats him on the head. A cat, in 
fact, can do more than look at a king: she can hypnotise him. 

Whenever I see Miss Leigh, an inexplicably frivolous little Rodgers- 
Hammerstein lyric starts to trot round my head. It goes: 

My doll is as dainty as a sparrow; 

Her figure is something to applaud; 

Where she's narrow she's as narrow as an arrow; 

And she's broad where a broad should be broad. . . . 

It is a delightful song, and it gives me great pleasure. But it has 
nothing to do with the robes of queens; or with gravity; or with greatness. 



Richard II and Henry IV, Part One, by William Shakespeare, 
AT Stratford-on-Avon. 

The Shakespeare Memorial Company at Stratford has now 
launched Richard II and the first part of Henry IV. Together, these 
make up the first half of Shakespeare's tetralogy of kinghness, which is 
to be presented under the joint direction of Anthony Quayle, Michael 
Redgrave, and John Kidd. The exterior of the Memorial Theatre retains 



Part I: The British Theatre 1 1 

its touching pink ugliness, lapped on one side by the Avon; but inside, 
Quayle has made great changes, relining the auditorium to look warmer 
and more inviting, and erecting on the stage a permanent setting (by 
Tanya Moiseiwitsch) on which the full quartet of history plays will be 
acted — an imposing arrangement of beams, incorporating rough approx- 
imations of the balcony and inner recess of the Elizabethan stage. 

Richard II has been less successful than its next of kin. This is a re- 
clining, effeminate play where the "Henry" series are upstanding and 
male, and Miss Moiseiwitch's timbering is out of key with its lushness. 
Redgrave, still missing the real heights by an inexplicable inch, makes a 
fine sketch of Richard, using a shaky tenor voice, a foppish smile, and 
damp, uncertain eyes to summon up the poor man's instability. In the 
early scenes, clad in sky-blue doublet and cloak of palest orange, he 
looked exquisitely over-mothered, a king sculpted in puppy-fat. Alter- 
nately malicious and sentimental, Redgrave's Richard is a noble booby, 
sincerely envious, as well as afraid, of the power to command which is 
not his. It was not his fault that in the later acts and the slow hysterical 
slide toward death one tired of him. 

There can be no hesitation about Henry IV, Part One; oak-beamed 
and clinker-built, it fits the set perfectly. Memories of Olivier's Hotspur 
and Richardson's Falstaff inevitably taunt us, but this is undoubtedly a 
much more thoughtful and balanced production than the Old Vic's. 
Redgrave now moves into the major key with a rawboned, shockheaded 
Hotspur, affecting a rasping Lowlands brogue to account for the refer- 
ences to Harry Percy's thickness of speech; and at least three of the best 
six English juveniles crop up around him. Alan Badel, the intemperately 
exciting flyweight whose Fool partnered John Gielgud's Lear last year, 
plays the tiny part of Poins with fastidious distinction; Duncan Lamont, 
a sour young actor with a swarthy voice, finds a complete character, 
glowering and long-sighted, in the involved complottings of Worcester; 
and, finally, a shrewd Welsh boy shines out with greatness — the first this 
year. 

I am speaking of Richard Burton, whom New York saw last fall 
in Gielgud's The Lady's Not for Burning. His playing of Prince Hal 
turned interested speculation to awe almost as soon as he started to 
speak; in the first intermission the local critics stood agape in the lobbies. 
Burton is a still, brimming pool, running disturbingly deep; at twenty- 
five he commands repose and can make silence garrulous. His Prince 
Hal is never a roaring boy; he sits, hunched or sprawled, with dark un- 
winking eyes; he hopes to be amused by his bully companions, but the 
eyes constantly muse beyond them into the time when he must steady 



12 Paft I: The British Theatre 

himself for the crown. "He brings his cathedral on with him," said one 
dazed member of the company. For all his bold chivalry, this watchful 
Celt seems surely to have strayed from a wayside pulpit. Fluent and 
sparing of gesture, compact and spruce of build, Burton smiles where 
other Hals have guffawed; relaxes where they have strained; and Fal- 
staff (played with affectionate obesity by Anthony Quayle) must work 
hard to divert him. In battle, Burton's voice cuts urgent and keen — al- 
ways likeable, always inaccessible. If he can sustain and vary this per- 
formance through to the end of Henry V, we can safely send him along 
to swell the thin company of living actors who have shown us the mys- 
tery and the power of which heroes are capable. 



His House in Order, by Arthur Wing Pinero, at the New 
Theatre. 

A young wife, made to feel an intruder in her new surroundings — 
there are few more rewarding situations. We saw it last in Daphne du 
Maurier's Rebecca; but I cannot promise that His House in Order will 
appeal to quite the same audience. Pinero, writing in an atmosphere 
thick with Ibsen and with Shaw's didactic drama criticism, concentrates 
on the ethical implications of the theme with an intensity which lovers of 
melodrama may refuse to stomach. 

Nina, Filmer lesson's second wife, had entered his house as a gov- 
erness. His first wife had been a paragon; and her insufferable family 
now misses no chance to express its resentment that he should have re- 
placed her with one whom they consider a skittish upstart. The discovery 
of some letters proving that, for seven years before her death, lesson's 
paragon had been unfaithful to him puts Nina in a commanding posi- 
tion; and Pinero poses his problem: should she reveal their contents or, 
by a mighty effort of charity, burn them? 

It is a moral as well as a dramatic question, and Pinero, possibly 
remembering Shaw's homilies about the baseness of sacrificing a convic- 
tion in favour of a strong third-act curtain, answers it moraUy. One of his 
"dear good old fellows," a sympathetic observer, tries to persuade Nina 
to conceal her findings. At this point Pinero forgets Ibsen, and dates him- 
self. The action is at its climax; and what reasons does the "good old fel- 
low" propound to restrain Nina's natural impulse to brandish her dis- 
covery in the face of the pious snobs who have slighted her? He says 



Part I: The British Theatre 13 

that, by holding back, she will join those "people walking the earth who 
are wearing a halo . . . the people who have made sacrifices." He ap- 
peals, in fact, to a nauseating kind of spiritual pride; and Nina succumbs. 
Whereas your Ibsen counterpart would have said: "Tell him: never 
mind about his illusions: meet him face to face"; and there would have 
been a tragic fourth act. 

What actually follows is a fascinating compromise, which I conjure 
you to go and find out. Pinero is so astute a plot-mender that, unless you 
read the play last week, you will have forgotten. And his flair for sum- 
ming up a situation in a single piece of stagecraft never deserts him. 
John Worthing's entrance in mourning in The Importance of Being 
Earnest is not more brilliantly timed than Nina's appearance in flaming 
pink on the anniversary of her predecessor's death. 

Like so many plays by dramatists renowned for their "craftsman- 
ship," this one hinges on a supreme improbabihty. Nina's stepson, who 
stumbles on the dusty reticule which contains the incriminating letters, is 
unable to unfasten the catch; she herself has it open within two minutes. 
The entire action, one afterwards reflects, depends on the chp of that 
implausible handbag. 

The present performance is good enough to throw a cloak over this 
central failing. Mary Kerridge brings Nina to life with a desperate im- 
petuousness that never founders in pathos; Sebastian Shaw's nervous 
urbanity is exactly right for her pompous and fastidious husband — 
though whether their marriage can ever be more than Mr. Eliot's "best 
of a bad job" is a matter on which Pinero leaves us in doubt. Godfrey 
Tearle, as the counsellor-friend, cements the play together; this actor, 
with his resolute prow of a chin and brave, commiserating eyes, is one of 
the few who can unfaiHngly command something like awe. His voice is 
a moral instrument — a precious attribute for which English drama since 
the advent of Coward has found less and less use. 



Othello, BY William Shakespeare, at the St. James'. 

No doubt about it, Orson Welles has the courage of his restrictions. 
In last night's boldly staged Othello he gave a performance brave and 
glorious to the eye; but it was the performance of a magnificent amateur. 
I say this carefully, for I am young enough to have been brought up on 
rumour of his name, and I sat in my stall conscious that, in a sense, a 
whole generation was on trial. If Welles was wrong, if a contemporary 



14 Part I: The British Theatre 

approach to Shakespeare in his thunderbolt hands failed, then we were 
all wrong. 

What we saw was a tightly limited acting performance in a bound- 
bursting production. Welles the producer gave us a new vista (based on 
five permanent golden pillars) for every scene; he used a russet trav- 
erse-curtain to wipe away each setting in the same manner that the 
films would use a dissolve; he sprinkled the action with some striking 
background music and realistic recordings — in fact, he sacrificed much 
to give us a credible reading of a play which bristles with illogicalities. 
The presentation was visually flawless — Cassio's drunk scene became a 
vivid blaze of mutiny, and the killing of Desdemona, with crimson awn- 
ings over a white couch, and a high rostrum towering behind, can never 
have looked more splendid. The St. James's stage seemed as big as a 
field. 

Welles' own performance was a huge shrug. He was grand and 
gross, and wore some garish costumes superbly. His close-cropped head 
was starkly military, and he never looked in need of a banjo. But his 
voice, a musical instrument in one bass octave, lacked range; he toyed 
moodily with every inflection. His face expressed wryness and strangu- 
lation, but little else. And his bodily relaxation frequently verged on 
sloth. Above aU, he never built to a vocal cUmax: he positively waded 
through the great speeches, pausing before the key words like a landing- 
craft breasting a swell. (When dead, his chest went on heaving Uke the 
North Sea.) Wefles' Othello is the lordly and mannered performance we 
saw in Citizen Kane, slightly adapted to read "Citizen Coon." 

I think of Othello as a theatrical bullfight, in which the hero is a 
noble bull, repeatedly charging the handkerchief in the wristy grip of 
lago, the dominating matador. Peter Finch gave us none of this. His 
lago is a clipped starveling, puny and humourless, pared to the bone. 
One can accept a charmless lago, but a bantam-weight is unforgivable. 
However, Mr. Finch seemed a httle cowed, both by Mr. Wefles and the 
first-nighters, and he will surely improve. 



Helo'ise, by James Forsyth, at the Duke of York's. 

I was in some doubt, when the curtain feU, whether I should sur- 
render to rage or compromise on boredom. I knew before I entered the 
theatre that it would take a master to carve drama out of the strenuous 
subtleties of twelfth-century theology, and I was ready, too, for a good 



Part I: The British Theatre 15 

many over-simplifications about the intransigence of the Catholic 
Church. I came, then, prepared. Yet within an hour the dykes had burst, 
and a sort of enraged ennui possessed my soul. 

Mr. Forsyth justifiably interprets the tale of Heloi'se and Abelard 
as symbolic of the conflict between "blind faith" and rational beUef. His 
cardinal error — perhaps not so much an error as an incapacity — is to 
have endowed both the lovers with a crushing generic banality which at 
once stifles any interest we might have taken in what happens to their 
minds and hearts. Their love scenes kept reminding me of the apergu 
about Jane Welsh and Thomas Carlyle, that it was as well they married 
each other, since that meant two unhappy people in the world instead 
of four. Mr. Forsyth engineers a nocturnal tryst for them by having Abe- 
lard awaken Heloi'se by knocking something over, and, once they are 
together, the poetry begins to stand out rather like a vein on one's fore- 
head. Their rapture smells of old, unopened rooms. Abelard crowns one 
climax of ardour with the remark: "I ask myself — 'Whither dogma?' " I 
found myself repeating Tranio's admonition to Lucentio: 

Let's be no Stoics, nor no stocks, I pray, 
Or so devote to Aristotle's checks 
As Ovid be an outcast quite abjur'd. 

But to no purpose. Abelard was duly maimed offstage at the com- 
mand of Fulbert, here played as a church mouse, and I felt no more re- 
gret than when a senile ox goes under the pole-axe, Mr. Forsyth quite 
fails to engage our compassion for the couple in their subsequent trials, 
not the least of which is the strain of swimming against a stream of dia- 
logue with the texture of glue. "They have tracked us down like rats in a 
ship," says Abelard, somewhat loosely; and when, in the final scene, he 
sums up his entire predicament in the line: "I am utterly weary of this 
world, and physically I am not well," it is as if Lear, in the fifth act, 
should come to and demand an aspirin. The play is almost done when 
Abelard's confidant, having listened in silence to the music of an itiner- 
ant minstrel, turns to his drooping friend and says affectionately: "It's 
your song." 

It is usual at this point, when dealing with a new play, to begin 
one's next paragraph with: "But Mr. So-and-so can certainly write." I 
am afraid the present evidence denies Mr. Forsyth even that consola- 
tion. I commend to his attention the several plays written in the tenth 
century by Hroswitha, Abbess of Gandersheim. They are as mediaeval 
as heart could wish, and they have much to teach him in the way of 
pith, emphasis, and attack. 



16 Part I: The British Theatre 

In such a trap the actors can do little. Siobhan McKenna, flinty of 
mien, offers a pinched Heloise which, in its pallor and intensity, recalls 
the spooky lady in Charles Addams' drawings. Walter Macken invests 
Abelard with a soft Celtic piety, as soothing and as antiseptic as a band- 
age. Mervyn Johns, hopefully miscast as Fulbert, is unable to do much 
more than fuss with a part that culminates in his maniacal exit, shriek- 
ing: "The thing, Hugo! The thing!" The direction, by Michael Powell, 
has a sepulchral reverence of its own, and bears traces of the film studio 
in that it seemed to be taking a whole working day to get through four 
minutes of action. 



The Clandestine Marriage, by George Colman and David 
Garrick, at the Old Vic. 

This plain, brisk, and noisily actable Garrick-Colman comedy is at 
bottom a comment on arrivisme. The penniless Lovewell has secretly 
married the moneyed Fanny, whose father, a City merchant, wants to 
buy her a title in exchange for a dowry. By an intricate misunderstand- 
ing Lord Ogleby, a senescent rake, is led to beheve that he is Fanny's be- 
loved: finally, after headlong nocturnal to-and-froing, love triumphs 
over the social-profit motive. 

The odd thing about the Old Vic production is, in two words, 
Donald Wolfit; not so much his presence in it as his position. Mr. Wolfit, 
an actor of the boldly self-made sort, whose skill in playing upstarts is 
unrivalled in our time, is cast as Lord Ogleby, the senior aristocrat of 
the whole entertainment. Well, Georges Dandin wanted it; so, it seems, 
does the Old Vic; and Mr. Wolfit is thus faced with a task akin to that 
of a craftsman who should be called upon to carve a Sheraton escritoire 
out of Sherwood oak. 

The other performances are, in the main, cast strictly to type, and 
Mr. Wolfit's obtrudes like a pantomime dame in the chorus of a musical 
comedy. The authors envisaged Ogleby as a flimsy, dew-lapped ruin of a 
man; Wolfit is as staunch and foursquare as an Olympic wrestler, and 
what he achieves is a tremendous display of sheer toil, a triumph of art 
over nature, in which the actor tests all the resources of his paint-box, 
and coaxes his lordly voice to assume slippery and importunate eld by 
simulating the whine of a rusty gate-hinge. Possessing not one of the 
qualities, physical or temperamental, of the part (which have been all 



Part I: The British Theatre 17 

but patented by Messrs. Ernest Milton and Ernest Thesiger), he attacks 
it with the knockdown aplomb that Grimaldi, one imagines, might have 
brought to Coriolanus. Mr. Wolfit is an actor with a comedian's face and 
a tragedian's soul, and for this reason nearly always looks mysteriously 
miscast. He bears his present burden superbly, and rarely groans under 
it; but the result is a Dickensian pantaloon, not a Garrickian fop. 



King Lear, by William Shakespeare, at the Old Vic. 

This huge, flawed pyramid of a play has a way of collapsing under 
mere competence. Its sine qua non is a Lear who can blast to the moun- 
tain's heart and make it volcanic. The present Old Vic production, I am 
afraid, is disqualified from the start. 

There is also a multitude of lesser disqualifications. Hugh Hunt, the 
director, has kept the action chained to a slow trudge, and very few 
members of his cast seem vocally capable of competing with the continu- 
ous roar of the Old Vic's ventilation system. A whole gamut of inaudi- 
bility is painstakingly run, from perfunctory shrieks and grunts to sheer 
bellows; quite often, listening to Stephen Murray's Lear was Hke hp- 
reading Shakespeare by flashes of lightning. Many of the minor char- 
acters, notably Ernest Hare's Albany, are bewilderingly miscast. Lee 
Montague's Edmund is pure butcher-boy, reminiscent of nothing so 
much as Aubrey's absurd vignette of Shakespeare's recitations over the 
carcasses in the Stratford slaughter-house. John Phillips' Gloucester, 
stoically resonant, comes off more happily; but the clearest, as well as 
the most audible, performance is Coral Browne's flamboyant Regan, 
which is played in this actress' best "Scarlet Empress" vein. 

The basic fault of Mr. Murray's Lear is that the actor lacks weight 
to balance the scales which Shakespeare has loaded so heavily against 
him. Lear appears in only three of the last eleven scenes, but we must 
hold him always in mind if we are to forgive the extended clumsiness of 
the Edmund love-plot. Mr. Murray is unable to bridge this gap, and 
when he pottered back for the Dover mad scene, my memory of him 
had blurred almost out of recognition. Another and greater obstacle to 
the actor is Shakespeare's decision to impose a tragic ending on a story 
which in every other version (including that in The Faerie Queene) 
had ended happUy. Lear comes to die on a stage already corpse-strewn, 
and must make his death different in kind, wiser and larger than the 
rest. Here, too, Mr. Murray falls short, becoming just another victim. 



1 8 Part I: The British Theatre 

Though he ransacks his lungs, drawing speech out as if from a deep 
well, Mr. Murray lacks breath for the part. The "serpent's tooth" tirade 
was the first proof of this: he took it laboriously, like a man striding 
through a swamp. Physically unfitted to take the big speeches by storm, 
he tries instead to encircle them, as it were, with the spies of his intelli- 
gence: a method which is well enough for the smaller things, such as the 
prose scene with the disgusted Kent, but which will not do for "Howl, 
howl, howl, howl!" Mr. Murray's performance is a carefully studied pic- 
ture of senility, based on the fallacy that it is possible to characterise an 
Alp. In the last act, where Shakespeare calls relentlessly for an Ancient 
of Days, Mr. Murray gave us Old Moore. 

Reece Pemberton's principal setting is a landscape of ragged rocks, 
and his costumes seem to derive from Tartary, being all fur and feathers. 
I imagine the inspiration here was Lear's "Robes and furr'd gowns hide 
all." Alas for the Old Vic, there is much in this production that cannot 
be covered up. 



The Deep Blue Sea, by Terence Rattigan, at the Duchess. 

Terence Rattigan's new play is a searing study of the destructive 
zeal of love. It has already been acclaimed as "brilliant theatre," but 
there is a patronising ring to the phrase which I must set about demolish- 
ing. It implies that for a play to suit the theatre is not quite enough; that 
it is somehow improper to write deliberately for the medium you have 
selected — not print, not pure sound, but for an upturned host of credu- 
lous faces in a darkened hall. The Deep Blue Sea, for its first two acts, 
is a masterly piece of work, and I went out exulting into the second in- 
terval, persuaded that I was seeing the most striking new play I could 
remember, and delighted at having divined a heart-pricking strength of 
purpose with which I had never before credited Mr. Rattigan. 

The play opens with the discovery of a gassed woman whose in- 
tended suicide has been foiled by the expiry of the shilling in the meter. 
And it invites us to piece a jigsaw together, to explore why she wanted 
to die, to rebuild her past; and by withholding this information until it 
tells most — by, in fact, beginning his action where most plays of the sort 
would end — Mr. Rattigan keys us up almost to exploding point. Piece 
by piece, with seeming idleness, he presents the facts to us. She had left 
her husband and taken a lover, a clumsy, graceless, but boyishly desir- 



Part I: The British Theatre 19 

able oaf, of whom she has made possessive demands that he is incapa- 
ble of meeting. Apprised of her suicide attempt, and appalled by it, he 
walks out on her; and we leave her, at the second-act curtain, pleading 
riotously and without shame for him to stay. 

I shall never forgive Mr. Rattigan for his last act. It is intolerable: 
his brilliance lays an ambush for itself, and walks straight into it. If his 
heroine kills herself, he will merely be repeating the pattern, so he de- 
cides to let her Hve. But he has stated the case for her death so pungently 
that he cannot argue her out of the impasse without forfeiting our re- 
spect. He ekes out ingeniously, lecturing her about the necessity of sub- 
limating her impulses in painting and going to a good Art School. 
Dishonestly, he makes her insist that she does not deserve to live, thus 
hauling in all kinds of moral implications which are totally irrelevant, 
since her point was purely that she could not bear to live. When, finally, 
she chooses survival, it is for all the wrong reasons. 

The Deep Blue Sea remains the most absorbing new English play 
for many seasons. And it contains something which no English play- 
wright (save Shaw in Saint Joan) has provided since Pinero — a long, 
straight, emotional part for 'a young woman. Peggy Ashcroft plays it 
superbly, as she should, for it is analogous in shape to that of The Heir- 
ess: deserted by her lover at the end of Act II, she rejects love itself at 
the end of Act III. And in Kenneth More, who plays her fumbling bar- 
fly bedfellow, we have acquired an actor who may become our best re- 
tort to Marlon Brando, with the same doubting proviso: can he do any- 
thing else? 



Winter Journey, by Clifford Odets, at the St. James'. 

"Quite unimportant," said one of my colleagues of this play; and I 
am sick at heart that no one has thus far ambushed and cudgelled him 
for a critique so recklessly encapsulated. Mr. Odets' sin, I suppose, is to 
have written a play that could be described as "sheer theatre" — which 
is to say, it has a compelling reality within its chosen medium, and does 
not care to invade the debating-chamber, the library, or the church. And 
so, by an exercise of sophistry similar to that by which indolent essayists, 
impatiendy discussing an unfamiUar poet, resort to dubbing him "a mere 
versifier," several popular critics have accepted Mr. Odets' skill in hit- 
ting his target as prima-facie evidence that his talent is second-rate. I 



20 P^'^i I: The British Theatre 

cannot conceive why. "Sheer theatre" (applied disparagingly to Mr. 
Odets, M. Rostand, and Mr. Rattigan) will hereafter rank in my mind 
with "How well these old craftsmen knew their jobs!" (applied pane- 
gyrically to Pinero or Ibsen) as a moribund cliche beloved of intellectual 
laziness. The primary business of the theatre is to be theatrical; and I 
refuse to countenance the argument that a play is unimportant simply 
because it leaves you nothing to discuss in the intervals. Winter Journey 
(or The Country Girl, as it was called on Broadway) is intended not to 
start you talking, but to stop you talking. 

It remains well worth talking about. Mr. Odets offers us what 
amounts to an Ibsenite thesis. A middle-aged actor, after long and will- 
ing enslavement to alcohol, is summoned from retirement to play a lead- 
ing part; we meet his wife, an inscrutable creature who, having devoted 
herself for a decade to the job of keeping his illusions aUve, has become 
cynically aware of the fact that her principal value to him is as an ex- 
cuse for his failure. The director of the play for which he is engaged, a 
spiky and intimidating young ideahst, instantly decides that she is the 
cause of her husband's labefaction; that her apron-strings have strangled 
him; and his wanton but well-meaning irruption into the actor's domestic 
life precipitates (as Ibsenites will have guessed) a new, desperate dive 
into the bottle, after which the play's opening night is all but wrecked. 
By now both we and the director have realised that the wife is no sor- 
ceress, but rather a scapegoat for her husband's infirmity, as well as 
something of a martyr. Mr. Odets' climax — the Broadway first night — I 
will not reveal, beyond suggesting that his introduction of an additional 
theme — the director's love for the wife — is ill-prepared and hangs from 
the play's body with the irrelevance of a donkey's tail pinned to a fight- 
ing bull. Even so, the conclusion, that redemption is a compromise 
which no amount of idealism can achieve unaided, comes across with 
unimpaired pungency and passion. 

The casting is most imaginative. Michael Redgrave must be as de- 
lighted as I am with his playing of the mercurial bibber; it is the best 
serious performance he has given us for years. Mr. Redgrave has been 
passing through what his biographers wUl probably call "a dark period," 
lapsing often into a semaphoring, half-articulate style of playing which 
one might call algebraic, and which led him, last year at Stratford, al- 
most to grope through his parts in a distracted, unavailing attempt to 
communicate nuance. Eyes bulging, arms windmilling, he gave the im- 
pression of being possessed by an adhesive demon that was fiercely 
resisting exorcism; it was sometimes as if another man's soul were speak- 
ing, ventriloquiaUy, through his reluctant jaws. He seemed, Hke Cole- 



Part I: The British Theatre 21 

ridge, to be beset by a mixture of hyper-sensitivity and insecurity which 
was numbing his powers of direct statement. 

Frank Elgin, the drunk in Mr. Odets' play, is just such a performer; 
and in playing him Mr. Redgrave purges himself. "You are not a tech- 
nical actor," says the director (played by Sam Wanamaker), and Mr. 
Redgrave, taking a hint from this true word, battles before our eyes to 
free himself of the technical preoccupations that have been disfiguring 
his work. He bounds out of his corner, hke a recently defeated heavy- 
weight, fighting, lunging, swinging, and counter-punching; but with a re- 
vived authority and victory in his eye, for the uncertainties that are 
Frank Elgin's enemies are Mr. Redgrave's, too. The ensuing duel is con- 
vulsive, sudorific, and extremely moving, and the verdict is triumph. 
Temperamentally, Frank Elgin is a retarded boy, chronically over- 
mothered, and in this aspect of male psychology Mr. Redgrave is deeply 
versed, as his performance four years ago in Strindberg's The Father 
bore witness. In short, this part is Mr. Redgrave's special pasture; and, 
the furrow having been ploughed, the transition made, we look to him 
never to flag again. 

Beady-eyed and black-cropped, tautly ironic and especially bril- 
liant in scorn, the young director demands the epithet "combustible." 
Mr. Wanamaker is downright dangerous. He enjoys smouldering, and 
when smouldering is not enough, he throws things — among them a med- 
icine bottle, several articles of clothing, and a hail of half-smoked ciga- 
rettes. If there is nothing portable to hand, Mr. Wanamaker, profoundly 
stirred, hits himself on the forehead with a painful and audible smack. 
This is a most impressive piece of acting. The character itself is fascinat- 
ing; this director treats his actors in the Buchmanite-cum-revivalist man- 
ner popularised by the American Group Theatre, and is satisfied that 
they have grasped an idea only when one of them is sufficiently moved 
to hurl a chair halfway across the stage. Mr. Wanamaker pads ferally 
through the debris, wearing that neurotic, almost poetic look which goes, 
in America, with acute sinus trouble. 

Googie Withers, shiny and bespectacled, gives a blisteringly frank 
and unchivalrous performance as the actor's wife, whose fundamental 
loyalty has been ravaged by the frustration of too many dead years. She 
completes one of the most striking trios I have ever watched on a Lon- 
don stage. Add to this some unassuming and cleverly lit settings by An- 
thony Holland, and you have what seems to me (and, I hope, to Mr. 
Wanamaker, who directed the play) quite an important evening in the 
English theatre. 



22 P^'^t I: ^^^ British Theatre 



The DragOTi's Mouth, by J. B. Priestley and Jacquetta Hawkes, 
AT THE Winter Garden. 

The Dragon's Mouth, the new foursome reel by J. B. Priestley and 
Jacquetta Hawkes, is a kind of morality play. Mr. Priestley is not quite 
accurate in describing it as a return "to the oldest traditions of the 
drama"; what he has done is to return to the mediaeval morality at pre- 
cisely the point when it began to die — the point at which it had devel- 
oped into an interminable debate between moral abstractions. We meet 
four types — aesthete, materialist, sensuaHst, and moraUst — trapped 
aboard a plague-stricken yacht in the Caribbean. Ashore, blood samples 
from each of them are being analysed; and while they await the results 
of the test the four becalmed souls discuss their respective reasons for 
living or dying, 

Mr. Priestley has hardly bothered to stage his debate: he lines the 
quartet up in front of microphones and lets us concentrate on the argu- 
ment. Now, argument for its own sake is only tolerable if one can smoke, 
drink, nibble at something, or participate — or, exceptionally, when all 
the participants are men of genius. But when smoking is forbidden and 
the debaters are cross-sections rather than individuals, argument loses its 
charm. It ceases, in fact, to be fun; and all drama, no matter how deeply 
it may later explore the heart-recesses, must first of all be fun to watch. 

The Dragon's Mouth should not be compared too closely with the 
Charles Laughton production of Don Juan in Hell, which inspired it. 
Laughton's experiment had the fascination of a gala charity matinee, 
since it brought together, on the same stage, Charles Boyer, Cedric 
Hardwicke, Agnes Moorehead, and the director himself. The Dragon's 
Mouth brings together Michael Denison, Dulcie Gray, Rosamund John, 
and Norman Wooland, and I beg you not to look at me like that: I am 
simply suggesting that this is not the most sharply contrasting quartet in 
existence. There was a moment in which I caught myself echoing 
Groucho Marx and speculating whether I was looking at four actors 
with one microphone or one actor with four microphones. When the play 
ended, I foregathered with three friends, and together, to redress the 
balance of talk, we sat in total silence for two hours and felt much better. 

Mr. Denison, as the arid and tormented aesthete, comes off best; 
and Miss Gray, savagely miscast as the toast of three continents, tells 
one intensely exciting anecdote about a seagull. In fact, I had better re- 
veal, furious as I am at having to do so, that The Dragon's Mouth con- 



Part I: The British Theatre 23 

tains several flights of the best rhetorical prose I have lately heard on 
the stage. But make no mistake: Mr. Priestley and Miss Hawkes are 
misusing the tools of drama, and the logical end of their method would 
be to distribute scripts to the audience and never to take the curtain up 
at all. In short, anyone wanting to get away from the theatre for an eve- 
ning should make straight for the Winter Garden. 



Timon of Athens, by William Shakespeare, at the Old Vic. 

Watching Timon was, I found, rather like going to some scanda- 
lously sophisticated party at which, halfway through, the host suddenly 
falls down drunk and begins to rave from under the piano. It starts su- 
perbly, a glittering and rapacious satire on big fleas and the little fleas 
that bite them, and Tyrone Guthrie's clamorous production gallops 
breakneck to emphasise the luridity of it all, silhouetting Timon's midget 
pick-thank toadies against the gilded background of his feasts and 
pomps. Rightly and unsentimentally, he never lets us overlook the up- 
start element in Timon's too genial distributions of largesse; rightly, too, 
he abandons all pretence that Shakespeare's Athens has any connection 
with the town whose walls Isocrates saved from ruin bare. Mr. Guthrie 
sets us firmly down in Ben Jonson territory, and the senators come 
mumbUng on like a shady conclave of corrupt borough councillors. All 
this is modern in the best sense. 

What follows, of course, is modem in other, less amiable ways. The 
berserk jeremiads with which Timon responds to the desertion of his 
erstwhile cronies; his sick and shapeless railings at man's ingratitude — 
these have a personal, compulsive note in them, a note struck in many 
of the plays, from Titus Andronicus to Lear, but elsewhere relieved by 
grace-notes from other keys. In Timon, as we would churUshly put it, 
the needle seems to have stuck. Admittedly, as Landor conceded of 
Paradise Regained, muscles sometimes stand out from the vast mass of 
the coUapsed; there are moments of wintry, leafless poetry which eat 
into the mind; and there is a situation of supreme irony when Timon, 
having banished himself to the wilderness, stumbles in his cave across a 
cache of gold — the mineral of his whole undoing. But an unhinged hero 
can, and here does, unhinge an entire play: the final door will not shut, 
and the conclusion is botched, hasty, and somehow ashamed. 

Mr. Guthrie's brilliance in the first half looked like extending itself 



24 P^ft I: The British Theatre 

well into the second, until Andre Morell's Timon laid it low. As the Poet 
(I do not, of course, mean Shakespeare) says in Act I: 

No levell'd malice 
Infects one comma in the course I hold 

— but I must hold it long enough to insist that Mr. Morell, a sturdy and 
disarming actor, has nothing like the power and range demanded by 
Timon's disjointed miseries. Bay though he might, like some locked-out 
Alsatian, he could not command my sympathy nor even, at the end, my 
interest. Mr. Morell's eyes seem unable to focus on us; and his voice too 
lacks grip, being not a little butlerish, and possessed of a hollow, muffled 
timbre, as if toothache had forced him to thrust cotton-wool into his 
cheeks. Many lesser things, however, are finely done, among them Leo 
McKern's squat and spiky Apemantus and John Phillips' robustly ef- 
feminate cartoon of a senator. All in all, this is the completest evening 
the Vic has given us since Tamburlaine. 

This being a play loaded with references to sums of money, may I 
add how helpful it would be if the programme were to give some hint of 
the current exchange-rate in crowns, ducats, and talents? It is much eas- 
ier, for instance, to form an opinion of a man who owes five talents when 
you know whether he needs, to restore his credit, a thousand pounds or 
eight and sixpence. Few bank-managers in the audience, for instance, 
would be Hkely to trust a man who owed only eight and sixpence. 



Macbeth, by William Shakespeare, at Stratford-on-Avon. 

Last Tuesday night at the Stratford Memorial Theatre Macbeth 
walked the plank, leaving me, I am afraid, unmoved to the point of pa- 
ralysis. It was John Gielgud, never let us forget, who did this cryptic 
thing; Gielgud, as director, who seems to have imagined that Ralph 
Richardson, with his comic, Robeyesque cheese-face, was equipped to 
play Macbeth; Gielgud who surrounded the play's fuHginous cruelties 
with settings of total black, which is about as subtle as setting Saint Joan 
in total white; Gielgud who commanded dirty tatters for Macbeth's army 
and brisk, clean tunics for Malcolm's, just to indicate in advance who 
was going to win. The production assumed, or so I took it, that the audi- 
ence was either moronic or asleep; it read us a heavily italicised lecture 
on the play, and left nothing to our own smaU powers of discovery. 



Part I: The British Theatre 25 

When, in the banquet scene, a real table and some real chairs, chalices, 
and candelabra were brought on, life intervened for a moment; but once 
the furniture had gone, we were back in the engulfing, the platitudinous 
void, with its single message: "Background of evil, get it?" The point 
about Macbeth is that the murders in it should horrify us; against Mr. 
Gielgud's sable scenery they looked as casual as crochet-work. 

In the banquet scene, spurred perhaps by the clever handling of 
Banquo's ghost, which vanished dazzlingly in one swirl of a cloak, Rich- 
ardson came to life for several consecutive sentences, and I could not 
help recalling a line he had uttered earlier in the evening: "My dull 
brain was wrought with things forgotten." Up to this point he had ap- 
peared a robot player, a man long past feeling, who had been stumping 
across the broad stage as if in need of a compass to find the exit. Now, 
momentarily, he smouldered and made us recall his excelling past, lit- 
tered with fine things encompassed and performed. And then, and ever 
after, Sir Ralph's numbness, his apparent mental deafness, returned to 
chill me: Macbeth became once more a sad facsimile of the Cowardly 
Lion in The Wizard of Oz. At the height of the battle, you remember, 
Macbeth contemplates suicide, rejecting the thought in the words: "Why 
should I play the Roman fool, and die on mine own sword?" Sir Ralph, 
at this juncture, gripped his blade by the sharp end with both hands and 
practised putts with it; it was as if the Roman fool has been the local 
pro. 

His feathery, yeasty voice, with its single spring-heeled inflection, 
starved the part of its richness; he moved dully, as if by numbers, and 
such charm as he possessed was merely a sort of unfocused bluffness, 
like a teddy-bear snapped in a bad light by a child holding its first cam- 
era. Sir Ralph, who seems to me to have become the glass eye in the 
forehead of EngHsh acting, has now bumped into something quite im- 
movable. His Macbeth is slovenly; and to go further into it would be as 
frustrating as trying to write with a pencil whose point has long since 
worn down to the wood. 

Sleep-walking, which appeared to be this Macbeth's natural condi- 
tion, had an unexpectedly tonic effect on his lady. Margaret Leighton 
seized her big solo opportunity, waking up to give us a gaunt, pasty, com- 
pulsive reading of the scene which atoned for many of her earlier inade- 
quacies. But two things are required for an effective Lady Macbeth: 
first, a husband off whom she can strike sparks — and it would be easier 
to strike sparks off a rubber dinghy than Sir Ralph. Second, she needs to 
be sexless; Macbeth is unique among the tragedies in that none of the 
leading characters ever mentions sexuality. Lady Macbeth is painted 



26 P^'f't I: The British Theatre 

granite, and to cast a woman as attractive as Miss Leighton in the part is 
like casting a gazelle as Medusa. In fact, it is probably a mistake to cast 
a woman at all, since Lady Macbeth offers none of the openings for nos- 
talgia, yearning, and haggard glamour which attach to every other great 
female part, from Cleopatra to Blanche DuBois. No, Lady Macbeth is 
basically a man's role, and none of Miss Leighton's sibUant sulks could 
convince me otherwise. 

Now what to praise? Kenneth Rowell's sculptural costumes, which 
sat well on everyone save, unaccountably, Sir Ralph; Siobhan McKen- 
na's patient Lady Macduff; and the attack, if nothing else, of Laurence 
Harvey's Malcolm. And that will have to do. The theatre which gave us, 
last year, so many pretty lessons in Shakespearean acting and produc- 
tion seems, for the time being, to have unlearned them all. 



The Millionairess, by George Bernard Shaw, at the 
Hippodrome, Coventry. 

There have been no new plays this week. A prickly calm, of the 
kind that precedes summer lightning, has left my playgoing in the dol- 
drums. And so, if you wiU bear with me, I propose to reminisce. I want 
to write about something which carried me away like a rocket when I 
saw it — five weeks ago — at the Hippodrome Theatre, Coventry. It was a 
play called The Millionairess; Katharine Hepburn was playing in it; 
and, by a happy coincidence, it is opening at the New Theatre tonight. 

The Millionairess, as everyone knows, was written by Shaw in 
1936 for Edith Evans, but it has never been performed in the West End. 
And no great wonder, because it is almost without wit, and contains 
hardly any of those somersaulting paradoxes with which, for so long, 
Shaw concealed from us the more basic gaps in his knowledge of human 
behaviour. It is that terrible hybrid, a didactic farce; in it Shaw is grind- 
ing an axe, but the sparks refuse to fly. The characters talk interminably, 
infectiously, and almost interchangeably. It is not even outrageous — no- 
body, watching it, would ever nudge his neighbour and whisper: "What- 
ever will he say next?" which is the correct response to most Shavian 
wit. In The Millionairess, written in the twilight of a civilisation and of 
its author's life, the old dexterity and assurance have given place to a 
querulous fumbling; the dialogue is twice as noisy as Shaw's best, and 
roughly half as effective. 

Its heroine, a steel girder in the play's house of cards, is Epifania 



Part I: The British Theatre 27 

Ognisanti di Parerga, who has inherited from her father £30,000,000 
and one piece of advice: she must not marry until she finds a man who 
can turn £150 into £50,000 within six months. Alastair Fitzfassenden, 
a mindless athlete, unexpectedly performs the feat, and is duly swal- 
lowed up. Tiring of him, Epifania takes to running around with a mid- 
dle-aged incompetent named Adrian Blenderbland, whose leg, in one of 
her saucier tantrums, she breaks. At length, still fretful, she meets an 
eerie Egyptian doctor, who feels her pulse, falls in love with it, and chal- 
lenges her to go out into the world with thirty-five shillings and earn her 
living for six months. Nettled, she agrees; and returns six months later 
to claim her prize, having amassed yet another fortune. She is, you con- 
clude, a shrew past taming, a force beyond resisting, a rich little rich girl 
with a heart of bullion. 

You might think, from my simplification of it, that the play is well 
constructed. It is nothing of the sort. Its long first act is entirely given 
over to the exposition of several situations that are never afterwards de- 
veloped; every scene is plastered with merciless narrative speeches 
wherein each character tells the others what he or she has been doing 
while the curtain was down. And the central character is quite hateful. 
Epifania, described by Shaw as "a born boss," bangs through the play 
like a battering-ram, living at the top of her lungs, and barking orders 
like a games mistress run amok. There is something of a crowbar about 
her charm, and something, too, of a rhinoceros. 

The part is nearly unactable; yet Miss Hepburn took it, acted it, 
and found a triumph in it. She glittered like a bracelet thrown up at the 
sun; she was metalhc, yet reminded us that metals shine and can also 
melt. Epifania clove to her, and she bestowed on the role a riotous ele- 
gance and a gift of tears not of its author's imagining. Her first entrance 
was as if she had just emerged from the sea and were tossing the spray 
from her eyes; and it was not one entrance but two, for she had swept 
in, out, and then in again before I could blink. She used her mink wrap 
as Hitler is said to have used the Chancellery carpet, hurling it to the 
floor and falling upon it, pounding her fists in tearful vituperation. 

Her voice is a rallying-call to truancy, a downright clarion; "she is," 
as someone once declared, "that yell — that shriek that is simultaneous 
with the bell ringing at school" — the bell that provokes the rush into 
the playground for the break. Miss Hepburn is not versatile; she is sim- 
ply unique. Like most stars of real magnitude, she can do one or two of 
the hardest things in the world supremely well; and The Millionairess 
scores a buU's-eye on the target of her talents. It is just hard enough for 
her, just close enough to impossibility, and from first word to last, star 



28 P'^ft I: The British Theatre 

and part are treading common ground. Epifania is written on one note, 
but it is Miss Hepburn's note, and she makes it sound like a cadenza. 

As I could have predicted, she was stark, staring, and scandalously 
bold, alternately shooting the lines point-blank at us and brandishing 
them like flags; and she reached a high point in her brazen retort to 
somebody who inquires, in the second act, whether she throws tempera- 
ments merely to make herself interesting. "Make myself interesting!" 
she flings at him. "Man: I am interesting." Between outbursts she curls 
up, cocooned in Balmain's lovely gowns, nipping intently at her sen- 
tences with sharp weasel-teeth, relaxing. What is astonishing about her is 
her warmth. Her grins gleam at you; and as she shapes them, she droops 
the corners of her eyelids and twinkles like a fire. And in her last long 
speech, a defence of marriage and all the risks it implies, an urchin 
quaver invades the determination of her voice, and coaxes the heart. At 
that moment James Bailey's plushy setting disappeared from my mind, 
and with it everyone else on stage. 

The supporting cast had done much valiant and loving work. Rob- 
ert Helpmann, rakish under a tarboosh, had padded pop-eyed through 
the role of the Egyptian doctor and made it eloquent. Cyril Ritchard 
had lent a flustered dignity, like that of a goosed hen, to the nonentity 
Blenderbland. But they vanished then, and it was, as it had been meant 
to be, Miss Hepburn's night. She combines the sparkle of "Kate the 
Curst" with the attack of Petruchio — that "mad-brain'd rudesby, full of 
spleen"; she glows like a branding-iron, and marks you her willing 
bond-slave. 

All this, of course, was at Coventry, and many weeks ago. Much 
may have been changed by now, and the show that arrives at the New 
Theatre this evening may be quite a different thing. What I have been 
writing about is strictly past history; but if it should happen to repeat it- 
self, I hope only to be within sound of the cheering. 



Macbeth, by William Shakespeare, at the Mermaid; Don Juan 
in Hell, by George Bernard Shaw, at the Arts. 

"If you would see a woman's weaknesses, look into the eyes of her 
lover" (Wisdom of the East). Now Alec Clunes is transparendy in love 
with Don Juan in Hell, as is Bernard Miles with Macbeth, and the un- 
fair result is that, in their respective versions of the two plays, Shaw's 



Part I: The British Theatre 29 

and Shakespeare's weaknesses are paraded with a new and quite unex- 
pected clarity. 

Let us deal first with Mr. Miles, who has opened his little Mer- 
maid Theatre to a production of Macbeth spoken entirely in seven- 
teenth-century Enghsh pronunciation. By a sad coincidence, this recon- 
structed dialect bears a violent Ukeness to Stage Rustic, with a touch of 
Stage Dublin; and though it helps us to understand rhymes hke "heath" 
and "Macbeth," it does nothing at all that is beautiful. On the contrary, 
it constantly reminds us that when one kind of standard diction over- 
takes another, the supplanted dialect invariably becomes debased and 
thereafter unsuitable for the noblest uses. Macbeth, in fact, is expelled 
from the court and set down firmly in the farmyard. Balking at further 
innovation, Mr. Miles has engaged a professional producer, Joan Swin- 
stead, to finish off the job begun by the scholars. Occasionally, and a 
little wildly. Miss Swinstead experiments: the company is encouraged to 
act not only on the stage, but throughout the auditorium and once in the 
garden beyond, and a series of processional entrances is made through 
a swing-door boldly labelled "Exit." But for the most part the upshot is 
a feebly conventional picture-stage production in which everyone is mys- 
teriously talking like Uncle Tom Cobley. 

Mr. Miles himself embraces the dialect like an old friend (which in 
his case it is) and goes dourly to work. His Macbeth is a rowdy, shame- 
faced upstart, a Mummerset Mephistopheles who rarely rises above the 
spiritual level of the thugs he employs. Gaudy and ostentatious, he struts 
like a prize rooster, vivid in scarlet and gold. All of which is absolutely 
faithful to the play; but the poetry, in these accents, rings false, and I 
realised for the first time why Shakespeare had not bothered to provide 
death scenes for either Macbeth or his lady. He gave one to each of his 
other heroes; but in the fate of the Macbeths, he must have decided, 
there was nothing to regret. I believe he had simply stopped Uking them, 
and so, at the Mermaid, did I. 

And now for the Arts Theatre and Don Juan in Hell. Like Mr. 
Miles, Mr. Clunes has enormous respect for his author's intentions; his 
production, accordingly, is wholeheartedly egocentric. The action is a 
debate between Don Juan, his ex-mistress Donna Anna, her father, and 
the Devil about the rival merits of Heaven and Hell; and the trouble 
with it is that all Shaw's artillery is on the side of the angels. Mr. Clunes 
seizes on this hint to turn the play into Saint Juan. He anoints the part 
with an overwhelming complacency, wreathed in a halo of weary smiles, 
and a pointblank refusal to give the Devil his due. David Bird's Satan, 
all fuss and bluster, is allowed no authority at all: he has only to open 



30 Part I: The British Theatre 

his mouth for Mr. Clunes to sigh, shrug, and grin at him as at a truant 
child. And if he patronises the Devil, Mr. Clunes positively dandles the 
other two. All this is done with a silken, non-creasing technical assur- 
ance: and the play emerges as just the outrageously lopsided affair 
Shaw meant it to be. Don Juan is first, and Hell nowhere. 



Quadrille, by Noel Coward, at the Phoenix; The River Line, by 
Charles Morgan, at the Strand; The Innocents, by William 
Archibald, at Her Majesty's. 

This autumn's comedies are wordier than ever — all festooned with 
verbal foHage, and no one on hand with a pruning-knife. In almost 
every case the tree sags groundwards. And here a footnote: all comedy 
is one, whether the author labels it "farcical comedy," "divertissement," 
or "romp." Noel Coward's Quadrille is described as "a romantic com- 
edy," a phrase to beware of, since it can (and on this occasion does) 
mean comedy gone flabby, swollen with sentiment and tugging at heart- 
strings that have slackened long ago with tedium. It is also comedy 
predictable, comedy suspenseless, comedy that is all situation and no 
plot. Quadrille suggests Oscar Wilde rewritten on a Sunday afternoon in 
a rectory garden by Amanda McKittrick Ros. 

It is 1873: the Marquess of Heronden has run away to the French 
Riviera with the wife of an American railroad tycoon. Presently their 
abandoned spouses follow in pursuit, discovering at the end of Act II 
that they are themselves in love. And that is all. When Griffith Jones 
(who had been playing the Marquess hke a man pushing a pea up a 
mountain) remarked: "It's no use trying to behave as if nothing had 
happened," my response was automatic: "But nothing has!" The dia- 
logue throughout has the befeathered sheen of a pheasant's neck; but it 
is a beheaded pheasant, with no body attached, and no power of move- 
ment. 

The excuse for this monstrously over-loaded tea-trolley of a play 
is, of course, the presence in it of Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, who 
play together, as the millionaire and the marchioness, like sandpaper on 
diamond. Mr. Lunt comes off best, since he is not required to sound 
witty; shambling and guUeless, he has the strength and stature of a dis- 
placed Zeus. Only his big speech made me cross — a sort of travelogue 
commentary on the United States that might more appropriately have 



Part I: The British Theatre 3 1 

been set to the tune of "God Bless America." Miss Fontanne, at his 
side, performs with the crackle and sheen of a new five-pound note; 
given one sprig of verbal wit to adorn it, this would have been a gor- 
geous bouquet. Mr. Coward apart, I would nominate Cecil Beaton as 
the principal culprit in the evening's shame. His costumes and settings 
reach a standard of elegance so impossibly high that even Oscar Wilde, 
amid such splendour, would sound lumpishly provincial. 

Charles Morgan, being primarily a novelist, is professionally 
wordy: which is to say that for him to write a play is an effort of com- 
pression, not (as so often) of expansion. The River Line, his latest, is 
highbrowism at something like its best, if you accept Virginia Woolf s 
definition of a highbrow as "a man or woman of thoroughbred intelli- 
gence galloping across open country in pursuit of an idea." Three war- 
time colleagues — a young American, a naval commander, and the 
latter's French wife — meet again in 1947. They share a common guilt: 
their lives first intertwined on "the river line," an escape route through 
France for allied P.O.W's, one of whom — a tall, poetic major nick- 
named "Heron" — they killed on suspicion of treachery. In Act II we 
flash back to the events leading up to his death, and in the last act we 
discover that he was innocent. More, we learn that the girl whom the 
American hopes to marry is the dead man's half-sister. Can the brusque, 
informal savagery of war ever find, in peace, forgiveness? That is the 
play's problem. 

Mr, Morgan solves it in his own remote way, speaking of moral 
responsibility and the like as if they were dead friends on whom he was 
conducting a post-mortem. And if you catch a thick, oppressive smell 
in the air, a trace of embalming fluid, that is all part of the Morgan 
method: it is the price we pay for the pleasure of hearing him speak, a 
groping prophet, about "interior grace" and that "creative pause" with- 
out which life cannot be more than a bloodstained hurry. The trouble 
is that Mr. Morgan never sheds his prophet's robes. He cannot unbend 
even when his characters are discussing dinner or the weather. He 
avoids direct statements like a saint avoiding Satan. Where other play- 
wrights would say: "What are you looking for?" Mr. Morgan says: 
"What are you searching for so diUgently?" I have heard this dubbed 
"stylish," but it is really a form of sentimentalism — the thought is bur- 
dened with an intensity it cannot support. If Morgan were only less of a 
master. The River Line might be more of a masterpiece. For all its 
hesitant pomp and ornate ambiguities, however, it is incontestably 
the finest new play since The Deep Blue Sea. Pamela Brown, Virginia 
McKenna, and, above all, the sweetly eccentric Paul Scofield (a Sco- 



32 Parti: The British Theatre 

j&eld crew-cut and nasal, of all unlikely sights and sounds!) people it 
impeccably. 

The most wholeheartedly theatrical of the recent arrivals is The 
Innocents. This is Henry James' Turn of the Screw, transmuted by 
William Archibald, the adaptor, and Peter Glenville, the director, into 
a bestial dramatic exercise in artificial frignt. "Arresting" is a word 
critics adore, but at The Innocents I was genuinely arrested; I felt the 
unseen hand on my shoulder, like the man in the story who reached out 
for the matches in the middle of the night and felt them put into his 
hand. 

The curtain unveils the hall of a country house seventy years back. 
It is grim and vasty, washed by a pale yeUow light that filters through 
gigantic windows. A new governess is expected for the two children who 
inhabit it; it is her first job, and when she arrives (played, a little too 
old for credulity, by Flora Robson), we share her discovery that both 
the boy and his sister are in constant and intimate contact with evil. We 
sit, with her, on the tongue of the mouth of hell. The sense of evil is 
oddly behaved: it can strike you in the silence of an aquarium, in the 
high corners of an empty room before dawn, and even in Madame 
Tussaud's. In The Innocents you are made to feel it in children. And 
what performances Jeremy Spenser and Carol Wolveridge are giving! 
In their dwarf antics you feel something like the chill of watching pup- 
pets throw off their strings and beckon to you. The Innocents is not the 
profoundest nor the subtlest play in London, but it is by far the most 
physically exciting. 

(19^2) 



Romeo and Juliet, by William Shakespeare, at the Old Vic. 

I am told that Claire Bloom's performance in the Old Vic's Romeo 
and Juliet is a failure because Miss Bloom ignores the poetry. They say 
she loses all the music of the verse. To which I can only reply by expos- 
ing this alleged defect for the virtue it really is. Let me start by burning 
my boats and declaring that this is the best Juliet I have ever seen. 

"Word-music" is a great maker of reputations. Give an actress a 
round, resonant voice and a long Shakespearean part, and she will have 
to enter smoking a pipe to avoid being acclaimed. And everyone will 
forget (a) that the same voice could turn last year's Hansard into 
poetry, and (b) that what Shakespeare demands is not verse-speaking 



Part I: The British Theatre 33 

but verse-acting. A golden voice, however angelic, is not enough. When- 
ever a climax looms up, the actor faces a choice between the poetry and 
the character, the sound and the fury, because you cannot rage mel- 
lifluously or cry out your eyes in tune. Edmund Kean, Irving, and 
Olivier, on whom our whole tradition of heroic acting rests, have one 
thing in common: they have all been repeatedly accused of lacking 
poetry. Miss Bloom sins in good company. 

The average Juliet sings the part sweetly, chants it demurely, dis- 
missing passion with a stamp of the foot. Nine tenths of Juliet, as Miss 
Bloom demonstrates, is not in the least demure: she is impatient and 
mettlesome, proud and vehement, not a blindfold child of milk. And the 
result is an illumination. The silly lamb becomes a real, scarred woman, 
and we see that it is the whole character that is poetic, and not just the 
lines. When she is quiet, as in the balcony scene. Miss Bloom's candour 
is as still as a smoke-ring and as lovely. "I have forgot why I did call 
thee back" is spoken with a grave amazement: there are no simpers or 
blushes in this dedicated young creature. From her first meeting with 
Romeo, as they touch hands at the Capulets' ball, she is no novice, but 
an initiate in the stately game of love. In silence, as in speech, her 
communication with Romeo is complete: their minds fit Hke hand into 
glove, and his absence wounds her like an amputation. "Word-music" 
goes overboard in Miss Bloom's best scene, that in which the Nurse 
breaks the news of Tybalt's death and Romeo's banishment — first the 
superb harshness of "Blistered be thy tongue!" after the old crone has 
reviled Romeo, and then a desolating panic, crowned at the end by an 
exit suddenly gentle and bereaved, cradling Romeo's rope-ladder to 
her breast. I have seen no more moving piece of acting this year. Miss 
Bloom was not quite adequate to the mighty obstacle of the potion 
speech, and the death scene seemed to catch her off guard. But enough 
had been done by then to make the golden statue of remembrance, 
promised by Romeo's father in the last scene, quite unnecessary. We 
had already seen pure gold. 

Alan Badel, her Romeo, is that freak, a young man with an old 
man's voice, an old man's snicker, and an old man's leer. Couple with 
these disadvantages a lack of inches and looks, and you have a problem 
that no amount of intelligence can solve. Mr. Badel is not a romantic 
actor. He does some daring Uttle things early on, but the later agonies 
are beyond him. He lingers over them, squirming and yearning, but the 
total effect is miniature — rather like a restless marmoset. 



34 Part I: The British Theatre 



As You Like It and Coriolanus, by William Shakespeare, and 
Volp072e, BY Ben Jonson, at Stratford-on-Avon. 

Let me spare a few paragraphs to celebrate the late season at the 
Stratford Memorial Theatre. I missed The Tempest, and wished I had 
missed Macbeth, in which Ralph Richardson gave such a curiously 
numb performance; but the other three productions were first-rate. 
Particularly As You Like It, where the shift in mood from wintry dis- 
cord to summery consonance was perfectly reflected in the settings and 
in Clifton Parker's lovely incidental music. I think with pleasure of those 
leafless glades because there roamed through them a magical Jaques, 
proud and sorrowful as the White Knight, and daft as Don Quixote. The 
actor, Michael Hordern, played him with a marvellous sense of injury, 
yet beneath the shaggy melancholy you felt a finely tempered mind, 
drawn still towards wit and beauty, as old racehorses will prick up their 
ears at the noise of pelting hooves. It was a great performance: rooted 
in self-disgust, but with a tattered plume of merriment capering always 
over its head. Meanwhile, Margaret Leighton was giving a highly orna- 
mental exhibition of technique as Rosalind. Fulsomely, she showed us 
all her tricks, but the impression left was somehow chilly, in the manner 
of some of Lynn Fontanne's lesser achievements. This Rosalind was a 
gay and giddy creature — ^loads of fun, game for any jape, rather like 
a popular head girl — but a tiring companion, I felt, after a long day. 

Coriolanus, also directed by Glen Byam Shaw, is more of a public 
meeting than a play, but it turned out to be a startlingly modern public 
meeting. Shakespeare is dealing with the problem of the inordinate 
man, the public figure so oversized that the law cannot bind him. 
Coriolanus is a militarist, a Roman Junker, sandwiched between the 
plebs, whom he spurns, and the patricians, whom he despises. Stratford 
gave the play what you might call a Tory emphasis. Coriolanus, that is 
to say, emerged as quite a modest chap, for all his bad temper. This was 
Anthony Quayle's doing: he played the part as a furious and impatient 
young bull, but not a mad or treacherous one. I used to think that only 
Orson Welles could make a perfect Coriolanus; but I am pretty sure 
that he could not improve on Quayle's delivery of the flamboyant final 
speech: 

. . . like an eagle in a dovecote, I 
Fluttered your Volscians in Corioli! 
Alone I did it — boy! 



Part I: The British Theatre 35 

The lines rang, as someone once said of Dryden's poetry, like a 
great brass coin flung down on marble. 

It is nobody's fault but Shakespeare's that the play ends with such 
casual abruptness; but I could find lots of people to blame for the weak- 
ness of the supporting cast, who, apart from Mr. Hordern's Menenius, 
were as uniformly bad as they had been good in As You Like It. The 
women especially belonged much more to the world of RSVP than that 
of SPQR. 

The last production of the season, Ben Jonson's Volpone, failed to 
fill the theatre at matinees, thereby sending Mr. Quayle into a fit of 
panic. I hope he recovers from it, and I hoot derisively at the idea that 
he cannot afford to give us one of these non-Shakespearean treats, say, 
every other year. Pictorially, George Devine's handling of the play 
would have delighted the heart of Inigo Jones. I thought Richardson's 
Volpone a little too fantastical and quite deficient in stature and author- 
ity. Some of the lines eluded him, others again crept in from other plays, 
and when he came to the famous "When she came in like starlight, hid 
with jewels," he got as far as the last word, paused, and firmly made it 
"gems." You might say, quite fairly, that this was a semi-precious per- 
formance: lots of glitter, but not much real worth. 

Quayle's Mosca was superb. He turned Volpone's parasite into a 
mixture of gentleman's gentleman and cad's cad, borrowing for the 
occasion the exuberantly venomous tones of Eric Blore, the Hollywood 
butler. And in the small part of Sir Politick Would-Be, which is normally 
amputated, Michael Hordern lit upon a universal type: the red-faced 
bore, the man in the know, always bragging of schemes and secrets and 
contacts — a true ancestor, in short, of poor Apthorpe in Evelyn Waugh's 
Men at Arms. 

I am told that Stratford opinion regards this as having been a 
mediocre season. By 1951 standards it may be so, but that was an ex- 
ceptional year. The safest introduction to the best in English theatre is 
still, for my money, the 2.10 from Paddington (change at Leamington 
for the shrine). 



36 P'^rt I: The British Theatre 



The Merchant of Venice, by William Shakespeare, at the 
Old Vic. 

Every play is a party, at which the author is host and the characters 
are guests. In The Merchant of Venice Shakespeare got his invitations 
badly mixed up, and the party rapidly disintegrates. In one corner 
Shylock is pulHng a knife on Antonio; around the dinner-table, slightly 
flown with wine, sits a gayer group, headed by Portia and Bassanio; 
while in the window-seat, oblivious of the rest, Lorenzo and Jessica 
raptly smooch. The three plots simply do not jell, and no producer is to 
blame when the play comes to pieces in his hands — I doubt whether all 
the King's Men, Shakespeare's own company of actors, could put them 
together again. Hugh Hunt's production fails, but it fails intelligently, 
attractively, and forgivably. 

Its centre-piece, unfortunately, is something of a sore thumb; this 
is the Shylock of Paul Rogers, who refuses point-blank to admit that he 
is playing in a comedy at all. Taking his cue from Irving and his methods 
from the Habima theatre, he erects a wailing-wall on the stage and finds 
nothing in the character beyond pride and operatic self-pity. Like the 
tailor who sent Max Beerbohm a final-demand letter, he is in the un- 
gainly position of crawling on his knees while shaking his fist. He de- 
mands, in short, an excessive rate of interest on his emotional invest- 
ments. The length of Shylock's nose is just as vital to The Merchant 
as the length of Cleopatra's was to human history. Enlarge it, and you 
see Shakespeare's idea of the man: a comic monster, richly and trium- 
phantly witty — a sort of capitalistic Caliban. If the actor grasps that, 
the pathos will come by itself. Mr. Rogers, by denying the comedy and 
going all out for the victimisation, is like the man who spoils a fancy- 
dress party by coming as a leper. 

The plot requires all three of its women to impersonate beardless 
boys, and Roger Purse has rushed to their aid by dressing them up in 
the knee-breeches and full-bottomed wigs of the Restoration, The 
disguise is, for the first time in memory, almost credible, particularly in 
the case of Irene Worth, whose Portia is instantly transformed into a 
dazzUng coffee-house spark. Donning trousers, she seems, like George 
Sand, to doff primness and mock-modesty; and you begin to understand 
the fascination male parts held for so many of our early actresses — even 
poor Mrs. Verbruggen, who possessed what a critic afterwards described 
as "corpulent and large Posteriours." Peg Woflfington's Sir Harry 



Part I: The British Theatre 37 

Wildair, in The Constant Couple, was so good that no man dared at- 
tempt the part during her lifetime. And did not Mrs. Siddons play Ham- 
let? Not to mention Mrs. Glover, who went one better and played Fal- 
staff — without padding, or so the rumour went. Only thirty years ago, 
to crown everything, a certain Lucille Laverne appeared in London as 
Shylock. Perhaps the influence of film realism has killed the old custom: 
or can it be that the George Sands of time are running out? At all events, 
I hope one day to see Miss Worth at it again. 

Her beskirted moments rather worried me. Portia's lines are not 
unremittingly funny, but they are certainly not improved by the frills 
and flounces which Miss Worth hangs out on them. She repeatedly falls 
into the classic Old Vic error of supposing that all Elizabethans laughed 
aloud at their own jokes. For her first entrance she wears an ill-advised, 
tip-tilted straw hat, such as an amusing aunt might pop on after a few 
sherries, and within seconds she is practically bursting an appendix with 
suppressed giggles. I agree that Portia must unbend with her maids, but 
there is no necessity to go down on all fours. This roguey-poguey style 
is at present all the voguey-pogue, and I caU upon Miss Worth to take a 
stand against it. 

The rest of the cast is a mixed bag. Probably Newton Blick, as old 
blind Gobbo, comes off best. With a comic finesse more often seen in 
Moliere than in Shakespeare, this fine clown presents a lunatic, dilapi- 
dated soul whose nervous tics are always two jumps ahead of his wits. 
And Jessica? Well, Claire Bloom is a very honest actress who will not 
put into a part more than she finds there; and in Jessica, of course, she 
finds hardly anything. She runs tentatively about the stage, striking 
small attitudes to cover her self-consciousness at having nothing to act. 
The role makes few positive demands, but it does involve long periods 
of silence, with which Miss Bloom's technique is not quite ready to cope. 
If the scene is romantic, she stares, admiringly but disconcertingly, 
straight into her lover's eyes, like a sea-lion awaiting a fish; if comic, the 
stare is reinforced with an eager piteous smile, as though she were com- 
miserating with the speaker over the poverty of his material. Miss Bloom 
has many gifts, but that of acting in a vacuum is not yet amongst them. 



38 Part I: The British Theatre 



The Way of the World, by William Congreve, at the Lyric, 
Hammersmith. 

William Congreve is the only sophisticated playwright England has 
ever produced; and, like Shaw, Sheridan, and Wilde, his nearest rivals, 
he was brought up in Ireland. By sophisticated I mean genial without 
being hearty, witty without being smug, wise without being pompous, 
and sensual without being lewd. These attributes, now to be seen in 
John Gielgud's revival of The Way of the World, rarely coincide in an 
Englishman who has not had the benefit of a Dubhn education or, at the 
very least, of an industrious French governess. 

Because they speak precisely and with affection for the language 
they are using, it is usually taken for granted that Congreve's characters 
are unreal. Nothing could be more misguided. These people do not bare 
their souls (that would smack of nudism), but they are real enough. It 
is the plot which is unreal; and of all plots, none more closely resembles 
a quadratic equation than that of The Way of the World. At the heart 
of the maze is Lady Wishfort, to whom nearly everyone in the play is 
related, and in whose money everyone has a consuming interest. But the 
labyrinth is so brilliantly peopled that you forget the goal. Congreve's 
genius is for mixing and contrasting human beings, not for taking them 
anywhere in particular. 

And what glorious contrasts Mr. Gielgud has provided! Having 
assembled what I heard described, in an enviable slip of the tongue, as 
"a conglamouration of stars," he has let them have their heads. The 
play sails into life with pennants flying. Mr. Gielgud is at the helm, a 
crowd of deft character actors like Eric Porter, Richard Wordsworth, 
and Brewster Mason are manning the rigging, and Eileen Herlie is 
thrown in for ballast. To pipe us aboard there is Paul Scofield as Wit- 
would, the amateur fop — a beautifully gaudy performance, pitched 
somewhere between Hermione Gingold and Stan Laurel. Gielgud's 
galleon would not be complete without a figurehead, and there, astride 
the prow, she triumphantly is — Margaret Rutherford, got up as Lady 
Wishfort, the man-hungry pythoness. This is a banquet of acting in 
itself. Miss Rutherford is filled with a monstrous vitality: the soul of 
Cleopatra has somehow got trapped in the corporate shape of an entire 
lacrosse team. The unique thing about Miss Rutherford is that she can 
act with her chin alone : among its many moods I especially cherish the 
chin commanding, the chin in doubt, and the chin at bay. My dearest 



Part I: The British Theatre 39 

impression of this Hammersmith night is a vision of Miss Rutherford, 
clad in something loose, darting about her boudoir like a gigantic bum- 
blebee at large in a hothouse. 

After which I am sorry to have to end my report on a minor chord. 
The scenes between Mirabell and Millamant, which should be the play's 
delicious crown, do not come off at all. The two lovers remain what 
Johnson called them, "intellectual gladiators," but the strength is all on 
one side, and the wrong side at that. Mr. Gielgud, an impeccable Mira- 
bell in plum velvet, has Pamela Brown begging for mercy almost before 
the battle is joined. This is, of course, a ghastly abdication on her part. 
Millamant must be the empress of her sex, and her words, whether 
tinkUng like a fountain or cascading hke Niagara, must always flow from 
a great height. From Miss Brown's mouth they do not flow at all; they 
leak, half apologetically, in dribs and drabs. Instead of saving up the 
revelation that she loves Mirabell, she lets us know it from the outset, 
thereby dethroning the empress and setting an ogling spinster in her 
place. Miss Brown, to sum up, sees through Millamant and (what is 
worse) lets us see through her as well. It is a grave mistake, and I will 
hear no excuses. All I can offer by way of consolation is this: it is the 
kind of mistake which only an actress of Miss Brown's intelligence could 
have made. 



King Lear, by William Shakespeare, at the King's, 
Hammersmith. 

It is annoying that the Old Vic did not hold Donald Wolfit in the 
troupe long enough to show us his King Lear, which is now being al- 
ternated with Twelfth Night at the King's, Hammersmith. His present 
supporting company explores new horizons of inadequacy. Only Richard 
Goolden, a macabre Fool with a senile stoop and a child's skipping legs, 
is of much assistance to the play. Extricate Mr. Wolfit's Lear from the 
preposterous production and you have a great, flawed piece of masonry, 
making up in weight what it lacks in delicacy: a tribal chieftain rather 
than a hereditary monarch. Mr. Wolfit scorns the trick (known to many 
lesser actors) of flicking speeches exquisitely to leg; he prefers to bash 
them towards mid-off and run like a stag. In the mad scenes this im- 
patience with finesse is a weakness: the insanity looks too much like 
tipsiness. And to play the last unearthly act Lear must land, as it were, 



40 P'^i't I: The British Theatre 

by parachute on the top of Parnassus. Mountaineering, however dogged, 
will not take him there. At these moments Mr. Wolfit seems unaccount- 
ably grounded. 

His mark is stUl higher up the great slope than anyone else's in our 
time. He is magnificent in the early scenes, sulking like a beaten dog 
when Cordelia refuses to play ball with him; and the colloquies with the 
Fool are horribly moving, with the old man's thoughts staring past his 
words into the chasm of lunacy. Best of all is the pause that foUows his 
fit of rage at Cornwall's cruelty. "Tell the hot duke — " he begins, and 
then stops in mid-eruption, veins knotted, fighting hideously to keep his 
foothold on the tiny ledge which stands between him and madness. Mr, 
Wolfit's Lear is a brilliant compound of earth, fire, and flood. Only the 
airy element is missing. 



The Glorious Days, at the Palace. 

The Glorious Days can best be described — to adapt a phrase of 
George Kaufman's — as Anna Neagle rolled into one. Here she is, an- 
thologised at last, available once nightly in the large economy size; 
dipping into the fabled store of her talents, she brings up a horn of 
plenty, from which she pours, with cautious rapture, three dwarf acorns. 
First, she acts, in a fashion so devoid of personality as to be practically 
incognito; second, she sings, shaking her voice at the audience like a 
tiny fist; and, third, she dances, in that non-committal, twirUng style, 
once known as "skirt-dancing," which was originally invented (or so 
Shaw tells us) to explain the presence on the stage of genteel young 
women who could neither sing nor act. 

The curtain is no sooner up, disclosing a war-time pub, than news 
arrives that Miss Neagle has been decorated for gallantry; and her 
entrance is the cue for the opening number, a ragged chorus of "For 
She's a Jolly Good Fellow," vivaciously led by a Chelsea pensioner. 
On leaving the pub. Miss Neagle is mahciously greeted by a bomb, and 
the rest of the entertainment tells, in its own illimitable way, the story 
of her concussion. For some reason she is being wooed by three men — 
a rake, a theatrical producer, and a good German — who see her, re- 
spectively, as an ideal mistress, an ideal leading lady, and an ideal com- 
rade. Which shall she be? Eliminating obvious improbabilities, you are 
left, of course, with No. 3, but Miss Neagle's methods are more circui- 
tous. She has hallucinations. 



Part I: The British Theatre 41 

She first imagines herself to be Nell Gwynn, here presented as a 
scheming social worker using her favours to blackmail Charles II into 
building Chelsea Hospital. She keeps returning to the subject at crucial 
moments in their relationship, to the King's understandable annoyance 
("That hospital for old soldiers again?"); but in the end the unsavoury 
ruse succeeds. Miss Neagle's Nell (not the broadest of Gwynns) was 
dressed by Doris Zinkeisen and devised by Robert Nesbitt; the words 
were put into her mouth by either Mr. Nesbitt, Harold Purcell, or Miles 
Malleson; her music was composed by — among others — Harry Parr 
Davies and Henry Purcell, and her dance was arranged by Frank Staff. 
From their collective guilt I except Miss Zinkeisen alone: her costume 
designs for the Drury Lane dancers, bold and striking, represent the 
only contact made by The Glorious Days with the living theatre. 

Unmoved by her failure to identify herself with pretty Nelly, Miss 
Neagle goes straight into her second audition: as Queen Victoria, the 
ideal comrade. While she changes her clothes, three choruses of "The 
Boys of the Old Brigade" are sung by an army of shuffling baritones, 
during which time there was some speculation in the house about 
whether the star had got caught on a nail in the wings. However, we 
were soon swooning back to Windsor in 1846, where Miss Neagle's idea 
of the young Victoria was revealed to be a somewhat rowdier version of 
Mrs. Gwynn. She is pictured singing a drinking song to Albert, accom- 
panying herself on the ivories, and pleading libidinously to be waltzed 
with. Bang on cue, Johann Strauss drops in, establishes his origin ("Ach, 
so"), and clicks his heels; whereupon the scenery dissolves into the 
castle baUroom, which turns out to be a nightmare premonition of the 
casino at Biarritz. To cover another costume change, a curious interlude 
ensues, of total irrelevance to the action except that it happens twenty 
years after the preceding scene and twenty years before the next. It is 
laid in a London supper saloon, and none of the characters or events in 
it is ever referred to again. The first half ends with an investiture at 
Windsor. 

There was heated division of opinion in the lobbies during the 
interval, but a small, conservative majority took the view that it might 
be as well to remain in the theatre. There was always a chance that 
Miss Neagle might come bowling on as Boadicea, with a knife between 
her teeth; or that she would be discovered, dressed like Robinson Cru- 
soe, stepping out of a boat and saying: "The Queen of Spain will thank 
us for this day's work, or she'll have Chris Columbus to reckon with!" 

As it was, she spent Part Two playing her mother, meanwhile 
delegating the job of playing herself to three other actresses. Mother, 



42 P^ft I: The British Theatre 

naturally, was a star of musical comedy who flourished from 1913 to 
1937; and Miss Neagle characterises her, with remarkable ferocity, as 
a well-meaning diseuse of appallingly limited technique. We follow her 
career through the twenties in a series of production numbers that seem 
to have been recovered from the wastepaper basket of a bankrupt 
impresario of the period. When this is over, we are back in 1943: Miss 
Neagle has chosen to marry the producer and decided, against all ad- 
vice, to become an actress. She departs for Burma with an ENS A troupe; 
and one cannot help wishing that the whole of The Glorious Days could 
go with her. If not to Burma, then at least to Birmingham. 

Its prevailing tone, to sum up, is a mixture of cynicism ("They'll 
lap it up") and joviality ("God bless them"). The Glorious Days 
demonstrates once and for all that the gap between knowing what the 
public wants and having the skiU to provide it is infinitely wider than 
most English producers ever dream. 

(1953) 



The Merchant of Venice, by William Shakespeare, at 
Stratford-on-Avon. 

Whenever I see The Merchant of Venice, I while away the blanker 
bits of verse by trying to pull the play together in my mind. Does Shylock 
stand for the Old Testament (an eye for an eye, etc.) and Portia for 
the New (mercy, etc.)? And if so, what does that make Antonio, the 
shipping magnate whose bond unites the two plots? Does he represent 
the spirit of Protestantism? These metaphysical hares chase each other 
round and round; and when I have done, the play remains the curate's 
egg it always was. Or, rather, the rabbi's egg, because so much depends 
on Shylock. Which brings us to the Problem of Michael Redgrave, now, 
as always, at the turning-point of his career. 

The difficulty about judging this actor is that I have to abandon all 
my standards of great acting (which include relaxation and effortless 
command) and start all over again. There is, you see, a gulf fixed be- 
tween good and great performances; but a bridge spans it, over which 
you may stroll if your visa is in order. Mr. Redgrave, ignoring this, al- 
ways chooses the hard way. He dives into the torrent and tries to swim 
across, usually sinking within sight of the shore. Olivier pole-vaults over 
in a single animal leap; Gielgud, seizing a parasol, crosses by tight-rope; 
Redgrave alone must battle it out with the current. The ensuing spectacle 



Part I: The British Theatre 43 

is never dull, but it can be very painful to watch. 

His conception of Shylock is highly intelligent — a major prophet 
with a German accent, a touch of asthma, and lightning playing round 
his head. But who cares for conceptions? It is the execution that counts. 
And here Mr. Redgrave's smash-and-grab methods tell against him. 
His performance is a prolonged wrestling match with Shylock, each 
speech being floored with a tremendous, vein-bursting thump; the 
process also involves his making a noise like a death-rattle whenever 
he inhales, and spitting visibly whenever he strikes a "p" or a "b." 

Some things he did superbly. At the end of the court scene, even 
after Portia had warned him that to take the pound of flesh would expose 
him to the death penalty, you felt that this cheated tyrant would be 
maniac enough to hang the consequences and start carving. There were 
also hints that Mr. Redgrave did not deny Shylock a sense of humour: 
he discovered a sensational new pun in his delivery of the speech about 
"water-rats" and "pi-rates," But he simply could not fuse the villainy 
of the part with its sardonic comedy. And I begin to think that no English 
player ever will. It needs a Continental actor to switch from fun to 
ferocity in a split second: Englishmen take at least half a minute to 
change gear. And when they are playing in their high-tragedy manner, 
as Mr. Redgrave is, they find it practically impossible to change gear 
at all. 

Now, Shylock is a proud and successful financier with a chip on 
his shoulder; he is not an abject slave bearing a yoke of lead. Mr. Red- 
grave cringes and crumples every time Antonio opens his mouth — you 
would think he had never seen a Christian before. He should, of course, 
outsmile the lot of them. Like the other Shakespearean rogues, Rich- 
ard III, lago, and Claudius, Shylock must wear a cloak of charm. Even 
Antonio describes him as "kind," and the bond must seem to be what 
Shylock calls it, "merry." Mr. Redgrave gives us nothing more merry 
than a twisted leer. Or perhaps I should say a twisted Lear. Because I 
shall be much surprised if his performance as the mad king, later in the 
season, is vocally or physically very different from last Tuesday's Jew. 
I hope one day to see this actor playing a part insincerely, with his mind 
on other matters. Then the defences might come down, and the great 
Shakespearean performance that surges within him might at last be let 
out. 

The jewel of the evening is Peggy Ashcroft's Portia, a creature of 
exquisite breeding and uncommon sense. She speaks the poetry with 
the air of a woman who would never commit the social gaffe of reciting 
in public, with the result that the fines flow out newly minted, as un- 



44 P^^t I: The British Theatre 

strained as the quality of mercy itself. Her handling of the tiresome 
princelings who come to woo her is an object lesson in wit and good 
manners; later, in the court-room, we wept at her compassion; and the 
last act, invariably an anti-climax, bloomed golden at her touch. 

Apart from the fiery furnace that is Mr. Redgrave and the cool 
zephyr that is Miss Ashcroft, the production is pretty tepid stuff. The 
scenery (flimsy piUars, as usual) looks fine in silhouette, and on one 
occasion, when the sky inadvertently turned green, assumed extraor- 
dinary beauty. But I tire of settings that seek to represent nowhere-in- 
general; how one longs to see everywhere-in-particular! The trial was 
well staged — but why must Shylock always be alone? Surely all the 
Jews in Venice would turn up for his triumph? 

I cannot imagine what Donald Pleasence was trying to make of 
Launcelot Gobbo, who is not, I suggest, an organ-grinder's monkey. 
Yvonne Mitchell is wasted on Jessica. On the credit side, Tony Britton's 
Bassanio is an attractive scamp; and Robert Shaw, cast as Gratiano, 
dehghted us and himself by giving a fiery and determined performance 
of Mercutio. 



The White Carnation, by R. C. Sherriff, at the Globe. 

R. C. Sherriff, the author of The White Carnation, deserves every- 
one's congratulations on having solved one of the trickiest problems in 
the contemporary theatre — that of writing a part for Sir Ralph Richard- 
son. Over the last few years the resemblance between Sir Ralph's de- 
meanour on stage and that of a human being in fife has been getting 
progressively more tenuous. He has taken to ambling across our stages 
in a spectral, shell-shocked manner, choosing odd moments to jump and 
frisk, like a man through whom an electric current was being inter- 
mittently passed; behaving, in short, as if insulated against reality. Mr. 
Sherriff tried to exploit these hmitations in Home at Seven, in which 
Sir Ralph played, if I remember rightly, a man who had been knocked 
on the head. Seeing that this was not quite enough, Mr. Sherriff has now 
gone the whole hog. Before the curtain rises on The White Carnation, 
Sir Ralph has been blown to pieces by a flying bomb. 

Not to labour the point, he is a ghost, one of a bunch of banshees 
who annually revisit the suburban house on which the bomb fell, wiping 
out what seems to have been a very dreary Christmas party, (How the 



Part I: The British Theatre 45 

house escaped being demolished is not explained.) Their spooky revels 
over, they go back to limbo, or wherever small-part actors go in the 
winter-time — all but Sir Ralph, who is left behind, a 4-D character in a 
3-D world. The question is: how will 1951 react to the sudden arrival 
of a man who was buried in 1944? Mr. Sherrifi's reply is to fob us off 
with an ill-compiled anthology of other ghost plays. He introduces a 
J. M. Barrie-ish theme, in which the perplexed phantom falls in love 
with a young librarian (winsomely played by Meriel Forbes). He al- 
ternates this with a Priestley-esque motif, implying that Sir Ralph has 
been allowed to slip a cog in time in order to right a wrong performed 
when he was alive. Finally, he hauls in an Ealing-comedy situation 
based on the trouble an apparition would have with housing shortages 
and re-entry permits. Amid such a confusion of moods Mr. Sherriff's 
play hasn't an unearthly chance of success. 

As monarch of the chaos, however. Sir Ralph is perfectly at home. 
Being a ghost, he can wander about without the disturbing necessity of 
making human contact with any of the other members of the cast. Freed 
of this worry, he guides the play through its shallows with the touch of a 
master helmsman. It is a magnificent performance, and I mean no 
irony when I nominate Sir Ralph the best supernatural actor of his 
generation. 



Richard III, by William Shakespeare, at Stratford-on-Avon. 

Richard III, like Hamlet and The Wandering Jew, is generally 
regarded as a one-man show. I had never realised, until I saw the new 
Stratford production, that the man in question was the Duke of Bucking- 
ham. Not Richard, the riotous medieval usurper, half-Punch, half-Satan, 
whose murderous progress to the throne is the play's main business: he, 
in Marius Goring's performance, hardly showed his face. Our interest 
was focused instead on the rise and fall of his treacherous henchman, 
Buckingham. Richard, in effect, abdicated, and Harry Andrews walked 
off with the play. 

Other actors may be the heart, brain, and fingertips of English 
Shakespearean acting: Harry Andrews is the indispensable backbone. 
His Buckingham is a man of granite, a swaggering butcher with a battle- 
ship jaw and no remorse. I have never seen a likelier candidate for the 
headsman's axe, and when he strode off to the block, hands firmly 
clasped behind his back, we were in the presence of naked courage as 



46 P^'^t I- The British Theatre 

well as first-rate acting. When, earlier on, he uttered the line: "Tut, I 
can counterfeit the great tragedian," the information was superfluous. 
He had been doing nothing else all evening. 

Marius Goring's Richard is not large enough, vocally or physically, 
to inspire terror, and you cannot play this tremendous part on mind 
alone. Where he should have been evil, he was nasty; where misbegot- 
ten, he was runtish; where formidable, merely despicable. He sees 
Richard as a paltry little chap, and to emphasise his unfitness to be king 
he dresses up for the coronation in oversized robes rather like those Sid 
Field used to trip over in his sketch about King John. Here he misses 
the point, which is that though Richard may not be a desirable earthly 
ruler, he would make an ideal viceroy of hell. It was a revealing slip of 
the tongue that made the actor refer to "the high-revolving witty Buck- 
ingham," instead of "deep-revolving," Buckingham overtopped Richard 
on Tuesday, and I think Mr, Goring knew it. 



The Wandering Jew, by E. Temple Thurston, at the King's, 
Hammersmith. 

The present revival of The Wandering Jew is one of the most reas- 
suring theatrical experiences in years. Have we really progressed so far? 
In 1920 the play survived 390 performances; today not a fine of it but 
rings flat and false. Only in village pageants, and in The Glorious Days, 
do traces of its style persist. It is written in four "phases": a trip through 
time with Donald Wolfit as the legendary Jew who insulted Christ and 
was doomed to live until the Messiah should return. In the first scene 
Mr. Wolfit wears a burnous, a shiny red wig, and his usual make-up, a 
thick white line down the bridge of the nose. As ever, he delivers each 
line as a chaUenge, flung in the teeth of invisible foes; his voice roars 
like an avalanche of gravel; and when he swirled off, girding his rude 
bathrobe about him, to spit at his Saviour, I fell to wondering exactly 
where his ponderous, vibrato methods belong. 

Not in the little club theatres, I decided; nor in the larger West End 
houses, where they would soon grow oppressive. Nor yet at the Old 
Vic — I picture Mr. Wolfit erupting at the very thought. Where, then, is 
his spiritual home? My answer is nowhere in particular: he is a nomad, 
part of the great (albeit dead) tradition of the strolling player, who 
would erect his stage in a tavern yard and unravel his rhetoric to the 



Part I: The British Theatre 47 

winds. Mr. Wolfit is not an indoor actor at all. Theatres cramp him. He 
would be happiest, I feel, in a large field. 

Phase two takes us to the Crusades. The Jew has become a maraud- 
ing knight of uncontrollable sexual appetites. And woe betide the 
maiden of his choice (I am slipping, as the author incessantly does, into 
blank verse). The Christian camp, all stripy canvas and flags, seems to 
be pitched backstage at Bertram Mills' circus, and Mr. Wolfit comes 
in from jousting in the garb of the human cannon-ball. Throughout the 
production great stress is laid on headwear: a character in phase two 
affects a tea-cosy, the guards in phase four go in for tin sombreros, and 
Mr. Wolfit's jousting kit is topped off by an inverted galvanised-iron 
bucket with two holes knocked in it. With the morrow he'll be gone, so 
he chases a young woman around his tent, breathing balefuUy into her 
face (having first removed his bucket) and even spitting at her, in a 
token sort of way. Matheson Lang, a born charmer, might have just 
carried this scene off. As it was, the scene carried Mr. Wolfit off, pros- 
trate as on a stretcher. 

He is back for phase three, tightly encased in a kimono, to play a 
thirteenth-century Sicilian miser persecuted for his faith. A large trunk 
in the corner of his villa attracts our curiosity, which is quickly satisfied. 
He throws it open, and: "What would this be worth in the open market?" 
he gloats, producing, with a tremendous flourish, a faded horse-blanket. 
In the final phase the Jew is arraigned by the Spanish Inquisition, which 
convicts him of un-Cathohc activities and sends him to the stake. As the 
curtain faUs, Mr. Wolfit goes up in flames, aged fourteen hundred and 
some odd years. It is like the annual roasting of an ox on Shakespeare's 
birthday at Stratford-on-Avon. 



The Living Room, by Graham Green, at Wyndham's. 

The Living Room is Graham Greene's first play, and also the best 
first play of its (English) generation. Its subject-matter can be com- 
pressed into two texts. One from Shaw: "You can't make a man a Chris- 
tian unless you first make him believe he is a sinner"; and one from a 
nameless theatrical manager: "The triangle isn't eternal, but it's good for 
six months at the box-ofl5ce." Greene attempts to weld these two propo- 
sitions, one cosmic and one commercial, into a dramatic unity. 

In The Notorious Mrs. Ebbsmith Pinero scandalised a Victorian 



48 P^ft I: The British Theatre 

audience by making his heroine throw a Bible into the fire, and im- 
mediately comforted them by letting her pull it out again. Greene's 
heroine, so to speak, chucks it in and leaves it there. She is a young 
orphan, physically in love with a middle-aged lecturer in psychology 
who is burdened with a hysterical wife. That is the textbook triangle: 
Greene now sets about projecting it towards infinity. For the girl is a 
Roman Cathohc. She has come to live with a pair of ancient aunts and 
an uncle who is a crippled priest. They inhabit a dank suburban house 
in which strange rituals persist, among them a refusal on the part of the 
female inmates to admit that they ever go to the bathroom except to 
take a bath. Greene is a Roman Cathohc, but he is also a born rebel; 
this sepulchral mansion symbolises, I imagine, the obscurantist aspects 
of the Roman faith. Childishly scared of death, the two aunts have 
sealed off every room in which anyone has died. The younger of them, a 
great bulky zealot (fearsomely played by Violet Farebrother), learns 
of the girl's adultery and threatens her with mortal sin. The wheelchair 
priest seeks to intensify her feelings of guilt, while her psychiatrist lover 
seeks to remove them. She vacillates between her lover and her God — 
between an earthly and a heavenly father-substitute — and finally cries 
out to the priest, in a striking phrase, that she is one of God's "happy 
failures." 

The play is rising to its climax. The wife, a ravaged neurotic, stages 
a suicide attempt, which restores to her husband a shamed sense of his 
responsibilities. And now, on the threshold of triumph, Greene slips and 
falls. His heroine takes poison. The whole elaborate itinerary of sin and 
salvation has led us nowhere: she behaves in the crisis like any dis- 
carded mistress in a Victorian melodrama. Having tied a modern Catho- 
hc knot, Greene cuts it with an old-fashioned theatrical axe. I felt 
profoundly cheated. 

If he stumbles on the highest level, Greene is wonderfully sure- 
footed on the way up. He has given Dorothy Tutin a chance which has 
been withheld from young English actresses for nearly thirty years: the 
chance of playing a long, serious part in an important new play. She 
takes it superbly, as if it were her birthright. Her role is half of what 
must be the most fully documented love affair in dramatic literature; we 
are privy to all her secrets, sexual and spiritual alike. Miss Tutin's per- 
formance is masterly: the very nakedness of acting. In her greatest 
sorrow she blazes hke a diamond in a mine. 

Elsewhere in the cast Peter Glenville (who has directed the play 
with a midwife's care) is less lucky. John Robinson plays the lover, for 
instance, in a highly unlovable vein of unctuous rhetoric. And though I 



Part I: The British Theatre 49 

applaud Eric Portman's unselfishness in accepting the role of the priest, 
I must deplore the waste involved. His legs are cut off at the knees, and 
his temperament is cut off at the mains. Mr. Portman is an active actor 
miscast in a passive part. His game struggle to repress his natural exu- 
berance produces an effect which I can only describe as vocal costive- 
ness. 

To sum up, then: a potentially great dramatist has launched a 
potentially great actress. He has also transmitted a message, which I can 
most gracefully summarise in the words of a fellow first-nighter: "Be it 
ever so lustful, there's no place hke Rome." 

(i9S3) 



Antony and Cleopatra, by William Shakespeare, at 
Stratford-on-Avon. 

There is only one role in Antony and Cleopatra that English ac- 
tresses are naturally equipped to play. This is Octavia, Caesar's docile 
sister, the girl "of a holy, cold and still conversation" whom Mark An- 
tony marries and instantly deserts; and if Shakespeare had done the 
modern thing and written a domestic tragedy about her disillusionment, 
generations of English ingenues would by now have triumphed in it. 
But alas! he took as his heroine an inordinate trollop, thereby ensuring 
that we should never see the part perfectly performed — unless, by some 
chance, a Frenchwoman should come and play it for us. The great sluts 
of world drama, from Clytemnestra to Anna Christie, have always 
puzzled our girls; and an English Cleopatra is a contradiction in terms. 

At Stratford, Peggy Ashcroft follows tradition by presenting a lady 
who, though she goes by Cleopatra's name, is clearly and charmingly 
an impostor. As she demonstrated in The Deep Blue Sea, Miss Ashcroft 
is expert in suggesting the grief of sexual frustration; but Cleopatra's 
keynote is the rapture of sexual fulfilment. Even when gorged, she is 
still ravenous. Miss Ashcroft gave us a ravenous famine victim; just as 
five years ago Edith Evans gave us a Cleopatra who was really Lady 
Bracknell, cruelly starved of cucumber sandwiches. The effect of the 
last act, in which the royal courtesan doffs her baser attributes and 
proves herself fit for greatness, lost some of its force, because in Miss 
Ashcroft's performance the baser attributes were never there to begin 
with. 

I missed, too, the infinite variety. To play Cleopatra, as to play 



50 P^'f't !•■ The British Theatre 

Shylock, you need the Continental actor's ability to juggle with seem- 
ingly contradictory emotions; you have to leap from majesty to bawdi- 
ness in mid-sentence. For this fitful blaze Miss Ashcroft substituted a 
steady glow. A nice intense woman, you nearly murmured; such a pity 
she took up with the head gamekeeper. You could not help thinking of 
her in local terms like this, for her vowel-sounds (especially that tell- 
tale round "o") kept shrieking Sloane Square. Her hair-do was jaunty 
Chelsea : a red wig gathered into a horse's tail, perhaps in recognition of 
the line in which she is described as a "ribaudred nag." The summing-up 
must be that Miss Ashcroft touched with silver a part that needs burnish- 
ing with gold. We must record a failure — but a gallant one, in good 
company. "And," Cleopatra herself reminds me, "when good will is 
show'd, though it come too short, the actor may plead pardon." 

Antony, the superhuman spendthrift, is easier meat. From the 
play's very beginning he is a sort of historical monument, a ruin testify- 
ing to glories long past. Michael Redgrave does not so much fill the part 
as overflow it. If Miss Ashcroft falls short, he sometimes goes too far, A 
less decrepit ruin could scarcely be imagined. In their first scene together 
Mr. Redgrave gave Miss Ashcroft a terrific mauling, clawing at her 
clothes like a berserk pickpocket. If he can let up a little on the lust and 
rid himself of a few more mannerisms (among them a nervous trick of 
uttering everything prison-fashion out of the corner of his mouth), he 
will be giving a first-rate performance. 



Venice Preserv'd, by Thomas Otway, at the Lyric, 
Hammersmith. 

Way out in the smoky suburb of Hammersmith a prodigy has been 
brought to birth. By which I mean a pure, plain, clear, classical produc- 
tion of the last great verse play in the English language — Thomas Ot- 
way's Venice Preserv'd, written in 1681, its author's thirtieth year. That 
it should be performed at all is treat enough; that it should be performed 
so well is a marvel. 

Otway writes grandly, with a sort of sad, nervous power, about a 
large subject — the ethics of betrayal. Two impoverished Venetian 
malcontents, Jaffeir and Pierre, join a plot to overthrow the Senate. 
Their motives are highly personal. Jaffeir's bride is Belvidera, whose 
miserly father is a senator, and Pierre's mistress is Aquilina, a prostitute 



Part I: The British Theatre 51 

whose present keeper is a senator. Rationalising their grudges, they 
become crusading revolutionaries — the process is not uncommon today. 
But Pierre is a cynic and a man of action. Jaffeir is a romantic and a 
man of feeling, and when one of his fellow-conspirators attempts to 
seduce his wife, the romantic in him subdues the rebel, and he betrays 
the plot to the Senate. There is another motive for his treachery — his 
wife's fears for her father's life — but the key to it is private pique, 
masquerading as pubhc-spiritedness. In the vacillations of poor, uxorious 
Jaffeir there is magnificent irony. The plotters having been arrested and 
condemned to torture, he wants desperately to atone. All he can do is to 
satisfy Pierre's plea for a quick death, and then to kill himself. 

The play's major flaw is that Otway allows Jaffeir far too much 
self-pity, a mood of which John Gielgud, as an actor, is far too fond. 
The temptation sometimes proves too much for him: inhaling passion- 
ately through his nose, he administers to every line a tremendous par- 
sonical quiver. But pictorially, if not emotionally, this is a very satisfying 
performance. The same goes for Eileen Herlie's Belvidera. The spectacle 
of Miss Herlie reeling and writhing in coils is both pleasing and appro- 
priate, but something in her voice, a touch of fulsomeness, suggests an 
energetic saleswoman rather than a tragic heroine. 

With the rest of the company I have no quarrel at all. Paul Sco- 
field's Pierre, smouldering under a black wig, is the strongest, surest 
performance this actor has given since he came to London. Meanwhile, 
Pamela Brown, pop-eyed and imperious, has recaptured the fluent 
authority which in The Way of the World she seemed to have mislaid. 
The scene in which Aquilina caters to the masochistic whims of her 
decrepit senator, Antonio, was written as a scurrilous lampoon of the 
Earl of Shaftesbury. From this dunghiU Miss Brown plucks a daisy of a 
performance, made up of boredom, contempt, and even a flicker of 
compassion. Her Aquilina is a definitive drab. 

Peter Brook's production and Leslie Hurry's decor go straight to 
the play's atmospheric point — which is that, while reading it, you get 
the eerie sensation of being underground, trapped in a torch-lit vault. I 
shall return to Hammersmith again; but I should do so more than once 
if Messrs. Gielgud and Scofield could be persuaded to alternate the 
roles of Jaffeir and Pierre, as Gielgud and OHvier alternated Romeo and 
Mercutio eighteen years ago. 



52 P^ft I: The British Theatre 



Henry V, by William Shakespeare, at the Old Vic; Julius 
Caesar, by William Shakespeare, at the Westminster. 

The martyrdom of William Shakespeare goes on. We have seen 
him denuded, overdressed, mangled, racked, and up-ended; we have 
stood by as scholars sampled his blood and pronounced him Catholic, 
Lutheran, pagan, and Bacon; and yesterday I received from the Middle 
East a typewritten monograph appealingly headed: "Was Shylock a 
Jew?" Shakespeare, I suggest, would benefit from a little neglect. In the 
past week I have seen two of his plays sold into slavery; delivered, that 
is to say, into the hands of actors whose unreadiness for the responsibil- 
ity was matched only by their eagerness to accept it. 

For the first quarter-hour of the Bristol Old Vic's production in the 
Waterloo Road I was fascinated by the performance of the leading 
player, John Neville. Here at last, I felt, was the authentic Richard II: 
a lithe, sneering fellow, who curdled the milk of human kindness even 
as he dispensed it, but at whose heart there was abject insecurity. My 
excitement was marred, however, by the fact that the play being pre- 
sented was Henry V. Mr. Neville's nervous introspection, well suited to 
one speech — the soliloquy before Agincourt — was elsewhere quite use- 
less. 

The rest of Denis Carey's production is solidly second-rate. Sensi- 
bly, he refrains from encouraging the French court to behave like a 
bunch of imbecilic mediaeval clowns — an interpretation which is al- 
ways being foisted on the play, and to which the text gives not a shred of 
support. Even so, the war still looks one-sided. Enghsh actors are stiU 
incapable of playing their ancestors' traditional enemies without imply- 
ing, by a brutish curl of the lip, that the French were swine and deserved 
all they got. The comedy scenes come off best. The Bristol Pistol is ex- 
cellent, and so is the Dame Quickly: in fact, aU the evidence suggests 
that this company, so skilled at amusing us, should stop tiring itself by 
seeking to move, alarm, inspire, or stun us. 

The Elizabethan Theatre Company, who are appearing at the 
Westminster in a very stage-struck production of Julius Caesar, have 
been cruelly misled. They believe, quite sincerely, that they are achiev- 
ing a new simplicity in Shakespearean staging. What they are actually 
achieving is an old complexity. Let me explain. 

Most audiences are aware that the action of the play is laid in and 
around ancient Rome, and the lines inform them, if they do not already 



Part I: The British Theatre 53 

know, that much of it takes place at night. Thus equipped, what do they 
see at the Westminster? Actors in Elizabethan dress with sheets round 
their shoulders, performing amid a forest of wooden poles resembling a 
half-dismantled Coronation stand, in a permanent blaze of afternoon 
sunlight. Now, you and I need no telling that performances at the Globe 
Theatre were held at tea-time; we also know that the shape of Shake- 
speare's stage made ornate scenery impossible, and that accurate period 
costume was almost unknown. But we are the minority: the great major- 
ity of spectators will be needlessly confused. The point is that what was 
simpUcity to the Elizabethans is complexity to most of us. A really sim- 
ple modern production of Julius Caesar would be a realistic one, with 
togas and tents and moonlight. The present production, by Michael 
Macowan, is obscurantism going by the name of purity. 

The programme does not help by insisting that the company is 
"endeavouring to recapture the spirit in which the original production 
was presented." Ten actors, between them, play forty parts; "in the 
theatre of Shakespeare's time," the programme blandly asserts, "this 
was a necessity." Necessity, it seems, is the mother of convention. It 
would have been less disingenuous of the programme to have come right 
out and admitted that it could not afford the extra actors. The ones it 
could afford look very inexperienced. This young company speaks 
clearly enough, but acts hardly at all. 



King Lear, by William Shakespeare, at Stratford-on-Avon. 

Michael Redgrave has played King Lear and won. For once the 
complex armoury of this actor's mind has found a foe worthy of its 
steel. I say "foe" because Mr. Redgrave approaches his big roles as a 
hunter stalks big game: he does not march up to them with simple 
friendship in his eyes. The technical apparatus with which he besieges 
his parts has sometimes looked a little over-elaborate, recalUng the old 
metaphor about the sledge-hammer and the nut. But Lear is a labyrin- 
thine citadel, all but impregnable, and it needed a Redgrave to assault 
it. On Tuesday night the baUoon went up. 

He began finely, conveying grief as well as rage at Cordelia's refusal 
to flatter him. Physically, already, the whole of Lear was there, a sky- 
scraping oak fit to resist all the lightning in the world. The second-act 
decline into madness was perhaps the least impressive stage of Mr. 



54 P^^t I: The British Theatre 

Redgrave's campaign — ^Mr. Wolfit effects this transition more eloquently 
with less fuss. But once Lear was out on the heath, at odds with the 
elements, Mr. Redgrave found his bearings again, and never lost them 
to the end. Is it a backhanded compliment to say that this actor is best 
when maddest? Witness the Dover scene with the eyeless Gloucester: 
Lear's drifting whims, his sudden, shocking changes of subject, his veer- 
ing from transcendent silliness to aching desolation were all explored, 
explained, and definitively expressed. In simple roles Mr. Redgrave is 
often in the predicament of a higher mathematician asked to add two 
and two together; he may very well hum and haw and come to the con- 
clusion that in certain circumstances they can make five. But give him a 
scene, like this at Dover, which is the higher mathematics of acting, and 
he solves it in a flash; here, and throughout the last act, was the cube 
root of King Lear, "the thing itself." 

Hamlet without the prince is still a fascinating text; Lear without 
the king is something of a bore. How one wishes that Shakespeare had 
passed the manuscript to someone like Jonson, with instructions to mend 
the leaks in the Gloucester sub-plot and provide at least some excuse for 
the unaccountable behaviour of Edgar! The Stratford company treads 
water energetically. Joan Sanderson and Rachel Kempson are the 
creepiest, most credible pair of ugly sisters I can remember; but, apart 
from his physical appearance, which might be captioned "Grimaldi as 
Cahban," Marius Goring makes a surprisingly ordinary Fool, all too 
obviously intent on pathos-squeezing. There are some dazzling cos- 
tumes, of primitive Martian cut, but the setting badly lacks variety. To 
feel the cold of the heath, we must first have felt the warmth of the 
hearth. The present decor dumps us out of doors at curtain-rise and 
leaves us there. 



The Man ivith Expensive Tastes, by Edward Percy and Lilian 
Denham, at the Vaudeville. 

Only a year ago the patrons of the Vaudeville Theatre were briefly 
privileged to see a play in which Donald Wolfit was visited with a plague 
of frogs. Last night, under the same roof, something equally bizarre 
occurred — The Man with Expensive Tastes, the theme of which is 
forgery by hypnosis. 

It happens in MiU Hill, where lives Sylvester Ord, a bland epi- 



Part I: The British Theatre 55 

curean, played with shatteringly dated jollity by George Curzon. His 
line is graphology, out of which he has made enough money to furnish 
his house like an antique shop on the eve of a fire sale; he also, for rea- 
sons which may have been excised at the third rewrite, has green fingers. 
His principal lark, however, is forgery, as we learn from his house-guest, 
an inexpressibly sinister clergyman who is readily identifiable as an 
international crook. The actor here is Peter Bull, fooling nobody with a 
silver-grey wig. A self-confessed ex-president of the Oxford Union, he 
commands what must be the least secretive band of outlaws in the annals 
of crime. At Mr. Bull's request, Ord explains his technique of forgery. 
First, you divide your victim's calligraphy into two sections, the capital 
letters and the rest ("I live with these two alphabets. I saturate myself 
in them"); you then hypnotise yourself and forge ahead. This satisfies 
Mr. Bull, who is known in the trade as Monsieur Onyx. 

The main action is precipitated by the presence in the neighbour- 
hood of two other graphologists — Ord's daughter, whom he is raising to 
be a forger, and her American boy-friend, a private eye who has been 
engaged to investigate the forthcoming forgery coup. M. Onyx, ignoring 
Ord's helpless protests ("Self-hypnosis twice in one day!"), urges haste; 
and, fully in the pubHc and private eye, preparations for the coup go 
forward. The scheme is wrecked by the Corsican girl, who smashes 
Ord's forging fingers in the door of a safe. 

I forgot to mention the Corsican girl. She is a fiery creature named 
Yrena, highly yrresponsible, whom Ord has adopted and calls his little 
sparrow. She carries a stiletto, which later proves to be the only rational 
excuse for her existence on stage. The private eye has meanwhile con- 
cluded that he is among thieves; rather than call the police, however, he 
observes with characteristic obtuseness: "There's one piece of this jig- 
saw puzzle that doesn't quite fit." The final fitting takes place when Ord 
agrees to hypnotise his daughter into forging a cheque for £.80,000. His 
alcoholic brother, who collects typewriters, points a torch at the girl; 
Ord himself intones some Svengali-esque sleepy-talk; in the garden a 
coloured chauffeur called Spike Munch keeps guard; and upstairs, 
listening in on the house telephone, is the private eye — or is it the 
young journahst? 

I forgot to mention the young journalist. He came to interview Ord 
in the first scene and stayed to faU in love with his daughter. I wiU not 
reveal, because I can barely recall, the third-act resolution. I remember 
that Mr. Bull sprang across the stage with, as they say, an agility sur- 
prising in one of his bulk; that he ended up with a Corsican stiletto 
through his jugular; and that Mr. Curzon escaped with a compassionate 



56 ■P'^fr^ I: The British Theatre 

caution. At all events, those who care about the problems of hypnotic 
forgery had their pet subject well aired. Others, less intimately con- 
cerned, may echo my opinion that The Man with Expensive Tastes is 
the crassest crime play since The Inn-Keeper' s Button, which disfigured 
the theatrical season of 1897-8. Peter Bull, a trout among minnows, is 
magnificently assured; and Philip Stainton bumbles sibilantly through 
the role of the drunken brother — though even he is unable to save the 
scenes he shares with the comic Irish housekeeper. 

I forgot to mention the comic Irish housekeeper. . . . 

(1953) 



Hmitlet, BY William Shakespeare, at the Old Vic; The 
Confidential Clerk, by T. S. Eliot, at the New Theatre. 

Forswearing Hollywood for a season, Richard Burton has joined 
the Old Vic troupe, with whom, last week, he opened in Hamlet. What 
we had hoped for was a violent, attacking prince who should be a cor- 
rective to the fingertip deUcacies of the Gielgud tradition; a trumpet 
instead of a flute. Pale, tough, haunted, and heavy-headed, Burton 
looked marvels: but vocally the range wasn't there. Without flow or 
pattern, he jerked from strangled sobs to harsh, intolerant roars, lacking 
a middle register for contemplation. It was all stubbornly conscientious, 
rising to something grander in moments of decision, such as the play 
scene and the duel; but I could not help noting the absence of one essen- 
tial quality. The absentee was finesse, which Burton can only suggest — 
to lift a phrase from GuHdenstern — "with much forcing of his disposi- 
tion." Shaw said of Forbes-Robertson that he played Hamlet classically, 
"as a man whose passions are those which have produced the philosophy, 
the poetry, the art and the stagecraft of the world, and not merely those 
which have produced its weddings, coroners' inquests and executions." 
Burton could never be this kind of hero. He recoils from unpacking his 
heart in words, and seems uneasy in long, analytical speeches. In fact, I 
suspect that if they met at a party Burton would find Hamlet a very 
tiresome companion, all talk and tears. 

The women have the best of the production. Polonius is too fidgety, 
and Claudius a downright sloven; but Fay Compton, abandoning her 
latter-day manner (trudging and grousing), superbly completes Shake- 
speare's unfinished portrait of Gertrude, whom she presents as a con- 
fused, desperately maternal creature with a fatal gift of lying. And 



Part I: The British Theatre 57 

Claire Bloom's Ophelia is much the best I have seen. Five years ago, 
when she was seventeen, Miss Bloom played the part at Stratford under 
the same director (Michael Benthall), and I have never forgotten the 
moment when, at the end of the dirty doggerel about St. Valentine's 
day, she screamed: "If — thou — hadst — not — come — to — my — bed!" — 
driving each word separately home like a coffin nail. She has kept this 
"effect," and strengthened and deepened the rest of the mad scenes, 
which are now a miraculous cadenza: the voice flying and plunging, the 
hair everywhere, the body restless as one of Van Gogh's cypresses, the 
whole performance a terrible premonition of the jester's grave to which, 
ironically, Ophelia will finally be committed. Not Polonius' death but 
Hamlet's (whom she presumes slaughtered in England) is the chief 
cause of this Ophelia's lunacy. One's impression is of a blind cage-bird 
suddenly released and beating out its brains against walls and battle- 
ments unseen, 

Hamlet is easy meat, a welcome febrifuge, after Eliot's new play, 
which uses devices borrowed from Coward, Pirandello, Wilde, Eurip- 
ides, and Gilbert and SulUvan to illustrate moral precepts borrowed 
from nobody. The Cocktail Party, which many thought obscure, I found 
almost painfully simple; but The Confidential Clerk, acclaimed in Eng- 
land for its simplicity, strikes me as being one of the most complex 
pieces of work Mr. Eliot has ever attempted. The language, admittedly, 
is far from abstruse, and the characters are easy to grasp, but the narra- 
tive pattern is staggeringly intricate. It is bizarre; it is "the wrong shape"; 
it has the weird whorls and intersections one might expect if one's ec- 
centric uncle set about playing with a model railway set. Mr. Eliot has 
coated a hard moral pill with a myriad layers of theatrical sugar, which 
cannot but irritate those who, like myself, feel that only children need 
sugar on their pills. 

Although there is little direct action, the play is nearly all plot. The 
central character is Colby Simpkins, a young ex-organist appointed to 
replace old Eggerson, a kindly grey-beard, as confidential clerk to Sir 
Claude Mulhammer, a city financier who believes Colby to be his ille- 
gitimate son. The Mulhammer household is full of dynastic discrepan- 
cies, including the vivacious Lucasta Angel, another of Sir Claude's 
bastards, and a breezy stockbroker named Kaghan, who announces 
himself a foundhng. {Vide Wilde: "To lose one parent, Mr. Worth- 
ing, may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like careless- 
ness.") An incipient romance between Colby and Lucasta is blighted by 
Colby's knowledge that they share the same father; at which point, 
halfway through, the play shifts gear to farce. Sir Claude's wife, the lark- 



58 Part I: The British Theatre 

brained Lady Elizabeth, hears Colby's story of his upbringing at the 
hands of a Mrs. Guzzard in Teddington, and instantly declares that he is 
her illegitimate son, and not her husband's. ( Vide the Ion of Euripides, 
in which Xuthus and Creusa dispute Ion's parentage, neither of them 
knowing the truth.) In the third and last scene Mrs. Guzzard herself is 
summoned to settle the argument: a solid middle-class matron, in whose 
speeches there are disturbingly oracular overtones, and who may con- 
ceivably be Pallas Athene. She is a part-time baby-farmer. (Vide 
Buttercup's song in H.M.S. Pinafore: 

A many years ago. 
When I was young and charming. 
As some of you may know, 
I practised baby-farming. . . . 
Two tender babes I nussed; 
One was of low condition. 
The other, upper crust, 
A regular patrician. . . .) 

I am not giving away any vital secrets when I divulge that Colby 
proves to be neither Sir Claude's nor Lady Elizabeth's child, and that a 
parent is found for the mysterious Mr. Kaghan. Eliot's message has to do 
with what Mrs. Guzzard calls "wishing wisely": we must all choose voca- 
tions that are commensurate with our capacities. What we want to be 
must tally with what we are. Three acts are spent in establishing 
who the characters are {vide Pirandello, passim), but more important, 
Eliot implies, is what they are. The conclusion is that geniuses may carve 
for themselves, reckless of heredity, but the rest, the sublunary lot, must 
follow their parents. 

The dialogue, deliberately fiat and explicit, often reminiscent of 
automatic writing, is much concerned with the difference between im- 
posing terms on life and accepting life's terms, between rejection of 
routine (the rare, abnormal way) and compromise with it (the sane, 
usual way). The London critics have agreed that the play is a comedy: 
but if you subtract Lady Elizabeth, a Cowardesque creature whose 
first lover was "run over by a rhinoceros," there are precious few laughs 
in the evening. Truer to say that Eliot invokes the comic spirit, with its 
attendant mechanism of coincidence and absurdity, to disguise a hard 
core of sombre theorizing. 

The words are physically unexciting to listen to — verse in aspic, you 
might say. Eliot's gift as a playwright is not to raise the temperature, but 



Part I: The British Theatre 59 

to lower it, as spooks are said to do when they enter a room. By the use 
of an unexpected, hieratic word, he can induce a chill mystery. This is 
what gives his characters their solitude and remoteness; we are always, 
the style insists, isolated from one another; there can be no earthly 
fruition — and, the style being the man, one sympathizes profoundly 
with the author. In The Confidential Clerk, however, he has moved 
far enough toward mundane humanity to create one warm, complete, 
stock character: Eggerson, the old retainer, which Alan Webb plays to 
perfection, interlarding the lines with blinks, coughs, and chuckles 
enough to outface Mr. Chips himself. The women, Margaret Leighton 
and Isabel Jeans, are both enslaved to the most potent influence on 
English actresses since the 1918 armistice — the soaring vocal style of 
Edith Evans, whose nonchalant music has led our comediennes to be- 
lieve that to get good notices it is absolutely necessary to mimic Lady 
Bracknell. 

If you look hard, you cannot help noticing that The Confidential 
Clerk nurses, close to its heart, a tiny fictional absurdity. It depends on 
an undelivered letter sent by Mrs. Guzzard to Sir Claude (conveniently 
in Canada), informing him that his mistress has died and with her his 
unborn child. But then, as Mr. Eliot is well aware, the denouement 
of Romeo and Juliet is likewise dependent on postal bungling. No matter 
how logic may puncture it, The Confidential Clerk remains tantalisingly 
clever — a labyrinth all the more teasing because it leaves you, at 
curtain-fall, a day's trot away from the centre. It is fascinating in per- 
formance, puzzhng in retrospect, and, at all times and from whatever 
angle, unique. 



A Tribute to Mr. Coward. 

To be famous young and to make fame last — the secret of com- 
bining the two is glandular: it depends on energy. Someone once asked 
Demosthenes what was the most important quality in an orator. "Ac- 
tion," he said. And the second? "Action." And the third? "Action." So 
with a talent. 

Noel Coward, who was performing in public at ten, has never 
stopped being in action; at fifty-three he retains all the heady zest of 
adolescence. Forty years ago he was Slightly in Peter Pan, and you 
might say that he has been wholly in Peter Pan ever since. No private 



60 P^^t I: The British Theatre 

considerations have been allowed to deflect the drive of his career; like 
Gielgud and Rattigan, like the late Ivor Novello, he is a congenital 
bachelor. He began, like many other satirists (Evelyn Waugh, for in- 
stance), by rebelling against conformity, and ended up making his peace 
with it, even becoming its outspoken advocate. 

Any child with a spark of fantasy in its soul is prone to react 
against the English middle classes, into which Coward was born. The 
circumstances of his early upbringing, in Teddington, were "liable," 
he wrote afterwards, "to degenerate into refined gentility unless care- 
fully watched." He promptly reacted against them, and also against 
his first school-teacher, whom he bit in the arm — "an action which 
I have never for an instant regretted." From this orgy of rebeUion 
he excepted his mother, a tiny octogenarian who is now comfortably 
installed in a flat in Eaton Square. With the production of The Vortex, 
in 1924, notoriety hit him. He had already written two other plays and 
most of a revue, meanwhile announcing that his own wit and Ivor 
Novello's profile were the first and second wonders of the modern world. 

The Vortex, a jeremiad against narcotics with dialogue that sounds 
today not so much stilted as high-heeled, was described by Beverley 
Nichols as "immortal." Others, whom it shocked, were encouraged in 
their heresy by an unfortunate photograph for which Coward posed 
supine on a knobbly brass bedstead, wearing a dressing-gown and 
"looking," as he said, "like a heavily-doped Chinese illusionist." 
From this sprang the myth that he wrote all his plays in an absinthe- 
drenched coma; in fact, as he has been patiently explaining for nearly 
thirty years, he drinks httle and usually starts punishing his typewriter 
at seven a.m. His triumph has been to unite two things ever dis- 
sociated in the English mind: hard work and wit. Toil is commonly the 
chum of serious-mindedness; and though, within Coward, a social 
historian and philosopher are constantly campaigning to be let out, they 
seldom escape into his work. His wit in print is variable — he has not 
written a really funny play since Present Laughter in 1942 — but in 
private it is unflagging. It took Coward to describe an American 
adaptation of The Cherry Orchard, set in the deep South, as "A Month 
in the Wrong Country"; and many other theatrical mots have been 
fathered on him. We may never know, for example, whether it was he 
who, after seeing a certain actress as Queen Victoria, left the theatre 
murmuring: "I never realized before that Albert married beneath him." 

To see him whole, public and private personalities conjoined, you 
must see him in cabaret. Just before his first season at the Cafe de Paris, 
I noticed him watching his predecessor, whose act was not going too well. 



Part I: The British Theatre 61 

I asked him how he was enjoymg the performance, and, with a stark, 
stunned, take-it-or-leave-it stare, he hissed: "Sauce! Sheer sauce!" A 
few weeks later he padded down the celebrated stairs himself, halted 
before the microphone on black-suede-clad feet, and, upraising both 
hands in a gesture of benediction, set about demonstrating how these 
things should be done. Baring his teeth as if unveiUng some grotesque 
monument, and cooing like a baritone dove, he gave us "I'll See You 
Again" and the other bat's-wing melodies of his youth. Nothing he does 
on these occasions sounds strained or arid; his tanned, leathery face is 
still an enthusiast's. 

All the time the hands are at their task, affectionately calming 
your too-kind applause. Amused by his own frolicsomeness, he sways 
from side to side, waggling a finger if your attention looks like wandering. 
If it is possible to romp fastidiously, that is what Coward does. He owes 
little to earlier wits, such as Wilde or Labouchere. Their best things 
need to be dehvered slowly, even lazily. Coward's emerge with the 
staccato, blind impulsiveness of a machine-gun. 

I have heard him accused of having enervated English comedy by 
making it languid and blase. The truth, of course, is the opposite: Coward 
took sophistication out of the refrigerator and set it bubbUng on the hob. 
He doses his sentences with pauses, as you dose epileptics with drugs. 
To be with him for any length of time is exhausting and invigorating in 
roughly equal proportions. He is perfectly well aware that he possesses 
"star quality," which is the lodestar of his life. In his case, it might be 
defined as the ability to project, without effort, the outline of a unique 
personality, which had never existed before him in print or paint. 

Even the youngest of us will know, in fifty years' time, exactly what 
we mean by "a very Noel Coward sort of person." 

(^9S3) 



Some Notes ojj Stage Sexuality. 

The most characteristic English play on the subject of physical love 
is Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra. It is characteristic because it 
has no love scenes. The English, as their drama represents them, are a 
nation endlessly communicative about love without ever enjoying it. 
Full-blooded physical relationships engaged in with mutual dehght are 
theatrically tabu. Thwarted love is preferred, the kind Mj. Coward 
wrote about in Brief Encounter, where two married people, (maiiied. 



62 P^rt I: The British Theatre 

of course, to two other people) form a sad and meagre attachment 
without being able to follow it through. At the end of a play on some 
quite different subject — religion, perhaps, or politics — it is customary 
for the hero to say, as he does in Robert's Wife: "I was deeply in love 
with a fine woman," and for the wife to reply: "My dear, dear husband"; 
but there should be no hint elsewhere in the text that they have as much 
as brushed lips. 

In comedies marriage is presented as the high road to divorce. 
Husband and wife begin the play at Daggers Drawn, their country house, 
and the whole point of the ensuing exercise is to lure them back into 
each other's arms. The reconciliation takes place in the last act. Left 
alone on stage, the two lovers exchange coy salutations: 

henry: Hello, Sybil. 

sybil: Hello, Henry. 

(Curtain.) 

Among younger people the technique of courtship is even more 
rigorously codified. It is always practised on a chaise-longue. The girl 
sits down beside the boy and edges a few inches towards him, where- 
upon he edges a few inches away. This is repeated ad lib until the boy 
falls off. The purpose of the ritual is to show the English male's terror of 
sex and his instinctive tendency to yell for mother. He is always bashful 
and ashamed in the presence of women to whom he is not closely related. 
At first he addresses them as if they were new and disturbing nannies; 
later, as the relationship matures, he takes the giant step and treats the 
girl of his choice as a substitute mother. The plays of the twenties were 
full of scenes in which the hero, contorted with grief, confessed to his 
mother that he had transferred his affections to another woman. 

A firmly established tenet of English drama is that love which is 
"only physical" will not last, and is probably ghastly anyway. English- 
men who go to American plays such as A Streetcar Named Desire 
frequently say afterwards: "Perhaps I'm naive, but all this harping on 
sex strikes me as awfully boring." (Or "vulgar," or "tasteless," the 
other key words of EngUsh criticism.) They are naive: there is no 
perhaps about it. Graham Greene's The Living Room was one of the 
few modern plays whose hero admitted to having had and enjoyed an 
affair. The heroine of Terence Rattigan's The Deep Blue Sea made 
the same dreadful admission. In both cases the penalty for extra- 
marital pleasure was paid. Mr. Rattigan's heroine tried to gas herself 
and Mr. Greene's took poison. The idea that a man and a woman 
should fall head over hips in love and sensually exult in their mutual 



Part I: The British Theatre 63 

discovery is deeply offensive to English taste. Someone must suffer for 
it, and our playwrights see to it that someone does, harshly and ir- 
revocably. That, it is felt, will teach them to flaunt themselves (the word 
is always "flaunt"): why can't they be repressed like everybody else? 

Proposals are regarded with more tolerance, though the approach 
to them is often extremely oblique. In country-house comedies it has 
been known to go like this : 

DICK (blushing) : I have something — rather important to ask you, 
Miss Godalming, 

MISS G.: What is it, Tom? (/ should have explained that there is a 
mistaken-identity plot going on at the same time.) 

dick: Well . . . Honestly, I don't know quite how to put it. 

MISS G. (softly): Is it — so very difficult? 

dick: Well, dash it, Gloria — I mean Miss Godalming — we hardly 
know each other, and (business of fiddling with tie) a fellow feels such a 
fool. . . . 

I leave the rest to your imagination, though it is a bequest I 
wouldn't want left to mine. It comes out, on this occasion, that all Dick 
wanted was to borrow her razor. The real proposal comes later. Dick 
trudges down to breakfast with a farcical cold, the result of having 
climbed a drain-pipe in a hailstorm, clad only in pyjamas, to steal the 
manuscript of Lady Godalming's scandalous autobiography from its 
place in the escritoire. The emotional climax is now at hand: 

dick: Would you bind passing the bustard? 

MISS G. (primly): Not in the least, Richard. 

dick: Thag you. Atchoo. (He munches dolefully, albeit with 
determination. All stage directions in English farce read like this, 
albeit worse.) I say — Gloria! 

MISS g.: Yes, Richard? 

dick: I dode suppose it batters a bit eddy bore, but (wildly) I love 
you bost awfully, and — Gloria, will you let me use your razor for always? 

MISS G. (recklessly throwing her toast to the floor) : Of course I 
will, you darling chump! 

Their embrace is interrupted by the French maid Marie, pro- 
nounced Murray, and the title of the piece, a miracle of catarrhal 
euphony, is Barry Be Todight. 

English romantic drama is built around interrupted or frustrated 
embraces. Uninterrupted embraces only take place years before the 



64 P^ft I: The British Theatre 

curtain rises. Their purpose is purely functional — to provide illegitimate 
children who turn up later from nowhere, fully grown and ready to 
wreak all kinds of havoc. By this time their father has died; his widow 
has remarried and begun a new hfe in Wiltshire. The advent of the 
love-child is announced by the butler: "There's a young person to see 
you, milady. A Mr. Richard." Milady goes out to prune some phlox, 
leaving the stage clear for the entrance of a shabby, gangling, ill-dressed 
youth. He surveys the room, nodding sagely to himself. As befits his 
station (he has travelled on the night train from Liverpool), he seems 
overawed and embarrassed. 

Milady re-enters garlanded with phlox prunings. Then: 

milady: Ah! You must be — let's see, what was it? — Mr. Richard? 

RICHARD: Yes, Lady Scarsley. I hope you don't mind my intruding? 

milady: Not at all, not at all. (Pause.) Well now, how can I be 
of— 

RICHARD: It's just as — he described it. 

milady: What is? 

RICHARD: This room. The mantelpiece, with all those funny china 
dogs on it. The picture of — Aunt Eliza, isn't it? And all his first editions 
— even the Ben Jonsons! And the photo of Uncle Roger at the siege of 
Srinegar! It's all — rather hke a dream. 

MILADY (faintly): How do you know all this? 

RICHARD (simply): I'm — Richard, mother. 

MILADY: You mean — ? 

RICHARD: Richard. Richard's son. 

milady: Richard's — ! My dear boy . . . 

And so on. Richard is going to bring chaos to the quiet, secluded 
backwater of milady's life, but there is a play in him somewhere, and a 
fat part for a virginal young actor, which is the only kind of young actor 
the English stage adores. 

Actresses, by an unjust dispensation, have far fewer chances. 
Prejudice forbids them any form of self-indulgence. Until she reaches 
the age of thirty, the English actress is allowed only to play ingenues, 
girls too young for love and scared of it. When she reaches fifty, she 
can begin to play sophisticated dowagers, women too old for love and 
disillusioned by it. Between thirty and fifty there is a total gap, covering 
the vital years in which women swap lovers and husbands, have affairs 
and divorces, and run the gamut from man to man. The erstwhile 
ingenue then returns to the stage, wheezing and thundering, as a dragon. 
Until some playwright arrives to reclaim those lost years, it must be 



Fart I: The British Theatre 65 

assumed that no Englishwoman of mature intelUgence engages in any 
kind of romantic activity at all. 

And what conclusions can we draw? One, I think, is self-evident. 
Our dramatists do not hold the mirror up to nature; they hold it up to 
other mirrors. They ape the theatre of the past, instead of shaping the 
life of the present. They will wear gags and blinkers, spread half-truths 
and smoke-screens — anything rather than stare life in the face and set 
down the form and passion of what they see. To the exceptions, I 
apologise. At the rule, I shrug. 

(1954) 



Some Notes on Stage Children. 

On the whole, stage children come in four sizes — the Wide-Eyed 
Bouncers, the Bespectacled Swots, the Sensitive Types, and the Juvenile 
Delinquents. The Americans have lately added another to the list, the 
Tot Satanic, which reared both of its ugly heads in the heroine of The 
Bad Seed, a mass murderess on the right side of nine years old. If we 
English lag behind in the creation of really psychotic children, the 
reason may partly be that we lack the vocabulary for it. Psychiatry has 
not yet conquered our nurseries. The Manhattan mother, discussing her 
youngest, may say, not without a certain collector's pride: "Raoul's 
developing what looks to us like a peach of an avoidance-syndrome." 
And if daughter Kerry shows a tendency to throw Ughted fireworks into 
the refrigerator, this is not mere devilment but "a prototypal act of 
nuisance-aggression." Children do not have memories, they have "image- 
retentiveness," and instead of steaHng the jam, they indulge in "retaUa- 
tory pilfering." In this way the average child can be made to seem in- 
terestingly abnormal, and the abnormal child downright insane. If 
cursed with a brat who does nothing all day but sit in the corner swatting 
flies, you whisper, "His conative faculty's gone dead on us lately, but 
we're not worried — you know what Griebmann says about the destruc- 
tiveness of activity for activity's sake." These wonderful phrases have 
not yet passed into our language, and hence the lunatic child seldom 
appears on our stage. 

Nor do we have the American habit, fast becoming a minor in- 
dustry, of writing plays about fathers driven crazy by their failure to 
estabUsh "a good relationship" with their sons. If an English father were 



66 P^^t I: The British Theatre 

to grip his ten-year-old boy by the shoulders and say: "Don't know how 
it is, son, but we never seem to — to get through to each other," the child 
would assume that he was drunk. In an American play the chUd would 
burst into tears and take to drink himself. 

The function of English stage children is usually to teach their 
elders the rudiments of good behaviour, on the out-of-the-mouths-of- 
babes-and-sucklings theory. If junior starts wearing a shoulder-holster 
and spitting in church, it is a hint to Mums and Dads that they had better 
set about patching up their marriage. If Sensitive Type spends her 
nights sulking in the rabbit-hutch, it is because she is being deprived of 
love. If a whole batch of sucklings flies off to a peace conference (as in 
Roger MacDougall's Escapade), it is to teach their parents the foolish- 
ness of war. Modern kid plays are always cautionary plays. 

The smallest category is that devoted to Juvenile DeUnquents. It 
takes as its text the words "Society is the Real Criminal." This quickly 
grows wearisome, not because it is not true, but because it tends to rob 
the chUd of any capacity for individual choice, which is the life-blood of 
drama. Whatever he does, it is never his doing: he is a pawn in a game of 
sociological chess. For recent examples, see Cosh Boy and Murder Story. 

We next find, loitering in the toils of adolescence, a listless battalion 
of Sensitive Types. These are the direct descendants of the children 
in Victorian plays, who existed only for the purpose of dying young or 
being orphaned. The girls get tragic crushes, from which they are gently 
dissuaded: "You must remember, darling, Robert is fifty years older 
than you. When you're twenty-five, he'll be seventy-nine. Had you 
thought of that?" The oldest inhabitants in this group are the Constant 
Nymph and Young Woodley. These two, by a sort of box-office mating, 
have bred dozens of equally tormented offspring. Before Mummy can 
announce in the last scene that "Our little girl has become a woman," 
her Uttle girl must spend at least two acts hating Mummy's guts. Trau- 
matic experiences are not uncommon. The heroine of The Seventh Veil 
was blighted as a concert pianist by a school caning, while The Girl Who 
Couldn't Quite was fixated by a wart on her nanny's nose. The latter, 
by the way, was the last ingenue on the EngUsh stage to utter the time- 
honoured line: "I'm going to keep crying tiU there's no more cry left 
in me." 

Though a little short on cry, the dominant variety of child's play 
is undoubtedly school drama. It is always a public school; no other kind 
of education is known to the English theatre. Only three types of men 
need apply for jobs on the staff: breezy young half-wits (to teach Sports), 



Part I: The British Theatre 67 

thin-lipped sadists (to teach Latin or Science, according to the author's 
politics), and genial old bumblers (to teach a Broad Understanding of 
Humanity). Sadists and bumblers alike address their charges in poly- 
syllables: "And what has the egregious Watson minor to say for him- 
self? Come, come, boy, say not that the omniscience of yesternight has 
vanished with the snows of yesteryear!" Latin tags are also in evidence, 
a favourite being the one beginning ''Tempora mutantur. . . ." 

Every school has its Swot, who is named Crump or Pilkington 
and wears clothes that are slightly too small for him. Primitive Swots 
were always buffoons, but with the dawn of the liberal conscience they 
have become semi-sympathetic characters: "Do they rag you," the 
leading lady may enquire, "for reading Swinburne in the dorm?" But 
the great majority of stage schoolboys, now as in the past, are Wide-Eyed 
Bouncers. These bounce like the kind of beach-ball one longs to throw 
out to sea. They begin every sentence with "I say!" and their vocabulary 
of slang has survived unchanged from the era of Jack Harkaway and the 
horseless carriage. To them the Swot is "a complete smear" who talks 
"bilge," and they express derision in such terms as "Three groans for 
the Beak!" Stool-pigeons are said to "spHt," and no self-respecting 
Bouncer ever gets through a scene without using "funk it," "shirty," 
or "lazy slacker." Bouncers never leave a room: they "cut along." One 
of the finest recent snatches of Bouncer dialogue was contributed by 
Warren Chetham Strode: "No decent chap mentions soccer at a rugger 
school" — though it is strongly challenged by someone else's masterly 
line: "What rot, Sholto! Nobody sacks a man for blubbing!" 

Every now and then our playwrights try their hand at the boy-born- 
to-be-king theme, in which the hero is a child with an aura of mystery 
surrounding him. J. M. Barrie's The Boy David is a fair example of this 
sort of thing. David tells Samuel that he has just had an important 
thought while minding the sheep. Invited to share it, he recites the 
opening verses of the Twenty-third Psalm. "You must finish that some 
day," says Samuel sagely. These chosen children, destined in later life 
to become prophets, poets, or inventors of the spinning-jenny, are 
regarded by their families — for the first act, at least — with resentment 
and hostility. They are the Cinderellas of the household, and rep- 
resent the apotheosis of the Sensitive Type. Suddenly they perform a 
miracle or write a symphony. Their parents are appalled and beat 
them; but before long the mighty of the earth, having heard of the 
wonder, are besieging the little mud hut. The child is uncomfortably 
dressed in his best, and one of the visitors is sure to remark: "Your son, 
my good woman, stands in no need of external finery. His power is 



68 f ^^^ I: The British Theatre 

within." Emlyn Williams' The Wind of Heaven has all the earmarks of 
the breed, which has proved extremely prolific. 

The classic, all-round English urchin is still, of course, Peter Pan. 
Pan is no Swot, but he combines the characteristics of all the other 
types. He is Wide-Eyed, he is Sensitive, and he is murderous enough 
at times to be classed as a Juvenile Delinquent. The only adult thing 
about Barrie's play is its unctuous sentimentality; the rest shows real 
insight into the cruelty and wantonness of chUdhood. It also gives a 
disquieting picture of the nanny-worship and mother-complexes which 
turn so many English children into interesting psychological wrecks. The 
"Wendy bird" is first wounded and then deified as mother; the villain 
of the piece is Father, who ends up literally in the dog-house. 

If someone were to undertake a full Freudian analysis of Pan, I 
have a feeling that it would teach us a great deal about all English 
dramatists who write about children. For they share with him one 
basic quahty: a rooted aversion to growing up. 

(i9S4) 



Prose and the Playwright. 

Where the modern poetic drama is concerned, I have always been 
for the man Bacon quotes who, when asked his opinion of poets, said 
he thought them the best writers, next to those that wrote prose. But 
lately, among my friends, I have been finding myself in a beleaguered 
minority; the post-war vogue of T. S. Eliot and Christopher Fry has 
brought back into play that ancient battering-ram of criticism, the 
assumption that the upper reaches of dramatic experience are the ex- 
clusive province of the poet. This kind of talk is probably giving the 
prose playwrights a brutal inferiority-complex, and I have a mind to 
contest it. For if Eliot is right in suggesting that there are certain subtle 
and rarefied states of being which can achieve theatrical expression only 
in verse, then a great battle has been lost, almost by default. 

We tend to forget how long it took to make prose socially acceptable 
in the theatre. Up to the last quarter of the nineteenth century it re- 
mained a slightly dingy poor relation; the Greeks sniffed at it, Shake- 
speare reserved it mostly for persiflage, Moliere shunned it whenever 
(as in Tartu ffe or Le Misanthrope) he had anything ambitious in 
hand, and in the long eighteenth-century debates about the relative 
fitness of blank verse and heroic couplets for tragedy, prose seldom got 



Part I: The British Theatre 69 

more than a passing and perfunctory mention. The English romantics 
carried on the tradition of bardolatry: Shelley, Byron, Wordsworth, 
Keats, and Coleridge all wrote unactable verse tragedies, thus delivering 
what might easily have been the death-blow to serious drama in English. 
Nobody seemed to have noticed that ever since Shakespeare's death 
poetic tragedy had been languishing and prose comedy flourishing; and 
it occurred to no one that the latter's prosperity might be due not so 
much to its being comic as to its being prose. In the Elizabethan era, 
before drama had been clearly distinguished from other literary forms, 
it naturally contained a good deal of the epic, much of the lyric, and a 
strong flavor of what A. B. Walkley called "that element of mixed 
philosophy and rhetoric which was soon afterwards to be diverted into 
other channels, in England by Sir Thomas Browne, in France by the 
great pulpit orators." By the beginning of the last century the process of 
differentiation had taken place, and the drama stolidly ignored it. 

The three gigantic musketeers of prose were, of course, Ibsen, 
Chekhov, and Shaw; they made it respectable, and Chekhov even 
went so far as to show that prose, by means of what it implied rather than 
what it stated, could reproduce the effect of poetry in purely theatrical 
terms. By 1900 it began to look as if prose had gained its point — and 
pretty tardily, too, since the novel had started to replace the verse epic 
two centuries earlier, It would have surprised the drama critics of the 
period to be told that within fifty years the old medium would once more 
be asserting its claim to dramatic supremacy. Yet that is what has hap- 
pened. Just as prose has started to test its wings, we are asked to beUeve 
that it can never fly. The powers of the line that stops short of the 
margin are again being hymned and its mysteries celebrated. 

This seems to me grossly unhistorical and based on an alarming 
number of unproven assumptions. For an irrevocable change has been 
overtaking language in the last three hundred years. Poetry and col- 
loquial prose, which are now (in spite of Wordsworth) hnguisticaUy 
divorced, shared in the sixteenth century rich champaigns of vocabu- 
lary and image. Elizabethan pamphlets are as generous with metaphor 
as Elizabethan plays; and a dramatist could inject a shot of colloquialism 
into a tragic aria without courting bathos. Nobody titters when Hamlet, 
in mid-soliloquy, exclaims, "Why, what an ass am I!"; but when Aaron, 
in Christopher Fry's tragedy The Firstborn, says of Moses that "he took 
me by the scruff of my heart," it is comic in much the same way as Abe 
Burrows' parody of the "sophisticated-type" love song: "You put a 
piece of carbon-paper under your heart, and gave me just a copy of your 
love." Everyone agrees that formal poetic diction is dead; yet if you 



70 Part I: The British Theatre 

spike a dramatic verse-form with the vernacular, the experiment in- 
variably fails — unless a comic or ironic effect was what you had in mind. 
Auden, Isherwood, Ehot, and Fry have all exploited this trick of bathos; 
and it may be that the wheel has come full circle, that poetry in the 
theatre should be confined to comedy, where its potency still Ungers. 

The customary plea for verse is summed up in this extract from one 
of Dryden's essays: "All the arguments which are formed against it, 
can amount to no more than this, that it is not so near conversation as 
prose, and therefore not so natural. But it is clear to all who understand 
poetry, that serious plays ought not to imitate conversation too nearly." 
And once you admit that "naturalness" is not enough, he continues, you 
are halfway to accepting poetry: "You have lost that which you call 
natural, and have not acquired the last perfection of Art." But Dryden's 
antithesis is a false one. The perfection of art in the theatre depends 
neither on naturalism nor on poetry. Drama has in its time borrowed 
tricks from both, but what it has built is a new and separate structure, 
whose foundation stones — the last acts of The Master Builder and The 
Three Sisters — are architectural triumphs of prose over naturalism. 

On naturalism I shrink from pronouncing, because I have never 
(has anyone?) seen a completely naturalistic play — I doubt if one 
exists. What bothers me is the way in which the higher criticism equates 
prose with poverty of dramatic expression. "What is the prose for God?" 
cries one pundit, quoting from Granville-Barker and forgetting that the 
answer to the question is on almost every page of the Bible. Nobody 
wants to banish luxury of language from the theatre; what needs banish- 
ing is the notion that it is incompatible with prose, the most flexible 
weapon the stage has ever had, and still shining new. Those playwrights 
who have followed the Ibsen-Chekhov lead are in the main stream of 
modern drama. Giraudoux for prime example; La Folic de Chaillot 
and La Guerre de Troie represent prose exulting in its own versatility, 
embracing slang and stateliness, gutter and glitter, in one enormous 
grasp. Synge and O'Casey stand beside Giraudoux in the great line; and 
when, earlier this year, Dylan Thomas' Under Milk Wood was published, 
nobody could doubt that only death had robbed us of another to join 
them. Under Milk Wood was commissioned by BBC for sound broad- 
casting, but two Sunday-night stagings of it at the Old Vic proved that 
it could enmesh the watcher as well as the listener. Here, unfolding in 
the talk and thoughts of its inhabitants, was a day in the Hfe of a Welsh 
coastal town, a devout and mischievous celebration of the sea, soil, 
wind, and wantonness of Wales. Prose went into battle rejoicing. Take, 



Part I: The British Theatre 7 1 

for instance, this exchange between Mrs. Cherry Owen and her errant 
husband: 

MRS. CHERRY OWEN: Remember last night? In you reeled, my boy, 
as drunk as a deacon with a big wet bucket and a fish-frail full of stout 
and you looked at me and you said, "God has come home!" you said, 
and then over the bucket you went, sprawling and bawUng, and the floor 
was all flagons and eels. 

CHERRY OWEN: Was I wounded? 

MRS. CHERRY OWEN: And then you took off your trousers and you 
said, "Does anybody want to fight?" Oh, you old baboon. 

Or the letter written by Mog Edwards, "a draper mad with love," 
to his "Beloved Myfanwy Price, my Bride in Heaven": 

I love you until Death do us part and then we shall be to- 
gether for ever and ever. A new parcel of ribbons has come from 
Carmarthen today, all the colours in the rainbow. I wish I could 
tie a ribbon in your hair a white one but it cannot be. I dreamed last 
night you were all dripping wet and you sat on my lap as the Rever- 
end Jenkins went down the street. I see you got a mermaid in your 
lap he said and he Hfted his hat. He is a proper Christian. Not like 
Cherry Owen who said you should have thrown her back he said. 
Business is very poorly ... If this goes on I shall be in the work- 
house. My heart is in your bosom and yours is in mine. God be 
with you always Myfanwy Price and keep you lovely for me in His 
Heavenly Mansion. I must stop now and remain, Your Eternal, 
Mog Edwards. 

The whole play is a tumult of living, and its burden is compressed 
into the remark of Polly Garter, the town tart: "Isn't life a terrible thing, 
thank God!" Phihp Hope- Wallace, writing in the Manchester Guardian, 
sent his thoughts to the right place when he said: "Not since Juno and 
the Paycock have we heard in a theatre words coming up thus, not 
chosen but compelled: a fountain from the heart." 

Thomas side-stepped the snare which besets the prose playwright 
who, though he abjures verse, secretly aspires to the condition of poetry. 
This fatal urge is responsible for the solemn, booming cadences, the sen- 
tences lying in comatose state, which one sometimes finds in the plays of 
Charles Morgan. The Burning Glass is a forest of prose on stilts, opu- 
lently teetering. Morgan's excuse, of course, is that Thomas had a head 
start on him, since (like O'Casey) he was putting words in the mouths 
of a people essentially imaginative. Morgan's characters are drawn from 
the EngUsh upper class, whose vocabulary is crippled by the restraints of 



72 P^'^t I: The British Theatre 

social usage (no tears, no ecstasies), and about whom it is today practi- 
cally impossible to write a great play. The spirit is not in them; or if it is, 
their tight lips firmly repress it. I doubt if even Arthur Miller or Tennes- 
see Williams, the prose masters of the contemporary English-speaking 
theatre, could construct a tragedy around the country homes of Berks 
and Bucks. It is significant that the most successful passages of The Cock- 
tail Party were those in which Eliot exposed the vacuity of haut bourgeois 
chatter: 

JULIA: . . . The only man I ever met who could hear the cry of 
bats. 

PETER : Hear the cry of bats? 

JULIA: He could hear the cry of bats. 

celia: But how do you know he could hear the cry of bats? 
JULIA: Because he said so. And I believed him. 

Eliot is here using verse to show how resolutely, how comically unpoeti- 
cal his characters are; and, wryly but appropriately, it works. 

One of the handicaps of poetry is that penumbra of holiness, the 
legacy of the nineteenth century, which still surrounds it, coaxing us into 
tolerating sentimental excesses we would never forgive in prose: 

O God, O God, if I could return to yesterday, before I thought 
that I had made a decision. What devil left the door on the latch for 
these doubts to enter? And then you came back, you, the angel of 
destruction — just as I felt sure. In a moment, at your touch, there is 
nothing but ruin. 

Exit, you might expect, into snowstorm; but you would be wrong. 
The lines come not from Victorian melodrama but from The Cocktail 
Party, printed as prose. Their lameness is particularly vexing because 
Eliot has shown himself capable of writing intensely muscular dramatic 
prose. So has Fry: one has only to read his lecture, "An Experience of 
Critics," parts of which are as speakable as a Giraudoux tirade. Much 
of his latest play. The Dark Is Light Enough, is infinitely less dramatic. 
Its construction rules out of court the old argument that poetic plays are 
deficient only in plot; The Dark Is Light Enough abounds in plot and in- 
cident, yet remains as static as a candle-lit tableau or darkling waxwork. 
It happens in a chateau on the Austro-Hungarian border. The Hungarian 
rebelUon of 1848 has just begun, and a crisis is precipitated by the 
Countess Rosmarin, who decides to give shelter to Gettner, a deserter 
from the revolutionary army. The play's main action is the regeneration 
of Gettner, nihilist and traitor, by the Countess, who stands for divine 



Part I: The British Theatre 73 

charity, the justification of God's circuitous ways to man. 

The first great drawback is the fact that Rosmarin, being by defini- 
tion perfect, is incapable of development; in spite of Dame Edith Evans' 
vocal exertions, she can scarcely avoid resembling a benignly crinolined 
soup-kitchen. The second and greater drawback is, I am afraid, Fry's 
style, which — though it is noticeably less sportive than it used to be — 
seems now to have taken on the texture of diatomite, a substance used 
in the manufacture of pipestems which contains thousands of fossils to 
the cubic inch. The characters studiously express different attitudes to- 
wards hfe, but they use interchangeable rhythms and identical tricks of 
speech in which to do so. They tell us, with ruthless fluency, what kind 
of people they are, instead of letting us find out for ourselves. I needn't 
say that there are some fine set pieces of rhetoric; but the best of them — 
that in which Rosmarin likens Gettner to a blue plucked goose shivering 
on the water's brink — embodies in itself the germ of poetry's weakness : 
it describes in repose rather than illustrates in action. And one regrets 
the readiness with which Fry has succumbed to padding and jingle, in 
phrases like "for my sake, if my sake is worthy," "a coward, if a cow- 
ard is what you are," "splendidly sleeping," "precariously promising," 
and "inconsolable inclination." 

It is good to learn that he is at present making prose adaptations of 
Anouilh's L'Alouette and Giraudoux' La Guerre de Troie; perhaps the 
experience will lure him across the frontier into the large Gothic land- 
scapes of prose. The chance of converting Eliot is, I imagine, much slim- 
mer; but it may not be impertinent to suggest that even in his best play. 
Murder in the Cathedral, the most impressive pages were those which 
contained the speeches of self-exculpation by the four knights and the 
sermon delivered by Becket on Christmas Day. And these were all 
prose: 

I have spoken to you today, dear children of God, of the mar- 
tyrs of the past . . . because it is fitting, on Christ's birth day, to 
remember what is that Peace which He brought; and because, dear 
children, I do not think I shall ever preach to you again; and be- 
cause it is possible that in a short time you may have yet another 
martyr, and that one perhaps not the last. . . . 

In poetry, Fry gilds where Eliot anoints; in neither procedure are 
there seeds of real dramatic vitality. If they, the foremost heretics, can 
be persuaded off their crosses, away from their martyrdom in a lost 
cause, the theatre would immediately benefit. Mallarme once said, in 
lapidary despair: "Pour moi le cas d'un poete, en cette societe qui ne le 



74 P^^i I: The British Theatre 

permet de vivre, c'est le cas d'un homme qui s'isole pour sculpter son 
propre tombeau." But he was slightly in error. It is not our society but 
our theatre which rejects the poet; "nowadays," as Walkley said, "we 
expect a drama to be purely dramatic." If poetic playwrights did not 
exist, it might be an agreeable caprice to invent them; but it would no 
longer be a necessity. And in a theatre starved by the cinema and be- 
sieged by television, necessities must come first. 



Rattigan in Tivo Volumes. 

Reading Terence Rattigan's ten collected plays is an experience 
not unlike reclining on the bank of a suavely trickling stream in hot 
weather. One basks, stretches, is lulled by the swift, interminable mur- 
mur; one's reflexes are neutrahsed, and life pauses. Except when, at 
long intervals, the roar of a distant waterfall obtrudes, one's pleasure is 
negative, derived wholly from that marketable quality known to cynics 
as ingratiation and to romantics as charm. 

It is a charm closely related to that of Bing Crosby, in that it looks 
deceptively, guilelessly imitable; indeed, it would not be too unfair to 
call Rattigan the bathtub baritone of the drama. So steadily does he aim 
to please that in his whole oeuvre there is but one "unpleasant" charac- 
ter — the rapacious Mrs. Crocker-Harris in The Browning Version, 
which stands beside the first two acts of The Deep Blue Sea as his most 
impressive work for the theatre. Elsewhere the negative virtues predomi- 
nate: tact, understatement, avoidance of cliche — the hallmarks, in fact, 
of the "gentleman code" which holds so much of West End playwright- 
ing in curious thrall. 

The very title of Rattigan's play about Alexander of Macedon is 
significant: Adventure Story. Is it a modest shrug, or a form of insurance 
against the terrible charge of pretentiousness? After reading the play one 
is forced to conclude that Alexander's real crime, in Rattigan's eyes, was 
to have been guilty of conduct which would get him expelled from any 
decent club. His pagan legionaries move like gods and talk like prefects: 
"Been cheeking Alexander again, I expect," says a general of his son; 
the language will not rise to the occasion. Rather than risk the embar- 
rassment of rhetoric, Rattigan, like many other English playwrights, has 
developed a talent for drawing undramatic people, and for deriding peo- 
ple who take life "dramatically," such as the actor-manager in Harle- 



Part I: The British Theatre 75 

quinade, the sulky, Hamletesque son in Love in Idleness, or the little 
Frenchman in While the Sun Shines, with his talk of "a white-hot burn- 
ing of the heart." There is no question that if Cyrano de Bergerac were 
to turn up in a Rattigan play, he would be laughed off the stage in two 
minutes. 

The author's long preface to the two volumes must be one of the 
most articulate confessions of faith ever penned by a popular play- 
wright. Much of it is an unexceptionable defence of "good theatre." 
What demands refutation is the way in which Rattigan generalises from 
his own example. It is a pity that he feels it necessary to ironise at the ex- 
pense of dramatists whose plays fail to please the million — there is, after 
all, such a thing as a minority audience, and it is a matter of shame, not 
of self-congratulation, that there is less minority theatre here than in 
Paris. Nor is it true to assert that "A play does not fail because it is too 
good; it fails because it is not good enough." Thornton Wilder's Our 
Town failed in London seven years ago: for whom, one wonders, was it 
not good enough? The answer is that many plays fail because they are 
not bad enough. 

I understand, though I cannot applaud, Rattigan's allegiance to a 
mythical, middle-class admirer called "Aunt Edna," whom he holds to 
be the backbone of the theatre. Confusion arises when, bhnd to her fail- 
ings, he credits Aunt Edna with having been the first to decide that 
Hamlet was a better play than Timon of Athens; the truth, of course, is 
that she goes to Hamlet because generations of highbrows have told her 
to. She follows, never leads, intelligent taste; nor does she abandon for 
an instant her inner conviction that Hamlet is a far less suitable play 
than Quiet Weekend. In his loyalty to the old lady, as in his subsequent 
declaration that the theatre is not the place in which to express "ideas," 
Rattigan is rationalising to the top of his bent. The fact that Aunt Edna 
is collectively flocking to see The Sleeping Prince (described by an 
American visitor as "a breath of old caviare") will doubtless do much 
to comfort him. 

Whatever his shortcomings as a theorist, nobody can deny Rattigan's 
supreme agility as a craftsman. His mastery of exposition is complete: 
give one of his characters a telephone, and within a minute, impercepti- 
bly, the essentials of the situation will have been clearly sketched in. To 
the complaint that there is nothing quotable in his work, he has preparea 
an elaborate answer. He refers in the preface to an "element of the pio- 
neering and the experimental" in his comedies, by which he means their 
verbal economy; he beUeves that "Yes," in context, can be more effec- 
tive (i.e., funnier) than an ornately turned paragraph — which, if one 



76 Pa^^ I: ^^^ British Theatre 

judges comedies entirely on the number of sides they spUt, is indisputa- 
ble. But in setting his face against what he calls "the 'gilded phrase' 
school" (Congreve and his contemporaries), Rattigan overlooks a vital 
point, which is that Congreve was writing about men and women of ex- 
ceptional wit: and extraordinary people do tend to speak extraordinar- 
ily, even memorably. 

The greatest plays are those which convince us that men can occa- 
sionally speak hke angels. The rest, which conspire to imply that angels 
speak exactly like men, deserve and achieve respectable acclaim, but 
they must not repine if, finally, their passports to immortality are found 
invalid. The Grand Duchess in The Sleeping Prince is the first excep- 
tional human being Rattigan has invented. We must now hope for more. 
He has already given us two striking tragedies of understatement, a 
vivid drame a these, and a clutch of likeable comedies, but I doubt 
whether he will long be content with a position, however secure and 
widely acknowledged, at the head of the second rank. Meanwhile, I 
commend to him Shaw's dictum: "the drama's laws the drama's patrons 
do not give: that is the prerogative of the dramatist, and of the drama- 
tist alone." 



A Note on Criticism. 

Critics in the past have seen themselves variously as torch-bearers, 
pall-bearers, and lighthouses shining over unmapped seas; I see myself 
predominantly as a lock. If the key, which is the work of art, fits snugly 
into my mechanism of bias and preference, I chck and rejoice; if not, I 
am helpless, and can only offer the artist the address of a better lock- 
smith. Sometimes, unforeseen, a masterpiece seizes the knocker, batters 
down the door, and enters unopposed; and when that happens, I am a 
willing casualty. I cave in con amore. But mostly I am at a loss. It is a 
sombre truth that nowadays our intellectuals go to the cinema and shun 
the theatre. Their assistance is sadly missed; but their defection is my 
opportunity. 



Part I: The British Theatre 77 



Hedda G abler, by Henrik Ibsen, at the Lyric, Hammersmith; 
Macbeth, by William Shakespeare, at the Old Vic. 

Let me court peril with a generalisation: that good drama, of what- 
ever kind, has but one mainspring — the human being reduced by in- 
eluctable process to a state of desperation. Desperate are the cornered 
giants of Sophocles; desperate, too, as they huddle in their summer- 
houses, the becalmed gentry of Chekhov; and the husband of French 
farce, with a wife in one bedroom and a mistress in another, is he not, 
though we smile at his agony, definably desperate? The clown in the 
haunted house and the prince on the haunted battlements have this in 
common, that their drama heightens as they are driven to the last ditch 
of their souls. How, in this extremity, will they comport themselves? It is 
to find out that we go to theatres : to Hedda Gabler at Hammersmith, or 
to Macbeth at the Vic. 

What a match, one muses, these two fiends would have made! 
Hedda is aU rapacious sterility, a perfect embodiment of the philosophy 
of de Sade, which Mr. Geoffrey Gorer has described as one of "pleasure 
in the ego's modification of the external world." Power over life is what 
she and Macbeth seek, and he achieves it with the satanic flourish, the 
"vine-leaves in his hair," to which Eilert Lovborg could never aspire. It is 
for Macbeth's world that Hedda, a locust at large in a grove of Footers, 
perennially pines. 

One knows with what ballast Sardou would have loaded her story. 
Ignored by an ageing husband, she would have seduced an ex-lover 
(Lovborg), lost him to another woman, and blackmailed him into sui- 
cide. Shamed by the nobility of Tesman's forbearance, she would then 
have killed herself "to atone." Ibsen takes this raw meat and dehber- 
ately removes the romantic element. Hedda's destructiveness springs not 
from passion but from sexual frigidity. Not otherwise would she have 
married Tesman, whom George Devine plays with an exquisite, lumber- 
ing donnishness; not otherwise repel the advances of Brack (Michael 
MacLiammoir, a trifle uneasy in the mysteries of cicisbeism ) ; not other- 
wise stiffen at every mention of motherhood, or burn Eilert Lovborg's 
manuscript, his "child" by Mrs. Elvsted. Hedda Gabler is what Hazlitt 
called Kemble, "an icicle upon the bust of tragedy." 

Peter Ashmore's production is the finest tribute to Ibsen since Mi- 
chael Benthall's Wild Duck in 1948. Your weather-beaten British play- 
goer, who likes his entertainment warmed by the blue skies of Verona, 



78 Part I: The British Theatre 

Nice, or Siam, has immemorially shunned Ibsen, with his grim galoshes 
and abiding rain. Aware of this, Mr. Ashmore's designers. Motley, have 
dulcified Hedda's habitat: the Tesman villa is a costly pleasance, baked 
in a blinding sun. The centrepiece is Peggy Ashcroft's Hedda, a flinty, 
marvellously impartial performance. How many temptations this actress 
resists! She makes no play for sympathy; nor does she imply that she de- 
spises the woman she is impersonating. Her vocal mannerisms, cool and 
tinkling as teaspoons twirled in china cups, are exactly fitted to Hedda's 
malice; and the whole display is a monument to nymphomanie de tete, 
which might roughly be translated as the nymphomania of Hedda. 

The Old Vic Macbeth offers nothing as good. Mr. Benthall's pro- 
duction is a bellowing-match, with every other word, how harmless so- 
ever its meaning, spat in a pet at the audience's face. My impression was 
of an operatic transcription of the cartoons of Charles Addams. One of 
the play's few quiet lines, "It will be rain to-night," fell from the mouth 
of Eric Porter's Banquo fike manna on the starved. Rachel Roberts is the 
best witch for years; John Wood's Lennox cuts like a razor through the 
stubble of fustian; and Ann Todd makes a piercing Lady Macbeth. As 
her distracted helpmeet, Paul Rogers amalgamates all the vital charac- 
teristics of the First, Second, and Third Murderers. The part needs 
lungs plus genius; Mr. Rogers does all that lungs can, and is at his best 
in the last act, which he plays aU out for wild white hair and bellicose 
ecstasy. 



Second-rateiiess. 

Every critic, tiring of perfectionism, acquires an uncritical self. This 
is the self which he, a happy truant, brings to the consideration of strip- 
tease, pantomime, amateur performances of Shakespeare, and profes- 
sional performances of English farce. Such trivia, he feels, are beneath 
criticism; their frailty must be tolerated. Should his skilled, observant, 
critical self rise up and dismember a foolish farce, he is at once accused 
of being a spoilsport. Obediently he anaesthetises the very faculty that 
governed his choice of profession, and when faced with nonsense, he 
dubs it "unpretentious" and lets it pass. 

But at times, out of sheer overwork, the uncritical self rebels. The 
familiar phrases — "a harmless romp," "for children of all ages," "should 
pack the theatre for years" — trot less readily from the typewriter. And 
the critic discerns that someone has taken advantage of him. Incubated 



Part I: The British Theatre 79 

by his lenience, the second-rate things — Thalia's failures — have flour- 
ished and multiplied until they crowd his horizon, roaring with laughter 
and pushing from sight the few obstreperous oddlings who had hoped to 
tell him of life and pain, of love and death. When this happens, he must 
call a halt. 

Some weeks ago Walter Kerr, the American critic, arrived at a snap 
diagnosis of the West End theatre. Where Broadway has one standard 
of playcraft, he said, London has two, equally successful: a primary 
drama, including respectable revivals and new plays by established au- 
thors, and a secondary drama, comprising tea-cup comedy and kitchen 
farce. Politeness forbade him to draw the obvious conclusion: that critics 
and public ahke lower their sights whenever a "secondary" play is pre- 
sented. We expect our farces to be bad, and are outraged when Broad- 
way, which insists that its farces be good, sends us a specimen as celes- 
tially gay as The Seven Year Itch. 

The results of our culpable tolerance surround us. No playwright 
rises above his audience's expectations for very long. Why should he do 
his best work when Dry Rot and The Love Match are delighting the 
public with their worthlessness? Nobody wants to see the secondary the- 
atre abolished, but it is imperative that it should be judged by higher 
critical standards. Twenty-seven West End theatres are at present offer- 
ing light comedies and musical shows, of which perhaps a dozen are 
good of their kind. The number of new plays with the sHghtest claim to 
serious discussion is three: A Day by the Sea, The Dark Is Light 
Enough, and I Am a Camera. One need not be a purist to be ashamed of 
the discrepancy. Our garden is beset with weeds, and "the coulter rusts 
that should deracinate such savagery." The secondary theatre must put 
forth better shoots — and fewer. It is so easy, as the elder Dumas said, 
not to write plays. 

(1954) 

Separate Tables, by Terence Rattigan, at the St. James'. 

{The scene is the dining-room of a Kensington hotel, not un- 
like the Bournemouth hotel in which Separate Tables, Terence 
Rattigan's new double bill, takes place. A Young Perfectionist is 
dining; beside him, Aunt Edna, whom Mr. Rattigan has described 
as the "universal and immortal" middle-class playgoer.) 
aunt edna: Excuse me, young man, but have you seen Mr. Ratti- 
gan's latest? 



80 P'^^t I: The British Theatre 

YOUNG perfectionist: I have indeed. 

A.E, : And what is it about? 

Y.P.: It is two plays about four people who are driven by loneli- 
ness into a state of desperation. 

A.E. (sighing): Is there not enough morbidity in the world . . . ? 

Y.P.: One of them is a drunken Left-wing journaUst who has been 
imprisoned for wife-beating. Another is his ex-wife, who takes drugs to 
palhate the loss of her looks. She revives his masochistic love for her, 
and by curtain-fall they are gingerly reunited. 

A.E. (quailing) : Does Mr. Rattigan analyse these creatures? 

Y.P.: He does, in great detail. 

A.E.: How very unwholesome! Pray go on. 

Y.P.: In the second play the central character is a bogus major who 
has lately been convicted of assaulting women in a cinema. 

A.E.: Ouf! 

Y.P.: His fellow-guests hold conclave to decide whether he should 
be expelled from the hotel. Each contributes to a symposium on sexual 
deviation. . . . 

A.E.: In pity's name, stop! 

Y.P.: The major reveals that his foible is the result of fear, which 
has made him a hermit, a har, and a pervert. This revelation kindles 
sympathy in the heart of the fourth misfit, a broken spinster, who be- 
friends him in his despair, 

A.E. (aghast) : I knew I was wrong when I applauded The Deep 
Blue Sea. And what conclusion does Mr. Rattigan draw from these 
squaHd anecdotes? 

Y.P.: From the first, that love unbridled is a destroyer. From the 
second, that love bridled is a destroyer. You will enjoy yourself. 

A.E.: But I go to the theatre to be taken out of myself! 

Y.P.: Mr. Rattigan will take you into an intricately charted world 
of suspense. By withholding vital information, he will tantalise you; by 
disclosing it unexpectedly, he will astound you. 

A.E.: But what information! Sex and frustration! 

Y.P.: I agree that the principal characters, especially the journaUst 
and the major, are original and disturbing creations. But there is also a 
tactful, omniscient hoteliere, beautifully played by Beryl Measor. And 
what do you say to a comic Cockney Maid? 

A.E.: Ah! 

Y.P.: Or to Aubrey Mather as a whimsical dominie? Or to a pair 
of opinionated medical students? Or to a tyrannical matriarch — no less 
than PhylHs Neilson-Terry? 



Pan I: The British Theatre g 1 

A.E.: That sounds more like it. You console me. 

Y.P.: I thought you would feel at home. And Peter Glenville, the 
director, has craftily engaged for these parts actors subtle enough to dis- 
guise their flatness. 

A.E, {clouding over) : But what about those difficult leading roles? 

Y.P.: Margaret Leighton plays two of them, rather externally. Her 
beauty annihilates the pathos of the ex-wife, who should be oppressed 
with crow's-feet. And her mousy spinster, dim and pink-knuckled, 
verges on caricature. It is Eric Portman who commands the stage, vol- 
canic as the journalist, but even better as the major, speaking in nervous 
spasms and walking stiff-legged with his shoulders protectively hunched. 
He has the mask of the true mime, the comedien as opposed to the ac- 
teur. 

A.E.: Yet you sound a trifle peaky. Is something biting you? 

Y.P.: Since you ask, I regretted that the major's crime was not 
something more cathartic than mere cinema flirtation. Yet I suppose the 
play is as good a handhng of sexual abnormality as English playgoers 
will tolerate. 

A.E.: For my part, I am glad it is no better. 

Y.P.: I guessed you would be; and so did Mr. Rattigan. Will you 
accompany me on a second visit tomorrow? 

A.E.: With great pleasure. Clearly, there is something here for 
both of us. 

Y.P.: Yes. But not quite enough for either of us. 

(1954) 

Arden of F aver sham, authorship unknown, at the Theatre 
Royal, Stratford-atte-Bowe. 

Who wrote Arden of F aver sham? Kyd, perhaps; or that hack of 
the shades, George Wilkins. But plainly its authorship lies as far from 
Shakespeare as Stratford-atte-Bowe (where Theatre Workshop are re- 
viving the piece) lies from Stratford-on-Avon. The epilogue speaks of 
"this naked tragedy," adding that: 

. . . simple truth is gratious enough 
And needs no other points of glozing stuff. 

But for Shakespeare, twenty-eight years old when the play was 
published, simple truth was not enough; he would have glozed over the 
nakedness with poetry. All in all, I think George did it. 



82 Part I: The British Theatre 

One wonders whether critics three centuries hence will be ransack- 
ing Mrs. Christie's thrillers for traces of Mr. Fry's "hand of glory," The 
analogy is not inept, for Arden is shameless blood and thunder, an ac- 
count of an actual Tudor homicide enlivened by the thrusting pulse of 
blank verse. It reeks of documentary reahsm. And do you hear that 
whiffling detonation? That is T. S. Eliot snorting. Mr. Eliot holds that 
since Arden English drama has declined into a "desert of exact likeness 
to the reality which is perceived by the most commonplace mind." 
But it takes a mind more than commonplace to perceive and transcribe 
any sort of reality; and our national nose for the details of human be- 
haviour won't, as our literature proves, stop quivering. We have an in- 
continent passion for fact, and George satisfies it. 

He shows us Alice Arden wantoning with a base steward named 
Mosbie, enhsting the help of a pair of Cheapside assassins to slay her 
husband, and finally, after fearful delays and frustrations, having her 
will. Arden asserts what Elizabethan drama as a whole denies, that mur- 
der is a hard thing to accomplish. "When," moans Black Will, the hired 
bravo, "was I so long in killing a man?" The play's failing is a long cen- 
tral sag, during which we leave the lovers and follow their victim on a 
trip to London; but the chmax, with Arden stabbed and dragged out into 
the fields, tingles with grimness. The blood must be scrubbed away, all 
must be set at rights, and Alice rounds suddenly on Mosbie with an ac- 
cusing shriek: " 'Twas thou that made me murder him!" But hereabouts, 
to my grief, Joan Littlewood's production went off the rails, dislodged by 
false economy. John Bury had already provided two excellent settings, a 
gloomy prospect of trees and a cramped vista of London alleys; but the 
third, Arden's kitchen, was not forthcoming. Which meant an alfresco 
kilHng, and the excision of the lines in which Franklin, the dead man's 
friend, reveals himself as the first detective in English fiction: 

I fear me he was murdered in this house 
And carried to the field, for from that place 
Backwards and forwards may you see 
The print of many feet within the snow. . . . 

Worse still, the retribution scene was omitted, so that we did not see 
what the title-page promised, "the shameful end of aU murderers." I 
urge Miss Littlewood not to deprive her company of these opportunities. 
Perhaps George Cooper overplays Black Will's braggartry; but the 
rampant B ovary sme of Barbara Brown's Alice could hardly be bettered, 
and Harry Corbett plays Mosbie with a dark, cringing bravura which 
recalls the Olivier of Richard HI. Lady Chatterley and Strindberg's 



Part I: The British Theatre 83 

Miss Julie must, one feels, be looking down with approval on these pre- 
monitions of their plight. 



Saint Joan, by George Bernard Shaw, at the Arts Theatre. 

"Swagger and fustian" was Shaw's phrase for the minor Elizabe- 
thans, and it applies all too easily to much of his own charmless master- 
piece, Saint Joan, which John Fernald has restaged at the Arts Theatre. 
This is the first of his plays into which Shaw's seniUty creeps. The jokes 
misfire; the debates languish; and Shaw's passion for penal reform ob- 
trudes to the detriment of the end. Joan withdraws her confession only 
when she finds that the alternative to death is perpetual incarceration 
away from the sun and the sky. If Shaw's Joan had lived in an age of 
prisons without bars, her recantation would have gone through and the 
calendar would lack a saint. 

She suffers as a dramatic creation from the weakness of having no 
weaknesses. A divinely illuminated simpleton, she is incapable of 
change or development. Or so it seems on the page. And this is where 
Siobhan McKenna comes in. "La vie," said Remy de Gourmont, "est un 
depouillement ," and this actress lets us see life stripping Joan down to her 
spiritual buff. The beaming clown of the opening scenes has undergone, 
by the end, an annealing: all that was mortal about her is peeled away, 
and sheer soul bursts through. "God is alone" had tears flowing every- 
where in the house, and during the epilogue one scarcely dared look at 
the stage. Miss McKenna's voice, with its brave Connemara twang, 
must somehow acquire a middle register between pp and ff; but this is 
my only quibble with the richest portrait of saintliness since Falconetti 
shaved her head for Dreyer's film La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc. 

(i954) 



The Bishop's Bonfire, by Sean O'Casey, at the Gaiety, Dublin. 

The Irish never forgive those they have insulted. Back from long 
exile came Sean to Dublin, and his compatriots hissed his play at cur- 
tain-fall. At the first night of Mr. O'Casey's The Bishop's Bonfire there 
were more stage Irishmen in the house than in the cast, and by the first 



84 Part I: The British Theatre 

interval venomous tongues were already lamenting the play's failure. 
Those who had uprooted the author now charged him with having for- 
gotten his roots; those who had expelled him from the parish charged 
him with being too parochial. How, they jeered, could a man from an 
urban working-class Protestant family write well about a rural middle- 
class Catholic family? Some blamed the director, picturing Tyrone Guth- 
rie as an ambulance which had run over the man it was summoned to 
help. Others excoriated the cast. In this congress of feud and polemic 
the play was forgotten. 

And what were the facts? That Mr. O'Casey's genius, once tragi- 
comic, had declined into a state best described as manic-depressive; 
that his hand had lost its sureness in shifting from mood to mood; and 
that here were two plays, one ghastly, one gorgeous, in unhappy juxta- 
position. The depressive (or serious) theme is youth's subservience to 
authority, as reflected in the plights of Councillor Reiligan's two daugh- 
ters. One of them is cheated of fulfilment because her impoverished 
lover allows class-consciousness to intimidate him. The other follows 
her man into the Church, from which he defects; and the tension be- 
tween the spoiled priest and the reluctant nun ends in murder. 

The rigid formulae of society and rehgion, Mr. O'Casey argues, are 
strait-jackets which warp youth's love of life; but the argument is blurred 
by the floridity of the author's style. Where every image is a new crimson 
splash on a verbal Turner sunset, the expression of ideas becomes im- 
possible. Like most Irish playwrights, Mr. O'Casey risks self-parody 
when he tries to write seriously. The shades of Dion Boucicault and 
Amanda Ros seem to guide his pen, coupled with the inflated Oriental 
metaphors and tiresome alliterations of the Authorised Version, on 
which (unUke most Irish playwrights) he was brought up. 

What matters is the manic half of the play. Here, deahng with the 
wild inconsequent rustics who are redecorating Ballyoonagh for the 
bishop's impending visit, Mr. O'Casey hits his full stride as the old 
mocker and fantastic ironist, ever happier with tongue in cheek than 
with hand on heart. Broad comedy of protest was always the best Irish 
vein, and Mr. O'Casey strikes it rich, extracting from Eddie Byrne, Sea- 
mus Kavanaugh, and Harry Hutchinson performances of preposterous 
gaiety; and if Cyril Cusack fails to make the ancient Codger plausible, 
it is because the author has chosen to philosophise the part as well as 
drivel it. The elation of these quarrelsome, gin-swigging scenes is tre- 
mendous; you feel Mr. O'Casey had to get the characters drunk to ac- 
count for the boldness of their utterance. Phrases so "shockin' massive" 
fall seldom from sober lips. The passage in which the handymen debate 



Part I: The British Theatre 85 

the chances of saving Ireland from the Reds by persuading the Ameri- 
cans to drop thousands of jeeps by parachute is pure comic uproar, the 
notion being twisted, squeezed, and up-ended until it has yielded its last 
drop of laughter. 

And why are these hirelings so free of speech? Because, as one of 
them says: "Me soul's me own particular compendium. Me soul's me 
own spiritual property, complete an' entire, verbatim in all its concern- 
ment." They abound in their own sense, and while they are about, 
shouting loud or muttering "sotto vossie," the play magnifies life as glori- 
ously as it magnifies language. Mr. O'Casey was never a great thinker; 
he is no longer a great craftsman; but he remains a great singer. 



West-End Apathy. 

"And how," ask my friends, having debated the opera, the ballet, 
politics, and the Italian cinema, "how is the theatre getting along?" The 
very set of their features, so patiently quizzical, tells me I am being in- 
dulged; after the serious business of conversation, they are permitting 
themselves a lapse into idleness. I shrug cheerily, like a martyr to rheu- 
matism. A wan, tingling silence ensues. Then: "De Sica's new film is su- 
perb," says somebody, and talk begins again, happy and devout. I stew, 
meanwhile, in what Zelda Fitzgerald once called "the boiling oil of sour 
grapes." 

The bare fact is that, apart from revivals and imports, there is 
nothing in the London theatre that one dares discuss with an intelligent 
man for more than five minutes. Since the great Ibsen challenge of the 
nineties, the English intellectuals have been drifting away from drama. 
Synge, Pirandello, and O'Casey briefly recaptured them, and they will 
still perk up at the mention of Giraudoux. But — cowards — they know 
Ehot and Fry only in the study; and of a native prose playwright who 
might set the boards smouldering they see no sign at all. Last week I wel- 
comed a young Frenchwoman engaged in writing a thesis on contempo- 
rary English drama. We talked hopefully of John Whiting; but before 
long embarrassment moved me to ask why she had not chosen her own 
theatre as a subject for study. She smiled wryly. "Paris is in decline," 
she said. "Apart from Sartre, Anouilh, Camus, Cocteau, Ayme, Claudel, 
Beckett, and Salacrou, we have almost nobody." 

If you seek a tombstone, look about you; survey the peculiar nullity 



86 P^'i'i I- The British Theatre 

of our drama's prevalent genre, the Loamshire play. Its setting is a coun- 
try house in what used to be caUed Loamshire but is now, as a heroic 
tribute to realism, sometimes called Berkshire. Except when someone 
must sneeze, or be murdered, the sun invariably shines. The inhabitants 
belong to a social class derived partly from romantic novels and partly 
from the playwright's vision of the leisured life he will lead after the play 
is a success — this being the only effort of imagination he is called on to 
make. Joys and sorrows are giggles and whimpers: the crash of denun- 
ciation dwindles into "Oh, stuff. Mummy!" and "Oh, really. Daddy!" 
And so grim is the continuity of these things that the foregoing para- 
graph might have been written at any time during the last thirty years. 

Loamshire is a glibly codified fairy-tale world, of no more use to 
the student of life than a doll's-house would be to a student of town plan- 
ning. Its vice is to have engulfed the theatre, thereby expelling better 
minds. Never beheve that there is a shortage of playwrights; there are 
more than we have ever known; but they are all writing the same play. 
Nor is there a dearth of English actors; the land is alive with them; but 
they are all playing the same part. Should they wish to test themselves 
beyond Loamshire's simple major thirds, they must find employment in 
revivals, foreign plays, or films. Perhaps Loamshire's greatest triumph 
is the crippling of creative talent in English directors and designers. 
After all, how many ways are there of directing a tea-party? And how 
may a designer spread his wings in a mews flat or "The living-room at 
'Binsgate,' Vyvyan Bulstrode's country house near Dymsdyke"? Assume 
the miracle: assume the advent of a masterpiece. There it crouches, a 
pink-eyed, many-muscled, salivating monster. Who shall harness it? 
We have a handful of directors fit to tame something less malleable than 
a mouse, and a few designers stUl capable of dressing something less sub- 
missive than a clothes-horse. But they are the end, not the beginning, of 
a tradition. 

Some of us need no miracles to keep our faith; we feed it on memo- 
ries and imaginings. But many more — people of passionate intellectual 
appetites — are losing heart, falling away, joining the queues outside the 
Curzon Cinema. To lure them home, the theatre must widen its scope, 
broaden its horizon so that Loamshire appears merely as the play-pen, 
not as the whole palace of drama. We need plays about cabmen and 
demi-gods, plays about warriors, politicians, and grocers — I care not, so 
Loamshire be invaded and subdued. I counsel aggression because, as a 
critic, I had rather be a war correspondent than a necrologist. 



Part I: The British Theatre 87 



Directors and Directions. 

The English have never really warmed to theatrical directors. Not 
for them the despotism of a Meyerhold or a Reinhardt, nor yet the pro- 
phetic zeal of a Gordon Craig, who, spurned by the scorn of true demo- 
crats, fled to France for refuge. Granville-Barker, tolerated for his schol- 
arship, left no successors, and though Continental directors such as 
Komisarjevsky and M. Saint-Denis have sojourned here, they have all 
retired in confusion. Our native maestro, Tyrone Guthrie, occasionally 
gladdens the West End by shaking from his mane such a dewdrop as 
The Matchmaker, but he is mostly abroad, working in the real labora- 
tories of his craft. 

In his new book. The Director in the Theatre, Hugh Hunt attempts, 
sanely and temperately, to state the case for creative direction. "Can 
we," he asks, "have a work of theatrical art which is at the same time 
a distortion of the author's intention? The answer is, of course, yes; just 
as we can have a fine portrait which bears no resemblance to the sitter." 
I happen to agree with Mr. Hunt; you may not; but, as Enghshmen, we 
are both arguing from ignorance. 

Two schools of thought dispute the field of Western acting. One, 
derived from the deep-burrowing naturalism of Stanislavsky, is practised 
in America by directors Uke Elia Kazan and actors like Marlon Brando; 
the other, based in East Berlin, is the "Epic Theatre" of Bertolt Brecht. 
Stanislavsky, emphasising illusion, taught his actors to immerse them- 
selves in their parts; Brecht, rejecting illusion, teaches detachment, 
employing a sort of styUsed shorthand whereby the actor makes no pre- 
tence to be a real "character" expressing "emotion," but declares him- 
self instead a professional performer illustrating a general theme. "You 
are in a drawing-room," says Stanislavsky to his audience, "witnessing 
life." "You are in a theatre," says Brecht, "witnessing actors." 

That, roughly, is the conflict. We in London hear the distant thun- 
der of the guns, but how shall we judge of the outcome? We know Stanis- 
lavsky only in genteel, dramatic-school dilution, and of Brecht, whose 
plays have captured central Europe, we know nothing at all. We are like 
those complacent anglers who, as A. B. Walkley said, "continued to fish 
for gudgeon under the Pont-Neuf while the Revolution raged over- 
head." 

Dramatists utilise acting styles, and playhouses preserve them, 
but directors create them. If our theatres are filled with the kind of hoi- 



88 Part I: The British Theatre 

low semi-realism for which our authors write, much of the blame must 
rest with our directors. Many of them are affable, intelligent men, but 
none measures up to the Continental definition — a dynamic compound 
of confessor, inquisitor, and sage. "The real art of the director," it has 
been sardonically observed, "is his abihty to get a script to direct" — 
which involves charming a management and at least one star, who is 
quite likely, if the motivation of his performance is even remotely ques- 
tioned, to round on the director with a chill request that he go easy on 
"that Stanislavsky stuff." 

The trouble is that neither of our greatest pioneers was primarily an 
actors' director. Craig cared most for design and William Poel for Eliza- 
bethan stagecraft. Thus, they distracted the theatre from naturalism at 
the very moment when, given encouragement, it might have stormed 
and fertilised our acting. Many scenic artists still bear Craig's thumb- 
print, but Poel survives only in the fallacy of arena staging, a method 
which overrates the importance of "intimacy" in the theatre and, by cit- 
ing the circus in vindication of its creed, overlooks the fact that of the 
two most exciting things that happen in a circus one takes place behind 
bars and the other hundreds of feet in the air. 

Apart from Granville-Barker and, intermittently, Guthrie, no Eng- 
lish director has had much perceptible influence on English acting. We 
pride ourselves on our "stylishness," by which we mean an addled mat- 
ing of Victorian rhetoric with Du Maurier realism — life above stairs 
seen through the eyes of a housemaid. Modishly, we rejoice that the era 
of naturalism is over. But we err: in this country it has hardly begun. Let 
us, by all means, dismiss Stanislavsky and Brecht; but let us first engage 
a few foreign directors to give our actors instruction. Then, perhaps, we 
shall know what we are dismissing. 



Richard II, by William Shakespeare, at the Old Vic and at 
THE Theatre Royal, Stratford-atte-Bowe. 

Truly, an embarrassment of Richards. On my right, the Old Vic's 
Richard II, a well-scrubbed fighter of spare physique; very much on my 
left. Theatre Workshop's version of the play, a crowding south-paw. 
The Old Vic wins, as it was bound to do, on points. For one thing, it has 
a larger company, which means no toil and trouble with double doubles. 
For another, it has a Bolingbroke (Eric Porter) who brings a proper 



Part I: The British Theatre 89 

queasiness to the job of usurpation, which is tackled by George Cooper 
at Stratford with the businesslike aplomb of a public executioner. In- 
deed, the whole anti-Richard faction at Stratford behave like rodent- 
exterminators enamoured of their work: Howard Goorney's Gaunt is a 
very Isaiah of rebuke, and one almost expected Wat Tyler's rebellion to 
be staged as a mimed prologue. 

Between the two settings there is little to choose. Stratford's som- 
bre castellation is stronger though less graceful than Leslie Hurry's 
ramped promontory at the Vic, but neither really fits the play's geo- 
graphical restlessness. In the matter of production style Theatre Work- 
shop makes up in barn-storming what it lacks in finesse. And there one 
would leave the subject, were it not for the astounding disparity between 
the two Richards. 

Theatre Workshop, keeping well off the beaten path, offers instead 
a beaten psychopath. I guessed beforehand that Harry Corbett, a natu- 
ral choice for the third Richard, might make heavy going of the second; 
I could never have guessed to what extremes his temperamental wrong- 
ness would lead him. The part is played in a frenzy of effeminacy. This 
Richard is a senile Osric, a flutter of puff-pastry, his voice a quavering 
falsetto which suggests Ernest Milton as Andrew Aguecheek. Whimper- 
ing with rage, he flies at Gaunt's throat and hurls him to the ground, re- 
coiUng at once, with tremulous lips, like a child caught in the pantry and 
torn between defiance and contrition. The return from Ireland and what 
follows are conceived as a switchback-ride into lunacy, culminating in 
the dungeon at Pomfret, round which Mr. Corbett raves and reels, 
chained by his ankle to the floor. The deposition of intellect is complete. 

I take Mr. Corbett's to be a highly effective rendering of a totally 
false idea. The inference that Richard was a pervert rests on a few am- 
biguous lines wherein Bolingbroke condemns the caterpillars for having 

Made a divorce betwixt his queen and him, 
Broke the possession of a royal bed — 

which might mean no more than that Richard took concubines. The 
charge against Mr. Corbett is that he has acquiesced in the modern trick 
of equating dandyism and love of verse with sexual abnormality. Cer- 
tainly Richard loved show, and there is much truth in C. E. Montague's 
picture of him as a conscious verbal artist, tipsy with grief. What we for- 
get is that in Shakespeare's age a passion for finery in speech and dress 
was regarded as the natural outward expression of virility. The image to 
clutch is that of the peacock. Your pallid, shrinking-violet Richard de- 
rives from (a) fin-de-siecle aestheticism, (b) memories of Marlowe's 



90 P^^t I: The British Theatre 

Edward II, and — most misleadingly — (c) the assumption that the 
king is the same man at the beginning of the play as he is at the end. 
Richard must begin headstrong and arrogant, a spirited tyrant rather 
than a spiritless poet. York gives the clue when he speaks of him as a 
"young hot colt," and Gaunt clinches the case by referring to "his rash, 
fierce blaze of riot." Where in the Richards of Messrs. Guinness, Red- 
grave, and Corbett were the "violent fires" which would impel a king to 
war in Ireland? Would not all three, rather than face battle, have curled 
up with a good tapestry? 

The events of the later acts reveal Richard a moral coward; they 
denude him, peeling away the layers of bluster and caprice that have 
formerly protected him. Yet in the end he is annealed by calamity. Of 
course, there are long spasms of self-pity wherein, as Agate said, Rich- 
ard "plunges his nose with zest into the bouquet of humiUation." But the 
prime stroke of irony, grotesque and neglected, is that Richard grows up 
at the very moment when he is about to be cut down. "I wasted time, 
and now doth time waste me": knowing himself at last, he speaks his 
own best epitaph. He dies a dishonoured king but an honourable man. 
We have seen his wings clipped, but the dramatic point is that they were 
an eagle's wings, not a butterfly's. 

John Neville, at the Vic, takes firm steps in the right direction. He 
overweens, rejoicing in the manipulation of power; his sneer is steely 
and unforced, and he fails only where he could not have succeeded — he 
has no gift for pathos, and the vital later speeches coldly congeal. None- 
theless, this is a clear diagrammatic outline for the definitive perform- 
ance, as yet unseen. For the rest, Michael Bates does a glum play the 
service of making York a comic sketch for Polonius. Which prompts a 
footnote on one of Shakespeare's recurrent messages: never trust uncles. 
Of Richard's uncles, Gloucester detests him, Lancaster reviles him, and 
York betrays him. Someone must soon write a monograph on "Evi- 
dences of Uncle-Fixation in Hamlet." 



The Lost Art of Bad Drama. 

Night-nurses at the bedside of good drama, we critics keep a holy 
vigil. Black circles rim our eyes as we pray for the survival of our pet 
patient, starved and racked, the theatre of passion and ideas. We pump 
in our printed transfusions — "honest and forthright," "rooted in a 
closely observed reality" — but so avidly do we seize on signs of relapse 



Part I: The British Theatre 9 1 

that we fail to observe that, for the moment at least, the cripple is out of 
bed and almost convalescent. He can claim, this season, three successes: 
Hedda Gabler, Anouilh's Time Remembered, and Pirandello's Rules of 
the Game — and he had a vestigial hand in Separate Tables. (Mr. Rat- 
tigan is the Formosa of the contemporary theatre, occupied by the old 
guard, but geographically inclined towards the progressives.) Further 
tonics He ahead, among them a Giraudoux and another Anouilh before 
spring is out. Implausible as it may sound, good drama may be able to 
walk unaided within a year or so. 

But what of bad drama, the kind which repudiates art and scoffs at 
depth, which thrives on reviewers who state themselves "shocked, but I 
rocked with laughter"? We assume that it is healthy; in fact, it looks ex- 
tremely frail. Many a frankly "commercial" play has come smiUng to 
town in recent months and walked straight into an upper-cut from both 
critics and public. Take The Night of the Ball, for instance — a knightly 
piece, glib and well-nourished, star-bright and silk-swathed, yet see how 
scarred and blunderbussed the critics left it! And is old Happy Holiday 
dead? As any doornail. Jesu, Jesu, the bad plays that I have seen! and to 
think how many of my old acquaintance are dead! How a good yoke of 
starlets at Cambridge Circus? Truly, cousin, I was not there. 

It is now, in fact, a risky proposition to back plays that twenty 
years ago would have swept the boards unopposed. One imagines a box- 
office mogul bewailing his lot in Justice Shallow's vein: "By the masses I 
was call'd everything. . . . There was I, and Uttle Noel Coward of 
Teddington, and black Ben Travers, and Frederick Lonsdale, and Ver- 
non Sylvaine, a Manchester man — you had not four such rib-crackers in 
all of Shaftesbury Avenue again; and, I may say to you, we knew where 
the bona-robas were, and had the best of them all under two weeks' no- 
tice. ... Is old double-entente of your town Uving yet?" Dead, sir, 
dead. 

One begins to suspect that the English have lost the art of writing a 
bad successful play. Perhaps some sort of competition should be organ- 
ised; the rules, after all, are simple enough. At no point may the plot or 
characters make more than superficial contact with reality. Characters 
earning less than £.1,000 a year should be restricted to small parts or 
exaggerated into types so patently farcical that no member of the audi- 
ence could possibly identify himself with such absurd esurience. Rhythm 
in dialogue is achieved by means either of vocatives ("That, my dear 
Hilary, is a moot point") or qualifying clauses ("What, if you'll pardon 
the interruption, is going on here?") ; and irony is confined to having an 
irate male character shout: "I am perfectly calm!" 



92 P'^rt I: The British Theatre 

All plays should contain parts fit to be turned down by Gladys 
Cooper, Coral Browne, Hugh Williams, and Robert Flemyng. Apart 
from hysterical adolescents, nobody may weep; apart from triumphant 
protagonists, nobody may laugh; anyone, needless to say, may smile. 
European place-names (Positano and Ischia) are romantic; English 
place-names (Heme Bay and Bognor Regis) are comic. Women who 
help themselves unasked to cigarettes must be either frantic careerists or 
lustful opportunists. The latter should declare themselves by running the 
palm of one hand up their victim's lapel and saying, when it reaches 
the neck: "Let's face it, Arthur, you're not exactly indifferent to me." 
The use of "Let's face it" in modern drama deserves in itself a special 
study. It means that something true is about to be uttered, and should 
strike the audience with the same shock as the blast of the whistle before 
the train plunges into a tunnel. . . . 

But I falter. I cannot convince myself that these rules, archaic al- 
ready, will assure success. For bad plays, dependent on what is topical 
and ephemeral in mankind, are much harder to write than good ones, 
for which the rules are permanent and unchanging. The commercial 
writer must blind himself to history, close his eyes, stop his ears, shutter 
his mind to the onslaught of reality; he must ignore all the promptings 
which instinct tells him to be valid, about unity of action and the neces- 
sity of reducing one or more of his characters to a logical crisis of des- 
peration; he must hve the life of a spiritual hermit. Such self-abnegation 
is seldom found. The great age of the thoroughly bad play seems to be 
over, and it behoves the critic to sing a requiem. 

A thermometer, meanwhile, might be left in the mouth of good 
drama. Our season's tally is certainly encouraging, but it pales by com- 
parison with last season's record in Sweden. There, according to the re- 
port in World Theatre, one might have seen four Strindbergs, four 
Shakespeares, three Chekhovs, three Pirandellos, two Molieres, two 
Shaws, two Ibsens, two Giraudoux, and one each from Vanbrugh, 
Wycherley, Lorca, Kafka, Brecht, Ugo Betti, Arthur Miller, Anouilh, 
Eliot, Bernanos, and Samuel Beckett — not to mention the Oresteia of 
Aeschylus. Yet "the season," mourns the compiler of the report, "was 
not a milestone." We have a long way to go. 



Part I: The British Theatre 93 



Sailor Beivaref, by Philip King and Falkland Gary, at the 
Strand. 

Sailor Beware! is a surprisingly realistic parlour farce on which 
Philip King has collaborated with Falkland Gary. The situation, a work- 
ing-class wedding threatened by a heavy-weight mother-in-law, is as 
ancient as its development, whereby the husband-to-be jilts his bride; 
but the dialogue is authentic suburban poetry. And in Peggy Mount, a 
newcomer from repertory, London has acquired a comedienne fit to be 
floodlit, whose effigy should be raised above the grave of the mother-in- 
law joke, which, by her peerless exertions, she must surely have killed. 

Emma Hornett, as played by Miss Mount, is not your rock-like, 
immovable virago, like the Marx Brothers' Margaret Dumont. She 
scorches the earth about her with ceaseless physical activity, charging as 
she cleans, swooping as she dusts; even out of sight she intimidates, like 
the distant thunder of hooves. She is frankly a beast of a woman, a mo- 
bile fortress, a sadistic dompteuse, compound of basiUsk and earth- 
mother, of Gorgon and Zola. And her face is heaven-sent for its job, a 
broad, baleful mask whose worst fears are constantly being confirmed: 
she told us so, and now, if we don't mind, we'll hsten to her and stop 
fidgeting. The savage impatience of Miss Mount's acting must be seen to 
be beheved. The first-night intervals were unwontedly short, and there 
must have been many in the audience who pictured Miss Mount vi- 
ciously stabbing the warning-bell and growUng: "What did I tell you? 
There they are, up in the bar drinking, when Fve got work to do. , . ." 
I ask of this magnificent player only that she will one day consider ap- 
pearing in Tristan and Isolde opposite Wally Patch. The house rightly 
rose to her at the curtain: a house full of roarers who clearly cared for 
the name of King. 

(i9SS) 



Henry IV, Parts One and Two, by William Shakespeare, 
AT THE Old Vic. 

I suspected it at Stratford four years ago, and now I am sure: for 
me the two parts of Henry IV are the twin summits of Shakespeare's 
achievement. Lime-hungry actors have led us always to the tragedies, 
where a single soul is spotlit and its agony explored; but these private 



94 Pa^t I: The British Theatre 

torments dwindle beside the Henries, great public plays in which a whole 
nation is under scrutiny and on trial. More than anything else in our 
drama they deserve the name of epic. A way of hfe is facing dissolu- 
tion; we are in at the deathbed of the Middle Ages. How shall the crisis 
be faced? The answer takes us to every social and geographical outpost: 
to Eastcheap drunks and Gloucestershire gentry, to the Welsh and the 
Scots, to the minor nobility and the crown itself. 

There is much talk of death; to the king it comes as a balm, Falstaff 
sags at the mention of it, Shallow is resigned to it, and Hotspur meets it 
with nostrils flared. The odd, irregular rhythm wherein societies die and 
are reborn is captured as no playwright before or since has ever captured 
it. In Hal's return to honour and justice the healing of a national sickness 
is implied. Implied: that is the clue — for there is no overt exhortation in 
these plays, and no true villain, no Claudius or lago on whom complacent 
audiences can fix their righteous indignation. Hotspur is on the wrong 
side, yet he is a hero; Prince John is on the right one, yet his cynical per- 
fidy at the disarmament conference would have astonished Hitler. Only a 
handful of plays in the world preserve this divine magnanimity. To con- 
ceive the state of mind in which the Henries were written is to feel 
dizzied by the air of Olympus. 

We knew from Douglas Scale's handling of the Henry VI trilogy 
that he was a director of rare historical imagination; and the Old Vic 
company, which lacks star quality, exactly fits a pair of plays which lack 
star parts. Note how cleverly Mr. Scale lets the two evenings illuminate 
each other. He gives Falstaff a page in Part I as well as Part II, using 
the boy as mute audience to the knight's soliloquies; taking his cue from 
a phrase in Part II — "wearied and out-breathed" — he makes Hotspur 
and Hal in Part I so stricken with battle fatigue that they can scarcely 
lift their swords. The tavern scenes, writhing with squalor and pulsing 
with visual wit, transport us straight to pre-Crookback England. 

Paul Rogers' Falstaff is fussy and perhaps too easily discomfited, 
but vocally it is a display of rich and immaculate cunning. Rachel Rob- 
erts hits off Mrs. Quickly to perfection, and few Pistols have been fired 
more powerfully than John Neville's. The same actor's Hotspur was 
hampered by a stammer needlessly borrowed from Sir Laurence Olivier; 
and the best double was that of Paul Daneman, whose malign Worces- 
ter was followed by a goatish Justice Shallow, giddy with snobbery and 
agog with innocence. 

Mr. Scale's hand seems to stiffen at contact with royalty: his group- 
ings in the court scenes were static, and the episode of the purloined 
crown was badly staged on a remote rostrum, high and half-visible. Eric 



Part I: The British Theatre 95 

Porter gave us all of Henry's guilt but little of his grandeur; and in Rob- 
ert Hardy's Hal there was too great a show of intelligence. Mr, Hardy is 
rightly proud of his technique, but he is in danger of developing it at the 
expense of his acting "innards": the performance was well-timed but 
soft-centred. Ann Todd and Virginia McKenna intrude briefly and softly 
into what has been called the smoking-room of Shakespearean drama 
— though Miss Todd's irruption into the middle of the curtain-call was, 
to say the least, presumptuous. Audrey Cruddas' permanent setting is 
both rugged and regal. To sum up, Mr. Scale has put the Old Vic in par- 
ticular and Shakespearean production in general on the right realistic 
track. 



Notes on a Dead Language. 

When the London theatre takes to its bed, the habit of criticism is 
to scourge the invalid; the sick-room resounds with bullying cries of 
"Who are the new English playwrights?" A more acute inquiry might 
be: "Who were the old ones?" For the brute fact is that no EngUshman 
since the third decade of the seventeenth century has written an ac- 
knowledged dramatic masterpiece. Note that I say "acknowledged"; I 
might make claims for Otway or Dryden, you for Pinero or Maugham, 
but in the general censure we should be outvoted. The truth would out: 
that the legend of English drama springs partly from Shakespeare, our 
luminous accident, and mostly from an Irish conspiracy to make us 
ashamed of our weakness. English drama is a procession of glittering 
Irishmen: Farquhar, Goldsmith, Sheridan, Shaw, Wilde, Synge, and 
O'Casey are there; and even Congreve slips in on a quibble, since his 
Irish upbringing served to correct the fault of his English birth. We 
should not mourn that there are no great English playwrights; we should 
marvel that there are any English playwrights at all. 

Come closer; observe how few fine plays have been written about 
the English in the last three hundred years. High drama presupposes 
high colloquial speech, which, since Cromwell, has been a rarity on 
English lips. We will accept eloquence from a Tartar emperor, a Dublin 
pickpocket or a New York taxi-driver, but we would rightly baulk at 
verbal beauty in a Yarmouth policeman. When Shakespeare was born, 
our language was being pelted with imports, from France, from Italy, 
from classical translations; "thought," as Virginia Woolf said, "plunged 



96 f*^^^ I: ^^^ British Theatre 

into a sea of words and came up dripping." A stock-pot was bubbling 
which everyone tasted and tried out in speech; and drama evolved out 
of an epidemic of logorrhoea. 

For half a century we have watched a similar process in America, 
where a clash of immigrant tongues has produced the same experimen- 
tal play of language. In England the riot is over. Lexicography has bat- 
tened on the invaders, and our dictionaries swell with the slain; a mem- 
orable phrase flies sometimes from a typev/riter into print, but seldom 
from a larynx into a listening ear. Christopher Fry has performed prodi- 
gies of artificial respiration; the words are there, and richly he deploys 
them; but do they not resemble the bright, life-stimulating dyes which 
American morticians apply to the faces of the dead? To gain admission 
to drama, words must be used; they must put on flesh, throng the streets, 
and bellow through the buses. Dylan Thomas' Under Milk Wood was 
one of the last outposts of the living vernacular, a memory of a time 
when a phrase was as concrete a thing as a brick; and Thomas, remem- 
ber, was not English, but a Welshman writing about Welshmen. 

The sudden onslaught of a milhon immigrants of mixed nationali- 
ties might help. Until then, I propose an agonising reappraisal of our 
theatrical status, which is now that of a showroom for foreign goods. A 
swarm of Continental plays crowds our stage-door; our part, as hosts, 
is to provide for them translators of genius. Mr. Fry, who is now adapt- 
ing Anouilh's L'Alouette and Giraudoux' La Guerre de Troie n'aura pas 
lieu, has set a noble, instructive, and realistic example. 



Tiger at the Gates, by Jean Giraudoux, translated by 
Christopher Fry, at the Apollo. 

In spite of a few bad performances and a setting uniquely hideous, 
I do not beUeve that anyone could emerge from Tiger at the Gates un- 
aware that what had just hit him was a masterpiece. For this is Girau- 
doux' La Guerre de Troie n'aura pas lieu, brought to us at last, after 
twenty years of impatience, in a methodical translation by Christopher 
Fry. It remains the final comment on the superfluity of war, and the 
highest peak in the mountain-range of modern French theatre. At the 
lowest estimate, it is a great occasional play, in the sense that its impact 
might be doubled if war seemed imminent; but to call it dated because 
nowadays we are at peace is to ignore its truest warning, which is that 



Part I: The British Theatre 97 

nothing more surely rouses the sleeping tiger of war than the prospect of 
universal tranquillity. 

What is to engage us is the process whereby the Trojan war nearly 
failed to happen. Returning disillusioned from one campaign, Hector 
finds another impending; to send Helen back to the Greeks he will un- 
dergo any humiliation, even the dishonour of his wife. Paris, his brother, 
gives in to him easily, but Helen is harder to persuade. The fates, in 
choosing her for their instrument, have endowed her with an icy indif- 
ference to Hector's enormous compassion. "I'm sure," she says, "that 
people pity each other to the same extent that they pity themselves." Yet 
she, too, puts herself in his hands. 

Breaking all precedents. Hector refuses to make the traditional 
speech of homage to his fallen soldiers; instead, we have the majestic 
tirade in which he rejoices with those who survived, the cowards who 
live to make love to the wives of the dead. His last stumbUng-block is 
Ulysses, wily and circumspect, who reminds him, as they amicably chat, 
that a convivial "meeting at the summit" is always the preamble to war; 
but even he agrees to gamble against destiny and take Helen home in 
peace. In the play's closing moments, war is declared. To reveal how 
would be an insult to those who know the text and a terrible deprivation 
to those who do not. Enough to say that history passes into the keeping 
of (Max Beerbohm's phrase) "those incomparable poets. Homer." 

I cannot but marvel at the virtuosity of Giraudoux' prose. It em- 
braces grandeur and littleness in one gigantic clasp; having carved a 
heroic group in granite, it can turn to the working of tiny heads on 
cherry-stones. No playwright of our time can change gear so subtly, 
from majestic gloom to crystaUine wit. Sometimes, in the mass debates, 
the verbal glitter is overpowering, but in duologues Giraudoux has no 
rival. Hector's scenes with Helen in the first act and with Ulysses in the 
second ring in the mind like doubloons flung down on marble. Is it ob- 
jected that English actors jib at long stretches of ornate prose? Or that 
they are unused to playing tragic scenes for laughs and comic scenes for 
tears? If so, they had better relearn their craft. The player who thinks 
Giraudoux unactable is in the wrong profession. Harold Clurman, the 
director, has tried hard to teach old dogs new tricks, but the right note of 
vocal aristocracy is only intermittently struck. Listening to Giraudoux 
should be like watching a series of lightning water-colours, dashed off by 
a master; some of the present company make do with ponderous car- 
toons, licking the lead and plunging it deep into the paper. This is the 
case with Walter Fitzgerald's Ulysses, a dour and laboured performance; 
and Diane Cilento, though fetchingly got up in what I can best describe 



98 Pa^t I: The British Theatre 

as a Freudian slip, gives us paste jewellery instead of the baleful dia- 
mond Giraudoux had in mind for Helen. It is Michael Redgrave, as 
Hector, who bears the evening's brunt. He is clearly much happier in 
the emotional bits than in the flicks of wit which spark and speckle them; 
but, even so, this is a monumental piece of acting, immensely moving, 
intelligent in action, and in repose never less than a demi-god. In the 
presence of such an actor and such a play, I will forgive much. Espe- 
cially do I feel for anyone unlucky enough to have to stumble and clam- 
ber over the obstacle-course of Loudon Sainthill's set. It is enough to 
make a chamois nervy. 



Macbeth, by William Shakespeare, at Stratford-on-Avon. 

Nobody has ever succeeded as Macbeth, and the reason is not far 
to seek. Instead of growing as the play proceeds, the hero shrinks; com- 
plex and many-levelled to begin with, he ends up a cornered thug, lack- 
ing even a death scene with which to regain lost stature. Most Macbeths, 
mindful of this, let off their big guns as soon as possible, and have usu- 
ally shot their bolt by the time the dagger speech is out. The marvel of 
Sir Laurence Olivier's reading is that it reverses this procedure, turns the 
play inside out, and makes it (for the first time I can remember) a thing 
of mounting, not waning, excitement. Last Tuesday Sir Laurence shook 
hands with greatness, and within a week or so the performance will have 
ripened into a masterpiece: not of the superficial, booming, have-a-bash 
kind, but the real thing, a structure of perfect forethought and propor- 
tion, lit by flashes of intuitive lightning. 

He begins in a perilously low key, the reason for which is soon re- 
vealed. This Macbeth is paralysed with guilt before the curtain rises, 
having already killed Duncan time and again in his mind. Far from re- 
coiling and popping his eyes, he greets the air-drawn dagger with sad 
familiarity; it is a fixture in the crooked furniture of his brain. Uxorious- 
ness leads him to the act, which unexpectedly purges him of remorse. 
Now the portrait swells; seeking security, he is seized with fits of desper- 
ate bewilderment as the prize is snatched out of reach. There was true 
agony in "I had else been perfect"; Banquo's ghost was received with 
horrific torment, as if Macbeth should shriek "I've been robbed!," and 
the phrase about the dead rising to "push us from our stools" was accom- 
panied by a convulsive shoving gesture which few other actors would 
have risked. 



Part I: The British Theatre 99 

The needle of Sir Laurence's compass leads him so directly to the 
heart of the role that we forget the jagged rocks of laughter over which 
he is travelling. At the heart we find, beautifully projected, the anguish 
of the de facto ruler who dares not admit that he lacks the essential qual- 
ities of kingship. Sir Laurence's Macbeth is like Skule in Ibsen's chroni- 
cle play The Pretenders, the valiant usurper who can never comprehend 
what Ibsen calls "the great kingly thought." He will always be a mon- 
arch manque. 

The witches' cookery lesson is directed with amusing literalness; 
the Turk's nose, the Jew's liver, and the baby's finger are all held up for 
separate scrutiny; but the apparitions are very unpersuasive, and one 
felt gooseflesh hardly at all. On the battlements Sir Laurence's throttled 
fury switches into top gear, and we see a lion, baffled but still colossal. 
"I 'gin to be a-weary of the sun" held the very ecstasy of despair, the 
actor swaying with grief, his voice rising like hair on the crest of a 
trapped animal. "Exeunt, fighting" was a poor end for such a giant war- 
rior. We wanted to see how he would die; and it was not he but Shake- 
speare who let us down. 

Vivien Leigh's Lady Macbeth is more niminy-piminy than thun- 
dery-blundery, more viper than anaconda, but still quite competent in 
its small way. Macduff and his wife, actor-proof parts, are played with 
exceptional power by Keith Michell and Maxine Audley. The mid- 
night hags, with traditional bonhomie, scream with laughter at their own 
jokes: I long, one day, to see whispering witches, less intent on yelling 
their sins across the country-side. The production has all the speed and 
clarity we associate with Glen Byam Shaw, and Roger Purse's settings 
are bleak and serviceable, except for the England scene, which needs 
only a cat and a milestone to go straight into Dick Whittington. 



Mother Courage, by Bertolt Brecht, at the Devon Arts 
Festival. 

Bertolt Brecht's Mother Courage, which had its English premiere 
last week, is a chronicle play about warfare in which warfare scarcely 
appears. It is Henry V without the dear friends and the breach and the 
nonsense about not wishing one man more. Brecht's subject is the deci- 
mating tumult of the Thirty Years' War, yet no plumes nod from his he- 
roes' helmets and no rhetoric glitters on their lips. Instead we have rags 
and curses, for we are dealing with the underside of battle, the rowdy 



1 00 Part I: The British Theatre 

hordes of parasites whose only care is the strategy of survival. They 
batten on war, profiting when they can, and suffering if they must, but 
knowing always that the price of their wares, drink and food and cloth- 
ing, varies in direct ratio to the fury of the fighting. We see war reflected 
in the eyes of a nomadic camp-follower called Mother Courage, her 
three children, and the guests who share her covered wagon — a fugitive 
priest and a lecherous cook. 

It is well known that Brecht leans eastward in his politics : must we 
therefore expect Mother Courage's family to be downtrodden peasants 
oppressed by Fascist beasts? Nothing of the sort. Mother Courage is a 
bawdy cynic who can barely recall the names of the men who sired her 
children. Her code of honour is Falstaff's, and her moral code Doll Tear- 
sheet's. She is in the war for what she can make out of it; and in return 
the war robs her of her children, the very reasons for her avarice. Her 
younger son is shot for theft. Her elder son commits a murder during a 
moment of truce, and is executed for his error in timing. And her daugh- 
ter, a mute, dies at the end of the most tremendous scene to have en- 
riched the drama for many years. 

Sheltering in a lonely farmhouse, she overhears soldiers plotting to 
massacre the townsfolk sleeping below. She seizes a drum, climbs onto 
the roof of the barn, pulls the ladder up behind her, and beats out a 
frenzied tattoo of warning. The troop commander begs her to stop, 
promising immunity for her friends on his honour as a gentleman. There 
is a pause: and she beats harder, until a musket is fetched to silence her. 
The aftermath is written in the same vein of dispassionate, ironic trag- 
edy. Mother Courage is keening a lullaby over her dead child when the 
sound of a marching army is heard. The war is moving on; and she goes 
with it, hauhng her wagon and singing her song of defiance. There is no 
room for self-pity in drama like this. 

By any definition, the play is an epic: a tale of endurance set in 
the open air (there are no interior scenes) of any war-bruised country. 
It is also a folk opera. Its earthy language, dotted with imagery as moun- 
tains are dotted with edelweiss, takes frequent flight into song, accom- 
panied by Paul Dessau's trenchant music. Theatre Workshop, the com- 
pany chosen to play it, was dismally unequal to the strain. Ants can Uft 
objects many times their size and weight, but actors cannot. Mother 
Courage is a role calling for the combined talents of Anna Magnani and 
Siobhan McKenna: Joan Littlewood plays it in a lifeless mumble, 
looking both over-parted and under-rehearsed. Lacking a voice, she has 
had to cut Mother Courage's song, which is like omitting the Hallelujah 
Chorus from the Messiah. 



Part I: The British Theatre 101 

As director, she has sought to present, with fourteen players in a 
concert hall, a play which the author intended for a company of fifty in a 
fully equipped theatre with a revolving stage. She has made a vice of 
economy by allowing her actors to change the scenery in full view of the 
audience, a device at which Brecht would boggle. Some of her blunders 
are attributable not so much to financial straits as to sheer perverseness. 
She adds music where Brecht indicates none, uses Dessau's score in the 
wrong places, and has it sung badly where she uses it rightly. The re- 
sult is a production in which discourtesy to a masterpiece borders on in- 
sult, as if Wagner were to be staged in a school gymnasium. Barbara 
Brown does well as the mute Kattrin, and Harry Corbett's decaying 
chaplain abounds in hints of the performance this actor might have 
given in more favourable surroundings. 



Waiting for Godot, by Samuel Beckett, at the Arts. 

A special virtue attaches to plays which remind the drama of how 
much it can do without and still exist. By all the known criteria, Samuel 
Beckett's Waiting for Godot is a dramatic vacuum. Pity the critic who 
seeks a chink in its armour, for it is all chink. It has no plot, no climax, 
no denouement; no beginning, no middle, and no end. Unavoidably, it 
has a situation, and it might be accused of having suspense, since it 
deals with the impatience of two tramps, waiting beneath a tree for a 
cryptic Mr. Godot to keep his appointment with them.; but the situation 
is never developed, and a glance at the programme shows that Mr. Go- 
dot is not going to arrive. Waiting for Godot frankly jettisons everything 
by which we recognise theatre. It arrives at the custom-house, as it were, 
with no luggage, no passport, and nothing to declare; yet it gets through, 
as might a pilgrim from Mars. It does this, I believe, by appealing to a 
definition of drama much more fundamental than any in the books. A 
play, it asserts and proves, is basically a means of spending two hours in 
the dark without being bored. 

Its author is an Irishman living in France, a fact which should pre- 
pare us for the extra, oddly serious joke he now plays on us. Passing the 
time in the dark, he suggests, is not only what drama is about but also 
what life is about. Existence depends on those metaphysical Micawbers 
who will go on waiting, against all rational argument, for something 
which may one day turn up to explain the purpose of living. Twenty 



1 02 Part I: The British Theatre 

years ago Mr. Odets had us waiting for Lefty, the social messiah; less 
naively, Mr. Beckett bids us wait for Godot, the spiritual signpost. His 
two tramps pass the time of day just as we, the audience, are passing the 
time of night. Were we not in the theatre, we should, like them, be 
clowning and quarreling, aimlessly bickering and aimlessly making up 
— all, as one of them says, "to give us the impression that we exist," 

Mr. Beckett's tramps do not often talk like that. For the most part 
they converse in the double-talk of vaudeville: one of them has the 
ragged aplomb of Buster Keaton, while the other is Chaplin at his airiest 
and fairiest. Their exchanges are hke those conversations at the next 
table which one can almost but not quite decipher — human speech half- 
heard and reproduced with aU its non-sequiturs absurdly intact. From 
time to time other characters intrude. Fat Pozzo, Humpty Dumpty with 
a whip in his fist, puffs into sight with Lucky, his dumb slave. They are 
clearly going somewhere in a hurry: perhaps they know where Godot 
is? But the interview subsides into Lewis-Carrollian inanity. All that 
emerges is that the master needs the slave as much as the slave needs the 
master; it gives both a sense of spurious purpose; and one thinks of Lau- 
rel and Hardy, the ideal casting in these roles. Commanded to think. 
Lucky stammers out a ghostly, ghastly, interminable tirade, com- 
pounded of cliche and gibberish, whose general tenor is that, in spite of 
material progress and "all kinds of tennis," man spiritually dwindles. 
The style hereabouts reminds us forcibly that Mr. Beckett once worked 
for James Joyce. In the next act Pozzo and Lucky return, this time mov- 
ing, just as purposefully, in the opposite direction. The tramps decide 
to stay where they are. A child arrives, presenting Mr. Godot's compli- 
ments and regretting that he is unable to meet them today. It is the same 
message as yesterday; all the same, they wait. The hero of Crime and 
Punishment reflects that if a condemned man "had to remain standing 
on a square yard of space all his life, a thousand years, eternity, it were 
better to live so than to die at once. . . . Man is a vile creature! and 
vile is he who calls him vile for that!" Something of this crossed my mind 
as the curtain fell on Mr. Beckett's tatterdemahon stoics. 

The play sees the human condition in terms of baggy pants and red 
noses. Hastily labelling their disquiet disgust, many of the first-night 
audience found it pretentious. But what, exactly, are its pretensions? To 
state that mankind is waiting for a sign that is late in coming is a plati- 
tude which none but an illiterate would interpret as making claims to 
profundity. What vexed the play's enemies was, I suspect, the opposite: 
it was not pretentious enough to enable them to deride it. I care little 
for its enormous success in Europe over the past three years, but much 



Part I: The British Theatre 1 03 

for the way in which it pricked and stimulated my own nervous system. 
It summoned the music-hall and the parable to present a view of life 
which banished the sentimentality of the music-hall and the parable's 
fulsome uplift. It forced me to re-examine the rules which have hitherto 
governed the drama; and, having done so, to pronounce them not elastic 
enough. It is validly new, and hence I declare myself, as the Spanish 
would say, godotista. 

Peter Hall directs the play with a marvellous ear for its elusive 
rhythms, and Peter Woodthorpe and Paul Daneman give the tramps a 
compassionate lunacy which only professional clowns could excel. 
Physically, Peter Bull is Pozzo to the hfe; vocally, he overplays his hand. 
Timothy Bateson's Lucky is anguish made comic, a remarkable achieve- 
ment, and perfectly in keeping with the spirit of the play. 



Titus Andronicus, by William Shakespeare, at Stratford-on- 
AvoN. 

I have always had a soft spot for Titus Andronicus, in spite of the 
fact that I have often heard it called the worst thing Marlowe ever wrote. 
Whoever wrote it, whether a member of the Shakespeare syndicate or 
the chairman himself, he deserves our thanks for having shown us, at 
the dawn of our drama, just how far drama could go. Like Goya's "Dis- 
asters of War," this is tragedy naked, godless, and unredeemed, a carni- 
val of carnage in which pity is the first man down. We have since learned 
how to sweeten tragedy, to make it ennobling, but we would do well to 
remember that Titus is the raw material, "the thing itself," the piling of 
agony on to a human head until it splits. 

It is our English heresy to think of poetry as a gentle way of saying 
gentle things. Titus reminds us that it is also a harsh way of saying harsh 
things. Seneca's Stoicism, in which the play is drenched, is a cruel doc- 
trine, but it can rise to moments of supernal majesty. Lear himself has 
nothing more splendid than: 

For now I stand as one upon a rock, 
Environ'd with a wilderness of sea. . . . 

The parallel with Lear is sibling-close, and Peter Brook cleverly 
strengthens it by having the fly-killing scene performed by a wanton boy. 
But when all its manifold excellences have been listed, the play still falls 



104 'Part I: The British Theatre 

oddly short. One accepts the ethical code which forces Tamora to avenge 
herself on Titus, and then Titus to avenge himself on Tamora; it is the 
casualness of the killing that grows tiresome, as at a bad bullfight. With 
acknowledgements to Lady BrackneU, to lose one son may be accounted 
a misfortune; to lose twenty-four, as Titus does, looks Uke carelessness. 
Here, indeed, is "snip, and nip, and cut, and slish, and slash," a series of 
operations which only a surgeon could describe as a memorable evening 
in the theatre. When there enters a messenger "with two heads," one 
wonders for a lunatic instant whether he is carrying them or was bom 
with them. 

Much textual fiddling is required if we are to swallow the crudities, 
and in this respect Mr. Brook is as swift with the styptic pencil as his 
author was with the knife. He lets the blood, one might say, out of the 
bath. All visible gore is ehminated from the play, so that Lavinia, 
tongueless and handless, can no longer be likened to "a conduit with 
three issuing spouts." With similar tact, Mr. Brook cuts the last five 
words of Titus' unspeakable fine, "Why, there they are both, baked in 
that pie," as he serves to Tamora his cannibalistic speciality — tete de 
fUs en pate {pour deux personnes) . 

Adorned by a vast, ribbed setting (the work of Mr. Brook, de- 
signer) and accompanied by an eerie throbbing of musique concrete 
(the work of Mr. Brook, composer), the play is now ready for the atten- 
tions of Mr. Brook, director. The result is the finest Shakespearean 
production since the same director tackled Measure for Measure five 
years ago. The vocal attack is such that even the basest lines shine, Uke 
Aaron the Moor, "in pearl and gold." Anthony Quayle plays the latter 
role with superbly corrupt flamboyance, and Maxine Audley is a gUt- 
tering Tamora. As Lavinia, Vivien Leigh receives the news that she is 
about to be ravished on her husband's corpse with Httle more than the 
nuld annoyance of one who would have preferred foam rubber. Other- 
wise, the minor parts are played up to the hilt. 

Sir Laurence Olivier's Titus, even with one hand gone, is a five- 
finger exercise transformed into an unforgettable concerto of grief. This 
is a performance which ushers us into the presence of one who is, pound 
for pound, the greatest actor ahve. As usual, he raises one's hair with 
the risks he takes. Titus enters not as a beaming hero but as a battered 
veteran, stubborn and shambHng, long past caring about the people's 
cheers. A hundred campaigns have tanned his heart to leather, and 
from the cracking of that heart there issues a terrible music, not untinged 
by madness. One hears great cries, which, like all of this actor's best 
effects, seem to have been dredged up from an ocean-bed of fatigue. 



Part I: The British Theatre \ 05 

One recognised, though one had never heard it before, the noise made 
in its last extremity by the cornered human soul. We knew from his 
Hotspur and his Richard III that Sir Laurence could explode. Now we 
know that he can suffer as well. All the grand unplayable parts, after 
this, are open to him: Skelton's Magnificence, Ibsen's Brand, Goethe's 
Faust — anything, so long as we can see those Hon eyes search for solace, 
that great jaw sag. 



The Water Gipsies, by A. P. Herbert and Vivian Ellis, at the 
Winter Garden. 

When a man misses one target by yards, it is kinder to assume that 
he was aiming at another. And so, instead of measuring the miles by 
which The Water Gipsies fails as a modem musical comedy, let me 
point out to the authors. Sir Alan Herbert and Vivian EUis, the inches 
by which they have failed to turn out a matchless museum-piece. 

Their enterprise, beyond doubt, was to write a Cockney pastoral. 
I had better explain that I use the word "pastoral" in Wilham Empson's 
sense: as a form in which the working classes are presented as helpless 
and semi-literate but fuU of a simple wisdom denied to sophisticates. 
They are happy with their lot, and the spectator (to quote Mr. Empson 
slightly out of context) "is put into a mood in which one would not try 
to alter it." Cockney pastoral derives from Dickens and reached, in the 
Punch cartoons of the eighties, the state of flawless unreality which Sir 
Alan has striven to preserve. And how nearly he has succeeded! Ham- 
mersmith, as he conceives it, is a rural hamlet peopled with quaint 
barges whose joys are homely and whose destiny (they are jovially 
reminded) is perforce obscure. They are born to blush unseen; and how 
they blush when the kindly swell from "up West" reproves them for 
displays of bad temper! Yet we forgive them: laughter is a great healer, 
and who could forbear smiling at the hoyden who takes an "aperient" 
before her meal, followed by a bottle of "Bummery"? Her sister, the 
heroine, is played by Pamela Charles, a newcomer who strikes a note 
of artless serviHty exactly right for the song wherein she pledges her 
allegiance to "the state of life to which it pleases God to call me." And 
Vivian EUis' music, chiming Uke cowbells over the meadow, is bang in 
the pastoral tradition. 

Yet, sniper that I am, I still find room for improvement. Two major 



106 Part I: The British Theatre 

errors of casting should be speedily reconsidered. Dora Bryan, to begin 
with, does not know her place at all; to the role of the hoyden she brings 
resources of wit, audacity, and vocal finesse which have the deplorable 
effect of making everything around her seem old-fashioned. And the 
robust intelligence of Laurie Payne, as the jolly bargee, is nothing short 
of shocking: one almost suspects him of aspirations to a state of life un- 
sanctified by the divine summons. Both these performances need hum- 
bling and broadening. By some oversight, several members of the cast 
are clad in what is unmistakably modern dress; this should be modified 
at once. The Communist villain, who stresses the second syllable of 
"capitalist," might be merged, with amusing results, into the Jewish 
gambler — I coquetted for a moment with the picturesque idea of giving 
him a hump back as well. Jerry Verno might be encouraged to spit 
occasionally. The scene in which the heroine does a strip-tease and then 
kneels in prayer would gain in continuity if she were to hum some well- 
known hymn as she undressed. Finally, I feel that if Peter Graves must 
offer her a "treat," he might accede less readily when she requests a 
hotel room "wiv a barf." Some tactful proviso should be made. "Only," 
he might admonish her, "if you promise not to put coal in it." 



Ondine, by Jean Giraudoux, at the Bristol Old Vic. 

Why, during his lifetime, did we so sorely neglect the author of 
Ondine? If we picture European drama between the wars as a house, 
Jean Giraudoux was the decorator, and he did it up so imposingly that 
only Shaw, Brecht, Pirandello, and O'Casey could live in it without 
feeling dwarfed. We travel through his plays as through a luminous 
grotto, glimpsing murals of time-suspending wit and loveliness; and it 
would be churlish, after such a journey, to complain that the labyrinth 
seemed shapeless, that there were too many blind alleys, or that every 
picture did not tell a story. As well might one condemn the Ufl&zi Gal- 
lery for lacking narrative impact. 

Life as Giraudoux perceived it was life as it appeared to Mr. Hux- 
ley while mescalin was tickling his cerebral cortex: cleansed, pure, 
alive with colour, and so transformed in the matter of dimensions that a 
turn of phrase was as tangible as a column of alabaster. Though he 
preferred what Thomas Mann called the "finer and much less obvious 
rhythmical laws" of prose, Giraudoux was arguably the greatest theat- 



Part I : The British Theatre 107 

rical poet of his time. As a prose architect he easily ecHpsed Shaw in the 
art, now forgotten but once obligatory, of providing long speeches for 
crucial moments. Not for him the clipped, chopped scurry of most 
modern dialogue. At regular intervals Giraudoux feels a set-piece com- 
ing on, and the plot must pause while it blazes; when this occurs, we get 
marvels like the Madwoman's account of her daily ritual in La Folic de 
Chaillot, or the Judge's speech in the present play, which describes the 
unearthly calm that hung over the world one summer afternoon when 
all the attendant spirits, celestial and infernal alike, ran off for a few 
hours and left mankind to its solitude. 

A playwright is a man who can forget himself long enough to be 
other people; and a poet is a man who can forget other people long 
enough to be himself. In Giraudoux, as in few others, the two vocations 
are fused like Siamese twins. The playwright sets the scene, and in the 
tirades the poet takes over; and by a miracle of collaboration the poet's 
eloquence nearly always crowns an arch which the playwright has built. 
So it is with the Judge's speech in Ondine. The play has been making 
one of Giraudoux's pet points, that once humanity acquires knowledge 
of the supernatural it is lost. A brave but doltish knight-errant has mar- 
ried a water-sprite, unaware that if he is unfaithful to her he must die. 
We have squandered much time in the second act on glittering triviaU- 
ties, Giraudoux in his rhinestone vein; but now, in the third, we 
return to the main theme. The loyal Ondine is on trial; but it is the dis- 
loyal knight who will die. One thinks of the warning delivered to the 
heroine of Intermezzo: "Ne touchez pas aux homes de la vie, a ses 
limites." We have to live in the same universe as the agents of the super- 
natural; but we must beware of trying to live on the same plane. 

The tone of this beautiful play is half festal seriousness and half 
momentous levity. It gets from John Moody and his Bristol troupe a far 
better production than the pantomime extravaganza, directed by Alfred 
Lunt, which bore its name on Broadway two seasons ago. And this, 
amazingly, in spite of having no Ondine to speak of. In New York Au- 
drey Hepburn flouted the text by having hair which was short and dark 
instead of long and blonde, and menaced the mood by wearing fish-net 
tights; yet she gave the character its one vital quality: a destructive 
innocence. Beyond the charm of her sepulchral little voice, one saw the 
ruthlessness of the troll. Moira Shearer has the harmless innocence of 
Miranda in her brave new world, and her voice issues not from the 
anteroom of eternity but from the pump-room at Bath. It is the cool, 
collected voice of a Jane Austen heroine. Miss Shearer's dancing had a 
lyricism which her acting has not, and henceforth she had better steer 



108 Pa^t I: The British Theatre 

clear of naiads. Her real line, I suspect, is comedy, and contemporary 
comedy at that. 



The Queen and the Rebels, by Ugo Betti, at the Haymarket. 

As one who has whined incessantly about the paucity of serious 
plays in the London theatre, I must admit at once that Ugo Betti's The 
Queen and the Rebels is as serious as anything London has seen since 
Marie Corelli's The Sorrows of Satan in 1897. It is exactly what large 
numbers of people (most of them non-playgoers) expect a serious play 
to be. So was the same author's The Burnt Flower-Bed; so are all plays 
about frontier incidents in unnamed countries torn by revolution. It 
deals with the dilemma of the contemporary conscience, and with a 
crisis of self-determination in the individual soul. I know this because 
the author will not let me forget it; he rubs it in as often and as explicitly 
as his fondness for rhetoric will allow. 

It would be frivolous to dismiss his play as a mere melodrama 
about a tart with a heart of gold. It would be frivolous, firstly, because 
melodrama has outgrown that particular theme; secondly, because 
modern melodrama is not so mere that it would countenance a scene in 
which two people plot the death of a third person at the top of their 
voices in the third person's presence; and, thirdly, because Betti's style 
(or that of his translator, Henry Reed) forbids me to harbour thoughts 
so low. Only the heights will do. 

Now, I should have thought that there was a good, compact little 
play, with plenty of implications in it for those who wanted them, in the 
situation of a prostitute who takes pity on a fugitive queen and offers 
herself to the revolutionaries as a substitute martyr. But Betti was a 
pupil of Pirandello, as Pinero was a pupil of Ibsen, and for him implica- 
tions are not enough. Heaven forbid that he should be caught forgetting 
to philosophise! Or that a moment should pass without some evidence 
of high seriousness! If someone observes that corpses stink, someone 
else must be on hand to remark: "It's the smell of history." Not trusting 
us to recognise in his Commissar the Inquisitors and Interrogators we 
have already met in numberless plays and novels, Betti blunts his point 
by pressing it: the Commissar must define himself as a "fury" who 
thinks of human beings as grubs wriggling in cheese. We are familiar 
with the inconveniences of the slut's vocation, but this does not spare us 



Part I: The British Theatre 109 

a series of speeches in which the heroine explains the nausea she feels 
at the touch of sweaty, prying hands. 

The higher redundancy comes later: not content with imperson- 
ating a queen, she must become one. At this point it becomes impossible 
to take Betti's seriousness seriously. To object that people do not talk 
like that would be naive; the real objection is that conventional symbols 
do. When a playwright manages to create characters larger than life, 
nobody is happier than I. But this is just where Betti fails. He has taken 
the tritest figures of old-fashioned melodrama and inflated them, which 
is by no means the same thing. Inevitability, the strong pull of life to- 
wards death, is an attribute of many fine plays; but in a puppet's inevi- 
table march towards a cardboard scaffold I find it hard to take much 
interest. 

Seriousness has indeed returned to the West End stage, and I can 
imagine Mr. Rattigan's Aunt Edna splitting a bottle of tonic wine to 
celebrate the occasion. But I begin to suspect that "serious" is the wrong 
epithet. Mr. Hemingway made an instructive distinction when he said: 
"A serious writer may be a hawk or a buzzard or even a popinjay, but a 
solemn writer is always a bloody owl." 

Correctly deciding that realism would be out of place, Frank Hau- 
ser and his company go all out for the grand manner — or, rather, for 
that echo of it which often passes, in countries without playwrights, for 
great acting. (One remembers how Mrs. Brown-Potter took South 
Africa by storm in 1907.) This is not to sniff at Mr. Hauser's troupe; I 
cannot see what else they could have done with dialogue so incompatible 
with the known facts of human behaviour. The more brutish characters 
(Alan Tilvern and Duncan Lamont) savagely button-hole us, showing 
full sets of cliches as they do so. As the Commissar, Leo McKern has the 
unfair advantage of coming straight from another Betti play at the Arts 
Theatre, from which he has learned the value of starting on a quieter 
note; but before long this excellent actor is bellowing with the rest. 

A cynical director and a cynical leading lady might perhaps, by 
discreet underplaying, have coaxed pure pathos from Betti's heroine. 
It stands to the credit of Mr. Hauser and Irene Worth that they attempt 
no such evasion. Up to the moment of her conversion Miss Worth pre- 
sents a prostitute so noisily world-weary that it is a bore for her even to 
deafen us; and afterwards, when the switch to queenship has been made, 
she becomes fuU-bloodedly operatic. A younger actress (Julie Harris, 
for instance) might have touched us, even to tears, with the tremulous 
aspirations of a tart to regality. Miss Worth gives the author what his 
lines demand, a display of technique which is grandiose, heartfelt, 



110 Part I: The British Theatre 

marvellously controlled, clear as a crystal, and totally unmoving. The 
house exploded in cheers when she had done, which was only natural. 
Having been roared at for two and a half hours, it restored the balance 
by roaring back. 

Hamlet, by William Shakespeare, at the Phoenix. 

As he proved seven years ago at Stratford, no living actor is better 
equipped for Hamlet than Paul Scofield. On him the right sadness sits, 
and also the right spleen; his gait is a prowl over quicksands; and he can 
freeze a word with an irony at once mournful and deadly. He plays 
Hamlet as a man whose skill in smelling falseness extends to himself, 
thereby breeding self-disgust. He spots the flaw in every stone, which 
makes him either a bom jeweller or a born critic. He sees through Ger- 
trude, Claudius, Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, Polonius, and Ophelia: 
what remains but to see through himself? And this Mr. Scofield does 
superbly, with a mighty bawl of "O vengeance!" followed by a rueful 
stare at his own outflung arms and a decline into moans of derisive 
laughter. His eulogy of Horatio is not only a hymn to the only honest 
man in Denmark, it is the tribute enviously paid by complexity to simplic- 
ity. 

Mr. Scofield's outline is impeccable. What is surprising is the crude 
brushwork with which he fills it in. Vocally and physically he is one 
long tremendous sulk; a roaring boy is at large, and not (as when he 
played the part before) a scholar gipsy. The new Mr. Scofield protests 
much too much. The note struck on "Vengeance!" is thrice repeated, 
with diminishing returns; too many speeches are mechanically gabbled; 
and the actor's face is a mask devoid of pathos. To hold our attention he 
will hit wrong notes or leap up the scale halfway through a line, but the 
grip seems artificial, as if he had decided that what could not be coaxed 
into life had better be shouted to death. Potentially, Mr. Scofield is still 
Sir Laurence Olivier's natural heir, but in the technique of realistic 
acting he is badly out of practice. We have fed him on rhetoric and 
starved him of life, and if he fails to move us, it is as much our theatre's 
fault as his. 

Peter Brook's production moves like the wind. In a permanent 
setting (by Wakhevitch) which overhangs the action like a great stone 
bird-cage, he achieves changes of scene which are both swift and stun- 
ning. Yet, though movement is there, destination is lacking. Mr. Brook 



Part I: The British Theatre 1 1 1 

thrives on plays long unopened, such as Venice Preserv'd and Titus 
Andronicus. Hamlet, his first attempt at a major tragedy, seems to have 
overawed him. In the crowd scenes — the play and the duel — he brings 
off grand slams, but elsewhere his direction is oddly tentative, with 
niggling cuts and ear-distressing transpositions, and when he seeks to 
play a trump — by giving the court musicians toy drums and trumpets — 
one is merely conscious that he has revoked. 

Broad fun was never Mr. Brook's strong suit. Hence Osric falls 
flat; Ernest Thesiger's praying-mantis Polonius is annoyingly restrained; 
and the gravediggers, despite the earthiness of Harry H. Corbett, miss 
their true Galgenhumor. The Gertrude is droopy, the Laertes stiff and 
hysterical; and though Mary Ure is helped by the substitution of wild 
flamenco chants for the traditional jingles of Ophelia's madness, her 
playing has about it a cool calculation which points rather to comedy 
than to tragedy. 

I reserve until last the bloat king, the bonne bouche which swallows 
up the rest. Alec Clunes is not only the best Claudius I have seen, but in 
most respects the only one. Hamlet speaks of the king as a "remorseless, 
treacherous, lecherous, kindless villain," and every Claudius in my 
memory has played him as such. Mr, Clunes, returning to the basic 
principle of acting, plays Claudius from Claudius' own point of view: 
as a man who committed a crime passionnel after an internal battle 
which has left scars on his conscience. Into this reading the prayer scene, 
normally an excrescence, perfectly fits; and the line about Gertrude — 
"I could not but by her" — rings a bell-note of pure pathos. We watch 
the slow crumbling of a man of action who has created through crime a 
new universe which now falls, stone by stone, about his ears. "O Ger- 
trude, Gertrude! When sorrows come, they come not single spies, but in 
battalions!" is a heart-cry rendered doubly moving by the actor's refusal 
to overstress it and by Gertrude's rejection of his outstretched hand. 

To quell Laertes' rebellion, he collects himself, weary yet still 
majestic. This lonely man engages once again in plotting, of which he is 
still a master, like the gouty Napoleon at Waterloo. "That we would do, 
we should do when we would" : this is not only an echo of Macbeth, but 
a tacit condemnation of Hamlet, who could not when he would. Yet 
when the plot is laid, a premonition clouds the king's mind, a sigh omi- 
nous with defeat. In these scenes of conspiracy (usually regarded merely 
as a rest for the star) Mr. Clunes performs miracles of reclamation 
which one is lucky to see once in a lifetime of Shakespearean playgoing. 
For long periods he was the only actor on stage who seemed, supply and 
subtly, to be listening. 



112 Part I: The British Theatre 

It is objected that he whitewashes Claudius? He shows us a man 
who has tried and failed to rationalise his faults — and if that is white- 
washing, it is how most of us spend our lives. Under his influence Ham- 
let is the tragedy not only of a prince but of a whole doomed family. If 
my thoughts on Thursday turned to the House of Atreus, it was Mr. 
Clunes' magnificent doing. This is a superb performance. 



The Wild Duck, by Henrik Ibsen, at the Saville. 

Ibsen at Christmas, The Wild Duck instead of the tame turkey! 
John Clements is the manager who has set the bird before us, the master 
ironist who has presented, in the season of good will, the greatest at- 
tack on good will ever penned. He deserves nothing but thanks. The 
time is past when Ibsen was staged only for short summer runs, and 
Firbank wrote of a certain Mrs. Steeple: 

One burning afternoon in July, with the thermometer at 90, 
the ridiculous woman had played "Rosmersholm" in Camberwell. 
Nobody had seen her do it, but it was conceivable that she had 
been very fine. 

Everyone, I hope, will see Mr. Clements' company, who are very fine 
indeed and almost give the impression of a team. I say "almost" because 
Emlyn Williams is by ancient bent and recent practice something of a 
lone wolf. Of course, Hjalmar Ekdal is a man of straw, but this is a 
point that Ibsen himself can be trusted to make; the actor need not be 
at such pains to show that he too sees through the character. Mr. Wil- 
liams exposes Hjalmar's paltriness with the cool competence of an ac- 
countant tabulating forged entries in the firm's books, but he does not 
feel for the man; nor, in consequence, can we. Though fuU of mimetic 
cunning, this is a less memorable Hjalmar than Anton Walbrook's, 
seven years ago. Nor does Dorothy Tutin, an eager Hedvig, divest her- 
self of years as movingly as Mai Zetterling did in the old St. Martin's 
production. But this is Christmas: let me emit but one peep of com- 
plaint. Since Hedvig's sight is failing, why does she not wear spectacles? 
Nothing else at the Saville blurs the impact of a play which is not 
only a supreme tragedy but a supreme comedy to boot. Its theme, the 
destructiveness of idealism, is timeless enough to have appealed to 
Graham Greene, who used it, albeit ingenuously, in The Quiet Ameri- 



Part I: The British Theatre 113 

can. And its technique, the Swiss-watch glibness of the plotting, still 
works as smoothly and hypnotically as ever. The play was best de- 
scribed by Shaw as "a tragi-comic slaughtering of sham Ibsenism," an 
assault by the great grouch of Skien on those idealists who are really 
egoists manques. Gregers, the son whose desire to wound father takes 
the form of a compulsive passion to help others, is still very much with 
us; and so is Hjalmar, the weak vessel which the new wine of idealism 
shatters. 

Some charge the play with preaching moral expediency, but what 
it really preaches is charity. Let the Hjalmars of the world keep their 
illusions: no price is too high for the postponement of despair. Politi- 
cally, Munich may be indefensible, but few of us could live without 
frequent Munichs of the conscience. Michael Gough, imaginatively 
cast, is a perfect Gregers, oozing sincerity whilst letting the man's neu- 
roses seep through the fagade. 

(1955) 



Henry V, by William Shakespeare, at the Old Vic. 

Harry of Monmouth, butcher and sophist, is a figure hard to love 
for himself alone. When he protests envy of the common man, who "aU 
night sleeps in Elysium," we cannot but jeer, for we have just seen three 
common men kept up till dawn by his persistent quarrelling. By stress- 
ing the "gentle gamester" aspect of the part and delivering the rest as a 
trumpet voluntary, many actors have been able to blind us to the bar- 
barity of Henry V. Richard Burton takes a steeper path. He gives us a 
cunning warrior, stocky and astute, unafraid of harshness or of curling 
the royal lip. The gallery gets no smiles from him, and the soldiery none 
but the scantest commiseration. Though it sometimes prefers rant to 
exuberance, this is an honest performance, true and watchful and ruth- 
less. 

The job of creating sympathy for Henry's cause thus falls to the 
director, and here Michael Benthall lets us down. Bowing to the "tradi- 
tion" inaugurated by Sir Laurence Olivier's film, he presents the French 
as fluttering mountebanks. Charles VI is a girlish fumbler, the Dauphin 
an affected lout; this being so, the goal is kept by fops and Henry has 
nothing to beat. Instead of bearding a pride of lions, the armed might 
of England is employed to drown a basket of kittens. That the Enghsh 
were a happy few we know, but to stir our hearts they must challenge a 



114 Part I : The British Theatre 

triumphant many. We expect splendour from our Frenchmen, a robust 
assurance, a pomp and a power, not a weedy and beribboned defiance. 
Great battles may be won on the playing-fields of Eton, but not when the 
first fifteen is playing the third. 

Apart from this central gaffe, there is little wrong with the produc- 
tion that a National Theatre and a more experienced company could not 
cure. Derek Francis' dogged Gower, Dudley Jones' brisk Fluellen, and 
Job Stewart's Nym, irretrievably glum, are perfect, as is the cosy, care- 
worn sketch which Rachel Roberts makes of Mrs. Quickly. If I devote 
more space to John Neville, it is because this actor implicitly demands 
it. He has shown in the past that he has strong and curious views on the 
play. Some years ago, as Henry V, he gave a compelling performance of 
Richard II; now, as Chorus, he is giving a princely and effusive perform- 
ance of Henry V, old style. How the plumbing stands out in his neck! 
And how romantically he snatches each word from the air! Yet, as 
Sainte-Beuve said, "Vecueil particulier du genre romanesque, c'est le 
faux," a remark amplified by the American critic Stark Young when he 
condemned English actors for "a certain sweetish piety peculiarly their 
own and peculiarly false." Here we recognise Mr. Neville, who played 
so piously to the loftier seats that they begged him, at the end, to take the 
"star" curtain. The compere who steals the show is by definition a bad 
compere. Mr. Neville's failure is pretty, seductive, "actorish," and com- 
plete. 



Notes on the National Theatre. 

Since today begins a New Year, it is fitting that the English should 
be reminded of a resolution that was made in their name on January 2 1 , 
1949. That, as the fervent will remember, was the day of the Giant 
Step, when the drama received its greatest (and almost its only) official 
boost since Charles II created the patent theatres. It was the day on 
which the House of Commons unanimously approved the National 
Theatre Bill, empowering the Treasury to spend a million pounds on 
building a home for the nation's drama. 

Seven years have passed, and what has become of that august and 
imaginative resolve? One stone has been regally laid; and that, by mis- 
chance, in the wrong place. Having expressed our will, we, the people, 
left things to them, the National Theatre Executive Committee, and 



Part I: The British Theatre 115 

shortly afterwards relapsed into what Matthew Arnold bitterly called 
"our favourite doctrines of the mischief of State interference, of the 
blessedness of leaving every man to do as he hkes, of the impertinence 
of presuming to check any man's natural taste for the bathos and press- 
ing him to relish the sublime." 

Why? Has the theatre forgotten the long passion that brought its 
dream to the brink of fact? Surely the classic arguments, endorsed al- 
ways by the few and seven years ago by the many, need no reiteration. 
Must it again be urged that Britain is the only European country with a 
living theatrical tradition which lacks a national theatre; and that the 
public money which gave us a visual library, the National Gallery, is 
needed just as vitally to provide (in Benn Levy's phrase) a "living 
library" of plays? But the points were all made in the Commons debate. 
The general impotence of our theatre, as opposed to the individual excel- 
lence of our actors, is the laughing-stock of the Continent; and it is un- 
thinkable that anyone nowadays would sink to the crassness of saying, 
as a daily paper did in 1938: "To have no National Theatre is a tribute 
to our liberty." To whom, one wonders, is the following quotation still 
controversial? "I consider it a pity, and even a folly, that we do not 
make some national effort to aid and assist dramatic representa- 
tion. . . . Think with what excitement and interest this people wit- 
nesses the construction or launching of a Dreadnought! What a pity it is 
that some measure of that interest cannot be turned in the direction of 
the launching, say, of a National Theatre!" The speech from which these 
extracts are taken was delivered by Sir Winston Churchill in 1906. 

Geoffrey Whitworth, the pioneer of the National Theatre, died in 
1951; one regrets that he did not live to see and surmount the ironies 
with which time has festooned his vision. One recalls William Archer 
and Granville-Barker, in the first flush of certainty, graciously smiling 
on the idea of a subsidised opera-house, but never doubting for an in- 
stant that the theatre would come first, since "England possesses a na- 
tional drama but does not as yet possess a national opera." Well, that 
was in 1904. We now have a subsidised opera-house; we are soon to 
have a second concert-hall on the South Bank; and the L.C.C. has just 
agreed to spend seven million pounds on the "rehabihtation" of the 
Crystal Palace. And still that lonely, misplaced stone is all we have of 
our theatre. 

But what, the diehards may ask, will the National Theatre give us 
that Stratford and the Old Vic do not? Firstly, a really modern theatre, 
comparable with those abroad and capable of staging the widest variety 
of plays. Secondly, not a cast of underpaid second-stringers, like the 



116 Parti: The British Theatre 

Old Vic, nor yet a starry, short-term band, like Stratford, but a large, 
experienced, permanent company, drawn from our finest talent and 
paid accordingly. Of the several objects prescribed for the National 
Theatre, Stratford and the Old Vic fulfil but one — that of presenting 
Shakespeare. The others (those of reviving the rest of our classical 
drama, presenting new plays and the best of foreign drama, and pre- 
venting recent plays of merit from rusting in oblivion) have no roof at 
all over their heads. At the X Theatre the play is good; at the Y, the 
acting; and the decor at the Z is magnificent. But there is nowhere we 
can send our guests, confidently saying: "This is our theatre's best. On 
this we stand." 

Our theatre has always been dogged by poverty; it is now dan- 
gerously close to being bitched by it. In 1880 Matthew Arnold concluded 
his great germinal essay with the words: "The theatre is irresistible; 
organise the theatre!" To which one would add: "The Act is irresistible; 
implement the Act!" 



Art for Our Sake. 

Riffling through my colleagues' comments on M. Sartre's Nekras- 
sov, I see that, while most of them found it witty, nearly all of them 
deplored the way in which it "resorted to propaganda" — as if the pres- 
ence of propaganda in a play automatically condemned it. I used to 
share this assumption myself. None was readier than I to chide the 
proselytising playwright, to mock at the zeal of the determined homilist. 
But now, in this arid theatrical season, I begin to wonder whether I was 
right. In demanding an end to propaganda, was I not depriving the 
drama of one of its most ancient sources of energy? 

Nobody denies that there are bad propaganda plays, just as there 
are bad poetic plays. But to hold that all plays containing propaganda 
are by definition bad is to run counter to a theory of art on which much 
great drama is based and which nobody seriously challenged until the 
nineteenth century. I mean the notion that the purpose of art was "to 
instruct through delight," the idea set forward in Sidney's Defence of 
Poesie. Early playwrights would have been shocked by the suggestion 
that they were not propagandists. The whole of Greek tragedy (and all 
satire from Aristophanes through Ben Jonson to M. Sartre) is admoni- 
tory in intent, and admonition is nothing if not moral propaganda. 



Part I: The British Theatre 117 

Everyman is a propaganda play. So is Henry V; so are ^4 « Enemy of the 
People, A Doll's House, and Ghosts; so is the entire oeuvre of the great- 
est living European playwright, Bertolt Brecht. 

At this point we had better define propaganda and distinguish be- 
tween good and bad forms of it. A melodrama is a play whose author is 
more interested in the impact events are having on his audience than in 
their impact on his characters. A propaganda play is the same, with 
"ideas" substituted for "events." Its aim is to start you thinking; and, 
though I agree that the effect of the greatest plays is to present an action 
so complete that only silence can succeed it in the mind, I cannot under- 
stand by what logic this rules out the theatre of parable, polemic, and 
pamphlet. Propaganda plays are admittedly distortions of life, but so 
are cartoon films, and they are all the better for it. 

I know many good minor playwrights whose view of life is biased 
but clear, tendentious but honourable. Fear of being dubbed "propa- 
gandist" prevents them from stating it. Instead, they give us feeble 
"mood" plays with no point of view at all. This fear of commitment, of 
being thought engage, accounts for the rash of pseudo-Chekhovs that 
has broken out all over the contemporary theatre. Don't comment, just 
record: kindly stick to the news. And this attitude is encouraged by the 
terminological vagueness which led one eminent British critic to dismiss 
Giraudoux's La Folle de Chaillot as "a misty piece of Socialist propa- 
ganda." Only a madman would wish that Chekhov had written di- 
dactically, yet it seems even madder to argue from this that the stage 
should never be used by lesser men as a political platform or as a pulpit. 
The logical end of that dispute is to exact from every playwright a guar- 
antee that he holds no convictions strongly enough to let them influence 
his writing. And that is like demanding a certificate of intellectual im- 
potence. 

Bad propaganda plays occur when the idea being propagated is 
trite and too repetitively stressed, or when the author's tone is either 
embittered or sentimentally fulsome. But it is irrelevant to indict a 
propaganda play on the ground that it is "unfair." Morality plays are 
"unfair" to the Devil; Henry V is "unfair" to France. The self-indulgent 
hero of Mayakovsky's satire, Klop, is treated with formidable unfair- 
ness, yet the play prodded me, spurred me, irritated me into thought. 
Before calling him "preacher" or "sermoniser," remember the handicaps 
under which the propagandist works. He is a judge passing sentence on 
the strength of evidence which he has himself manufactured, and if the 
sentence is too harsh or too shrilly delivered, the audience will be quick 
to unmask him as a bigot. The finest and rarest sort of theatrical teacher 



118 Part I: The British Theatre 

is that defined in a dictum of Howard Lindsay's: "If you are going to 
write a propaganda play, you had better not let any of your characters 
know what the propaganda is." Brecht's Mother Courage falls into this 
category. Behind its every line, as behind every line of Everyman, 
there beats a passionate desire to improve the human condition. Hon- 
estly felt and truly expressed, this passion can generate a special and 
unique dramatic excitement, an irreplaceable theatrical heat. It brings 
us into contact not only with a man's power of narrative invention, but 
with the mind of the man himself. 

There are many other kinds of theatrical excitement. All I seek to 
establish is that propaganda has a place in the hierarchy. Brecht once 
drew an analogy which I think worth quoting. Some surgeons, he said, 
are content to supply merely a diagnosis; others feel it their duty to 
recommend a cure. Most propaganda plays, admittedly, offer quack 
remedies. The danger is that our hatred of quacks may lead us to despise 
the true healers. 



The Face of Love, by Ian Dallas, at the Royal Academy of 
Dramatic Art; Darkling Child, by W. S. Merwin and Dido 

MiLROY, AT THE ArTS. 

The hegemony of verse drama ended when Chekhov proved that 
in the theatre words were not paramount but auxiliary, not tyrants but 
collaborators; working alongside atmosphere and the movement of 
character, they could achieve a poetic effect in prose. The claim that 
high drama could only be written in Hnes of unequal length was exposed 
overnight as an archaic fraud. Chekhov and Shaw completed the revolu- 
tion that Ibsen had begun, and prose, thereafter, was liberated in the 
serious theatre. Beside these three giants, Messrs. Eliot and Fry suggest 
nothing so much as a pair of energetic swimming instructors giving les- 
sons in an empty pool. 

These truths I had thought self-evident, but it seems I was wrong. 
A penumbra of holiness, a promise of access to realms otherwise inac- 
cessible, still hangs over verse plays; and in the past week two talented 
young writers have swooned to the lure. One is Ian Dallas, who wrote 
The Face of Love; the other is W. S. Merwin, the co-author (with Dido 
Milroy) of Darkling Child. Let me say at once that Mr. Dallas' play, a 
scathing surview of the Trojan War, is acted with notable assurance, 



Part I: The British Theatre 1 1 9 

especially by Albert Finney, the smouldering young Spencer Tracy who 
plays Troilus; here is an actor who will soon disturb the dreams of 
Messrs. Burton and Scofield. But why, having garbed his Trojans in 
modern dress and chosen as his theme the contagious faithlessness of 
war, does Mr. Dallas drape his climaxes in verse — and bombastic, 
quasi-Marlovian verse at that? To the EUzabethans, poetry was a stone's 
throw from actual speech. Now it is light-years removed, and once Mr. 
Dallas embarks on it, his characters start to speak interchangeably, in a 
vein of vague and generalised emotion. Versified pap is infused into a 
subject which cries out for precise, ironic prose. 

Darkling Child is a similar case : beneath its poetry a good play Ues 
smothered. A wild Restoration witch poisons her godless father in order 
to escape to the arms of a rigid young clergyman, who rejects her when 
he learns of her crime. Some hint here of the sexual motive behind 
religious ecstasy: yet see how Mr. Merwin obscures it, in a style how 
memorably cute, how ruinously studded with distracting phrases! We 
pause, and think: "How clever!" and in that instant drama flees. I do 
not feel cold shudders running down my spine; instead, "a keel of cold 
scales slithers between my shoulders." You do not knit your brows; 
instead, "there's a dwarf hand twitching like nervous fire between your 
eyes." No fine, however commonplace, is allowed to go free without its 
compulsory metaphor, its pause for irrelevant embellishment. This is 
Philistine art, art for ostentation's sake, like an overcrowded junk-shop 
on the eve of a fire-sale. It conforms to Nietzsche's definition of literary 
decadence as a thing which occurs when the phrase jumps out of the 
sentence, the sentence out of the paragraph, and the paragraph out of 
the chapter. Margaret Whiting, the miUtant firebrand who plays the 
murderess, swoops on her long speeches like a ski-jumper at Cortina; 
how she would fare on a level course one cannot tell. I admit that she has 
a quality which has lifted many people to stardom: the ability to speak 
swiftly and powerfully without contorting her lips. She has been called a 
young Siddons. I would rather, and more warily, dub her an early Herlie, 



Othello, BY William Shakespeare, at the Old Vic. 

Even in prospect, the double Othello of John Neville and Richard 
Burton looked fairly black. The roles of Othello and lago were to be 
alternated by two born Cassios: how could they manage overnight the 
switch from black outside to black inside? And in part one's qualms 



120 Part h The British Theatre 

were justified. The Moor came lame from the struggle, as he must when 
age is absent. Messrs. Burton and Neville are the youngest Othellos the 
town has seen this century, and if they reply that both Garrick and 
Kean played the part before reaching thirty, my counter-charge must be 
that the audience which swallowed the fourteen-year-old Master Betty 
as Hamlet would swallow anything. 

Temperament alone is not enough for Othello, nor is physical 
beauty. The essence is that unfeignable quality which some call weight 
and others majesty, and which comes only with age. Frederick Valk had 
it, a great stunned animal strapped to the rack; but neither Mr. Burton, 
roaring through his whiskers, nor Mr. Neville, a tormented sheikh, could 
give the Moor his proper magnitude. In the grace-notes Mr. Neville was 
exemplary, the moments of sacrificial tenderness; he conveyed, even at 
the raging climax, a sense of pain at the treachery of lago, whom once 
he had loved. The part's quiet dawn and its quiescent sunset were both 
there. What escaped the actor was the intervening tempest. 

Tuesday's performance, with Mr. Burton blacked up and Mr. 
Neville a capering spiv, was a drab squabble between the Chocolate 
Soldier and the Vagabond King. Only the best things in Michael Bent- 
hall's production held one's attention: Rosemary Harris' Desdemona, a 
moth of peace who might profitably have beaten her wings more vig- 
orously, and Richard Wordsworth's Roderigo, a wholly credible ninny. 
On Wednesday we were in a different world. Mr. Burton was playing 
lago, and the production rose to him. 

Paradoxically, the only way to play lago is to respect Othello. Let 
lago mock the Moor with cheap laughs, and the play collapses: it be- 
comes the farce of an idiot gull instead of the tragedy of a master-spirit. 
Mr. Burton never underestimates Othello; nor, in consequence, do we. 
His lago is dour and earthy enough to convince any jury in the world. 
He does not simulate sincerity, he embodies it; not by the least wink or 
snicker does his outward action demonstrate the native act and figure of 
his heart. The imposture is total and terrifying. Like his author, Mr. 
Burton cares little for the question of lago's motive: mere jealousy of 
Cassio's rank is not enough, else why should lago go on hounding 
Othello after he has supplanted Cassio? Discarding this, Mr. Burton 
gives us a simple, dirty, smouldering drive towards power without 
responsibiUty. With a touch more of daemonism in the soliloquies, this 
will be an incomparable performance. 

We may now define this actor's powers. The open expression of 
emotion is clearly alien to him: he is a pure anti-romantic, ingrowing 
rather than outgoing. Should a part call for emotional contact with an- 



Part I: The British Theatre 121 

other player, a contemptuous curl of the lip betrays him. Here is no 
Troilus, no Florizel, no Romeo. Seeking, as Othello, to wear his heart 
upon his sleeve, he resorts to forced bellowing and perfunctory sobs. 
Mr. Burton "keeps yet his heart attending on himself," which is why his 
lago is so fine and why, five years ago, we all admired his playing of 
that other classic hypocrite. Prince Hal. Within this actor there is al- 
ways something reserved, a secret upon which trespassers will be prose- 
cuted, a rooted solitude which his Welsh blood tinges with mystery. 
Inside these hmits he is a master. Beyond them he has much to learn. 

(1956) 



Tabitha, by Arnold Ridley and Mary Cathcart Borer, at the 
Duchess. 

There is a kind of Englishman who regards all drama that is power- 
fully exciting as a gross invasion of his privacy; who likes his plays eked 
out with long stretches of eventless time in which he can meditate un- 
disturbed on the nature of his destiny. For such playgoers Tabitha might 
have been written. At discreet intervals a "plot point" is made; between 
points the characters brew tea, drink whisky, and chat quietly among 
themselves. During these interludes, I submit, it would be a courtesy on 
the part of the management to turn on the house lights and serve tea and 
whisky to the audience, but I suppose one cannot have everything. 

With the plot I shall not long detain you. It rears its head only 
intermittently, signalling for attention like the hamburger stands that 
(I assume) enliven one's journey across the baking plains of Arizona. 
Three impoverished gentlewomen (well played by Janet Barrow, Chris- 
tine Silver, and Marjorie Fielding, though Miss Fielding's aloofness 
suggested at times that she had not been formally introduced to the rest 
of the cast) consider murdering their landlady, who has lately poisoned 
then- pet cat, Tabitha. Should she continue to pilfer their liquor, they 
decide, she will find it lethally laced. Squeamishly they abandon the 
plan, and yet the landlady is poisoned. How? The answer, Hke a ham- 
burger stand, is visible far off, so that the last scene is about as suspense- 
ful as the Coronation ceremony. The authors, Arnold Ridley and Mary 
Cathcart Borer (I will repeat that), show an interesting ineptness in the 
management of entrances and exits, but by these technical matters only 
specialists are likely to be absorbed. For the most part, the audience is 
left to its own devices. 



122 Parti: The British Theatre 

Constructive as ever, I feel moved to propose a few thoughts with 
which ticket-buyers might while away the long pauses between points. 
They might, for instance, think over someone's observation that, whereas 
the characters in American realistic drama drink whisky which is really 
cold tea, the characters in English artificial comedy drink tea which is 
really warm whisky. They might also revolve the question of stage 
nomenclature. What is it about the name "Mary Trellington" that brands 
it at once as fiction, not fact? Cats, too, might come into this. Mr. Thur- 
ber has expressed his mistrust of people who call their twin puppies 
Fitz and Startz; I myself have an irrational fear of cat-owners who give 
their pets names like EUa Wheeler Wilcox or Nina Mae McKinney. 
(Mary Cathcart Borer, in this whimsical context, would be an excellent 
name for a blue Persian.) 

Another distraction might be to work out an appropriate epigraph 
for Tabitha. The best I could summon up was: "Home is where you 
hang your cat." More soberly, one might ask oneself how far the excite- 
ment generated by murder plays depends on the existence of the public 
hangman. And one might reasonably ponder the anomaly by which, 
though we campaign to abolish the death penalty for murderers, we 
happily retain the death penalty for plays. I refer, of course, to the 
Lord Chamberlain, who creates his own precedents and is accountable 
to no one, and from whom there is no court of appeal. Moreover, his sen- 
tences are carried out pre-natally, before the play is produced — a crime 
for which, in the medical world, many a doctor has been struck off the 
register. The Lord Chamberlain's refusal to grant a Ucence to Tennessee 
Williams' Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is aheady notorious; now, it is buzzed, 
the axe has fallen on Arthur Miller's latest success, A View from the 
Bridge; we are thus neatly cut off from the finest two playwrights at 
present writing in English. When M. Anouilh's The Waltz of the Torea- 
dors transfers from the Arts Theatre to the West End, it is conceivable 
that his lordship will demand some verbal changes. If so, it would be a 
bold, gay, and instructive experiment to substitute the phrase "Lord 
Chamberlain" for every word deleted. 

Does the reader complain that I have offered nothing in the way of 
constructive criticism? With all respect, he errs. My chase has an end in 
view. I have sought to illustrate, in the foregoing, an art which is integral 
to the writing of mystery plays and in which the authors of TabitJm are 
notably deficient: the art of intelligent padding. 



Part I: The British Theatre \ 23 



Social Drama. 



The American edition of Arthur Miller's latest work, A View from 
the Bridge, is prefaced by a long essay which Mr. Miller entitles: "On 
Social Plays," At which we wince, those of us who remember what the 
thirties meant by "social plays" — tracts hoarse with rage and hungry for 
martyrdom, dramatic tumbrils from which the authors yelled their 
prophetic curses on us, the complacent tricoteuses. Sombre and embit- 
tered social plays led us to equate responsibility with solemnity, which 
we loathed, and irresponsibihty with gaiety, which we loved. Mr. Miller's 
purpose is to show us that this dichotomy was false — that there are such 
things as festal seriousness, responsible gaiety, and triumphant tragedy. 
He defines theatre in the Greek manner, as "a dramatic consideration 
of the way men ought to hve," and thence takes off into an artistic credo 
as stimulating as any of our time. 

Just as Pravda decries the "cult of the individual" in politics, Mr. 
Miller decries it in drama. Defying Donne, our modish playwrights see 
their heroes as islands doomed to be swamped by an impersonal and 
vanquishing sea. Their prevalent theme is frustration; the hero is either 
defeated by society or reduced by it to a negative conformity. What has 
vanished is the positive concept of men living fruitfully together. Modern 
heroes die sadly in the dark; they "go gentle into that good night," a 
pitiful spectacle which has bred in modern audiences an appetite for 
pathos that amounts to an addiction. Tragedy, by contrast, should hap- 
pen in sunlight. The hero bends in desperation beneath his burden, but 
he dies in the service of something larger than himself, and the sun 
shines the more brightly for his suffering. Ancient tragedy puts the 
question: "How are we to live?" Modern tragedy asks: "How am / to 
live?" That is the vital difference. 

The first English play to set up personal fulfibnent as a tragic ideal 
happened, unfortunately, to be a masterpiece: Hamlet. Here, for the 
first time, the hero was an outcast, both divorced from and superior to 
the society around him; for the first time an audience was invited to 
sympathise with a man's apartness and to ignore his "togetherness." 
Lear stands boldly for England; but Hamlet stands only for Hamlet, the 
first tragic protagonist to despise and reject every value by which his 
society fives. One echoes Shaw's stricture: 

Hamlet is the tragedy of private fife — nay, of individual 
bachelor-poet life. It belongs to a detached residence, a select 



124 Part I: The British Theatre 

library, an exclusive circle, to no occupation, to fathomless bore- 
dom, to impenitent mug-wumpism, to the illusion that the futility 
of these things is the futility of existence. . . . 

Hamlet spurns the old idols, dies in the dark, and leaves only a shambles 
behind him; it is magnificent, but it is not tragedy. As Mr. Miller says: 

I can no longer take with ultimate seriousness a drama of 
individual psychology written for its own sake, however full it may 
be of insight and precise observation. Time is moving: there is a 
world to make ... a world in which the human being can live as 
a naturally political, naturally private, naturally engaged person, a 
world in which once again a true tragic victory can be scored. 

I shall continue to applaud all plays that are honestly frivolous, 
devoutly disengaged; but I shall reserve my cheers for the play in which 
man among men, not man against men, is the well-spring of tragedy. 

A View from the Bridge is a double bill, in the second half of which 
one character accuses another of homosexuality; the accusation is false, 
but it is made clearly enough to have convinced the Lord Chamberlain 
that the play should be banned in this country. Thus deprived of Mr. 
Miller, where else shall we search for a social playwright? No further, 
one suggests, than Bertolt Brecht's company in East BerUn, which is 
acknowledged to be the best theatre company in Europe and has been 
heavily tipped as the best in the world. Paris has twice capitulated to 
them; and it is time someone brought them to London, so that we might 
see in practice what Mr. Miller so eloquently preaches — the powerful 
exhilaration of a true "social theatre." 

(1956) 

The Poiver and the Glory, adapted by Denis Cannan and Pierre 
BosT FROM Graham Greene's novel, at the Phoenix. 

To my shame, I never finished reading Graham Greene's The 
Power and the Glory. About midway through the book I began to feel 
emotionally coerced, unable any longer to "identify" with the hero, a 
fugitive priest in Communist Mexico. I tried shutting my eyes and con- 
centrating on Saint Sebastian, but it was no use; when I reopened them, 
there was the begging-bowl again, and the sign above it: "Hopeless 
Alcoholic, Chronic Non-Celibate and, if that doesn't move you, Catholic 
as well." One closed the book with a sense of having experienced not so 
much a dark night of the soul as a lost week-end. Buy your martyr's kit 



Part I: The British Theatre 125 

here, it seemed to be saying, and don't miss the special bonus, given 
away free with every package: a whiff of lechery, a bottle of Scotch, and 
your money back if persecution does not immediately follow purchase. 
You may be 20,000 leagues below the Holy See, but you are yet the 
elect, ever to be preferred to the merely elected, who are egalitarian 
bulUes and unquestionably damned, (At this stage of Mr. Greene's 
development Satan had a Communist face. Now he has an American 
face. Students of double-think will recognise the process.) 

Since Mr. Greene was writing about a country where, as Marx 
might have said, religion is the mescalin of the people, I cannot under- 
stand why he did not make his whisky-priest a dope-fiend as well; but 
one cannot have everything, and it is a considerable feat, scarcely 
equalled by Nigel Dennis in Cards of Identity, to have invented a char- 
acter who is at the same time soak, seducer, and saint. I am not, I hope, 
without charity for the fallen: it is just that when virtue is presented to 
me so whorishly garlanded and vice is defined as the manure in which 
salvation flowers, I begin to suspect that I am in the presence of special 
pleading. 

This personal digression may help to account for my failure to be 
moved by the stage version of the novel, an expert condensation by 
Denis Cannan and Pierre Bost. Through six vivid scenes we accompany 
the priest on his search for communion wine in a land of prohibition. 
We see his vocation leading him irrevocably to his death, and still, and 
yet, the tears will not come. Part of the trouble lies in the difficulty of 
reconcihng EngUsh accents with Mexican make-ups. The physical 
production is assuredly not at fault. Using a "sound-track" of his own 
composition and five glorious settings by Georges Wakhevitch, Peter 
Brook plants us firmly in Mexico; but few of the large cast seem really 
at home south of the border. 

This objection does not apply to Paul Scofield, who brings off a 
prodigious success as the trudging, wizened hero-victim. Puffing on a 
cheroot, with fines of resignation etched as if by acid on to his cheeks 
and forehead, Mr. Scofield exudes, drunk or sober (he gets most deli- 
cately drunk), a Goyaesque melancholy. This is the authentic face of 
Mexico, fly-blown and God-bitten. No matter though the actor's voice 
sometimes recaUs the plummier inflections of Richard Haydn, the fish 
mimic: if the play fails to touch us, the blame is not his. It is probably 
mine, for choking over Mr. Greene's message. But who, one wonders, 
will swallow it? Non-Catholics certainly won't; nor will many Catholics, 
and the godless are presumably immune to it. Which leaves — well, who? 



1 26 Pa^t I: The British Theatre 



Troilus and Cressida, by William Shakespeare, at the Old Vic. 

Directors with a talent for self-expression traditionally get short 
shrift from English critics. "Exhibitionism" and "straining after effect" 
are the cult-cries, bandied about by people who should be well aware 
that if exhibitionism were a criminal offence, the entire theatrical profes- 
sion would now be in gaol, and that a man who strains after an effect 
not infrequently achieves it. Tyrone Guthrie is the latest victim. He 
has mounted Troilus and Cressida in turn-of-the-century costumes, the 
trappings of the last epoch which thought war glamorous; and already 
hackles have risen and hecklers are busy. Now, it is true that many of 
the hues are spoken with numbing sloppiness and that this must be 
remedied; but to imagine a straight production of the piece with the 
Vic's present underpowered company is to thank God incontinently for 
Mr. Guthrie's intervention. 

Out of the play's many styles he has chosen one — broad satire — 
and let the rest go hang. His Trojans are glass-smashing cavalry oflficers 
who might pass for British were it not for the freedom with which they 
mention Helen's name in the mess; their leader is Hector, game but 
ageing, and ripe for any exploit which will endear him to the young 
bloods he commands. Pandarus (Paul Rogers) becomes a Proustian 
voyeur and Cressida (Rosemary Harris) a militant flirt, an interpreta- 
tion that throws romanticism out of the window and, incidentally, turns 
Troilus into a besotted half-wit. 

John Neville, the actor in question, is the production's chief casu- 
alty, and he is further handicapped by one of Mr. Guthrie's most an- 
archic whims — the idea of playing "I am giddy: expectation whirls me 
round" as if the giddiness were due to alcohol. The Greeks, scarred and 
monocled, are all graduates of Heidelberg. The scenes between Achilles 
and Patroclus are played as classic expositions of sado-masochism; 
Ulysses, as one might guess, is an admiral of the fleet; and Dudley Jones' 
Nestor, a terrifically bearded toy martinet, is a refreshing change from 
the usual dotard. After ten minutes of protest one surrenders to a mas- 
terly joke, a lusty "newborn gaud" that Mr. Guthrie, to whom praise be, 
has "made and moulded of things past." 



Part I: The British Theatre 127 



The Chalk Garden, by Enid Bagnolb, at the Haymarket. 

On Wednesday night a wonder happened: the West End theatre 
justified its existence. One had thought it an anachronism, wilfully 
preserving a formal, patrician acting style for which the modern drama 
had no use, a style as remote from reality as a troop of cavalry in an age 
of turbo-jets. One was shamefully wrong. On Wednesday night, superbly 
caparisoned, the cavalry went into action and gave a display of theatri- 
cal equitation which silenced all grumblers. This engagement completed, 
the brigade may have to be disbanded. But at least it went out with a 
flourish, its banners resplendent in the last rays of the sun. 

The occasion of its triumph was Enid Bagnold's The Chalk Garden, 
which may well be the finest artificial comedy to have flowed from an 
English (as opposed to an Irish) pen since the death of Congreve. Miss 
Bagnold's style recalls Ronald Firbank's The Princess Zoubaroff; it has 
the same exotic insolence, the same hothouse charm. We eavesdrop on a 
group of thoroughbred minds expressing themselves in speech of an 
exquisite candour, building ornamental bridges of metaphor, tiptoeing 
across frail causeways of simile, and vaulting over gorges impassable 
to the rational soul. 

The heroine of Zoubaroff, entreated to wear a smile, replied that 
it was too hot to wear another thing; and boy met girl with the exchange: 
"We slept together" — "Yes, At the opera. 'Berenice.' " Like Firbank, 
Miss Bagnold evokes a world fuU of hard, gem-like flame-throwers, a 
little room of infinite riches. "Of course I'm affected," Aubrey Beardsley 
is rumoured to have said: "Even my lungs are affected!"; but there is 
nothing affected, or snobbish, about Miss Bagnold, unless verbal pre- 
cision is a mark of snobbery. 

London gives her the actors she needs. Dame Edith Evans, exas- 
perated by "this mule of a garden," suggests a crested wave of Edward- 
ian eccentricity vainly dashing itself on the rocks of contemporary fife. 
Peggy Ashcroft is, beautifully, the dumpy governess who leads Dame 
Edith's granddaughter, a pretty pyromaniac ferociously played by 
Judith Stott, to forsake the sterility of her grandmother's house and 
rejoin her errant mama^a role in which Rachel Gurney shows once 
again how foolish our theatre has been to neglect her. 

Something is being said about the necessity of rescuing young 
people from the aridity of a rich, irresponsible life; but it is being said 
wittily, obliquely, in a manner that one would call civiHsed if one thought 



128 Part I: The British Theatre 

civilisation was worthy of the tribute. The Chalk Garden probably marks 
the end of an era; Miss Stott's farewell to Dame Edith, as irrevocable as 
Nora's departure in A Doll's House, represents the future taking leave 
of the past. But the past has its joys. In this production (by Sir John 
Gielgud) we see EngUsh actors doing perfectly what few actors on earth 
can do at all: reproduce in the theatre the spirited elegance of a Mozart 
quintet. 



Suez and the Theatre. 

English drama is like the Suez Canal during Eden's war, a means of 
communication made hazardous by a myriad sunken wrecks. There, 
scarcely visible above the ooze, is the mighty hulk that was Pinero; and 
there, stranded on a sand-bar, the flimsy outrigger Stephen Phillips, 
Salvage work is being carried out on the doughty tanker Priestley, but it 
remains a peril to navigation; and a whole stretch of waterway has been 
declared unsafe because of the presence, just on the surface, of the first 
aluminium leviathan; the captain has not yet abandoned his ship, on 
whose prow may be read the legend: "Noel Coward. Teddington." The 
lighthouse at Shaw's Corner is out of action, and traffic at any point is 
likely to be menaced by the sudden appearance of the deserted Esther 
McCracken, whose crew are thought to have jumped overboard in the 
middle of tea, which is laid in every cabin — a veritable mystery of the 
sea. And the ghost-frigate Eliot still provokes the superstitious to chant: 

But why drives on that ship so fast, 
Without or wave or wind? 
The air is cut away before, 
And closes from behind. . . . 

The fledgling pilot has many such dangers to avoid. Yet there is — there 
must be — a way through. 



Part I: The British Theatre 129 



Hotel Paradiso, by Georges Feydeau, at the Winter Garden. 

Georges Feydeau's Hotel Paradiso, revived, translated, and di- 
rected by Peter Glenville, is a sixty-year-old farce of clockwork cunning 
and, once you accept its postulates, impregnable plausibility. A hen- 
pecked husband (like you, I wish there were a synonym) takes his best 
friend's wife to a shady hotel on the very night when events are conspir- 
ing to bring almost everyone he knows to the same squalid rendezvous, 
which is run by an Italian voyeur who drills peepholes in the walls. 
Verbally, little is memorable: what matters is the dazzling economy of 
the construction. Feydeau wastes nothing. If an elderly barrister (well 
fooled by Douglas Byng) has a habit of stammering whenever it rains, 
be sure that this infirmity will play a vital part in the denouement. The 
naked offstage woman who demands a pack of cards is not merely funny 
in herself; she also establishes at a stroke the atmosphere of the hotel. 

Yet the kind of laughter that greeted the play was not unlike that 
which greets Sir Laurence OUvier, Vivien Leigh, and Danny Kaye when 
they dress up in sailor-suits and sing "Triplets" for charitable purposes. 
We laugh, that is to say, not at the song itself, nor yet at the skill with 
which it is done, but at the very idea of such august persons doing it at 
all. An element of charade intrudes. 

Irene Worth, for example, is an actress whom we associate with the 
roles of women interestingly doomed. Here she appears with a top-hat 
jammed down over her chin. In the same way, Martita Hunt is formi- 
dably funny, swooping about like a wounded pterodactvl and indulging 
in regal, dismissive gestures which suggest that she is conducting an 
invisible symphony orchestra; yet when she is made to fence with a hat- 
pin, one gets the same triplettish feeling as when Miss Worth wears her 
topper or when Alec Guinness is compelled to put his head up a chim- 
ney and emerge fuliginous. The joke is not so much on the characters in 
the play as on the dignity of the people who are playing them, an out- 
rageous humiliation which . . . 

But here the scales tip and qualms vanish, for Mr. Guinness is 
giving a display of such exquisite stealth that it transcends all objections. 
We have seen him in this vein before: the chubby, crafty little fellow 
obsessed by an urge to break out and show the world his mettle. Twinges 
of remorse occasionally contort his face, but, once resolved, he will 
hold his course, he will sleep out and around, he will live dangerously. 
What though his plans miscarry? He will have made his tiny protest, 



130 Part I: The British Theatre 

like that respectable resident of the Ritz in Paris who one day smuggled 
into his room five white mice in a paper bag and set them free in the 
corridor with cries of "Mice in the Ritz! Mice in the Ritz!" — cries, alas, 
which nobody heard. 

Not the least wonderful thing in Mr. Guinness' performance is its 
sheer physical dexterity. In the "morning-after" scene he is almost un- 
masked as the black-faced sweep of the night before. "He was about 
your size," says someone suspiciously. "Oh, no — much taller!" cries 
Mr. Guinness, crumpling into a chair and shrinking before our eyes to 
the dimensions of a pickled walnut. This most creative farceur is notably 
assisted by Kenneth WilUams as a blond prig and by Osbert Lancaster's 
happily unprettified settings. 



Look Back in Anger, by John Osborne, at the Royal Court. 

"They are scum" was Mr. Maugham's famous verdict on the class 
of State-aided university students to which Kingsley Amis' Lucky Jim 
belongs; and since Mr. Maugham seldom says anything controversial or 
uncertain of wide acceptance, his opinion must clearly be that of many. 
Those who share it had better stay well away from John Osborne's 
Look Back in Anger, which is all scum and a mUe wide. 

Its hero, a provincial graduate who runs a sweet-stall, has already 
been summed up in print as "a young pup," and it is not hard to see why. 
What with his flair for introspection, his gift for ribald parody, his ex- 
coriating candour, his contempt for "phoneyness," his weakness for 
soliloquy, and his desperate conviction that the time is out of joint, 
Jimmy Porter is the completest young pup in our literature since Ham- 
let, Prince of Denmark. His wife, whose Anglo-Indian parents resent 
him, is persuaded by an actress friend to leave him; Jimmy's prompt 
response is to go to bed with the actress. Mr. Osborne's picture of a 
certain kind of modern marriage is hilariously accurate: he shows us 
two attractive young animals engaged in competitive martyrdom, each 
with its teeth sunk deep in the other's neck, and each reluctant to break 
the clinch for fear of bleeding to death. 

The fact that he writes with charity has led many critics into the 
trap of supposing that Mr. Osborne's sympathies are wholly with Jimmy. 
Nothing could be more false. Jimmy is simply and abundantly alive; 



Part I: The British Theatre 131 

that rarest of dramatic phenomena, the act of original creation, has 
taken place; and those who carp were better silent. Is Jimmy's anger 
justified? Why doesn't he do something? These questions might be 
relevant if the character had failed to come to life; in the presence of 
such evident and blazing vitality, I marvel at the pedantry that could 
ask them. Why don't Chekhov's people do something? Is the sun justi- 
fied in scorching us? There wUl be time enough to debate Mr. Osborne's 
moral position when he has written a few more plays. In the present one 
he certainly goes off the deep end, but I cannot regard this as a vice in a 
theatre that seldom ventures more than a toe into the water. 

Look Back in Anger presents post-war youth as it really is, with 
special emphasis on the non-U intelligentsia who live in bed-sitters and 
divide the Sunday papers into two groups, "posh" and "wet." To have 
done this at all would be a signal achievement; to have done it in a first 
play is a minor miracle. All the qualities are there, qualities one had 
despaired of ever seeing on the stage — the drift towards anarchy, the 
instinctive leftishness, the automatic rejection of "official" attitudes, the 
surrealist sense of humour (Jimmy describes a pansy friend as "a female 
Emily Bronte"), the casual promiscuity, the sense of lacking a crusade 
worth fighting for, and, underlying all these, the determination that no 
one who dies shall go unmourned. 

One cannot imagine Jimmy Porter listening with a straight face to 
speeches about our inalienable right to flog Cypriot schoolboys. You 
could never mobilise him and his kind into a lynching mob, since the art 
he fives for, jazz, was invented by Negroes; and if you gave him a razor, 
he would do nothing with it but shave. The Porters of our time deplore 
the tyranny of "good taste" and refuse to accept "emotional" as a term of 
abuse; they are classless, and they are also leaderless. Mr, Osborne is 
their first spokesman in the London theatre. He has been lucky in his 
sponsors (the English Stage Company), his director (Tony Richardson), 
and his interpreters: Mary Ure, Helena Hughes, and Alan Bates give 
fresh and unforced performances, and in the taxing central role Kenneth 
Haigh never puts a foot wrong. 

That the play needs changes I do not deny : it is twenty minutes too 
long, and not even Mr. Haigh's bravura could bHnd me to the painful 
whimsey of the final reconciliation scene. I agree that Look Back in 
Anger is likely to remain a minority taste. What matters, however, is 
the size of the minority. I estimate it at roughly 6,733,000, which is the 
number of people in this country between the ages of twenty and thirty. 
And this figure will doubtless be swelled by refugees from other age- 
groups who are curious to know precisely what the contemporary young 



132 P^^i I: The British Theatre 

pup is thinking and feeling. I doubt if I could love anyone who did not 
wish to see Look Back in Anger. It is the best young play of its decade. 



The Family Reunion, by T. S. Eliot, at the Phoenix. 

After Hamlet and The Power and the Glory, the Peter Brook-Paul 
Scofield season of sin and damnation has entered on its last anguished 
lap with Mr. Eliot's The Family Reunion. 

To Mr. Scofield, who has hardly had a cheerful line to speak in the 
past six months, one's heart goes out; having worked like a Trojan, he is 
now called on to impersonate a tormented pseudo-Greek. He does it 
yeomanly. On Mr. Eliot's Orestean hero he bestows a sleepless mien, 
gently haggard, and an anxious warmth of utterance that very nearly 
cures the character of its priggishness. As he is softened by Mr. Scofield, 
we almost come to like Harry. Almost, we believe that he might exist. 

This, of course, is just a trick of mimetic trompe-l'oeil. Harry has 
no real blood in his veins. He is merely a projection of the obsessive 
guilt (often connected with the death of a woman) that constantly recurs 
in Mr. Eliot's work. "Sweeney Agonistes" gives the clue: 

I knew a man once did a girl in 
Any man might do a girl in 
Any man has to, needs to, wants to 
Once in a lifetime, do a girl in. 

Harry returns to his aunt-haunted ancestral home convinced that 
he has done his wife in. Through his sibylline Aunt Agatha he discovers 
that the true culprit was his father, who sought and failed to knock off 
his mother. Harry embarks, enlightened, on a pilgrimage of atonement; 
but the suddenness of his departure has the ironic effect of striking his 
mother dead. Now, if Mr. Eliot had admitted that Harry was a rare and 
special case, all might have been well. Instead, he insists that we accept 
him as a timeless and universal symbol. We are to identify ourselves 
with Harry when he decides to embrace the Furies, saying that "my 
business is not to run away but to pursue." But at this point I could not 
help recalling a sentence from Manes Sperber's essay on Freud: "In the 
circle of his actions the neurotic is as much in pursuit of the Furies as he 
is pursued." Harry is an interesting upper-class neurotic (more New 
England than North Country, by the way), but he is nothing more, 



Part I: The British Theatre 133 

except to those who still retain an objective belief in fate. Mr. Eliot has 
dressed him in borrowed classical robes, but he sinks beneath their 
weight. 

To preserve Harry from disaster as he swings about on the meta- 
physical high trapeze, Mr. Eliot has thoughtfully installed a safety net. 
He has given him two stupid aunts and two stupid uncles who cannot 
understand what he is driving at. In them the obtuseness of Philistia is 
incarnate; they suspect that Harry's spiritual garments have come from 
the Emperor's tailor; and if we agree with them, that makes us Phi- 
listines too. 

The play contains two splendid jokes (in prose) and many passages 
of bony analytic precision. It also demonstrates Mr. Eliot's gift for 
imposing a sudden chill, as ghosts are said to do when they enter a 
room. Images of vague nursery dread insistently recur — the attraction 
of the dark passage, the noxious smell untraceable in the drain, the evil 
in the dark closet (which was really, as Dylan Thomas used impiously 
to say, the school boot-cupboard), the cerebral acne in the monastery 
garden, the agony in the dark, the agony in the curtained bedroom, 
the chilly pretences in the silent bedroom. (One of these phrases is my 
own invention. Entries by Ash Wednesday.) But though Mr. Eliot can 
always lower the dramatic temperature, he can never raise it; and this 
is why the theatre, an impure assembly that loves strong emotions, must 
ultimately reject him. He is glacial, a theatrical Jack Frost; at the first 
breath of warmth, he melts and vanishes. 

This has-been, would-be masterpiece is magnificently revived 
by Peter Brook, who also designed the setting, an eerie upholstered 
vault. Apart from Mr. Scofield, Sybil Thorndike as the doomed matri- 
arch and Gwen Ffrangcon-Davies as Agatha the oracle perform mag- 
isterially, and fine work is done by Nora Nicholson and Patience Collier. 
The whole cast inhales Mr. Eliot's thin air as if it were nourishing them; 
or as if it held some scent more refreshing than that of dry bones. 



A Critic of the Critics. 

A few weeks ago there thudded through my letter-box a thunder- 
bolt, postmarked "Boston, Massachusetts." Duly unwrapped, it turned 
out to be a book, shiny, pocket-sized, and unsummoned. Its stark title 
was: "Precious Rubbish, as raked out of current criticism by Theodore 



134 Pa^t I: The British Theatre 

L. Shaw." The jfly-leaf revealed that Mr. Shaw had also written such 
elder blasts as War on Critics and The Hypocrisy of Criticism. This led 
me to expect some pretty jazzy polemic, and I was not disappointed. 
Mr. Shaw's avowed intent is to destroy criticism as we know it. His arch- 
enemy is "the absolutist," by which he means the reviewer who judges 
works of art by ideal and immutable standards, drawing artificial 
distinctions between "major" and "minor" poets, between "poetry" and 
"verse," between "almost first-rate" and "haplessly second-rate" writing. 
He dubs the absolutist a Shig — "a blend of Snobbery, Humbug, In- 
gratitude and Gas." 

Shigs take it for granted that complex art is per se superior to 
simple art, and it is this assumption that riles Mr. Shaw. His watchword 
is Relativism. Relativists believe, with George Jean Nathan, that the 
only rule is that there are no rules. Their final criterion is the pleasure- 
principle, and they scorn the notion that there is such a thing as "time- 
less" art. In time, we tire of everything. "Fatigue," according to Mr. 
Shaw, is "the decisive factor in every merit appraisal of art works." 
After twenty hearings of The Beggar's Opera we weary and yearn for 
Guys and Dolls. "A mountain is something to climb, a continent some- 
thing to explore, and a masterpiece something to get tired of — and the 
sooner the better." If we jib at this, Mr. Shaw declares, we are flying in 
the face of fact; we are refusing to admit that at one stage this, at another 
stage that, kind of art is aptest to please us. Art exists for us : we do not 
exist for art. Mr. Shaw clinches his case in a pamphlet I have not yet 
read, entitled Art Is a Giant Drug Store. 

Mr. Shaw may be truculent, but he is no fool. He scores a bull's- 
eye when he rebukes Lewis Mumford for having said that fine art 
should not be available in postcard reproduction. "There are paintings 
by Van Gogh and Matisse and Picasso," cried Mr. Mumford, "that are •- 
descending the swift, slippery slope to oblivion by reason of the fact that 
they are on view at all times and everywhere." At which Mr. Shaw leaps 
in, hopping with rage, to ask: Why shouldn't they descend? Why 
shouldn't we be allowed to tire of them? And in seeking to restrict their 
availability, isn't Mr. Mumford tacitly admitting that greatness in a 
work of art depends entirely on how often you look at it? When he puts 
questions hke this, Mr. Shaw has the absolutists on the ropes. 

Yet in the long run he errs. Rightly, he wants art to be therapeutic, 
to produce healthful pleasure; but he fails to see that the purpose of 
good criticism is identical. Theatre critics, as Walkley said, "are con- 
sumers of one art, the art of drama, and producers of auQther art, the 
art of criticism." What counts is not their opinion, but the art with which 



Part I : The British Theatre 135 

it is expressed. They differ from the novelist only in that they take as 
their subject-matter life rehearsed instead of life unrehearsed. The sub- 
tlest and best-informed of men will still be a bad critic if his style is 
bad. It is irrelevant whether his opinion is "right" or "wrong": I learn 
far more from G.B.S. when he is wrong than from Clement Scott when 
he is right. The true critic cares little for here and now. The last thing 
he bothers about is the man who will read him first. His real rendezvous 
is with posterity. His review is a letter addressed to the future — to 
people thirty years hence who may wonder exactly what it felt like to be 
in a certain playhouse on a certain distant night. The critic is their eye- 
witness; and he has done his job if he evokes, precisely and with all his 
prejudices clearly charted, the state of his mind after the performance 
has impinged on it. It matters little if he leans towards "absolutism" or 
"relativism," towards G.B.S. or Hazlitt. He will find readers if, and only 
if, he writes clearly and gaily and truly; if he regards himself as a 
specially treated mirror recording a unique and unrepeatable event. 

(1956) 



Romanoff and Juliet, by Peter Ustinov, at the Piccadilly. 

"He is our greatest narrative expert on the ways in which countries 
differ from one another. On the things they have in common he is, at the 
moment, less secure." Such, three years ago, was my judgment on Peter 
Ustinov. Romanoff and Juliet leaves it substantially unrevised. Comedy, 
for this Protean polyglot, derives from the clash of national attitudes. 
When Greek meets Greek, Mr. Ustinov is bored; but let Greek meet 
Dane (or Turk or Finn), and at once he is alert, ready to explode 
into the furry, compassionate chuckle which is his unfailing response to 
the bewildering legacy of Babel. 

In his new play America confronts Russia, two embassies arguing 
(in Sydney Smith's phrase) from opposite premises, facing each other 
across the central square of the smallest country in Europe. Soviet son 
falls in love with Yankee daughter, an outbreak of peace which 
shocks and appals their respective famiUes. Simple fun is made of the 
mighty opposites: the Americans conventionally bluster, while the 
Communists are presented as po-faced kill-joys, in accordance with 
the theatrical rule that aU countries hostile to the British way of life are 
by definition humourless. 

What have Russia and America in common? Romance, says Mr. 



136 P^fi I: ^^^ British Theatre 

Ustinov — a conclusion that will start few riots by its novelty. But where, 
you may ask, is the evidence of his expertness in national differences? 
Don't we know already that America is Ford-fixated and that Russia is 
the home of Marxmanship? You forget that a third country is involved, 
the microscopic domain where the crisis takes place, a tiny homeland 
which differs radically from any other under the sun, but especially from 
Russia and America. Mr. Ustinov himself plays its President, a fussy 
pacifist general whose cardinal point of policy is to maintain "the 
balance of feebleness" by delaying his declarations of war until he is 
quite sure which side is going to lose. The author's comic expertise 
lies in the contrast he draws between the great grim certainties of East 
and West and the happy vagueness of his midget Utopia. Gaiety here 
is a national duty, since the place has been conquered and liberated so 
many times that every other day is Independence Day. 

Mr. Ustinov's dwarf dreamland is authenticated with lavish detail. 
We learn something of its religion: it has a sect of penitents called the 
Mauve Friars, who neither sit nor stand but walk about on their knees, 
and a deaf little archbishop, played in a world of his own by Edward 
Atienza. We learn something of its history, notably of the boy king 
Theodore the Uncanny, whose cunning marriage to a Spanish Infanta 
"led to the eventual expulsion of the Albanians from our soil." Mr. 
Ustinov presides over our enlightenment with a sort of ruffled tact that 
combines the best features of Chorus, Pandarus, and fleet-footed Mer- 
cury. It has been said of this elusive author that he writes not so much 
plays of ideas as ideas for plays. In Romanoff and Juliet the idea has 
come out happy and whole, a blithe Ruritania with echoes for all of us, 
a satirical touchstone against which to test the pretensions of both 
Eastern bloc and Western alliance. Michael David and Katy Vail (Judy 
HoUiday en vacances) make a charming pair of red-star-crossed lovers; 
William Greene is lankily wistful as a rejected fiance: and Frederick 
Valk, the Russian spokesman, pays a brief, massive, and memora- 
ble tribute to the glories of old St. Petersburg. 

The Quare Fellow, by Brendan Behan, at Stratford- atte-Bowe. 

"Bloddy sparklin' dialogue," said a pensive Irishman during the 
first interval of The Quare Fellow — and sparkle, by any standards, 
it amazingly did. The English hoard words like misers; the Irish spend 
them like sailors; and in Brendan Behan's tremendous new play Ian- 



Part I. The British Theatre 137 

guage is out on a spree, ribald, dauntless, and spoiling for a fight. In 
itself, of course, this is scarcely amazing. It is Ireland's sacred duty to 
send over, every few years, a playwright to save the English theatre 
from inarticulate glumness. And Irish dialogue almost invariably 
sparkles. But now consider the context of Mr. Behan's hilarity. His 
setting is an Ulster prison, and one of its inmates is shortly to drop, rope- 
necklaced, through the untender trap. 

To move wild laughter in the throat of death? 
It cannot be : it is impossible. 

But Berowne was wrong. To a countryman of Swift many things are 
possible, and this among them; this, perhaps, especially. 

In adversity the Irish always sparkle. "If this is how Her Majesty 
treats her prisoners," said one of them, handcuffed in the rain en route 
for gaol, "she doesn't deserve to have any." With this remark of Oscar 
Wilde's, Mr. Behan, who has spent eight years of his life in prison for 
sundry acts of I.R.A. mischief, entirely agrees; and his protest is lodged 
in the same spirit of laconic detachment. The Irish are often senti- 
mental about causes and crusades, but they are hardly ever sentimental 
about human beings. So far from trying to gain sympathy for the con- 
demned man, an axe-murderer knovm as "the quare fellow," Mr. Behan 
keeps him off-stage throughout the action. All he shows us is the effect 
on the prison population of the knowledge that one of their number is 
about to be ritually strangled. 

There are no tears in the story, no complaints, no visible agonies; 
nor is there even suspense, since we know from the outset that there will 
be no reprieve. Mr. Behan's only weapon is a gay, fatalistic gallows- 
humour, and he wields it with the mastery of Ned Kelly, the Australian 
bandit, whose last words, as the noose encircled his neck, were: "Such 
is life." Mr. Behan's convicts behave with hair-raising jocularity, ex- 
changing obscene insults even while they are digging the murderer's 
grave. An old lag feigns a bad leg in order to steal a swig of methylated 
spirits; a newcomer anxious to raise bail is blithely advised to "get a 
bucket and bail yourself out." Even the hangman is presented serio- 
comically as a bowler-hatted publican with a marked addiction to the 
wares he sells. The tension is intolerable, but it is we who feel it, not the 
people in the play. We are moved precisely in the degree that they are 
not. With superb dramatic tact, the tragedy is concealed beneath layer 
after layer of rough comedy. 

Meanwhile, almost imperceptibly, the horror approaches. Two 
warders, chosen to share the murderer's last eight hours of life, thought- 



138 Part \:The British Theatre 

fully discard their wrist-watches in anticipation of his inevitable demand: 
What time is it? His last letters are thrown unopened into his grave: 
better there than in the Sunday papers. Dawn breaks, accompanied by 
the ghastly, anguished clatter of tin cups and plates against iron bars 
that is the tribute traditionally paid by the thousand convicts who wiU 
see tomorrow to the one who will not. The empty exercise yard now 
falls silent. The hush is broken by a unique coup de theatre, Mr. Behan's 
supreme dramatic achievement. An unseen humorist, bawhng from 
some lofty window, embarks on an imaginary description, phrased as 
racily as a Grand National commentary, of the hundred-yard dash from 
condemned cell to scaffold. They're coming into the straight now; the 
chaplain's leading by a short head. ... A young warder, new to the 
ceremony, faints and is carried across the stage for treatment. A sad, 
bawdy ballad filters through from the punishment block. The curtain 
falls, but not before we have heard the swing and jerk of the drop. I 
left the theatre feeling overwhelmed and thanking all the powers that 
be for Sydney Silverman. 

John Bury's two sets exactly capture the aridity of confinement. 
And Joan Littlewood's production is the best advertisement for Theatre 
Workshop that I have yet seen: a model of restraint, integrity, and 
disciplined naturalism. Glynn Edwards, Brian Murphy, and Maxwell 
Shaw, as three of Her Majesty's guests, and Dudley Foster, as one of 
the same lady's uniformed hosts, stand out from an inspired all-male 
company. Miss Littlewood's cast knows perfectly well what it is doing. 
She must now devote a few rehearsals to making sure that we can under- 
stand precisely what it is saying. That done. The Quare Fellow will 
belong not only in such transient records as this, but in theatrical history. 

(1956) 



Cards of Identity, by Nigel Dennis, at the Royal Court. 

"I must know who I am, mustn't I?" 

"Surely your own play isn't going to tell you?" 

"Of course not, dear; it's the critics who'll tell me. At the 

moment I don't exist; I don't even know what to become. But once 

my play's done, I'll know. . . ." 

— NIGEL DENNIS, Cards of Identity 

Vain hope. Having seen the play that Mr. Dennis has excavated 
from his novel, I will be keel-hauled if I know what to tell him. At his 



Part I : The British Theatre 139 

true identity I cannot guess. I know him for a master satirist, and also 
for a stylist. To boot, he is a conjurer, a card-manipulator who has yet 
to learn that a straight flush in the hand may look somewhat repetitive 
when laid face upward, card by card, on the stage; may even, such is 
the waywardness of theatre, fail to vanquish a fuU house. But one thing 
is certain: for all his talents, Mr. Dennis does not yet belong in the 
company of those writers the very tone of whose voices, urgent and 
hypnotic, at once sets our minds shaping the question: "And then what 
happened?" The power to do this is not the highest of dramatic skills, 
but it is one of the hardest; and whenever he lays claim to it, when- 
ever he assumes the identity of story-teller, Mr. Dennis lets us down. 
I do not know what he essentially is; but I do know what he is not. 

The novel was an extravagant bal masque whose theme was: 
"Come as you aren't." Three formidable frauds, closely reminiscent of 
Subtle, Face, and Doll in The Alchemist, commandeer a derehct coun- 
try house in the name of the Identity Club. Triumphantly they test 
the club's maxim, that modern man no longer knows exactly who he 
is and can easily be persuaded that he is someone else; a man in whom 
arrogance and servility alternate can, for example, be transformed 
overnight, to his entire satisfaction, into a butler. The idea is to cram 
the largest possible number of mutually exclusive quahties into the same 
new personality. (The club's chef d'oeuvre is a Catholic Communist 
who is also an alcoholic. ) Perhaps by chance, Mr. Dennis stumbled on 
the notion that the basic symbol of our time was not the atom scientist 
but the actor, the histrio, the man of multiple selfhood who had a 
brave new face for each sad new situation. 

The idea that human personality is neither absolute nor im- 
mutable is no novelty: it was Pirandello's obsession, and we find it in 
the changeable masks used by the people in O'NeiU's The Great God 
Brown. Nor is it a stranger to the novel: we are in its presence when 
Mr. Amis' Lucky Jim puts on his "Edith Sitwell face." Mr. Dennis' 
contribution was to elaborate it into a whole philosophy of life. 

His book was a series of firework displays, each of which illumi- 
nated the same thesis. It had a plot, something to do with a conspiracy 
to assassinate the Club's President, but this was an appendage that wise 
readers skipped. We now approach the vital distinction between novel 
and play. A novel is a static thing that one moves through; a 
play is a dynamic thing that moves past one. Mr. Dennis has made the 
mistake of supposing his plot robust enough to haul his parade of set- 
pieces across the stage. Observe, for instance, the gorgeous tableau in 
which two dandies, Edwardians born too late, find fulfilment in 



140 Part I: The British Theatre 

the twin sinecures of Co-Wardens of the Badgeries, where their only 
duty is to parade an imaginary badger on State occasions. Superb! But 
now poor Plot comes puffing back to drag the next float into view. This 
is Father Orfe's account, delivered by George Devine with the 
most squalid unctuousness, of how modern religion is not only reconcil- 
able with but inseparable from the basest debauchery: "I stink, there- 
fore I am." Eclatant! Then in plods Plot again, trudging and sweating 
and patently loathing the job. 

The spectacle grows painful. In the novel, Plot works only a 
seven-hour day; but in the theatre it must work overtime, from dawn to 
dusk, nudging and sheep-dogging the action into its predestined fold. 
Mr. Dennis' Plot is too frail to stand the strain; instead of being vigilant, 
it dozes, snores, and then awakens, quite unexpectedly, in alarming 
convulsions. If Mr. Dennis were to cut the whole of Act Two, Scene 
Three, and most of the last act, he would ease the burden on Plot and 
allow us to concentrate on the set-pieces, which bristle with wit, style, 
perception, audacity, malice, and profundity. 

Tony Richardson's production brings Mr. Dennis' nightmare to 
pungent life. As the Machiavellian hero, Michael Gwynn excels him- 
self; this is a display of caddishness at once rich and racy, genial and 
sinister, false-faced and multi-faceted. Joan Greenwood repeats her 
well-known impersonation of a baby theatrical Dame with "strep 
throat"; and who should turn up, wearing false sabre-teeth and a hair- 
less dome, but John Osborne, ruthlessly funny as the Custodian of 
Ancient Offices! The Royal Court's captive playwright stands out from 
an excellent supporting cast. 



Visit to the Fast. 

I went to see Gordon Craig partly because he is among the last of 
the great Edwardians and partly because a blue-haired and brilliant 
American authoress had spent several hours exhorting me with con- 
siderable violence to meet the ageing giants of art whUe yet they lived. 
"Don't just read their books," she had said. "That's Uke just eating the 
meat of the lobster. Be a gourmet; go to the head and suck the brains. 
There's tasty chewing there!" Spurred by this daunting advice, I drove 
up from Nice one Sunday this midsummer to talk to a man who was 
born in the same year as Aubrey Beardsley. 



Part I: The British Theatre 141 

Although he is eighty-four years old and has published little for a 
quarter of a century, Gordon Craig is still several lengths ahead of the 
theatrical avant-garde. Ideas that he expounded fifty years ago, in his 
breathless prophetic prose, are nowadays bearing fruit all over Europe. 
He anticipated Bert Brecht when he said of actors: "To-day they 
impersonate and interpret; to-morrow they must represent and inter- 
pret. ..." His notion that true drama was a one-man responsibility, 
in which words, direction, decor, lighting, and music should all proceed 
from the same organising brain, once seemed a fatuous vanity; yet last 
year Peter Brook, directing Titus Andronicus, undertook all these tasks 
save that of writing the play. Nor would Craig hold this omission against 
him, since he regards the hegemony of the writer as the supreme tragedy 
of theatrical history: literary men, he says, are intruders, despoilers of 
the purity of theatre as a separate art. Dismissed as a crank, he none the 
less brought modern staging to birth with his productions, a memorable 
few which include Hamlet at the Moscow Art Theatre and Eleanora 
Duse in Rosmersholm. If today we call "stage-managers" directors and 
"scene-painters" designers, it is largely Craig's doing. 

He last saw England in 1929, when C. B. Cochran invited him to 
take on a new production of his own choice. There was a dispute over 
expenditure, after which Craig left the country in a permanent huff. 
He lived in France until the Nazis arrived and shut him up in an intern- 
ment camp. A few months later a German intelligence officer, asking for 
one of his books at a Paris store, learned from the assistant that its 
author was imprisoned; shocked, he contrived to have Craig released. 
For the rest of the war the old theorist worked unmolested in his Paris 
studio. He now occupies a single cluttered room in a modest pension de 
famille at Vence, high in the hills that overlook Nice. Here, last spring, 
he learned that a tardily grateful nation had created him a Companion 
of Honour. He was flattered, but at the same time embarrassed, because 
he could not afford to come to London and be royally congratulated. 
His only regular income derives from investments made by his mother, 
EUen Terry. It amounts to just over £6 a week. 

I arrived in fear of finding a testy sage steeped in pathos and 
embittered by neglect. As soon as the car drew up in front of the pension 
I knew my error. The figure that greeted me was surely bowed and 
slightly crumpled, but what it exuded was neither pathos nor rancour, 
but mischief. You might have taken him for the oldest truant schoolboy 
alive — or, more extravagantly, for an indomitable old lady who had 
just, by some constitutional fantasy, been elected President of the 
French Republic. He wore a snuff tweed suit with six pens clipped to 



142 P^^t I: The British Theatre 

the breast pocket, a neat cream stock around his neck, a shawl-like 
garment draped across his shoulders, and a broad-brimmed hat on top 
of wild white curls. 

He clambered into the car, crowing with conspiratorial glee, and 
told the driver to take us down to a nearby inn for lunch. "Prenez 
garde!" he cried as we moved off. "Bad corner! Hoot, hoot!" 
Grinning wickedly and waving his mottled, curry-coloured hands, he 
began to talk in a voice of such vagrant music that I found myself listen- 
ing as much to its cadences as to its meaning. He peeped at me from 
time to time across a nose as sharp as a quill. I was already reassured. 
There was no bitterness here: only resilience, magnanimity, and a great 
appetite for joy. 

"You have the right face for a critic," he said as we disembarked. 
"You have the look of a blooming martyr." Having ordered the meal 
in genial and execrable French, he opened the briefcase he was carry- 
ing: it contained two razor-edged knives, in case the management had 
been slack in sharpening its cutlery. We were talking vaguely about 
Edward Lear when Craig whisked me back eighty years in a single 
sentence. "One day," he said, "when I was very small, that man Charles 
Dodgson came to tea. Tried to divert me with a puzzle about ferrying 
six cows across a river on a raft. Very tiresome . . ." 

TroweUing sauce-drenched food ("I hate a dry plate") into his 
mouth, the almost toothless lion avidly reminisced. Irving was the 
greatest director he had ever known, and as an actor: "We've had no 
one so dangerously good." The Terrys, he said, were always a slapdash 
sort of family: the Irvings were precision instruments. Granville-Barker 
was "a small man among giants" — this in a whisper, as if Barker him- 
self might spectrally be eavesdropping on the conversation. "Rather an 
affected man," said Craig, securely merry and patriarchal. 

Far from being pent up in the past, Craig keeps in touch with every 
new development in theatre, cinema, and even television. He was soon 
urging me to see the new French underwater documentary, Le Monde 
du Silence: "It's like nothing you've ever dreamed of. Or, rather, it's hke 
everything you've ever dreamed of." He showed a keen interest in "this 
fellow Orson Well-ess," of whose films he had heard much. "I'll 
tell you a thing about Well-ess," he said. "A Paris paper published an 
interview with him, in which he said that one day he was standing in 
the American Express in Paris when the door flew open to reveal a 
cloaked figure in a funny hat. Me! He threw himself to the ground in 
veneration. I gathered him up and took him to my studio and spent 
six months teaching him the art of the theatre." Craig was now shaking 



Part I: The British Theatre 143 

with glee. "Magnificent, isn't it? Because I've never met the fellow in 
my life!" He nudged me and we rocked. 

After lunch he conducted me on foot round the baked medieval 
village of Tourrette, leading the way in his rangy shuffle and talking of 
his memoirs, extracts from which are to be published in the autumn 
under the title Index to the Story of My Days. He spoke glowingly of 
Picasso ("Those eyes!" he said, stabbing two fingers at me like prongs), 
and gaily of his own poverty: "I'm as poor as a fish!" 

He has a collection of theatrical souvenirs — ^books, prints, letters, 
and designs — which is worth around £20,000. So far he has rejected all 
offers for it, mostly because he suspects the buyers of planning to break 
up the collection and resell it piecemeal. "A few years ago," he confided, 
"an American made a handsome bid. But I knew as soon as we started 
to talk business that he wasn't quite the man. He said to me: 'Please 
sit down, Mr. Craig.' And I said: 'It's my room — you sit down!' Not 
quite the fellow, you see. ..." I reflected that it would be a generous 
thing if the Arts Council were to purchase his treasures; and the sooner 
the better. "I count my life in days now, not in years or months or even 
weeks." 

Back in the pension, he led me up to the dark little room where 
he sleeps and works. Masks of his own carving hung on the walls (there 
is more than a touch in him of William Morris) ; day-books and journals 
were piled on the floors; implements for painting and writing Uttered 
the tables. On a shelf beside the brass bedstead stood a cork into which 
was stuck a photograph of a composed and smiling beauty: "My 
mother," said Craig. He talked, as he pottered, of his plans for the fu- 
ture. He is making a collection of English farces of the last century; 
"and," he said, "I'm beginning to solve the problem of staging the 
cauldron scene in Macbeth. I'm not certain yet, mind you, but it's get- 
ting clearer. It's getting clearer every day. . . ." Suddenly: "Did you 
ever think that Shakespeare had a cat? Look at the sonnets. Most of 
them aren't written to a woman or a boy. They're addressed to a cat." 

But there was one thing he especially wanted to show me, and he 
flipped through his scrapbooks to find it. He raced past priceless letters 
from Irving and Stanislavsky until: "There!" he said. Following his 
finger, I stared at an advertisement, cut out of an American magazine, 
for stainless steel. "Stainless steel!" he cried. "There's something 
serious there!" I pictured towering settings of steel taking shape in that 
restless, hungry mind. From one of his journals, volume after volume of 
fastidious, spidery script, there floated to the floor a newspaper cutting. I 
picked it up. Its headline ran: "<£ 105 m. for New Schools." In the mar- 



144 P^ft I: The British Theatre 

gin was an annotation in Craig's hand: "Why not educate by the 
stage?" Seeing that I had read it, he laughed joyously. "We only need five 
millions for our theatre," he said, "but they'll never let us have it. 
Never." 

I took my leave, exhausted, though he was not. He explained that 
he had much to do: there were some new ideas about The Tempest 
that needed his attention. As I drove away, he waved, winked, and 
loped back to his den. The theatre is not yet ripe for Gordon Craig. 
Perhaps, indeed, it will never be. But meanwhile, at Vence, work is 
still in progress. When the theatrical millennium arrives, he will be its 
first harbinger and surest witness. 



Timon of Athens, by William Shakespeare, at the Old Vic. 

The best that can be said of Michael Benthall's production of 
Timon of Athens is that its cuts and transpositions are clever. The rest 
is aimless improvisation. Leslie Hurry's settings are as coarse as his 
costumes, a dissonance of sequins, Pepsi-Cola purple, and desiccated 
mud. And to those who imagined the play to be a study of benevolence 
warped by ingratitude, Mr. Benthall administers a succinct slap: it is, 
by his curious lights, the story of a scoutmaster betrayed by his troop. 
To the role of the scoutmaster Sir Ralph Richardson brings his familiar 
attributes: a vagrant eye, gestures so eccentric that their true signifi- 
cance could be revealed only by extensive trepanning, and a mode of 
speech that democratically regards all syllables as equal. I select, for 
instance. Sir Ralph's thanks to the Amazons for enlivening his feast. 
"You have added," he said distinctly, "worth, and toot, and lustre." 
It took a trip to the text to reveal that "and toot" meant "unto't." Yet 
there was in his performance, for all its vagueness, a certain energy, and 
it was a relief to hear Timon's later tirades spoken with irony instead 
of fury. The stone-throwing scene with Apemantus was the best thing 
of the night. 

Some of the junior members of the troop carry on very oddly: 
kiUingly painted and draughtily dressed, they besiege one with an epi- 
cene intensity. Mr. Benthall must reaUy curb his love of moralising. 
In a play set in Greece, there is no need to plug so savagely the reasons 
which pious historians adduce to explain the fall of Rome. As Sydney 
Smith said when Mrs, Grote tried to lure him to the theatre: "All this 



Part I: The British Theatre 145 

class of pleasures inspires me with the same nausea as I feel at the sight 
of rich plum-cake or sweetmeats; I prefer the driest bread of common 
life." 



Under Milk Wood, by Dylan Thomas, at the New Theatre. 

Future historians may well pronounce Under Milk Wood one of the 
last outposts of the ear in a period ruled by the eye. But I am not a future 
historian, and I gaze appalled on those who insist that works meant to 
be heard should not also be seen: do they, I wonder, go bhndfold to 
symphony concerts? 

The truth is that all words intended to be spoken gain from the 
sight of the speaker, which is why I endorse the present experiment. 
Watching it, I recalled the fashionable charges against Dylan Thomas' 
play: that it approaches sex like a dazzled and peeping schoolboy, and 
that Llaregyb, so far from being a real village, is a "literary" village 
that Thomas has adorned with a false moustache of lechery — Cranford, 
in fact, with the lid off. The characters duplicate one another: Mae Rose 
Cottage equals Polly Garter, Mrs. Ogmore-Pritchard equals Mrs. Pugh, 
and Gossamer Beynon equals Myfanwy Price. The end is a perfunc- 
tory tapering-off: the town takes twenty-three pages to wake up but is 
packed off to bed in less than ten. 

To all these accusations Thomas must plead guilty. Yet we, the 
jury, rightly acquit him. He talks himself innocent: on two dozen oc- 
casions he gets past the toughest guard and occupies the heart. And the 
manic riot of his prose outdoes even the young O'Casey. He conscripts 
metaphors, rapes the dictionary, and builds a verbal bawdy-house where 
words mate and couple on the wing, like swifts. Nouns dress up, quite 
unselfconsciously, as verbs, sometimes balancing three-tiered epithets 
on their heads and often alliterating to boot. Hopkins with a skinful? 
Tap-room baroque? However we sum up the play's style, it hghts up the 
sky as nothing has since Juno. 

Douglas Cleverdon and Edward Burnham, the directors, have let 
a large young company loose on the text. Some caricature their roles, 
revue-fashion, thereby bringing out the worst in Thomas; but many 
hit the right note of reverent ribaldry, among them William Squire, 
T. H. Evans, Diana Maddox, and all the children who skip and pout 
through the kissing-game. As the narrator, Donald Houston is as un- 



146 Pii^t I: The British Theatre 

obtrusive and omnipresent as a good chorus should be, and more exqui- 
sitely spoken than one could imagine. Michael Trangmar's multiple 
setting, though it answers the mechanical questions posed by the play, 
does so rather grudgingly, in curt visual monosyllables: the decor is 
ingenious but dull. 

Yet we are held: why? Nothing happens. The play is a montage 
of static snapshots, its only action the movement of the sun across the 
village. The characters certainly talk, but they seldom converse. Each 
lives in a cocoon of fantasy which the outside world can hardly pene- 
trate. Organ Morgan, for example, when asked whether he prefers Fred 
Spit to Arthur, unhesitatingly replies: "Oh, Bach without any doubt. 
Bach every time for me." But is not this the secret? We are gripped, as 
in comedy we have immemorially been gripped, by a bunch of charac- 
ters with one-track minds who, though they incessantly collide with 
one another, never make real contact. Not less than Bartholomew Fair, 
Under Milk Wood is a true comedy of humours. 



The Good Woman of Setzuan, by Bertolt Brecht, at the 
Royal Court. 

"What is style?" asked Cocteau, and answered: "For many people, 
a very complicated way of saying very simple things. According to us, a 
very simple way of saying very complicated things." 

Many local critics have roundly consigned The Good Woman of 
Setzuan to the first category. Why, they demand, does Brecht need three 
hours, fourteen scenes, and thirty actors to prove that poor people are 
often a grasping lot? And, indeed, if that were all he was saying, we 
could write the play off and turn to something more important — a musi- 
cal, perhaps, needing three hours, fourteen scenes, and thirty actors to 
say precisely nothing. But in fact the rapacity of the poor is a point made 
only in the play's first act. Shen Te, a genial harlot whose goodness the 
gods reward with a large cash prize, is instantly fleeced by the neigh- 
bours she has been enjoined to love, and is saved from bankruptcy only 
by the ruse of inventing and impersonating a ruthless male cousin named 
Shui Ta. 

So far, so simple. Now watch the plot proliferate, burgeoning into 
paradoxes that only a simpleton could find simple. Shen Te falls in love 
with a shiftless airman who needs money to buy himself a job, and how 



Part I: The British Theatre 1 47 

better can she supply it than in the guise of the go-getting Shui Ta? Only 
this time it is not she alone who suffers: she raises the money, but learns 
that "you cannot help one poor man without trampUng down twelve 
others." Pregnant and deserted, betrayed by two kinds of love, she de- 
votes herself to a third — love for her unborn child, to safeguard whose 
future she once more summons Shui Ta. With fearful results: she rapidly 
becomes the richest inhabitant of Setzuan, and the most dihgently hated. 

The final trial scene is one of those high moments of art when char- 
acter and symbol coalesce. Shui Ta is accused of murdering Shen Te. 
"You were her greatest enemy!" shouts an angry peasant. "I was her 
only friend," is the sad reply. Irony as august, as bitterly conclusive, as 
this is seldom heard anywhere, least of all in the theatre. A fallacy has 
been exposed: that of seeking to be perfect in an imperfect society. 
Hastily mumbling a few vague exhortations, the gods who rewarded Shen 
Te nip back to heaven. Their commandments clearly don't work — but 
whose will? Must good ends always be achieved by base means? An 
epilogue, rashly omitted in the present production, poses the question 
to the audience, inviting it to choose between changing human nature 
and changing the world. Brecht implies, of course, a Marxist solution: 
let us change human nature by changing the world; and China embarked 
on just such an experiment several years after he wrote the play. 

First fill a man's stomach and then talk to him about morality — 
that is Brecht's springboard, as it was in The Threepenny Opera; but 
the new dive is far more sophisticated. Macheath, after all, was a crimi- 
nal; Shui Ta causes far more pain without ever breaking the law. Rather 
the opposite: "he" is regarded by the authorities as a pillar of society. 
Similarly, the worthless pilot earns promotion in Shui Ta's sweat-shop 
by an impeccably moral act; he refuses to accept from a kindly time- 
keeper more money than is his due, and thereby wins the boss's eternal 
respect. This is a scene of the most biting subtlety. 

At every turn emotion floods through that celebrated dam, the 
"alienation-effect." More and more one sees Brecht as a man whose feel- 
ings were so violent that he needed a theory to curb them. Human sym- 
pathy, time and again, smashes his self-imposed dyke: when Shen Te 
meets her airman on a park-bench in the rain; when she learns (dis- 
guised as Shui Ta) that he means to abandon her; when, alone on the 
stage, she shows her unborn son the glory of the world; and, most poign- 
antly, at the close, when she begs the gods for aid and enlightenment. 

In George Devine's production the great challenge is partly muffed. 
Honourably bent on directing his cast along cool, detached Brechtian 
lines, Mr. Devine forgets that the Brechtian method works only with 



148 P^^t I: The British Theatre 

team-actors of great technical maturity. With greener players it looks 
like casual dawdling. Conscious of my heresy, I wish he had chosen an 
easier style and presented the play as a sort of Teahouse of the October 
Revolution. Teo Otto's tubular setting would still have fitted, and Eric 
Bentley's clumsy translation would, I hope, have come in for drastic re- 
vision. Anything would be preferable to hearing Mr. Bentley's Ameri- 
canisms spoken with North Country inflections. 

Peggy Ashcroft, in the taxing central role, is only halfway fine. As 
Shui Ta, flattened by a tight half-mask which helps her to produce a 
grinding nasal voice, she is superb; nothing tougher has been heard since 
Montgomery last harangued the troops. Yet her Shen Te won't do. Sexily 
though she blinks, all hints of whorish earthiness are expunged by those 
teU-tale Kensingtonian vowels. What remains is a portrait of Aladdin as 
it might be sketched by Princess Badroulbadour. 

All the same, the production must not be missed by anyone inter- 
ested in hearing the fundamental problems of human (as opposed to 
Western European) existence discussed in the theatre. In the context of 
our present prosperity, these problems may appear irrelevant. They are 
still cruelly relevant to more than half of the inhabited world. 



Nude with Violin, by Noel Coward, at the Globe. 

When Sir John Gielgud appears in modern dress on the London 
stage for only the second time since 1940, selecting as his vehicle Noel 
Coward's Nude with Violin, one's expectations are naturally low. Sir 
John never acts seriously in modern dress; it is the lounging attire in 
which he relaxes between classical bookings; and his present perform- 
ance as a simpering valet is an act of boyish mischief, carried out with 
extreme elegance and the general aspect of a tight, smart, walking um- 
brella. 

The play of his choice is at once brief and interminable. Its target is 
modern art. The three celebrated "periods" of a great modern painter, 
recently dead, are exposed as the work of three untalented hirelings — a 
mad Russian princess, a tipsy chorus-girl and (culminating joke) a Ne- 
gro. Kathleen Harrison's Cockney chorine is game, and Patience Col- 
lier's rambhng Russian is game, set, and match; but the rest of the cast 
resembles a cocktail party at which the gin has run out. The conclusion 
recalls those triumphant Letters to the Editor which end: "What has 
this so-called 'Picasso' got that my six-year-old daughter hasn't?" 



Part I : The British Theatre 149 

When not boggling, my imagination went in for speculation. Mr. 
Coward's career can also be divided into three periods. The first began 
in the twenties: it introduced his revolutionary technique of "Persi- 
flage," the pasting of thin strips of banter on to cardboard. In the early 
thirties we encounter his second or "Kiplingesque" period, in which he 
obtained startling effects by the method now known as "kippling" — i.e., 
the pasting of patriotic posters on to strips of banter pasted on card- 
board. (The masterpieces of this period, Cavalcade and In Which We 
Serve, have been lost. The damp got at the cardboard.) 

In 1945 a social holocaust destroyed all but a few shreds of the 
banter. In the third and final phase a new hand is discernible. Is it Mr. 
Coward's? The question must be faced. Where Mr. Coward was concise, 
the newcomer brandishes flabby polysyllables; and the clumsiness of his 
stagecraft was described by one expert last week as "a dead give-away." 
An American student of the last three "Coward" plays has declared 
that they may have been written by Ethel M. Dell. Nude with Violin, on 
the other hand, with its jocular references to at least thirty place-names, 
both homely and exotic, tends to support the theory that the new crypto- 
Coward is in reality a Departures Announcer at London Airport. I take 
no sides. On this last, decisive period I reserve judgment. We are too 
close to it. Much, much too close. 



The Bald Prima Donna and The New Tenant, by Eugene 

loNESCO, AT THE ArTS. 

The new double bill of plays by Eugene lonesco is explosively, lib- 
eratingly funny. Its first half is a maniacal assault on the banality of Eng- 
lish suburbia. A family is discussed, every member of which, past or 
present, is named Bobby Watson; a young couple are alarmed to find, 
after lengthy mutual cross-examination, that they have been married for 
years; and the arrival of the Captain of the Fire Brigade completes a 
reductio that is not only ad absurdum but way beyond it. 

Yet this is not the untethered nonsense of Lear; rather, it is a loony 
parody of the aunts and uncles in The Family Reunion, uncertain of who 
they are and of why they exist. M. lonesco's petits bourgeois are so 
wildly confused that quite often they get their sexes mixed : the only per- 
son secure in her identity is the maid, who sternly declares: "My name 
is Sherlock Holmes." For such people words have no verifiable mean- 
ing, since they relate to nothing real, and the climax is an orgy of non- 



150 Part I : The British Theatre 

sequiturs, at the height of which someone screams: "Stop grinding my 
teeth!" Acted with a swifter abandon, and stripped of the cuckoo-clock 
with which its director, Peter Wood, has facetiously seen fit to adorn it, 
this little masterpiece would be irresistible. 

The New Tenant is a macabre anecdote about a man who moves 
into an attic room and fills it with so much furniture that all access to 
the outside world is blotted out; happy and submerged, his last wish is 
that the light should be turned off. The nature of sanity is to move out 
into the world; the nature of disease is to be drawn back into the womb, 
to which dark constriction M. lonesco's hero is inescapably attracted. 
Nowhere is there a fuller and funnier portrait of introversion. Robert 
Eddison plays the part to perfection, and splits with Michael Bates the 
lion's share of a memorable evening. 

(1956) 



The Demolition Expert. 

He is six years dead, and the old saw holds truer than ever: nobody 
who did not know Shaw personally ever loved him. The Memorial Fund 
in his honour aimed at £250,000: it received £.407. One doubts if Shaw 
would have cared. He was the Bradman of letters: he scored all round 
the wicket off all kinds of ideological bowling; he hit centuries off all 
causes and men that were idle or unrealistic; but though he took great 
pains to command respect, he took none at all to inspire affection. 

In most writers, style is a welcome, an invitation, a letting-down of 
the drawbridge between the artist and the world. Shaw had no time for 
such ruses. Unlike most of his countrymen, he abominated charm, which 
he regarded as evidence of chronic temperamental weakness. (Much 
the same is true of Swift, who likewise despised emotional cheating: 
and both men, by coincidence, found an outlet for their repressed feel- 
ings by using baby-talk in letters to women named Stella.) We may ad- 
mire Shaw, but, in public at least, he will not aUow us to embrace him. 

He praises little except at something else's expense. What spurred 
him was his capacity for being outraged. Righteous indignation at the 
follies of mankind infallibly roused his adrenal glands: the more indig- 
nant he became, the more he rejoiced; and the more he rejoiced, the 
more brilliant he became. But human folly was always the key to his 
treasures. "Fifty million Frenchmen," he once said, "can't be right." 

Whatever the majority beUeved, Shaw derided; whatever it re-. 



Part I : The British Theatre 151 

jected, he applauded. At a time when most people assumed that arms 
manufacturers were cynical profiteers, Shaw gave them Undershaft, an 
arms manufacturer who was also a radical philosopher; and revolu- 
tionaries, in Shavian plays, usually turn out to be capitahsts at heart. 
Whenever he found that he had fifty million people behind him, he 
would abruptly change sides and denounce his supporters as servile 
dupes. He did this more and more in his later years, when many of the 
causes he championed had been won. Hating to be one of a crowd, he 
would deliberately isolate himself by defending dictatorship and con- 
doning, in the preface to Geneva, the extermination of minorities. 

The only lyrical thing about Shaw is his fury: his attacks on Irving 
and Shakespeare are prose poems of Olympian invective. His style on 
such occasions flashes like a scythe. It is when he goes in for affirmations 
that he makes us qualmish. His vision of the future, in Back to Methuse- 
lah, is frankly repellent: creative evolution, he enthusiastically predicts, 
will produce a race of oviparous Struldbruggs who live for ever and 
whose only joy is pure cerebration. 

As a private citizen, he loved the arts, but as a public playwright, 
he could not create an artist. Dubedat is a parasite, and Marchbanks a 
hollow fraud — Shaw could not conceal his impatience with them. His 
puritan, muscular, moor-tramping soul (superbly mirrored in Higgins' 
hymn to the intellect in Pygmalion) bred in him a loathing of all things, 
whether poems or gadgets, that were designed to comfort the human 
condition without actively trying to improve it. "Think and work" was 
his only positive advice. It is a doctrine often heard from the mouths of 
those who are scared to feel. 

Yet he was without doubt a great writer, greater than many whose 
emotional range was far wider and deeper than his. In the years of his 
maturity — between 1895, when he wrote his first piece of drama criti- 
cism for The Saturday Review, and 1919, when Heartbreak House was 
published — he attempted, and almost pulled off, two mountainous 
tasks: he cleared the English stage of humbug, and the English mind of 
cant. (They both returned later, but as guests, not as residents.) As a 
demolition expert he has no rivals, and we are being grossly irrelevant if 
we ask a demolition expert, when his work is done: "But what have you 
created?" It is like expecting a bull-dozer to build the Tower of Pisa, or 
condemning a bayonet for not being a plough. Shaw's genius was for in- 
tellectual slum-clearance, not for town planning. As far as modern so- 
ciety is concerned, he came to scoff, and remained to scoff. 

We sit through his plays unshocked by most of what he meant to be 
shocking, embarrassed by his efforts to make us exclaim "Whatever 



152 Part I: The British Theatre 

next!" but continuously diverted by the sheer mad Irishness of the man: 
by his crazy irrelevancies, his sudden interpolations of surrealism — as 
when, in Misalliance, a young assassin hides in a portable Turkish bath 
from which he emerges to declare: "I am the son of Lucinda Titmus." 
Shaw's sanity nowadays tends to be tiresome. His lunacy will always be 
irresistible. 

But does he ever move us? Only once, I think: with the speech in 
which St. Joan reminds herself that "God is alone." That came from 
Shaw's heart, and goes straight to ours. Otherwise, if Chaucer is the fa- 
ther of English literature, Shaw is the spinster aunt. By this I do not 
mean to imply that he was sexless — St. John Ervine's new biography, if 
it does nothing else, should squash that myth for ever. It is only in his 
writing that the aunt in him rises up, full of warnings, wagged fingers, 
and brandished umbrellas. How many of his letters contain phrases 
like: "It is no good your trying to excuse your infamous conduct . . ."! 

This is the true auntly note, and the psychiatrists may not be wrong 
when they describe it as filial revenge. Shaw's mother, a cold woman, 
ignored and neglected him; and he was bent on outdoing her in indif- 
ference to the common code of human sympathy; on proving that his 
heartlessness could exceed even hers. As a man, he was often generous 
and compassionate. As a writer, the chill sets in. You thought that was 
cruel and clinical? he seems to be saying; just wait till you hear this — it 
will show you that I love you all even less than you ever suspected. 

Shaw was unique. An Irish aunt so gorgeously drunk with wit is 
something English literature will never see again. But there is fruit for 
the symbolist in the fact that, proHfic as he was, he left no children. 

Oh! My Papa/, at the Garrick. 

The most memorable feature of Oh! My Papa!, an imported Swiss 
musical of multiple authorship, is that it contains no yodelling. Other- 
wise it conforms exactly to the English image of the Swiss as a nation of 
merry, gluttonous half-wits, full of Gemiitlichkeit and boomps-a-daisy. 
Since my Swiss friends are few, I have no idea whether the picture is 
faithful; but I am sure that a monograph must some day be written on 
the subject of non-English-speaking national stereotypes in the English 
theatre. The Teutonic nations alone would be a rewarding field of 
study. I have carried out a preliminary survey, and I pass on the results 
to anyone contemplating a full-length thesis. 



Part I: The British Theatre 153 

In English plays, good Teutons are Teutons who express them- 
selves with the utmost awkwardness, using only the shortest words: e.g., 
"I am here now three days. There is hate." The bad Teuton gives him- 
self away every time by the presumptuous fluency with which he speaks 
English. "You will forgive me if I indulge myself in a cognac before din- 
ner? It is — how do you say? — unsmart, but, in the words of one of my 
country's proverbs, it kennels the black dog of despair." Any Teuton 
who talks Uke that will be up to no good before the act is over; if Ger- 
man, he will probably turn out to be a spy. 

Exceptions are sometimes made in the case of Austrians, who are 
allowed to be literate because they are so harmlessly gay. All stage Aus- 
trians were born in Ruritania. They have a child-like enthusiasm for 
everything they see, and at most of what they see they wink. They trip 
over the hazards of our so difficult language (vide Autumn Crocus, pas- 
sim), but beneath their accents they are reasonable fellows, ready to 
fight for the right they adore. Comic Teutons, of any nationality, are al- 
ways provided with phonetic dialogue that suggests a mad mating of 
Greta Garbo and Tony Weller: e.g., "I vos joose vondering. 'Ow would 
ze wife react if, vun day, you bring 'ome — a strange vooman?" That is a 
verbatim quote from a recent and very successful farce, Samuel French 
edition. Later in the same play the EngHsh hero threatened to "brechen 
das necken" of the alien upstart, and no vonder. 

To assist the playwrights of the future, I have compiled a speech 
that can be used, with appropriate variations, by any good, safe, simple 
Teuton — i.e., any native of Austria, Switzerland, Scandinavia, or the 
Low Countries. It goes like this: 

Ach yes, my little Elizabet. It is good to be at home in the 
spring-time. It is good to look up at the sky and hear the cow-bells 
[goat-bells, reindeer-bells] across the valley. My father, he say 
that all of life is like the bursting of a crocus [tulip, edelweiss] 
bud; and when comes the spring, we make the great festival in the 
village. All the young boys and maidens, they dance by the lake 
[dike, fjord], and when the moon is high they are making the 
dumsplacket. Ach, I forget, you do not know what is the dum- 
splacket. It is — you permit? — like this. (He tilts a lighted candle 
directly above Elizabet's head. As the wax drips onto her brow he 
smiles and kisses her gently.) And then — they shout and dance, 
dance until the legs can no more carry them. These are my people, 
little Elizabet. There I belong. 



154 Part I : The British Theatre 



Precious Lillie. 

Debrett's Peerage, a thick, comely, and infallible volume, correctly 
refers to Beatrice Gladys Lillie by her married name, Lady Peel. Who's 
Who in the Theatre is also thick and comely, but it is not quite infallible, 
and one of the most fallible things about it is its habit, in edition after 
edition, of describing Miss Lillie as an "actress." Technically, I suppose 
the blunder might be defended, since she has been known to impinge on 
the legitimate stage; in 1921 she appeared in Up in Mabel's Room and 
eleven years later played the Nurse in Shaw's Too True to Be Good. 
But these were transient whims. To call her an actress first and foremost 
is rather like calhng Winston Churchill a bricklayer who has dabbled in 
pontics. If acting means sinking your own personality into somebody 
else's, Beatrice Lilhe has never acted in her Hfe. There may be some me- 
chanical means of disguising that true and tinny voice, or of suppressing 
that cockeyed nonchalance; but the means might very well involve the 
use of masks and gags, and the end would not be worth it. She would 
never be much good at impersonation. One of her recurrent delusions is 
that she is a mistress of dialects, but in fact the only one she has really 
mastered is her own brand of Berkeley Square Canadian; and she can 
hardly open a door on stage without squaring up to the operation as if 
she were about to burgle a safe. 

To some extent, an actress can be judged by measuring her per- 
formance against the character she is meant to be playing; but there is 
nothing against which to measure Miss Lillie. She is sui generis. She re- 
sembles nothing that ever was, and to see her is to experience, every 
time, the simple joy of discovery that might come to an astronomer who 
observed, one maddened night, a new and disorderly comet shooting 
backward across the firmament. But if she is not an actress, no more is 
she a parodist, as some of her fans insist; she parodies nothing and no 
one except herself. Nor does she belong in the main stream of North 
American female comics. Almost without exception, American come- 
diennes get their laughs by pretending to be pop-eyed, man-hunting 
spinsters. Miss Lillie is as far removed from these as a butterfly is from 
a guided missile. The miracle is that this non-acting non-satirist has man- 
aged to become the most achingly funny woman on earth. 

Twentieth-century show business has a small and incomparable 
elite: the streamlined international entertainers of the twenties and thir- 
ties. Noel Coward, Gertrude Lawrence, Maurice Chevalier, Alfred Lunt 



Part I : The British Theatre 155 

and Lynn Fontanne were among the founder-members of this shining 
and exclusive gang. Miss Lillie is the Commonwealth representative. 
She was born fifty-eight years ago in Toronto, the second daughter of 
John Lillie, a volatile Irish schoolmaster who had served in the British 
Army under Kitchener. The first recorded event in her life was her sum- 
mary ejection, at the age of eight, from the choir of the local Presbyte- 
rian church: It seems she upset the congregation by pulling faces during 
the hymns. Both her father, who died in 1933, and her mother, who lives 
in a Thames-side house near London, achieved an early and lasting 
tolerance of their child's eccentricities. Sensing that she had something 
to express, but not knowing exactly what it was, they sent her to a man 
named Harry Rich — of whom nothing else is known — for lessons in ges- 
ture. She loathed the lessons, but they stuck, and many of the odder 
poses in which she nowadays finds herself are directly attributable to 
Mr. Rich. 

At fifteen she left school and embarked with her mother and sister 
for England, with the idea of becoming a child soprano. Her official rep- 
ertoire included such ballads as "I Hear You Calling Me" and "Until," 
but secretly she and her sister Muriel were rehearsing something a little 
wilder, entitled "The Next Horse I Ride On I'm Going to Be Tied On." 
This clandestine seed was later to bear lunatic fruit; for the moment, 
however, it got nowhere. 

Her career as a straight singer languished until the summer of 
1914, when she was engaged for a week at the Chatham Music Hall 
on the outskirts of London. Here she sang Irving Berlin's "When I Lost 
You," and the audience reaction indicated that she had lost them for 
good. Without much hope, she attended an audition held by the Anglo- 
French impresario Andre Chariot. Idly, she guyed a serious romantic 
number, smiled wanly, and was about to leave the theatre when Chariot, 
in a state verging on apoplexy, seized her arm and offered her forty-two 
dollars a week to appear in his next revue, Not Likely! She accepted, 
and soon the panic was on. Chariot adored and fostered the madness of 
her method, constantly giving her bigger spots, and it was under his ban- 
ner that she made her triumphant Broadway debut in Chariot's Revue 
of 1924. 

Around this time she had her hair cut off, for reasons that may give 
some hint of the devious way her mind works. With Michael Arlen, 
H. G. Wells, Frederick Lonsdale, and Lonsdale's two daughters, she was 
cruising on Lord Beaverbrook's yacht. The Lonsdale girls were close- 
cropped, and Miss Lillie, who favored plaits, was powerfully impressed 
by the advantages of short hair for swimming. Back in London she or- 



156 P^^t I: The British Theatre 

dered her coiffeur to give her what would now be known as a brush cut. 
Only when he had finished did it occur to her that there was more to life 
than swimming. For a while she wore false plaits attached to her ears by 
rubber bands. One day the elastic snapped, and she has remained, ever 
since, cropped for immersion. Nowadays she hides her hair beneath a 
bright pink fez. There is no good reason for this, either. It is just one 
idee fixe on top of another. 

Meanwhile, she had fallen in love. In 1920 Robert Peel, a young 
and toweringly handsome great-grandson of Sir Robert Peel, resigned 
his commission in the Guards and married Chariot's zany soubrette. 
They spent a raffish honeymoon at Monte Carlo, winning $25,000 at 
the tables a few hours after arriving and losing $30,000 a few hours be- 
fore departing. In 1925 Robert's father, the fourth baronet, died, and 
Miss Lillie became Lady Peel. Her husband, a man of devouring ener- 
gies, was at various times a sheep farmer in Australia and a race-horse 
owner in England. During the slump he generously formed an orchestra 
of unemployed miners and toured the country with it, often losing as 
much as £.500 a week. He died in 1934, leaving one son. Eight years 
later the young Sir Robert, who had just passed his twenty-first birth- 
day, was killed when the British destroyer Hermes was sunk by Japanese 
dive bombers in the Indian Ocean. His mother received the news in a 
Manchester dressing room, where she was putting on make-up to appear 
in a new Cochran revue. It is one of the paradoxes of the theatre that 
though every actor's ambition is to stop the show, his instructions are 
that it must go on. The revue went on that night with Miss Lillie clown- 
ing on schedule and wishing herself ten thousand miles away. There- 
after an inner withdrawal took place; since her son's death she has 
entered into no binding personal relationships with anyone. 

In forty years on the stage she has been seen in nearly forty shows, 
many of them bearing prankish, exclamatory titles hke Cheep! and Oh! 
Joy! and most of them remembered chiefly for her part in them. Apart 
from the war years, when she sang for the troops in the Mediterranean 
area, she has seldom been far away from the big money. The movies 
have intermittently attracted her, but, like Coward and the Lunts, she 
has never thought of depending on them for a living. Pre-war residents 
of Hollywood remember her vividly, swinging an enormous handbag 
within which there rattled a motley haul of jewelry known as "The Peel 
Polls." For a talent so deeply spontaneous, the stage was always the best 
place. In New York, just before the war, she was paid $8,000 for a week 
at the Palace, and today one imagines even Las Vegas baulking at her 
cabaret fee. 



Part I : The British Theatre 157 

Her title sits drolly on her, like a tiara on an emu, and for a certain 
kind of audience there is an irresistible savour in the spectacle of a baro- 
net's wife shuffling off to Buffalo. There have, however, been moments 
of embarrassment. In 1936, billed as Lady Peel, Miss Lillie appeared in 
an Ohio city and rashly chose as her opening number a travesty of a sub- 
urban snob. "Ladies and gentlemen," she began, "I'm sure you will ap- 
preciate what a comedown this is for me — me that's always 'ad me own 
'orses. . . ." Few acts can have fallen flatter. Many women in the 
house began to sniff audibly, and at the end of the monologue, accord- 
ing to Miss Lillie, some attempt was made to take a collection to sustain 
her in her fight against poverty. 

Offstage she leads a fairly intense social life, and has arguably slept 
through more hours of daylight than of dark. Her conversation is an un- 
punctuated flow of irrelevancies which only acute ears can render into 
sense. As a maker of epigrams her rating is low. It is rumoured that she 
once said of a tactless friend that "he doesn't know the difference be- 
tween tongue-in-cheek and foot-in-mouth," but remarks hke that need 
a degree of premeditation to which she is a stranger. She excels at the 
casual impromptu, as when a pigeon flew in at the window of her apart- 
ment and she, looking up, briskly inquired: "Any messages?" To sur- 
prise her friends, she will go to considerable lengths. Her last Christmas 
present to Noel Coward was a baby alligator, to whose neck she at- 
tached a label reading: "So what else is new?" Last year she stood for 
several hours on a draughty street corner in Liverpool in order to wave 
maniacally at the Duke of Edinburgh as he drove by with the Queen. 
She received from the carriage a royal double-take, which she regarded 
as ample compensation. At parties, with a little pressing, she will try out 
her newest hallucinations, nursery rhymes villainously revamped or bi- 
zarre attempts at mimicry; I once saw her spread-eagled on top of an 
upright piano, pretending to be Marilyn Monroe. 

Some of her leisure time is spent painting, a difficult art for which 
she has evolved impossible working habits. "I do children's heads out of 
my nut," she told an interviewer. "I paint on the floor and show my work 
on the piano in the dark. I call myself Beatrice Van Gone." She habitu- 
ally uses as canvasses the cardboard lids of laundry boxes. One of 
her sitters was the child actor Brandon de Wilde. He is also one of 
her closest confidants. Whenever Miss LiUie is in New York, she calls 
up Brandon and the two journey to Coney Island, where they fre- 
quently end up in the Tunnel of Love. A radio commentator once asked 
Brandon what Miss Lillie did in the tunnel. "It's very dark in there," the 
child explained, as to a child, "so naturally she doesn't do anything." 



158 Parti: The British Theatre 

De Wilde's ingenuous imagination appeals strongly to Miss LiUie, who 
has a great deal of urchin in her and very little grande dame. She 
also has the kind of knockdown spontaneity that one associates with 
Zen masters, together with something much more mysterious — that 
ambiguous, asexual look that so often recurs among the greatest per- 
formers. 

Her last show. An Evening with Beatrice Lillie, took three quar- 
ters of a million dollars at the Broadway box office three seasons ago, 
and then ran for eight successful months in Britain. It enshrined her art 
in what seems likely to be its final form. The rebuke to Maud for her 
rottenness, the lament about wind round my heart — they were all there, 
presented with a relaxed finesse that astonished even her oldest eulo- 
gists. She looked like Peter Pan as Saul Steinberg might sketch him, and 
the only phrase for her face was one that a French critic used many years 
ago to describe Rejane — "une petite jrimousse eveillee," which means, 
in James Agate's rough translation, "a wide-awake little mug." A su- 
preme economy distinguished all she did. By twirling four Oriental 
fingers, she could imply a whole handspring, and instead of underhning 
her gags in red pencil she could bring down the house with a marginal 
tick. For any line that struck her as touching on the sentimental she 
would provide a withering facial comment, as if to say (the expression 
is one of her pets): "Get me!" She would survey the audience with 
wintry amazement, until it began to wonder why it had come; she 
would then overwhelm it with some monstrous act of madness, such as 
wearing an osprey feather fan as a hat, banging her head against the 
proscenium arch, or impersonating Pavlova and a roller-skating bear, 
one after the other, in a sketch bearing no relation either to ballet or 
zoology. 

Once, in an effort at self-analysis, she said: "I guess it's my nose 
that makes them laugh," but the explanation is as perfunctory as the 
nose. One thing is certain: she wrecks the old theory that all great clowns 
have a breaking heart. Miss Lillie has no more pathos than Ohrbach's 
basement. Nothing on stage seems to her tragic, though many things 
arouse in her a sort of cool curiosity. If a ton of scenery were to fall at 
her feet, she would regard the debris with interest, but not with dis- 
may; after a light shrug and a piercing little smile, she would go on with 
whatever she was doing. (In wartime this insouciance was a rare asset. 
Quentin Reynolds, who was often her companion during the bUtz, testi- 
fies that in the midst of the bombing her demeanour was positively 
sunny. ) She reminds one of a bony, tomboyish little girl attending what, 
if her behavior does not improve, will surely be her last party. Her atti- 



Part I : The British Theatre 159 

tude toward events, if she has one, might be summed up in the com- 
ment: "Hmmmm . . ." 

I have two theories about her: one about what she does, and an- 
other about the way she does it. What she has been doing for the last 
forty years is conducting guerrilla warfare against words as a means of 
communication. Having no message to convey, she has no need of lan- 
guage as most of us understand it, so she either abandons words alto- 
gether or presents them in combinations aberrant enough to crack a 
ouija board. Faced with the drab possibility of consecutive thought, she 
draws herself up to her full lunacy. She will do anything to avoid mak- 
ing sense — lapse into a clog dance, trap her foot under an armchair, or 
wordlessly subside beneath the weight of a mink coat. 

Mime attracts her as an alternative to words. This imperial urchin 
can let winsome candour, beady-eyed tartness, and appalled confusion 
chase each other across her face in a matter of seconds. Consider the 
frosty, appraising regard she bestows on the waistcoat of the huge bari- 
tone who suddenly interrupts her act to sing "Come into the Garden, 
Maud" straight down her throat. Though she takes an early opportunity 
to seize a chair in self-defence, she betrays none of her apprehension in 
words. 

The traditional comic formula is: Tell them what you're going to 
do; do it; then tell them you've done it. Miss Lillie's is: Tell them what 
you might do; do something else; then deny having done it. Even the 
famous purchase of the double-damask dinner napkins embodies her 
basic theme: the utter futility of the English language. Nobody is a more 
devout anthologist of the whimpers, sighs, and twitters than the human 
race emits in its historic struggle against intelligibility. It is not surpris- 
ing that she turns to French when delivering her demented salute to 
the home life of cats: "Bonjour, all the little kittens all over the world!" 
When someone in another number fails to understand a question, she 
tries German, brusquely demanding: "Sprechen Sie Deutsch?" And once, 
into a Cockney sketch already obscured by her inability to speak Cock- 
ney, she inserted a sudden moan of Italian. If ever a monument is 
erected to her, it should be modelled on the Tower of Babel. She is hke 
Ehza Doolittle at Mrs. Higgins' tea party in Pygmalion, using what 
seems to her perfectly acceptable verbal coinage but to everyone else 
counterfeit gibberish. In certain moods she becomes quite convinced 
that she is an authority on bird talk. Coward once wrote for her a comic 
folk song that contained the line: "And the robin sings ho! on the 
bough." Every time she reached it she would pause. "The robin," she 
would firmly declare, "does not say ho." 



160 P^^t I: ^^^ British Theatre 

In 1954, on a trip to Japan, she visited the Kabuki Theatre and was 
fascinated by what she saw: the colour, the weirdness, and the elabo- 
rate stylization. The idea of using Kabuki technique in a sketch at once 
took hold of her mind, and she was not in the least perturbed when 
someone pointed out that British audiences (for whom the sketch was 
intended) might be slightly befuddled by a parody of something they 
had never seen. Following instinct, she devised a number called "Ka- 
buki Lil." When it was still in the formative stage, by which I mean a 
condition of nightmarish inconsequence, she described it to me: 

"These Kabuki plays, you see, they go on for six months with only 
one intermission. All the women are men, of course, and they're pimply 
furious most of the time, waving swords round their heads and hissing at 
each other. They take off their boots when they come on, and kneel 
down on cushions. There's a lot of work done with cushions, so I shall 
have cushions too. And they play some kind of musical instrument 
that goes right round the back of my neck, only one string, but I ex- 
pect I shall manage. I don't think I shall say a word of English — after 
all, they don't — but I wish I could get hold of one of those terrific ros- 
trums they have in Tokyo that sail right down the aisle and out of the 
theatre. I think they have rollers underneath them, or perhaps it's men? 
Anyway, I think I've got the spirit of the thing. . . ." 

Something was dimly taking shape in the chaos of her mind, but 
what emerged on stage was beyond all imagining. It varied notably from 
night to night, but the general layout remained the same. Miss Lilhe 
shuffled on attired as a geisha, with a knitting needle through her wig 
and a papoose strapped to her back. After performing some cryptic act 
of obeisance, she sat cross-legged on a pile of cushions. Thereafter, for 
about ten minutes, she mewed like an asthmatic sea guU: the sketch con- 
tained not one recognizable word. Tea was served at one point, and the 
star produced from her sleeve a tiny bottle of Gordon's gin with which to 
spike it. From time to time she would grasp a hammer and savagely 
bang a gong, whereupon music would sound, jittery and Oriental. This 
seemed to placate her; until the sixth bang, which evoked from the 
wings a sudden, deafeningly amphfied blast of "Three Coins in the 
Fountain," sung by Frank Sinatra. 

It was while watching this sketch, so pointless, yet so hysterical, 
that I hit on the clue to her method. I reveal it without hesitation, be- 
cause I do not believe that anyone could copy it. The key to Beatrice 
Lillie's success is that she ignores her audience. This is an act of daring 
that amounts to a revolution. Maurice Chevalier was speaking for most 
of his profession when he said in his autobiography: "An artist carries 



Part I: The British Theatre 161 

on throughout his life a mysterious, uninterrupted conversation with his 
public." To get into contact with the dark blur of faces out front is the 
Holy Grail of every personality performer except Miss Lillie, who con- 
verses not with her public but with herself. Belly laughter, for which 
most comedians sweat out their life's blood, only disconcerts her; it is an 
intrusion from another world. She is uniquely alone. Her gift is to repro- 
duce on stage the grievous idiocy with which people behave when they 
are on their own: humming and mumbling, grimacing at the looking 
glass, perhaps even singing into it, hopping, skipping, fiddling with their 
dress, starting and stopping a hundred trivial tasks — looking, in fact, 
definably batty. At these strange pursuits we, the customers, peep and 
marvel, but we are always eavesdroppers; we never "get into the act." 

The theatre is Miss Lillie's hermitage. It is an empty room in which 
she has two hours to kill, and the audience, like Alice, is "just a thing in 
her dream." She is like a child dressing up in front of the mirror, amus- 
ing herself while the grownups are out. The fact that we are amused as 
well proves that she has conquered the rarest of all theatrical arts, the 
art of public solitude, which Stanislavsky said was the key to all great 
acting. To carry it off, as she does, requires a vast amount of sheer nerve 
and more than a whiff of genius, which is really another word for crea- 
tive self-sufficiency. One might add that it probably helps to have had 
experience, at an early age, of pulling faces in church. 

Her future, like her act, seldom looks the same from one day to the 
next. She would like to take her solo show to South America and Asia, 
with a split week in Tibet, where she feels she has many fans. A musical 
has been written for her, based on the life of Madame Tussaud. Its title, 
which she finds hauntingly seductive, is The Works. But wherever her 
choice falls, the queues will form. There is no substitute for this mag- 
netic sprite. She alone can reassure us that from a theatre increasingly 
enslaved to logic the spirit of unreason, of anarchy and caprice, has not 
quite vanished. 



End of a Twelvemonth. 

At this time of thanksgiving and convalescence, when all is hushed 
save for the gentle pop of bursting facial capillaries, it is somehow fitting 
that we should look back on the past year and on to the new. (We can 
uncross our eyes later.) 



1 62 Part I: The British Theatre 

1956 was full of good theatrical auguries. At the Comedy Theatre 
the Lord Chamberlain was smilingly flouted, while from the Royal Court 
there issued a distinct sound of barricades being erected. The Berliner 
Ensemble came, was seen, and overcame; and Angus Wilson, Nigel Den- 
nis, Dylan Thomas, Brendan Behan, and Eugene lonesco were exposed 
for the first time to London audiences. Tyrone Guthrie made Troilus 
and Cressida seem like a new play, and Edith Evans made The Chalk 
Garden seem like a classical revival. Fewer people forgave John Gielgud 
for appearing in Nude with Violin than would have forgiven him five 
years ago. And the play of the year, over which families were split in al- 
most the same way as they were split over Suez, was John Osborne's 
Look Back in Anger, an oasis of reality, as Arthur Miller rightly said, in 
"a theatre hermetically sealed off from Hfe." 

By putting the sex war and the class war on to one and the same 
stage, Mr. Osborne gave the drama a tremendous nudge forwards. 
Much of modern thought outside the theatre has been devoted to making 
Freud shake hands with Marx; within the theatre they are mighty in- 
compatibles. Social plays are traditionally sexless, and plays about sex 
are mostly non-social. Jimmy Porter is politically a liberal and sexually 
a despot. Whether we like him or not, we must concede that he is a char- 
acter with a full set of attitudes, towards society as well as personal rela- 
tions. Others may solve Jimmy's problem: Mr. Osborne is the first to 
state it. No germinal play of comparable strength has emerged since the 
war. 

Assuming that the year's good things bear fruit, what else can one 
predict for 1957? A lot, quite safely. Someone will present a play about 
a homosexual athlete with a millionaire father, whereupon many citi- 
zens will write to the papers mysteriously complaining that they get 
enough of that sort of thing in everyday life without going to the theatre 
for it. A new play by J. B. Priestley will have its premiere in Danzig. 
A famous actor, drawing on the rich experience of having played two 
modern roles in ten years, wiU declare that the Stanislavsky method 
("all this soul-searching and pretending to be a lettuce") is ruining mod- 
ern drama. The London Shakespeare method will meanwhile ruin fifty- 
six young actors, several of whom will be signed on for a second season 
at the Old Vic. A farce entitled Giblets on Parade will begin a four-year 
run at the Whitehall Theatre. Noel Coward will announce the successful 
completion of his five-hundredth Atlantic crossing. 

The estabhshment of drama chairs at English universities will be 
triumphantly opposed on the grounds that the practical study of drama 
neither encourages nor requires intellectual discipline: by this means 



Part I: The British Theatre 1 63 

will be perpetuated the philistine myth that drama is best when most 
brainless. The suggestion that actors, like singers, should keep in train- 
ing will be dismissed as a transatlantic extravagance, Hke good plumb- 
ing; and the virtues of muddling through will be illustrated by reference 
to the Elizabethan theatre. ("So far as actors are concerned, they, as I 
noticed in England, are daily instructed, as it were in a school, so that 
even the most eminent actors have to allow themselves to be instructed 
by the dramatists, which arrangement gives life and ornament to a well- 
written play . . ." — Johannes Rhenanus, writing in 1613.) In spite of 
everything, about four good native plays will be performed and sup- 
ported. None of them, however, is likely to deal seriously with Suez, 
Cyprus, Kenya, the United Nations, the law, the armed forces. Parlia- 
ment, the Press, medicine, jazz, the City, Enghsh cities outside London, 
or London postal districts outside the S.W. and N.W. areas. Two thou- 
sand wish-fulfilling plays will be written about life after the next war. 
Ten will be staged. One will be good. 



Acting from the Inside. 

The British attitude towards acting is what I would call Olympic, If 
we were to win too many gold medals, we would somehow forfeit our 
amateur status; we would rather have one eccentric, preposterous vic- 
tory ("A steeplejack by trade, Les Bowkett trains on cabbage") than 
sweep the board by means of vast, scientific training programmes. Simi- 
larly, we prefer actors who spring seemingly from nowhere to actors 
who come off the "assembly-line" of a school or method. 

Among senior theatricals mistrust of "Method" acting verges on 
hysteria. Actors, they boast, are born, not made: beyond a certain 
stage, training is both useless and undesirable, as futile as trying to edu- 
cate the Bantu. The intensity of this feeling, particularly along the Cow- 
ard-Gielgud axis, hints at a disquiet that has recently spread through- 
out the derriere-garde of the profession. Young actors are abroad, of 
appalling seriousness and assurance, speaking an impenetrably alien 
language with every appearance of understanding it. Reports filter 
through of acting classes, held (if you please) in the morning and at- 
tended, incredibly, by actors who are not out of work. 

The main stronghold of this fifth column is the London Studio, 
founded in August of 1956 by Al Mulock and David de Keyser. Mr. 



1 64 P^^t I: The British Theatre 

Mulock, an American, served his apprenticeship at the Actors' Studio in 
New York, that envied cradle where Lee Strasberg teaches his version of 
the Stanislavsky Method to a select gaggle of alumni that includes 
Marlon Brando, Julie Harris, Eli Wallach, Marilyn Monroe, Rod Steiger, 
and many others who have lately changed the face of Broadway and 
Hollywood. They might, of course, have succeeded anyway. The Method 
does not claim to create talent: it merely teaches talent how to keep fit, 
how to relax, concentrate, and develop with the minimum of wasted en- 
ergy. In a word, it helps the actor to know himself. 

Neither Mr. Mulock nor Mr. de Keyser has a personality as mas- 
sively compelling as that of Mr. Strasberg or EUa Kazan. Their purpose 
is to lay foundations. Twice a week, on Mondays and Thursdays, they 
give professional actors the chance of exposing their craft to the vicari- 
ous scrutiny of Stanislavsky. Already some seventy actors have accepted 
the challenge, among them Geraldine Page, Dorothy Bromley, Denholm 
Elliott, and Kenneth Haigh. Prepared snippets and improvised vignettes 
are performed; after each item Messrs. Mulock and de Keyser interro- 
gate the players, and the audience, about twenty strong, joins in the in- 
quisition. It is like being present at a pubhc rehearsal: on all sides one 
can hear Enghsh reserve cracking, and the noise is healthy. 

The direction of plays has too long been regarded as a furtive, 
magical rite, to be carried out in secret behind locked doors — something 
too fragile to be opened to public inspection. This merely encourages the 
enfeebling heresy that actors are unaccountably different from other 
people, that they shrivel outside a specially protective environment, 
and wince and blink in daylight. The London Studio brings acting out 
into the open. It may thus dispel the self-consciousness, the reluctance to 
make a fool of oneself, the desperate clinging to inhibitions, that account 
for the non-committal tentativeness of so much Enghsh acting. 

Its second great virtue is that it gives actors a common vocabulary. 
It stringently outlaws the grand vague cries of the past, such as "Give it 
more feehng!" and "Don't be so intense!" In matters of terminology it is 
logical and positive. Every scene has a total "action" and every actor 
has a clear "objective." At the climax of Of Mice and Men, for instance, 
George's objective is "to kill Lennie." It is never "verbalised" (i.e., ex- 
pressed in words) or "externalised" (i.e., expressed in action), and it 
must be conveyed without "signalling" or "indicating" (i.e., revealing to 
the audience more than is truthful of what one intends to do) , Emotions 
must never be "general" but always "specific." And the basest error of 
aU is to take as one's objective the urge "to finish the scene" — i.e., to get 
through it as quickly and violently as possible. (Old Vic, please note.) 



Parti: The British Theatre 165 

Technical terminology is always ugly and usually precise. A famous 
American director of the old school recently said to me: "The switch is 
purely verbal. I used to tell actors to be quicker on their cues. Now I 
have to teU them to reach their objectives sooner." But the Method 
means more than that: it insists on knowing why. And this rouses the 
giant, hydra-headed problem. Nobody doubts that Stanislavsky is the 
perfect mentor if we are discussing plays written in the last hundred 
years. But what of the classics? Questions of mcftive seldom worried the 
Elizabethans. When Othello asks lago "why he hath thus ensnared my 
soul and body," the answer is succinct and daunting: 

Demand me nothing: what you know, you know: 
From this time forth I never will speak word. 

Nor does he. We must judge for ourselves. Perhaps lago was clumsily 
suckled by a Negro nurse; but it is hard to see how such an inference 
would help the play. 

To go back even further in time: the Method dwells on the word 
"specific," but the strict and single intent of ancient dramatic art was to 
be "general." Jacques Barzun defines romantic act as "an art of particu- 
lars, of individual exploration and report, of local colour and all-em- 
bracing diversity — or, as we should say to-day, an art that aimed at re- 
alism." For this kind of art the Method is magnificently equipped. Its 
efficacy in drama between Marlowe and Sheridan is something that 
London Studio actors, most of whom have been brought up on Shake- 
speare, are uniquely fitted to explore. But for actors who cherish antiq- 
uity, who dream of hitting the headlines in Greek tragedy or Japanese 
No plays, the answer must be a discreet and regretful no. The Method is 
not for them. Which is no great pity, for such fellows are a backward 
few. 

(i9S7) 



The Purist View. 

Last Sunday at the Old Vic, John Whiting, whose place among 
the most eminent living English playwrights is secure everywhere but in 
England, delivered the annual lecture on "The Art of the Dramatist." 
It was an historic occasion. In the annals of the theatre it may indeed 
come to be regarded as Romanticism's Last Stand, the ultimate cry of 
the artist before being engulfed by the mass, the final protest of individ- 



1 66 P^rt I: The British Theatre 

ualism before being inhaled and consumed by the ogre of popular cul- 
ture. One pictured, as each phrase of Mr. Whiting's elegant jeremiad 
came winging out into the dark, some attenuated hermit saint bravely 
keeping his chin up while being sucked through the revolving doors of a 
holiday camp. Even before he began, I felt I was in the presence of a 
condemned man. There was resignation in the very set of his gentle, 
scolded face, and the expression in his large dark eyes seemed to antici- 
pate, even to embrace, defeat. He stood before us like one lately de- 
scended from an ivory tower, blinking in the glare and bustle of day. 

He spoke exquisitely of the threats to integrity that nowadays en- 
circled the playwright. He rejected with scorn the idea that a writer 
should see himself as the spokesman of a group or class. "The cult of 
the individual," he declared, "is the basis of all art." Today the artist 
was obliged to speak in a "collective voice"; he was obliged to compro- 
mise with "the masses," who lived in a second-hand world filled with 
"colour prints of Van Gogh." 

Everything, we swiftly gathered, militated against Mr. Whiting's 
concept of pure drama. All we were offered in the modern English the- 
atre were plays of "social significance," plays set in concentration camps, 
plays made up of "the idiot mumblings of the half-wit who lives down 
the lane." Instead of looking within themselves for their own unique 
modes of utterance, playwrights were content to reproduce the "direct, 
unornamented speech" of everyday fife. Austerity was no longer prized. 
Instead, fashionable authors (Mr. Whiting did not actually name John 
Osborne) allowed their characters to indulge in long, dishevelled, emo- 
tional outbursts. Three years, he reminded us without rancour, had 
passed since one of his plays had been seen in London; even so, he 
found himself as convinced as ever that it was no part of the author's 
job to surrender to his audience by approaching it on its own terms. A 
play, he said, "has nothing to do with an audience." 

It was hereabouts that I began to wonder whether we were talking 
about the theatre at all. Were we not rather talking about poetry or the 
novel, private arts intended to be sampled by one person at a time? Had 
we not somehow strayed from the drama, a public art which must be ad- 
dressed to hundreds of people at the same time? Somewhere in Mr. 
Whiting's imagination there glows a vision of an ideal theatre where the 
playwright is freed from the necessity of attracting customers, where his 
fastidious cadences are not tainted by exposure to rank plebeian breath. 
It is a theatre without an audience. And it exists — again in Mr. Whiting's 
imagination — as a gesture of defiance against those other, equally myth- 
ical London theatres where socially significant plays about concentration 



Part I: The British Theatre 1 67 

camps are constantly being staged to the vociferous approval of "the 
masses." (Anyone not a playwright belongs, in Mr, Whiting's mind, to 
the masses — who belied, by the way, their imputed stupidity by turning 
up in force to hear his lecture, and by asking at the end a number of sur- 
prisingly literate questions. ) On the whole, I find Mr. Whiting's theatri- 
cal dream-world extremely seductive. He says it exists, and wishes it 
didn't. I know it doesn't, but rather wish it did. There would be few 
complaints from me if the West End were full of realistic contemporary 
plays enthusiastically acclaimed by mass audiences. 

At one point in his lecture, to illustrate the deadness of naturalism, 
Mr. Whiting read out an invented snatch of dialogue such as one might 
hear in a bus-queue. How repetitive! he implied. How drab and dull! 
It was in fact infectiously and rivetingly alive. One longed to hear more. 
I realised then, with a sense of wild frustration, that Mr. Whiting was a 
born playwright determined at all costs not to be a playwright at all. 

(^9S7) 



Amedee, by Eugene Ionesco, at the Arts, Cambridge. 

Many good plays, as James Agate used to say, are built in two 
storeys — a ground floor of realism and a first floor of symbolism. M. 
Ionesco goes further than that: farcical at street level, he is tragic one 
flight up. Amedee is a perfect example of this unique architectural au- 
dacity. 

On the ground floor the play is a macabre farcical anecdote about 
a married couple with an unusual problem. There is a corpse in their 
flat. Neither of them can recall how it got there or who killed it, but its 
presence has kept them indoors for the best part of fifteen years. In one 
corner of the living-room Amedee sits working on a play (average 
annual output: one word). In the opposite corner, at the top of her 
voice, his wife operates a busy telephone switchboard. Meanwhile, the 
corpse, recumbent in the bedroom, begins to grow; and, as if this were 
not inconvenient enough, its growth is accompanied by a sickening 
proliferation of poisonous mushrooms all over the waUs of the apart- 
ment. For Amedee's wife, a short-tempered woman at the best of times, 
it is the last straw when the bedroom doors burst open to admit a pair 
of outsize, cadaverous, and extremely unwelcome feet. 

Before long the room is full of mushrooms, feet, and furniture, a 
scenic demand brilliantly met by Peter Zadek's production and Feliks 



168 P^'t'i I: The British Theatre 

Topolski's designs; and the harassed couple are discussing "How to Get 
Rid of It" (the play's alternative title) in tones that are certainly ex- 
asperated, but no more so than if the problem in hand were a dead 
mouse or a smell in the sink. Their very imperviousness to calamity is 
what makes Amedee and his wife so persistently funny. The horror of 
their plight simply does not occur to them; if they are irritated, it is more 
with each other than with the corpse. The whole mood of the play is like 
Alexander Woollcott's famous tale of the housemaster who, coming 
upon a mutilated torso in the school boot-cupboard, briskly remarked: 
"Some dangerous clown has been here." 

The denouement, never lonesco's strongest point, is a messy phan- 
tasmagoria that is probably as unstageable as Mr. Zadek makes it seem. 
The upshot of it is that Amedee pulls the house down and plunges to his 
death, in which condition he takes on the appearance of the corpse he 
was trying to extricate. 

And now, if you will just step upstairs to the symboUc level, watch- 
ing out for the dustbins that Mr. Beckett has carelessly left on the land- 
ing, we will examine the meaning of what we have just been laughing at; 
for up here sits lonesco the puppet-master, inscrutably pulling the strings. 
Something, in the bourgeois marriage whose last hours we have wit- 
nessed, died long ago. Neither partner will take the blame for it; but the 
wife protests her innocence a thought too shrilly; and this, coupled with 
the fact that the victimised male is a pet lonesco figure, is enough to con- 
vince me that she is the principal culprit. But what has she killed? What 
is the dead thing that won't lie down, that so hilariously tumesces? A 
tableau from the play springs to mind: Amedee, the writer unable to 
communicate, vainly repeating the two lines which represent fifteen 
years' work, while his wife sits at the switchboard, communicating like 
mad in glad contrapuntal cries of: "I'm putting you through! I'm putting 
you through!" What has died is the creative spark that was the real 
Amedee, and the tragedy is that he doesn't know it. In the loveless hot- 
house of his marriage the dead tissue has flowered into a cancerous life 
of its own, which eventually destroys him. Only as he dies does he real- 
ise that the corpse in the bedroom was himself. 

If I have made the play sound obscure, I have blundered. Its mean- 
ing is always there, staring at us through the veil of glittering farce that 
disguises it; and such is lonesco's mastery that we are most aware of it 
when our laughter is loudest. This, the best of his plays that I have seen, 
is also the neatest proof that his philosophy of despair is pure humbug. 
A man who triumphantly succeeds in communicating his belief that it is 
impossible to communicate anything is in the grip, I cannot help think- 



Part I: The British Theatre 1 69 

ing, of a considerable logical error. The scratch cast is led ably by Kath- 
leen Michael and unforgettably by Jack MacGowran, who resembles (if 
you can imagine such a thing) a panicky Manolete. 



Pausing on the Stairs. 

Would you know the shortest way to bad playwriting? I will tell 
you. It is to begin with a great theme, a Grand Purpose, in the hope that 
it will throw forth, of its own essential energy, such desirable by-prod- 
ucts as character and dialogue. Woe to him who so far misunderstands 
the nature of drama as to suppose that abstractions can breed human 
beings! The diary of such a man might read: "Really must decide on 
Theme tomorrow. Torn between Problems of Power, Loneliness, Colour, 
H-Bomb Threat, and Revolutionary Spirit in Eastern Europe. All ma- 
jor, surely? At least they can't say I'm ignoring the crisis of our time. 
Have worked out just what I feel about all five Themes, so the big crea- 
tive effort is over. All that remains is the donkey-work of filling in dia- 
logue and characters. But which Theme to choose? Went out for walk to 
clear head. Strange encounter with landlady on stairs: she said I looked 
like George III and tittered. SiUy woman." 

Useless, of course, to point out that the genesis of good plays is 
hardly ever abstract; that it tends, on the contrary, to be something as 
concrete and casual as a glance intercepted, a remark overheard, or an 
insignificant news item buried at the bottom of page three. Yet it is by 
trivialities like these that the true playwright's blood is fired. They spur 
him to story-telling; they bring on the narrative fit that is his glory and 
his only credential. Show me a congenital eavesdropper with the instincts 
of a peeping Tom, and I will show you the makings of a dramatist. Only 
the makings, of course: curiosity about people is merely the beginning 
of the road to the masterpiece : but if that curiosity is sustained you will 
find, when the rules have been mastered and the end has been reached, 
that a miracle has happened. Implicit in the play, surging between and 
beneath the lines, will be exactly what the author feels about the Major 
Issues of his Time. 

To take off from a generality is an infertile exercise, as if a man 
should carry about with him the plan of some mighty edifice, hoping that 
if he stares at it long enough the human beings needed to build it will 
spring full-grown from the parchment. Vain hope, for the secret of life is 



1 70 Part I: The British Theatre 

not there. It hides where it has always hidden, in the most obvious and 
unguarded place. It lies somewhere within that staircase eccentric, my 
diarist's landlady, who hkened him to George III and tittered. Study 
her, or your wife, or the grocer; probe them patiently; and you will find, 
to your resounding amazement, that you have written a play about 
power, loneliness, colour, bomb-fright, and revolution to boot. Would 
you know the shortest way to good playwriting? Pause on the stairs. 



Speaking Out. 

In the past twenty years the great majority of successful playwrights 
have abandoned the idiocy of pretending that the audience does not 
exist. It is there: why not speak to it? Our Town, I Remember Mama, 
The Glass Menagerie, Teahouse of the A ugust Moon, A View from the 
Bridge, No Time for Sergeants, Edward, My Son, Bobosse, and L'Oeuf 
(Felicien Marceau's new Paris success) are a few of many recent exam- 
ples. Messrs. Wilder and Miller use the technique for choric purposes; 
the speaker is only peripherally involved in the action. The others take a 
bolder course; the speaker is the protagonist. 

I have heard this device described as "fish fur," a phrase employed 
by advertising men to denote irrelevant adornment. I disagree. It seems 
to me a necessary return to the well-spring of drama, which began when 
one articulate man sought to share his experiences with his fellows, act- 
ing out the bits that were actable, and narrating the rest. When a man 
steps out from the curtain and addresses me, I feel at once welcome and 
engaged. In the theatre of realistic illusion the curtain often rises on an 
empty room, and it generally takes me at least twenty minutes to feel 
completely at home. Playwrights who follow the first-person trend are 
not merely aping a vogue: they are moving with history. 

(1951) 



The Balcony, by Jean Genet, at the Arts. 

The great virtue of Jean Genet's The Balcony is that it seeks to re- 
late sexual habits to social institutions. According to M. Genet, the bish- 
op's mitre, themonardi^ sceptre, the judge's robes, and the general's 
jackboots are symHols that inspire common men to sexual fantasies of 



Part I: The British Theatre 171 ^ 

. /J- 

domination and submission. In Madame Irma's House of Illusions thejjc^/t^-^^ 

dreams become facts. The man from the gas company, episcopally ^^y''**''^ 
garbed, forgives a penitent her sins; a repressed bank clerk defiles the 
Virgin Mary, while other chents prefer to disguise themselves as flagel- 
lant judges or victorious warrictfs. M. Genet regards these scabrous rit- 
uals with a sort of furious pity. /What else, he knplies, can we expect of a 
^ jiO^ety whose only absolute valuBs are those of conquest and authority? 

That is the indictment. M. Genet dramatises it by setting his quaint 
bordello in the midst of a revolution that has already wiped out all the 
real holders of power save one, the Chief of Police, who now enlists the 
regular customers to play out their fantasy roles in earnest. Overnight, -/■ 

the revolt is quelled; and soon^ afterwards a new figure takes its place ij^'^^'"^^ 
in the mytholog y of the broth el. A stranger asks permission to dress up as ^^v^'*^ 
the Chief of Police, in which guise he promptly gelds himself. This hor- 
rific act completes M. Genet's argument. The image of power is erotic, 
but power itself is sexless. The reality survives by enslaving mankind to 
the symbol. 

To object that the play's view of fife is extremely personal is merely 
to say that only one man could have written it. Some power symbols are 
clearly more erotic than others, I myself would not place Sir Winston's 
cigar in quite the same category as Mussolini's fasces, but Baldwin's pipe 
is a disquieting thought; and the histories of Roman Catholicism and 
English Protestantism alike attest to the fact that the idea of female vir- 
ginity is a potent and highly seductive thing. Nor can one rationally ob- 
ject to the violence of M. Genet's language: only dolts would contend 
that playgoers, who are numbered in thousands, should be protected 
against words and situations with which hbrary subscribers, who run into 
millions, have long been famihar. The true objection to the play is 
that, although nobody but M. Genet could have written the first half at 
all, almost anyone else could have written the second half better. 

The first, or expository, half is flawless; out of an anarchic, unfet- 
tered imagination there emerges a perfect nightmare world. But the sec- 
ond half is argumentative, and logic is necessarily a fettered thing, 
bound by rules to which M, Genet, who has flouted rules all his life, is 
temperamentally opposed. Just when the play cries out for an incisive, 
satiric mind like M, Sartre's, it branches off into a confusion so wild that 
I still cannot understand what the scenes in the rebel camp were meant 
to convey. As an evoker, M, Genet is magnificent; as an explainer, he is 
a maddening novice. He cannot think in cold blood— as witness his 
statement that the Arts Theatre had coarsened his play, when in fact (if 
Bernard Frechtmann's translation is to be trusted) it had softened it. 



172 P^'i'i I: The British Theatre 

Apart from Selma Vaz Dias and Hazel Penwarden, Peter Zadek's cast 
is shamelessly feeble; but many good actors, one guesses, took one look 
at the text and turned it down in a huff. For all its faults, this is a theat- 
rical experience as startling as anything since Ibsen's revelation, seventy- 
six years ago, that there was such a thing as syphilis. 



Tea and Sympathy, by Robert Anderson, at the Comedy. 

Tea and Sympathy is one of those studies of victimisation that 
American authors write so well and so often, the victim on this occasion 
being a teen-age schoolboy who has long hair, likes music, swims in the 
nude with a friendly master, and is usually cast as the female lead in the 
end-of-term play. His descent into despair is hastened by the glib 
pep-talks of his uncomprehending father and the bleak hostility of his 
housemaster, whose strident maleness is merely a cloak for long-sup- 
pressed homosexual tendencies. It is the housemaster's wife, most feel- 
ingly played by Elizabeth Sellars, who resolves the boy's doubts by going 
to bed with him. Young Would-if-he-Could-ley is saved; and so tactful 
and responsive is Tim Heely's performance that the process is never 
mawkish and often extremely moving. John Fernald's direction, superb 
at the top, diminishes in strength as the parts get smaller; but no director 
could make this a wholly serious play. Always it takes the easy, concilia- 
tory course. There is never any possibility that the hero might in fact be 
an invert. The wife's adultery is triply excused: her husband neglects 
her, she was once an actress, and the boy reminds her of her first, dead 
love. The villain of the piece is the unmasked queer, and the message is 
that it's all right not to conform as long as you're not really a non- 
conformist. Yet it makes a good middlebrow evening, and I look forward 
to an English counterpart — in which, of course, the positions would be 
reversed: the hero would be a hearty extrovert persecuted by a schoolful 
of dandified eggheads. 



Parti: The British Theatre 173 

The Entertainer, by John Osborne, at the Royal Court; Camino 
Real, BY Tennessee Williams, at the Phoenix; Comedy in 
Music at the Palace. 

This has been one of the most varied, nourishing, and provocative 
weeks that the London theatre has known since the war. Let me but hst 
its riches — Olivier working with John Osborne, Peter Hall directing 
Tennessee Williams, and the West End debut of the funniest one-man 
show on earth. For once, I felt mine was an enviable metier. 

To begin at the deep end: Mr. Osborne has had the big and bril- 
liant notion of putting the whole of contemporary England on to one and 
the same stage. The Entertainer is his diagnosis of the sickness that is 
currently afflicting our slaphappy breed. He chooses, as his national mi- 
crocosm, a family of run-down vaudevillians. Grandad, stately and re- 
tired, represents Edwardian graciousness, for which Mr. Osborne has 
a deeply submerged nostalgia. But the key figure is Dad: Archie Rice, a 
fiftyish song-and-dance man reduced to appearing in twice-nightly nude 
revue. This is the role that has tempted Sir Laurence to return to the 
Royal Court after twenty-nine years. 

Archie is a droll, lecherous fellow, comically corrupted. With his 
blue patter and jingo songs he is a licensed pedlar of emotional dope to 
every audience in Britain. The tragedy is that, being intelligent, he 
knows it. His talent for destructive self-analysis is as great as Jimmy 
Porter's. At times, indeed, when he rails in fuddled derision at "our nasty 
sordid unhkely little problems," he comes too close to Jimmy Porter for 
comfort or verisimihtude. He also shares the Porter Pathological Pull to- 
wards bisexuality, which chimes with nothing else in his character, 
though it may be intended to imply that he has made a sexual as well as 
a moral compromise. 

But I am carping too soon. To show the ironic disparity between 
Archie's mind and the use he makes of it, Mr. Osborne has hit on a stun- 
ningly original device. He sets out the programme Uke a variety bill, and 
switches abruptly from Archie at home, insulated by gin, to Archie on 
stage, ogling and mincing, joshing the conductor, doing the chin-up bit 
and braying with false effusiveness such aptly named numbers as "Why 
Should I Bother to Care?," "We're All Out for Good Old Number One," 
and "Thank God We're Normal." In these passages, author, actor, and 
composer (John Addison) are all at peak form. A bitter hilarity fills the 
theatre, which becomes for a while England in little: "Don't clap too 
hard, lady, it's an old building." 



174 P^f^ I* The British Theatre 

Archie has abdicated from responsibility. He despises his wife, 
sleeps out nightly, and morally murders his father by coaxing him back 
into grease-paint: yet he can still button-hole us with songs and routines 
that enjoin us to share the very couldn't-care-less-ness that has degraded 
him. The death of his son, kidnapped and killed in Egypt, restores him 
for a while to real feeling. He has just been reminiscing, with drunken 
fervour, about a Negress he once heard singing in a night-club, making 
out of her oppression "the most beautiful fuss in the world." Now, shat- 
tered himself, he crumples, and out of his gaping mouth come disorgan- 
ised moans that slowly reveal themselves as melody. Archie the un- 
touchable is singing the blues. 

With Sir Laurence in the saddle, miracles like this come often. At 
the end of the first act Archie is struggling to tell his daughter about the 
proudest encounter of his life, the one occasion when he was addressed 
with awe. "Two nuns came towards me," he says. "Two nuns . . ." All 
at once he halts, strangled by self-disgust. The curtain falls on an unfin- 
ished sentence. Sir Laurence brings the same virtuosity to Archie's last 
story, about a little man who went to heaven and, when asked what he 
thought of the glory, jerked up two fingers, unequivocally parted. The 
crown, perhaps, of this great performance is Archie's jocular, venomous 
farewell to the audience: "Let me know where you're working tomor- 
row night — and I'll come and see you." 

When Archie is offstage, the action droops. His father is a bore and 
his children are ciphers : the most disquieting thing about the play is the 
author's failure to state the case of youth. There is a pacifist son who 
sings a Brechtian elegy for his dead brother, but does Httle else of mo- 
ment. And there is Jean, Archie's daughter, a Suez baby who came of 
age at the Trafalgar Square rally but seems to have lost her political 
ardour with the passing of that old adrenalin glow. She is vaguely anti- 
Queen and goes in for loose generalities like "We've only got ourselves"; 
beyond that, nada. Rather than commit himself, Mr. Osborne has wa- 
tered the girl down to a nullity, and Dorothy Tutin can do nothing with 
her. 

This character, coupled with Archie's wife (Brenda de Banzie, be- 
draggled-genteel), reinforces one's feeling that Mr. Osborne cannot yet 
write convincing parts for women. He has bitten off, in this broad new 
subject, rather more than he can maul. Although the members of Ar- 
chie's family incessantly harangue each other, they seldom make a hu- 
man connection, and you cannot persuade an audience that people are 
related simply by making them call each other bastards. Tony Richard- 
son's direction is fairly lax throughout, but I cannot see how any director 



Part I: The British Theatre 175 

could disguise either the sloth of the first act or the over-compression of 
the third. 

In short: Mr. Osborne has planned a gigantic social mural and car- 
ried it out in a colour range too narrow for the job. Within that range he 
has written one of the great acting parts of our age. Archie is a truly des- 
perate man, and to present desperation is a hard dramatic achievement. 
To explain and account for it, however, is harder still, and that is the 
task to which I would now direct this dazzling, self-bound writer. 

Tennessee Williams' Camino Real is likewise microcosmic, but in 
a stricter sense; it takes on the whole world. The message shrieked by 
Mr. Williams' garish symbols is that hfe is diseased and curable only by 
innocence. It issues from a dingy, timeless coastal town where Spanish is 
spoken, the police are in charge, and "hermano" is a dirty word. On one 
side of the plaza is an hotel for decayed romantics such as Casanova; on 
the other, a squalid flophouse where people hke the Baron de Charlus 
find what is modishly known as their adjustment. The proles are kept 
happy by frequent festivals, among them a burlesque fertility rite wherein 
a tart is ceremonially declared a virgin. IdeaUsm is mirrored in Don 
Quixote, emblem of the pure romantic quest, and in Kilroy, a vagrant 
American prize-fighter who loves people so perilously much that the po- 
lice force him to dress up as a clown. 

At this stage the play goes off the rails. Its middle stretch is de- 
voted to the tedious courtship of Casanova and Marguerite Gautier; 
and when we get back to Kilroy, it is merely for a comic seduction scene 
with the pseudo-virgin — gay in itself, but essentially irrelevant. He fi- 
nally decides to venture, with Quixote, into the desert that surrounds the 
town's sleazy chaos, but by then we have stopped taking him seriously. 
Mr. Williams has beckoned us into too many gaudy sideshows. Some of 
his inventions are extremely bright — Freda Jackson as a gipsy brothel- 
keeper, Ronald Barker as her beskirted bouncer, Elizabeth Seal as her 
daughter, who thinks, feels, and wears as little as the law wiU allow — 
but they do not really advance the author's simple thesis : that purity can 
survive corruption as long as it gets the hell out. 

There are three attitudes that a serious writer can adopt towards 
the world. He can mirror its sickness without comment; he can seek to 
change it; or he can withdraw from it. Mr. Williams, by recommending 
withdrawal, places himself in the third batch, along with the saints, the 
hermits, the junkies, and the drunks. The attitude is defensible, but it 
somehow sounds better in diaries and autobiographies than in a place as 
social and public as a theatre. 



176 Part I: The British Theatre 

About Peter Hall's direction, however, I have no doubts, and this 
despite a Kilroy (Denholm Elliott) who can manage neither the accent 
nor the dumbness of the part. Judged as a frenetic pageant, a circus of 
noise and colour, a three-ring freak show, the production generates an 
excitement that London has not felt in a theatre since the early extrav- 
agances of Peter Brook. The use of sound — nasal bullfight music and 
bleating fairground spiels — is especially striking. Mr. Williams, cham- 
pion of the fly-blown, the man who sold solitude to the gregarious, has 
never found in London a director half so bold, half so loyal. 

The art of public solitude reaches a high water-mark in Victor 
Borge's solo recital, Comedy in Music. From his first entrance, bowing 
gravely and releasing from his mouth a cryptic puff of smoke, the beady- 
eyed Danish pianist had a doubting house in the palm of his hand. To 
dub him a soloist is perhaps inept. He has two mechanical stooges, the 
piano and the microphone — especially the piano, which he describes at 
various times as "grinning" and "non-segregated." His is the technique 
of the infinitely delayed climax. Always promising to play, he teases us 
for minutes on end before actually doing so. The comedy of self-inter- 
ruption has never been more subtly explored. 

Between key-tickling bouts, he talks. About what? Mostly about 
families: about the philoprogenitive Bachs, and the fated Debussy s (all 
wiped out, just like that) ; about Joe E. Brahms and Harry S. Beethoven; 
about his own parents, who had three children, "one of each." Students 
of American humour wiU by now have identified the style. It is Benchley 
set to music, with the master's suave irrelevance, his dangerous cosiness, 
and his habit of telling insane historical anecdotes with enormous gravity 
(cf. Mr. Benchley's radio account of the man who invented jazz: "Jo- 
hann Sebastian Gesundheit was born in Japan in 1789. He was a back- 
ward child but very friendly . . ."). Mr. Borge, who is here for six 
more weeks, is by several miles the funniest man in London. If, as J. B. 
Morton says, Wagner is the Puccini of music, Victor Borge is the Danny 
Kaye of comedy. 

(f9S7) 



Part I: The British Theatre 177 



The Chairs, by Eugene Ionesco, and UApollon de Bellac, 
BY Jean Giraudoux, at the Royal Court. 

The two prime assumptions of French literature are that there is 
no humour without satire and no truth without logic. Eugene Ionesco de- 
nies both propositions, and hence the French adore him. He flouts both 
of their household gods. The words he utters are those of an anarch, of 
a logical negativist who believes that nothing in the dictionary has a 
verifiable meaning. In his plays the light of verbal communication is ex- 
tinguished. People collide in the dark; and when, fleetingly, a phrase 
kindles the heart, it is as if a match had been struck and we glimpsed, 
for a second, a human face, lonely and deeply appalled. 

In England, where satire and logic lost their literary hegemony two 
centuries ago, we are less likely than the French to be overwhelmed by 
the originality of a style based on nonsense-humour and nonsense-logic. 
That it is virtuoso nonsense nobody denies: Ionesco is a poet of double- 
talk. But this is at best a minor gift. It does not explain why The 
Chairs is such an enthralling experience. 

It is night on an island. In a round house of many doors sit a 
nonagenarian couple who will soon fling themselves suicidally into the 
river. At first, however, all is tranquil. Mad scraps of reminiscence are 
swapped, the old man bemoans his failure in life, the old woman babies 
and consoles him. From their moonstruck chatter we gather that he has a 
message to the world which he has bidden everyone to hear. The guests 
start to arrive, at first singly, then in pairs, soon in unmanageable droves, 
until the old-age pension resembles Groucho's cabin in A Night at the 
Opera. With this difference: that ah the guests are invisible. They are 
creatures of the old man's dream, and before long he and his wife are 
plunging in and out of doors with yet more chairs for the unseen multi- 
tude, whom they engage, from time to time, in phantom conversation. 

The audacity of the idea is breathtaking; here is pure theatre, the 
stage doing what only the stage can do. As the doorbell rings and the 
numbers crazily swell, one sees that Ionesco is more than a word- 
juggler. He is a supreme theatrical conjurer. And what does the trick 
mean? A hired orator, at the end, speaks the old man's message to the 
listening throng. Or rather, he would speak it, were he not dumb; and 
they would listen, if they existed. Moral: truth is a tale told without 
words to people who cannot hear it. Communication between human 
beings is impossible. 



178 P^rt I: The British Theatre 

I mention this facile and despondent philosophy because it leads 

us to lonesco's second great virtue. He knows the secret of creating 

comic people. It derives from the Jacobean comedy of humours; and 

there are hints of it in Bergson, who says somewhere that the comic 

character "slackens in the attention that is due to life . . .Jn some. 

way or other he is absent"; but what it boils down to is that a person 

j who pursues an obsession, who sees life through the blinkers of a fixed 

j idea, who is blind to the world and the people around him, is by defi- 

\ nition comic. If I stroll into a peace conference and quietly apply hot 

/feet to the assembled statesmen, I am comic; but the moment I apolo- 

( gise and begin to explain myself, the joke is over. I must not hesitate: 

\ my special bent must be at once irrational and unreasonable-with. 

The Old Man in The Chairs is such a character; so is the hero of 
lonesco's The New Tenant; so are Jacques Tati and the amiable zanies 
of La Plume de Ma Tante, not to mention most of the great drolls of 
world literature. Each is gripped by an obsession he cannot be bothered 
to account for. If they paused to give a rational explanation ot their 
actions, the comedic contrast between their private world and the ob- 
servable world would be irretrievably lost. It is precisely because they 
don't "communicate," either with us or with each other, that lonesco's 
people are funny. As a thinker he is banal; as a word-trickster he is no 
more than ingenious; but as a comic inventor he is superb and classical. 
Tony Richardson's direction has the right, spooky enthusiasm. 
The Old Man really needs an actor less voulu in his eccentricity than 
the dogged George Devine; but Joan Plowright, all boggling fervour and 
timorous glee, makes a wonderful North-Country mouse of the Old 
Woman. The same director does considerable damage to the curtain- 
raiser, Giraudoux's Apollon de Bellac, which you would be wise to miss, 
in spite of a summery performance by Heather Sears. At one point Miss 
Sears informs a chandelier that it is beautiful. According to Giraudoux, 
"Le lustre s'allume de lui-meme"; according to Mr. Richardson, Apollo 
switches it on at the door. Thus can poetry, in a single gesture, become 
irrevocable prose. 



Part I: The British Theatre 179 



The Summer of the Seventeenth Doll, by Ray Lawler, at the 
New Theatre. 

In a recent film called A Man Is Ten Feet Tall a startling precedent 
was created. Never before, save in pictures with all-coloured casts, had a 
Negro actor played a leading character who was neither a droll imbe- 
cile nor a victim of racial hatred, but a simple human being, the colour 
of whose skin was scarcely mentioned in the whole course of the film. 
This radical departure, spotted at once in America, passed largely un- 
noticed in England. I cite it here lest anyone should overlook a com- 
parable development that took place last week in the London theatre. In 
Irish, American, and Continental drama it took place long ago; but our 
own drama lost sight of it in the fifteenth century, since when many at- 
tempts have been made to revive it, most of them over-anxious, all of 
them failures. 

Last Tuesday, against all augury, the lost cause was suddenly won. 
One of Her Majesty's subjects turned up with a play about working peo- 
ple who were neither "grim" nor "funny," neither sentimentalised nor 
patronised, neither used to point a social moral nor derided as quaint 
and improbable clowns. Instead, they were presented, like the Negro in 
the above-lauded movie, as human beings in their own right, exulting in 
universal pleasures and nagged by universal griefs. They were poor only 
in passing, as the Negro is only incidentally black. The play that pulled 
off the feat is The Summer of the Seventeenth Doll, and if Ray Lawler, 
its Australian author, is aware of the magnitude of his achievement, I 
shall be the most astonished critic in London, for I am sure revolution 
was not in his mind when he wrote it. He was merely born with some- 
thing that most English playwrights acquire only after a struggle and ex- 
press only with the utmost embarrassment — respect for ordinary people. 

It takes more than that, of course, to make a good play. The excit- 
ing thing about Mr. Lawler is that he can also construct. Out of unre- 
markable gaieties and regrets, out of everyday challenges and defeats, 
he has composed a story as gripping in the theatre as it would be in life. 
It has to do with the reluctance of people to grow up, to prepare for age, 
to exchange immaturity for responsibility. For sixteen years two cane- 
cutters — little, ebullient Barney and burly, taciturn Roo — have lived 
their lives to a pattern: seven months of hard work, followed by five 
months of pleasure with Nancy and Olive, their unmarried wives. Six- 
teen souvenir dolls brighten the walls of the house. 



180 P^^t I: '^^^ British Theatre 

At the height of the seventeenth summer — Australia's sweltering 
December, with the windows open all night and Christmas a great day 
for swatting mosquitoes — the idyll collapses. Nancy has found herself a 
safe husband, and her substitute is a dawdling middle-aged barmaid 
whose enthusiasm sags sharply when she learns that Barney has already 
scattered three bastards across the continent. And Roo, the bulging sun- 
god whom Olive first loved, has begun to bald and weaken; his su- 
premacy in the cane-fields has been smashed by a younger man, and with 
it his self-respect. Both the buccaneering cutters are themselves cut 
down: Barney descends to street-corner pick-ups, Roo to the ultimate 
disgrace of a factory job. When the curtain falls, reahty has demolished 
the romantic myth of the past; but we have laughed too much in the 
process to call the play a tragedy. It records a mischance that has be- 
fallen a special group of people whom, since we love them, we regard 
with unique compassion. 

At first blink, most of the characters look like stereotypes — two 
rugged outdoor heroes and two soft-hearted indoor heroines, one of 
whom has a tetchy and disgruntled mother. What redeems them is the 
penetrating freshness of Mr. Lawler's vision : he has perceived the reali- 
ties that underhe the stereotypes and made them exuberantly new. He 
himself plays Barney with rather exaggerated perkiness. Otherwise the 
Australian cast cannot be reasonably knocked. Ethel Gabriel's wary 
Mama, who removes her ring before playing the piano, is a wonderfully 
intimidating portrait; and June Jago, all angles, teeth, and gush, must by 
now have relaxed into a performance as heart-caressing throughout as 
the moment on Tuesday night when she leapt into Roo's arms crying: 
"If you hadn't come, I'd have gone looking for you with a razor!" Madge 
Ryan's Pearl is flawless — the infinitely suspicious newcomer, jibbing in 
stately dudgeon at the sUghtest hint of orgy; and no actor in England 
could play Roo with the bulk, the dignity, and the uncompUcated assur- 
ance of Kenneth Warren. 

Mr. Lawler has been strangely described as the Australian Ten- 
nessee Williams. The comparison is just only in that both writers deal 
with people who live in a hot climate and speak rawly and freely about 
their emotions. But where Mr. WiUiams concerns himself with odd men 
out, Mr. Lawler concerns himself with even men in. The results, though 
different, are not less rewarding. In short, we have found ourselves a 
playwright, and it is time to rejoice. 

(1951) 



Part I : The British Theatre 181 



Henry VI, Parts One, Two, and Three, by William 
Shakespeare, at the Old Vic. 

Superficially, the three parts of Henry VI seem jingoistic and 
Churchillian: history is made by martial patriots engaged in a series of 
ardent brawls. It takes a director as sharp as Douglas Scale to unearth 
the vein of savage irony that runs through the plays, and to reveal that 
in this hindsight view of the centur}' before his own Shakespeare was 
more than a reporter: he editoriaUsed as well. Beneath the almighty 
hubbub of clanking potentates angrily swopping genealogies and hurl- 
ing roses, gauntlets, and place-names ("Detested Salisbury!'') at each 
other, one seems to hear the uncertain voice of Michael Wilhams: "I 
am afeard there are few die weU that die in battle." 

Henry V, who led England to that "finest hour"' still blindly cher- 
ished by many merry EngUshmen, is dead. No sooner is he underground 
than we plunge straight into the lower depths. Ever)one betrays ever)'- 
one else: the greater the patriot, the more vehement his ratting. One is 
fascinated to hear the number of cast-iron excuses these people can find 
for decimating their relations. War, for them, is a virile hobby that gets 
you out and about instead of frowsting in the keep all day; it is, you 
might say, fox-hunting writ large. In Part One France slips through the 
nerveless hands of Henry VI, conchie and bookworm. In Part Two, 
noisily harassed by Queen Margaret. York steps in to fiU the power 
vacuum, with diversionary aid from Jack Cade and his mutinous under- 
does. In Part Three Margaret makes her come-back, and York's head 
duly rolls; but his sons, their blood boiling, live on to keep the blood 
flowing, and by curtain-fall Edward is king, unaware as yet that his 
hunchback brother has marked fratricidal tendencies. 

These lurid broils, of course, aU stem from the fatal act which for 
Shakespeare and his contemporaries was the great turning-point of 
history: Bolingbroke's dethronement of Richard II, the replacement of 
a king de jure by a king de facto. The bloody reverberations of that 
moment are the subject-matter of both cycles of history plays. The grand 
debate on the ethics of usurpation was far from over in Shakespeare's 
day — it had, indeed, an acid relevance to the opportunistic methods of 
the Tudors — and it went on haunting the drama untU Ibsen settled it 
once and for all in The Pretenders, the last great play in which kings 
were heroic. 

In Henry VI Shakespeare exploits it with brutal sensationalism, 



182 Part I: The British Theatre 

yet leaves one with the irrational conviction that he cannot have been a 
warlike man. He spends too much time lamenting the innocent dead. 
After the ranting has faded, the scene that stays most tensely in the mind 
is one in which nobody's voice is raised above a regretful plea: the de- 
spised king yearns for a shepherd's life, flanked on either side by those 
two strange, symbolic figures of grief, "a Son that has kill'd his father" 
and "a Father that has kill'd his son." Red rose and white are forgotten. 
"A plague on both your roses," we mutter; and so, I hazard, did Shake- 
speare. 

Mr. Scale's boldly stylised treatment of this scene is still as powerful 
as it was in his famous Birmingham Repertory production four years 
ago. Now, as then, one gapes at the ease with which he clarifies the 
intricate family relationships of a trilogy snarled and studded with lines 
that frequently sound like: "And does thou now presume, base Leam- 
ington, to scorn thy brother's cousin's eldest son?" Most of the time one 
actually knows who is kin to whom, and how closely. 

But it was an error to compress the first two parts into one evening. 
The upshot is confusion, since the French scenes in Part One, to which 
reference is constantly being made, have vanished completely; Talbot is 
axed in toto, and with him that splendidly besotted witch, Joan La 
Pucelle. But Part Three makes amends. As staged by Mr. Scale, it stands 
up in its own right, shoulder-high at least to the twin peaks of Henry IV. 
The final curtain is a magnificent stroke of textual audacity. Alone on 
stage after the pomp of Edward's coronation, Gloucester embarks on the 
opening soliloquy of Richard III. Before long his voice is drowned by an 
offstage clamour of loyalty to the new king: obliviously he goes on, and 
is still, when the curtain falls, grimacing and gesturing, an inaudible 
power-driven puppet, the authentic agent of death. 

This year's good Vic company is just the right weight for plays like 
these, in which the main requirements are pace, energy, vocal attack, 
and reasonable swordsmanship. I took exception to a couple of very 
grubby prelates, and in the Cade scenes the crowd ran a little too pic- 
turesquely riot; but in such basic bits of Shakespearean expertise as 
running up and down flights of stairs in the dark and looking vicious or 
resolute or both, the whole troupe is exceptionally fly — as, with a setting 
as heavily booby-trapped as Leslie Hurry's, it needs to be. There is 
plenty of exemplary doubling: from Ronald Fraser, for instance, as a 
blood-thirsty Kentish butcher, later Lewis XI of France; and from Derek 
Godfrey, no sooner slain as Suffolk than revived as crookback Glouces- 
ter. In the latter role he at first seemed too flippant, but he grew in 



Part I'.The British Theatre 183 

daemonism and towards the end was bringing off some really fruity 
Olivier cadences. 

Among the singles champions I would name Rosemary Webster's 
sedate young queen; Derek Francis' black-avised Cade; and — a leather- 
lunged trio — Barbara Jefford's fire-breathing Margaret, OUver Neville's 
Warwick, and Jack Gwillim's York. Both Messrs. Neville and Gwillim, 
pillars of the trilogy, reminded me of Donne's "grim eight-foot-high 
iron-bound serving-man": here were the robber-barons of childhood 
nightmares come dragonishly to life. As Henry, the point of rest in the 
midst of chaos, Paul Daneman contrived a touching bewilderment, 
muted intentionally in Parts One and Two and involuntarily in Part 
Three. "Let us our lives, our souls, our debts, our careful wives, our 
children and our sins lay on the king." Our laryngitis, too, it seems. 

(i9S7) 



The Making of Moo, by Nigel Dennis, at the Royal Court. 

"As to that detestable religion, the Christian . . ." Thus would 
Shelley, speaking gently and uncontentiously, strike up conversation at 
the dinner-table, causing among his fellow-guests much the same af- 
fronted consternation that seems to have been felt last Tuesday by many 
of the critics who witnessed Nigel Dennis' The Making of Moo. Few of 
them, of course, admitted that they had been shocked, but whenever 
critics use words hke "old-fashioned" and "tasteless" you may begin to 
suspect that they have been outraged to the core of their being; and if 
"undergraduate joke" is the phrase qualified by "tasteless," you can be 
absolutely sure. 

Now I will not slander my colleagues by supposing that what 
shocked them was the play's intellectual content. Mr. Dennis is a 
straightforward rationalist who regards organised religion as an insult to 
human intelligence. My own guess would be that he leans rather to 
atheism than agnosticism, that cloak under which atheists gain admission 
to the Royal Enclosure; but I cannot see how any of his ideas could 
really startle even the seventy-one per cent of our population who, 
according to a recent poll, believe that Jesus Christ was the Son of God. 
No: what shocked my colleagues was not the novelty of Mr. Dennis' 
ideas, but the novelty of hearing them in a theatre. "Pas devant les 
enfants!" was the essence of their reaction to a play which, for all its 



184 P^^t I: The British Theatre 

faults, is a milestone in history: the first outright attack on religion ever 
to be presented on the English stage. 

It is Mr. Dennis' simple belief that God, as human beings envisage 
him, is a thoroughly bad influence on society. And he has had the au- 
dacity not only to state his belief in a theatre, but to state it without 
reverence — thereby offending against the rules of fair play. The militant 
sceptic, according to this curious code, is permitted to disbelieve only as 
long as he disbelieves reverently; as long as he shows respect for that 
which he is sworn to demoHsh. Mr. Dennis violates this hypocrisy by 
showing no respect at all. He is by turns skittish and savage. His final ad- 
vice to those contemplating rehgion is: "Stop when you come to a pool 
of blood." Stop, in fact, when you come to a ritual sacrifice, a massacre 
of heretics, a holy war, or a God-sanctioned nuclear weapon; in other 
words, don't start. To compare Mr. Dennis with Shaw, as several critics 
have, is to miss the point completely. Even at his most iconoclastic, 
Shaw always made it clear that he was only kidding. Mr. Dennis, by con- 
trast, is in earnest: he means what he says, and expects us to act on it. 
If his play is crude, it is the forgivable crudity of all pioneer work. 

The first act is mild enough. A pompous English dam-builder 
discovers that he has inadvertently flooded and destroyed the ancestral 
home of Ega, a native god. Deciding to replace what he has destroyed 
with (as the novel has it) "something of value," he invents a new deity. 
Moo. His wife takes on the job of writing suitable scriptures, and his 
secretary, an amateur musician, sets about composing appropriately 
intimidating hymns. In the second act the cult is really rolling, with a 
garish liturgy of its own and thousands of adherents bUssfully shouting 
their affirmative answer to the solemn question : "Have you taken leave 
of all your senses?" The curtain falls on a tableau at which Shaw would 
certainly have jibbed: the ritual murder of two casual visitors from the 
old country. The last scene whisks us into the future. The inventor of the 
myth has now become a senile patriarch, wheeled daily on to the bal- 
cony to receive homage, and his son, a new character, quickly discloses 
that passionate interest in pain and guilt that stamps the true Protestant. 

Mr. Dennis makes his points with reckless pungency and eldritch 
wit. He is more concerned, of course, with ideas than with character, 
and it takes all the efforts of George Devine, Joan Plowright, and John 
Osborne to persuade us that a dim trio of suburban expatriates would be 
capable of such bloody excesses. But my main criticism of the piece is 
that, for a soi-disant "history of religion," it omits altogether too much. 
Is Christianity really what Remy de Gourmont called it, "a machine for 
creating remorse"? Is a sense of sin a natural endowment or a condi- 



Part I: The British Theatre 185 

tioned reflex? These questions Mr. Dennis does not discuss; nor does he 
investigate the political influence exerted by the Church in such matters 
as convincing the poor that poverty is a virtue. 

But, in spite of these and other gaps, Mr. Dennis deserves all our 
thanks for having introduced the full gaiety of blasphemy to the English 
theatre, and our apologies for having welcomed him with reviews that 
paid no attention to whether his ideas were true or false but devoted 
themselves instead to the totally irrelevant question of whether or not 
they would "give offence." To "give offence," it seems, is to be "in bad 
taste." A healthy state, I should judge, to be in. To a theatre that is 
perishing of decorum, a few more truly offensive, sincerely tasteless 
plays would come as a reviving boon. 



Hamlet, by William Shakespeare, at the Old Vic. 

O, there has been much throwing about of brains. 

Hamlet, Act II, Scene 2 

Michael BenthaU has directed Hamlet no fewer than three and a 
half times. On the first occasion he collaborated with Tyrone Guthrie, 
many of whose ideas rubbed off on him and have stayed rubbed. Then 
came the famous "Victorian" production at Stratford in 1948, with Paul 
Scofield's incomparable Scholar-Gipsy prince. In 1953, distracted per- 
haps by the burdens of his new job as Director of the Vic, Mr. Benthall 
revived the play drably, and one thought him exhausted on the subject. 
One was wrong. His new production in the Unlucky Horseshoe of 
Waterloo Road discards the dross while retaining the gold of its prede- 
cessors. TextuaUy and conceptually it is as near to a definitive Hamlet 
as anything I have ever seen. 

With imperious intelligence Mr. Benthall has brought off a minor 
Shakespeare revolution. He has taken his scene-order not from the Folio 
but from the First Quarto of 1603. Line for line, as everyone knows, 
the Quarto is a bad text, frequently verging on parody; all the same, it 
is an actors' text, rushed into print (or so scholarship conjectures) by 
two opportunistic members of the original cast. Their memory of the 
other players' lines was hazy, but they remembered the order of the 
scenes as acted; and in this respect their testimony is valuable. One vital 
transposition makes it revolutionary. "To be or not to be," which we 
know as the fourth soliloquy, is in their text the third. Together with the 



186 Part l.The British Theatre 

ensuing nunnery scene, it is jerked out of the third act and shoehorned 
into the second. 

The improvement, in dramatic logic as well as sheer actability, 
is enormous. Hamlet's progressive disillusionment with humanity — first 
Gertrude and Claudius, then Ophelia and Polonius, then Rosencrantz 
and Guildenstern — is presented as an uninterrupted whole, leading up 
to the arrival of the players and the switch from inertia to action. He has 
met the ghost and cursed his fate. We have next seen him pondering 
suicide and rejecting the frail, corrupted Ophelia; he has reviled Polonius 
for having used her to pump him and he has unmasked his old college 
chums as spies. He now works out his conscience-catching plot and goes 
straight ahead with it. Compare this logical sequence with the incoherent 
Folio text, wherein "The play's the thing" is immediately followed by 
"To be or not to be," an inexplicable volte-face that halts the actor just 
when the movement of the play demands swiftly unfolding action. It is 
Mke driving through a green light into a road-block. This ludicrous block- 
age, hitherto regarded with veneration as part of a grand inscrutable 
design, has now been removed to its proper functional place. The play 
is still, as it should be, full of mystery and dark corners; but now at least 
its signposts fulfil what they promise. 

The production has the clean physical dexterity I associate with 
Mr, Benthall at his best. The costumes — mid-nineteenth-century Mittel- 
Europa — are those of an intrigue-ridden court on the eve of the 1848 
upsets; and Audrey Cruddas' setting, a semi-circle of columns, easily 
manages the abrupt switches from interior to exterior. The ghost scenes 
quite froze my youngish blood. By projecting shifting cloud-images on to 
the dead king, Mr. Benthall makes him dissolve, sohdify, and redissolve 
before one's eyes, while the voice that issues from him suggests not 
the usual visiting fireman (with built-in loudspeaker) but an outraged, 
anguished human being, peremptory in his wrath and Claudius' true 
brother. Jack Gwillim's Claudius is an iron-headed general at the awk- 
ward age, slightly ashamed of having fallen in love — an original con- 
ception, of which Coral Browne's maternally voluptuous queen makes 
splendid sense. 

At the end of the play scene Mr. Benthall blows, as they say, his 
top. "The king rises" is an awed, edged whisper, followed by a pause; 
and only after half a dozen more whispers and pauses does Claudius 
break the tension with a final shattering cry — all of which is much more 
credible than the usual inchoate hurly-burly of rhubarbing extras. Nor 
shall I forget the ensuing hunt for Hamlet, which was like the Congress 
of Vienna run mad — a paranoid nightmare in silks and satins, bristUng 



Part I : The British Theatre 187 

at first with veiled threats and later with cold steel. It is a tribute to Mr. 
Benthall's stagecraft and timing that I was held almost all the way. At 
no point, however, was I moved. Against the blackness of the cyclorama, 
the play's bare bones danced before me, macabre and mesmerizing, yet 
always remote, like a phosphorescent skeleton in a puppet show. 

The Ophelia, Judi Dench, is a pleasing but terribly sane httle thing, 
and there is little in the way of a Hamlet; John Neville resists agony with 
lips prefectorially stiff, and simply won't let go of his voice. Always 
there is effort, audible vocal effort, with the actor pushing for climaxes 
he might be able to reach if only he would stop pushing. He is first-rate, 
however, in the hysteria that follows the interview with the ghost, which 
I have never seen better done. A propos of the ghost scenes, and before 
leaving an immensely convincing production: has anyone noticed the 
striking relevance of Hamlet's "vicious mole" speech to the Wolfenden 
proposals for reforming the laws against homosexuality? 

(i9S7) 

A Lack of Weight. 

In many ways our theatre is what we think it to be — a republic 
run by actors. No British director has anything Hke the power that is 
wielded in America, over authors and players alike, by such men as 
Joshua Logan and Elia Kazan. With very few exceptions, the drawing- 
power of West End authors and directors is easily eclipsed by that of the 
actors they employ. In younger players our strength is formidable and 
brightly auspicious, ranging from Paul Scofield, our senior jeune premier, 
to such promising debutants as Peter O'Toole of the Bristol Old Vic and 
Albert Finney of Birmingham Rep. There may not be an outright Meg- 
gie Albanesi among the girls, but Dorothy Tutin, Mary Ure, Barbara 
Jefford, and Jill Bennett will do to be going on with; and intramural 
reports speak ecstatically of Sian Philips, the R.A.D.A. champion. 

We are similarly rich in older actresses. Dame Edith and Dame 
Sybil regally contend for the title of doyenne, beadily observed from the 
wings by a platoon of competitive juniors, all of whom (especially Mar- 
garet Rawhngs) are ready to pounce on the crown should deadlock 
between the queenpins at any time be reached. And, though she has 
confined her incalculable gifts to Broadway for the past two seasons, I 
have an uneasy feeling that Siobhan McKenna may at any moment land 
with an army at Milford Haven. 

Yet there is a gap in the ranks. You will spot it at once when I ask: 



188 Part I : The British Theatre 

where in Britain is the automatic choice for Lear? I do not think he 
exists. What we lack, in a phrase, is the older actor of weight: which 
means not avoirdupois but presence, assurance, and power. For some 
cryptic reason, conceivably connected with diet, the older English actor 
tends to wither. He contracts instead of expanding. He develops a fine 
sensibility and the nicest comic finesse, but in such qualities as weight, 
stature, and sheer psychological bulk he decHnes disastrously. Examples 
are plentiful. Consider A. E. Matthews, Ronald Squire, Ernest Thesiger, 
Ernest Milton, the late Esme Percy — all admirable players, but none of 
them equipped to deliver those sledge-hammer blows to the solar plexus 
of an audience that came so effortlessly from the lamented Czech trage- 
dian Frederick Valk. 

An American critic once sourly observed that any actor who spoke 
his lines slowly in a deep bass voice was sure to be hailed as an actor of 
"authority." True enough: but the fact remains that many of the great 
roles, ancient and modern, demand the threat of thunder, a threat which 
our senior players simply cannot supply. The erratic Wilfrid Lawson 
can manage it in intermittent bursts, but what is one Lawson beside the 
glowering battalions of oak-like elders who adorn the Russian theatre? 
Two years ago I attended a performance of Tolstoy's comedy The Fruits 
of Enlightenment at the Moscow Art Theatre. Halfway through it, at a 
peak of gaiety, my English companion turned to me and said: "There 
are ten men on that stage who could play King Lear." I looked, and it 
was true. The same company will be visiting London next May, when 
those lucky enough to grab tickets will be able to test my impressions. 

I am speaking, remember, of actors well into or past their fifties: 
that is the time at which, in England, the mysterious marcescence sets 
in. It is probable that Olivier will retain into age the exceptional powers 
that now distinguish his prime. There is hope, too, for Redgrave and 
even the fantastic Richardson. But where else? I admit the brilliance of 
Gielgud and Guinness, but neither can be described as a heavyweight in 
the real, pile-driving sense. 

If the Russians excel at the kind of acting I miss, the Germans are 
not far behind, with players Uke Krauss, Bassermann, Griindgens, and 
Busch. I do not myself respond to the extravagance of Pierre Brasseur, 
but at his best he is an actor of weight in every sense of the word, and 
one sees why Paris flocks to him. In another medium Raimu was a per- 
fect example of "authority" achieved without bellowing; even without 
raising the voice. Spencer Tracy is a comparable performer in the Ameri- 
can cinema, while from Broadway I could cite such a display as that of 
Fredric March in Long Day's Journey into Night. Alfred Lunt, if only 



Part I: The British Theatre 189 

he would take himself seriously; Orson Welles, if only he would take 
anyone else seriously; and Lee J. Cobb, who looks like Lear even when 
chewing a hamburger — these are three more exemplars of what we 
lack. I do not say that there is anyone in America who could play Mac- 
beth, Brand, Halvard Solness, and Micawber in a single repertory 
season; but there are several who can play (and have played) Big 
Daddy in Tennessee WilUams' Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. 

And this is very much a case in point, for Mr. Williams' play is to 
be produced next month in London. The role of Big Daddy, an exuber- 
ant sixtyish titan of oxlike stature, has been given to Leo McKern, a 
young actor in his thirties. I will not say faute de mieiix, for Mr. McKern 
is an extremely skilled performer. He is not, however, what I or Mr. 
Williams would call obvious casting for the part. And I repeat: who in 
England is? 



Flowering Cherry, by Robert Bolt, at the Haymarket. 

No doubt about it. Sir Ralph Richardson gave an amazing per- 
formance of something at the Haymarket last Thursday. No actor in 
England is more interesting to watch. He is interesting all the time, 
without respite; even when he plays a dull man, that dull man is never 
permitted a dull moment. Sir Ralph will spruce him up and set him frisk- 
ing, running the gamut from manic to depressive; the fellow's neuroses 
will get a thorough airing, as if they were dogs being taken out for a 
walk. Everything about him will be written, in a flowing hand, all over 
Sir Ralph's face, and his simplest remark will seem eccentric when the 
Richardson voice, waltzing and skating from syllable to syllable, has 
finished with it. (What is the word for that voice? Something between 
bland and grandiose: blandiose, perhaps.) Characters played by this 
actor are too busy to have an inner Ufe, which is why his Peer Gynt was 
so good, and why I should like to see him as Azdak, the flamboyant 
rogue of The Caucasian Chalk Circle. To any role that gives him half 
a chance he brings outsize attributes, outsize euphoria, outsize dismay. 
Those critics who hold that he excels in portraying the Average Man 
cannot, I feel, have met many Average Men. 

Bearing all this in mind, let us look at Sir Ralph's latest part, the 
hero of Flowering Cherry, a remarkable new play by Robert Bolt. Jim 
Cherry, who lends his name to the silly punning title, is an insurance 
man whose adjustment to reality leaves a lot to be desired. Everything in 



190 Parti: The British Theatre 

his domestic life takes second place to an obsessive dream of one day 
throwing up his job and living in the country, where he was brought up. 
This fantasy, once mild, has grown cancerous and now infects his whole 
world. He is for ever hymning the lost green days of his youth, days 
spent in the sun among great bronzed labourers as strong as they were 
shrewd. Next year, he declares, he wiU plant his orchard; already he is 
writing to nurserymen, selecting trees for an estate we know he wiU 
never buy. 

Like most neurotics, he misinterprets his nostalgia. What he takes 
to be a manly preference for the outdoor life is in fact an unhealthy 
yearning for the secure irresponsibility of childhood. At the climax he is 
offered a practical chance of buying an orchard, of realising his dream. 
He rejects it: the dream itself was a he. And at this point Mr. Bolt's 
spiky, provocative play dissolves into abject melodrama: sudden death 
instead of a dying fall. Attempting to prove his virility by a feat of 
strength. Cherry succumbs to a wretchedly predictable heart attack. By 
a single stroke (if Mr. Bolt can pun, so can I) the play moves down 
from alpha minus to beta plus. All the same, in a desert of gammas it is 
a considerable oasis. 

Sir Ralph's performance, engrossing though it is, should properly 
be considered apart from the play. It is conceived, for one thing, on a 
scale much grander than the environment Mr. Bolt has provided for it: 
you feel that Sir Ralph could eat six Jim Cherrys for breakfast without 
getting indigestion. He rides, not rough-shod but with spring-heeled 
hghtness, over everyone else on stage. Mr. Bolt's hero is an apparently 
normal suburbanite who Uves in a world of fantasy: Sir Ralph gives us 
aU of the fantasy and none of the normality. Like all actors driven by 
instinct, he sometimes brings off effects which "reason and sanity could 
not so prosperously be deliver'd of." I concede that at such moments 
Sir Ralph is a genius. What I seriously doubt is whether this is a part for 
a genius. 

(i9J7) 



The Angry Young Movement 

It all came to a head one May evening in 1956 at the Royal Court 
Theatre in Sloane Square. There had of course been plenty of prelimi- 
nary rumbles. A group of young British writers had recently published 
a series of picaresque novels featuring a new sort of hero — a lower- 
class intellectual with a ribald sense of humour, a robust taste for beer 



Fart I: The British Theatre 191 

and sex, and an attitude of villainous irreverence towards the established 
order. A butterfly-theorist named Colin Wilson had written an apoca- 
lyptic best-seller about the necessity of being an "outsider." An attack 
had just been launched by the younger movie critics and directors 
against the genteel vacuity of the British cinema: their new watchword 
was "commitment," by which they meant commitment to reality and 
social truth. A similar rebellion was taking place in the world of paint- 
ing, where the new "kitchen-sink school" (so called for its alleged pre- 
occupation with domestic squalor) had begun to move into the lead. 
Even before the events of that May evening it was clear that the post-war 
generation in Britain had a good deal to say and was in quite a hurry to 
say it. 

Most of the new rebels were leftish-liberal or outright Socialist; a 
few, like Colin Wilson, had religious aspirations; but on one point nearly 
all of them agreed. They detested "the Estabhshment," a phrase that 
had lately been coined to describe the hard core of top people — pro- 
fessional monarchists, archbishops, press barons, Etonian Tories, and 
Times leader writers — who still seemed, in spite of a war and a social 
revolution, to be exerting a disproportionate influence on the country's 
affairs. Protest against these apparent immovables was very much in the 
air. So it was, of course, in the 1930's. But the intelligentsia of that 
period were mosdy rebelling against their own class; many of them were 
Etonians and most came from solid Establishment backgrounds. The 
new malcontents were chiefly state-educated lower-middles. Their feel- 
ing about the country-house class, which had survived into their era like 
some grotesque coelacanth, was not one of filial resentment. It was 
closer to outraged boredom. 

Into this combustible atmosphere John Osborne, a lean, esurient 
actor in his twenty-seventh year, flung a play called Look Back in Anger, 
which summed up what many of his contemporaries were feeling about 
their rulers and elders. It opened, unheralded, at the Royal Court Thea- 
tre; and the explosion of that spring night two years ago is stifl reverbe- 
rating through the decorous anterooms of English culture. It was as if, in 
the tiptoe hush of a polite assembly, someone had deafeningly burped. 
The theatre's press-agent, asked for a description of the iconoclastic 
young gate-crasher, said he was first and foremost "an angry young 
man." Before long the phrase, in itself not particularly striking, had 
snowbaUed into a cult. It did so because it defined a phenomenon that 
was nationally recognisable. It gave a name to a generation of young 
intellectuals who disUked being called intellectuals, since they thought 
the word phoney, affected, and "wet." 



192 Parti: The British Theatre 

There is nothing new in young men being angry: in fact, it would 
be news if they were anything else. Byron and Shelley were classically 
angry young men. American writing in the 1930's was on fire with anger: 
Dos Passos, Steinbeck, and Odets come to mind, all brandishing their 
fists. The very phrase was used in 1951 by an English social philosopher 
named Leslie Paul as the title of his autobiography: it is the story of a 
devout left-wing agitator who lost his faith in Russia during the 1930's 
and turned, hke so many others, to a vague sort of Christian humanism. 
What distinguishes the modern English "young angries" is that they all 
came of age around the time that their elders invented the hydrogen 
bomb. How could they revere "civilisation as we know it" when at any 
moment it might be transformed into "civilisation as we knew it"? How 
could they carry the torch of freedom when to do so meant running with 
it into the ammunition dump? These unanswerable questions set up 
feelings of uselessness and impotence, which led in some to apathy, in 
others to a sort of derisive detachment, and in still others to downright 
rage. And these feelings were intensified by the knowledge that Britain 
no longer had a voice strong enough to forbid chaos if, by some horrific 
chance, it should impend. 

Somebody, in short, had to say that many young Britons were fed 
up; that to be young, so far from being very heaven, was in some ways 
very hell. Osborne was the first in the theatre to say it; and, the theatre 
being the naked, public place it is, the statement caused a considerable 
bang. What made it even more shocking was that both the author and 
his hero, Jimmy Porter, came from low social shelves, yet had the cheek 
to be highly articulate on a wide variety of subjects, including the sex 
war, the class war, and war itself. There was no mistaking the portents. 
A break-through was beginning. The new intelligentsia created by free 
education and state scholarships was making its first sizeable dents in 
the fagade of public-school culture. 

A few months before, in a Christmas message to the readers of the 
London Sunday Times, Somerset Maugham had expressed his opinions 
of state-aided undergraduates. It was simple and unequivocal: "They 
are scum," said the Old Party. He was in fact referring to Jim Dixon, 
the hero of Kingsley Amis' immensely successful novel. Lucky Jim. 
Dixon, who lectures at a minor university, is a frankly comic character, 
much less ferocious than Jimmy Porter; he keeps his anger in check by 
drinking and pulling dreadful faces; but he shares with Osborne's hero 
a defiant provincialism, semi-proletarian origins, and the kind of bUthe 
disgruntlement that inspires such phrases as "the interminable facetious- 
ness of filthy Mozart." By Mr. Maugham's standards Look Back in 



Part I: The British Theatre 193 

Anger was the apotheosis of scum. The letter columns of the more 
pompous dailies were soon filled with similar opinions. These young men 
(said one correspondent) were just envious upstarts: in a decently run 
society they would have been sent out to work at fourteen with no time 
to brood about ideas above their station. 

Despite his greater violence and dogmatism, it was clear that 
Jimmy Porter was speaking essentially the same idiom as Lucky Jim 
and the heroes of John Wain's Hurry on Down and Iris Murdoch's 
Under the Net. Both these novels, the work of writers under thirty, had 
been grouped with Amis' and achieved a comparable celebrity. Wain's 
hero was a young provincial iconoclast whose occupations included, at 
various times, window-cleaning and dope-running: Miss Murdoch's 
was an aimless pub-crawler with a mordant sense of humour and a 
talent for sponging. Both were obvious forerunners of Jimmy Porter. 
All the same, to most of the London critics he was a new and unheard- 
of disease. They reacted to the play with flustered disapproval; while 
acknowledging Osborne's command of dialogue, they dismissed his 
hero as "a young pup." 

The salient thing about Jimmy Porter was that we — the under- 
thirty generation in Britain — recognised him on sight. We had met him; 
we had pub-crawled with him; we had shared bed-sitting-rooms with 
him. For the first time the theatre was speaking to us in our own lan- 
guage, on our own terms. Most young people had hitherto regarded the 
English theatre as a dusty anachronism which, as Dylan Thomas said of 
a certain Welsh museum, ought to be in a museum. Osborne showed 
them their error; and some of them even began to write plays. 

The under-thirties responded to many qualities in Jimmy Porter — 
his impulsive, unargued leftishness, his anarchic sense of humour, and 
his suspicion that all the brave causes had been either won or dis- 
credited. For too long British culture had languished in a freezing-unit 
of understatement and "good taste." In these chill latitudes Jimmy 
Porter flamed like a blowtorch. He was not, like Jean Cocteau, "trop 
occupe pour etre engage"; he cared, and cared bitterly. On the one hand, 
he represented the dismay of many young Britons whose childhood and 
adolescence were scarred by the depression and the war; who came of 
age under a Socialist government, yet found, when they went out into 
the world, that the class system was still mysteriously intact. On the 
other hand, he reflected the much wider problem of what to do with a 
liberal education in a technological world. In Britain, as elsewhere, the 
men who count are the technocrats of whom Sir Charles Snow writes. 
Jimmy Porter's education fitted him for entry into the intelligentsia at 



1 94 Part I: The British Theatre 

the very moment when the intelligentsia were ceasing to matter. He 
lurks, a ghostly, snarhng dodo, in the scientists' shadow. 

In Europe as on Broadway, it is diflEicult to escape Look Back in 
Anger. Nearly every repertory company in Britain has performed it, 
and it is being played all over Germany and Scandinavia. Osborne 
followed it up in 1957 with another hit, The Entertainer, which reper- 
cussed almost as widely. In just eighteen months an obscure repertory 
actor had become one of the most prosperous playwrights of the century, 
with a weekly income in the neighbourhood of £.3,500. Osborne married 
his leading lady, Mary Ure, and moved into a smart little Chelsea back- 
water, at least a class and a half above Fulham, the suburb of his birth, 
where he and his mother (a contented barmaid) at one time subsisted 
on a joint income of less than a pound a week. Once, as a boy, he was 
out walking with his grandfather, who surprised him by indignantly 
cutting a passer-by who greeted them. "That man's a Socialist," said 
grandfather in explanation. "That's a man who doesn't believe in 
raising his hat." Osborne has never found a better definition of his own 
Socialism: its emblem is an untugged forelock rampant. When a master 
slapped his face at school, he at once riposted by slapping the master; 
and this, in Britain, takes preternatural guts. 

He is passionate in his refusal to venerate what he calls "the idiot 
heroes" of patriotic movies; and his fervent republicanism recently led 
him to describe the British royal family as "the gold filling in a mouthful 
of decay." He will probably always be a bad belonger, to any party or 
group; his real talent is for dissent. But when his enemies complain that 
all his opinions are negative, I think they forget that nowadays there 
is a positive value in merely standing against a current of events which 
you believe is moving towards suicide. Osborne is a disconcerting, rather 
impenetrable person to meet: tall and slim, wearing his shoulders in a 
defensive bunch around his neck; gentle in manner, yet vocally harsh 
and cawing; sharp-toothed, yet a convinced vegetarian. He looks wan 
and driven, and is nervously prone to indulge in sudden, wolfish, silly- 
ass grins. SartoriaUy he is something of a peacock, and his sideburns add 
a sinister touch of the Apache. A dandy, if you like: but a dandy with 
a machine-gun. 

Unlike Jimmy Porter, Osborne never went to a university. This is 
about all he has in common with Colin Wilson, the brash young meta- 
physical whose first book, The Outsider, was hailed as a masterpiece by 
several middle-aged critics who saw in its philosophy of salvation 
through despair an antidote to their own disillusion. Although a play- 
wright can get along without the disciplines of higher education, a 



Part I : The British Theatre 195 

philosopher cannot, as Wilson's book awfully proved. As one ploughed 
through its inconsistencies, repetitions, and flights of paranoid illogic 
(an experience rather like walking knee-deep in hot sand), all one could 
state with any certainty was that an "outsider" was anyone whose books 
happened to have been on the author's recent hbrary Hst. "We read 
Anatole France," said a French critic, "to find out what Anatole France 
has been reading"; and the same is true of Wilson. He was angry, all 
right, but his anger was more presumptuously cosmic than that of Os- 
borne and the rest. For him we were not just misguided: we were rotten 
to the core. As far as I could make out, Wilson's philosophic position was 
somewhere between existentialism and Norman Vincent Peale; but his 
talk of a spiritual revival, with an elite of outsiders leading the world out 
of chaos, exerted a hypnotic charm on the lonely and maladjusted, who 
are always enticed by the promise of words like elite. Shaw was post- 
humously enrolled in the cult: not Shaw the Fabian SociaUst and wit, 
but that later, lesser Shaw whose belief in the "life force" led him to 
condone dictatorship. This, cried Wilson, was the greatest reUgious 
thinker of modern times. 

In 1957, fresh from unsuccessful flirtations with acting and play- 
writing, a twenty-four-year-old Yorkshireman named Stuart Holroyd 
climbed on the Bund-wagon by writing a philosophical work called 
Emergence from Chaos, which more or less followed the Wilson line. 
According to Holroyd, democracy was "a myth" and government was 
best left to "an expert minority"; but by now it was beginning to dawn 
on many people that such ideas, if not consciously fascist, were certainly 
the soil in which fascism grew. Wilson's second book. Religion and the 
Rebel, appeared last autumn. It proved to be a road-company version 
of the first, and was obliteratingly panned. 

Not all the prominent young Britons of today are self-taught. Many 
of them were at Oxford when I was there, during the four years im- 
mediately after the war. As undergraduate generations go, it was dis- 
orderly and a bit piratical, but full of gusto and wildfire. There was 
plenty of gaiety about, but not of the fox-hunting, cork-popping, 
bounder-deb agging kind that followed World War I; most of the new 
undergraduates were ex-servicemen living on government grants, for 
whom upper-class prankishness held very little appeal. Kingsley Amis 
and John Wain both come from the Oxford of that period. Neither of 
them had an Oxford accent, which is ordinary speech pushed through a 
constipated flute: that sort of "poshness" was emphatically out. Both 
Amis and Wain were (and are) poets and critics as well as novelists, 
and after graduation both taught at provincial universities; and it is this 



196 f^^^ I: The British Theatre 

all-round academicism that makes their writing at once saner and tamer 
than, for instance, Osborne's. Another post-war Oxonian was Lindsay 
Anderson, whose anger with the status quo has not been off the boil for 
at least ten years. A formidable film critic, director, and polemicist, he 
has done more than anyone else to bring the idea of "committed art" 
into public controversy. Many Continental critics today speak of Ander- 
son as if he were the dominant force in British cinema. According to one 
reporter, the party thrown by Mike Todd after the Cannes premiere 
of Around the World in Eighty Days was entirely made up of people 
anxiously whispering, in eighteen languages: "Lindsay didn't like it." 
He won an Academy Award in 1955 for Thursday's Children, a 
documentary about the education of deaf-mutes, and a Venice Grand 
Prix two years later for a forty-minute exploration of life in Covent 
Garden market; and though he has yet to make a feature film, his posi- 
tion as a critical moralist and spokesman for life-embracing cinema is 
unique in Britain. Quite apart from its A.Y.M.'s, the post-war Oxford 
vintage was a heady one. It also produced Tony Richardson, who di- 
rected both of Osborne's plays in London and on Broadway; Sandy 
Wilson, author of The Boy Friend, the most successful of post-war 
British musicals; and Roger Bannister, the first four-minute miler. In 
Labour politics it turned out the virulent back-bencher Anthony 
Wedgwood Benn; and on the Tory side, Sir Edward Boyle, who was the 
youngest member of the Eden cabinet when he resigned as a protest 
against the Franco-British invasion of Egypt. 

The flag-wagging, wog-flogging assault on Suez was a great pro- 
moter of anger. Passions long thought extinct flared everywhere; people 
who had prided themselves on their detachment suddenly found them- 
selves clobbering their best friends. Reasonably enough, those who were 
anti-Suez also tended to be supporters of Look Back in Anger. In the 
heat of the crisis, while smoke-bombs were bursting in Downing Street 
and mounted police charged the crowds in Whitehall, Osborne con- 
ceived his second play, The Entertainer. When it opened last April, the 
leading role was played — and played to the hilt — by Sir Laurence 
Olivier. Significantly, it was he who approached Osborne for a part, 
presumably on the principle of joining what you can't lick. This was the 
Establishment's first bow to the "angries." It meant that they had offi- 
cially arrived. 

It also established the Royal Court Theatre as the home of forward- 
looking British drama. Angus Wilson's first play had its London pre- 
miere there; so did Nigel Dennis' Swiftian satire. Cards of Identity, and 
the same author's furious parable. The Making of Moo, which is the 



Part I: The British Theatre 197 

only overtly atheistic play in the English language. Newcomers like 
Michael Hastings, the ambitious East End teen-ager, saw their work 
conscientiously staged; and the whole venture throve, and thrives still, 
in a heady intellectual ferment. Its fiscal keystone, however, was Os- 
borne, who has proved against all augury that you can make a fortune 
by telling an audience the very things about itself that it wants least to 
hear. 

On the other side of the Thames the National Film Theatre has 
developed into a comparable oasis of progressive cinema, with the 
pugnacious film magazine Sight and Sound acting as its ally and inter- 
preter. Nor have I yet mentioned such associated phenomena as the 
rhetorical left-wing poet Christopher Logue or the stoutly committed 
art critic John Berger, whose influence on the graphic arts is roughly 
commensurate with Lindsay Anderson's on the cinema. 

The newest angry is a fleshy Yorkshireman named John Braine, 
whose novel Room at the Top, an analysis of the means used by an 
amoral young opportunist to break into the upper stratum of provincial 
society, was among the larger English best-seflers of 1957. Shrewd and 
deliberate of speech, Braine has the stamina of a youthful J. B. Priestley, 
plus a vein of bizarre, unfettered humour that will probably seep into 
his next novel: its title. The Vodi, is the name of a monumentally batty 
secret society which has figured in his private fantasies for many years. 
He is at heart a plain old-fashioned Socialist with a common-sense 
regional brogue, but there is wildness in his background. He was con- 
nected, during the war, with a mildly anarchist group in Yorkshire that 
pubhshed a mimeographed broadsheet with an unprintable name. (One 
of its members, hating regimentation, gathered together a number of 
cans and fixed them with wire to selected lamp-posts in the town where 
he lived. On each can he painted the words: "Please put your Identity 
Cards in here." Before the police removed the cans he had collected, and 
subsequently burned, nearly five thousand cards.) 

Braine exudes ambition and may easily outlast many of his fellow 
angries. His egotism is extremely disarming. After a long conversation 
some months ago he warned me not to be surprised if much of our talk 
turned up in his next book. "And if you complain of being plagiarised," 
he said gustily, with his little finger admonitorily raised, "I shall expose 
you to the world as one who tried to climb to fame on the back of that 
colossus of letters — Braine." 

In many directions, a lot of unequal talent is exploding. Certain 
things, however, seem to be agreed on, certain attitudes towards the 
relationship of the arts to living. The ivory tower has collapsed for good. 



198 Parth The British Theatre 

The lofty, lapidary, "mandarin" style of writing has been replaced by 
prose that has its feet on the ground. And the word "civihsed," which 
had come to mean "detached, polite, above the tumult," is being re- 
stored to its old etymological meaning: to be civilised nowadays is to 
care about society and to feel oneself a responsible part of it. The books, 
plays, poems, films, and paintings that the young Britons are trying to 
turn out may well be ham-fisted and un-EngUshly crude, but they will 
be based on the idea that art is an influence on life, not a refuge from it 
or an alternative to it. That, really, is what the anger is all about. It is 
anger that our kind of world is so chary of that kind of art. 

If you object that you have heard this sort of thing before, I urge 
you to remember that the day you stop hearing it will be the day on 
which art shrugs its shoulders, gives up the ghost, and dies. Britain's 
angry young men may be jejune and strident, but they are involved in 
the only belief that matters: that life begins tomorrow. 

(i9S8) 



A Resounding Tinkle, by N. F. Simpson, at the Royal Court. 

About the highest tribute I can pay N. F. Simpson's A Resounding 
Tinkle, which was tried out at the Royal Court last Sunday, is to say that 
it does not belong in the EngUsh theatrical tradition at all. It derives 
from the best Benchley lectures, the wildest Thurber cartoons, and the 
cream of the Goon Shows. It has some affinities with the early revues of 
Robert Dhery and many more with the plays of M. lonesco. In English 
drama it is, as far as I know, unique. It is also astonishingly funny, and a 
superb vindication of the judicial acumen that placed it third in The 
Observer play competition. 

To sustain anarchic humour for a full evening is among the hardest 
things a playwright can attempt. Once having espoused the illogical, the 
irrelevant, the surreal, he is committed: a single lapse into logic, rele- 
vance, or reality, and he is undone. A playwright of Mr. Simpson's kind 
comes defenceless to the theatre. He has voluntarily discarded most of 
the dramatist's conventional weapons. He can have no plot, since plots 
demand logical development. Lacking a plot, he can make no use of 
suspense, that miraculous device which, by focusing our attention on 
what is going to happen next, prevents us from being intelligently critical 
of what is happening now. Mr. Simpson can never free-wheel hke that. 
At every turn he must take us by surprise. His method must be a per- 
petual ambush. All playwrights must invent, but he must invent inces- 



Part I: The British Theatre 199 

santly and unpredictably. It is the only weapon left him — he is other- 
wise naked. As naked, perhaps, as a British Foreign Secretary without 
an H-bomb; yet unilateral disarmament, even in the theatre, is an ex- 
tremely disarming thing. At least, the audience seemed to find it so. 

What they saw, hilarious though it was, notably differed from the 
play to which we of The Observer awarded the prize. Mr. Simpson had 
revised and reshuffled it, and there were moments when I felt like the 
American director who, revisiting one of his old productions, found it 
necessary to call an immediate rehearsal "to take out the improvements." 
The original text began in the suburban home of Bro and Middle Para- 
dock, a young married couple disturbed by the presence, in their front 
garden, of an elephant they had not ordered. The question soon arose of 
how to name it. Middle conservatively favoured "Mr. Trench," their 
usual name for unexpectedly delivered animals, a suggestion which the 
radical Bro countered with bravura alternatives such as " 'Tis-Pity-She's- 
A-Whore Hignett." The debate was interrupted by the arrival of two 
Comedians, who were lodged in the kitchen, from which they emerged 
from time to time to discuss, with examples, the nature of comedy. This 
arrangement set up what I may call, with a deep breath, a sort of coun- 
terpoint. Mr. Simpson has since decided to lump all the Comedian 
scenes together into his first act, while reserving the Paradock scenes for 
the second. I take this to be a back-breaking error, and when the English 
Stage Company decides (as it surely must) to put on the play for a run, 
I hope it will amalgamate the two texts and insist on a new ending. 

Even as it stands, this is a revolutionarily funny piece of work. In a 
programme note Mr. Simpson declares his indebtedness to the simple 
fact that the earth, given luck, can support life for another twelve hun- 
dred thousand years. How, for so long, are we to keep ourselves amused? 
This is the problem that faced the tramps in Waiting for Godot. An 
astonished patience is Mr. Simpson's answer, as he implies when one of 
the Comedians doubts the audience's ability to sit through a play full of 
pauses and the other replies by asking him whether he has ever com- 
plained of buying a sponge full of holes. 

I prefer Mr. Simpson's assumption, which is that we are all on the 
brink of boredom, to that of most comic writers, which is that we are all 
on the brink of hilarity. Bro Paradock (Nigel Davenport) is a splendidly 
sour creation, drab, leather-elbowed, and disgruntled, comic because he 
reacts with no surprise to circumstances of absolute fantasy. Neither he 
nor his wife. Middle (Wendy Craig, a pretty study of controlled disgust), 
is perturbed when their Uncle Ted turns out to be a woman; and he has 
nothing but quiet scorn for the man who calls and asks him, at six o'clock 



200 P^'Tt I: The British Theatre 

in the evening, to form a Government. (As he says, that's the Prime 
Minister's job.) 

About a fifth of Mr. Simpson's family portrait is voulu, polysyllabic, 
and of a determined quaintness. The rest is pure plutonium, by which I 
mean something that is rarer than gold. 



Hazards of Play going. 

There are a good many inconveniences attached to the simple act 
of going to a theatre. The greatest of these is usually the play itself, and 
on this most critics rightly concentrate. In an empty week, however, I 
have been pondering those minor irritations, peas under the mattress, 
that ought to be removed if playgoing is to take its proper place among 
life's softer options. 

One such pea, in London at least, is the difficulty of finding out 
what theatre is housing the play you want to see. The list of attractions 
used by West End managers to advertise their wares in the newspapers 
is primarily a list of theatres, not of plays. If your choice is Divorce Me, 
Darling, you may have to run through the names of forty playhouses 
before finding what you want. In New York you would simply look 
under "D," and there, after Dig My Gallows Deep and before Dreyfus 
and Son, it would be, followed by the name and address of the theatre. 
The London system harks back to the days of the actor-managers, when 
you went to the Lyceum to see Irving without caring very much what 
you were going to see him in. Nowadays, when the play and not the 
playhouse is the thing, the New York arrangement is clearly more 
sensible. 

Having identified the theatre, you next have to get there. Here 
London has the advantage of both Paris and New York, especially if 
you travel by taxi. Seen from the air around curtain-time, Broadway 
resembles a war of caterpillars; rows of cabs, minutely jerking forwards, 
clog the whole area. In Paris, of course, aU taxis vanish from the streets 
for half an hour before the curtain goes up. You occasionally catch sight 
of one roaring out to keep a date with destiny or dinner at Courbevoie, 
but the chance of its stopping is remote; the most you can expect is a 
tragic shrug from the driver as he flashes by, the slave of fate or his 
stomach. 

Assuming you arrive at the theatre, you must then dispose of your 
coat. You will almost certainly be wearing one. Indoor drama thrives 



Part I: The British Theatre 201 

only in cold weather; few people in hot climates would be foolish enough 
to spend a whole evening indoors with neither wine nor words on their 
lips. The cloakrooms of most London theatres are mere holes in the 
wall, wardrobes occupied by five hundred coats and one human being, 
and it is amazing that M. lonesco has not written a play about them. 
Berlin and Moscow are the only cities known to me that have solved 
the garment-reclaiming problem. At the Schiller-Theater in Berlin there 
are two long walls of cloakrooms in the foyer, staffed by twenty attend- 
ants, and the same is true of the Moscow Art. 

The scandal of London theatre programmes is notorious and 
seemingly incurable. Whenever I watch British audiences happily pay- 
ing sixpence for eight pages of text, six of which are devoted to advertise- 
ments, a quotation from Brecht leaps to my mind: "I can see their divine 
patience, but where is their divine fury?" In Paris, at the very least, you 
get a little booklet for your money; and in New York you get a rather 
larger booklet for nothing. Playbill, the Broadway programme, is pub- 
lished and edited by a private company; it is in fact a forty-page weekly 
magazine, with critical articles on international drama, and full biog- 
raphies of the author, director, and actors. The only London theatre to 
have taken even a tentative step in this direction is the Westminster, 
where the programmes tell you not only who the actors are but where 
you last saw them. Unfortunately, in many of the plays produced at this 
theatre the information is not encouraging. 

Interval amenities vary from capital to capital. In New York (as 
in Paris) I tend to doze, drugged by the heat: the reviving draughts that 
sweep across London theatres are unknown in these upholstered ovens. 
The New Yorkers themselves, forbidden liquor in theatres, obey laconic 
commands to "get your orange drinks, get your refreshing orange 
drinks." The French make unhurried bee-lines for the longest, best- 
stocked theatre bars on earth. Meanwhile the Englishman is barking his 
elbows in a tiny, thronged snuggery where warm gin is dispensed by 
surly, glaring, female teetotallers. 

The final hazard of London playgoing is the playing of the National 
Anthem, during which we stand to attention, while gloves, scarves, and 
programmes fall unregarded to the floor. This compulsive display of 
patriotism (unknown outside Britain and the Commonwealth) is today 
almost classifiable as a game. People with at least one hand on the exit- 
door when the drum-roll begins are held to be exempt from standing 
through Dr. Bull's little melody. The rest must stay rooted to the spot, 
staring vaingloriously at the curtain; if they move, some undefined 
forfeit is payable. 



202 Part I: The British Theatre 

Only two British theatres have departed from this nightly habit of 
sending the Queen happy. One is Theatre Workshop, where (says the 
programme) "the National Anthem will be played only in the presence 
of royalty or heads of States." The other is the Royal Opera House, 
Covent Garden, where it is played once a year, at the beginning of the 
season. This seems a sane procedure. I might add that royalist hymns 
can be extremely irksome to foreigners. Some years ago the Americans 
in the London production of Guys and Dolls were requested to sing the 
anthem after the opening performance. All agreed except one, who 
shook his head and said: "It ain't my toon." Besought to change his 
mind, he declined. "It's a matter of principle," he said. "I'm for the 
people. They oughta get sent." 

One thing about the London theatre, though: you can get into it. 
Contrast this with the Palais de Chaillot in Paris, the home of the 
Theatre National Populaire and the most impenetrable playhouse on 
earth. You have, let us say, booked a seat and go to the controle to col- 
lect it. But no, this is the agency controle; you must go to the other, which 
handles private reservations. You sprint across, while a voice barks 
through a loudspeaker that unless you take your seat in three minutes 
you will be excluded from the performance. 

You seize your ticket and dart {"Deux minutes") towards the 
escalator that leads to the vast subterranean auditorium. You scuttle, 
skidding, down two marble staircases ("Une minute"), whereupon the 
full Kafkaesque horror is unleashed on you: not a warning bell, but a 
deafening fanfare of hunting horns blares out of the wall at your ear. 
You run along echoing corridors, to cries of "Au bout, monsieur, et puis 
a gauche." More trumpets shriek, and you fling yourself into your seat. 
Ten minutes pass, during which nothing happens. At length the curtain 
rises and you realise, too late, that you have no programme. 



The Iceman Cometh, by Eugene O'Neill, at the Arts; Cat on a 
Hot Tin Roof, by Tennessee Williams, at the Comedy. 

Paul Valery once defined the true snob as a man who was afraid 
to admit that he was bored when he was bored; and he would be a king 
of snobs indeed who failed to admit to a mauvais quart d'heure about 
halfway through The Iceman Cometh. But perhaps, as a colleague 
suggests, all great art should be slightly boring. A vast structure is to be 



Fart I: The British Theatre 203 

built, and in the long process there are bound to be moments of tedium : 
they are the price we pay for size and splendour, and we pay it gladly 
once the architect has convinced us that we can trust him. O'Neill 
convinced last Wednesday's audience in thirty minutes flat, after which 
no doubts remained. This was no crank, planning a folly dependent on 
sky-hooks: we were safe in the hands of the American theatre's nearest 
counterpart to Frank Lloyd Wright. 

But how did he hold us in our seats through four hours and more of 
circular alcoholic conversation? By means of verbal magic? I think not. 
O'Neill writes clumsUy and top-heavily. He never achieves the luminous, 
crystalHsing phrase, nor has he the opposite virtue of earthy authentic- 
ity: his gin-mill dialogue has the stagey swagger of melodrama. If it 
isn't the language, then, is it the universaHty of the theme? Again, no. 
Most of the characters are special cases, confirmed alcoholics out of 
touch with any kind of reaUty that cannot be bottled. When Hickey, the 
reformed drunk, urges these red-eyed wet-brains to abandon their pipe- 
dreams and face the truth about themselves, we know that the cure 
wUl kill them; but we cannot relate this knowledge to our own lives as 
we can, for instance, when Gregers Werle strips Ekdal of his illusions in 
The Wild Duck. Many of us, like Ekdal, have a dark-room of the soul 
where we develop dreams that the light of day would obliterate. But 
very few of us actually live in the dark-room, so enslaved to our 
fantasies that we would rather have D.T.'s than give them up. 

No, what holds us about the play is the insight it gives us into 
O'NeUl himself. It is a dramatised neurosis, with no holds barred, written 
in a vein of unsparing, implacable honesty. "Speak, that I may see thee," 
said Ben Jonson; and when O'Neill speaks, he hides nothing. Instead of 
listening to a story, we are shaking hands with a man, and a man whose 
vision of life is as profoundly dark as any since Aeschylus. It is this 
autobiographical intensity that grips us throughout the longueurs of the 
narrative and the gawkiness (I had almost said Gorkiness) of the 
style. For O'Neill, a pipe-dream is not just one alternative to despair: it 
is the only alternative. His bar-room derelicts comfort and sustain one 
another as long as each tolerates the others' illusions. Once Hickey has 
removed the illusions, nothing remains but guilt and mutual accusation. 
One may not agree with O'Neill's conclusions, but one cannot escape 
the look in his eye, which is as magnetic as the Ancient Mariner's. He 
speaks like a man who has touched bottom himself; for whom words 
like "inferior" no longer have meaning. He is one of the few writers 
who can enter, without condescension or contempt, the world of those 
whom the world has rejected. 



204 P^rt I: The British Theatre 

The play demands and gets superb direction. Peter Wood's produc- 
tion is better in many respects than the New York version I saw and 
admired last spring. Like all good directors, Mr. Wood is loyal to the 
text; he is also constructively disloyal to the hysterical punctuation and 
overheated stage-directions of which American playwrights are so fond. 
His cast deserves individual attention. Nicholas Meredith plays a 
cashiered Blimp, making a character out of a caricature by discreet 
understatement; Lee Montague is funny, dour, and truthful as an Ital- 
ian bar keep who cannot bring himself to admit that he is also a pimp; 
and Jack MacGowran, pinch-faced and baggy-trousered, plays the 
tetchy proprietor with a weasel brilliance I have not seen since the hey- 
day of F. J. McCormick. In the sketchily written role of a drunken 
Harvard alumnus, Michael Bryant gets closer to the raw nerve of reahty 
than any West End debutant I can remember. The pale, shaky smile, 
the carefully preserved sophistication, the glib, hectic dehvery all con- 
verge to make a rounded, original whole, half clown, half martyr. 

Of the three central characters, Patrick Magee does not quite get 
the rock-sombre melancholy of Larry, the disgusted nihilist who has 
deserted anarchism for drink; but the other two are perfect — Vivian 
Matalon as a guilty young stool-pigeon, pathetically ripe for suicide, and 
Ian Bannen, as Hickey, the manic salesman, driving his friends to de- 
struction with the enthusiasm of a revivalist. I winced a bit at the Ken- 
sington cosiness of Mr. Wood's three waterfront tarts. Otherwise, the 
production is flawless. It makes a wonderful worrying evening. 

By a useful coincidence. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof also explores the 
impact of truth on illusion, the difference being that where O'Neill thinks 
pipe-dreams necessary, Tennessee WilHams condemns them under the 
generic heading of "mendacity." A world war separates the two plays. 
In jazz terms. The Iceman Cometh (1939) is a collective improvisation 
on a traditional blues theme. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1954) belongs to 
the modernist school, its three acts being in essence three long introspec- 
tive solos (by, respectively, Maggie, Big Daddy, and Big Mama), ac- 
companied throughout by the ground-bass of Brick's pervasive melan- 
choly. 

The first act lays bare a breaking marriage : Brick, the liquor-loving 
son of a Southern millionaire, can no longer sleep with Maggie, his wife. 
The second act tells us why, in the course of a scorching duologue be- 
tween father and son which reveals that Brick is a latent homosexual, 
consumed with guilt because he spurned a college friend who loved him 
and died, shortly after the spurning, of drink. Brutally reacting to this 
harsh dose of truth, Brick ripostes in kind, and Big Daddy learns what 



Part I: The British Theatre 205 

the rest of the family akeady knows: that he is suffering from inoper- 
able cancer. In the last act the relations gather round Big Mama to 
batten on the inheritance. Maggie wins it by pretending to be pregnant. 
To support her lie, Brick must sleep with her; and thus mendacity breeds 
mendacity. 

A magnificent play: but modem jazz, to pursue the metaphor, 
calls for much greater technical virtuosity than Dixieland. Williams' 
quasi-tragedy needs superlative soloists, superlatively directed. After 
seeing Peter Hall's production I feel I owe an apology to Elia Kazan. 
I still prefer the author's third act (here played for the first time) 
to the modified version approved by Mr. Kazan; but I missed, more 
than I would ever have thought possible, the galvanic inspiration of 
Mr. Kazan's direction. Mr. Hall's pace is lethargic: he stresses every- 
thing except what needs stressing. General sloth may account for the 
cutting of (among others) Big Daddy's best speech; but I cannot think 
what could account for the omission of the play's last vital line, in which 
Brick ironically queries Maggie's protestations of love, unless it was the 
inadequacy of the actor playing the part. Paul Massie, to whom I refer, 
is callow and absurdly unprepared for a searching test like Brick. All 
the same, he ought to have been allowed to utter, however lamely, the 
final clinching statement of the play. 

Leo McKern, with crudely padded shoulders, uses enormous vocal 
exertions to become Big Daddy; but the more he tries, the more he fails, 
for the whole point about the character is that his cynical, animal zest 
should flow without effort. Which leaves us with Kim Stanley, the gifted 
Broadway actress who plays Maggie the Cat. Miss Stanley has all the 
qualities for the part, an anxious lyricism, a limpid voice, tear-puffed 
eyes, and indomitable gallantry; but, as pregnant women are said to be 
eating for two, she found herself quite early on acting for four. It was 
like watching a first-rate squash player hammering away at a court 
without walls. 

('9SS) 



Epitaph for George Dillon, by John Osborne and Anthony 
Creighton, at the Royal Court, 

The second act of Epitaph for George Dillon, written four years 
ago by John Osborne and Anthony Creighton, contains a long duologue 
which in terms of human contact and mutual exploration is better than 
anything in Mr. Osborne's later unaided works. One of the participants 



206 Part I: The British Theatre 

is Dillon himself, a farouche young actor-dramatist currently sponging 
on a suburban family straight out of Mr. Coward's Fumed Oak. (Subject 
for a thesis: estimate the influence on Mr. Osborne's later plays of The 
Vortex and Red Peppers, also bearing in mind that the dismissive use of 
"little," favoured by Mr. Osborne in a plethora of phrases beginning 
"nasty little," "feeble little," "sordid little," etc., was pioneered by Mr. 
Coward in the twenties.) Dillon has walked out on his wife, a prosperous 
actress whom he venomously accuses, a la Jimmy Porter, of having 
"betrayed" him. In his new suburban bolt-hole he meets, as Jimmy 
never did, his intellectual match. 

This is Aunt Ruth, the family outsider, whose life has hit the emo- 
tional doldrums. She has just ended two affairs, one of them with Com- 
munism and the other with a young writer skilled in the neurotic art of 
extorting love by means of pathos. The job of playing Marchbanks to 
her Candida is temporarily vacant. George volunteers for the part, and 
the scene in which they come to grips (or, rather, fail to come to grips) 
is an object lesson in meaty, muscular, dramatic writing. 

Ruth, the born giver, slowly recognises in George a born taker. He 
savages her cliche-ridden family, whom he regards as part of a universal 
conspiracy to destroy him. "I attract hostility," he declares in a paranoid 
ecstasy, "I'm on heat for it." (Note the female sexual image: one would 
love to let a good analyst loose on George. ) Whenever he goes too far, 
he resorts to spasms of little-boy charm and bursts of comic improvisa- 
tion; but though Ruth laughs with him and is sorry for him, she has 
hved through such scenes before. No more of that sickness for her; no 
more diving to the rescue of people who scream for help while lying in 
puddles, achieving by the pretense of drowning a voluptuous fusion of 
self-pity and power over others. George's only justification for his be- 
haviour is his talent. But where, as Ruth piercingly reminds him, is the 
evidence that he has any talent at all? And at length George admits to 
a terrible doubt. He has all the popular symptoms of genius, but perhaps 
not the disease itself. The admission, however, cuts no ice with Ruth, 
and George has to console himself by jumping into bed with her teen-age 
niece. 

Up to this point, apart from a few glaring crudities in the handling 
of flashbacks, the play is entirely successful — powerful, honest, and 
transfixing. The spirit of suburbia is lovingly captured in Stephen Don- 
caster's setting and the performances of Alison Leggatt, Wendy Craig, 
and especially Avril Elgar, whose dowdy spinster daughter, merry as a 
jerboa, is twin sister to Alec Guinness' unforgotten Abel Drugger. Wil- 
liam Gaskill's direction drives shrewdly throughout. 



Part I: The British Theatre 207 

Yvonne Mitchell, though she lacks the years for the part, plays 
Ruth with a steely, sad directness that is exactly right; and one could not 
wish for a better George than Robert Stephens, one of the new "red- 
brick actors," neither actorish in aspect nor conventionally po-voiced, to 
whom the English Stage Company has introduced us. Mr. Stephens 
makes George both wolfish and wan, and there is in his voice a cawing 
note that may even have been modelled on Mr. Osborne himself. This 
is the cleverest portrait I have seen of a certain kind of neurotic artist. 

But what kind? Good or bad? And this is where the authors let us 
down. In the third act George makes one of his plays a provincial hit by 
spiking it with sex; simultaneously he recovers from an attack of T.B. 
and agrees to marry Ruth's niece, who is pregnant by him. He ends in 
tears. But are they the tears of a good writer frustrated by the commer- 
cial theatre and suburban morality? Or the tears of a bad writer who has 
at last met himself face to face? We are given no clue. If George is seri- 
ously intended to be a persecuted genius, then the whole play, not just 
the hero, is paranoid to the point of hysteria. If, on the other hand, he is 
a mediocre writer forced at length to accept his own mediocrity, it is a 
play of astounding courage and strength. The authors shrug and allow 
us to guess which answer is right, which is as if one were to write a play 
about the crucifixion of a miracle healer without giving the smallest hint 
as to whether the cures worked. Have we been rooting for a phoney or 
the real thing? The mere fact of doubt indicates that the play has mis- 
fired. Yet the fire is there, boiling and licking, however neurotically; and 
you must not miss that second act. 

(i9SS) 



The Potting Shed, by Graham Greene, at the Globe. 

The time is ten years hence, a decade after the London opening of 
Graham Greene's The Potting Shed. A Failed Drama Critic lies abed in 
his dingy lodgings, up to here in Scotch. Around him are the bleak and 
grimy symbols of his faith — the cobwebbed bust of Brecht, the mildewed 
model of the National Theatre, the yellowing autograph of Stanislavsky, 
the drab little pot of clotted Eulogy, the rusty Panning Pen. He looks 
somehow void and empty, though of course, as we know, he is up to 
here. A young Psychiatrist is interrogating him. 

p.: But in that case why do you still go to the theatre? 

c. (simply, if indistinctly): It's my job. Once a critic, always a 
critic. It's my half of the promise. Sometimes I fall down during the An- 



208 Parti: The British Theatre 

them and disappear for acts on end, and then they have to take my pen 
away for a while. But I always come back. The people need critics, and 
a whisky-critic's better than none. 

p.: Even if he's lost his vocation? 

c: Even then. But don't misunderstand me. I'm not a bad critic. 
[ go through the motions. I get out of bed every day at seven o'clock in 
the evening and go to the theatre. Sometimes there isn't a play on, but I 
go anyway, in case I'm needed. It's a matter of conscience. Have another 
slug of fire-water. 

p.: Not just now. Can you remember exactly where you lost your 
faith? When did you last have it with you? 

c: I didn't lose it. It was taken away from me one night ten years 
ago at the old Globe Theatre, before they turned it into a car-park. John 
Gielgud was in the play. Very wrought-up he was, very curt and brusque 
— you know how he used to talk to other actors as if he was going to tip 
them? Irene Worth played his ex- wife. Then there was Owen Ffrangcon- 
Davies, very fierce, and a clever little pouter called Sarah Long. And 
Redmond Phillips — he played a frocked sot on the brink of the shakes. 
He was the best of a fine lot. No, you couldn't complain about the act- 
ing. But somehow that made it worse. (He sobs controllably.) 

p. (controllingly) : Tell me about the play. Force yourself back into 
the theatre. Slump now as you slumped then in D16. 

c. (in a hoarse whisper) : Graham Greene wrote it. It began with 
the death of a famous atheist, head of a rationalist clan. Greene made 
them out to be a bunch of decrepit puritans, so old-fashioned that they 
even enjoyed the company of dowdy duUards like Bertrand Russell. But 
fair enough: Greene's a Catholic, and the history of Catholicism shows 
that you can't make an omelette without breaking eggheads. Anti-intel- 
lectual jokes are part of the recipe. At first I thought I was in for a who- 
dunit. The old man's son — Sir John — was kept away from the death- 
bed because of something nameless that had happened to him in the 
potting shed at the age of fourteen. There were clues all over the place. 
For one thing, he had recently lost his dog. . . . 

p. (shrewdly): Dog is God spelled backwards. 

c: The same crude thought occurred to me, but I rejected it 
(pity my complexity) as being unworthy of the author. How wrong I 
was! The hero's subsequent investigations into his past revealed that we 
were indeed dealing not with a whodunit but a God-dunit. He had 
hanged himself in the dread shed, and demonstrably died. And his un- 
cle, the priest, had begged God to revive him. Make me an offer, hag- 
gled the Deity. My faith in exchange for the boy's life, said the priest: 



Part I: The British Theatre 209 

and so the repulsive bargain was struck. The boy lived, and uncle lost 
his faith. My first impulse on hearing these farcical revelations was to 
protest by the only means at my disposal: a derisive hiccup. But then I 
looked about me and saw row after row of rapt, attentive faces. They 
were taking it seriously! And suddenly, in a blaze of darkness, I knew 
that my faith in the theatre and the people who attend it had been with- 
drawn from me. 

p.: But why? 

c. : You may not now remember the theatre as it was ten years ago. 
It seemed on the brink of renaissance. I was one of many who were 
newly flushed with a great conviction. We recklessly believed that a 
theatre was a place where human problems could be stated in human 
terms, a place from which supernatural intervention as a solution to such 
problems had at long last been ousted. Drama for us was an affirmation 
of humanism, and its basic maxim was not: "I die that you may live," 
but: "I live that you may five." The Potting Shed, financed by two nor- 
mally intelligent managements at a highly reputable theatre, shot us 
back overnight to the dark ages. 

P.: But what about Gibbon? "The Catholic superstition, which is 
always the enemy of reason, is often the parent of the arts"? 

c. : Art that is not allied with reason is today the enemy of life. And 
now you must excuse me. You have kept me in bed long after my usual 
time for getting up. And I have a first-night to attend. The play, I under- 
stand, is a fearless indictment of a priest who refuses to accompany a 
murderer to the scaffold because of stupid, heretical, rationalist doubts 
about the efficacy of prayer to bring the man back to life. The bounder 
will no doubt be shown his error. Meanwhile {he takes a deep draught 
of red-eye), here's to good old G.G.! Who said the Pope had no divi- 
sions? (ffe departs, half-clad and half-cut, to perform in a spirit of obe- 
dient humility the offices laid down for him by providence and the Soci- 
ety of West End Theatre Managers.) 

(195S) 



A Resounding Tinkle and The Hole, by N. F. Simpson, at the 
Royal Court. 

Two years ago last Tuesday there was no English Stage Company. 
What a dull theatre we must have had! And what on earth did we play- 
goers find to argue about? After only two years I can scarcely remember 
the theatrical landscape as it was before George Devine set up shop in 



210 Parti: The British Theatre 

Sloane Square and called in John Osborne, the Fulham flamethrower, 
to scald us with his rhetoric. The climate, on the whole, was listless. We 
quarrelled among ourselves over Brecht and the future of poetic drama; 
in debates with foreign visitors we crossed our fingers, swallowed hard, 
and talked of Terence Rattigan; but if we were critics, we must quite often 
have felt that we were practising our art in a vacuum. 

In two years and twenty-eight productions the Royal Court has 
changed all that. To an extent unknown since the Ibsen riots, it has 
made drama a matter of public controversy. It has button-holed us with 
new voices, some of them bawdy, many of them irreverent, and aU of 
them calculated to bring gooseflesh to the evening of Aunt Edna's life. It 
has raised hackles, Cain, laughs, and the standards of English drama- 
turgy. It has given the modern repertoire a permanent London address. 
At times, perhaps, it has appealed too exclusively to the coterie-votanQs 
(Chelsea offshoots of the North American culture-vultures). Yet in 
spite of this it has reached out and captured popular audiences on tele- 
vision and Broadway and in the West End. Once or twice, quite spectac- 
ularly, the Court has fallen on its face, but this is one of the occupational 
hazards you must expect if you set out to climb mountains. For the most 
part it has given my mind a whetstone, and my job a meaning, that the 
English theatre of five years ago showed few signs of providing. If ( and 
the if is crucial) it can hold its present nucleus of talent together, it may 
very well change the whole course of English drama. 

It has celebrated its second birthday by giving us a present: a daz- 
zHng new playwright. On the strength of his double bill, A Resounding 
Tinkle and The Hole, I am ready to burn my boats and pronounce 
N. F. Simpson the most gifted comic writer the English stage has dis- 
covered since the war. The first of his two plays, which has been drasti- 
cally cut and revised since it won a third prize in The Observer competi- 
tion, I reviewed when the Court gave it a Sunday showing last year. I 
indicated its affinities with M. lonesco, M. Dhery, and the late Robert 
Benchley. I tried to explain how and why it had convulsed me, this cas- 
ual surrealist sketch of a suburban couple with an elephant at their front 
door; and, had space allowed, I would have applied to Mr. Simpson 
what Sir Max Beerbohm said of humorists in general: 

The jester must be able to grapple his theme and hang on to 
it, twisting it this way and that, and making it yield magically all 
manner of strange and precious things, one after another, without 
pause. He must have invention keeping pace with utterance. He 
must be inexhaustible. Only so can he exhaust us. 



( ~" \i^. 

Part I -^The British Theatre 211 

But I wondered at the time how Mr. Simpson would follow his tour 
de force. Could he bring it off again without repeating himself? The Hole 
proved triumphantly that he could; that he was no mere flash in the pen, 
but a true lord of language, capable of using words with the sublime, out- 
rageous authority of Humpty Dumpty. 

People who believe with John Lehmann that English writers have 
lost interest in verbal and stylistic experiment should see Mr. Simpson's 
work and recant. Indeed, everyone should see it: for it is not a private 
highbrow joke, but pure farce, wild and liberated, on a level accessible 
to anyone who has ever enjoyed the radio Goons (Peter Sellers and 
Spike Milligan, especially) or treasured the memory of W. C. Fields. I 
suspect, in fact, that Goon-lovers, who are accustomed to verbal firework 
displays at which logic is burnt in effigy, may get more sheer pleasure out 
of Mr. Simpson than professional intellectuals, against whose habit of 
worrying about the meaning of things the play is essentially directed. At 
heart it is a riotous satire at the expense of people who deal in pigeon- 
holes, categories, and generalisations, seeking to pin down to a consist- 
ent pattern the unrepeatable variety of human existence, working out 
comprehensive philosophic and religious systems in which somehow one 
vital thing gets forgotten: the glorious uniqueness of everything that is. 

A tramp, who describes himself as "the nucleus of a queue," is 
peering into a hole in the road. Others join him, among them a rabid au- 
thoritarian, a drifting rubberneck, and a student philosopher: each has 
a fantastic vision of what is going on down the hole and tries to impose 
it on the others. They are interrupted, from time to time, by two house- 
wives, one with a husband who desperately wants to be the same as 
everyone else ("There's nothing Sid wouldn't do to be identical with 
somebody"), the other with a husband who wants, equally desperately, 
to be different. . . . But here I must stop, for I am falling into the very 
trap Mr. Simpson has laid for us intellectuals. I am explaining instead of 
experiencing. And I am in danger of letting you forget that Mr. Simpson 
is ceaselessly, mortally, and unpredictably funny. With Michelet, he 
cries : "Mon moi! Its m'arrachent mon moi!" — and if that is bourgeois in- 
dividualism, long may it thrive. 

(i9SS) 



212 Part I: The British Theatre 



The Party, by Jane Arden, at the New; A Taste of Honey, by 
Shelagh Delaney, at the Theatre Royal, 
Stratford-atte-Bowe. 

In principle, it is an admirable thing for an established star to lend 
a helping hand to a struggling novice. In practice, however, everything 
depends on the nature of the grip. A helping hand can imperceptibly be- 
come a half-Nelson, and the newcomer may find himself in the position 
of the tragic mouse that was petted to death by John Steinbeck's Lennie. 
When this happens it is nobody's fault, since the star always means well, 
but it certainly makes life hard for the critic. Take, for example, Jane 
Arden's The Party. 

As far as I could tell on Wednesday night. Miss Arden's play is a 
dim family drama which might, given shrewd casting, cohesive direc- 
tion, and the immediate withdrawal of Flowering Cherry, have groped 
its way towards a modest but respectable success. It may have other 
qualities, such as a sense of place and a feeling for suburban reality; if 
so, they have perished at the over-zealous hands of Miss Arden's bene- 
factor, Charles Laughton, to whose Lennie she plays mouse. Mr. 
Laughton's admiration for the play, though to my mind excessive, is 
clearly genuine — why else would he have chosen it to celebrate his re- 
turn, as actor and director, to the West End theatre? Yet almost every 
step he takes, in either capacity, treads on the toes of its few, mild mer- 
its. 

Mr. Laughton the actor is still what he always was: Mr. Laughton 
the outsize human being. Baby LeRoy with elephantiasis could not sulk 
more eloquently, and no player alive (with the possible exception of 
Robert Morley) knows more about the nuances of bluster. An expert at 
cringing and cajoling, he can make miracles of wit out of lines which m 
other mouths would seem mere explosions of petulance. But he is not a 
realist; and Miss Arden's play is nothing if not realistic. Mr. Laugh- 
ton's role is that of a downtrodden Kilburn solicitor with a history of 
alcoholism, vaguely stemming from incestuous feelings towards his 
daughter, who despises him. His premature return from a mental 
home compels her to cancel her birthday party, lest he should get 
drunk and wreck it. An actor like Wilfrid Lawson might have made 
the man real, dangerous, and defeated, and shown us why the girl might 
fear him. Mr. Laughton offers neither danger nor defeat, just an extrav- 
agant booby harmlessly letting off steam. On top of this, he plays the 



Fart I: The British Theatre 215 

muse: This would never have happened if I'd been here. We get 
Separate Tables launched, I go off on a world cruise, and as soon as my 
back's turned, what happens? He tries to write a play on his own. Oh, 
he's threatened to do that before now, but I've always scared him out of 
it. "Look what happened to Noel Coward," I'd say. That usually did the 
trick. "Just you wait till I'm ready," I'd say. "Inspiration doesn't grow 
on trees, you know." But Master Terence Slyboots knows better. Thinks 
you can write plays just like that, haha. The minute I heard what he was 
up to I came beetling back, but they were already in rehearsal. 

"What's the meaning of this?" I said, and I can tell you I was blaz- 
ing. "Well, darling," he said, "four years is a long time, and — " "Don't 
you darling me," I said. "I'm a busy Muse. I've got my other clients to 
consider. You're not the only pebble on the Non-Controversial Western 
Playwrights' beach, you know. Now let's get down to cases. What's this 
play about?" "Well," he said, "the central character, who's rich and 
bored and hves in a vUla near Cannes, gets desperately fond of a cocky 
young boy from the local ballet company, and — " "Hold your horses," 
I said. "We've never had a play banned yet, and, by George, we're not 
starting now. Make it a cocky young girl." "The central character," he 
said, very hoity-toity, "is a woman." 

Black mark to me, I must admit. But once I'd grabbed hold of the 
script and taken a good dekko at it, my worst fears were confirmed. 
About the best you could say about it was that it wouldn't be banned. 
This heroine (he calls her Rose Fish and then, if you please, makes 
jokes about whether or not she has gills) started out as a typist in 
Birmingham. She's married four men for money before she meets this 
ballet-boy. He's been keeping company with a male choreographer, but 
give the devil his due. Master Terence knows his Lord Chamberlain well 
enough to keep that relationship platonic. 

Egged on by the choreographer. Rose gives the lad up for the good 
of his career. He reforms overnight, but returns to her just as she's in the 
last throes of succumbing to a wonky lung. And in case you haven't cot- 
toned on to the fact that it's Marguerite Gautier all over again. Rose has 
a daughter whose pet author is Dumas fils. Master Terence makes no 
bones about his sources. Trouble is, he makes no flesh either. That's 
where I should have come in. Honestly, I could slap the scamp. 

"Interesting subject, don't you think?" he said when I gave the 
script back to him. "No," I said, "but you've made a real Camille of it, 
haven't you?" He ignored my barbed word-play. Ruthlessly I pressed 
on. "Whatever became," I asked, "of that subtle theatrical technique of 
yours we hear so much about? T.B., indeed, in this day and age! And 



216 Parti: The British Theatre 

making the boy symbolically sprain his ankle. And having Rose leave 
her farewell message to him on a tape-recorder. And giving her a con- 
fidante I'd have been ashamed to wish on Pinero. And what about that 
Sherman lover of hers who is talking the so comic English? If you'd 
written the play well, it would have been bad enough. As it is — " "I 
thought the theme would carry it," he said, "a young boy living off an 
older woman." That made me plain ratty. "You're not Colette," I said, 
"and don't you think it." 

Anyway, I've told Master Terence that from now on he can whis- 
tle for his Muse. I'm not going to come crawling back to him. He thinks 
the play will succeed in spite of me, in spite of its lack of inspiration. He 
thinks it's what the public wants. But that reminds me of what Groucho 
Marx said when three thousand people turned up at the funeral of a 
rich Hollywood mogul whom everyone loathed. "You see what I mean?" 
he said. "Give the public what they want, and they'll come to see it." I 
hope Master Terence heeds the warning. I can get along without him, 
thank you very much. But he can't get along without me. 



Hamlet, by William Shakespeare, at Stratford-on-Avon. 

The case of Michael Redgrave is perennially absorbing, even to 
those who deny that he is a great actor. On he plunges, struggling and 
chmbing and stumbling, bursting with will and intelligence, and seeking 
always to widen the range of his remarkable physical and vocal equip- 
ment. Never, to my knowledge, has he run away from an acting prob- 
lem: he'll wrestle with them all. A serious actor, in short. 

Yet something is missing. We admire, but are not involved. "I wish 
thar was winders to my Sole," said Artemus Ward, "so that you could 
see some of my feelins." Mr. Redgrave's trouble is that his windows are 
opaque — one might even say frosted. Sir Laurence Olivier once said he 
would rather lose his voice or his arms than his eyes. Watch Mr. Red- 
grave's : no matter how he rolls and darts them about, they remain some- 
how glazed and distant. We know from the evidence of our own that he 
has two of them, yet something about him persistently suggests the Cy- 
clops. When he looks at other people, either actors or audience, it is as 
if he saw them only in two dimensions. They are simply "things in his 
dream." Try as he may (and God knows he tries), he cannot estabhsh 
contact with them as human beings. Just as we think he is about to 



Part I: The British Theatre 217 

break through to us, something within him shies and bolts. He with- 
draws into his solitude, and when next we look, the windows are shut- 
tered again. 

Now this business of "connecting," of getting into emotional touch 
with others, is at the heart of all acting. It is the very touchstone of the 
craft. And that is Mr. Redgrave's paradox. He has in abundance all 
the attributes of a great actor, without the basic quality necessary to be 
a good one. 

Even so, he is always fascinating to watch. His present Hamlet is a 
packed, compendious affair, much richer in detail than the one he 
gave us eight years ago at the Vic. At fifty, Mr. Redgrave is the oldest 
Hamlet to have been seen in England since 1938, when Esme Berin- 
ger struck a glancing blow for feminism by playing the part in her sixty- 
fourth summer; and it must be conceded that the actor sometimes re- 
sembles less a youth approaching murder for the first time than a 
seasoned Commando colonel suffering from battle fatigue. Nor is the 
illusion helped by a Gertrude who looks even younger than Googie 
Withers — a surprising achievement, considering that Miss Withers 
herself plays the part. Sheer intellectual agility, of which he has plenty, 
is what Mr. Redgrave relies on. He knows the text inside out, and when 
he offers new readings (such as "Nilus" for "eisel" in the grave scene), 
we trust him as we would trust a walking Variorum Edition of the play. 
No subtlety of inflexion or punctuation escapes him; at times, indeed, he 
seems to be giving us three different interpretations of the same line 
simultaneously, which is a bit flustering. 

In terms of character, Mr. Redgrave presents a man fearful of rous- 
ing the sleeping demon within him. Cocteau described the artist as a 
kind of prison from which works of art escape. This Hamlet is a prison 
from which fury escapes, in wild frustrated spasms. His fips quake with 
the effort of containing it. Bottled hysteria is this actor's speciality, as the 
cellarage scene brilliantly proves. Mr. Redgrave's Hamlet, like his Lear, 
is most convincing when closest to madness. It is, however, entirely, un- 
moving, for the reason mentioned above. 

Dorothy Tutin's Ophelia, a mouse on the rack, makes some illumi- 
nating minor points, chief among them her horrified reaction, in the 
play scene, to the mimic death of the Player King. I liked Edward 
Woodward's Laertes, Paul Hardwick's Rosencrantz (a nervous hearty), 
and the notion of playing the Second Gravedigger as a supercilious bu- 
reaucrat. Almost everything else in Glen Byam Shaw's production is 
dismal. The courtiers line up like mechanical waxworks, raising their 
hands in polite embarrassment when the royal family is exterminated 



218 Part I: The British Theatre 

before their eyes. The music is Victorian, the costumes are fussy, and 
the setting, an arrangement of shiny hexagonal pillars, appears to have 
been inspired by the foyer of the old Paramount Cinema in Birming- 
ham. The best piece of business (Claudius' slapping the face of the 
Player Murderer) comes from Hugh Hunt's 1950 production. About 
two of the major performances my feelings are neutral: Cyril Luckham's 
sane, plodding Polonius and Mark Dignam's Claudius, which very 
nearly makes up in practical shrewdness what it lacks in dignity and 
sensuality. 



The Hostage, by Brendan Behan, at the Theatre Royal, 
Stratford- ATTE-BowE. 

At the end of N. F. Simpson's A Resounding Tinkle there is a pas- 
sage, aberrantly omitted from the Royal Court production, in which 
four B.B.C. critics discuss the play. It reads, in part: 

CHAIRMAN : DenzU Pepper — what do you make of this? 

pepper: This is a hotchpotch. I think that emerges quite clearly. 
The thing has been thrown together — a veritable rag-bag of last year's 
damp fireworks, if a mixed metaphor is in order. 

MISS SALT: Yes, I suppose it is what we must call a hotchpotch. I 
do think, though — accepting DenzU Pepper's definition — I do think, 
and this is the point I feel we ought to make, it is, surely, isn't it, an in- 
spired hotchpotch? 

pepper: a hotchpotch de luxe. ... A theatrical haggis. 

chairman: Isn't this what our ancestors would have dehghted in 
calling a galhmaufry? 

{Pause) 

mustard: Yes. I'm not sure that I don't prefer the word gallimaufry 
to Denzil Pepper's hodgepodge. 

pepper: Hotchpotch. No, I stick, quite unrepentantly, to my own 
word. . . . 

The Satanic accuracy of all this is enough to make any critic's elbow 
fly defensively up. I quote it because it has a chilling relevance to Bren- 
dan Behan's The Hostage. He would, I fancy, be a pretty perjured critic 
who could swear that no such thoughts infested his mind while watching 
Mr. Behan's new (careful now) — Mr. Behan's new play. I use the 



Part I : The British Theatre 219 

word advisedly, and have since sacked my advisers — for conventional 
terminology is totally inept to describe the uses to which Mr. Behan and 
his director, Joan Littlewood, are trying to put the theatre. The old pi- 
geon-holes will no longer serve. 

From a critic's point of view, the history of twentieth-century 
drama is the history of a collapsing vocabulary. Categories that were 
formerly thought sacred and separate began to melt and flow together, 
like images in a dream. Reaching, to steady himself, for words and con- 
cepts that had withstood the erosion of centuries, the critic found himself, 
more often than not, clutching a handful of dust. Already, long before 
1900, tragedy and comedy had abandoned the pretence of competition 
and become a double act, exchanging their masks so rapidly that the ef- 
fort of distinguishing one from the other was at best a pedantic exercise. 
Farce and satire, meanwhile, were miscegenating as busily as ever, and 
both were conducting affairs on the side with revue and musical com- 
edy. Opera, with Brecht and Weill, got into everybody's act; and vaude- 
ville, to cap everything, started to flirt with tragi-comedy in Waiting for 
Godot and The Entertainer. 

The critic, to whom the correct assignment of compartments is as 
vital as it is to the employees of Wagons-Lits, reeled in poleaxed confu- 
sion. What had happened was that multi-party drama was moving to- 
wards coalition government. Polonius did not know the half of it: a 
modern play can, if it wishes, be tragical-comical-historical-pastoral- 
farcical-satirical-operatical-musical-music-hall, in any combination or 
all at the same time. And it is only because we have short memories that 
we forget that a phrase already exists to cover all these seemingly dispa- 
rate breeds. It is Commedia dell' Arte. The Hostage is a Commedia 
dell'Arte production. 

Its theme is Ireland, seen through the bloodshot prism of Mr. Be- 
han's talent. The action, which is noisy and incessant, takes place in a 
Dublin lodging-house owned by a Blimpish veteran of the Troubles 
whose Anglophobia is so devout that he calls himself Monsieur instead 
of Mr. His caretaker is Pat (Howard Goorney), a morose braggart who 
feels that all the gaiety departed from the cause of Irish liberty when the 
I.R.A. became temperate, dedicated, and holy. Already, perhaps, this 
sounds like a normal play; and it may well sound like a tragedy when I 
add that the plot concerns a kidnapped Cockney soldier who is threat- 
ened with death unless his opposite number, an I.R.A. prisoner sen- 
tenced to be hanged, is reprieved. Yet there are, in this production, more 
than twenty songs, many of them blasphemously or lecherously gay, and 
some of them sung by the hostage himself. Their authorship is attributed 



220 Part I: The British Theatre 

to Mr. Behan, his uncle, and "Trad." Nor can one be sure how much of 
the dialogue is pure Behan and how much is gifted embroidery; for the 
whole production sounds spontaneous, a communal achievement 
based on Miss Littlewood's idea of theatre as a place where people talk 
to people, not actors to audiences. As with Brecht, actors step in and 
out of character so readily that phrases like "dramatic unity" are ruled 
out of court; we are simply watching a group of human beings who have 
come together to tell a lively story in speech and song. 

Some of the speech is brilliant mock-heroic; some of it is merely 
crude. Some of the songs are warmly ironic; others are more savagely 
funny. Some of the acting is sheer vaudeville; some of it (Murray Mel- 
vin as the captive, and Celia Salkeld as the country girl whom, briefly 
and abruptly, he loves) is tenderly realistic. The work ends in a mixed, 
happy jabber of styles, with a piano playing silent-screen music while the 
Cockney is rescued and accidentally shot by one of the lodgers, who de- 
fiantly cries, in the last line to be audibly uttered: "I'm a secret pohce- 
man, and I don't care who knows it!" 

Inchoate as it often is, this is a prophetic and joyously exciting 
evening. It seems to be Ireland's function, every twenty years or so, to 
provide a playwright who will kick English drama from the past into the 
present. Mr. Behan may well fill the place vacated by Sean O'Casey. 
Perhaps more important. Miss Littlewood's production is a boisterous 
premonition of something we all want — a biting popular drama that 
does not depend on hit songs, star names, spa sophistication, or the more 
melodramatic aspects of homosexuality. Sean Kenny's setting, a skeleton 
stockade of a bedroom surrounded by a towering bUnd alley of slum 
windows, is, as often at this theatre, by far the best in London. 

(i9SS) 



The Elder Statesman, by T. S. Eliot, at the Lyceum, Edinburgh. 

Last week, for the third time in twelve years, the Edinburgh Festi- 
val presented the world premiere of a play by T. S. Eliot. It has not al- 
ways been the same play, though sometimes it has seemed so: in this 
author's imagination the same themes compulsively (and not always 
compellingly) recur, among them a guilt-bearing death in a man's past, 
the human need for contrition and absolution, and the paradox whereby 
true selfhood can be attained only through self-abnegation. 

The Elder Statesman contains all these, together with a rich haul of 



Part I: The British Theatre 221 

familiar stylistic devices. Images calculated to evoke well-bred dread 
cluster together ("The laughter in the doorway, the snicker in the cor- 
ridor, the sudden silence in the smoking-room"); percipient aphorisms 
alternate with verbal horseplay, as when an old lag remarks: 

Forgery, I can tell you, is a mug's game. 

I say that with conviction. Ha ha! yes, with conviction. 

And Mr. Eliot's trick of iteration frequently verges on outright parody: 

I see more and more clearly 

The many many mistakes I have made 

My whole life through, mistake upon mistake. 

The mistaken attempts to correct mistakes 

By methods which proved to be equally mistaken. 

At moments like this The Elder Statesman comes dangerously near to 
the competition pages of the New Statesman. 

But if the old Eliot is well in evidence, the voice of a new Eliot is 
also heard, unexpectedly endorsing the merits of human love. It is a 
safe bet that the word "love" occurs more often in the present play than 
in all the author's previous work put together: the new Eliot has majored 
in the Humanities as well as the Eumenides. Often in the past, as the 
latest Eliot unfolded chill and chaste before us, we have inwardly mur- 
mured: "Poor Tom's a-cold." Now, by comparison, he is positively 
aflame. 

Encouraging though we may find this step in his spiritual devel- 
opment, it is not by itself enough to make good theatre. In some ways, in- 
deed, it has the opposite effect: Mr. Eliot's Indian-summer love-lyrics 
have little distinction, either literary or dramatic. A new simplicity has 
certainly entered his style, but so has simplicity's half-wit brother, ba- 
nality; and at times one longs for the old equivocations, for just one kind 
of characteristic ambiguity. 

This banaUty extends to the plot. Lord Claverton, politician and 
tycoon, has retired to a convalescent home, accompanied by his beloved 
and adoring daughter. Two figures from his past return to plague him, 
each a reminder of an occasion when he behaved dishonourably. One of 
them, a prosperous crook from Latin America, was with him when, as 
an undergraduate motorist, he ran over a man and failed to stop; true, 
the victim was dead already, but technical innocence, as Claverton 
knows, is poles apart from moral innocence. His second tormentor is a 
rich, ageing chanteuse whom long ago he seduced and paid off in order 
to avoid a breach-of-promise action. Other, affiliated sins come home 



222 Part I: The British Theatre 

to him. The crook might not have turned to crime, might even have got a 
First, had not Claverton introduced him to the pleasures of the luxe life. 
Moreover — last item in the catalogue — the old man has sought to domi- 
nate his son, who has become in consequence a mutinous wastrel. 

By way of expiation Claverton makes a fuU confession of his mis- 
deeds to his daughter and her fiance. Duly absolved, having found his 
true self by sloughing off the sham, he goes off to die mysteriously be- 
neath a great beech tree in the grounds of the sanatorium. He has 
learned patience and strength; the two lovers, left alone, celebrate their 
union in language more suggestive of Patience Strong. 

It does not help to point out that Mr. Eliot has based his play on 
Oedipus at Colonus, in which the guilty, discredited king journeys with 
his faithful daughters to the sacred grove. Translated into a world of 
board-rooms and pin-striped trousers, Sophocles becomes Pinero on 
stilts — the old story of the great man whose past catches up with him, 
the hero who has Lived a Lie. The more we remember the Sophoclean 
background, the more we are conscious of the disparity between Claver- 
ton, with his puny sins and facile absolution, and the tremendous ob- 
sessing agonies of Oedipus. One's conclusion must be that out of the 
wisdom of his years and the intensity of his cerebration Mr. Eliot has 
come up with a gigantic platitude. Towards the end, to be sure, he casts 
over the play a sedative, autumnal glow of considerable beauty, and 
here and there a scattered phrase reminds us, by its spare precision, 
that we are listening to a poet. On the whole, however, the evening 
offers little more than the mild pleasure of hearing ancient verities 
tepidly restated. 

The production, by E. Martin Browne, is careful and suave, with 
settings by Hutchinson Scott that loyally hint at Attic temples and holy 
grottoes. Paul Rogers lends Claverton a fine shaggy sonority and the 
right look of stoic dismay, as of a man staring past the fire into his 
thoughts. Anna Massey, of the beseeching face and shining eyes, is a 
first-rate stand-in for Antigone, and Alec McCowen is bonily brilliant 
as the rebel son. 



Part I: The British Theatre 223 



Long Day^s Journey into Night, by Eugene O'Neill, at the 
Globe. 

Eugene O'Neill died five years ago. The eclipse of reputation that 
commonly befalls great men as soon as they die has not yet happened to 
him; and now that Long Day's Journey into Night has followed The Ice- 
man Cometh into London, I doubt if it ever will. O'Neill has conquered. 
We have the measure of him at last, and it is vast indeed. His work 
stretches like a mountain range across more than three decades, rising at 
the end to these two tenebrous peaks, in which the nature of his im- 
mense, hard-pressed talent most clearly reveals itself. As Johnson said 
of Milton, he could not carve heads upon cherry-stones; but he could 
cut a colossus from a rock. Sometimes the huge groups of his imagination 
stayed stubbornly buried within the rock; worse, they would sometimes 
emerge lopsided and unwieldy, so that people smiled at them — not with- 
out reason, for it is widely felt that there is nothing funnier than a de- 
formed giant. 

Many charges, during his lifetime, were levelled at O'Neill by the 
cherry-stone connoisseurs of criticism. That he could not think; that he 
was no poet; that his attempts at comedy were even more pathetic than 
his aspirations to tragedy. The odd thing is that all of these charges are 
entirely true. The defence admits them: it does not wish even to cross- 
examine the witnesses. Their testimony, which would be enough to an- 
nihilate most other playwrights, is in O'Neill's case irrelevant. His 
strength lies elsewhere. It has nothing to do with intellect, verbal beauty, 
or the accepted definitions of tragedy and comedy. It exists independ- 
ently of them: indeed, they might even have cramped and depleted it. 

What is this strength, this durable virtue? I got the clue to it from 
the American critic Stark Young, into whose reviews I have lately been 
dipping. Mr. Young is sometimes a windy writer, but the wind is usually 
blowing in the right direction. As early as 1926 he saw that O'Neill's 
theatrical power did not arise from any "strong dramatic expertness," 
but that "what moved us was the cost to the dramatist of what he han- 
dled." (My italics.) Two years later, reviewing Dynamo, he developed 
this idea. He found in the play an "individual poignancy" to which he 
responded no matter how tritely or unevenly it was expressed. From this 
it was a short step to the truth. "Even when we are not at all touched by 
the feeling itself or the idea presented," he wrote, "we are stabbed to our 
depths by the importance of this feeling to him, and we are all his, not 



224 P^ft I: The British Theatre 

because of what he says but because saying it meant so much to him." 

Thirty years later we are stabbed in the same way, and for the 
same reason. The writing of Long Day's Journey must have cost O'Neill 
more than Mr. Young could ever have conceived, for its subject is that 
rarest and most painful of all dramatis personae, the dramatist himself. 
No more honest or unsparing autobiographical play exists in dramatic 
literature. Yet what grips us about it is not the craft of a playwright. It 
is the need, the vital, driving plaint, of a human being. 

We are watching a crucial day in O'Neill's late youth, covered 
with a thin gauze of fiction; events are telescoped, and the family's name 
is Tyrone. They live in a gaunt, loveless New England house. Father is a 
rich retired actor, now beetle-browed with drink, whose upbringing as an 
immigrant Irish pauper has made him a miser: he recognises the fault, 
but cannot cure it. His wife suffered badly at the birth of their second 
son (Edmund, otherwise Eugene), and he hired a cheap quack to ease 
her pain, with the result that she has become a morphine addict. The 
elder boy is a failed actor, something of a whoremaster, and a great deal 
of a drunk. His brother, Edmund, who has been to sea and is ambitious 
to be a poet, also drinks and detests more than he wholesomely should. 

We catch the quartet on the desperate day when mother, after a 
long abstinence, returns to drugs, and Edmund learns that he has T.B. 
With these urgent, terrible realities the family cannot cope. Old rows, 
old resentments keep boiling up; the pressures and recriminations of the 
past will not let the present live. Every conversation leads inexorably to 
the utterance of some sudden, unforgivable, scab-tearing cruelty. At 
every turn O'Neill points the contrast between official Irish-Catholic 
morality and the sordid facts of drink and dope. The family goes 
round and round in that worst of domestic rituals, the Blame Game. I 
blame my agony on you; you blame yours on her; she blames hers on 
me. Father blames his past; mother blames father; elder son blames 
both; and younger son blames all of them. If the play has a flaw, it 
is that O'Neill, the younger son, lets nobody blame him — though I re- 
call, as I write this, the moment when his mother cries out that she 
would not be what she is had he never been born. The wheel, coming 
full circle, runs over all of them. Shortly after the events covered in the 
play, O'Neill entered a sanatorium, where, he wrote later, "the urge to 
write first came to me." It was more than an urge, it was a compulsion. 

The London production is much shorter than those I saw in Berlin 
and New York; about a quarter of the text has been cut away. This is 
shrewd pruning, since a non-American EngHsh-speaking cast might not 
have been able to carry the full four-hour burden. Alan Bates, shock- 



Part I: The British Theatre 225 

haired and forlorn, approaches Edmund with just the right abandon. 
Once inside the part, however, he stumbles over a distracting North 
Country accent. Ian Bannen, on the other hand, gets easily to the heart 
of the elder brother, especially in the last-act debauch when he confesses 
to Edmund how much he hates and envies him : what he lacks is the ex- 
terior of the seedy Broadway masher. He falls short of his New York 
counterpart, Jason Robards, Jr., just as far as Anthony Quayle falls 
short of Fredric March. Mr. March, with his corrugated face and burn- 
ing eyes, looked as weighty as if he were made of iron. Mr. Quayle, 
though he conveys every syllable of the part's meaning, never seems to 
be heavier than tin. 

By West End standards, let me add, all these performances are ex- 
ceptionally good. That of Gwen Ffrangcon-Davies is by any standards 
magnificent. In this production mother is the central figure: a guileful, 
silver-topped doll, her hands clenched by rheumatism into claws, her 
voice drooping except when drugs tighten it into a tingling, bird-like, 
tight-rope brightness. Her sons stare at her, and she knows why they are 
staring, but: "Is my hair coming down?" she pipes, warding off the truth 
with a defensive flirtatiousness. At the end, when the men are slumped 
in a stupor, she tells us in a delicate quaver how the whole mess began. 
"Then I married James Tyrone, and I was happy for a time. . . ." The 
curtain falls on a stupendous evening. One goes expecting to hear a play- 
wright, and one meets a man. 

(i9S8) 



Krapp's Last Tape and End-Game, by Samuel Beckett, at the 
Royal Court. 

Slamm's Last Knock, a play inspired, if that is the word, by Samuel 
Beckett's double bill at the Royal Court: 

The den of Slamm, the critic. Very late yesterday. Large desk with 
throne behind it. Two waste-paper baskets, one black, one white, filled 
with crumpled pieces of paper, at either side of the stage. Shambling 
between them — i.e., from one to the other and back again — an old man: 
Slamm. Bent gait. Thin, barking voice. Motionless, watching Slamm, is 
Seek. Bright grey face, holding pad and pencil. One crutch. Slamm goes 
to black basket, takes out piece of white paper, uncrumples it, reads. 
Short laugh. 

slamm {reading) : ". . . the validity of an authentic tragic vi- 



226 Part I: The British Theatre 

sion, at once personal and by implication cosmic . . ." 

Short laugh. He recrumples the paper, replaces it in basket, and 
crosses to other — i.e., white — basket. He takes out piece of black paper, 
uncrumples it, reads. Short laugh. 

SLAMM (reading) : ". . . Just another dose of nightmare gibber- 
ish from the so-called author of Waiting for Godot . . ." 

Short laugh. He recrumples the paper, replaces it in basket, and sits 
on throne. Pause. Anguished, he extends fingers of right hand and stares 
at them. Extends fingers of left hand. Same business. Then brings fingers 
of right hand towards fingers of left hand, and vice versa, so that finger- 
tips of right hand touch fingertips of left hand. Same business. Breaks 
wind pensively. Seek writes feverishly on pad. 

SLAMM : We're getting on. (He sighs.) Read that back. 

SECK (produces pince-nez with thick black lenses, places them on 
bridge of nose, reads) : "A tragic dose of authentic gibberish from the 
so-called implication of Waiting for Godot." Shall I go on? 

SLAMM (nodding head): No. (Pause.) A bit of both, then. 

SECK (shaking head) : Or a little of neither. 

SLAMM: There's the hell of it. (Pause. Urgently.) Is it time for 
my Roget? 

SECK: There are no more Rogets. Use your loaf. 

SLAMM : Then wind me up, stink-louse! Stir your stump! 

Seek hobbles to Slamm, holding rusty key depending from piece of 
string round his (Seck's) neck, and inserts it into back of Slamm' s head. 
Loud noise of winding. 

slamm: Easy now. Can't you see it's hell in there? 

seck: I haven't looked. (Pause.) It's hell out here, too. The ceiling 
is zero and there's grit in my crotch. Roget and over. 

He stops winding and watches. Pause. 

SLAMM (glazed stare): Nothing is always starting to happen. 

seck: It's better than something. You're well out of that. 

slamm: I'm badly into this. (He tries to yawn but fails.) It would 
be better if I could yawn. Or if you could yawn. 

seck: I don't feel excited enough. (Pause.) Anything coming? 

slamm: Nothing, in spades. (Pause.) Perhaps I haven't been 
kissed enough. Or perhaps they put the wrong ash in my gruel. One or 
the other. 

seck: Nothing will come of nothing. Come again. 

slamm (with violence) : Purulent drudge! You try, if you've got 
so much grit in your crotch! Just one pitiless, pathetic, creatively critical 
phrase! 



Part I: The British Theatre 227 

seck: I heard you the first time. 

slamm: You can't have been Hstening. 

seck: Your word's good enough for me. 

SLAMM : I haven't got a word. There's just the light, going. 
(Pause.) Are you trying? 

seck: Less and less. 

slamm: Try blowing down it, 

seck: It's coming! (Screws up his face. Tonelessly.) Sometimes I 
wonder why I spend the lonely night. 

slamm: Too many f's. We're bitched. (Half a pause.) 

seck: Hold your pauses. It's coming again. (In a raconteur's 
voice, dictates to himself.) Tuesday night, seven-thirty by the paranoid 
barometer, curtain up at the Court, Sam Beckett unrivalled master of 
the unravelled revels. Item: Krapp's Last Tape, Krapp being a myopic 
not to say deaf not to say eremitical eater of one and one-half bananas 
listening and cackling as he listens to a tape-recording of twenty years' 
antiquity made on a day, the one far gone day, when he laid his hand on 
a girl in a boat and it worked, as it worked for Molly Bloom in Gibraltar 
in the long ago. Actor: Patrick Magee, bereaved and aghast-looking 
grunting into his Grundig, probably perfect performance, fine through- 
out and highly affecting at third curtain-call though not formerly. 
Unique, obUque, bleak experience, in other words, and would have had 
same effect if half the words were other words. Or any words. (Pause.) 

slamm: Don't stop. You're boring me. 

seck (normal voice): Not enough. You're smiling. 

slam: Well, I'm still in the land of the dying. 

seck: Somehow, in spite of everything, death goes on. 

slam: Or because of everything. (Pause.) Go on. 

seck (raconteur's voice) : Tuesday night, eight-twenty by the Fahr- 
enheit anonymeter, End-Game, translated from the French with loss by 
excision of the vernacular word for urination and of certain doubts blas- 
phemously cast on the legitimacy of the Deity. Themes, madam? Nay, it 
is, I know not themes. Foreground figure a blind and lordly cripple with 
superficial mannerisms of ChurchiU, W., Connolly, C, and Devine, G., 
director and in this case impersonator. Sawn-off parents in bins, stage 
right, and shuflling servant, all over the stage, played by Jack MacGow- 
ran, binster of this parish. Purpose: to analyse or rather to dissect or 
rather to define the nature or rather the quality or rather the intensity of 
the boredom inherent or rather embedded in the twentieth or rather 
every other century. I am bored, therefore I am. Comment, as above, 
except it would have the same effect if a quarter of the words were other 



228 Part I: The British Theatre 

words and another quarter omitted. Critique ended. Thesaurus and 
out. 

slamm: Heavy going. I can't see. 

seck: That's because of the light going. 

slamm: Is that all the review he's getting? 

seck: That's all the play he's written. 

Pause. 

slamm: But a genius. Could you do as much? 

seck: Not as much. But as little. 

Tableau. Pause. Curtain. 

(i9S8) 



The Ages of Man, at the 46th Street Theatre, New York. 

I have always felt that Sir John Gielgud is the finest actor on earth 
from the neck up, and, having heard his Shakespearean recital, Ages of 
Man, I am in no mood to revise that opinion. Whenever I think of Sir 
John, I remember what C. E. Montague (my favourite drama critic next 
to Shaw) said of Coquelin; namely, that "his power was simply the sum 
of the three strict elements of great acting — a plastic physical medium, a 
finished technical cunning, and a passion of joy in the thought of the 
character acted." Sir John has the last two qualities in abundance, and 
is almost entirely deficient in the first; when in motion, he is constricted, 
hesitant, and jerky, enmeshed in unseen cords of inhibition. His excep- 
tional virtues of mind and voice stand out most clearly in repose, 
and for this reason the present display at the Forty-sixth Street Theatre 
seems to me one of the most satisfactory things he has ever done. Now 
and then, when the impulse of a speech demands it, he takes a step or 
two to right or left and permits his hands, which spend much of the 
evening protectively clasping each other, to fly up in gestures that claw 
the air, but for the most part he is stUl, and all the better for it; the 
voice flows freely among us, a thrilhng instrument that commands the 
full tonal range of both viola and 'cello. Brass is absent, and this 
may explain why he gives us nothing of Henry V or Antony and 
Cleopatra and only the briefest snatch of Macbeth — all of them plays 
that cannot readily be scored for unaccompanied strings. But what he 
can do he does peerlessly. Never before have I followed Richard II's 
slow ride down to despair with such eager, pitying attentiveness (Sir 
John himself wept, as Richard should), and the excerpts from Hamlet 



Fart I: The British Theatre 229 

were delivered with a mastery of rubato and a controlled energy that put 
one in mind of Mozart. The speech before the duel ("Not a whit, we 
defy augury . . .") was in the nature of an epiphany, the last phrases 
falling on the ear in cadences of overwhelming tenderness and serenity. 
I had expected successes like these from Sir John; what I had for- 
gotten was his narrative virtuosity. To passages that tell a story — Clar- 
ence recounting his nightmare, Hotspur describing a brush with a fop on 
the battlefield, Cassius tempting Brutus with splenetic anecdotes about 
Caesar — he brings a graphic zeal that is transfixing. Like the spider's 
touch in Pope's poem, his voice "feels at each thread, and lives along 
the line." The impact of the performance is not, however, exclusively 
aural; as I've said. Sir John's physical inexpressiveness does not extend 
above the collar stud. Poker-backed he may be; poker-faced he cer- 
tainly isn't. Wherever pride, scorn, compassion, and the more cerebral 
kinds of agony are called for, his features respond promptly, and mem- 
orably. The whole programme, I should add, is an abridgement of 
George Rylands' Shakespeare anthology The Ages of Man, which, in 
the process of compression, has lost its definite article, presumably so 
that it can be hsted in the daily press high up, under "A," rather than 
low down, under "T." 



Summing Up: 1959. 

As recently as five years ago, popular theatre in the West End of 
London was virtually dominated by a ruthless three-power coaHtion 
consisting of drawing-room comedy and its two junior henchmen, murder 
melodrama and barrack-room farce. Although competitive among them- 
selves, the members of the combine were united in their determination 
to prevent the forces of contemporary reality from muscling in on their 
territory. The average playwright had ceased trying to hold the mirror 
up to nature, and the fashionable playwright could not possibly hold a 
mirror up to anything, since genteel idiom demanded the use of the 
word "looking-glass." Nightly, in dozens of theatres, the curtain rose on 
the same set. French windows were its most prominent feature, backed 
by a sky-cloth of brilliant and perpetual blue. In the cheaper sort of pro- 
duction, nothing but the sky was visible through the windows, and the 
impression was conveyed that everyone hved on a hill. There was also a 
bookcase, which might even — if the producer was in a devil-may-care 



230 Part I: The British Theatre 

frame of mind — be three-dimensional and equipped with real books. If 
we were not at Mark Trevannion's country house in Berkshire, we were 
probably at Hilary Egleston's flat in Knightsbridge, and, wherever we 
were, we ran into the same crowd — Rodney Curzon, feehng frightful; a 
"really rather nice" American named Kip, Joe, or Calvin Mcllhenny 
III; and, of course, that audacious young Susan Mainwaring, accom- 
panied by her Aunt Gertrude, an obligatory dragoness with strong views 
about modern youth, the welfare state, and her senile rip of a husband, 
referred to as "your poor Uncle Edgar," who never appeared. Offstage 
characters like Uncle Edgar continually cropped up in remarks such as 
"This reminds me of that ghastly evening when Priscilla Mumbles took 
her owl to the Ritz for cocktails." Nobody except the gardener was ever 
called Sidney or Bert, and names like Ethel and Myrtle were reserved 
for housemaids, paid companions, and pets. To pour the drinks, there 
was usually somebody's tweedy, middle-aged stick of a husband, who 
grinned tolerantly at his wife's caprices, offered brandy to her lovers, 
and never raised his voice above street level; a symbol of sanity in a col- 
lapsing world, he was described by the other characters as "damn de- 
cent" or "rather dim," and by the critics as "that admirable actor, Cyril 
Raymond." (Or any of a dozen other admirable actors.) The language 
of drawing-room drama was of a rigid deformity. People never just went 
anywhere; they beetled down to Godalming, hurtled up to town, nipped 
round to Fortnum's, and staggered off home. All bores were cracking, 
all asses pompous, and the dialogue was sprinkled with epithets of dis- 
taste, mostly drawn from the vocabulary of English nannies; for exam- 
ple, "horrid," "dreadful," "nasty," "sickening," "disgusting," and "nau- 
seating." These were often reinforced by the additional disparagement 
of "little," as in "dreadful little man," "disgusting little creature," or 
"nasty little mind." (In other contexts, "mind" was replaced by the class- 
ier "mentality"; e.g., "You have the mentality of a day-old chick." For 
similar reasons, "visualize" was generally preferred to "imagine.") At 
some point in every play, the hero was required to say, "That, Celia, is 
a thoroughly immoral [or "perfectly revolting"] suggestion." Minor 
English place names were relied upon to tinge the baldest statements 
with wit, A line like "I am spending the summer in the country" could 
convulse a whole audience if revised to read "I am spending the summer 
at Sidcup/Herne Bay/Budleigh Salterton." 

Five years ago, anyone whose knowledge of England was restricted 
to its popular theatre would have come to the conclusion that its stand- 
ard of Uving was the highest on earth. British plays about people who 
could not afford villas on the Cote d'Azur were very nearly as rare as 



Part I: The British Theatre 231 

British people who could afford them. The poor were seldom with us, 
except when making antic contributions to broad farce or venturing, 
tongue-tied with embarrassment and clutching cloth caps, into the gra- 
cious salons of middle-class comedy, where they were expected to pref- 
ace every remark with "Beggin' yer pardon. Mum." To become eligible 
for detailed dramatic treatment, it was usually necessary either to have 
an annual income of more than three thousand pounds net or to be mur- 
dered in the house of someone who did. This state of affairs did not ap- 
ply during the war years, when everyone pulled together and even Noel 
Coward wrote tributes to the patriotism of the working classes; otherwise, 
however, it had persisted since the mid-thirties and Love on the Dole. 
And it had been noticed much earher than that. 

If our dramatists will condescend to make our acquaintance 
(or rather cease from trying to persuade themselves that they don't 
know us), they will find that we, too, the unmentioned by Debrett, 
the jaded in aspect, have brains and hearts. They will find that we, 
too, are capable of great joys and griefs, and that such things come 
our way quite often, really. 

Max Beerbohm wrote that in February 1907. It might easily have 
been written in 1954. I do not think it could be written today. 

A change, slight but unmistakable, has taken place; the English 
theatre has been dragged, as Adlai Stevenson once said of the Republi- 
can Party, kicking and screaming into the twentieth century. Only an 
Englishman, probably, would notice the difference. In the middle of 
summer there were twenty-one straight plays running in London. Six- 
teen of them were farces, light comedies, or detective stories, and one at 
least of the remaining five was a borderline case. I refer to Graham 
Greene's The Complaisant Lover, which bears the same relationship to 
Mr. Greene's earlier plays that his "entertainments" bear to his more 
serious novels. It deals with a suburban dentist whose wife has just 
started to sleep with a local bookseller. The adulterous pair arrange to 
spend a week-end in Amsterdam, which is interrupted — in a scene of the 
bitterest farce — by the sand-blind, unsuspecting cuckold. To force the 
issue, the lover informs the husband, by letter, of his wife's infidelity. 
The trick misfires. It drives the dentist to tears but not to divorce; in- 
stead, he cannily proposes a menage a trois — a solution that satisfies him, 
assuages his wife's guilt, and utterly disconcerts the bookseller. Perhaps 
because John Gielgud's antiseptic direction failed to convince me that 
the lovers had achieved any significant carnal contact, perhaps because 
Ralph Richardson performed in a vein of fantasy that seemed incom- 



232 Part I: The British Theatre 

patible with dentistry, I could not believe a word of it. Or, rather, I be- 
lieved in many of the words — Mr. Greene's lines have a startling, casual 
candour — but not in the people who were uttering them. Mastery of dia- 
logue, I reflected afterward, is no substitute for mastery of characteriza- 
tion. 

Apart from The Complaisant Lover, plays are thriving in central 
London with titles like The French Mistress, Caught Napping, and Sim- 
ple Spymen. How, then, can I support my claim that the English theatre 
is growing up? I do so by reference to a three-pronged suburban assault 
that has lately been launched on the central citadel. As in a Shakespeare 
history play, the western region is all afire with deep-revolving zeal, led 
by the English Stage Company, which set up shop in 1955 at the Royal 
Court Theatre, in Sloane Square, where it has since presented, in addi- 
tion to well-known texts by Arthur Mifler, Brecht, Giraudoux, and lo- 
nesco, the first plays of Angus Wilson, Nigel Dennis, Doris Lessing, 
N. F. Simpson, and John Osborne. The Court is run by a stuffy commit- 
tee and aided by a meagre subsidy from the Arts Council; even so, it 
managed to stage, during the 1958-9 season, two remarkable plays that 
would never five years ago have transferred — as these did — to the West 
End. One was The Long and the Short and the Tall, by a thirty-year-old 
television writer named Willis Hall. In construction this was a wartime 
anecdote of fairly familiar mould. A reconnaissance patrol, cut off by a 
Japanese advance in the middle of the Malayan jungle, debates its 
chances of getting back to base by breaking through the enemy lines. 
The argument is complicated by the fact that the men have taken a Jap- 
anese prisoner; should they let him accompany them, or shoot him out 
of hand? As in most British war stories, the cast is a cliche microcosm, a 
"cross-section of the community" that includes a Scot, a Welshman, a 
North Countryman, a Cockney, a trigger-happy sadist, and a tough, 
warmhearted sergeant. They are all, however, deeply individualized; 
each speaks a language so abundant in racy local metaphor that I could 
have kicked myself for having acquiesced in the popular myth that the 
British vernacular is dull wherever it is not Americanized. Mr. Hall's 
play is not only boisterous, exuberant, and accurate; it is also beautifully 
written. Moreover, it is performed in what, for the London theatre, is a 
new style of acting. Until a few years ago the English drama schools de- 
voted much of their energy to ironing out of their pupils' accents all trace 
of regional origin and to replacing it with the neutral, official dialect 
spoken by B.B.C. announcers. Suddenly, however, a group of plays has 
sprung up for which B.B.C. Enghsh is utterly useless. Out of no- 
where — or perhaps out of everywhere — an ambitiously talented bunch 



Part I: The British Theatre 233 

of young provincial actors has emerged, ideally fitted to embody the new 
drama, which treats ordinary people not as helpless victims, stoical 
jingoists, or clownish vulgarians but as rational human beings. Only two 
of the eight men in Mr. Hall's cast had appeared in the West End, and 
their director, Lindsay Anderson, had no previous experience of the 
professional stage, although he has a high reputation as a documentary- 
film maker. With his actors — Kenji Takaki, Robert Shaw, Edward Judd, 
Ronald Eraser, David Andrews, Emrys James, Bryan Pringle, and Peter 
O'Toole — I could find no fault, and in the case of Mr. O'Toole, as the 
cynical Cockney who befriends the Japanese captive, I sensed a technical 
authority that may, given discipUne and purpose, presage greatness. To 
convey violence beneath banter, and a soured, embarrassed goodness 
beneath both, is not the simplest task for a young player, yet Mr. O'Toole 
achieved it without sweating a drop. The play lacked stars, and it had a 
downbeat (that is, anti-war) ending, in which the patrol was decimated. 
These facts may explain why, despite enthusiastic notices, it ran in the 
West End for only three months. It will, anyway, be remembered as a 
portent. 

The same can be said of Roots, a new piece by Arnold Wesker, 
who is twenty-seven years old and was born in the East End of London. 
The subject of his play, which opened at the Court in June and has since 
moved to the West End, is ignorance. The daughter of a family of agri- 
cultural laborers comes home, after a long stay in London, full of pro- 
gressive ideas she has learned from her lover, who works (as Mr. 
Wesker once worked) in the kitchen of a West End restaurant. Fruit- 
lessly, she tries to explain art and poHtics to her kinfolk, who regard her 
with compassionate bewilderment; she plays classical music to her 
mother on the phonograph, and embarks on a wild dance to illustrate 
the release it has brought to her. Mother nods, smiling but uncompre- 
hending; how should she care for art, fed as she is by radio pabulum, 
livmg as she does with no electricity, an outdoor toilet, and water from a 
garden tank, on less than thirteen dollars a week? Beatie, the daughter, 
has returned with a vocabulary that succeeds only in aUenating her from 
her background. In the last scene a family gathering is reluctantly con- 
vened to welcome her urban boy friend, who fails to turn up. A smug 
reaction of I-told-you-so prevents anyone from comforting the shattered 
Beatie. If this were an EngUsh play of the traditional kind, the jilted girl 
would at this point recognize the futiUty of her intellectual aspirations 
and snuggle back to the bosom of the family. Not so Beatie. She rounds 
on her relatives, blaming their conservatism and their suspicion of inde- 
pendent thought for her own inability to communicate with intelligent 



234 Part I: The British Theatre 

people. She has failed because of the mystique of humility that has 
taught her since childhood to keep her place and not waste time on 
books. At the end of this tirade she realizes that for once she has not 
been parroting the opinions of her lover but has been thinking for her- 
self. With the wonder that is cognate with one's first sense of identity, 
she cries, "I'm beginning. I'm beginning!" And the play is over. I stum- 
bled out in a haze of emotion, on a sticky, baking July evening. The thea- 
tre, I noticed, was full of young men and women who had been dis- 
tracted from the movies, from television, and even from love-making by 
the powerful lure of a show that concerned them and that could help as 
well as amuse. Joan Plowright played the awakened rustic, and the di- 
rector was John Dexter, and in neither case can I think of an alternative 
half as good. 

What the future has in store for the Royal Court is anyone's guess. 
Roots was followed by Vivien Leigh in Look after Lulu!, Noel Coward's 
adaptation of Feydeau's Occupe-toi d'Amelie, which flopped last season 
on Broadway. The London critics politely detested it, and I cannot imag- 
ine why it was ever staged at that address. John Osborne told me that he 
walked into the theatre early in July and found it full of Miss Leigh, Mr. 
Coward, and Hugh Beaumont, the most powerful of West End produc- 
ers. He wondered for a second if he had come to the wrong place. The 
original idea had been that the Royal Court should conquer Shaftesbury 
Avenue; instead, Shaftesbury Avenue seemed to have conquered the 
Royal Court. 

Whatever doubts one may have about the Sloane Square assault on 
the West End, the two other spearheads look pretty formidable. It is too 
early yet to pass judgment on the Mermaid Theatre, at Puddle Dock, 
which was conceived by a dedicated actor-impresario named Bernard 
Miles, built by public subscription on the brink of the Thames in the fi- 
nancial heart of London, and opened with fanfares last spring. A great 
concrete hangar, with a raked auditorium, a revolving stage, and an act- 
ing area that extends from wall to wall, the Mermaid is physically a di- 
rector's dream. Its inaugural production — an immediate success — was 
a free adaptation, augmented by music and song, of Rape upon Rape, 
an eighteenth-century comedy by Henry Fielding, a satirist whose mor- 
dancy was such that it impelled Walpole, the Prime Minister, to bring all 
stage performances under the censorship of the Lord Chamberlain. 
(Fielding subsequently took up the novel, and England, according to 
Shaw, was thereby deprived of its finest playwright between Shakespeare 
and himself. ) Intended as a sour indictment of corrupt judges, the play 
has been adulterated by the addition of insipid tunes and acting of a 



Fart I: The British Theatre 235 

prevailing coyness; perhaps only Brecht and Weill could have given 
Fielding the kind of musical staging he needed. The new title, Lock Up 
Your Daughters, indicates the degree of compromise that was involved. 
But Mr. Miles has some valiant plans for his new playhouse. Once 
this hit has run its course, on verra. 

By far the most damaging dent in the West End structure has been 
made by Joan Littlewood, the artistic director of the company known as 
Theatre Workshop. Two of the smartest playhouses in London — Wynd- 
ham's and the Criterion — are occupied, as I write this, by productions 
that originated at the Theatre Royal, Stratford-atte-Bowe, the East End 
headquarters of Miss Littlewood's extraordinary troupe. At the Crite- 
rion there is A Taste of Honey, a first play by Shelagh Delaney, a Lan- 
cashire girl who is well over six feet tall and just over twenty years old. It 
deals joyfully with what might, in other hands, have been a tragic situ- 
ation. The teen-age heroine, who lives in a ratty tenement bed-sitter, is 
deserted by her nagging, peroxided mother, who is unaware that her 
daughter is pregnant by a Negro sailor. Played with tenderly cheeky 
impulsiveness by a young actress named Frances Cuka, the girl accepts 
the fact that her child is Hkely to be fatherless and makes a temporary 
home with a slender art student whose sexual bent is toward his own sex. 
Her only qualm is that her own father was mentally deficient : "He lived 
in a twilight land, my dad, the land of the daft." Eventually her mother 
comes home, the student is summarily evicted, and the curtain falls on 
preparations for the impending birth. I don't know that I like all of Miss 
Littlewood's production tricks; I don't see why the mother should ad- 
dress all her lines to the audience, like a vaudeville soloist, and I can't 
understand why the original ending, in which she accepted the Negro 
paternity of her daughter's baby, has been altered to permit her to make 
unattractive jokes about pickaninnies and "bloody chocolate drops." All 
the same, we have here quite a writer, and quite a director. 

Brendan Behan's The Hostage, currently playing at Wyndham's 
Theatre, is a perfect embodiment of Miss Littlewood's methods, and 
well deserved the prize for the best production of the 1959 Paris Inter- 
national Theatre Festival. It is a babble of styles, devoid of form yet full 
of attack — Hellz-a-Poppin, you might say, with a point of view. The 
scene is a Dublin bawdy-house in which a British serviceman is held as 
hostage for an I.R.A. soldier condemned to death for shooting a police- 
man. As in A Taste of Honey, what sounds tragic turns out to be up- 
roariously comic. The brothel becomes a sort of music hall. The actors 
chat to the audience, send themselves up in the mock-heroic manner 
that is Ireland's least imitable contribution to world literature, and sing 



236 f ^^^ I: The British Theatre 

a number of outstandingly villainous songs, including a devastating 
tribute to England — 

Old ladies with stern faces, 
And the captains, and the kings 

— and a life-embracing chorus called "There's no place on earth like 
the world." No dramatic unity is achieved or aimed at; the players wan- 
der in and out of character whenever they, or the events of the play, feel 
Hke it. The jokes are unpredictable and often genuinely rude. The brand 
name of a whisky is clarified as "Vat 69 — the Pope's telephone num- 
ber," one of the principal clowns is a male transvestite named Princess 
Grace, and I particularly liked the Negro prizefighter who, in a moment 
of exceptional tumult, strolls across the stage bearing a sign that reads 
"Keep Ireland Black." Finally, the hostage — beautifully played by Al- 
fred Lynch — is accidentally killed in a raid, but no time is allowed for 
mourning. Mr. Lynch jumps up again and joins all the rest of the cast in 
a rousing number entitled "Oh death, where is thy sting-a-ling-a-ling, oh 
grave, thy victor-ee!" 

Miss Littlewood demands players who can improvise not only in 
rehearsal but before an audience. She likes the morning's headlines to 
be incorporated into the evening's performance — a habit that caused 
her last year to be haled into court and fined for contravening the cen- 
sorship regulations, which insist that every word spoken on a public 
stage must first be submitted for approval to the Lord Chamberlain's of- 
fice. Whether it is desirable for actors to usurp the writer's job and invent 
their own lines is something I seriously doubt. Whenever I raise the sub- 
ject. Miss Littlewood starkly rephes that as soon as a production is fixed, 
it is dead, and that she would prefer anything to the inflexible monot- 
ony of what she sees in the West End. A stocky, trenchant woman in her 
forties, she was born in a working-class district of South London and ed- 
ucated at a convent school. She went to the Royal Academy of Dramatic 
Art on a scholarship, and founded Theatre Workshop in 1945, warning 
her actors that regular salaries were out of the question; all she could 
promise them was that the box-office receipts would be equally divided 
at the end of each week. The company toured England, Germany, Nor- 
way, Sweden, and Czechoslovakia for eight years before settling down 
at the Theatre Royal. To Miss Littlewood's dismay, the local proletariat 
failed to support her enterprise, and it was not until her productions of 
Arden of F aver sham and Volpone were thunderously acclaimed at the 
1955 Paris International Theatre Festival that the senior London crit- 
ics began to take her seriously. Her recent conquest of the West End 



Part I: The British Theatre 237 

pleases her, but only because it means more money with which to realize 
her hfe's obsession — a people's theatre outside the West End. Politically, 
she stands well to the Left. This is not, I might add, a fact of much sig- 
nificance; it appUes to nearly every theatre company in Europe of any 
contemporary importance. 

Stratford-on-Avon is celebrating this year its hundredth season, 
with a troupe of actors led by Dame Edith Evans, Sir Laurence Olivier, 
Paul Robeson, Charles Laughton, and Sam Wanamaker. A styHstic 
chaos swirled around nearly everything I saw; it was like an all-star 
benefit show run mad in doublet and hose and lacking, for the most part, 
either unity or purpose. The five guest stars seemed remote from the rest 
of the cast — and not surprisingly, when you consider that Dame Edith 
and Mr. Laughton are playing only two roles apiece in a total of five 
plays, while Sir Laurence and the Messrs. Robeson and Wanamaker are 
confining themselves, respectively, to Coriolanus, Othello, and lago. 
Moreover, it takes a closely knit company and dynamic direction to of- 
fer consistently good work to an audience that is mainly composed of 
uncritical tourists and a town that is frankly apathetic toward theatre. 
Peter Bull, the English character actor, has lately recorded — in a highly 
diverting autobiography called / Know the Face, But . . . — his impres- 
sions of the place: 

I am here to say, with prejudice, that I personally loathe Strat- 
ford-on-Avon. . . . The atmosphere of old Tudory and brass 
ornaments brings my bile to boiling-point, and I did fancy during 
my short stay there that no one in the town seemed frightfully keen 
on the actors, who are largely responsible for bringing the shop 
ladies and gentlemen their revenue. 

Mr. Bull's testimony may be slightly loaded, since he was fired dur- 
ing rehearsals; all the same, he has a point. 

All's Well That Ends Well, the first Stratford production I saw this 
year, is directed by Tyrone Guthrie with his familiar, infuriating blend 
of insight and madness. On the one hand we have the great conductor, 
the master of visual orchestration, conceivably the most striking direc- 
tor alive when there are more than six people on stage; on the other 
hand we have his zany Doppelgdnger, darting about with his pockets full 
of fireworks and giving the members of the orchestra hot-feet whenever 
genuine feeling threatens to impend. He has done to All's Well what he 
did a few seasons ago to Troilus and Cressida at the Old Vic; that is, set 
it in a Shavian Ruritania faintly redolent of Arms and the Man. This, of 
course, would have dehghted Shaw, who always held that Helena, the 



238 P^^i I: The British Theatre 

lady doctor who pursues and ensnares the man of her choice, was a 
harbinger of his own aggressive heroines. Mr. Guthrie's modernization 
enables him to make some telling points that EUzabethan costume often 
obscures. When Helena, having worked her miracle cure on the king's 
jBstula, claims as her reward the hand of Bertram, the young man's initial 
reaction is to treat the whole thing as a joke; he cannot believe that the 
daughter of a medical practitioner could seriously contemplate marry- 
ing into the aristocracy. Meanwhile, the braggart ParoUes becomes a 
breezy, overdressed roadhouse cad, foredoomed to failure in his social 
climbing by the possession of an accent that is ever so slightly "off." 
What Mr. Guthrie has done is to make subtle class distinctions where 
Shakespeare made broad ones; one wonders whether the idea could 
have occurred to anyone but an Englishman. Until the evening was half- 
way through, I was beguiled and fascinated. Afterwards Mr. Guthrie's 
love of horseplay obtrudes, and we get — among other things — a long 
scene, performed mainly in mime, wherein a deaf general reviews the 
French troops and exhorts them to battle through a faulty public-address 
system. Two hours of this can be fun; three and a quarter is too much. 
Lavache, the Countess of Roussillon's clown, who has some of the most 
haunting prose in Shakespeare, is entirely omitted; to cut a play, yet 
make what remains last longer than the whole, must argue, I suppose, a 
kind of dotty genius. The role of the Countess, curiously described by 
Shaw as the most beautiful old woman's part ever written (it is in fact 
merely the only old woman's part in Shakespeare that is neither a scold 
nor a murderess), is played by Dame Edith in her characteristic later 
manner — tranquillized benevolence cascading from a great height, like 
royalty opening a bazaar. 

Peter Hall, the young man who will next year assume the direction 
of the Stratford theatre, has staged A Midsummer Night's Dream in a 
manner just as personal as the Guthrie All's Well. With sound historical 
justification, he sees the play as an occasional piece, intended for the 
celebration of a well-bred marriage; accordingly, he deploys the action 
in the great hall of an Elizabethan manor house, which gradually, 
through the cunning of Lila de Nobili's decor, sprouts greenery and de- 
velops into a more or less credible forest. Foohshly, the lovers' scenes 
are played for broad comedy; Mr. Hall's sense of stage humour is not of 
the subtlest, and too many people stumble and fall unfunnily down. His 
positive contribution is in his handling of the fairies. Fatigued by sinister 
Oberons with sequins on their eyelids and by Junoesque Titanias at- 
tended by sinewy gir)ls flapping romantically about to Mendelssohn, I 
was delighted by Mr. Hall's fresh approach. His fairies are closely re- 



Part I: The British Theatre 239 

lated to the lost boys of Peter Pan, with Titania as their prim, managing 
Wendy. Admittedly, they are clad somewhat like insects, and one 
of them is without doubt a diminutive old lady. But Oberon himself is 
pure Peter — a petulant, barefoot boy, well-meaning and genuinely 
magical. Puck, in this interpretation, is not so much his slave as his kid 
brother. Finally, we have Charles Laughton, a ginger-wigged, ginger- 
bearded Bottom. I confess I do not know what Mr. Laughton is up to, 
but I am sure I would hate to share a stage with it. He certainly takes 
the audience into his confidence, but the process seems to exclude from 
his confidence everyone else in the cast. Fidgeting with a lightness that 
reminds one (even as one forgets what the other actors are talking 
about) how expertly bulky men dance, he blinks at the pit his moist, 
reproachful eyes, softly cajoles and suddenly roars, and behaves through- 
out in a manner that has nothing to do with acting, although it per- 
fectly hits off the demeanour of a rapscallion uncle dressed up to enter- 
tain the children at a Christmas party. 

Othello, as directed by Tony Richardson, is full of factitious life — 
jazz drumming between scenes, rampageous crowds, gestures toward 
symbolism, like making the Duke of Venice a cripple who has to be 
carried offstage by a Negro servant, and bizarre climatic effects, as 
when Othello disembarks on Cyprus in a thick fog and a high wind — 
and totally devoid of emotional reality. Shakespeare's great indictment 
of circumstantial evidence comes almost suavely across, without passion 
or impact. None of the three leading players seems to be operating on 
the same wave-length as the others, or even to be speaking the same 
language. Two of them — Mr. Robeson and Mr. Wanamaker — have had 
very little Shakespearean experience, and the third — Mary Ure — is vo- 
cally ill-equipped for either tragedy or poetry. Miss Ure primly flutes; 
Mr. Wanamaker clips and swallows, playing lago in a style one would 
like to call conventional if only he were doing it well. lago, above all, 
should be disarming. Mr. Wanamaker, to coin an epithet, is profoundly 
arming. In more appropriate company, I am sure, Mr. Robeson would 
rise to greater heights than he does. As things are, he seems to be mur- 
dering a butterfly on the advice of a gossip columnist. His voice, of 
course, is incomparable — a foundation-shaking boom. It may, however, 
be too resonant, too musically articulated for the very finest acting. The 
greatest players — Kean and Irving, for example — have seldom been 
singers as well. Their voices were human and imperfect, whereas the 
noise made by Mr. Robeson is so nearly perfect as to be nearly inhu- 
man. 

We will skim over the inessentials of the Stratford Coriolanus as 



240 P^ft I: The British Theatre 

quickly as possible. Boris Aronson's setting is mountainous, which is fine, 
and full of mountainous steps, which is not — I recalled Alec Guinness' 
remark, a propos of Shakespearean productions in general, that he him- 
self had very few conversations on the stairs of his own house. Harry 
Andrews is a stolid, muscular Menenius. As Volumnia, the hero's stifling 
mother, Edith Evans looks overpowering, but her fussy, warbling vi- 
brato swamps all too often the meaning of the lines. Peter Hall's direc- 
tion is straight and vigorous, with hardly any ideological slanting — a 
good way with a play that is best served when either everything is 
slanted or nothing. The lesson to be learned from Coriolanus is that al- 
though Shakespeare was willing to condemn anyone in the social order, 
no matter how low or high his position, he would never have condemned 
the order itself. Any rung in a ladder may be rotten, but there must be a 
ladder, and rungs. 

We can now get down to the heart of the production, which is Oli- 
vier's performance of Coriolanus. The first thing to praise is its sheer, 
intuitive intelligence. Olivier understands that Coriolanus is not an aris- 
tocrat; he is a professional soldier, a Junker, if you like, reminiscent in 
many ways of General de Gaulle — a rejected military saviour who re- 
turns, after a long and bodeful silence, with an army at his back. Fully 
aware of the gap between Coriolanus and the patricians he is serving, 
Olivier uses it to gain for the man an astounding degree of sympathy. 
With the delicacy that is his hallmark as much as power — few actors are 
physically as dainty, and none rolls eyes that are half as calf-like — he 
emphasizes Coriolanus the hater of phoneyness, the plain military man 
embarrassed by adulation, the awkward adult boy sickened equally by 
flattery and by the need to flatter. A cocky, jovial commander, he cannot 
bring himself to feign humility in order to become Consul, and his sulky 
refusal to apologize to the people takes on, in Olivier's hands, the aspect 
of high political comedy. We cannot applaud the man, but we like him, 
and thus the battle of the part is halfway won. What spurs him to betray 
Rome is not pride but a loathing of false servility. 

Olivier also seizes on the fact that Coriolanus was brought up under 
his mother's thumb. "There's no man in the world/More bound to 's 
mother," says Volumnia. Her opinion always comes first. "I muse my 
mother/Does not approve me further" is our initial hint that Coriolanus 
is doubtful whether he is right to be so intransigent toward the plebeians. 
Under her persuasion, he consents to make his peace with them, and it 
is Volumnia who finally dissuades him from sacking Rome, the paternal 
city. Olivier's ashamed, hesitant collapse is among the truest moments 
of his performance. Sidling toward Volumnia, he grasps her hand and 



Fart I: The British Theatre 241 

murmurs, "Oh — my mother. . . ." 

This Coriolanus is all-round Olivier, We have the wagging head, 
the soaring index finger, and the sly, roaming eyes of one of the world's 
cleverest comic actors, plus the desperate, exhausted moans of one of the 
world's masters of pathos. But we also confront the nonpareil of heroic 
tragedians, as athletically lissome as when he played Oedipus a dozen 
years ago. No actor uses rubato, stealing a beat from one line to give to 
the next, like Olivier. The voice is soft steel that can chill and cut, or 
melt and scorch. One feels the chill in the icy tirade that begins "You 
common cry of curs" and ends "There is a world elsewhere." And one 
is scorched by the gargled snarl of rage with which Olivier rams home, 
by a wrenching upward inflexion on the last syllable, "The fires i' th' 
lowest hell fold in the people!" At the close, faithful as ever to the char- 
acterization on which he has fixed, Olivier is roused to suicidal frenzy by 
Aufidius' gibe — "thou boy of tears." "Boy!" shrieks the overmothered 
general, in an outburst of strangled fury, and leaps up a flight of pre- 
cipitous steps to vent his rage. Arrived at the top, he relents and throws 
his sword away. After letting his voice fly high in the great, swingeing 
line about how he "flutter'd your Volscians in Cor-i-o-li" he allows a 
dozen spears to impale him. He is poised, now, on a promontory some 
twelve feet above the stage, from which he topples forward, to be caught 
by the ankles so that he dangles, inverted, like the slaughtered Mussolini. 
A more shocking, less sentimental death I have not seen in the theatre; 
it is at once proud and ignominious, as befits the titanic fool who dies it. 

The image, and the echo, of this astonishing performance have 
taken root in my mind in the weeks that have passed since I witnessed 
it. The dark imprint of Olivier's stage presence is something one forgets 
only with an effort, but the voice is a lifelong possession of those who 
have heard it at its best. It sounds, distinct and barbaric, across the valley 
of many centuries, like a horn calling to the hunt, or the neigh of a 
battle-maddened charger. 



II: 



THE 



AMERICAN 
THEATRE 



South Pacific, by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, 
AT Drury Lane, London. 

I wept, and there is nothing in criticism harder than to convey one's 
gratitude for that. I had better begin with a few calming facts about 
South Pacific. First, this "musical play" is quite alien in tone and method 
to what we understand by "American musical comedy"; secondly, its 
treatment is realistic, which at once precludes ballet and chorus-girls; 
and, thirdly, to compare it with Oklahoma! is as unhelpful as to compare 
a novel with a baUad. So much, I am afraid, must be stated to temper the 
innocence of some of my colleagues, who seem to have blamed the show 
for not living up to the inaccurate puffs it had received in their own 
newspapers. 

This is the first musical romance I have ever seen which was se- 
riously involved in an adult subject. It concerns a young nurse, serving 
on an American-held island in the Pacific war, who falls inextricably in 
love with a middle-aged French expatriate. He is, we discover, a mur- 
derer, and the father of two coloured children. She can forgive the first, 
and the narrative concentrates on her fierce struggle to forgive the 
second. Clearly, your song-and-dance experts could never sustain this, 
so Joshua Logan, the director, has assembled — amazingly at Drury 
Lane — a company of fine singers who are also, down to the last per- 
spiring and frustrated marine, absorbed and accomplished actors. 

Already, then, we have reason to be grateful. But when to so much 
originality one adds the real raisons-d' etre of the evening — the peasant 
graces of Mr. Rodgers' music and the boldness of Mr. Hammerstein's 
lyrics — one recoils from the attitudes of complaint as from a sickroom. 
After the first act I heard astringent voices insisting irrelevantly that the 
war against Japan was won in Europe, arguing that it was especially 
tasteless to bring racial problems into large theatres, and loftily wonder- 
ing why the producers had not seen the theatrical advantages of erupting 
volcanoes and tribal rituals. I was unable to take part in any of these 

245 



246 P^ft II: The American Theatre 

conversations, being transparently embarrassed by the huge sob of 
delight of which I was the all too witting custodian. For this I hold Mary 
Martin responsible. Skipping and roaming round the stage on diminutive 
flat feet, she had poured her voice directly into that funnel to the heart 
which is sealed off from all but the rarest performers, and which was 
last broached, I beUeve, by Yvonne Printemps. After one burst of morn- 
ing joy she explains that "it's an American-type song, but we sort of put 
in our own words," and this artful spontaneity is in everything she does. 
Later, with a straw hat pulled over her eyes and a beam comically broad, 
she stands astride, turns up her toes, and sings: "I'm in love with a 
wonderful guy." Aldous Huxley once wrote of the Caroline poets that 
"they spoke in their natural voices, and it was poetry." Miss Martin's 
style is similar; the technique is informal, and the effect, unless we are to 
imprison the poor word, poetic. 

Not that her achievement is all. There is Muriel Smith as a Rab- 
elaisian Tonkinese pedlar called Bloody Mary; and there is Ray Wal- 
ston, magnificent as a proudly cynical naval engineer, padding suspi- 
ciously through his lines as if he were bent on despising every word of 
them, and curdling each final syllable with a whirring baritone growl. 
There is Betta St. John, gravely glowing in the tiny part of a French- 
speaking native girl, and Wilbur Evans, who, as Miss Martin's elderly 
suitor, has all the good qualities of wool. 

Amid so much excellence the few lapses glare. Jo Mielziner's 
settings, for example, are undistinguished, and in the second half you 
may balk at such a steady flow of plot. But, these flaws noted, I have 
nothing to do except thank Messrs. Logan, Rodgers, and Hammerstein 
and climb up from my knees, a little cramped from the effort of typing 
in such an unusual position. 

(195O 



The Consul, by Gian-Carlo Menotti, at the Cambridge, 
London. 

Gian-Carlo Menotti, who wrote and composed that striking double 
bill, The Medium and The Telephone, has invaded the Cambridge 
Theatre with his new piece. The Consul, a deeply felt exercise in sung 
melodrama, bearing marked traces ever3rwhere of the influence of Gian- 
Carlo Menotti. This time there is a thesis, to the effect that there should 
be no national boundaries and that bureaucracy is a dead hand. The 
efforts of a youngish wife to cross a frontier in search of her fugitive 



Fart II: The American Theatre 247 

husband are frustrated by the agents of an unnamed Consul, whom 
nobody ever sees. The resemblance to Kafka is violent but shallow, since 
Kafka's symbols are wrapped in that sham-repelling mystery which 
often envelops vaUd intuitions, while Menotti's (black leather gloves and 
a crazy conjuror) belong ineradicably to a Hitchcock movie. Much of 
The Consul looks and sounds like a slow American second-feature with 
heavy background music, against which the actors unexpectedly sing 
instead of talk. Squirming to escape banality, Menotti occasionally 
returns to the tunes of his youth, which were nice; his newer style, 
pruned and streamlined, has a kind of sincere slickness which would fool 
nobody. 

There is no very good reason for seeing it except Patricia Neway, 
who would be reason enough to see one's mother's execution. Miss 
Neway sings, acts, evokes, communicates, and transcends the part of the 
bereft wife: her second-act aria ("My name is woman") is the most 
heart-gouging piece of dramatic singing I have ever heard. Miss Neway 
is that rarest kind of actress in whom all the impulses and forms of 
womanhood are, quite unselfconsciously, incarnate: she is woman 
generalised yet microscopically observed; symbol and individual fuse 
together in a perfect and passionate mating. Miss Neway glows; she is 
stricken with a pure anger; she is instinctively honourable. Her large, 
capable hands stroke your heart; she stands, raw-boned and transfixed, 
and her hard grey face speaks intelligent anguish; and she is handsome. 
Part of her appeal is sensual, for in Miss Neway spirit and sex flatter- 
ingly commingle: she is most men's dream mistress. All the social guilts 
of Europe in the last ten years are purified by her sacrifice, and when 
she kills herself, it is like standing by at the death-bed of personal re- 
sponsibility. In all she does, Miss Neway has the long-sighted look of a 
woman who could wash nappies or burn at the stake without a change of 
vocation. On a lower level, she is the Thurber woman: no man could 
ever hold a stage with her. 



The Constant Wife, by W. Somerset Maugham, at the 
National; / Am a Camera, by John van Druten, at the Empire. 

One of the Broadway season's least inspiring achievements has 
been a lame and static revival of Maugham's The Constant Wife, which 
represents Katharine Cornell's coming-of-age as an actress-manager. 
Miss Cornell, once the first and now almost the last lady of the Ameri- 



248 f*^^^ II: The American Theatre 

can theatre, makes her every entrance with the martyred look of a 
woman who has just swept out the attics, put two dozen children to bed, 
finished the washing-up, and painted the scenery as well. Her stock-in- 
trade mingles quizzical charm with gusty bossiness, her forehead sags 
wearily over her eyes, and at high moments her simulation of courage 
and wisdom in extremity gives her a strong resemblance to an indus- 
trious district nurse in the Orkneys. Her method with Mr. Maugham's 
flimsy witticisms is to bellow them with an expression of incipient nau- 
sea; to paraphrase Wilde, she bears distinct traces of what must once 
have been a quite intolerable condescension. 

John van Druten's adaptation of Christopher Isherwood's Berlin 
Stories, presented under the title oil Am a Camera, suffers a little from 
the fact that its hero (being a camera) contributes nothing to the action. 
This is a mood piece about Berlin in 1930; about two second-rate ex- 
patriates, not in love, who manage to ignore the rising Nazi storm out- 
side their window. Yet the dialogue stings, and there is one performance 
of indelible accomphshment: that of Julie Harris, who plays Isherwood's 
Sally Bowles as a sort of Daisy Ashford gone to seed, with frank, piercing 
eyes and the softness of a marshmallow. Miss Harris' Sally is a frail, 
alcoholic adolescent with grubby fingers. She bursts with unreahsed 
affectations, and is for ever latching herself on to a bullrush-length 
cigarette-holder, like a peignoir suspended from a clothes-hook. She 
brings with her an aura of cigarettes stubbed out in pots of cold cream; 
of moths and flames; and of a most touching wit. I expect Miss Harris to 
mature astonishingly, and to become, very shortly, one of the nobler 
ladies of the modern stage. Already she has the orphaned look of great- 
ness. 

(1952) 



Ruth Draper J at the Criterion, London. 

I am sure that what happened to me at the Criterion Theatre on 
Tuesday night was happening to very few other people in the house. I 
was seeing Ruth Draper for the first time. The rest of her audience were 
annual loyalists, ancient friends of her art; for some of them, I after- 
wards discovered, she has all but ruined the pleasures of normal play- 
going, since her large supporting cast, which exists only at her mind's 
fingertips, is so much more satisfactory than any which makes the vulgar 
mistake of being visible. 



Part II: The American Theatre 249 

I cannot content myself with a few perfunctory references to the 
familiar, inimitable etcetera with which she presents her well-loved 
gallery of etceteras : she must have enough notices of that kind to paper 
a palace. I want to declare Miss Draper open to the new generation of 
playgoers, and to trample on their suspicions, which I once shared, that 
she might turn out to be a museum-piece, ripe for the dust-sheet and 
oblivion. She is, on the contrary, about as old-fashioned and mummified 
as spring, and as I watched her perform her thronging monologues the 
other night, I could only conclude that this was the best and most modern 
group acting I had ever seen. It seems, in passing, absurd to use a singu- 
lar verb in connection with so plural a player. Let me put it that Ruth 
Draper are now at their height of their career, and add that you have 
only six weeks in which to see them. 

She works her miracles benignly and unfussed; and do not be mis- 
led by her aquiline nose and razor-edged eyes into taking her for one of 
those prima donnas who prefer to give solo performances merely because 
their egos cannot abide competition. I have an idea that, at the back of 
her mind. Miss Draper is hoping still to find a company of actors skillful 
enough to stand up to comparison with the accuracy, tact, and wisdom of 
her technique. She is actually doing her contemporaries a great kindness 
by not exposing them to such a hazard. The riches of her style lie in its 
quietness; it is a peaceful spawning of microscopically observed details, 
each of which does the work of an explanatory paragraph in a novel. 
Within the space of a short story, she manages to sketch in enough back- 
ground for an epic. 

Her first and wittiest study is of a dowager opening a bazaar and 
pausing in her inspection of the stalls to inquire cautiously: "Is that a 
rose or a tomato?" Next she is a fisherman's wife, wrinkled in granite, 
gossiping on the porch while her rheumatic husband ("an awful heavy 
man to rub") complains from within the house. Then follows the fabled 
procession of the women in Mr. CUfford's fife — tireless secretary, dry- 
hearted wife, and patient mistress. The patience of the last-named, by 
the bye, seemed to me a little too monumental; we were almost, for a 
moment, in the swamps of sentimentalism, and I caught echoes of the 
almighty cooing of Dame Sybil Thorndike on an off day. With the finale, 
however, we are back on the peaks : the Parisian actress preparing for a 
world tour. During this exhibition the audience broke out into applause, 
amazingly when you consider that Miss Draper had just concluded a 
long tirade blazing with charm and avarice, but spoken entirely in Rus- 
sian. 

Watching her is like being present at a successful audition for the 



250 P^ft 11: The American Theatre 

role of a theatrical immortal. I can pay her no higher compliment than 
to say that the best plays of Chekhov read as if they had been written 
at her express commission. To older playgoers I must apologise for 
dwelling on so much that they already knew. Younger ones will form an 
orderly queue outside the Criterion, and need not cross their fingers. 



Jack Benny, at the London Palladium. 

There is a rumour about to the effect that Jack Benny, who has 
returned to the Palladium for three weeks, is a great clown. This is a 
dreadful slur on his reputation, so let us dispose of it at once. Mr. Benny 
is not a clown at all; he is a straight man, or stooge, and possibly the 
subtlest in the history of comedy. Funny men surround him, but they are 
there purely for the purpose of leaving him cold. It is he who, in all good 
faith, asks the questions; the others provide the punch-lines. He is the 
duck's back; they pour the water. He receives their slights with a mask 
of bland resignation; his eyes glaze to a blood-curdUng blue, and in- 
wardly he meditates mayhem. At length, adjusting his smile with an 
effort and shrugging faintly, Uke an injured diplomat, at the audience, he 
passes on to other, happier things. He gets his laughs, in fact, not by 
attacking, but by suffering in silence. 

Benny's is a character performance, with a clear and considered 
attitude towards humanity. He wants to cheat and rob it. Calm, sun- 
burnt, and ingratiating, he is forever pondering devices by which the 
bite may suddenly and simultaneously be put on his wife, his family, his 
friends, and the United States Treasury. His fabulous repose is shaken, 
his small fine hands start to expostulate, only when he is accused of 
avarice. This hurts and disgusts him, and his eyebrows, tired and dep- 
recating, start upwards. Benny's whole act is that of a man fatigued 
with protesting his innocence to a court which is disposed to hang him 
out of hand: it is a long yawn, with an eye to the main chance. 

To be as fond of Benny as I am may easily be an eccentric taste: 
he is technically a buffer-state, a rarity in this country, where comedians 
are generally aggressors. But no one with an eye for the craft of comedy 
should miss the chance of studying the ease and timing of his minutely 
rehearsed ad-Ubs. His company includes a nest of three hopeful song- 
birds, who fail repeatedly to win his heart; and a guileless Irish tenor, 
looking appropriately starved, called Dennis Day. Mr, Day, incidentally, 



Part II: The American Theatre 25 1 

ventures for several minutes on end into the special hell reserved for 
people who impersonate Sir Harry Lauder singing "Roamin' in the 
GloaminV complete with gestures and stick. Someone should tell him 
that Danny Kaye is in the Lauder business too, and that it is getting 
tough at the top. 

Frankie Laine, at the London Palladium. 

Like Sir Max Beerbohm — whose eightieth birthday we are cele- 
brating this week-end — I am quite indifferent to serious music. But I 
find it practically impossible to be indifferent to Frankie Laine, the 
American singer, who is currently at the Palladium, calling the cattle 
home across the sands of D flat. Nobody could spend an hour in the same 
room as Mr. Laine's ampUfied voice without getting a very pronounced 
reaction. I came out of the theatre feeling slightly clubbed. 

Mr. Laine takes us back on a nostalgic journey to the half-forgotten 
era of Johnnie Ray and "Cry." He is a beefy man with a strangler's 
hands and a smile like the beam of a lighthouse, but he sings almost ex- 
clusively about tears and regrets. You form a mental picture of him sob- 
bing into his pillow, hammering it with his fists until the bed collapses 
under him. His approach to the microphone is that of an accused man 
pleading with a hostile jury. He complains of betrayals, and shouts his 
defiance of faithlessness. It is like the day one's elder brother was 
dropped from the first eleven. I am not sure what the opposite of bash- 
fulness is — bashlessness, I suppose — but, whatever it is, Mr. Laine is 
loaded with it. He spreads his arms out like a wrestler and then hits a 
mad, toneless headnote, holding it so long that you expect him to drop 
like a stone at the end of it. Seizing a bull-whip and grinning intimately, 
he can even get passionately excited over mules — a rare thing in the 
modem theatre, or any other, for that matter. 

The applause, Uke the act, was deafening, chiefly taking the form 
of a sustained wailing from upstairs. Mr. Laine, you see, is not content 
with mere handclaps : once satisfied that he has the audience in the palm 
of his hand, he goes one further and clenches his fist. Cruel it may be, 
but it gets results. You would have thought they were holding a witches' 
sabbath in the gallery. Myself, I eluded his grip. Except in one spooky 
little ballad called "High Noon," he showed none of the lyrical fire and 
sensitivity of Johnnie Ray, who is a much more finished exponent of the 
new art of heartfelt yell. 



252 P^i^t II: The American Theatre 

After singing five numbers, Mr. Laine sprang into the wings, return- 
ing when the panic had subsided to announce: "After my fifth song I 
always come back anyway!" This simple message of reassurance had a 
weird and impressive effect on one of my colleagues, who reported Mr. 
Laine as having said: "After my fifth song I always go bang anyway." 
The truth is that, while he showed no signs of blowing up in our faces, 
Mr. Laine quite definitely kept on coming back. Again and again and 
again. 

(1952) 



Guys and Dolls, by Frank Loesser, at the Coliseum, London. 

Guys and Dolls, at which I am privileged to take a peek last eve- 
ning, is a hundred-per-cent American musical caper, cooked up out of a 
story called "The Idyll of Miss Sarah Brown," by the late Damon 
Runyon, who is such a scribe as delights to give the English language a 
nice kick in the pants. 

This particular fable takes place in and around Times Square in 
New York City, where many citizens do nothing but roll dice all night 
long, which is held by one and all, and especially the gendarmes, to be a 
great vice. Among the parties hopping around in this neighbourhood is 
a guy by the name of Nathan Detroit, who operates a floating dice game, 
and Miss Adelaide, his ever-loving pretty, who is sored up at this Nathan 
because after fourteen years engagement, they are stiU nothing but 
engaged. Anyway, being short of ready scratch, Nathan lays a bet with 
a large gambler called Sky Masterson, the subject of the wager being 
whether The Sky can talk a certain Salvation Army doll into joining him 
on a trip to Havana. Naturally, Nathan figures that a nice doll such as 
this will die sooner, but by and by she and The Sky get to looking back 
and forth at each other, and before you know it she is his sweet-pea. 
What happens next but The Sky gets bopped by religion and shoots 
craps with Nathan and the boys for their immortal souls. And where do 
the sinners wind up, with their chalk-striped suits and busted noses, but 
at a prayer meeting in the doll's mission house, which hands me a very 
big laugh indeed. The actors who nab the jobs of playing these apes and 
essences of 42nd Street have me all tuckered out with clapping them. 

Nathan Detroit is Sam Levene, who expostulates very good with 
his arms, which are as long as a monkey's. Stubby Kaye, who plays 
Nicely-Nicely Johnson, the well-known horse-player, is built on lines 



Part II: The American Theatre 253 

which are by no means dinky, for his poundage maybe runs into zillions, 
but he gives with a voice which is as couth as a choir boy's or maybe 
couther. He commences the evening by joining in a three-part comedy 
song about the nags. In fact, it is a fugue, and I will give you plenty of 
eleven to five that it is the first fugue many patrons of the Coliseum ever 
hear. Miss Vivian Blaine (Miss Adelaide) is a very choice blonde judy 
and she gets to sing a song which goes as follows : "Take back your mink 
to from whence it came" and which hits me slap-dab in the ear as being 
supernaturally comical. Myself, I prefer her to Miss Lizbeth Webb, who 
plays the mission doll, but, naturally, I do not mention such an idea out 
loud. 

The Coliseum is no rabbit hutch, and maybe a show as quick and 
smart as this Guys and Dolls will go better in such a sized theatre as the 
Cambridge Theatre. Personally, I found myself laughing ha-ha last 
night more often than a guy in the critical dodge has any right to. And I 
am ready to up and drop on my knees before Frank Loesser, who writes 
the music and lyrics. In fact, this Loesser is maybe the best light com- 
poser in the world. In fact, the chances are that Guys and Dolls is not 
only a young masterpiece, but the Beggar's Opera of Broadway. 



The Crucible, by Arthur Miller, at the Bristol Old Vic. 

Convictions, as Nietzsche said, are prisons: they exclude from life 
the fun of doubt and flexibility. In Death of a Salesman Arthur Miller 
observed mankind in detached, compassionate surview; in The Crucible 
he takes sides. And the strength of his convictions breeds the ultimate 
weakness of his play. 

He re-creates the Salem witch-hunt of 1692, which began when 
a clutch of flighty wantons, discovered dancing naked by moonlight, 
absolved themselves by accusing others of sending the devil into them. 
Were they really practising witchcraft, that fertility magic which Chris- 
tian theology has taught us to call black? Mr. Miller evades the issue. 
For him all oppression is vile, and we must assume that in Salem there 
was smoke but no fire. A fearful town believes the girls' charges, whereat 
Mr. Miller skins history alive, revealing beneath the surface the familiar 
ugliness of McCarthyism. Silence is evidence of guilt; he who testifies to 
a prisoner's innocence is himself suspected. Abigail Williams, the leader 
of the crypto-coven, seeks to ensnare her ex-lover, John Proctor, by 



254 P^^t II: The American Theatre 

naming his wife as a witch. "Is the accuser always holy now?" he cries, 
and, to prove Abigail's malice, confesses his infidelity to the court. But 
his wife, thinking to shield him, denies it, thereby ensuring her own and 
her husband's condemnation. 

The fierce narrative thrill of the action depends mostly on Mr. 
Miller's mastery of period dialogue. The prose is gnarled, whorled in its 
gleaming as a stick of polished oak, an incomparable dramatic weapon. 
Witness Abigail's speech, swearing her friends to secrecy: 

Let either of you breathe a word, or the edge of a word . . . 
and I will come to you in the black of some terrible night, and I 
will bring a pointy reckoning that will shudder you. ... I saw 
Indians smash my dear parents' heads on the pillow next to mine, 
and I have seen some reddish work done at night, and I can make 
you wish you had never seen the sun go down. 

What pity, then, that Mr. MUler's convictions so crucially imprison 
him! He presents Deputy-Governor Danforth, the judge, as a motiveless 
monster, which is as if Shaw had omitted the Inquisitor's speech from the 
trial scene of Saint Joan. The enemy is allowed no appeal. Mr. Miller 
writes wrathfully, a state in which the creative muscles tend to seize up; 
and a hard human tragedy, which one hoped to see irrigated, is desic- 
cated instead. "For the Poet," said Sidney, "he nothing affirmeth, and 
therefore never lyeth." Mr. Miller afl&rmeth plenty, and to support his 
afiirmations he is forced to restrict his sympathies — a fatal abdication 
from truth. He prejudges those whom he accuses of prejudice, and the 
last scene, in which Proctor goes to the noose, plays like old melodrama; 
the words ring heroically hollow, because dramaturgy has dechned into 
martyrology. Men are never wholly right or wholly wrong. The witch- 
hunters at Salem thought they were, and Mr. Miller, the hunters' hunter, 
flaws a magnificent play by sharing their fallacy. 

Rosemary Harris exactly catches the wan aridity of Proctor's wife; 
and Proctor himself is Edgar Wreford, who, snifiing melodrama in the 
air, lets the part play him, replacing the firm reins of realism with the 
loose bit of rhetoric. 



Part II: The American Theatre 255 



Moby Dick, adapted by Orson Welles from Herman 
Melville's novel, at the Duke of York's, Lodndon. 

At this stage of his career it is absurd to expect Orson Welles to 
attempt anything less than the impossible. It is all that is left to him. 
Mere possible things, like Proust or War and Peace, would confine him. 
He must choose Moby Dick, a book whose setting is the open sea, whose 
hero is more mountain than man and more symbol than either, and 
whose villain is the supremely unstageable whale. He must take as his 
raw material Melville's prose, itself as stormy as the sea it speaks of, 
with a thousand wrecked metaphors clinging on its surface to frail spars 
of sense. (You do not dip into Melville, you jump in, holding your nose 
and praying not to be drowned. If prose styles were women, Melville's 
would be painted by Rubens and cartooned by Blake: it is a shot-gun 
wedding of sensuousness and metaphysics.) Yet out of all these impos- 
sibilities Mr. Welles has fashioned a piece of pure theatrical megalo- 
mania — a sustained assault on the senses which dwarfs anything London 
has seen since, perhaps, the Great Fire. 

It was exactly fifty years ago last Wednesday that Irving made his 
last appearance in London. I doubt if anyone since then has left his 
mark more indelibly on every second of a London production than 
Mr. Welles has on this of Moby Dick. He serves Melville in three ca- 
pacities: as adapter, as director, and as star. The adaptation, to begin 
with, is beautifully adroit. Captain Ahab's self-destructive revenge on 
the albino whale that tore off his leg is over in less than a hundred and 
fifty minutes. And two brilliant devices reconcile us to the lushness of 
Melville's style. Firstly, seeing how readily Melville falls into iambic 
pentameters, Mr, Welles has versified the whole action. Secondly, to 
prepare us for the bravura acting which is to come, he "frames" the play 
as a rehearsal held sixty years ago by a tyrannical brandy-swigging 
American actor-manager. My only criticism must be that the role of Pip, 
the mad cabinboy, has been rather too heavily expanded. Mr. Welles 
clearly sees Ahab as Lear and Pip as a cross-breed of the Fool and Cor- 
delia, but the duologue between them was a very ponderous affair, not 
helped by the agonised inadequacy of the actress to whom Pip's ram- 
blings were given. 

The real revelation was Mr. Welles' direction. The great, square, 
rope-hung vault of the bare stage, stabbed with light from every point 
of the compass, becomes by turns the Nantucket wharf, the whalers' 



256 P^^t II: The American Theatre 

chapel, the deck of the Pequod, and the ocean itself. The technique with 
which Thornton Wilder evoked "Our Town" is used to evoke "Our 
Universe." The whaling-boat from which Ahab flings himself at Moby 
Dick is a rostrum projecting into the stalls, and the first-act hurricane is a 
model of imaginative stagecraft: ropes and beams swing crazily across 
one's vision, while the crew sUdes and huddles beneath. Mr. Welles' 
films have already established his mastery of atmospheric sound: here 
the crash and howl of the sea is alternated with a brisk httle mouth-organ 
theme and strange, foreboding chords played on a harmonium. Dialogue 
is overlapped, words are timed, syllables are pounced on with a subtlety 
we have not heard since The Magnificent Ambersons. Gordon Jackson, 
a much-neglected actor, gives Ishmael just the right feeUng of perplexity, 
and Patrick McGoohan as Starbuck, the mate who dares to oppose 
Ahab's will, is Melville's "long, earnest man" to the life, whittled out of 
immemorial teak. His is the best performance of the evening. 

When I say that, I am not excepting Mr. Welles, who now comes 
before us as actor. In aspect, he is a leviathan plus. He has a voice of 
bottled thunder, so deeply encasked that one thinks of those liquor 
advertisements which boast that not a drop is sold till it's seven years 
old. The trouble is that everything he does is on such a vast scale that it 
quickly becomes monotonous. He is too big for the boots of any part. He 
reminds one of Macaulay's conversation, as Carlyle described it: "Very 
well for a while, but one wouldn't live under Niagara." Emotion of any 
kind he expresses by thrusting out his chin and knitting his eyebrows. 
Between these twin promontories there juts out a false and quite un- 
necessary nose. Sir Laurence Olivier began his film of Hamlet with the 
statement that it was "the tragedy of a man who could not make up his 
mind." At one point Mr. Welles' new appendage started to leave its 
moorings, and Moby Dick nearly became the tragedy of a man who 
could not make up his nose. 

Let me now turn about and say that, though Mr. Welles plays Ahab 
less than convincingly, there are few actors alive who could play it at all. 
Earher in the evening, as the actor-manager, he makes what seems to 
be a final statement on the relationship of actor to audience: "Did you 
ever," he says, "hear of an unemployed audience?" It is a good line; but 
the truth is that British audiences have been unemployed far too long. If 
they wish to exert themselves, to have their minds set whirling and their 
eyes dazzling at sheer theatrical virtuosity, Moby Dick is their opportu- 
nity. With it, the theatre becomes once more a house of magic. 

(1955) 



Part II: The American Theatre 257 



AMERICAN BLUES 

The Plays of Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams. 

"Since 1920," Arthur Miller has said, "American drama has been 
a steady, year-by-year documentation of the frustration of man," and 
the record supports him. Between the wars most of the serious American 
playwrights — Odets, for instance, Elmer Rice, Maxwell Anderson, 
Irwin Shaw, and Lillian Hellman — did their best work in the conviction 
that modern civilisation was committing repeated acts of criminal in- 
justice against the individual. Their heroes were victims, such as Mio in 
Winterset, and they devoted themselves to dramatising the protests of 
minorities; it was thus that they ploughed the land cleared for them by 
O'Neill, the sohtary pioneer bulldozer. For his long-sightedness they 
substituted an absorption in immediate reality; where he was the ad- 
monitory lighthouse, they were the prying torches. During the war their 
batteries ran out: since 1945 none of them has written a first-rate play. 
The mission of martyrology has been taken up by the younger genera- 
tion, by Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams. 

Miller and Williams seem, on the face of things, to have even less in 
common than Ibsen and Bj0mson. Miller, a man of action, belongs to 
the thirties' tradition of social drama, while Williams, a poet manque, 
looks ahead to a lyrical, balletic Gesamtkunstwerk in which (though I 
doubt whether he fully recognises the fact) words as such are likely to 
have less and less importance. Yet the two men share much. Both echo 
Jacob in Awake and Sing, who says: "We don't want Ufe printed on 
dollar bills." Miller is a rebel against, Williams a refugee from the 
familiar ogre of commercialism, the killer of values and the leveller of 
men. "You know, knowledge — ZZZZpp! Money — zzzzpp! POWER! 
Wham! That's the cycle democracy is built on!" exults the Gentleman 
Caller in The Glass Menagerie. But this is not their only joint exploit. 
Both reserve their most impassioned utterance for one subject, into 
which they plunge headlong, sometimes floundering in self-pity, some- 
times belly-diving into rhetoric, but often knifing straight and deep: the 
subject of frustration. Lady Mulligan, in Williams' latest play Camino 
Real, complains to Gutman, the proprietor of her hotel, that he has 
chosen to shelter some highly undesirable guests. Whereupon: 

GUTMAN : They pay the price of admission the same as you. 
LADY M. : What price is that? 
gutman: Desperation! 



258 P^ft II: ^^^ American Theatre 

Techniques change, but grand themes do not. Whether in a mur- 
der trial, a bullfight, a farce like Charley's Aunt, or a tragedy like Lear, 
the behaviour of a human being at the end of his tether is the common 
denominator of all drama. When a man (or woman) arrives at self- 
knowledge through desperation, he (or she) has become the raw ma- 
terial for a great play. The stature of the work will depend on the 
dramatist's honesty and skill, but its cornerstone is already laid. Though 
they take the same theme, Miller and Williams build very differently. In 
European terms, Miller is the Scandinavian: he has in fact translated 
Ibsen, whose fierce lucidity, humourlessness, and "odour of spiritual 
paraffin" he shares. WilUams, on the other hand, is the Mediterranean, 
the lover of Lorca and D. H. Lawrence, sensuous, funny, verbally 
luxuriant, prone to immersion in romantic tragedy. Miller's plays are 
hard, "patrist," athletic, concerned mostly with men. Williams' are soft, 
"matrist," sickly, concerned mostly with women. What links them is 
their love for the bruised individual soul and its life of "quiet despera- 
tion." It takes courage, in a sophisticated age, to keep faith with this 
kind of love, and their refusal to compromise has led both Miller and 
Williams into some embarrassing pseudo-simplicities. Their reward is in 
characters like Joe Keller of All My Sons, Willy Loman of Death of a 
Salesman, John Proctor of The Crucible, Blanche DuBois of A Streetcar 
Named Desire, Laura of The Glass Menagerie, Kilroy of Camino Real, 
who live together in the great theatrical line of flawed, victimised inno- 
cents. 

Arthur Miller, who was born in Brooklyn in 1915, achieved his 
first Broadway production at the age of twenty-nine. The play. The 
Man Who Had All the Luck, had a framework which MiUer (himself a 
second son) later elaborated in All My Sons and Death of a Salesman: 
the relationship of two sons with their father. The protagonist is David, 
the elder, an unskilled garage hand in a midwestern town. His brother, 
Amos, forcibly trained by Pat, a jealous and protective father, to become 
a baseball pitcher, gets nowhere, while the ignored David thrives, 
financially as well as maritally. His inability to fail makes David neu- 
rotic, and to deaden his sense of unworthiness he falls into the habit of 
ascribing his success to luck. In the final scene he is made to understand 
that "luck" is merely a word used by men less diligent than himself to 
explain his triumphs. "You made it all yourself," cries his wife. "It was 
always you." His hired man, the immigrant Gus, puts the play's case: a 
man must believe, he says, "that on this earth he is the boss of his life, 
not the leafs in the teacups, not the stars. In Europe I seen already mil- 
lions of Davids walking around, millions. They gave up already to know 



Part II: The American Theatre 259 

that they are the boss. They gave up to know that they deserve this 
world." The point of the drame a these is weakened because the princi- 
pal characters are too obviously pawns in Miller's hands; what stays in 
the mind is the craggy candour of the dialogue. Miller, like Williams, is 
committed to prose drama, in which both men have uncovered riches 
which make the English "poetic revival" seem hollow, retrogressive, 
and — to use Cyril Connolly's coinage — praeteritist. 

Pat, David's father, is guilty only by implication. Joe Keller in 
All My Sons, staged by Elia Kazan in 1947, is a criminal in the legal 
sense. Shadily, he has been acquitted of manufacturing faulty aircraft 
parts during the war, and when the play opens, his partner is in gaol, 
taking the rap for him. Of Joe's two sons, one has been killed in action, 
and the other, Chris, intends to marry his brother's ex-fiancee, the con- 
victed partner's daughter. Chris is a militant idealist ashamed of having 
survived the war; material possessions sicken him unless they have been 
purely and honourably acquired — "Otherwise what you have is loot, 
and there's blood on it." Miller concentrates on two shifting relation- 
ships: between Chris and his girl, and between Chris and his father. 
Joe Keller (like Willy Loman) had to compromise in order to live; and 
Chris (like Biff in the later play) is overwhelmed by the revelation of 
paternal guilt. How can he marry the daughter of a man who was im- 
prisoned because of his father's perjury? Miller solves this classic 
impasse with a smart stroke of melodrama: unconvincingly, Keller 
accepts the burden and shoots himself. 

"I'm his father," says Keller at one point, "and he's my son, and if 
there's something bigger than that I'll put a bullet in my head." This 
message, more symphonically orchestrated, reappears in Miller's best 
play. Death of a Salesman, which Kazan directed in 1948. All Our 
Fathers, as Daniel Schneider suggested, would be an appropriate alter- 
native title. Willy Loman and his two sons, the sensualist Happy and the 
mysteriously retarded Biff, are ruined by their behef in "the wrong 
dream," the mystique of salesmanship. "What are you building?" says 
Ben, Willy's millionaire brother. "Lay your hand on it. Where is it?" 
Unlike most hero-victims, Willy is not cynical about the values which 
are corrupting him; he is pathetic because, brightly and unquestioningly, 
he reveres them. As the play begins, Biff, the quondam college hero, has 
returned penniless to his Brooklyn home, where he finds his father going 
crazy with failure to sell. The ensuing action covers the next twenty-four 
hours: in a series of beautifully welded interlocking flashbacks we 
pursue Willy's thoughts into the past, back to the germinal moment of 
calamity when he was surprised by Biff in a hotel room with a half- 



260 P^^t II- ^^^ American Theatre 

dressed tart. This encounter, with its implied destruction of the father- 
god, stunted Biff's career and left Willy with a load of remorse redoubled 
by the fact that he, too, was the unsuccessful one of two brothers. 
Memory explodes the cocoon of illusions within which he preserves his 
self-respect, and (ostensibly for the insurance money) he commits 
suicide. 

The play is Miller's triumph in the plain style; it rings with phrases 
which have entered into the contemporary subconscious. "He's liked, 
but he's not — well liked"; "The woods are burning, boys"; Ben's com- 
placent "The jungle is dark but full of diamonds, Willy." More memo- 
rably, there is Mrs. Loman's anguished rebuke to her sons for having 
scorned their father: 

/^ Willy Loman never made a lot of money. His name was never 

m the papers. He's not the finest character that ever lived. But he's 

,^a human being, and a terrible thing is happening to him. So atten- 

/ tion must be paid. He's not to be allowed to fall into his grave like a 

Y dog. Attention, attention must be finally paid to such a person. 

Charley, Willy's neighbour, speaks an epitaph over him which has 
the same groping, half-articulate power: 

And for a salesman, there is no rock bottom to the life. He 
don't put a bolt to a nut, he don't tell you the law, or give you 
medicine. . . . Nobody dast blame this man. A salesman is got 
to dream, boy. It comes with the territory. 

There is a fair amount of otiose breast-beating in the script, and 
Miller's prose sometimes slips into a sentimental rhythm of despair 
which could be convicted of glibness. But the theatre is an impure craft, 
and Death of a Salesman organises its impurities with an emotional 
effect unrivalled in post-war drama. 

Willy Loman goes to his fate without knowing exactly why it has 
overtaken him. The heroes of Miller's last two plays are also defeated, 
but they know what forces have beaten them: the enemy in each case is 
identified. In 1950 he adapted An Enemy of the People, turning it 
into a racy contemporary pamphlet. His temperament chimed with 
what he describes as Ibsen's "terrible wrath," and the dilemma of Stock- 
mann, the betrayed crusader, duplicated Miller's own, that of the life- 
long democrat who learns, from the example of his own country, that 
majority rule is not infallible. Stockmann is vanquished by the pusil- 
lanimous stupidity of the mob, on which, in the original, he launches a 
furious attack. MiUer softens it in translation, thereby forfeiting the 



Fart II: The American Theatre 261 

objectivity which allowed even Ibsen's heroes their weaknesses. Anger 
is a great simplifier, and Miller is an angry writer. An Enemy of the 
People marks his decision to weight the scales in favour of the oppressed 
minority man. 

"Before many can know something, one must know it" — Stock- 
mann's affirmation steers us towards The Crucible, Miller's most recent 
play, produced in New York last January. The bird's-eye compassion of 
Salesman has now been replaced by a worm's-eye sympathy which 
extends only to the "right-minded" characters. Though it draws plain 
contemporary parallels with its subject, the witch-hunt at Salem, it is 
not an overtly political play : it deals with the refusal of a stubborn intel- 
lect to enter into enforced allegiances. "I hke not the smell of this 'au- 
thority,' " says Proctor, the hero. In Salem, as in Stockmann's township, 
nonconformity was allied with sin, an attitude which MiUer detests so 
savagely that the play often resembles the trial scene from Saint Joan 
with the Inquisitor's speech deleted. The inquisitors in The Crucible 
are unmotivated fiends, and the atmosphere in which they flourished is 
never explored or accounted for. 

The action stays close to historical fact. A group of flighty wantons, 
charged with engaging in mildly orgiastic rites in a wood near Salem, hit 
on the notion of exculpating themselves by accusing their neighbours of 
having sent the devil into them. Their accusations are believed; a tri- 
bunal is set up; and the hangings begin. Proctor's wife is arrested, and his 
attempts to exonerate her lead to his own arrest. In a fine, cHnching line 
he demands: "Is the accuser always holy now?" If he confesses, giving a 
list of those who infected him with diabohsm, he will be freed; if not, he 
wiU be executed. At their last meeting his wife teUs him how another of 
the condemned died: 

Great stones they lay upon his chest until he plead aye or nay. 
They say he give them but two words. "More weight," he says. 
And died. 

Head high, as the drums roll. Proctor sacrifices himself for his 
principles, a commonplace "Victorian" martyrdom worthy of a mind 
much less subtle than MUler's. The Crucible is disturbing because it 
suggests a sensibility blunted by the insistence of an outraged con- 
science: it has the over-simplifications of poster art. 

In The Devils of Loudun, a much more searching analysis of 
witch-hunting, Aldous Huxley mentions the euphoria of the "adrenalin 
addict," a type to which Miller seems at present to belong. "There are 
many people," Huxley says, "for whom hate and rage pay a higher 



262 P^^t II: The American Theatre 

dividend of immediate satisfaction than love," this satisfaction being 
derived from "their psychically stimulated endocrines." Bad temper, 
which produces cramp in the creative muscles, is an enemy of art; and 
though The Crucible is on the right side morally, socially, and politically, 
it is the artistic equivalent of a closed shop. Full of affirmations, it is also 
full of emotional half-truths; which will do for a leader-writer, but not 
for a playwright of Miller's giant stature. 

Tennessee Williams' genius has no social commitments, but many 
aesthetic ones. His faults, like MiUer's, are the defects of his virtues. 
The present cast of Miller's mind traps him in the present, the male 
preserve wherein history is shaped, and the universal preoccupation is 
with action and incident; Williams trades in nostalgia and hope, the 
past and the future, obsessions which we associate most strongly with 
the great female characters — Marguerite Gautier, Cleopatra, Hedda 
Gabler, and Chekhov's women, none of whom cares for today half as 
much as she cares for yesterday or tomorrow. His plays thus have the 
static quality of dream rather than the dynamic quality of fact; they 
bring the drama of mood to what may be its final hothouse flowering, 

Williams is a Southerner, born forty years ago in Columbus, Missis- 
sippi, and his work first reached Broadway when his "memory play," 
The Glass Menagerie, was produced in 1945. It turns a burning-glass on 
to a storm-proof family unit, insulated against life by its careful preserva- 
tion of gentility. A stage direction reads: 

The apartment faces an alley, and is entered by a fire-escape, 
a structure whose name is a touch of accidental poetry, for aU of 
these huge buildings are always burning with the slow and implac- 
able fires of human desperation. 

Here live Amanda, garrulous and suffocatingly maternal, her 
cynical son, Tom, and her crippled daughter, Laura. Retrospectively, 
Tom tells the story of how he invited a Gentleman Caller to dinner as a 
possible beau for Laura, and how the Caller, affable though he was, 
revealed that he was already spoken for. Laura's spinsterhood is con- 
firmed; Amanda's hopes are dashed; but neither of these minor disasters 
is made to sound mawkish. Williams' wry wit acts as a caustic to the 
wounds. In Amanda, fussy and conversationally archaic, he shows the 
perfection of his ear for human speech, and also the extent of his tact: 
she never becomes a grotesque. The play is not a major achievement, 
but its opacity is as precise and marvellous as a spider's web. 

You Touched Me!, on which Williams collaborated with Donald 
Windham, is of interest only because it dealt (hke The Glass Menagerie) 



>?> 



Part II: The American Theatre 263 

with the impact of reality on illusions, in this case on two isolated, mu- 
tually infectious virgins; and because it was adapted from the short 
story of the same name by D. H. Lawrence, one of Williams' heroes. It 
was followed in 1 947 by A Streetcar Named Desire, which was directed 
by Kazan, who seems to have an instinct for the best of both Miller and 
Wilhams. It is perhaps the most misunderstood of his plays: the Enghsh 
and French productions were both so blatantly sensationalised that 
Williams' underlying lyric fibre passed unnoticed. If Willy Loman is the 
desperate average man, Blanche DuBois is the desperate exceptional 
woman. Willy's collapse began when his son walked into a hotel apart- 
ment and found him with a whore; Blanche's when she entered "a room 
that I thought was empty" and found her young husband embracing an 
older man. In each instance the play builds up to a climax involving 
guilt and concomitant disgust. Blanche, nervously boastful, lives in the 
leisured past; her defence against actuahty is a sort of aristocratic 
Bovarysme, at which her brutish brother-in-law Stanley repeatedly 
sneers. Characteristically, Williams keeps his detachment and does not 
take sides: he never denies that Stanley's wife, in spite of her sexual 
enslavement, is happy and well-adjusted, nor does he exaggerate the 
cruelty with which Stanley reveals to Blanche's new suitor the secrets 
of her nymphomaniac past. The play's weakness Ues in the fact that the 
leading role lends itself to grandiose overplaying by unintelhgent ac- 
tresses, who forget that when Blanche complains to her sister about 
Stanley's animalism, she is expressing, however faintly, an ideal: 

Such things as art — as poetry and music — such kinds of new 
light have come into the world since then! . , . That we have to 
make grow! And cling to, and hold as our flag! In this dark march 
toward whatever it is we're approaching . . . Don't — don't hang 
back with the brutes! 

When, finally, she is removed to the mental home, we should feel 
that a part of civilisation is going with her. Where ancient drama teaches 
us to reach nobility by contemplation of what is noble, modern American 
drama conjures us to contemplate what might have been noble, but is 
now humiliated, ignoble in the sight of all but the compassionate. 

In 1948 Williams reworked an earher play, Summer and Smoke. 
Its heroine. Alma, is Blanche ten years younger: a Southern virgin 
conceahng beneath "Uterary" affectations a sense of inadequacy in the 
presence of men. Her next-door neighbour, a notorious rake, tries to 
seduce her and is boldly repulsed. He shows her an anatomy chart, and 
explains that the human body is a tree inhabited by three bnds, the 



264 P^'*"t 11: The American Theatre 

brain, the belly, and the genitals. Where, he asks, is the soul of which 
she speaks and for which, in Spanish, her name stands? Ironically, he 
ends up reformed, whereas Alma, her sexual instincts newly awakened, 
moves to the other extreme. They exchange attitudes, passing almost 
without contact. Summer and Smoke, a needlessly symbolic morality 
play, is sentimental in that its characters are too slight to sustain the 
consuming emotions which are bestowed on them. 

Nobody could say that The Rose Tattoo (1950) did not contain 
large characters. It is the most thoroughgoing star vehicle of the last ten 
years, expressly written for Anna Magnani, whose shaky acquaintance 
with English unfortunately prevented her from playing the lead in the 
stage production. Here Williams pleads the cause of sexual love as its 
own justification. "So successfully," he says in his preface, "have we dis- 
guised from ourselves the intensity of our own feelings, the sensibility of 
our own hearts, that plays in the tragic tradition have begun to seem un- 
true." At a time when Miller's plays were growing colder and more in- 
tellectualised, Williams' blazed hotter and more sensuous. His heroine 
is a poor Sicilian immigrant whose husband, a truck-driving smuggler 
with a fabulous capacity for sexual devotion, has been shot. She learns 
to her horror that her man had been faithless to her, but the realisation 
does not prevent her from joyously taking as her new lover a man who 
physically resembles the dead ideal. The play's complex structure — 
short scenes linked by evocative snatches of music — is too poetic for its 
theme, but the virtuosity of the writing, alternately ribald and pathetic, 
is tremendous. Does it alternate between tragedy and farce? That is be- 
cause it was meant for a great actress whose gift it is to switch emotional 
gear, change from a Siddonsesque pose to a bout of nose-picking with- 
out a moment's hesitation. Williams' fault, as in Streetcar, was to have 
overestimated English-speaking actresses. It would take a Magnani to 
play the scene in which Serafina, the heroine, entertains her new lover, 
out of whose pocket, as the poetic tension mounts, there falls a neatly 
packaged contraceptive. Sardou never asked as much of Bernhardt, nor 
D'Annunzio of Duse. 

Kazan renewed his association with Williams in the spring of 1953, 
when he directed the violently controversial Camino Real. This is a 
phantasmagoria of decadence, as limpidly rebellious to modern civilisa- 
tion as a Bix Beiderbecke solo is to a Paul Whiteman orchestration. The 
published text has a unity never achieved by the acting script. It carries 
to its conclusion Williams' dictum: "I say that symbols are nothing but 
the natural speech of drama." In a preface he adds: "I have read the 
works of 'thinking playwrights,' as distinguished from us who are per- 



Part II: The American Theatre 265 

mitted only to feel. ..." The result is a tranced play of hypersensitiv- 
ity, a weird drug-work of wit, terror, and inertia. 

It is set in a mythical Central American coastal town. Stage left is 
the Seven Seas Hotel, where live Byron, Casanova, and Marguerite 
Gautier, ghosts of the aristocratic way of life; stage right are a pawn- 
broker's shop, a fortune-teller's tent, and a flophouse, where, among the 
outcasts, we encounter the Baron de Charlus. Upstage is an arch, giving 
on to a desert, where a hot wind blows and whither no one dares travel, 
Williams' hero is Kilroy, the new arrival at this fetid microcosm of 
modern Ufe: the embodiment of youth and enterprise, he was once a 
prizefighter but had to abandon his career because "I've got a heart in 
my chest as big as the head of a baby." He is elected the town butt, and 
the police deck him out in a clown's costume, complete with electrically 
sparking nose. How does this simpleton fit in with the filth of the Camino 
Real? Williams answers the question in writing which seems too often 
to have been composed in a state of kij. He indulges in vague, roseate 
aphorisms; nor can he resist theatrical shortcuts such as a noisy aero- 
plane crash and two chases down the aisles and into the boxes of the 
theatre, devices which assist the play about as tellingly as a consignment 
of heroin would help an anti-narcotics campaign. Yet out of the strident 
blare of the action, WilHams' faith in Kilroy's truth, in a child's mistrust 
of phoneyness, emerges with overwhelming clarity. For those anarchists 
who escape he has undisguised sympathy. Byron, for example, says of 
his later works: "They seem to improve as the wine in the bottle — 
dwindles. . . . There is a passion for declivity in this world"; but when, 
having roused himself, he departs into the murderous desert, Williams 
gives him a splendid epitaph: "Make voyages! — Attempt them! — 
there's nothing else!" 

Kilroy, too, attempts the voyage, but only after a serio-comic en- 
counter with a character called the Gypsy, who organises and advertises 
the local fiesta, at which her daughter, in a loony parody of a fertility 
ritual, annually recovers her virginity. The Gypsy's garish cynicism 
("File this crap under crap") struck the New York critics as the most 
recognisable thing in the play, along with Kilroy's seduction of the 
Gypsy's daughter, a grossly comic scene in which the two young people 
repeat to each other eight times the talismanic words: "I am sincere." 
Surviving a brisk attempt to murder him, Kilroy journeys through the 
perilous arch, accompanied by Don Quixote, that other liegeman of the 
lost cause, who ends the play with a movingly symbohc cry: "The violets 
in the mountains have broken the rocks!" 

Many charges can be brought against Camino Real. It has too 



266 P^^t 11- The American Theatre 

many italics, too many exclamation marks; it depends too much on 
boozed writing and aureate diction. Its virtue is in its affectionate cham- 
pioning of the flyblown, inarticulate stratum of humanity. Perhaps when 
Quixote and Kilroy reach the snowy upper air of the unnamed moun- 
tains, they will become subjects for a play by Miller, whose artistic life 
is dedicated, like Shaw's, to a beUef in progress towards an attainable 
summit. Williams' aspirations are imaginative and hence unattainable; 
and therein lies the difference between them. 

Complementary, yet irreconcilable, Miller and Williams have 
produced the most powerful body of dramatic prose in modern English. 
They write with equal virtuosity, Williams about the violets, Miller 
about the rocks. The vegetable reinforces the mineral; and the animal, a 
dramatic element feared or ignored in the English theatre, triumphantly 
reinforces both. 

(1954) 



Valentine to Tennessee Williams. 

In Spain, where I saw him last, he looked profoundly Spanish. He 
might have passed for one of those confidential street dealers who earn 
their living selling spurious Parker pens in the cafes of Malaga or 
Valencia. Like them, he wore a faded chalk-striped shirt, a coat slung 
over his shoulders, a trim, dark moustache, and a sleazy, fat-cat smile. 
His walk, like theirs, was a raffish saunter, and everything about him 
seemed slept in, especially his hair, a nest of small, wet serpents. Had 
we been in Seville and his clothes been more formal, he could have been 
mistaken for a pampered elder son idling away a legacy in dribs and on 
drabs, the sort you see sitting in windows along the Sierpes, apparently 
stuffed. In Italy he looks Itahan; in Greece, Greek; wherever he travels 
on the Mediterranean coast, Tennessee WilHams takes on a protective 
colouring which melts him into his background, like a lizard on a rock. 
In New York or London he seems out of place, and is best explained 
away as a retired bandit. Or a beachcomber: shave the beard off any of 
the self-portraits Gauguin painted in Tahiti, soften the features a little, 
and you have a sleepy outcast face that might well be Tennessee's. 

It is unmistakably the face of a nomad. Wherever Williams goes he 
is a stranger, one who hves out of suitcases and has a trick of making 
any home he acquires resemble, within ten minutes, a hotel apartment. 
Like most hypochondriacs, he is an uneasy guest on earth. When he sold 



Part II: The American Theatre 267 

the film rights of his play Cat on a Hot Tin Roof for half a million dol- 
lars, he asked that the payment should be spread over ten years, partly 
out of prudence but mostly out of a mantic suspicion, buzzing in his ears, 
that in ten years' time he might be dead. He says justly of himself that he 
is "a driven person." The condemned tend always to be lonely, and one 
of Williams' favourite quotations is a line from a play which runs: 
"We're all of us sentenced to solitary confinement inside our own skins." 
He says such things quite blandly, with a thick chuckle which is as far 
from cynicism as it is from self-pity. 

To be alone at forty is to be really alone, and Williams has passed 
forty. In a sense, of course, solitude is a condition of his trade. All writing 
is an anti-social act, since the writer is a man who can speak freely only 
when alone; to be himself he must lock himself up, to communicate he 
must cut himself off from all communication; and in this there is some- 
thing always a little mad. Many writers loathe above all sounds the 
closing of the door which seals them up in their privacy. Williams, by 
contrast, welcomes it: it dispels the haze of uncertainty through which 
he normally converses, and releases for his pleasure the creatures who 
people his imaginings — desperate women, men nursing troublesome 
secrets, untouchables whom he touches with frankness and mercy, 
society's derelict rag dolls. The theatre, he once said, is a place where 
one has time for the problems of people to whom one would show the 
door if they came to one's office for a job. His best-loved characters are 
people like this, and they are all, in some way, trapped — Blanche Du- 
Bois, of Streetcar, beating her wings in a slum; Alma of Summer and 
Smoke, stricken with elephantiasis of the soul; Brick in Cat, sodden with 
remorse. As we shall see, much of what has happened to them has also 
happened to him. He is the most personal of playwrights. Incomplete 
people obsess him — above all, those who, like himself, have ideals too 
large for life to accommodate. There is another, opposed kind of in- 
completeness, that of materialists like the Polack in Streetcar and Big 
Daddy in Cat; and in most of Williams' work both kinds are to be found, 
staring blankly at each other, arguing from different premises and con- 
versing without comprehension. In his mental battlefield the real is 
perpetually at war with the ideal; what is public wrestles with what is 
private, what drags men down fights with what draws them up. This 
struggle is an allegory, by which I mean that it reflects a conflict within 
Williams himself. He cannot bring himself to believe that the flesh and 
the spirit can be reconciled, or to admit that the highest emotion can 
spring from the basest source. As Aldous Huxley has put it: "Whether 
it's passion or the desire of the moth for the star, whether it's tenderness 



268 P^ft II: The American Theatre 

or adoration or romantic yearning — love is always accompanied by 
events in the nerve endings, the skin, the mucous membranes, the glan- 
dular and erectile tissue. . . . What we need is another set of words. 
Words that can express the natural togetherness of things." For Williams 
they remain stubbornly apart, and it is this that gives his writing its odd 
urgency, its note of unfinished exploration. Alone behind the door, 
sustained by what one critic called the "comradeship of his introspec- 
tion," he seeks to bridge the gap between his two selves. His work is a 
pilgrimage in search of a truce. His typewriter stands on the glass top of 
a hotel table, and most likely neither he nor it will be there tomorrow. 

Though he does not need company, he does not shun it. Leaning 
back on a bar stool, one of a crowd, he can simulate ease with a barely 
perceptible effort. Mostly he is silent, sucking on a hygienic cigarette 
holder full of absorbent crystals, with a vague smile painted on his face, 
while his mind swats flies in outer space. He says nothing that is not 
candid and little that is not trite. A mental deafness seems to permeate 
him, so that he will laugh spasmodically in the wrong places, tell you the 
time if you ask him the date, or suddenly reopen conversations left for 
dead three days before. Late at night, part of him may come to life: in 
shreds of old slang ("We're in like Flynn") or bursts of old songs, re- 
membered from St. Louis in the twenties and unexpectedly proceeding, 
in a voice at once true and blue, from his slumped figure, which you had 
thought slumbering, in the back seat of somebody else's car. This is 
Williams on holiday, and you may be sure that his mind is not far from 
a blank. 

He longs for intimacy, but shrinks from its responsibilities. Some- 
where in the past, before he became famous, lies the one perfect passion; 
its object parted from him and afterward died of cancer. Since then, too 
cautious to spoil perfection by trying to repeat it, he has kept all emo- 
tional relationships deliberately casual. He will incur no more emotional 
debts, nor extend any more emotional credit. His friendships are many 
and generous, ranging from Mediterranean remittance men to Carson 
McCullers; but love is a sickness which he will do anything to avoid. If 
his deeper instincts crave release, you may find him at a bullfight — or 
even writing a play. 

He was born forty-four years ago in Columbus, Mississippi, the son 
of an itinerant shoe salesman known throughout the territory as a fiery 
and accomplished poker player. As a child he lived in Columbus with 
his mother, his elder sister, and his younger brother at the home of his 
maternal grandfather, a highly respected Episcopal rector. Here an 
image took root which has haunted much of his work: the South as a 



Part II: The American Theatre 269 

fading mansion of gentility. The first great wrench of his life occurred 
when he was still very young. His father took a desk job in St. Louis and 
the family left Columbus to join him. "We suddenly discovered," Wil- 
hams says, "that there were two kinds of people, the rich and the poor, 
and that we belonged more to the latter." It was here, in a stuffy, back- 
street apartment, that his world split, amoeba-like, into two irreconcil- 
able halves — the soft, feminine world of the room that he and his sister 
filled with little glass animals, and the cruel, male world of the alley 
outside, where cats fought and coupled to a persistent screaming. He 
entered the University of Missouri and at the age of sixteen got a story 
into Weird Tales, but the depression sent him to work for three memo- 
rably detested years in a shoe factory. The result was a heart attack, 
followed by a complete physical breakdown. He returned to his studies 
and in 1938 took a B.A. at the University of Iowa. By now his imagina- 
tion was alive with human voices, and two of his plays had been per- 
formed by the St. Louis Mummers. The future offered by his father 
meant going back to the shoe factory. Subjecting his fife to its second 
great wrench, he left home. 

"And it don't look Uke I'm ever goima cease my wanderin'. . . ." 
He waited on table in New Orleans and worked on a pigeon ranch in 
California; then a one-act play won him a prize of a hundred dollars and 
attracted the attention of a Broadway agent, Audrey Wood. He sent her 
the script of Battle of Angels, an ambitious survey of "the sometimes 
conflicting desires of the flesh and the spirit." To his amazement, the 
Theatre Guild bought it. It opened in Boston in December 1940 and 
closed without reaching New York. On top of that, and perhaps because 
of it, Williams developed a cataract in his left eye. The next two years 
found him a vulnerable and myopic vagabond in Bohemia, always the 
victim of a hectic nervous system, which alarmed him by expressing its 
disquiet as often in illness as in imaginative visions. Back to New Or- 
leans, living from pawnshop to mouth; then to Greenwich Village, 
where he worked as a waiter, wearing a black eyepatch which someone 
adorned with a surrealistic white eyeball. 

In 1943 Audrey Wood got him a six-month contract in Hollywood. 
He spent most of it writing The Glass Menagerie, in which his twin 
worlds of fact and dream came out for the first time distinct and dove- 
tailed. Its Broadway success a year later gave him security: but "secu- 
rity," he was soon writing, "is a kind of death. . . ," To escape it he 
returned to New Orleans, to cheap hotels and rented apartments. On a 
trip to Taos, New Mexico, he came down with what proved to be a 
ruptured appendix; but he heard a nun whisper that it might be cancer, 



270 P'^'f't II: The Ajnerican Theatre 

and, spurred by the death sentence, he fled from the hospital. Feverishly 
he composed what was meant to be his last message to the world. 

A new friendship helped him to obey Hemingway's dictum and 
"get it out whole." This was with Carson McCullers. In his own words: 
"Carson came to me in the summer of 1946 at the height of my imagi- 
nary dying, she came to Nantucket Island, which I had chosen to die on, 
and the moment she came down the gangplank of the ship from the 
mainland, in her baseball cap, with that enchantingly radiant crooked- 
toothed grin of hers, something very light happened in me. I dropped 
my preoccupation with the thought that I was doomed, and from then on 
there was a process of adjustment to the new situation, and by the late 
fall of 1947 I was able to release all the emotional content of the long 
crisis in Streetcar." The play was produced in the same year and fully 
deserves Williams' description of it: "saturated with death." 

More studies in desperation followed: Summer and Smoke and 
The Rose Tattoo, perhaps the fullest expression of Williams' special 
kind of romanticism, which is not pale or scented but earthy and robust, 
the product of a mind vitally infected with the rhythms of human speech. 
When overheated, however, it can give off lurid fumes, some of which 
clouded the air in his next play, Camino Real. This was Williams' gaudi- 
est rebellion against materialism, conceived in terms of symbols and car- 
ried out mainly in italics. Directed by Elia Kazan in the spring of 1953, 
the play flopped. There ensued one of those low-energy spells from 
which WiUiams frequently suffers. Work became a depressant instead of 
a stimulant; he kept losing sight of the impulse that sent him to the type- 
writer and felt that his ideas were being smirched and dog-eared by the 
well-meaning interference of agents, producers, and directors. Cat on a 
Hot Tin Roof was eighteen months in the writing. I now think it his best 
work, but when I first saw it, it struck me as an edifice somehow tilted, 
like a giant architectural folly. It was august, all right, and turbulent, 
but there were moments of unaccountable wrongness, as if a kazoo had 
intruded into a string quartet. When I saw the published text and read, 
side by side, the original third act and the version that was presented on 
Broadway, I guessed at once what had happened. The kazoo was Kazan. 

Cat is a birthday party about death. The birthday is that of Big 
Daddy, a Southern millionaire dying of cancer. His son Brick is a quiet, 
defeated drinker; and the cat of the title is Maggie, Brick's wife, whose 
frayed vivacity derives from the fact that she is sexuafly ignored by her 
husband. The play deals with the emotional lies that are shockingly ex- 
posed as people try to "reach" each other, to penetrate the inviolable 
cell in which the soul hves. Williams' trade-marks are aU there: the 



Partll: The American Theatre 271 

spectre of disease, the imminence of death, the cheating implicit in all 
emotion, the guilt bound up with sex — plus the technical ability to make 
tragic characters immeasurably funny. But a play might have all these 
things and still be bad; what distinguishes Cat is the texture of its writing. 
This is dialogue dead to the eyes alone. It begs for speech so shrilly that 
you find yourself reading it aloud. "When you are gone from here," says 
Big Daddy, "you are long gone and no where!" — the words fall from the 
tongue like "snow from a bamboo leaf," the image by which Zen Bud- 
dhists teach their pupils that "artless art" which is the goal of contem- 
plation. 

But Kazan was not satisfied. He felt that Brick should undergo a 
change of heart after the showdown with his father; and into Brick's 
lines a certain hoUowness began to creep. In a stage direction Williams 
had spoken of "the thundercloud of a common crisis"; with stupefying 
literalness, Kazan introduced a full-tilt symbohc thunderstorm. Mag- 
gie's big he, uttered to win Big Daddy's inheritance, originally ran: 
"Brick and I are going to have a child." Inflated by Kazan, the line be- 
came: "A child is coming, sired by Brick and out of Maggie the Cat!" 
The bitterness of the final tableau, when Brick prepares to sleep with 
Maggie to sustain her lie, was sweetened until the scene seemed to be- 
token a lasting reconciUation. Williams in no way resents these adjust- 
ments, which, he says, "did not violate the essential truth of the play." 
For him, Kazan is "a very big man, the biggest artist in the theatre of 
our time." He is at present working on a film script, which Kazan will 
direct; but some of his admirers feel that a less creative collaborator 
might, in the long run, be more helpful. 

Discussing the incidence of genius, Somerset Maugham once re- 
marked: "The lesson of anatomy applies: there is nothing so rare as the 
normal." WiUiams' view of life is always abnormal, heightened and 
spotlighted, and slashed with bogey shadows. The marvel is that he 
makes it touch ours, thereby achieving the miracle of communication 
between human beings which he has always held to be impossible. 

Yet he looks anonymous. One ends, as one began, with the enigma. 
Arthur Miller, after all, looks Lincolnesque, and Anouilh looks hyper- 
sensitive, and Sartre looks crazy. WilUams, alone of the big playwrights, 
seems miscast. From that round, rubbery face, those dazed eyes which 
nothing, no excess or enormity, can surprise — from here the message 
comes, the latest bulletin from the civil war between purity and squalor. 
It will always, however long or well I know him, seem wonderfully 
strange. 



272 P^'^t II: The American Theatre 



Waiting for Godot, by Samuel Beckett, at the Golden. 

Ten days ago Waiting for Godot reached New York, greeted by a 
baffled but mostly appreciative press and preceded by an advertising 
campaign in which the management appealed for 70,000 intellectuals 
to make its venture pay. At the performance I saw, a Sunday matinee, 
the eggheads were rolling in. And when the curtain fell, the house stood 
up to cheer a man who had never before appeared in a legitimate play, 
a mighty and blessed clown whose grateful bewilderment was reflected 
in the tears that speckled his cheeks, a burlesque comic of crumpled 
mien and baggy eyes, with a nose stuck like a gherkin into a face as age- 
less as the Commedia dell' Arte: Bert Lahr, no less, the cowardly lion 
of The Wizard of Oz, who played the dumber of Samuel Beckett's two 
timeless hoboes, and by his playing bridged, for the first time I can re- 
member, the irrational abyss that yawns between the world of red noses 
and the world of blue stockings. 

Without him, the Broadway production of Mr. Beckett's play 
would be admirable; with him, it is transfigured. It is as if we, the audi- 
ence, had elected him to represent us on stage; to stand up for our 
rights; to anticipate our reactions, resentful and confused, to the lonely 
universe into which the author plunges us. "I'm going," says Mr. Lahr. 
"We can't go," snaps his partner. "Why not?" pleads Mr. Lahr. "We're 
waiting for Godot," comes the reply; whereat Mr. Lahr raises one finger 
with an "Ah!" of comprehension which betokens its exact opposite, a 
totality of blankest ignorance. Mr. Lahr's beleaguered simpleton, a 
draughts-player lost in a universe of chess, is one of the noblest perform- 
ances I have ever seen. 



The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial, by Herman Wouk, at the 
Hippodrome, London. 

The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial is a fine ephemeral play disfig- 
ured at the end by a brute stroke of tendentious illogic. We have just left 
the court-room where the main action takes place: we have seen Cap- 
tain Queeg exposed as a paranoiac and Lieutenant Maryk acquitted of 
the charge of having improperly deposed him at the height of a typhoon. 



Part II: The American Theatre 273 

Now, at a party given to celebrate the verdict, the author's underlying 
message, a complete volte face, is delivered by Barney Greenwald, 
counsel for the defence. Greenwald's view is that the real villain was not 
Queeg but Maryk's best friend, an enlisted intellectual in whose mind 
the first hint of mutiny took root. Where, asks Greenwald, was this sedi- 
tious egghead until war broke out? In college, reading Proust and 
Joyce. And where was Queeg? PatroUing the high seas, and thereby dis- 
couraging Hitler from liquidating Greenwald's Jewish mother. Green- 
wald clinches his case and brings down the curtain by throwing a glass of 
champagne at the college-boy's face. 

The inferences from this tirade are extremely nasty: that the egg- 
head ought to have run away from school and joined the Navy, that a 
truculent paranoiac is a better citizen than a pacific intellectual, and that 
a wartime commander must be blindly obeyed even when he is demon- 
strably gaga and a danger to the lives of his men. I should be mightily 
relieved to learn that Herman Wouk, who adapted the play from his 
own novel, introduced this scene purely for cheap efi'ect. For we find, if 
we take it seriously, that Mr. Wouk's standards of human conduct differ 
from those of the Nazi Party only in that Mr. Wouk is not anti-Semitic. 
One wonders, neither idly nor for the first time, just how many thinkers 
of his stamp would have opposed Hitler if Hitler had not indulged in 
racial persecution. 

Chop off its poisonous tail, and the play is mesmeric and enthrall- 
ing. It breaks all the superficial rules of drama in that it is static and 
chiefly devoted to retrospective narration. But it happens in a court- 
room, which means that it conforms to the fundamental rule of all thea- 
tre: it deals with human beings who are driven, by a chain of events 
both logically and morally acceptable, to a phght from which there is no 
apparent escape. A man in a drawing-room, faced with searching and 
intimate questions, can always grab his hat and leave. But a man in a 
witness-box must answer them; and whether he speaks truth or false- 
hood, there will be in the manner of his answering the naked stuff of 
drama. We talk of drama as a baring of souls. It is more honestly an ex- 
tortion of confessions — not by torture, since that would be morally un- 
acceptable, but by logical pressure, either of law or circumstance. The 
truest civic theatre is a democratic court-room. 

Mr. Wouk's witnesses are marvellously characterised. Maryk, 
played by Nigel Stock as a nice, perplexed bull-calf, is thrown neatly 
into relief by the contrasting methods of the two opposing counsels, one 
(Peter Dyneley) all gruff directness, the other (David Knight) all cir- 
cuitous guile. I shall never forget the skill with which Lloyd Nolan, two 



274 P^i't II: The American Theatre 

years ago in New York, outlined the collapse of Queeg: the glib plausi- 
bility with which he took the stand, and the self-justifying hysteria with 
which he left it. Shipped into a larger theatre, Mr. Nolan has slightly 
coarsened his performance, and I hope he will soon restore the terrible 
moment when Queeg turns toward the judges' bench with a frantic, ap- 
pealing smile and knows, from the row of grave and troubled faces that 
confront him, that he has lost his case. 

(1956) 



In the Family. 

FATHER (heartily concerned) : How come we never get to talk to 
each other, son? 

SON {sullenly) : We're talking now, aren't we? 

father: We're talking, but we're not saying anything, goddammit! 

Sometimes it is father and daughter, sometimes mother and son, 
but that, in a nutshell, is what modern American drama is about. It takes 
place either in a transparent doll's-house with a porch (the porch is ob- 
ligatory) or in the past; or both. In this house live a pathetic, ill- 
matched couple. Mom is driven near-crazy, as she puts it, by dad, who 
goes on periodical bats. Meanwhile, the porch is full of the children to 
whom they cannot get through. They are two in number, of whom one is 
a confused adolescent boy, just awakening to the eternal mysteries of 
stud poker. There is a strange, stammering poetry in this off-beat child: 
indeed, it is coming out of his ears. He is about to undergo an emotional 
upheaval that will scar him for life. Comic relief, for the first half at 
least, will be provided by friends and neighbours. After that we discover 
that their lives too are founded on pain and insecurity and lack of to- 
getherness. 

Don't mistake me: the failure of generations to communicate with 
each other is not a bad thing for drama to be about. But there are other 
things for it to be about, and in the American theatre the theme has be- 
come obsessive. Plays lacking it are just not "serious"; plays with it can 
usually count on extracting from at least one critic a review begin- 
ning: "With this production the Broadway theatre becomes a palace of 
truth again." My present visit to the palace of truth has so far yielded 
three plays of this breed. All of them have moments of extreme poign- 
ancy. All contain performances of the utmost power and subtlety. All 



Fart II: The American Theatre 275 

of them are as intellectually flabby as they are emotionally redundant. 

The most ambitious, already the winner of the New York critics' 
award for the year's best play, is Look Homeward, Angel, adapted from 
Thomas Wolfe's autobiographical novel. This is a portrait of the artist as 
a young martyr. The boy here is Wolfe, painfully preparing to be a prose 
Whitman. The house is a shabby Southern hotel run by his parents. His 
mother, a covetous drudge, has no time for him. His father, a monumen- 
tal mason, understands him but, being also a monumental drunk, can all 
too seldom see him. He has a frustrated love affair and runs away from 
home. Comic relievers, acting wildly in all directions, round off the play, 
which is written in starry-eyed, deep-breathing prose that resembles 
melting butter. Anthony Perkins, pale and filled with tentative fire, is a 
beautiful sight as Wolfe, and Hugh Griffith comes rowdily freebooting in 
as his father, albeit from another world. 

With the second play, William Inge's The Dark at the Top of the 
Stairs, we move from 1916 to the early twenties. The mood again is per- 
sonal and reminiscent. The house now is in Oklahoma. Father is a trav- 
elling salesman, for ever battling with a suspicious wife. The boy is a 
tow-haired tot alternately neglected and mother-smothered; his sister 
has an abortive flirtation with a hypersensitive young Jew who kills him- 
self. This time it is father who runs away. The actor in question behaves 
throughout as noisily as if he were in Oklahoma! rather than Oklahoma; 
but on the whole, this being a production by Elia Kazan, the perform- 
ances are electric and intense, especially that of Eileen Heckart, the best 
thin actress alive. Sharp writing, yet a remote and somehow unnecessary 
ordeal. 

The third, and abysmally the dimmest example of the genre, is 
called Blue Denim, which at times verges on parody. The house, com- 
plete with porch, has shifted to Detroit and today. The boy, sensitive as 
a snail's horn, traditionally gangles. Father is a militant back-slapper, 
mother a helpless fussbudget. Unable to get through to either of them, he 
gets a girl pregnant and procures for her an illegal operation. The whole 
exercise is conducted in dialogue that recalls the Hardy Family films. 
This one might be called Abortion Comes to Andy Hardy. 

Why do these plays, even the best of them, seem so ingrowing, so 
unchallenging, so constricted? I trace the trouble to that house, which is 
not a house at all but a hothouse. It is an island of shuttered anxieties 
unrelated (except cursorily) to the society that created it. All criticism, 
all protest is directed inwards, towards the parents: everything outside is 
accepted with nothing more rebellious than a shrug. The result is one- 
eyed drama with a squint induced by staring too long down domestic 



276 P^^^ II: The American Theatre 

microscopes and never looking out of the window. If, as these writers 
allege, the infant bloom is diseased, it is no use merely blaming the stem. 
It is time to analyse the soil. Arthur Miller did just that in Death of a 
Salesman, striking a balance between soil-analysis and flower-pressing 
which still awaits a true successor. 

(i9n) 



Requiem for a Nun, by William Faulkner, at the Royal 
Court, London. 

The curtain has just fallen on William Faulkner's Requiem for a 
Nun. It has been performed with imposing devoutness by Ruth Ford, 
Bertice Reading, Zachary Scott, and John Crawford. The production (by 
Tony Richardson) and the settings (by Motley) have been austerely 
hieratic. Let us now imagine that there steps from the wings the Stage 
Manager of Thornton Wilder's Our Town. PuUing on a corn-cob pipe, 
he speaks. 

S.M.: "Well, folks, reckon that's about it. End of another day in 
the city of Jefferson, Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi. Nothin' much 
happened. Couple of people got raped, couple more got their teeth 
kicked in, but way up there those faraway old stars are still doing their 
old cosmic criss-cross, and there ain't a thing we can do about it. It's 
pretty quiet now. Folk hereabouts get to bed early, those that can still 
walk. Down behind the morgue a few of the young people are roastin' a 
nigger over an open fire, but I guess every town has its night-owls, and 
afore long they'll be tucked up asleep like anybody else. Nothin' stirring 
down at the big old plantation house — you can't even hear the hummin' 
of that electrified barbed-wire fence, 'cause last night some drunk ran 
slap into it and fused the whole works. That's where Mr. Faulkner lives, 
and he's the fellow that thought this whole place up, kind of like God. 
Mr. Faulkner knows everybody round these parts like the back of his 
hand, 'n' most everybody round these parts knows the back of Mr. 
Faulkner's hand. But he's not home right now, he's off on a trip round 
the world as Uncle Sam's culture ambassador, tellin' foreigners about 
how we've got to love everybody, even niggers, and how integration's 
bound to happen in a few thousand years anyway, so we might just as 
well make haste slowly. Ain't a thing we can do about it. 

{He takes out his watch and consults it.) 
Along about now the good folk of Jefferson City usually get around to 



Part II: The American Theatre 277 

screamin' in their sleep. Just ordinary people havin' ordinary night- 
mares, the way most of us do most of the time. 

{An agonised shrieking is briefly heard.) 
Ayeah, there they go. Nothin' wrong there that an overdose of Seconal 
won't fix. 

{He pockets his watch.) 
Like I say, simple folk fussin' and botherin' over simple, eternal prob- 
lems. Take this Temple Stevens, the one Mr. Faulkner's been soundin' 
off about. 'Course, Mr. Faulkner don't pretend to be a real play-writer, 
'n' maybe that's why he tells the whole story backwards, 'n' why he takes 
up so much time gabbin' about people you never met — and what's more, 
ain't going to meet. By the time he's told you what happened before you 
got here, it's gettin' to be time to go home. But we were talkin' about 
Temple. Ain't nothin' special about her. Got herself mixed up in an auto 
accident — witnessed a killin' — got herself locked up in a sportin' house 
with one of those seck-sual perverts — witnessed another killin' — got 
herself married up 'n' bore a couple of fine kids. Then, just's she's fixing 
to run off with a blackmailer, her maid Nancy — that's the nigger dope- 
fiend she met in the cathouse — takes a notion to murder her baby boy. 
That's all about Temple — just a run of bad luck that could happen to 
anyone. And don't come askin' me why Nancy murders the kid. Ac- 
cordin' to Mr. Faulkner, she does it to keep him from bein' tainted by his 
mother's sins. Seems to me even an ignorant nigger would know a tainted 
child was better'n a dead one, but I guess I can't get under their skins 
the way Mr. Faulkner can. 

{He glances up at the sky.) 
Movin' along towards dawn in our town. Pretty soon folks'll start up on 
that old diurnal round of sufferin' and expiatin' and spoutin' sentences 
two pages long. One way or another, an awful lot of sufferin' gets done 
around here. 'Specially by the black folk — 'n' that's how it should be, 
'cause they don't feel it like we do, 'n' anyways, they've got that simple 
primitive faith to lean back on. 

{He consults his watch again.) 
Well, Temple's back with her husband, and in a couple of minutes 
they'll be hangin' Nancy. Maybe that's why darkies were born — to keep 
white marriages from bustin' up. Anyways, a lot of things have happened 
since the curtain went up tonight. Six bilUon gallons of water have tum- 
bled over Niagara Falls. Three thousand boys and girls took their first 
puff of marijuana, 'n' a puppy-dog in a flyin' coffin was sighted over 
Alaska. Most of you out there've been admirin' Miss Ruth Ford's play- 
actin', 'n' a few of you've been wonderin' whether she left her pay-thos 



278 f^^^ II: The American Theatre 

in the dressing-room or whether maybe she didn't have any to begin 
with. Out in Hollywood a big producer's been readin' Mr. Faulkner's 
book and figurin' whether to buy the movie rights for Miss Joan Craw- 
ford. Right enough, all over the world, it's been quite an evening. 'N' 
now Nancy's due for the drop. 

{A thud offstage. The Stage Manager smiles philosophically.) 
Ayeah, that's it — ^right on time. 

{He re-pockets his watch. ) 
That's the end of the play, friends. You can go out and push dope now, 
those of you that push dope. Down in our town there's a meetin' of the 
Deathwish Committee, 'n' a fund-raisin' rally in aid of Holocaust Re- 
lief, 'n' all over town the prettiest gals're primping themselves up for 
the big beauty prize — Miss Cegenation of 1957. There's always some- 
thin' happenin'. Why — over at the schoolhouse an old-fashioned-type 
humanist just shot himself. You get a good rest, too. Good-night." 

{He exits. A sound of Bibles being thumped momentarily fills the 

air.) 

(1951) 



Garden District, by Tennessee Williams, at the 
Arts Theatre, London. 

Suddenly Last Summer, the longer of the two plays Tennessee 
Williams has put together under the joint title of Garden District, has 
about it a strangely truncated look. It does not end, it stops — leaving us 
suspended amid loose ends that trail like lianas. 

We have just listened to one of the longest, most febrile recits in 
modern drama. A Southern spinster, her tongue loosened by a truth 
drug, has described how she witnessed the death of her cousin Sebastian, 
a homosexual poet who was set upon and in part devoured by a mob 
of enraged Spanish street-urchins. The audience for this bloody tale con- 
sists of the poet's mother, a decaying witch bent on avoiding scandal; 
the young doctor whom she hopes to bribe into performing a silencing 
operating on the girl's brain; and the girl's mother and brother, who 
fear that the old lady will somehow cheat them out of the money Se- 
bastian has left them. The recital ends, and three or four lines later the 
curtain comes sighing down. 

It comes down not on a play but on a short story recited to a group 
of lay figures. Once the girl has finished, the curtain must fall, since we 



Part II: The American Theatre 279 

care nothing about the others. The ogress-mama (Beatrix Lehmann at 
her most ghoulish) is a conventional caricature of maternal rapacity. 
The doctor functions solely as interlocutor, and Mr. Williams' interest in 
the girl's greedy relations is so slight that he fails to explain why or how 
her brother's inheritance could possibly be endangered. Above all, 
there is the dead poet. The failure here is of a different kind. The picture 
we get of him is all too clear: a pampered dandy, patrolling the Riviera 
with mama on his arm, whispering flatteries and Dubedatteries into her 
ear while his eye roves the beaches for likely lads. The trouble is that we 
do not see him with Mr. Williams' eyes, in which all aesthetes are sacred. 
It is one thing to sympathise with a man who has been garrotted by the 
old umbilical cord. It is quite another when we are asked to see in his 
death (as Mr. Williams clearly wants us to) a modern re-enactment of 
the martyrdom of St. Sebastian. 

If Mr. Williams had really dramatised his subject, this might not 
have mattered. But he hasn't: his approach is strictly literary, a series of 
teasing diversions leading up to the girl's big monologue. His purpose is 
not to tell us a story but to have someone else tell it, and a long retro- 
spective narrative, no matter how impassioned, is not the same as a play. 
I must pause here to salute Patricia Neal, the American actress who 
plays the girl. The power and variety of her dark-brown voice, on which 
she plays like a master on the 'cello, enable her to separate the cadenza 
from its context and make of it a plangent cry from the depths of mem- 
ory. Rhetoric and realism, in this harrowing performance, not only fuse 
but fertilise each other, and I was more than once reminded of Maria 
Casares' incomparable Phedre. We need more actresses like this in the 
West End, that garden where a hundred Blooms flower. Mr. Williams, 
whose speciality is hysteria precariously held in check by formal habits 
of speech, has given Miss Neal some of his richest prose — a symphonie 
en blanc majeur, in which image after image of blazing pallor evoke the 
climate of Sebastian's death. 

"What a writer!" one murmurs during these passages. But one can- 
not honestly add: "What a play!" Nor can one feel that it represents an 
extension of Mr. Williams' talents. Rather, it is a narrowing-down. It 
picks out, like a torch in a charnel-house where a jewel has been lost, 
one quick bright thing in a world of hatred, cupidity, and squalor, exclu- 
sively dedicated to the persecution of purity. Nature is destructive, 
mother is destructive, families are destructive; even the nun who acts as 
the heroine's nurse is a sadist. We are in a world where mighty black 
conspires to victimise puny white; and any black-and-white world is 
dramatically a duU one. After this excursion to the brink of paranoia, 



280 P^ft II: The American Theatre 

we must pray for Mr. Williams' return to the true dramatic world of light 
and shade, where the easy violence of melodrama is softened by com- 
passion. 

Herbert Machiz' direction is thick with atmosphere, and (apart 
from Miss Neal's outburst) there are assured performances by David 
Cameron and Philip Bond. What Mr. Machiz has done to Something 
Unspoken, the shorter of the two pieces, is nobody's business except 
perhaps that of Mr. WilUams and his lawyers. Unsubtle is the gentlest 
word for this triumph of misunderstanding. Mr. WUhams wrote a com- 
pact study of a tyrannous Lesbian matriarch who appears to be domi- 
nating her mouselike companion, untU we realise that the mouse is in 
fact the cat: vengefully, and blandly, she has decided not merely to re- 
ject her employer's advances but to ignore their existence. Mr. Machiz, 
who may have read too many of those reviews which portray Mr. Wil- 
liams as a coarse-grained shock-vendor, sees the play as broad farce. 
The companion (Beatrix Lehmann, more ghouUsh than ever) becomes 
a Charles Addams woman, bristling with tics; and Beryl Measor gets no- 
where near the monstrous pathos of the Lesbian despot. A civilised, ob- 
lique, relentlessly funny piece of writing is entirely blunted. It is like see- 
ing vintage Strindberg performed by Punch and Judy. 

(195S) 



West Side Story, by Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim, 
AND Arthur Laurents, at the Winter Garden. 

American musicals traditionally divide into two opposed catego- 
ries: folksy optimism (Rodgers and Hammerstein) versus city cynicism 
(Rodgers and Hart) — rural versus urban, grass roots versus asphalt jun- 
gle. The king of the jungle is West Side Story, which comes screaming 
out of the tall island's Western tenements, where Puerto Ricans carve 
and are carved by bands of less recent immigrants. A "P.R." girl falls in 
love with a boy from the enemy gang, and the tragedy of Verona, with 
appropriate adjustments, is retold. He kills a member of her family; a 
rumour is spitefully spread of her death; and as he sees her across a 
square and runs to grasp her, he is cut down by a volley of Puerto Rican 
bullets. 

The score, by Leonard Bernstein, is as smooth and savage as a 
cobra; it sounds as if Puccini and Stravinsky had gone on a roller-coaster 
ride into the precincts of modern jazz. Jerome Robbins, the director- 



Part II: The American Theatre 28 1 

choreographer, projects the show as a rampaging ballet, with bodies fly- 
ing through the air as if shot from guns, leaping, shrieking, and somer- 
saulting; yet he finds room for a peaceful dream-sequence, full of that 
hankering for a golden age that runs right through American musicals, 
in which both gangs imagine a paradise where they can touch hands in 
love, without fear or loss of face. The jokes are necessarily few and sar- 
donic, as when the delinquents express their scorn of social therapists 
who regard them as symptoms rather than as individuals: 

My sister wears a moustache, 

My brother wears a dress — 

Goodness gracious, that's why I'm a mess! 

Mr, Robbins has probably over-stylised a situation too fresh and 
bloody to respond to such treatment. The boys are too kempt; their 
clothes are too pretty; they dope not, neither do they drink. This makes 
them unreal, and gives the show an air of sociological slumming. Yet it 
compromises only on the brink of greatness; and that, surely, is triumph 
enough. 



My Fair Lady, by Frederick Loewe and Alan Jay Lerner, at 
Drury Lane, London. 

"Was all the hysteria justified?" one read on Thursday morning, a 
propos of the uproar at Drury Lane last Wednesday night. The nerve of 
the question took one's breath away, coming as it did from the very jour- 
nalists who had created the hysteria. Those who beat drums are in no 
position to complain of being deafened. Let us forget about the hysteria 
associated with My Fair Lady and point instead to the rare, serene 
pleasure it communicates, a pleasure arising from the fact that it treats 
both the audience and Pygmalion with civilised respect. 

This winning show honours our intelligence as well as Shaw's. It 
does not bully us with noise : the tone throughout is intimate, light, and 
lyrical, and even Doolittle's lion-comique numbers are sung, not 
shouted. It does not go in for irrelevant displays of physical agility: the 
dustman's pre-nuptial rout at Covent Garden is the only choreographic 
set-piece. Following the film, it restores Eliza to Higgins at the end, but 
no other sentimental concessions are made: the score contains only two 
love songs. Never do we feel that numbers have been shoe-horned, with 



282 P'^'^t II: The American Theatre 

a beady eye on the hit parade, into situations that do not concern them. 
Where most musical adaptations tend to exploit their originals, this one 
is content to explore. 

Everything in the score grows naturally out of the text and the char- 
acters; the authors have trusted Shaw, and we, accordingly, trust them. 
Consider the four solo numbers they have provided for Higgins. In the 
first he rails against the English for neglecting their native tongue; in the 
second he congratulates himself on the sweetness of his disposition. In 
the third he damns women for their refusal to behave like men; and in 
the fourth, a wonderful blend of rage and regret, he furiously acknowl- 
edges his attachment to a woman who is unlike him in every respect. All 
four songs are right in character, and all four are written more to be 
acted than sung. Rex Harrison, performing them in a sort of reedy 
Sprechgesang, is not merely doing the best he can; he is doing just 
what the authors wanted. For all its grace and buoyancy, what holds the 
show together at the last is its determination to put character first. 

On this resolve all its talents converge. A feeling of concord posi- 
tively flows across the footlights. In a sense, the outstanding thing about 
the evening is that there is nothing outstanding about it, no self-asser- 
tion, no sore thumbs. The keyword is consonance. Oliver Smith's decor, 
lovely in itself, both enhances and is enhanced by Cecil Beaton's dash- 
ing dresses. Frederick Loewe, the composer, and Alan Jay Lerner, the 
lyricist, have produced a score as sensitive to Shavian nuance as litmus 
to acid. They have drawn song out of Shaw's people, not imposed it on 
them. Mr. Lerner's words are wily enough for Gilbert, and Mr. Loewe's 
contribution, enriched by the creative arrangements of Robert Russell 
Bennett, is far more than a series of pleasant songs: it is a tapestry of in- 
terwoven themes, criss-crossing and unexpectedly recurring, so that a 
late number will, by a sudden switch of tempo, echo an apt phrase from 
an earlier one. Apart from all this, the cast itself, directed by the hawk- 
eyed Moss Hart, is among the best ever assembled for Pygmalion. 

Stanley Holloway is the fruitiest of Doohttles, Robert Coote the 
most subtly pompous of Pickerings. Nothing in Julie Andrews' Cockney 
becomes her like the leaving it; but she blossoms, once she has shed her 
fraudulent accent, into a first-rate Eliza, with a voice as limpid as outer 
space. And I don't doubt that Mr. Harrison, who seemed a bit edgy on 
Wednesday, is by now giving the effortless, finger-tip performance I saw 
last year on Broadway. The moment when he. Miss Andrews, and Mr. 
Coote erupt into that ecstatic, improvised tango, "The Rain in Spain," is 
still the happiest of the night. Ten years ago, I learn, Shaw was ap- 
proached for permission to turn his play into a musical. Outraged, he re- 



Part II: The American Theatre 283 

plied: "If Pygmalion is not good enough for your friends with its own 
verbal music, their talent must be altogether extraordinary." In this in- 
stance, it is. 

(195^) 



The Critical Scene. 

Of the seven accredited Broadway critics, Walter Kerr, of the Her- 
ald Tribune, is the cogent best. There is no one in London quite like 
him; no one, I mean, who combines a style that is vivid and popular (in 
the best sense of the word) with a background of scholarship that comes 
from having taught drama for many years at a university. Mr. Kerr 
vaults over the barrier we erect between "serious" and "light" journal- 
ism; and after reading Pieces at Eight, his new collection of theatrical 
essays, I am forced to conclude that if he sought critical employment on 
an EngUsh national daily he would be most unlikely to find it. The mass- 
circulation papers would think him over their readers' heads; the mid- 
dle-brow hberal papers, those precarious survivors, could not give him 
the space he needs to develop his arguments; and the "quahty" dailies, 
which have the space, would sniff at the brisk informality of his style. 

New York journalism is primarily aimed at an audience that is 
not national but local and metropolitan. No London morning paper aims 
at this audience; and none, in consequence, has room for the kind of 
style that appeals to it. This style, nimble, flexible, and informed, is Mr. 
Kerr's. Its target is the sort of reader who has reached a good median 
level of sophistication; who can take a wise-crack in one sentence and a 
reference to Scaliger or Castelvetro in the next. Being a director as weU 
as a critic, Mr. Kerr can write with authority of the ulcerous tensions 
that precede a Broadway opening and the verbal prophylactics, born of 
despair, that are ritually employed to palhate bad notices — e.g., "Well, 
we know one thing — we've got an audience show," and "Well, they 
weren't laughing, but they were enjoying it." (The latter remark, Mr. 
Kerr suggests, might pleasantly be rephrased to describe audience reac- 
tions to the cruder kind of bedroom farce — viz.: "Well, they were 
laughing, but they weren't enjoying it.") Swiftly and statistically he dis- 
poses of the myth that the Broadway critics are omnipotent: their word, 
it seems, is law only when aU seven of them concur either in rave or 
blame. 

At times his enthusiasms slip the leash and begin to caper, as when 



284 P^^ II •■ The American Theatre 

he says of a musical comedy that it "opened the theatre's childlike bag 
of tricks and tossed them at our heads in a high, happy, bubbling good 
humour" (who wants to have his head pelted?); and sometimes, though 
less often, we catch on his face the apologetic smile of an Honest Joe anx- 
iously disclaiming egghead pretensions. "Although it may not seem 
very likely, I have been having a wonderful time with a book called 
Sources of Theatrical History" — as if this were not just the sort of book 
that a respectable critic ought to be enjoying. But for most of the time he 
is quite shamelessly intelUgent. His study of Buster Keaton is a brilliant 
piece of extended interpretative eulogy, and in dyslogy he can be wick- 
edly compact: how did that actor ever recover whom Mr. Kerr summed 
up as "suffering from delusions of adequacy"? 

But I must not claim too much for Mr. Kerr: the pressure under 
which journalists work necessarily makes them more attentive, in Sir 
Desmond MacCarthy's phrase, to the minute hand of history than to the 
hour hand. Mr. Kerr's championing of verse drama as the salvation of 
the modern theatre is a case in point. He argues fluently, adopting some 
astonishingly acrobatic postures to defend Christopher Fry in toto, yet 
never does he face the point made thirty-five years ago by his revered 
compatriot Stark Young: "Dramatic poetry is not the dramatic situation 
poetically expressed; it is the dramatic expression of the poetic that lies 
in a situation." And there is no more need for this to be in verse than for 
it to be in Esperanto or blue suede shoes. 

Another hazard of Broadway criticism, even at its wisest, is its 
tendency to become parochial. To be metropolitan is a virtue; its de- 
fect is to be insular. Mr. Kerr has travelled, as his remarks on the Lon- 
don theatre prove; yet working, as he diurnally does, in the most com- 
mercially geared theatre on earth, he cannot help absorbing, and in part 
regurgitating, its values. His final dictum, however he may qualify it, is 
that the audience knows best. He cites with approval Mr. Rattigan's de- 
fence of Aunt Edna. "The critic," he says, "who attempts to reverse the 
judgment of an audience, to 'instruct' it in taste, is the critic who deals in 
lost causes ... a bore and a fool." From the near-sighted viewpoint of 
the morning after, this is probably true; but a decade later such boring 
fools as Shaw and Agate, who dared to challenge the public for its indif- 
ference to Ibsen and Chekhov, have sometimes reversed the roles. They 
proved the audience wrong — which is why, in the long perspective of 
history, we call them first-rate critics. 

I quite understand Mr. Kerr's purpose, which is to rebuke the fa- 
natics for whom no play can be an artistic success unless it has been a 
commercial disaster. But the opposite extreme, which equates box-of- 



Part II: The American Theatre 285 

fice success with art, is equally indefensible, and this is the position to- 
wards which Mr. Kerr is moving. It is significant that in the current issue 
of Variety Mr. Kerr is hailed as the "rightest" Broadway critic: i.e., his 
opinions, last season, coincided most often with those of the pubUc. The 
most alarming gap in his otherwise lively and sensible book is that it no- 
where gives us any reason to suppose, or argument to prove, that 
Worm's Eye View, Mister Roberts, or Abie's Irish Rose are plays less 
great than Ghosts, Troilus and Cressida, and The Playboy of the West- 
ern World. 



The Shadoiv of a Gunman, by Sean O'Casey, at the Bijou; 
Edivifi Booth, by Milton Geiger, at the 46th Street Theatre. 

A great deal of dedicated work has clearly gone into the new re- 
vival of Sean O'Casey's The Shadow of a Gunman. For the most part, 
unfortunately, it is work of a kind that belongs somewhere else. I yield to 
no fan in my respect for the stimulus, frequently galvanic, that has been 
applied to the acting styles of Broadway and Hollywood by members of 
the Actors' Studio. Their approach to the mimic craft may be tortuous 
and time-consuming by the standards prevaiHng around Times Square, 
but it gets results, often of a shattering subtlety and power. In The 
Shadow of a Gunman, which is being presented under the Studio's aus- 
pices, both director and principals are Studio-fiedged. They have come 
up with a production that makes one think not so much of a mountain 
bringing forth a mouse as of mice bringing forth a mountain. The play 
itself is short enough to be performed (as it often is) with a thirty-min- 
ute curtain-raiser. At the Bijou it seems bloated, leaden, and intermi- 
nable. 

Before we take up the fascinating question of what went wrong, a 
glance at the text may be helpful. O'Casey's first play is set in a Dublin 
tenement at the height of the Troubles. Outside, in the streets of the 
city, the future of Ireland is being fought out; that is the real action, but 
right in the middle of it are two men who think it none of their business 
and ask only to Uve in what Uttle peace they can find. One is Seumas, 
who sells defective suspenders at street corners on the rare occasions 
when he is not in bed bewailing the shiftlessness of the Irish. His room- 
mate, Donal, is a distracted young poet whom the whole tenement aber- 
rantly believes to be an I.R.A. gunman. The error at first breeds com- 



286 P'^'^i II: ^^•'^ American Theatre 

edy, as mistaken identity usually does. Donal's neighbors and fellow 
lodgers bring him their wrongs to be righted, vow solidarity with the 
cause, and boast of their acquaintance with him, while one of them, an 
awe-struck girl named Minnie, falls hesitantly in love with his borrowed 
glamour. Toward the end, the grin on the play's face fades; it clenches 
its fist and lets us have it, with Irish abruptness, straight in the solar 
plexus. The world outside begins to close in. The house is raided by the 
Black and Tans, whereupon Donal finds himself the custodian of a bag- 
ful of bombs left on the premises by one of Seumas' friends. When Min- 
nie volunteers to hide them under her bed, both Donal and Seumas con- 
sent. She is subsequently shot. The poet survives, transfixed by the guilt 
that is reality's revenge on those who seek to escape responsibility. 

The tempo of the piece, up to the last minute, is exuberantly comic 
— sometimes to the point of naivete, as when the author indulges his 
fondness for jokes based on working-class malapropisms. O'Casey called 
his play a tragedy, but by that he meant nothing more than that it did not 
end happily. (When the Irish want to compose pure tragedies, they gen- 
erally do so in Gaelic.) O'Casey belongs in the boisterous gallery of 
Irish satirists, comedians, ironists, and mock-heroic wits who, since the 
death of Shakespeare, have written nearly everything of lasting impor- 
tance in what is sardonically known as the English drama. He means us 
to laugh at the plight of two men trapped in a lie, and he expects of his 
small-part players the pace and timing of vaudeville. And this is where 
the Actors' Studio lets him down. Instead of expedition, they give us ex- 
ploration. Where O'Casey prescribes panic, they offer rational concern. 
Under Jack Garfein's direction, they present a number of thoughtful in- 
vestigations into character, entirely ignoring the element of volatile cari- 
cature that is the glory of the play, its essence and its life. Lines that in 
print are winged like Mercury are uttered as if they were shod in con- 
crete. I do not doubt that Mr. Garfein's actors have achieved exactly 
what they set out to achieve. The trouble is that O'Casey was aiming at 
a different target. Gerald O'Loughlin (Seumas) is a gifted actor, but he 
is far too stolid and brow-beethng to supply the twitches, flurries, and 
stammers for which the part cries out. Susan Strasberg, who should wipe 
off half her smile and at least one layer of make-up, plays Minnie, the 
little simpleton who blunders into martyrdom, as if she were a sort of in- 
cipient tart, a misconception that may account for some of the actress' 
painful self-consciousness. The poet is a tougher task, since O'Casey 
never tells us how good a poet he is, or whether we are to take his out- 
bursts of grief seriously. WilUam Smithers settles for the kind of lithe, 
confused, disconsolate hero one sees in adult Westerns. His performance 



Part II: The Americaji Theatre 287 

is slow and has nothing to do with Ireland, but it is not actively objec- 
tionable. George Mathews, in two short scenes as a lumbering drunk, 
gets nearest to the O'Casey flavour. Peter Larkin's cluttered set is per- 
fect, and so are the sound effects. Every word, I should add, is audible. 
If Mr. Garfein's production does nothing else, it should quash the ru- 
mour that the Actors' Studio teaches actors to mumble. Regrettably, not 
to mumble is not enough. 

Apart from the writing, which has the quality of mildewed plush, 
there is little wrong with Edwin Booth, Milton Geiger's chronicle play at 
the Forty-sixth Street Theatre, that is not equally wrong with every other 
stage biography of a great dead actor. The thing to hold on to is that all 
such actors invented "the natural style." What the rise of the middle 
class is to political history the rise of the natural style is to theatrical his- 
tory — an event of ubiquitous date that has taken place roughly twice in 
every century from the sixteenth onward. Betterton, about whom no- 
body writes plays, was a ranter; then along came Garrick, who staggered 
the public by the naturalness of his manner. He was superseded by Ed- 
mund Kean, whose command of natural speech revolutionized a theatre 
inured to Garrick's rantings. Before long, Kean's absurd rhetoric was 
supplanted by the newer, more natural techniques pioneered by Irving 
and Booth. Breaking decisively with the past, the Moscow Art Theatre 
under Stanislavsky inaugurated an acting method so radical that it made 
hams hke Irving and Booth sound like Betterton. It was founded on the 
cataclysmic idea that actors should act natural. 

The main problem in presenting plays about great actors is casting. 
Edwin Booth, unless the record lies, was deeply introspective. His father 
was an alcoholic tragedian, partly insane, who sired him out of wedlock. 
His first wife died of tuberculosis, his second went mad, and one of his 
brothers murdered Lincoln. He drank compulsively. His chief quality as 
an actor seems to have been a burning, withdrawn magnetism. "He is 
Hamlet," said his brother, the antic assassin, "melancholy and all." 
Booth's comment on himself was that he was "too damned genteel and 
exquisite." This is the role in which Jose Ferrer, the director of the play, 
has chosen to cast himself. Now, Mr. Ferrer is a man of varied talents, 
but he is not, to put it suavely, the first actor in the world who leaps to 
my mind in connection with exquisite melancholy. At his most charac- 
teristic, he is a bustler, a kidder, a crafty extrovert, and whenever the 
script allows him to perform in these capacities he is splendid — once 
when he is heckled by his first wife (Lois Smith) at a rehearsal of Ro- 
meo and Juliet, and again when he wards off lionizers at a smart supper 
party by getting impenetrably tight. But for most of the evening he is 



288 P^'^i II: The American Theatre 

frankly at a loss. Quite often one has the impression that, with the best 
will in the world, his mind is not wholly focussed on the matter at hand. 
He looks impatient, too busy to be wasting his time acting; you feel you 
are imposing on him, keeping him from some vital engagement that he 
would much rather not have postponed. He did, however, provide me 
with one flash of inspiration. This occurred when he stumbled on, com- 
plete with leer, limp, and golliwog wig, to recite a snatch of Richard III. 
Instantly I had a vision of what Mr. Ferrer's true vocation might be. If I 
am right, he should make it his business to corner the market in stage 
biographies not of great tragedians but of great clowns. What a Bert 
Lahr, for instance, he would make! And if anyone ever writes a play 
about the Marx Brothers, Mr. Ferrer will be my first choice for aU three. 

(195S) 



Flower Drum Song, by Richard Rodgers and Oscar 

HaMMERSTEIN II, AT THE St. JaMES. 

Ever since Marco Polo, the Orient has exerted a steady and grow- 
ing influence on the Western imagination. I need only mention the 
names of Stevenson, Gauguin, Lafcadio Hearn, Sax Rohmer, and W. C. 
Fields to indicate how much our civilization owes to the ancient cultures 
of the East. Our debt was increased last week by the arrival at the St. 
James Theatre of Flower Drum Song, the new musical by Richard Rodg- 
ers and Oscar Hammerstein II. In this case, I fear, what we owe is not 
gratitude but an apology. I am not so demented as to expect from a 
Broadway show any profound insights into the Chinese temperament. 
All the same, it was something of a shock, and rather more of a bore, to 
find the country that cradled Lao-tse, Confucius, and Zen Buddhism 
treated as if our only clues to its way of life were those provided by the 
lyrics of "Limehouse Blues" and "Chinatown, My Chinatown." 

The authors' attitude toward exotic peoples in general seems to 
have changed hardly at all since they wrote South Pacific and The King 
and I. If friendly, the natives have a simple, primitive, childhke sweet- 
ness. If girls, they do not know how to kiss, but once they have been 
taught they are wild about it. They also beg to inquire, please, just what 
it is that is said with flowers. In their conversation, as you may have 
gleaned, there is more than a smidgen of pidgin, and I should not have 
been surprised in the least if the heroine of the present work, which is 
elsewhere full of self-plagiarism, had at some point embarked on a lyric 



Part II: The American Theatre 289 

beginning, "Baby talk, keep talking baby talk." It seems to have worried 
neither Mr. Rodgers nor Mr. Hammerstein very much that the behav- 
iour of war-torn Pacific islanders and nineteenth-century Siamese 
might be slightly different from that of Chinese residents of present-day 
California, where Flower Drum Song is fictionally sung. So little, indeed, 
has it worried them that they have entrusted the principal female roles 
to Japanese actresses. Their assumption, which may be justified, is that 
the audience will not notice the difference. It will, however, unless nos- 
talgia has rendered it purblind, notice a marked difference between this 
and the better Rodgers-and-Hammerstein shows. They may all look 
alike to the authors, but not, I am afraid, to me. 

The plot, promising in itself and based on a popular novel by C. Y. 
Lee, concerns a conflict of values between those inhabitants of San Fran- 
cisco's Chinatown who have embraced Americanization and those who 
have resisted it. The first group includes a jolly stripper who lusts after 
Thunderbirds, and her part-time lover, a raffish type named Sammy 
Fong, who has .foolishly summoned from Formosa a mail-order bride of 
stupefying ingenuousness. The passive resisters are represented by a 
strait-laced family on to whose son Sammy attempts to unload his pretty 
but unwanted import. She wins over the boy's father by declaring, in 
song, that "a hundred million miracles are happening every day," but 
has more trouble with the lad himself, who has leanings toward the 
stripper. On this four-cornered framework the action rests, so compla- 
cently that halfway through the second act it falls asleep and topples 
into somnolent implausibility. This would not matter as much if the en- 
circling chinoiserie sounded authentic instead of synthetic, or if any- 
thing in the score came so leapingly to life that it banished all memories 
of former triumphs in the same vein. But no. The ring of this coin, at al- 
most every throw, is counterfeit. The same fingers, to switch the meta- 
phor, are at the typewriter, but two carbons have sadly blurred the im- 
pression. The elders sing a mournful plaint about the decadence of their 
children, and, sure enough, five minutes later the children troop on and 
deplore, to the same tune, the decadence of their parents. The dream 
ballets and the silken Oriental processions likewise reinforced my sense 
of deid vu, and my suspicion, amounting at length to a conviction, that 
what I saw before me was simply a stale Broadway confection wrapped 
up in spurious Chinese trimmings. Perhaps as a riposte to Joshua Lo- 
gan's The World of Suzie Wong, Rodgers and Hammerstein have given 
us what, if I had any self-control at all, I would refrain from describing 
as a world of woozy song. 



290 P'^^i II: The American Theatre 



The Cold Wind ajid the Warm, by S. N. Behrman, at the 
MoRosco; /. B., BY Archibald MacLeish, at the 
A.N.T.A. Theatre. 

"The play is memory." These four words, which occur in the open- 
ing speech of Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie, may stand as 
an epigraph for a considerable segment of post-war American drama. 
They are uttered by a character who represents the author as a younger 
man, and they introduce an incident from his past, seen through a semi- 
transparent fictional veil. This technique — the use of what might be 
called the first person once removed — cropped up again ml Am a Cam- 
era, whose hero was the youthful Christopher Isherwood, and since then 
there has been no escaping it. In play after play we have accompanied 
writer after writer on a series of formative strolls down memory lane, 
that broad highway leading from the wrong side of the tracks to the 
anterooms of Perry and Pulitzer. We have been lashed by storms, and 
dampened by drizzles, of autobiographical emotion, recollected some- 
times in tranquillity and sometimes, one suspects, with the aid of tran- 
quillizers. William Inge revisited his childhood for us in The Dark at the 
Top of the Stairs; Look Homeward, Angel invited us to share the grow- 
ing pains of Thomas Wolfe, Winesburg, Ohio those of Sherwood An- 
derson; and we gained from Long Day's Journey into Night a profound 
and tenebrous insight into the adolescence of Eugene O'Neill. The latest 
excursion into nostalgia is The Cold Wind and the Warm, which offers 
an elaborate report on how it felt to be the young S. N. Behrman. 

Mr. Behrman's play is founded on episodes from his book The 
Worcester Account, a collection of reminiscent contes whose quality I 
cannot judge, since I have not read them. There is always, however, a 
sizeable gap between the printed page and viable drama, and it does not 
seem to me that Mr. Behrman has succeeded in bridging it. Prose in stiff 
covers (or soft, for that matter) is addressed to only one reader at a 
time; drama, by contrast, is aimed at a thousand spectators simultane- 
ously assembled. Where a bored reader would skip, a bored audience 
walks out. To prevent this, the playwright must concentrate his action, 
narrow his focus, and resolutely shun those digressive details that are at 
once the novelist's province and his pride. "In the play," said Virginia 
Woolf, "we recognize the general ... in the novel, the particular." 
The dangers of getting too particular are multiplied when drama verges 
on autobiography. Fondly ransacking the attics of his mind, the author 



Part II: The American Theatre 29 1 

grows more and more reluctant to throw anything away, and frequently 
ends up by convincing himself that nothing could be more fascinating to 
an audience than a lengthy procession of the most unforgettable charac- 
ters he has ever met, including, of course, himself. The result, almost in- 
variably, is something that might have achieved a modest sale as a vol- 
ume of memoirs but has about as much to do with drama as a police 
line-up. The awkward art of writing a good memory play demands far 
more in the way of self-discipline and condensation. The two great ex- 
amples of the genre are The Glass Menagerie and Long Day's Journey 
into Night, and it is significant that neither of them was adapted from a 
book. In each case the author, looking back on his life, singled out a 
turning point — a crucial, indelible event that somehow determined the 
course of his maturity. Mr. Behrman is inspired by a similar conception; 
where he falters is in the matter of execution. Both Williams and O'Neill 
confined their dramatis personae to people who were actively involved 
in the crisis — in Williams' play, his mother, his sister, and the latter's 
"gentleman caller"; in O'Neill's, his parents and his elder brother, plus a 
harmless necessary maid. And both of them were careful to select inci- 
dents in which they themselves figured not merely as observers but as 
participants, not just recording but contributing. Mr. Behrman slips up 
on both counts. Not only is his plotting vagrant and diffuse; he has im- 
posed on it a character who does nothing but impede it — to wit, himself 
as a child. This is a camera-type (or perhaps I should say daguerreo- 
type) play that has been thrown off balance by the photographer's in- 
sistence on being in the picture. 

The situation, once we have peeled off its nostalgic slough, is the 
old one in which an ambitious boy is forced to choose between a nice 
girl and a flamboyant flirt. AU three are members of the Jewish commu- 
nity in Worcester, Massachusetts, half a century ago. Willie, the hero, is 
an enthusiastic student whose zeal for research and inquiry extends to 
his private life, which he devotes first to Myra, the dazzling blonde 
widow he pursues to New York, and later to Leah, the docile homebody 
whose child, in a moment of erethism, he fathers. (Under the Interna- 
tional Convention of Theatrical Conventions, annually ratified by the 
Society of Authors, one night's cohabitation is enough, irrespective of 
the calendar, to guarantee a pregnancy. ) Unwilling to marry the girl, he 
commits suicide, by means that are not revealed, after a scene with 
Myra that we do not see and an internal struggle that is never exposed 
to us. 

There might have been time to repair these omissions if Mr. Behr- 
man had kept himself out of the play; as I should have pointed out, Wil- 



292 P^'J't II: The American Theatre 

lie represents not the author but the author's best friend and elder coun- 
sellor. The young Behrman appears in the guise of Tobey, a would-be 
composer in knee pants who utters a great many lines, takes no part in 
the action, and might with advantage have been jettisoned. His relatives 
are all designed to accord with the popular theatrical image of Jews as 
warmhearted clowns who get their sentences back to front. One of them, 
a matchmaking aunt, is played with uproarious, upholstered aplomb by 
Maureen Stapleton, who can cock an eyebrow and purse a lip with more 
wit than many actresses find in the whole of Oscar Wilde, but there are 
limits to the joy one can derive from lines like "I could tear you from 
each limb." Morris Carnovsky, shrugging as to the manner trained, per- 
forms wearily and well as Mr. Behrman's fictional father, a rabbinical 
grocer, while theatrical chutzpa of a more shameless kind is displayed by 
Sig Arno, all popeyed apology, and Sanford Meisner, whose parody of a 
foxhunting nouveau riche makes me long to see him in a farce by Fey- 
deau or Labiche. Apart from Suzanne Pleshette, the prim unmarried 
mother, and Carol Grace, who pitches Myra somewhere between a pal- 
lid fawn and a Southern belle, almost everyone is joke- Jewish. As Willie, 
Eli Wallach is interestingly miscast. Instead of an ingenuous face that 
betrays precocious intelligence, he shows us a sophisticated face through 
which boyishness occasionally peeps. What is needed here is not a bet- 
ter actor but a slightly younger one. The direction, which is by Harold 
Clurman, struck me as markedly stale. 

Elia Kazan, who staged Archibald MacLeish's J.B., is the best man 
alive to direct plays that rumble with passion, blaze into violence, and 
flower in a climate of frenzy. Whether he has the lightness of touch and 
the affection for grace that are required by works of less febrile content, 
I have no means of knowing; it is enough to say here that he can raise 
whirlwinds, and that whirlwinds are exactly what Mr. MacLeish 
wants raised. The cast is a strong one. It is led by Pat Hingle, a specialist 
in portraying the American male as a lusty, overgrown boy, given per- 
haps to blustering but inherently goodhearted. He is flanked on the one 
hand by Raymond Massey, as imposing as a riven oak, and on the other 
by Christopher Plummer, the flexible, saturnine young Canadian whose 
range, widening every season, has already put him within striking dis- 
tance of most of the light-heavyweight roles in the American and Euro- 
pean repertoires. Boris Aronson's setting, a desolate, cavernous circus 
tent, is one of the most majestic I can remember; it prepares the heart 
for events of towering grandeur and cosmic repercussion. In every de- 
partment the presentation is flawless. The same, unfortunately, cannot 
be said of the thing presented. 



Part II: The American Theatre 293 

Never one to waste his time on trivialities, Mr. MacLeish has taken 
on the Miltonic task of justifying the ways of God to man. J.B. is the 
Book of Job, that greatest of hard-luck stories, retold in the form of a 
morality play. The characters are modern, but speak in bumpy allitera- 
tive verse, and the narrative technique is similarly medieval. God and 
Satan are embodied in, respectively, a peddler of balloons and a pop- 
corn vendor (Mr. Massey and Mr. Plummer), who wander down the 
aisle of the theatre, pick up a couple of masks, and act as joint masters 
of ceremonies, commenting on Job's story (which unfolds in the circus 
ring) from the vantage points assigned to them by tradition — stage left 
for Evil, stage right for Good. Mr. Massey, high up on a funambulist's 
platform that Mr. Aronson has cunningly turned into a pulpit, gets the 
best of the bargain. Beneath him Job, in the person of J.B., a "perfect 
and upright" businessman, takes the ghastly battering that is to test his 
faith in the benevolence of the Deity. In a series of scenes as predict- 
able as they are repetitive, he loses most of his family and all of his for- 
tune. War and an automobile accident dispose of four of his children, 
while the fifth and last is murderously assaulted by a juvenile psycho- 
path. To cap everything, a bomb falls on his bank, leaving him not only 
penniless but afflicted by an unpleasant skin condition — Mr. MacLeish's 
substitute for the boils in the Bible, and presumably to be diagnosed as 
the result of exposure to atomic blast. After each new body-blow God's 
chosen sparring partner staggers back off the ropes for more, to the de- 
Ught of Mr. Massey and the chagrin of Mr. Plummer, whose purpose is 
to make Job curse his creator. Up to this point the play falls into a clear- 
cut sociological category: it represents the apology of American capital- 
ism for its astonishing prosperity. Job knows he has not sinned, yet feels 
permanently and inexplicably guilty; he cannot bring himself to deny 
that God is just. His first Comforter, a Marxist, tells him that historical 
necessity is punishing him; the second, a psychoanalyst, that he is pun- 
ishing himself; the third, a gloating cleric, that he is being punished for 
the unpardonable crime of having been born. He rejects all three, but 
still feels terrible. Why? And here the argument disconcertingly swerves. 
God takes off the gloves and restores to Job, as a guarantee of good will, 
his affluence and his wife, who has left him in disgust at his refusal to de- 
fend himself. He accepts these favours with an eagerness that shocks Mr. 
Plummer and even perturbs Mr. Massey. Job's explanation, offered in a 
brief epilogue, is that there is no divine justice; there is simply human 
love. He and his wife will be content hereafter to live together and, in a 
phrase worthy of an Abe Burrows parody, "blow on the coal of the 
heart." To say that this ending cheats is to put it mildly. The play rests 



294 P^ft II: The American Theatre 

on the assumption, everywhere endorsed by the text, that we are judged 
by God. It then poses the question: why are we judged so harshly? The 
answer, which destroys everything that has preceded it and entirely de- 
molishes the original premise, is that he does not judge us at all. Having 
bothered us for more than two hours with an apparently insoluble prob- 
lem, Mr. MacLeish blithely shrugs and confesses that it was the wrong 
problem to begin with. 

The truth, of course, is that he has stated the right problem in the 
wrong way. We are all of us vitally concerned in any search for the 
causes of human pain, but when needless agony is inflicted (as it is on 
J.B.) by bombs, bullets, drunken drivers, and lunatic adolescents, our 
first impulse, if we are rational beings, is surely to seek an explanation in 
human terms — to ask how the war could have been avoided, why the 
man drank, what pressures sent the boy mad. Not many of us, I think, 
immediately ascribe our sufferings to the judicial acumen of the Old 
Testament God, who could never be ranked among the more sympa- 
thetic characters in world literature, and who appears in the Book of 
Job at his worst — arrogant, bombastic, and casually cruel. Yet Mr. Mac- 
Leish's hero thinks of nobody else. The emphasis on guilt is obsessive: 

We have no choice but to be guilty, 
God is unthinkable if we are innocent. 

And, again: 

Guilt matters. Guilt must always matter. 
Unless guilt matters the whole world is 
Meaningless. 

Long before the final curtain I was bored to exasperation by the 
lack of any recognizable human response to calamity. Above all, I 
yearned for the intervention of just one character from an ahen — pref- 
erably an Oriental — culture. It would have clarified so much. Mr. Mag ; 
LeishVp ostulate i s^that we expect God to be just, since we think joi^Ma. 
not only as our creator but as our judge, a maker of moral laws that we 
break at our eternal peril. If we defy them, we feel what Alan W. Watts, 
my authority on comparative religion, calls "a sense of guilt so prepos- 
terous that it must issue either in denying one's own nature or in reject- 
ing God." This is Job's dilemma, and it is relevant only to a civilization 
that equates the Creator with the Legislator. Ori ental tradition sep a- 
rates the two functions. Justicejjwhich distributes punishments and re- 
wards, is a human invention that can err and be corrected; to be wrongly 
chasti^&d^byjU^ajmsfortUDfi^ evidence^of sin. The process of cfe-^ 



Part II: The American Theatre 295 

ation itself, meanwhile, is above and beyond justice^. IL neither punishes 
noj;^ rewards, and cannot be lauded or offended; it merely e xists. tThis is 
the attitude toward which Mr. MacLeish seems to be veering at the end 
of J.B. Had he reached it sooner, he might have written a better play, 
or no play at all, sparing us, in either case, lines as pompously hollow as 
"Death is a bone that stammers." But he seems to have been determined 
to wound nobody, even in passing, and to keep up, at all costs, the ap- 
pearance of devotion to an antique and extravagant concept of the deity. 
Even at curtain-fall we do not know where he really stands. As Samuel 
Johnson said to Boswell in the spring of 1776, "Sir, there is no trusting 
to that crazy piety." 

(1958) 



Directors as Writers. 

A mediocre drama critic may be defined as a man who is content 
merely to review plays. He comes to the theatre as a high-school gour- 
met to a restaurant, equipped with nothing more positive than an open 
mind and a clean palate; having tasted the dish that is set before him, he 
pronounces it pleasant or unpleasant and then goes home to gargle. He 
is now ready to approach his next meal in the same state of artificial in- 
nocence, uncontaminated, as far as possible, by any noxious taint of ex- 
perience. His mind, like his mouth, hangs open and empty, a fact of 
which he is quietly proud, since it proves beyond a doubt that he is un- 
prejudiced. In other words, he judges plays in a condition that would un- 
fit him for almost any human activity except sunbathing. Intellectually, 
he is self-gelded, for he has deliberately erased from his thinking all 
sense of continuity with the past, together with all those aspects of the 
present that lie outside the theatre's walls. His task, or so he conceives it, 
is to keep out of his criticism the values and convictions that govern his 
life and shape his attitude, if he has one, toward society. The great test 
comes when he brings out a book (imaginably entitled Rogues and 
Vagabonds) of his collected reviews. Considered singly, they may glit- 
ter; en masse, they resemble nothing so much as a bag of unstrung 
beads. 

Another, rarer kind of criticism is exemplified in Lies Like Truth, 
a compilation of articles on the theatre written by Harold Clurman be- 
tween 1947 and 1957, mostly for the New Republic and the Nation. I 
mean to sound complimentary when I say that Mr. Clurman reads bet- 



296 f*^^^ II: ^^^ American Theatre 

ter in bulk than he does in weekly instalments. Few of his reviews have 
literary pretensions; the prose is brusque, spasmodic, and excitable, fre- 
quently falling over its own feet in its haste, and many of the items have 
the fragmentary quality of bulletins from the front line. Yet the book 
as an entity holds up. The pieces fit together into a consistent pattern; 
the beads, in short, are strung. Mr. Clurman sees plays in terms of their 
environment in time and place. Faced with a new work, he asks himself 
not only whether he likes it and why, but where it stands in relation to 
the author's development, where the author stands in relation to the the- 
atre he writes for, and where that theatre stands in relation to society as 
a whole. There is something in him of the child who, addressing a letter 
to a friend, begins with the name, the street, the city, and the state, and 
then cannot stop until he reaches the hemisphere and, finally. The 
World. Mr. Clurman's horizon is similarly uncontracted. This is literally 
as well as figuratively true; few modern critics have travelled so far in 
search of theatre. And none, it is safe to say, is better informed about 
the practical side of the business than Mr. Clurman, who was a director 
of the Group Theatre for ten palpitating years and is still volcanically 
active, having staged two Broadway productions in the past five months. 
This first-hand knowledge is what keeps his idealism firmly nailed to 
reality. His theories, impassioned and exalted, about what the theatre 
ought to be are not dreams but workable extensions of what it actu- 
ally is. 

Two themes, so tightly plaited that they sometimes appear one, re- 
cur throughout the book. One of them is the sickness inherent in a the- 
atre that equates merit with profit, and the corresponding need for a 
remedy in the form of subsidized playhouses in which talents, rather 
than investments, can mature. The other is the nature of merit itself. In 
Mr. Clurman's eyes, every stage production makes both a statement and 
an emotional impact, and the critic's job is to decide not merely what the 
statement is, but whether it has value — or, as Mr. Clurman would say, 
whether it is "humanly relevant." At first glance his admirations look 
wildly disparate, ranging, as they do, from Giraudoux to Judy Garland. 
Always, however, the touchstone is value: are we being offered an en- 
richment that will outlive pleasure? In the least restrictive sense of the 
word, Mr. Clurman is a moralist. "Theatre," he says, in a congested but 
expressive phrase, "is philosophy in a fleshed design of action." The dif- 
ference between him and the clean-palate dilettantes is that he knows 
what he expects of the drama. They go to the theatre ready for any- 
thing. He goes ready for something. 

Mr. Clurman is an impatient, untidy writer who throws off his 



Part II: The American Theatre 297 

pearls as perfunctorily as a dog shaking itself after a swim, and for this 
reason it is hard to do him justice in quotation. Here, all the same, are a 
few apergus that may help to convey the flavour of his shrewdness. Of 
the tirelessly eclectic Thornton Wilder: "He arranges flowers beautifully, 
but he does not grow them." Of O'Neill, with special reference to Long 
Day's Journey into Night: "Every character speaks in two voices, two 
moods — one of rage, the other of apology." Of Ibsen: "A graph of Ib- 
sen's thematic material would show him oscillating between the deter- 
mined idealism of 'no compromise' and the more modern question of 
how much to compromise." Of certain French avant-garde playwrights: 
"Their rebelhon is a little like ... a revolt in an orphanage." Of Miss 
Garland: "The tension between the unctuously bright slickness which is 
expected of her medium . . . and the fierceness of what her being 
wants to cry out produces something positively orgiastic in the final ef- 
fect." 

The best piece of sustained criticism in the book is Mr. Clurman's 
analysis of A Streetcar Named Desire as directed on Broadway by Elia 
Kazan. His conclusion, which I find unassailable, is that the "intense, in- 
trospective, and almost lyric personaUty" of Marlon Brando turned the 
play's values upside down by gaining so much sympathy for the brutish 
Kowalski that the audience could not help seeing Blanche DuBois 
through his eyes — as a posturing fraud who deserved most of what she 
got. Mr. Clurman's account of how an actor's natural creativeness can 
inadvertently contradict the spirit of a text without departing from the 
letter of it could have been written only by a practising director. With 
that thought in mind, let us agree to bury the popular notion, fostered in 
self-defense by generations of reviewers, that backstage expertise is at 
best irrelevant and at worst inimical to good criticism. 

On the Stanislavsky Method, which achieved full American citi- 
zenship through the diligence of the Group Theatre, Mr. Clurman is con- 
cise and authoritative. "The grammar of acting," as he calls it, is now 
securely enthroned on Broadway and needs no defence except against 
bad actors and imbecile publicity. Not without weariness, Mr. Clurman 
reminds us that Stanislavsky was concerned just as much with external 
technique as with "inner truth": "I have never heard anyone speak as 
long or as dogmatically on the importance of the voice and diction as 
did Stanislavsky to me on the several occasions of our meeting in Paris 
and Moscow. As for posture, physical deportment, correctness of car- 
riage, discipline of manner: on these subjects Stanislavsky was almost 
fanatic." 

The same line is taken by Robert Lewis, another Group graduate, 



298 P^'^f II: The American Theatre 

in Method — or Madness?, which preserves in permanent form a series 
of chatty, jflossy, but basically sensible lectures delivered by the author 
to an audience of theatre people two years ago. Mr. Lewis' thesis, 
clearly visible through a small forest of exclamation points, is that too 
much emphasis has been laid on the Stanislavsky of An Actor Prepares, 
which deals mainly with the "insides" of acting, and too little on the 
Stanislavsky of Building a Character, which concentrates on the out- 
ward, or visible and audible, aspects of the craft. He attributes this im- 
balance to the fact that the latter book was not published in America 
until 1949 — thirteen years after its companion volume — by which time 
the older testament had been accepted as the whole of the law and its 
high priests had grown deaf to new doctrine. Mr. Lewis supports his ar- 
gument with some wily anecdotes and a superbly daunting chart, trans- 
lated in 1934 from Stanislavsky's own copy, of the entire Method proc- 
ess, from the conception of a role to its perfect execution. By stressing 
the executive side of the chart, which contains panels labelled "Danc- 
ing," "Rules of Speaking," "External Tempo and Rhythm," and so forth, 
Mr. Lewis is able to serve the cause of fair play while at the same time 
putting in a suave plug or two for the kind of poetic, semi-stylized drama 
that lies, I suspect, nearest to his affections. 

I read his Httle book with pleasure; even so, I could not help wish- 
ing that he had been too busy to write it. Mr. Lewis is one of the most 
active New York directors, and yet in the twenty years that have passed 
since he staged William Saroyan's My Heart's in the Highlands for the 
Group he has directed only fourteen Broadway shows — among them 
no classics, and nothing written more than a quarter of a century ago. 
By Continental standards, he is scarcely more than a beginner. Nor is 
his a special case; it applies, mutatis mutandis, to Broadway as a whole. 
The American theatre is aUve with talent, most of which, culturally 
speaking, is marking time. None of it is employed as such talent ought 
to be — in permanent companies, where it might try its hand at every- 
thing from Aeschylus to Axelrod and grow by constant use. By a bizarre 
paradox, the barely competent performers do far more theatrical work 
than the most strikingly gifted; prestige deters the latter from taking ar- 
tistic risks that might land them in a flop, while conscience forbids them 
to indulge in the kind of Kitsch that would guarantee a hit. From the di- 
rectors' point of view as well as the actors', there is not much doubt that 
the healthiest theatres are those of Sweden, Russia, and Germany. If 
there were a Staattheater in the neighbourhood of Times Square, Mr. 
Lewis would long since have celebrated his fiftieth production and Mr. 
Brando might have played thirty stage roles in ten years, instead of one. 



Part II: The American Theatre 299 

Compared to the playhouses of Germany, Mr. Clurman wrote from Ber- 
lin in 1956, "the American, English, French stages look like little-the- 
atre activities." It is not that the grass grows greener there but that it is 
more systematically nourished. When the Group Theatre broke up, in 
1941, Mr. Clurman made a significant, though ill-phrased, comment: 
"The basic defect in our activity was that while we tried to maintain a 
true theatre policy artistically, we proceeded economically on a show- 
business basis. Our means and our ends were in fundamental contradic- 
tion." That is still the dilemma of the Western theatre. 

(1959) 



Requiem for a Nun, by William Faulkner, at the Golden. 

Having been pursued by William Faulkner's Requiem for a Nun 
across half a continent and the whole of an ocean, I begin to understand 
how Francis Thompson must have felt when the Hound of Heaven 
picked up his spoor. In three years the play has tailed me from Berlin to 
New York, via Paris, Madrid, and London; wherever I go into hiding, it 
goes into rehearsal. Last week it got its man for the fourth time. (I con- 
trived to miss the Spanish production by lying about my health. Accord- 
ing to Mr. Faulkner, we pay for our sins through the suffering of others. 
Judging by the expression on the face of my companion at the Broadway 
opening, I have paid in full.) My long international association with the 
piece has taught me a lot about the mental processes of the people who 
like it. They are usually ready to concede that the writing is dense and 
prolix, the characterization crucially inconsistent, and the construction 
primitive, but what do these superficial considerations matter, they ask, 
in a work that goes to the very roots of the human condition? 

The short answer is (a) a great deal and (b) it doesn't. To start by 
enlarging on (a), Mr. Faulkner's play is essentially undramatized. It is 
a sequel to his novel Sanctuary, which dealt with the early life of a girl 
named Temple Drake and her springtime awakening to nymphomania. 
A mean, moody, and munificent premonition of Lolita, Miss Drake got 
herself involved, while still at college, in a car crash, with a drunken 
lover at the wheel. After witnessing a murder, she was kidnapped by a 
midget voyeur called Popeye and imprisoned in a Memphis brothel, 
where she liked the work so much that she fell in love with a regular 
customer, who was regrettably slain on his way to her bed. Before the 
play begins, she has married the drunken driver, now dried out into re- 



300 Part II: The American Theatre 

spectability, and borne him two children, one of whom has been mur- 
dered by her maid, Nancy, a "nigger dope-fiend whore" she befriended 
in captivity. All this comes under the heading of "what has gone before," 
and the problems of putting it across are gigantic. Mr. Faulkner tackles 
them by wasting most of the evening on exposition in its least dramatic 
form — retrospective narration in the first person. One swift flashback 
breaks the monotony; otherwise, we are wearied by detailed descrip- 
tions of events we have not seen and people we have not met. And what 
descriptions! Sentences as interminably woolly as unravelled sweaters 
alternate with moral saws that are either turgid restatements of plati- 
tudes or stammering attempts at paradox; for the most part the style 
nags the thought to death. It frankly enraged me, but, as Mr. Faulkner 
might say, man may not utter in anger, or wrath, or what passes with 
him for anger and wrath, if anything does, and not be defiled, or tar- 
nished, or lastingly unstrung. 

The play's basic flaw, however, is its handling of Nancy. For one 
thing, we are never told how the dope-hooked prostitute of the exposi- 
tion developed into the model of glowing piety that we see on the stage. 
For another — and this is where we verge on (b) — Mr. Faulkner's ex- 
planation of why Nancy committed infanticide seems to me profoundly 
unreal, if not inhuman. Temple, we learn, was about to leave her hus- 
band for a new lover; Nancy slaughtered the baby to keep it from being 
tainted by its mother's sins, and also to dissuade Temple from wrecking 
her marriage. I should have thought that a live child, however tainted, 
was worthier of preservation than a dying marriage, but Nancy goes to 
the noose contentedly singing spirituals, with the author's fuU approval 
of her self-sacrifice. At the core of Mr. Faulkner's eerie, specialized phi- 
losophy I stumbled on a dumbfounding linguistic confusion. Nancy's de- 
fence counsel insists at one point that when Christ said "Suffer the little 
children to come unto me," he meant that the children's parents should 
really suffer — literaHy agonize — to achieve salvation. What can one say 
except that he didn't? A writer who is unaware that "suffer," in that con- 
text, means simply "allow" is obviously beyond the reach of verbal per- 
suasion. Toward the end, just before she slow-marches offstage right, 
into the eye of a spotlight, Nancy replies to an inquiry about her faith by 
saying that though she believes nothing in particular, she "beheves." 
Shortly afterward Temple, who asked the fooHsh question that got the 
foohsh answer, marches offstage left, similarly lighted. The residue 
from two hours of mimetic pain is no more than that — the sort of faery 
food that will serve, I don't doubt, to nourish those who admire Mr. 



Part Ih The American Theatre 301 

MacLeish's J.B., of which Mr. Faulkner's work is in some respects the 
segregated version. 

Tony Richardson's direction is, to put it gently, unobtrusive, or, to 
put it truly, hmp; the text is intoned rather than embodied. Bertice Read- 
ing, with wide eyes and a face full of tears, makes a nobly symbolic fig- 
ure of the incredible Nancy, and Zachary Scott grinds meatily away as 
her lawyer, but Ruth Ford is an arid, anonymous Temple ("What a 
personahty that girl needs!" I said to myself, echoing a famous im- 
promptu of Richard Haydn's), and I assure the actor who plays her hus- 
band that it is possible to convey passion without inhaUng audibly 
through the nose twice in every sentence. 



The Rivalry, by Norman Corwin, at the Bijou. 

By conventional Broadway standards, Norman Corwin's The Ri- 
valry is not a play at all. Yet it is unquestionably theatre. To see it is to 
realize, with a shock of disquiet, how many theatrical weapons our au- 
thors have lately allowed to rust. A stage is a platform that can serve a 
multitude of purposes, most of which we neglect or ignore. The legiti- 
mate theatre of today deals mainly in domestic anecdote. Devoted to the 
manufacture of imaginary storms in family teacups, it demands of its au- 
dience no mental effort more exacting than that involved in reading the 
tea leaves. Mr. Corwin has other ideas, one of them being that ideas 
themselves are exciting. He also believes that non-fiction can be as po- 
tent on the stage as it is in the library. His new show is a mixture of po- 
lemical drama, which bases its appeal on argument, and documentary 
drama, which pins its faith to facts. By taking as his subject the Lincoln- 
Douglas debates on slavery, Mr. Corwin has voluntarily thrown away 
the twin crutches of surprise and suspense on which most plays are 
thankful to lean; the facts are famihar, and everyone knows how the 
argument came out. Apart from a few glimpses of the Douglases at 
home, a couple of chance encounters between Lincoln and Mrs. Doug- 
las, and some scattered remarks from party campaigners, the bulk of 
the text comes verbatim from the stenographic record of 1858. It is a 
tribute to the power of authenticity and the fascination of controversy, 
as much as to Mr. Corwin's editing skiU, that the play is continuously 
absorbing. The set, a wooden rostrum decked with flags, stands for any 



302 P^fi II: The American Theatre 

and all of the outdoor stages on which the combatants conducted their 
seven sessions of mutual dissent. They address their speeches directly 
to us. Not only are we present at the making of history, we are also help- 
ing to make it. The combination is hard to resist. 

This particular slice of history, however, presents the playwright 
with special problems, some of which Mr. Corwin has failed to solve. 
No matter how you condense the debates, the verdict must go to Lin- 
coln; it is inconceivable that anyone outside Saudi Arabia could nowa- 
days endorse Douglas' attitude toward slavery. This being so, I feel that 
Mr. Corwin might have strengthened the conflict without blunting his 
point if he had reminded us that Lincoln was a canny politician as 
well as an idealist. "I am not, nor ever have been, in favour of bringing 
about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black 
races" — thus Lincoln at Charleston, in the southern half of Illinois. In 
the same debate he declared that "there must be the position of superior 
and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the 
superior position assigned to the white race." When Douglas taxed Lin- 
coln with varying his opinions according to his geographical position, he 
had a good logical case, and I am sure Mr. Corwin would not have 
damaged his play if he had let us hear it. But the greatest difl&culty fac- 
ing anyone who tries to dramatize the rivalry is the fact that the two ad- 
versaries spoke different rhetorical languages, and hence never truly 
communicated with each other. Douglas, the racial bigot and champion 
of states' rights, took the short, legalistic view; Lincoln, the verbal ma- 
gician and champion of human rights, took the long, philosophic view. 
If the former cited law in his support, the latter riposted with the Bible; 
a quibble from Douglas would be met by a joke from Lincoln; and al- 
though it is clear that Douglas was consistent but wrong while Lincoln 
was inconsistent but right, their dispute produced no durable answers to 
the mighty questions it raised. At what precise point does self-govern- 
ment become misgovernment? How can democracy, the rule of the ma- 
jority, be prevented from discriminating against minorities? The antago- 
nists wander around these issues, yet never tackle them head on; the 
argument is circular rather than progressive. 

It is bootless, however, to blame on Mr, Corwin the shortcomings 
of history; for all its flaws, I relished the evening and hope to spend more 
like it. He has directed his own play superbly. Richard Boone is a raw- 
boned, ruminative Lincoln, swathed in the melancholy that we associate 
with the man, yet suggesting beneath it a moral certitude as unswerving 
as a planet's course. Mr. Boone's voice, alternately musing and impas- 
sioned, matches in richness the prose it is called on to enounce, Martin 



Part II: The American Theatre 303 

Gabel, as the squat and virulent Douglas, booms and cajoles to great ef- 
fect, though at times he cannot help betraying the fact that he disap- 
proves of the character he is impersonating. This is an error: Douglas 
must be played from his own point of view, not from ours. If Mr. Gabel 
can bring himself to cut down on the sneering, his performance will be 
faultless, as it already is in the epilogue, which covers Douglas' recon- 
ciliation with his old enemy as well as the hectic campaign in support of 
the Union that ended his short life. Nancy Kelly plays Mrs. Douglas, pa- 
tience married to a monument, and Woodrow Parfrey, fumbling and 
perspiring, says a few endearing words as a fervent Lincolnista. As I 
left the theatre, a news item caught my eye. Snaking its way in electrified 
capitals around a building on Times Square, it announced that a federal 
judge had turned down a petition to exclude nine Negroes from South- 
ern schools. The debate continues. 



Look after Lulu, by Noel Coward, at the Henry Miller. 

What is style in the theatre? A happy consonance of manner with 
matter, of means with end, of tools with job. Style is the hammer that 
drives in the nail without bruising the wood, the arrow that transfixes 
the target without seeming to have been aimed. It makes diflBcult things 
— and on the stage everything is difficult — look simple. When a strenu- 
ous feat has been performed without strain, it has been performed with 
style. The essence of it all is tact. "La perfection du style," said Taine, 
"c'est la disparition du style." I would not labour the point in this un- 
stylish way if it were not for the fact that a new definition of the word has 
lately been plaguing the theatre. According to this, style is a special 
kind of galvanic treatment to be meted out indiscriminately to aU arti- 
ficial comedies written before World War I. Having picked your play, 
you first overdress it and then overstress it, so that unimportant lines are 
delivered as if they were italicized, and important ones as if they were 
printed in capitals and followed by three exclamation marks; finally, you 
keep the characters whirling about the stage like the ingredients in a 
Waring Blendor. When the show closes after five performances, you are 
apt to become a sage, shaking your head wisely and pitying the inability 
of modern audiences to recognize style when they see it. The truth, of 
course, is that what you have offered them is not style at all but its an- 
tithesis. Your production said, in effect, "See how hard it is to be enter- 



304 P'i'^t II: The American Theatre 

taining!" Style, on the other hand, would have shown how easy it is, and 
kept its mouth shut. 

The false definition is currently getting a thorough workout at the 
Henry Miller Theatre, where Georges Feydeau's classic fifty-year-old 
farce Occupe-toi d'Amelie opened last week, in an adaptation entitled 
Look after Lulu. The direction, which is by Cyril Ritchard, appears to be 
based on the postulate that the play is unactable and must therefore be 
parodied. The result is that supreme theatrical redundancy, a burlesque 
of a burlesque. We are encouraged to laugh not so much at the piece it- 
self as at the period in which it was thought funny. Forget about the 
lines, Mr. Ritchard seems to implore us; concentrate instead on the phys- 
ical energy, the facial contortions, and the vocal mannerisms with which 
they are delivered. If we are still unconvulsed, he bids us chortle at CecU 
Beaton's "amusing" scenery — those erotic murals in the bedroom scene, 
for instance, which make female nudity so mysteriously unattractive. 
And what about Mr. Beaton's costumes, those glittering bandages that 
swathe the mummified text, those hats Hke hatboxes, those cloaks like 
tents? The effort that has gone into the staging is prodigious, but it is of 
the frenzied kind that betokens lack of conviction. The company sub- 
sides, waving, grimacing, and gesticulating, into what it clearly believes 
to be a swamp. 

It has been grossly misled. The play can be directed — as Jean- 
Louis Barrault proved some years ago — in a manner that is at once ef- 
fortless and utterly convinced. Like all good productions, M. Barrault's 
was an act of faith in the dramatist. Feydeau's intrigue concerns a mal- 
leable cocotte whose fidelity is put to the test by the temporary absence 
of her lover, a jealous young Army officer. The latter returns unex- 
pectedly (nobody in farce ever returns expectedly) to find her sharing a 
bed with his best friend, a good-natured idler, on whom he forthwith 
plans a signal revenge. Aware that the traitor will inherit a pile of money 
if he marries, and also that he is in love with a married woman, the chaf- 
ing cuckold offers to stage a mock ceremony wherein his erstwhile chum 
will appear to have wedded the cocotte. But the offer is a cheat; what 
was promised to be false turns out to be real, and the last act deals with 
the victim's stratagems for getting an annulment. Meanwhile, a preda- 
tory noblewoman prowls around grumbling, and a lubricious prince ar- 
rives from Salestria, determined to occupy himself with Amelie — or, in 
the present version, to look after Lulu. As performed by the Barrault 
troupe, these trivial events took on something more than volatile skit- 
tishness. They seemed — thanks to such players as Madeleine Renaud, 
Jean Desailly, and Pierre Bertin — to imply a tolerance of human frailty 



Part II: The American Theatre 305 

and a sympathy with human guUibihty. We were smiling at people we 
knew and liked. It was Stanislavsky who said, "Characters in vaude- 
ville are ordinary and realistic. One should not consider them strange 
creatures. . . . Their only strangeness is their absolute credulity 
about everything." This credulity, for which another word is innocence, 
is what is missing from Mr. Ritchard's production. Tammy Grimes, the 
husky, pop-eyed little pouter who plays Lulu, might have achieved it in 
circumstances less frantic; so might Roddy McDowall, her reluctant hus- 
band, who is halfheartedly perturbed where M. Desailly, in the same 
role, was wholeheartedly appalled. Kurt Kasznar, as the unsleeping 
prince, comes off best, but even he lacks the weight and seniority that 
the part demands. Polly Rowles is a close second, though her clothes en- 
velop her so completely and get so many rounds of applause that it is 
not always possible to see her and hear her at the same time. Most of the 
other performances are either antic or dull, or both. 

It would, however, be unfair to blame the failure of the evening 
entirely on Mr. Ritchard. Much of the responsibility belongs to the 
adapter, whom the programme astonishingly alleges to be Noel Coward. 
This cannot, I feel, be the Mr. Coward I know, the eagle-eyed, teacup- 
clutching yachtsman on whose calves the breakers of Jamaica inces- 
santly beat. The script contains a few lines that are redolent of the real 
Mr. Coward — especially in the second act, which takes place behind 
blinds closed against the midday sun — but most of the gaiety is depend- 
ent on jokes about smelhng salts and Epsom salts, doubts about whether 
a Great Dane is a Scandinavian lover or a dog, puns derived from hom- 
ophones like "chaste" and "chased," and visiting Russians who, having 
"come down all those frightful steppes," remark that "the peasants are 
always revolting." Either Mr. Coward has fallen among sycophants too 
affectionate to gainsay him or he has at his fingertips an open-and-shut 
imposture case. 



306 P^fi II: The American Theatre 



Sweet Bird of Youth, by Tennessee Williams, at the Martin 
Beck; Raisin in the Sujj, by Lorraine Hansberry, at the Ethel 
Barrymore. 

Apart from the performance of Geraldine Page, a display of knock- 
down flamboyance and drag-out authority that triumphantly quells all 
doubts about this actress' ability to transcend her mannerisms, almost 
everything connected with Sweet Bird of Youth, Tennessee Williams' 
new play at the Martin Beck, dismayed and alarmed me. The staging, 
by Elia Kazan, is operatic and hysterical; so is the writing; and both 
seem somehow unreplenished, as if they had long been out of touch with 
observable reality. A dust bowl, one feels, is being savagely, obsessively 
ploughed, in defiance of the known facts about soil depletion and the 
need for irrigation. The heroine (Miss Page) is a decaying movie queen, 
querulous, doped, alcoholic, hypochondriac, and exorbitantly sexed. She 
fears heart attacks, and admits, like her author, that she has been "ac- 
cused of having a death wish." Her current gigolo is a blond lad whose 
past history includes a spell in the chorus of Oklahoma! and a brief, re- 
luctant participation in the Korean War; since then he has devoted him- 
self to selling his virility to the highest bidder. He escorts Miss Page on a 
trip to his home town on the Gulf Coast. His purpose is to see once more 
a girl named Heavenly, whom he loved, seduced, and photographed in 
the nude when she was barely fifteen. He is not, however, aware that 
his youthful attentions left the girl physically tainted, so virulently that 
the curative operation has robbed her of the power to bear children. 
Heavenly's father, a political boss, has determined to avenge his daugh- 
ter by gelding her seducer. In the second act we meet the boss — Big 
Daddy rewritten in the deep dyes of Victorian villainy — and see him de- 
livering, for reasons that may have to do with directorial panache, a rac- 
ist speech on a TV screen that covers the whole cyclorama. The obvious 
and unmistakable scene a faire, between his daughter and her ex-lover, 
never takes place and appears to have been forgotten. And after the 
first act the film star contributes nothing to the plot beyond offering her 
boy friend a lift to the next town; he turns it down, out of an obscure 
awareness that he must stay and surrender himself to be castrated. He 
begs us, in parting, to understand him, and to recognize ourselves in him. 

For my part, I recognized nothing but a special, rarefied situation 
that had been carried to extremes of cruelty with a total disregard for 
probability, human relevance, and the laws of dramatic structure. My 



Part II: The American Theatre 307 

brain was buzzing with questions. How does it happen that the boy 
has not heard about the operation to which his beloved has submitted 
herself? Come to that, why is he ignorant of his mother's death? Can the 
postal service be that bad? And why is it emphasized that the action be- 
gins on Easter Sunday? Is castration to be equated with resurrection? By 
what convention, moreover, are weighty rhetorical asides, pages long, 
addressed directly to the audience while the other characters on stage 
freeze and pretend not to listen? Are Jo Mielziner's settings bleak and 
wall-less for symbolic reasons or because the lines v/ould have been 
unspeakable against decor more realistic? Are we, in short, listening to 
anything more significant than antique melodrama pepped up with fash- 
ionable details about tape-recorders, coronaries, happy pills, and the 
price of diamond clips? Frankly, I doubt it. And I suspect that Sweet 
Bird of Youth wUl be of more interest to Mr. Williams' biographers than 
to lovers of the theatre. The hero of Orpheus Descending, his play be- 
fore last, was torn to shreds by dogs. In Suddenly Last Summer, which 
succeeded it, the poet was slain and partly devoured by Spanish urchins, 
and the heroine was threatened with mental castration in the form of 
brain surgery. Now, it seems, the urge is out in the open; in Sweet Bird of 
Youth the ingenue has lost the use of her sexual organs before the cur- 
tain rises, and an analogous deprivation awaits the hero immediately 
after it falls. Let us hope that the theme is at last exhausted, that by ex- 
hausting it Mr, Williams has achieved some kind of personal fulfilment, 
and that in the future he will be able to write with fewer nerve ends 
trailing and in a style less dependent on the dictates of inner anguish. 
"The age of some people," says Paul Newman, as the gigolo, doing 
everything possible to clothe a symbol in credible flesh, "can only be cal- 
culated by the level of rot in them." In Sweet Bird of Youth the level is 
dangerously high; none of Mr. Williams' other plays has contained so 
much rot. It is as if the author were hypnotized by his subject, like a rab- 
bit by a snake, or a Puritan by sin. Under hypnosis a man may reveal 
much about himself that would otherwise remain hidden, but the proc- 
ess of revelation involves the loss of his ability either to control what he 
is doing or to relate it to objective reality. And without this ability art is 
impossible. 

On the evidence of Sweet Bird of Youth, Mr, Williams seems at 
present to be wholly alienated from the tangible, diurnal world that for- 
merly nourished his talent. The supreme virtue of A Raisin in the Sun, 
by Lorraine Hansberry, is its proud, joyous proximity to its source, 
which is life as the dramatist has lived it. I will not pretend to be imper- 
vious to the facts; this is the first Broadway production of a work by a 



308 P^ft II: The American Theatre 

coloured authoress, and it is also the first Broadway production to have 
been staged by a coloured director. (His name is Lloyd Richards, and 
he has done a sensible, sensitive, and impeccable job.) I do not see why 
these facts should be ignored, for a play is not an entity in itself, it is a 
part of history, and I have no doubt that my knowledge of the historical 
context predisposed me to like A Raisin in the Sun long before the house 
lights dimmed. Within ten minutes, however, liking had matured into 
absorption. The relaxed, freewheeling interplay of a magnificent team 
of Negro actors drew me unresisting into a world of their making, their 
suffering, their thinking, and their rejoicing. Walter Lee Younger's fam- 
ily lives in a roach-ridden Chicago tenement. The father, at thirty-five, is 
stiU a chauffeur, deluded by dreams of financial success that nag at the 
nerves and tighten the lips of his anxious wife, who ekes out their income 
by working in white kitchens. If she wants a day off, her mother-in-law 
advises her to plead 'flu, because it's respectable. ("Otherwise they'll 
think you've been cut up or something.") Five people — the others being 
Walter Lee's progressive young sister and his only child, an amiable 
small boy — share three rooms. They want to escape, and their chance 
comes when Walter Lee's mother receives the insurance money to which 
her recent widowhood has entitled her. She rejects her son's plan, which 
is to invest the cash in a liquor store; instead, she buys a house for the 
family in a district where no Negro has ever lived. Almost at once white 
opinion asserts itself, in the shape of a deferential little man from the 
local Improvement Association, who puts the segregationist case so 
gently that it almost sounds like a plea for modified togetherness. At 
the end of a beautifully written scene he offers to buy back the house, in 
order — as he explains — to spare the Youngers any possible embarrass- 
ment. His proposal is turned down. But before long Walter Lee has lost 
what remains of the money to a deceitful chum. He announces forth- 
with that he wiU go down on his knees to any white man who wiU buy 
the house for more than its face value. From this degradation he is fi- 
nally saved; shame brings him to his feet. The Youngers move out, and 
move on; a rung has been scaled, a point has been made, a step into the 
future has been soberly taken. 

Miss Hansberry's piece is not without sentimentality, particularly in 
its reverent treatment of Walter Lee's mother; brilliantly though Clau- 
dia McNeil plays the part, monumentally trudging, upbraiding, disap- 
proving, and consoling, I wish the dramatist had refrained from idealiz- 
ing such a stohd old conservative. (She forces her daughter, an agnostic, 
to repeat after her, "In my mother's house there is still God.") But else- 
where I have no quibbles. Sidney Poitier blends skittishness, apathy, 



Part II: The American Theatre 309 

and riotous despair into his portrait of the mercurial Walter Lee, and 
Ruby Dee, as his wife, is not afraid to let friction and frankness get the 
better of conventional affection. Diana Sands is a buoyantly assured kid 
sister, and Ivan Dixon plays a Nigerian intellectual who replies, when 
she asks him whether Negroes in power would not be just as vicious and 
corrupt as whites, "I live the answer." The cast is flawless, and the team- 
work on the first night was as effortless and exuberant as if the play had 
been running for a hundred performances. I was not present at the 
opening, twenty-four years ago, of Mr. Odets' Awake and Sing, but it 
must have been a similar occasion, generating the same kind of sym- 
pathy and communicating the same kind of warmth. After several cur- 
tain caUs the audience began to shout for the author, whereupon Mr. 
Poitier leaped down into the auditorium and dragged Miss Hansberry 
on to the stage. It was a glorious gesture, but it did no more than the 
play had already done for all of us. In spirit, we were up there ahead of 
her. 

(1959) 



First Impressions, at the Alvin; Masquerade, by Sigmund Miller, 
AT THE Golden. 

They said it couldn't be done, and it couldn't. That, I'm afraid, 
must be the verdict on Abe Burrows' attempt to turn Pride and Preju- 
dice into a musical play. Let me make it clear that I don't wish to impugn 
Mr. Burrows' integrity. A self -proclaimed Janeite, he has tackled the 
task of adaptation on his knees, in a spirit of outright reverence. To 
avoid confusion with an earlier dramatization, he has called his show 
First Impressions, which was Miss Austen's original title for the novel. 
As writer, he has kept verbal anachronisms down to a minimum; as 
director, he has fought back the temptation to whoop things too boister- 
ously up. The level of decorum on the stage of the Alvin is enough to 
stagger anyone who remembers the Mr. Burrows of a few years ago, 
author and interpreter of such rowdy works as "Upper Peabody Tech" 
and "The Girl with the Three Blue Eyes." The dances, deftly super- 
vised by Jonathan Lucas, are few and graceful, and the lively elegance 
of Peter Larkin's decor succeeded in undermining a conviction I have 
held for years — namely, that the only people who can design English 
period pieces are French, The music and lyrics, on which Robert Gold- 
man, Glenn Paxton, and George Weiss have collaborated, understand- 



310 f*^^^ H: The American Theatre 

ably fail to measure up to the perfection of Miss Austen's prose architec- 
ture; even so, their efforts are discreet and praiseworthy. Mozart, the 
right man for the composer's slot, was unavailable, but at least we are 
spared anything in the nature of "Doing the Regency Rag," "Strut Miss 
Lizzie Bennet," or — a possible theme song for Darcy — "Playing It 
Cool." There are several spirited numbers, among them the duet in 
which Mr. CoUins proposes to Elizabeth, who contrapuntally rejects 
him, and though I doubt whether the score is going to haunt my memory, 
I shall take no especial pains to exorcise it if it does. Let me add, on the 
credit (or, anyway, non-debit) side of the production, that it contains 
stylish supporting performances by Christopher Hewett, as Collins; 
James Mitchell, as Wickham the cad; and Phyllis Newman, as the eldest 
of the Bennet girls. Yet, despite its merits (or, anyway, non-demerits), 
the show as a whole is a fiasco. The reasons for this have to do partly 
with characters that have been misconceived or miscast, or both, but 
mostly with a single, vital character who has been omitted altogether. 
The misconceptions and miscastings, unfortunately, include all the 
principal roles. Farley Granger, who plays Darcy, has none of the surly, 
magnetic arrogance that should make the man unbearable until at 
length we realize that his sourness is a defensive, and not an aggressive, 
tactic, Darcy must have a sense of innate, unquestioned superiority to 
the country gentry among whom he is temporarily thrown; Mr. Granger, 
by contrast, seems merely uppish. The nuances of class distinction, so 
maddeningly integral to the English way of life, escape him utterly. 
Polly Bergen, his partner, is a pert and wholesome performer, but she is 
Mr. Granger's Elizabeth rather than Mr. Darcy's; instead of the candour, 
the mockery, the sheer combative intelligence that properly belong to 
Mr. Bennet's second daughter, she gives us nothing more than a warm- 
hearted flirt. The fault here is not entirely Miss Bergen's. In the novel 
Elizabeth is her father's favorite; their relationship is one of mutual 
respect, and most of her attitudes toward life and love derive from the 
affectionate tuition of this witty, sardonic, defeated man, who has im- 
mersed himself in his library in order to avoid the company of his wife — 
"a woman," as Miss Austen tartly observes, "of mean understanding, 
Uttle information, and uncertain temper." In Mr. Burrows' version 
Elizabeth is deprived of her paternal mentor. Mr. Bennet is a bewhisk- 
ered nullity, bug-eyed, henpecked, and amiably feeble, and the bal- 
ance of the household tilts precipitously in favor of his lady. Mother, in 
fact, takes over from father, in accordance with accepted Broadway 
practice. As played by Hermione Gingold, Mrs. Bennet is no longer the 
vague, fussy provincial matchmaker of Jane Austen's imagination but a 



Part II: The American Theatre 311 

burbling dragoness fully capable (as she never is in the novel) of wither- 
ing her husband with a single fire-darting glare. Needless to say, much of 
what Miss Gingold does is strangely hilarious. No actress commands a 
more purposeful leer; and in nobody's mouth do vowels more acidly 
curdle. But she upsets the equihbrium of the Bennet family, and hence 
of the play. Rather than Mrs. Bennet, she suggests Lady Catherine de 
Bourgh, slightly tanked up and ready to take on Prinny at midnight 
skittles. Mention of the latter beldam prompts me to query another of 
Mr. Burrows' alterations. In his adaptation the servile Mr. Collins, Lady 
Catherine's creature and dependent, is not a clergyman but a librarian 
— a change that utterly destroys Miss Austen's satiric intent, which was 
to show what could happen to a servant of God if he started to identify 
God with the existing social hierarchy. I would hate to believe that Mr. 
Burrows was scared of offending the church, but I can't think of any 
other excuse for what he has done. It is as if he had adapted Ghosts and 
made Pastor Manders a Scoutmaster. 

All these are errors that rewriting or recasting might correct. We 
come now to the fault that is beyond remedy — the omission of the pro- 
tagonist, in whose absence the tale loses its moral edge and becomes a 
featherweight account of a stiff man's unbending to a brisk young 
woman. The absentee and unseen heroine is, of course, Jane Austen 
herself. The theatre is admirably equipped to present her characters in 
action — talking, smiling, and sedately loving — but it cannot reproduce 
the running commentary, sometimes malicious, sometimes approving, 
that she keeps up on their behavior; and it is precisely this scrutiny, this 
relentless concern with motivation, that makes her a novelist, as opposed 
to a social reporter. First Impressions, like every other adaptation of 
Jane Austen, gives us the people and the dialogue but not the interpre- 
tative captions, the shell but not the core. The same would probably be 
true of any attempt to put a first-rate novel on the stage. In fact, if a 
novel works in the theatre, it is fairly safe to assume that it wasn't first- 
rate to begin with. 

I am always gladdened by Donald Cook. He is as much a part of 
middlebrow comedy as the chandelier, the French windows, and the 
lighters by Ronson. It rejoices me to see him make one of his bustling 
entrances, rubbing his hands and heading straight for the drinks table, 
around which he sniffs like a bloodhound until, as customarily happens, 
somebody urges him to go ahead and help himself. (It is invariably 
someone else's house or apartment. I can't imagine Mr. Cook at home; 
he is one of nature's guests.) His manner exudes the insatiable lechery 
of the perpetually hung-over. Even his voice — a wry, disenchanted 



312 Pa'Tt II: The American Theatre 

gurgle — sounds bloodshot. Yet it has alchemic powers; by merely lean- 
ing on a key syllable, it can create wit where no wit was. The sunnier 
literature of the twenties is full of Mr. Cook; the character he habitually 
plays — a kind of dapper black-sheep uncle, compounded in equal 
proportions of suavity and depravity — might have walked right out of 
the pages of P. G. Wodehouse or Donald Ogden Stewart. Mr. Cook 
represents I'homme rather more than moyen sensuel, contentedly en- 
slaved to what Ben Jonson called "the fury of his gullet and groin." 
During the second act of Sigmund Miller's Masquerade, which 
opened (and closed) last Monday, Mr. Cook dropped in for cock- 
tails and delivered a short burst of erotic reminiscence that momen- 
tarily turned the limp play into a sort of bawdier Claudia. Soon 
afterward, to my bitter regret, the plot got under way again and steered 
the evening back into the doldrums from which Mr. Cook had briefly 
reclaimed it. Mr. Miller's heroine was a young wife with a problem. It 
took him nearly an hour to tell us what her problem was (sexual 
frigidity) and another hour to explain how she came by it (her mother 
taught her, as a child, to hate men). In the closing minutes she decided 
on suicide and actually had one leg over a second-storey balcony before 
her husband hauled her unceremoniously back to safety. Henceforth, we 
were suddenly and illogically informed, they would be able to look each 
other in the eye, and this ocular confrontation would make their mar- 
riage work. As a solution of the girl's difficulty, this seemed to me to be 
on a par with warm milk as a cure for deafness, but it was perfectly in 
keeping with the listless inconsequence that hung over the show as a 
whole. Gene Lyons, for example, who played the heroine's brother-in- 
law, is a man of robust build, yet she referred to him, not once but three 
times, as "skinny." And since she was alleged to have fooled her husband 
by feigning voluptuousness in his arms, it struck me as an odd caprice on 
the author's part to have made the hero a qualified medical man, who 
would surely have spotted that something was wrong. Later, however, I 
realized that this choice of profession had been governed by reasons of 
dramatic technique. If a lazy playwright wants a good excuse to get his 
hero offstage whenever two other characters need to exchange confi- 
dences, the easy answer is to give him an M.D.; the telephone rings, 
Mrs. Jukes has shingles, he grabs his bag, and the coast is clear. I can 
offer little to the cast except a shrug of commiseration. Cloris Leachman, 
a lithe and tender young actress, has already found and will find again 
better roles than that of the doctor's reluctant bedfellow. Glenda Farrell 
played her mother, one of those baleful matrons who throng the annals 
of American drama, turning their children into psychological messes by 



Part II: The American Theatre 313 

using them as ventriloquists' dummies. Mr. Cook appeared as an ex- 
husband of Miss Farrell's, and it was obvious that nothing in his marriage 
became him like the leaving it. 



A Desert Incident, by Pearl S. Buck, at the Golden. 

It would be awfully easy to write a flip, sardonic review of Pearl S. 
Buck's A Desert Incident, which succumbed last week after seven 
performances. By any standards, its plot was a weird one. The setting, if 
I may drop into the historic present, is an atomic-research establishment 
in the middle of an American desert, where an eager team of scientists 
is working on an experimental project that will, if successful, give the 
United States a clear lead in the battle for supremacy in thermonuclear 
weapons. Alternatively, the discovery could be developed peacefully, to 
the material benefit of the world at large. The problem of choice, how- 
ever, does not immediately arise, since the experiments cannot be com- 
pleted without the assistance of a young Enghsh physicist who knows the 
answers to several vital questions that baffle the Americans. Flown out 
to the desert H.Q., the Englishman is naively horrified to hear that his 
co-operation is being sought for possible military purposes. A famfliar 
debate is joined, the newcomer asserting that scientists are moraUy 
responsible for the uses to which their knowledge is put, whUe Dr. 
Ashley, the man in charge of the laboratory, ripostes with the doctrine 
of science for science's sake. But before long Miss Buck abandons 
argument in favor of implausible and essentiaUy irrelevant action. The 
Englishman has brought with him an oaken chest full of jazz records, 
which he plays incessantly. Some of them, he innocently remarks, comes 
from behind the Iron Curtain, and this revelation results in his being 
investigated for subversive activities, on the ground that the discs may 
contain rhythmically coded messages. At the same time he reopens an 
old love affair with Dr. Ashley's wife, a wartime refugee from Poland, 
to whom he addresses remarks like "Your eyelashes are tipped with 
gold." A number of peripheral characters have meanwhile been intro- 
duced, afl of them symbolic, in one way or another, of the life force, or 
fertility. They include a bulbously pregnant Indian housemaid, a couple 
of children who are fascinated by the mystery of procreation, a company 
wife in a desperate state of sexual neglect, and an ageing professor — 
Miss Buck's spokesman, and a sort of would-be Robert Graves — who 



314 P^^i II: The American Theatre 

believes that history began to go awry when women made the fatal error 
of assuming that men could govern the world. Eventually, after a con- 
fused triangular discussion, Mrs. Ashley converts both her husband and 
her lover to the old man's point of view, and the two scientists bow to 
her will. As the curtain falls, they are both on the telephone, urging their 
colleagues to convene in protest, with the aim of postponing for as long as 
possible the extinction of that unique biped, man. 

The writing throughout is clumsy, and, as I've said, it would be 
easy to poke fun at Miss Buck's notions of dramaturgy. Large numbers 
of people would also quarrel with her reasoning, or at least with its 
implications. Her assumption is that the human race must go on existing, 
at any cost. From this she argues, or seems to be arguing, that the scien- 
tists of the West should decide, unilaterally, to withhold from their 
governments any information that might possibly be used to prosecute a 
war. This, of course, is a fairly extreme position to take, and until a few 
days ago I would not have worried very much about the rejection of a 
play that advocated it. Since then, however, I have encountered the 
opposite extreme, and I have begun to worry quite a lot. To explain 
why, I shall have to embark on a personal digression. 

Last week, on a sunny morning of this momentous spring, I was 
invited to lunch with a tall, smiling young man, happily married and 
extraordinarily well read, who has risen in a very short time to one of the 
highest executive posts in American journalism. During the conversa- 
tional preliminaries I mentioned that I had been rather disturbed by the 
news, reported in all the Sunday papers, that radioactive fallout is 
heavier in the northern United States than anywhere else on earth, and 
I added that I had been especially unnerved by James E. Warner, of the 
Herald Tribune, who wrote on March 22, "There appears to be no 
immediate cause for worry, however, as experts appear to be agreed 
that the chance of any individual getting a deadly dose of Strontium 90 
is only about one in 500,000." Assuming that there are roughly eighty 
million people in the northern United States, I took this statement to be 
tantamount to an admission that about a hundred and sixty murders 
were going to be committed in the near future, and I asked my host 
whether he did not think this an "immediate cause for worry." He 
shrugged and said it was aU a matter of ends and means. I inquired what 
he meant, and I must confess that he gave me a full and elaborate an- 
swer. To begin with, he told me that for many months he and a number 
of influential friends had been swapping views on the ethics of thermonu- 
clear war. Their deliberations had been based on the premise that dip- 
lomatic approaches to the summit were useless. "My wife and children 



Part II: The American Theatre 315 

know what to expect, and they've accepted it," he said. "I've told them 
that there'll probably be an exchange of hydrogen bombs before the end 
of June, and I've explained to them that it will probably mean the death 
of all of us." His voice was calm, even gallant; he was not arguing a case 
but regretfully defining a position. He said that whenever he boarded a 
plane and flew over the towers of Manhattan, he could not help feeling 
a pang of melancholy at the thought that this proud and festive city, this 
dynamic cluster of energy and aspiration, was so soon, and so inexor- 
ably, to be demolished, and, with it, all the cities around the globe where 
its name was known. In his mind the holocaust was not only imminent 
but necessary. "I'm in love with America," he said, with a sincere and 
poignant grin. "I guess you could call me a conservative." I suggested to 
him that since a conservative is, by definition, one who seeks to conserve 
things — i.e., to keep them from harm or decay — he might be able to 
find a more precise term to describe himself. He genially conceded that 
I "had a semantic point there." Returning to the main theme, I said that 
while I recognized his right as an individual to commit suicide rather 
than live under ahen rule, I could not understand his equanimity at the 
thought that the whole of mankind would perish with him. At this, he 
smiled a deep, forgiving, historian's smile. Other forms of life, he said, 
had been destroyed; what was so special about the human race, which 
was doomed to ultimate annihilation anyway by the cooling of the earth? 
Whatever happened in the coming war, he went on, life itself would not 
be annihilated; certain autotrophic bacteria, for instance, would be 
likely to survive, particularly if they lived beneath the polar icecap, 
where the effects of fallout would be minimal, and who could say that in 
the course of billenniums they would not evolve into a species superior 
to ours? "Life renews itself," he declared, but, to hasten the process of 
renewal, it would, he felt, be a kindly act on our part to bury, miles 
beneath the earth's surface, caskets containing a few vital theorems 
("Pythagoras, and so on") that would help our successors over their 
initial hurdles. 

I asked my host, who was eating heartily, how he had managed to 
reconcile himself so philosophically to the imminent destruction of his 
kind. His reply was lengthy, but it can be reduced to a simple statement: 
he beheved the concept of human liberty to be more valuable than the 
human beings who invented it. To preserve the freedom of mankind, he 
was ready to sacrifice mankind itself. In defense of an idea, he was 
prepared to condone the slaughter not merely of himself and his com- 
patriots but of all thinking creatures, in whose minds alone the idea 
could exist. By now luncheon was over, and we quitted the restaurant. 



316 P^'f't II: The American Theatre 

In parting, I asked him, as casually as I could, to give my regards to his 
wife and children, whom I had never met. He thanked me and walked 
off, smiling, down the ugly, clamorous, irreplaceably precious street. 
I do not know how many there are of him scattered across the 
countries of the world. There may be only a few, but even a few would 
be enough to carry out that deadly dream of June and make this our 
farewell summer. I realize that considerations like these are not sup- 
posed to affect the judgment of a theatre critic. All the saipe, as long as 
there are men Hke my host at luncheon, I cannot imagine myself pour- 
ing scorn on any play that challenged their opinions, however cloudily 
and with whatever disregard for Realpolitik. Miss Buck botched her 
attempt, partly out of inexperience (this was her first work for the 
theatre) and partly because her cast, except for Shepperd Strudwick and 
Cameron Prud'homme, was frankly amateurish and in some instances 
embarrassing. Yet she chose the most important subject in the world, 
and though she handled it vaguely and emotionally, she came down on 
the side of life, while the detached, historical viewpoint of my smiling 
friend led him to espouse the cause of death. Because of her choice, and 
her commitment, I am prepared to forgive Miss Buck a great deal. 



The Backstage Jungle. 

William Gibson's The Seesaw Log, pubhshed in a volume that also 
contains the text of Mr. Gibson's Broadway hit Two for the Seesaw, 
is a blow-by-blow, cut-by-cut account of an ordeal that occupied two 
years of the author's life and left him, at the end, financially enriched 
and spiritually depleted. In short, it is a success story. At the same time 
it is a study of defeat. In the course of a hundred and forty pages, the 
rugged-individualist theory of art, which regards the author's intentions 
as sacrosanct, is eroded and finally overwhelmed by the rugged col- 
lectivism of an industry in which nothing is more sacred than the will of 
the audience. Per se, the struggle is old stuff. The cry of the betrayed 
dramatist ("That's not my play!") is among the more easily identifiable 
night sounds of Broadway, and if the theme of ideals versus commercial- 
ism were to be banished from literature today, a tidy heap of American 
writers would be out of work tomorrow. Mr. Gibson's book, however, 
has three quahties that, conjoined, give it a special fascination. One is 
the sturdy excellence of its prose. The second is its attention to detail; 



Part II: The American Theatre 317 

this is the fullest factual record I can remember of the daily hazards 
involved in getting a Broadway show on the road and bringing it back 
alive. Thirdly, and personally, I was fascinated by the ambiguity of Mr. 
Gibson's conclusions. By a strange exercise of doublethink, he seems to 
have felt simultaneously fulfilled and frustrated when his play became a 
hit. While resenting the changes he had been called on to make, he was 
grateful to those who had asked him to make them. After a characteristic 
agony of rewriting in Philadelphia, he describes himself as suffering 
"the paradoxical experience of seeing his work improve by becoming 
poorer." No student of semantics could resist a phrase like that. 

For non-playgoers, let me explain that Two for the Seesaw is a 
dialogue for two lovers — a Nebraska lawyer on the brink of divorcing a 
rich wife, and an ebullient girl from the Bronx with whom he has a 
temporary, solacing affair. When Mr. Gibson finished the first draft, in 
April 1956, he was in his early forties; he had already written five un- 
staged plays, a novel, a television script, and a lot of poetry, but Broad- 
way was new to him — just how new he learned seven months later when 
a New York producer bought an option on his dramatized duet. In the 
fall of 1957 Henry Fonda agreed to play the lead opposite an unknown 
gamine named Anne Bancroft. Rehearsals started in November, where- 
upon all hell, quietly at first but rapidly mounting to tantrum intensity, 
began to break loose. Mr. Fonda, on whose presence in the cast the 
show's backing depended, belatedly realized that the hero was not only 
dull by comparison with the heroine but pretty nasty in his own right. 
Accordingly, changes were suggested, and Mr. Gibson's attempts to 
reconcile his own convictions with those of the star, the director, the 
producer, and the audience kept him sweating until the Broadway open- 
ing on January 16, 1958. By this time he had been — by turns — sick, 
furious, conciliatory, disgusted, delighted, and sick again. He had slept 
through performances of rewrites that had cost him sleepless nights, and 
he had entered in his diary such confidences as this, written during the 
Washington try out: 

The play grew more and more effective, and I felt less fulfilled 
as a writer. 

After Washington he went back to his home in Massachusetts, 
where he lacerated himself for his subservience and decided that we — 
every man jack of us — had lost "some religious component in ourselves, 
and this component was the difference between art and entertainment." 
Yet a few days later, when the Philadelphia critics had expressed ap- 
proval of the production, we read: 



318 P^^t II: The American Theatre 

The fact was unblinkable, after such reviews, that the ham- 
mering my script and head had undergone . . . had issued in a 
much better play. 

His conclusion, after the New York dailies had conceded him a hit, 
is that the American theatre is "primarily a place not in which to be 
serious, but in which to be likable." 

As acted, Two for the Seesaw is funny, accurate, and often poign- 
ant. Since Mr. Gibson offers no specific examples of the alterations he 
was required to make, and since he informs us that the printed text 
contains elements of several versions, it is almost impossible to tell 
whether we have lost a masterpiece or gained a smash. For a fledgling 
playwright, Mr. Gibson seems to have gone in for an awful lot of back- 
stage hectoring, lecturing, and quasi-directing, so that one is tempted to 
wonder how much his own behaviour contributed to the general uproar. 
Be that as it may, his main point is that he was forced to modify his 
original conception under pressure from his co-workers and his audi- 
ence. How humihating that sounds! Yet Chekhov rewrote at the behest 
of Stanislavsky, and Bertolt Brecht, perhaps the most original dramatist 
of our century, was not only ready but positively eager to learn from his 
spectators and to incorporate into his work the suggestions of fellow 
intellectuals. It was Brecht who spoke of what he called "the romantic 
concept of individual creation," by which he meant that nobody can 
write a play singlehanded; it emerges from, and is aimed at, a particular 
social, political, and historical climate, and in its final form, if it is a good 
play, all the influences implied in those adjectives will coalesce. No 
dramatist, in other words, is an island. To think otherwise is a form of 
solipsism. 

Mr. Gibson writes as if only two choices lay open to the playwright; 
he can either make compromises for the sake of the box oflice or refuse 
them in the name of artistic integrity. There is in fact a third choice — 
that of adapting one's play so that it will have the maximum impact on 
the audience, small or large, dumb or smart, for which it was intended. 
That, unfortunately, is feasible only in a non-commercial subsidized 
theatre. Mr. Gibson, meanwhile, is trapped in a false antithesis. The 
true source of his torment is not that he was asked to make his play 
appeal to its own audience but that he was asked to make it appeal to 
every audience. His tale is hypnotically readable, and I urge him, in the 
light of what I have said, to dramatize it. It would make a provocative 
and alarming evening. 

It is disturbing to reflect that to a Russian about three quarters of 



Part II: The American Theatre 319 

The Seesaw Log would seem either mad or meaningless. In the Soviet 
theatre there are no tryouts and no investors to consider. No star's repu- 
tation is at stake, nor is there a first-night panic, since the Moscow 
critics seldom review a play until they have seen it at least twice. Russian 
theatres are institutions, and institutions sometimes turn into museums. 
Our theatres are shop windows, and shop windows sometimes turn into 
peepshows. The danger with the Russian system is that economic secu- 
rity has been known to breed complacency; the trouble with ours is that 
economic insecurity frequently breeds hysteria. Of both worlds, one 
cannot help feeling, there must be a borrowable best. 

(1959) 



Gypsy, BY JuLE Styne, Stephen Sondheim, and Arthur 
Laurents, at the Broadway. 

Quite apart from considerations of subject matter, perfection of 
style can be profoundly moving in its own right. If anyone doubts that, 
he had better rush and buy a ticket for Gypsy, the first half of which 
brings together in effortless coaUtion all the arts of the American musical 
stage at their highest point of development. So smooth is the blending 
of skills, so precise the interlocking of song, speech, and dance, that the 
sheer contemplation of technique becomes a thrilling emotional experi- 
ence. It is like being present at the triumphant solution of some harsh 
architectural problem; stone after massive stone is nudged and juggled 
into place, with a balance so nice that the finished structure seems as 
light as an exhalation, though in fact it is earthquake-proof. I have heard 
of mathematicians who broke down and wept at the sight of certain 
immaculately poised equations, and I have actually seen a motoring 
fanatic overcome with feeling when confronted by a vintage Rolls- 
Royce engine. Gypsy, Act I, confers the same intense pleasure, trans- 
lated into terms of theatre. Nothing about it is superfluous; there is no 
display of energy for energy's sake. No effort is spared, yet none is 
wasted. Book, lyrics, music, decor, choreography, and cast seem not — 
as so often occurs — to have been conscripted into uneasy and uncon- 
vinced alliance but to have come together by irresistible mutual attrac- 
tion, as if each could not live without the rest. With no strain or dis- 
sonance, a machine has been assembled that is ideally fitted to perform 
this task and no other. Since the task is worth while, the result is art. 

As everyone must surely be aware, the show is based on the mem- 



320 P^'^i II: The American Theatre 

oirs of Gypsy Rose Lee, the renowned kimonophobe (to use a word of 
George Jean Nathan's) whose intellectual aspirations were gently pinked 
by Rodgers and Hart in a song called "Zip." Miss Lee's account of her 
early hfe in vaudeville and her subsequent transition to burlesque strip- 
ping was dominated by the eccentric, outspoken, and wildly propulsive 
figure of Rose, her mother. The latter, a nightmare incarnation of Noel 
Coward's Mrs. Worthington, put her two daughters on the stage as soon 
as they could walk, and kept them there, as a coy and piping child act, 
until both were well into their teens. They had no formal — and very 
little informal — education. Their parents were divorced when Gypsy, 
the elder of the sisters, was four years old, and although their mother 
afterward ran through two other husbands, the haison in each case was 
brief, and it cannot be said that the girls ever felt truly fathered. Rose's 
pride and cynosure was her younger daughter. Baby June, who has 
recently published, under her present stage name of June Havoc, an 
autobiography in which her mother appears as a total monster, forever 
pressing the children's noses to the grindstone of her own frustrated 
ambitions. The show at the Broadway takes Miss Lee's view, which is 
rather more temperate; the element of vicarious fulfillment is unmistak- 
ably there, but we are encouraged to admire Rose's shrewdness as much 
as to dishke her possessiveness. The miraculous first half deals with her 
obsessive attempts to make Baby June a star, and ends when the child 
elopes, at the age of fourteen, with one of the boys in the act. As the 
curtain comes down, Rose has erased June from her mind and trans- 
ferred her fantasies of fame to the gauche, neglected elder sibling. I 
don't know that I shall ever forget the way Sandra Church, as Gypsy, 
quaUs and shakes when she encounters her mother's beady, appraising 
stare and guesses what is in store for her. It is like watching a rabbit 
petrified by the headlights of a silently onrushing car. 

Although Miss Church happens to be acting better than anyone 
else of her age on Broadway, a lot of people are equally responsible for 
the wonder of that first act. Jule Styne, the most persistently underrated 
of popular composers, has contributed to it nine songs, all of which are 
both exciting in themselves and relevant to the action — from the open- 
ing chorus, "May We Entertain You?", a splendid pastiche of ragtime 
vapidity, to "Everything's Coming Up Roses," in which Rose, whistling 
in the dark, tries to persuade herself that life without June is going to be 
just peachy. In addition, we have "Small World," an elastically swaying 
tune used by Rose to seduce Herbie, the agent who becomes her lover; 
"Little Lamb," sung by Gypsy to one of her mother's menagerie of pets; 
"You'll Never Get Away from Me," Rose's jovial assertion of her man's 



Part II: The American Theatre 321 

dependence; "If Momma was Married," in which the daughters com- 
plain about their enslavement; and "All I Need Is a Girl," a song-and- 
dance number in the Astaire manner, performed by a young man who 
wants to leave Momma's troupe and go out on his own. He demonstrates 
his routine to Gypsy and invites her to dance with him. This being 
a musical, she does, but, this being no ordinary musical, she does not 
know the steps, and the partners end up in a state of mild, enjoyable 
confusion. The credit for this stroke, and for the whole physical gesture 
of the evening, belongs to Jerome Robbins, who, as director and chore- 
ographer, has poured into Gypsy the same abundance of invention with 
which he galvanized West Side Story. From the latter show he has 
borrowed a lyricist, Stephen Sondheim, and a librettist, Arthur Laurents, 
both of whom have brought to their new jobs an exemplary mixture of 
gaiety, warmth, and critical inteUigence. A passing genuflection will 
suffice as tribute to Jo Mielziner, who must by now be aware that he is a 
superlative scenic designer, but I feel I should dwell longer on the cast. 
On Jacqueline Mayro, for instance, who plays Baby June, the cavorting 
tot, with a mask of dutiful glee and an absolute mastery of applause- 
milking devices, such as the pretense of breathlessness after a not 
particularly exhausting routine. On Lane Bradbury, too, who plays 
June grown up and ready to bolt. (The ageing process is handled su- 
perbly, like a movie dissolve; the children dance in a flickering spotlight 
and are replaced, one at a time, by their adolescent selves.) And, above 
all, we must linger on Ethel Merman, the most relaxed brass section on 
earth, singing her heart out and missing none of her own inimitable 
tricks, among them her habit of sliding down to important words from a 
grace note above, which supplies the flick that precedes the vocal whip- 
crack. But Miss Merman not only sings; she acts. I would not say that 
she acts very subtly; Rose, after all, with her dreams of glory, her 
kleptomania, her savage parsimony, and her passion for exotic animals 
and Chinese breakfasts, is scarcely a subtle character. Someone in the 
show describes her as "a pioneer woman without a frontier," and that is 
what Miss Merman magnificently plays. 

The second half, which is briefer, is also less effective. There are 
several reasons for this. One has to do with plot; having seen the groom- 
ing of Baby June, we now watch the grooming of Gypsy, and this makes 
for redundancy. Another is that Act II contains only three new songs; 
the rest are reprises. A third is the lack, felt ever more urgently as the 
hours tick by, of a good, solid male singer; Jack Klugman, the show's 
nearest approach to a hero, is an amiable actor, but his voice is no more 
than an amplified snore. Fourth, Sandra Church is too chaste in de- 



322 P^^i II: The American Theatre 

meanour to reproduce the guileful, unhurried carnality with which the 
real Gypsy undressed. Fifth, we have the finale. Rejected by both her 
daughters. Miss Merman plods on to the empty stage and bursts into a 
song about how she could have been better than either of them, given 
the chance. No sooner has she embarked on what promises to be a 
burlesque routine of staggering panache than the authors cut in to re- 
mind her of their purpose, which is to demonstrate the beastliness of 
managing mothers. Accordingly, she breaks off in mid-phrase and sets 
about lacerating herself in prose. This, I felt, was a case of integrity 
carried too far. Once Miss Merman has started to sing, nothing short of 
an air-raid warning should be allowed to interrupt her. To mute her at 
this point is an act of presumption, and the evening suffers from it. The 
latter half has in its favour a flamboyant trio of strippers, one of whom 
peels with her left hand while playing a trumpet with her right. But I 
don't see how anyone could deny that the show tapers off from perfec- 
tion in the first act to mere brilliance in the second. 

(1959) 



The Great God Brouon, by Eugene O'Neill, at the Coronet. 

For a short season at the Coronet, the Phoenix Theatre Company 
is presenting a revival of O'Neill's The Great God Brown. It makes a 
fascinating evening. When the play was first performed, in 1926, most 
of those who took the trouble to analyze it came to the conclusion that 
the author was writing about the conflict between Art, symbolized by 
Dion Anthony, and Crass Materialism, represented by Billy Brown. 
And so, on the surface, he was. Anthony, painter and compulsive lush, 
has all the attributes we popularly associate with genius. He is hypersen- 
sitive and converses, for the most part, either in sentences ending with 
exclamation marks or in elaborate rhetorical questions, such as "Why 
was I born without a skin, O God, that I must wear armour in order to 
touch or to be touched?" His power over women is infallible, as witness 
the ease with which he defeats Brown, poor baffled clod, in their rivalry 
over the girl Margaret. Once married, he goes in heavily for night-long 
tippling and afternoon rising, thus providing further evidence that he 
has an artist's soul; it was, I think, Desmond MacCarthy who said that 
whenever he turned up at someone's house for tea and found his host 
shaving in front of the drawing-room mirror, he was tempted to believe 
that he might be among bohemians. Still conforming to aesthetic type, 



Fart II: The A?nerican Theatre 323 

Anthony spends much of his spare time — and his time is mostly spare — 
in the company of a bovine tart named Cybel, who mothers him, and to 
whom he skittishly refers as Mother Earth, Old Filth, or "you sentimen- 
tal old pig." Utter the phrase "a characteristic O'NeiU hero," and at 
once I see a tearful, ageless adolescent with his face buried in the lap of 
a prostitute. (There's nothing Uke a bordello for a man who needs a 
captive audience.) To complete the picture, Anthony habitually ad- 
dresses his intimates in the self-pitying, ponderously ironic manner of a 
drunken Irish tragedian — a sure sign that O'Neill means us to accept 
him as a frustrated genius. Brown, on the other hand, is just as obviously 
the incarnation of material success. He lacks imagination, toils all day 
at his desk, and smoothly passes off Anthony's ideas as his own. Envious 
of his friend's sexual magnetism, he uses his wealth to buy Cybel's 
affection, and when Anthony dies in his presence, of a heart attack, he 
carries his envy to the maniacal extreme of deciding to impersonate the 
dead man and thus to sleep with his wife. In the last (and by far the 
worst) act he is shot down by the cops as an escaping murderer. 

That, in outline, is the play O'Neill's early admirers thought he had 
written — a straight fight between a frail introvert full of hidden love 
and a hardy extrovert full of hidden hate. But did he mean no more 
than that? Today, looking back on the body of O'Neill's work, we know 
better. Consider Anthony's speech — his best, and least exclamatory — 
at the close of the first act. He is speaking of his father: 

What aliens we were to each other! When he lay dead, his 
face looked so famiUar that I wondered where I had met that man 
before. Only at the second of my conception. After that, we grew 
hostile with concealed shame. And my mother? I remember a 
sweet, strange girl, with affectionate, bewildered eyes, as if God 
had locked her in a dark closet without any explanation. I was the 
sole doll our ogre, her husband, allowed her and she played mother 
and child with me for many years in that house until at last through 
two years I watched her die with the shy pride of one who has 
lengthened her dress and put up her hair. And I felt like a forsaken 
toy and cried to be buried with her, because her hands alone had 
caressed without clawing. She lived long and aged greatly in the 
two days before they closed her coffin. The last time I looked, her 
purity had forgotten me, she was stainless and imperishable, and I 
knew my sobs were ugly and meaningless to her virginity; so I 
shrank away, back into life, with naked nerves jumping hke 
fleas. . . . 



324 f ^^^ II: The American Theatre 

This is the voice of O'Neill himself, bursting through the artifice of 
the play like a bareback rider plunging through a paper hoop. These 
parents, as we know from his later work, are his parents, and The Great 
God Brown reveals itself as one of the many tentative sketches he made 
for the final, brutal family portrait, Long Day's Journey into Night. 
Billy Brown, the pseudo-chum who loathes Anthony under the guise of 
love, is O'Neill's first attempt to express what he felt about his elder 
brother, the secret enemy with whom he constantly competed — not, 
however, for the love of Margaret but for the affection of his mother. 
One of the sternest objections to The Great God Brown is that it fails to 
establish its postulate; we meet Anthony's parents only briefly, in a 
prologue, and this short acquaintance does not explain why he feels so 
furious, bereft, and forlorn. The truth is that the prologue itself needs a 
prologue, in the shape of Long Day's Journey into Night. 

In the light shed by the latter play, the first two acts of The Great 
God Brown make sharp dramatic sense. Freud and Ibsen, O'Neill's 
joint literary progenitors, are supplemented by loans from Pirandello 
and the Greeks; property masks are donned to indicate the social self, as 
opposed to the private self. To protect himself against society, Anthony 
wears a mask of cynical sensuality; when he removes it, exposing the 
naked face beneath, his wife is terrified. Similarly, she herself, who 
needs no disguise with her husband, puts on a mask of idealized girlhood 
when talking to Billy Brown. Only to Cybel, the whore, can Anthony 
speak freely without a false face; on one occasion he visits her masked, 
which prompts her to inquire, "Haven't I told you to take off your mask 
in the house?" The reproach might have been better phrased, but I 
don't think it destroys the validity of the convention. The destruction 
occurs later, when Brown steals the mask of the dead Anthony; and it 
wrecks the last two acts. A device hitherto employed to explore character 
is suddenly enhsted to advance the plot. I am ready to concede that a 
man might assume an alien fagade in order to deceive the world, but 
that a wife might allow an old friend to pass himself off as her husband 
is totally incredible. We are transported into a soggy realm of bad fan- 
tasy; either Billy is a brilliant mimic or Margaret is a blockhead. If the 
former is the case, I simply don't believe it; if the latter, I lose interest. 



Part II: The American Theatre 325 



The Tenth Man, by Paddy Chayefsky, at the Booth. 

The redemption of a cynic through religion is one of the oldest 
themes known to Western drama. Latterly in retirement, it has come 
bounding back to the theatre in The Tenth Man, by Paddy Chayefsky. 
It has done so, needless to say, in heavy disguise. Despite all the evi- 
dence to the contrary, there are limits to what modern audiences will 
swallow, and Mr. Chayefsky has been clever enough to conceal what he 
is up to until the very last moment, with the result that he is already 
being congratulated in some quarters on having attempted something 
previously untried in the theatre. His ostensible subject is the problem 
of a young Jewish girl who is suffering from an advanced case of schizo- 
phrenia. Persuaded that her mental disorder has been caused by dae- 
monic possession, the girl's grandfather takes her to the local synagogue, 
where a few middle-aged members of the congregation are preparing 
for morning prayers. At first they are inclined to scoff at the old man's 
talk about dybbuks, but his granddaughter's ravings — she insists, among 
other things, that she is "the whore of Kiev" — help to tip the scales, and 
before long they are agreed on the necessity of performing the ceremony 
of exorcism. Finding themselves one short of the quorum demanded by 
tradition for the casting out of dybbuks, they dispatch the sexton in 
search of a volunteer. He returns accompanied by a young Jewish 
lawyer whom he has buttonholed on the street. 

It is here that Mr, Chayefsky begins to unveil his purpose. The 
lawyer is a hollow man, drained of faith and disillusioned with humanity. 
He has been through a painful divorce; he has tried to kill himself; he is 
in the throes of psychoanalysis (I should have mentioned that the play 
is set in the twentieth century) ; and, to round off the catalogue of symp- 
toms, he is an ex-Communist. His present creed is one of bitter nihilism. 
It requires no great powers of clairvoyance to predict that this state of 
affairs cannot be allowed to continue, and that what lies in store for the 
misguided fellow is come-uppance or conversion, or both. He develops a 
strange kinship with the deranged girl and decides that she needs psy- 
chiatric care rather more urgently than exorcism, but the white-haired 
rabbi who is in charge of the performance soon puts him right about that. 
Having ascertained that he is dealing with a nihilist, he says it is better 
to believe in dybbuks than to believe in nothing. It may, of course, be 
better still to believe in neither, but since it is no part of Mr. Chayefsky's 
scheme to appeal to reason, he has equipped none of his characters with 



326 P'^^^ II- ^^^ American Theatre 

the ability to argue thus rationally, and hence the rabbi's extremely 
loaded statement goes unchallenged. The ceremony takes its course, 
and in the upshot it is the lawyer, and not the girl, who is cleansed of an 
evU spirit. Hitherto he has claimed to be incapable of love, which has 
been tainted for him, as for a multitude of other fictional protagonists, 
by the squalor of zip fasteners and creaking bedsprings. He now declares 
himself purged of this deficiency, and out of this double negative Mr. 
Chayefsky fashions a positive ending. The lawyer falls in love with the 
girl; she is still, presumably, as schizoid as when we first met her, but 
what does that matter beside the overriding fact of the hero's spiritual 
rebirth? 

Intellectually, I am always affronted by plays that present the 
human condition as a choice between God and Freud — the church and 
the couch — but, whatever his shortcomings as a thinker, Mr. Chayefsky 
is a wonderfully creative hstener. The best of his Jewish dialogue is as 
meaty as any I have heard since the heyday of Chfford Odets. Lou 
Jacobi, as a belligerent atheist who jettisons his principles in order to 
participate in the climactic ritual, gets the funniest lines, and every word 
uttered by Arnold Marie, the ancient exorcist, shines and quivers with 
conviction. Donald Harron, who plays the saved lawyer, makes the thin 
ice of his part seem as soUd as concrete, and the sexton, David Vardi, is 
a model of exasperation, as well he might be, considering that the con- 
gregation includes such obstreperous members as George Voskovec and 
Jacob Ben- Ami. (I failed to understand all the Jewish expressions 
employed by Mr. Ben- Ami, but, like most Gentiles, I laughed anyway.) 
Risa Schwartz endows the heroine with Httle more than a fiery monot- 
ony, but Gene Saks takes full advantage of the finest speech in the play 
— a telephone conversation wherein a young rabbi instructs an even 
younger colleague in the art of making a synagogue pay. Yet for most of 
the evening I felt I was watching an image of the Jewish people that was 
as limited in its way as the image of Uncle Tom. These were stage Jews, 
whose innocence, congenital stoicism, and inverted sentence structure 
displayed the same kind of folksiness that one finds, and abhors, in stage 
Irishmen. There is plenty of charm in Mr. Chayefsky's writing, but I 
wish he had not wasted so much of it on stereotypes. The direction is by 
Tyrone Guthrie — a comparative stranger to realistic drama, though 
clearly a quick learner — and the cramped, dusty setting was designed 
by David Hays. 



Part II: The American Theatre 327 



Heartbreak House, by George Bernard Shaw, at the Billy 
Rose; The Miracle Worker, by Willl^m Gibson, at the 
Playhouse. 

One of the attractive things about Shaw is that the play he set out 
to write was seldom the play he wrote. He could never follow patterns, 
even when they were his own; Shaw the rationalist was putty in the 
hands of Shaw the Dubliner, always ready to be lured into those riotous 
byways of irrelevance and inconsequence that are among the glories of 
Irish literature. Nowhere is this clearer than in Heartbreak House. 
What Shaw had in mind was a stern indictment of the English leisured 
classes, whom he saw as a bunch of feckless loafers, drifting bUndfold to 
perdition while flirting irresponsibly with culture, ideas, and each other's 
spouses. The house itself was meant to symbolize their anarchic inertia 
— a landlocked ship run by a senile tosspot who is insanely bent on 
concocting an explosive powerful enough to destroy every upstart 
money-grubber on earth. Captain Shotover and his family inhabit a 
world of twilit confusion where nothing is certain, not even individual 
identity. The old man fails to recognize his own younger daughter, and 
persistently mistakes one of his female guests for the offspring of a 
pirate. (The pirate himself turns up later, in the guise of a burglar.) 
Lies and impostures, illusions and hypocrisies litter the household. 
Everything is topsy-turvy; the women rule Uke men, and the men weep 
like women. What an aimless existence — and how full of taediwn vitae! 

That, at any rate, was what Shaw intended us to feel. He did not 
succeed. The dialogue is abundantly alive and utterly devoid of tedium; 
at quite an early stage he must have decided to give the characters their 
heads and let them rattle on wherever their angeUc tongues led them. 
The result is that, despite their shiftlessness and stupidity, we caimot 
disUke them. They are frank, shameless, and entirely madcap; like 
everyone in a good Shaw play, they speak in the accents of their author, 
which may explain why he was never able to create a wholly convincing 
villain. Their plight may be gloomy, but they themselves are without 
melancholy, because^like all of Shaw's characters, in bad plays as well 
as good — they are deficient in human emotion. They can say anything 
to each other, however cruel, however painful, because none of them 
has any feeUngs to be hurt; theirs is the candour of the heartless. The 
finale is characteristically ruthless and unexpected. A zeppeUn, cruising 
over England during the First World War, excretes a bomb that slays 



328 P^'^t II: The American Theatre 

two of the cast — the burglar and a millionaire. Until this instant there 
has been no mention at all of the fact that a war is being waged; im- 
provisation, founded on the air raids that were going on while the play 
was in the works, brings down the curtain. The author always claimed 
that Heartbreak House was an English version of Chekhov, and he was 
right to the extent that it could no more have been written without The 
Cherry Orchard as a model than You Can't Take It with You could 
have been written without Heartbreak House. In treatment, of course, 
the three plays are utterly dissimilar; Chekhov's pathos is worlds away 
from the high comedy of Shaw and the domestic farce of Kaufman and 
Hart. But they are all concerned with the same situation — that of a 
picturesque and eccentric family cut off from reality and the mainstream 
of history — and where they most instructively differ is in their attitudes 
toward this kind of wilful escapism. Both Chekhov and Shaw, at bottom, 
deplore it; Kaufman and Hart, writing rather later in the twentieth 
century, think it a thoroughly sensible idea. 

The present production is fittingly operatic. Harold Clurman, the 
director, has instructed his cast to line up in a bold white light and belt 
the words across loud and fast. At times he is over-explicit; when Man- 
gan, the industrialist, declares that he is going to take off all his clothes, 
Shaw restricts the stripping to a coat half doffed, but in Mr. Clurman's 
version the trousers are removed as well. (Sam Levene is the actor 
involved, and he may have needed some such encouragement; this 
gifted comedian specializes in playing underdogs, whereas Mangan is a 
top dog laid low. The result is that Mr. Levene is most like Mangan 
when Mangan is least like himself.) But Diana Wynyard, as Mrs. 
Hushabye, is all warmth and melting wit, and Pamela Brown brings 
gloating eyes and effortless vocal authority to her portrait of Lady Utter- 
word, as lordly as a mermaid who has been trained to walk on her tail. 
Alan Webb's Mazzini Dunn is a model of anxious sincerity, and Maurice 
Evans gets all the grumbling capriciousness of Shotover, though he 
misses some of the prophetic wildness that makes the man more than 
just an ageing zany. (Mr. Evans has chosen to disguise himself as Shaw. 
"Why not?" you may ask, to which I answer, "Why?") The insolent, 
indolent uppishness that the text demands is sometimes absent. Hector 
is a more extravagant creature than Dennis Price imagines, and Diane 
Cilento, as EUie Dunn, goes in for strident honking, where the lines call 
for a devastating demureness. (Miss Cilento, by the way, is the victim of 
a curious textual change. She says she would be prepared to marry some- 
body like Othello, "only, of course, English, and very handsome." What 
Shaw wrote was "white, and very handsome." Too much sensitivity, I 



Part II: The American Theatre 329 

suggest, is as bad as too little. ) Ben Edwards, the designer, has cunningly 
compressed Shaw's two sets into one; the interior and exterior scenes 
both take place on a sort of canopied sun deck, which provides a sumptu- 
ous background for the finest comic writing at present available on 
Broadway. 

William Gibson's The Miracle Worker deals with the childhood of 
Helen Keller, and how she was saved from the lifelong solitary confine- 
ment that is the accustomed lot of those who are deaf, mute, and sight- 
less. The rescue was performed by a young Irish-American nurse 
named Annie Sullivan, who had once been blind herself and knew from 
her own experience the horrors of life inside a state institution. She 
came, seventy years ago, to the Keller home in Alabama, where she was 
able, by a mixture of patience, intuition, brute force, and love, to gain 
the confidence of a child who seemed at first little better than an animal, 
scratching and clawing in the silence and the dark. At length she coaxed 
this tiny, hostile creature up to human stature by teaching her how to 
communicate with other people, and thereafter, as we know, there was 
no stopping Miss Keller. That is the story Mr. Gibson has to tell, and it 
could scarcely be nobler, or more squarely aflirm the dignity of our 
wayward species. He does not sentimentalize the struggle between 
Annie and her charge. Chairs are flung about, plates smashed, arms 
wrenched, and faces slapped; short of maiming Patty Duke, the resilient 
child who plays Helen, the combat could hardly be more violent. Arthur 
Penn's direction is honest and lucid, and Anne Bancroft, all scrubbed 
cheeks and glowing purpose, performs devoutly as the Irish catalyst. 
Yet, apart from the moment when Miss Duke, sniffing and groping, met 
Miss Bancroft for the first time, I was unmoved throughout. A few years 
back I saw a documentary film about handicapped children. It was 
called Thursday's Children, and it touched me more deeply inside ten 
minutes than The Miracle Worker did in two and a half hours. 

My resistance to Mr. Gibson's play is partly due to the fact that it 
shocked me. It is, to begin with, very nearly describable as a barrel of 
laughs; some of the stage business that has been worked out for the 
child borders closely on the cute, and her guardian seldom lets a line go 
by without a snappy, indomitable Irish comeback. You feel that an 
agonizing process is being sweetened, discreetly softened, and made 
publicly palatable. Moreover, to add "dimension" to the exercise, the 
nurse is constantly being addressed by ghostly voices; the reproduction 
was so poor that I lost many of the words, but their general tenor seemed 
to be hortatory. Helen's family consists of an irascible father (Torin 



330 P^ft II: The American Theatre 

Thatcher), a wailing mother (Patricia Neal), and a scapegrace half- 
brother (James Congdon), all of whom behave Uke characters out of a 
bad nineteenth-century play. Stereotypes themselves, they cast doubt on 
other aspects of the piece, which may, for all I know, be authentic. By the 
end of the second act Annie Sullivan has taught her pupil to sit at table 
and fold her napkin. Just before the final curtain she brings off a much 
greater feat; Helen learns to connect physical objects with the digital 
symbols that spell out their names. But a few seconds afterward, with no 
aid from her tutor, the child manages the infinitely harder jump from 
finger talk to speech; she pronounces the word "water." This certainly 
ends the play with a decisive thump, yet Mr. Gibson did not convince 
me that it happened like that — so swiftly, so simply, so conveniently. 
The events he is handhng are too delicate to be submitted to Broadway 
tailoring, however well-intentioned. Perhaps inevitably, there hangs 
over the whole production a faint aura of exploitation. One of the early 
scenes, for instance, takes place in a home for the blind. The inmates 
are played by blind children. There is no logical reason why I should 
find this as objectionable as I do, but, equally, there is no logical argu- 
ment against casting a tuberculosis victim as Marguerite Gautier. 

(1959) 



The Sound of Music, by Richard Rodgers and Oscar 

HaMMERSTEIN II, AT THE LuNT-FoNTANNE. 

In their new operetta Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II 
introduce to us a young woman who takes a job as governess in the 
household of a surly, authoritarian gentleman with a large family. She 
proves to have a miraculous way with the children; when a storm alarms 
them, for example, she allays their fears by teaching them a little song. 
Eventually her employer himself melts to the extent of joining her in a 
little dance, during which they discover that they are in love with each 
other. Meanwhile, from the sidelines, the tyrant's former favourite 
glumly surveys her rival's success. 

The entertainment whose first act I have just outHned is not, as you 
might suppose, a revival of The King and I, though there is ample 
excuse for wishing that it were. It is called The Sound of Music, and it 
may come to be known in the annals of Broadway as Rodgers' and 
Hammerstein's Great Leap Backward. When I say this, I am not refer- 
ring to the fact that the partners have indulged in self-plagiarism; ironi- 



Part II: The American Theatre 331 

cally, the borrowings from The King and I seem less dated than any- 
thing else in The Sound of Music. It is the rest of the show that 
constitutes the real throwback, and what it throws us back to, fantasti- 
cally enough, is the defunct tradition of English musical comedy as it 
was embodied (and interred) in the works of the late Ivor Novello. 
Romantic melodrama spiced with honey and bolstered by uplift was 
the genre in which Novello excelled, and nothing pleased him more 
than to contrive a love affair between a Middle European nobleman and 
a winsome commoner. I confess I never thought I would see the day 
when the two brave innovators who wrote Oklahoma! would turn out 
the very kind of musical they had laboured so hard, and so successfully, 
to abolish. But this is what has happened. It is as if the years that sepa- 
rate Pal Joey from Gypsy had dropped out of history and we were back 
in the musical and dramatic idiom of White Horse Inn. Listening to 
The Sound of Music, one begins to suspect that the collaborators have 
succumbed to a sort of joint amnesia and forgotten everything that 
Broadway learned, partly under their tutelage, in the forties and fifties. 
The plot of their exercise in atavism is based on the early career of 
the Trapp family, who slipped out of Austria in 1938 and later became 
famous for theu* singing in America. The basing is admittedly loose, and 
I think I had better confine myself to the vaguely fictionalized version 
that is presented by the Messrs. R. and H. and their librettists, Howard 
Lindsay and Russel Crouse. The hero is the Baron von Trapp, a rich 
widower and retired naval captain whose obsession with discipline is 
such that he summons his seven children not by name but by means of 
blasts from a boatswain's pipe. Like Theodore Bikel, who plays the 
part, he is an expert guitarist. The heroine is Maria, a curly-haired 
postulant who is turned out of a nearby nunnery because of her irrepress- 
ible high spirits. This is Mary Martin, who can still brandish a note as 
blithely and suddenly as the best of them, though the sunlight of her 
voice is somewhat dimmer than it used to be. Engaged as tutor to the 
Trapps, she plunges at once into a series of numbers that spring half- 
grown from the score of The King and I. As a substitute for "Getting to 
Know You," she wins over her charges with a pretty, instructional chant 
called "Do Re Mi"; soon afterward she recommends yodehng, instead 
of whistling, as the swiftest antidote to fear; and later, in an item that 
reminds one of the entry of the Siamese children played backwards, she 
teaches the adoring Trapps a song wherein they depart, singly or in 
pairs, for bed. Each departure, of course, is overwhelmingly quaint. 
When the Baron displays erotic interest in her, Maria recoils and gets 
her back to the nunnery. The abbess, rousingly sung by Patricia Neway, 



332 f*^^ II: The American Theatre 

refuses to readmit the erring postulant, whom she exhorts, in a point- 
lessly muscular number, to "climb every mountain, ford every stream." 
In one respect, this rejection does signal damage to the parallel with 
The King and I. The Baron von Trapp is not a bald hero, but if Maria 
had been allowed to take her vows, we might at least have had a hairless 
heroine. As things are, she returns and marries the martinet, whose 
putative fiancee, a woman of notable wealth, has deserted him upon 
learning that he is determined to defy the invading Nazis. What follows 
is the story of how the Trapps escape the coercion of the Third Reich; 
they appear in a local music festival, nip away while the applause is at 
its height, seek sanctuary in a neighbouring abbey, and subsequently 
cross the Alps into Switzerland. 

Thinking back, I do not know which aspect of the show to applaud 
least. The book is damp and dowdy, like a remaindered novelette. I 
cannot comment on the overture or the choreography, since there is no 
overture, and next to no dancing. The decor, by Oliver Smith, follows 
a familiar Edwardian pattern by alternating gaudy interiors with super- 
fluous front-cloth episodes intended to distract our attention from the 
scrape and rumble of scenery being changed in the background. Robert 
Russell Bennett's orchestration makes elaborate use of woodwinds and 
an unmistakable tuba to evoke the lumbering skittishness that passes in 
our theatres for Viennese lyricism. Lauri Peters, as the eldest Trapp 
daughter, is the most credible of a riotously cute septet. Kurt Kasznar 
puts in some energetic shrugging as a comical concert promoter who is 
reclaimed at the last moment from collaborationism, and I must pay a 
sympathetic tribute to the way in which Mr. Bikel manages to convey a 
sense of moody exasperation with everything that is going on around 
him. To be sure, his role requires a certain amount of testiness. However, 
it also demands that he should behave like a dictator in the first act and 
oppose dictatorship in the second, which is enough in itself to make any 
actor moody, and I thought I detected in Mr. Bikel's performance an 
element of irritation that went far beyond the line of duty. I have already 
mentioned Miss Martin, whose buoyancy is corklike and enchanting, 
despite a tendency to address the members of the audience as if they, 
like the Trapps, were her stepchildren. Of the score there is Uttle to be 
said, except that Mr. Rodgers has written three or four tunes — such as 
"My Favourite Things" and "You Are Sixteen" — that abound in child- 
like lilt, and that Mr. Hammerstein has equipped them with sweetly 
pubescent lyrics. I won't go into the religious aspects of the piece, which 
seems to me to belong in the same category as J.B. and The Tenth Man; 
i.e., it represents Broadway's spiritual response to the materialistic 



Part II: The American Theatre 333 

challenge of Sputnik. To sum up uncontroversiaUy, The Sound of Music 
is a show for children of all ages, from six to about eleven and a half. 



A Loss of Roses, by William Inge, at the Eugene O'Neill. 

The recent discovery of A Loss of Roses, a mid-twentieth-century 
playscript attributed to one WUham Inge, represents a notable, if sUghtly 
duU, contribution to Freudian archaeolog}'. Many of its pages proved, 
on inspection, to have been defaced by scribbled comments and emen- 
dations of a scurrilous nature, probably indicating that the owner of the 
volume was a precocious rebel against the cult of Freudian infaUibiUty. 
These "revisions," however, have been chemically erased, and the text 
now stands revealed as a ritual drama of semi-magical character, de- 
signed as a conventional act of homage to the memory of Freud, whose 
spirit is alleged in the course of the entertainment to have been imma- 
nent even in the rural districts of Kansas as long ago as 1933. The play, 
or interlude, thus takes its place, albeit a lowly one, in the cycle of 
Freudian Mysteries that formed the rehgious core of the winter theatre 
festivals held annually on the island of Manhattan for the benefit of the 
United Hospital Fund. Founded on the Freudian myth concerning the 
mischievous behaviour of the mind deit)' called Oedipus, or Funny 
Foot, the narrative (which may be no more than a fragment; certainly 
something appears to be missing) is composed in a halting, nondescript 
style that affords soUd confirmation of the theory that most of the lesser 
plays in the cycle are the work of one hand, possibly that of a priest. 

If we accept this hypothesis, internal evidence suggests that A Loss 
of Roses was written either very early or ver)' late in the career of its 
industrious author. The plot, which deals with latent incestuous impulses 
in the relationship between a middle-aged widow and her twenty-one- 
year-old son, is dutifuUy Freud-centered — one might even say Freud- 
fearing — in conception, but the execution is tentative and halfhearted 
throughout, as if the author had not quite decided what he wanted to 
say, or whether, indeed, he wanted to say an}thing. Was this because he 
was a t}TO, unversed in the techniques of rehgious drama? Or must we 
see him as an ageing propagandist whose faith had dimmed and who 
felt disillusioned and Freud-forsaken? We cannot be sure. WTiat we do 
know is that the action of the play is minimal and that it tells us almost 
nothing about the First Great Depression, during which it is supposed to 



334 P^^^ 11: The American Theatre 

unfold. These facts, unfortunately, are of little help to us in ascertaining 
the author's age at the time of composition. From first to last, monolithic 
Freudianism subjected all its captive artists to a process of brainwash- 
ing that taught them to equate "introspection" with "action" and to 
regard the phrase "social environment" as meaningless at best and 
dangerously heretical at worst. My own hunch, unscientific though it 
may be, is to plump for 'teen-age authorship of A Loss of Roses. I pic- 
ture a pink-faced acolyte with literary ambitions singling out the much- 
loved Funny Foot legend as the one most likely to win him preferment. 
Boldly he submits his play to the festival, in competition with established 
dramatists like Williams, MacLeish, and Kazan. His inexperience 
betrays him; the notorious Tribunal of Seven turns thumbs down, and he 
is consigned to the dreaded Doghouse — from which, as we know, he 
later emerged to write the series of gnomic texts that are among our 
richest sources of information about the short-lived epoch during which 
Freudianism held despotic sway over what used to be called "the West- 
ern World," though it has since come to be known as the Middle East. 
The texts to which I refer include, among many others, A Clearing in 
the Woods, The Silver Cord, Cue for Passion, Oh, Men! Oh, Women!, 
Masquerade, and The Dark at the Top of the Stairs, all of which derive 
from the doctrinaire school of Freudian drama that was founded by 
Barrie with Peter Pan. Despite the restrictions imposed on the self-styled 
Inge by his creed, archaeology owes a great debt to this dedicated scribe, 
whose . . . 

In other words, if I may parachute down from this bumpy flight of 
fancy, the new Wilham Inge play is a mess. Mother (Betty Field, far 
below her best) shares a bungalow outside Kansas City with her son 
(Warren Beatty), who works at a gas station. For reasons that are un- 
spoken but unquestionably erotic, he cannot bring himself to abandon 
her and take a better job elsewhere. She feels much the same way about 
him, but has found outlets for her emotions in good works and rehgion. 
Into this uneasy menage there irrupts an old friend of the family, who 
turns out to be a catalyst in disguise. This is Carol Haney, playing a 
brassy, pathetic actress-cwm-hoofer, temporarily unemployed and in 
need of shelter. Swiftly sizing her up as a member of the age-group — 
forty and upward — that attracts him most, the boy makes a drunken 
pass at her. His first attempt fails, but before long he contrives to seduce 
the woman, a substitute mother if ever I saw one. This sexual triumph 
enables him at last to leave home. Miss Haney, shattered, attempts to 
commit suicide by slashing her wrists, but eventually departs on the arm 
of a brutish ex-lover to make blue movies in Kansas City. We are meant 



Part II: The American Theatre 335 

to infer from her experience that reahty is pitiless and unchangeably 
hostile. "It's like the depression," she says wanly. "You've got to make 
the best of it." Yet the depression, unless my memory has run mad, was 
lifted by organized human effort; reality was changed, by a transfusion 
of practical pity. 

Miss Haney tends to overplay, performing every scene in the same 
vein of corrosive urgency, but Mr. Beatty, sensual around the lips and 
pensive around the brow, is excellent as the boy, and there is nothing 
wrong with Daniel Mann's direction that a stronger script could not have 
remedied. The main fault of the piece lies elsewhere, and deeper. The 
truth is that you cannot write a first-rate play about the Oedipus complex 
alone. (Oedipus Rex is about a city that is languishing under a curse, 
and its hero does not suffer from an Oedipus complex.) A serious drama- 
tist who analyzes personal problems without analyzing the social prob- 
lems that encircle and partly create them is neglecting a good half of 
his job, though if he is writing at high pressure, with the fullest kind of 
insight, he may succeed in persuading us to forget about the other half. 
In A Loss of Roses Mr. Inge displays no such persuasive power. I com- 
mend to his attention what an EngUsh critic, the late Christopher Caud- 
well, once said about the limitations of an exclusively Freudian approach 
to human behaviour: 

It is as if a man, seeing a row of trees bent in various ways by 
the prevailing winds, were without studying the relation between 
growth and environment to deduce that a mysterious complex in 
trees caused them always to lean as the result of a death instinct 
attracting them to the ground, while eternal Eros bade them spring 
up vertically. 

There is more to trees, and much more to us, than that. 



Five Finger Exercise, by Peter Shaffer, at the Music Box, 
New York. 

Transplanted from London, where it has been running for ages, 
Peter Shaffer's Five Finger Exercise arrived last week in New York. As 
in the Inge piece, one of the central figures is a young man whose love 
for his mother goes far beyond the normal bounds of filial duty; the dif- 
ference is that Mr. Shaffer has many things on his mind besides the Oed- 



336 TartW: The American Theatre 

ipus theme, which is merely one strand in the cat's cradle of inter- 
twined relationships that he sets before us. The five characters in his 
play are all in need of love. With fiendish skill Mr. Shaffer shows us how 
each of them seeks it in the very quarter from which it is least likely to 
be forthcoming. His purpose, implicitly moral, is to expose the pain and 
the rage that ensue when one human being ignores another's plea, how- 
ever ill-timed or misguided, for sympathy. The setting, handsomely laid 
out by Oliver Smith, is one of those oak-beamed country houses in 
which so many roguish English comedies have chortled their way to ob- 
livion. Mr. Shaffer puts the old place to a new use. Here, in a state of 
mutual incomprehension, live the four members of the Harrington fam- 
ily. Mother is a fussy snob with intellectual pretensions and an under- 
graduate son whom she calls "Jou-jou" and "mon petit Cossack," like 
an empress addressing her latest lover. She regards her husband, a stohd 
furniture manufacturer, as a benighted vulgarian, rather to be pitied 
than rebuked for his plebeian insensitivity to culture; in the son's words, 
"The rift you may detect between them is the difference between the 
salon and the saloon." Father, meanwhile, is baffled by his wife and pro- 
foundly suspicious of his son, whom he thinks "arty-tarty" and a poten- 
tial wastrel. There is also a teen-age daughter, who seems totally imper- 
vious to the clash of values that is going on around her; a buoyant girl, 
she shares with her brother a number of private jokes, some less whimsi- 
cal than others, but the main reason for her existence has little to do 
with her sense of humour. She is a mechanical necessity, since without 
her there would be no pupil to be taught by the shy, blond German tutor 
whose impact on the household, inadvertently devastating, is the ful- 
crum of the action and the point of the play. Mrs. Harrington at once be- 
gins to flirt with him, but recoils in fury when he thanks her for behav- 
ing toward him with the warmth of a mother. (His own parents, as we 
learn later, are staunch and impenitent Nazis.) Like Mrs. Wilcox in 
Howards End, Mrs. Harrington is "one of the unsatisfactory people — 
there are many of them — who dangle intimacy and then withdraw it." 
Fuming, she succeeds in convincing her husband that the tutor has be- 
come too friendly with their daughter; secretly glad to be rid of the in- 
truder, Mr. Harrington fires him, but his action ramifies in ways he could 
never have predicted. His son protests against the dismissal with a pas- 
sion that has unmistakably homosexual overtones. The German, mean- 
while, attempts suicide. 

All the pieces of the puzzle interlock snugly and without strain, 
falling into place with a splendid, steely inevitability. Seeking compari- 
sons, one's mind turns to Swiss watches or chess problems — especially 



Part II: The American Theatre 337 

the latter, since the contending forces in Five Finger Exercise take a long 
time to get to grips and the tension mounts very slowly. You will cer- 
tainly be held, you may even be mesmerized, but you are not likely to 
be moved. The writing, expert though it is, has about it a curious blood- 
lessness, as you will see if you compare Mr. Shaffer's work with A 
Month in the Country, which also deals with the jealousy that overcomes 
a rural chatelaine when she fails to attract the affections of a hired tutor. 
Where Turgenev sprawls and smiles, Mr. Shaffer is tight-lipped and 
technical, constantly building up emotional climaxes that he lacks the 
verbal felicity to fulfil. The effect reminds one of a mountain range with 
all the peaks lopped off, or of a masterpiece of functional architecture 
from which the central heating has been inexplicably omitted. Despite 
these objections, Five Finger Exercise is the most accomplished new play 
Broadway has seen this wretched season. The acting, supervised by Sir 
John Gielgud, is superbly adroit. Father is Roland Culver, his face 
swagged in surly folds, with a monocle of wrinkles around each beady 
eye; as Mrs. Harrington, Jessica Tandy hits the right note of frayed edgi- 
ness; and Juliet MUls, who plays the daughter, is a model of chubby 
common-sense. Even so, the boys come off best. Brian Bedford, as the 
son, steers his way through a part that is full of sarcasm and complaint 
without once sneering or whining, and Michael Bryant, as the tutor, 
gives a performance of the most audacious subtlety, speaking English in 
an accent so pure that it at once establishes him as a German. Among 
many other virtues, Mr. Bryant has the most authentic stammer I have 
ever heard on the stage. 

(1959) 



The Andersonville Trial, by Saul Levitt, at the Henry Miller. 

Hardly anything in the whole range of dramaturgy is more difficult 
than to write a dull trial scene. The playwright starts out with history and 
tradition lined up sohdly on his side. The pattern of events is preordained 
and inexorable, and the essential conflict varies scarcely at all from place 
to place or from age to age. A spokesman for human guilt and a spokes- 
man for human innocence are met to do battle for the life, the liberty, or 
at least the good name of a chosen prisoner. At once we are back among 
the bold simplifications of mediaeval drama; whatever the specific de- 
tails of the case may be, the real question at issue is whether Everyman 
is to be damned or saved. The process whereby justice is seen to be 



338 P^^^ II: ^^^ American Theatre 

done is one of the few forms of ritual theatre that survive in the Western 
world. In courtrooms we are all atavists, and the blood that runs in our 
veins is ancestral, if not actually tribal. 

From the playwright's point of view, trials have several other 
advantages of a rather more mundane kind. For instance, he need not 
worry about providing excuses for entrances and exits; the witnesses 
appear when they are called and depart when they are told. Since most 
of the scenes are two-handed affairs, consisting of interrogation and re- 
sponse, the author is rarely bothered by the problems of orchestration 
that arise when three or more speakers are simultaneously involved, and 
matters are made still easier by the fact that the witnesses are legally 
compelled to give truthful answers to everything that is asked them. 
More crucially, they cannot leave without the judge's permission to do 
so. This, I am convinced, is a vital clue to the perennial fascination of 
courtroom plays. One human being is subjecting another to a bombard- 
ment of ferocious and painfully intimate questions. In ordinary circum- 
stances the victim's natural impulse would be to say "The hell with this" 
and walk out, and that — unless the inquisitor was equipped with a gun 
or some other means of physical coercion — would be the end of the 
colloquy. But in a court of law the witness must stay and reply, and we, 
accordingly, stay and hsten. 

My purpose in composing this preamble is to prepare you for the 
news that Saul Levitt's The Andersonville Trial is a decently gripping 
piece of work. The entire action, which is based on historical record, 
takes place in the stuffy Washington courtroom where, during the late 
summer of 1865, a military tribunal convened to decide whether 
Henry Wirz, a Swiss immigrant who had served as commandant of the 
Confederate prison camp at Andersonville, Georgia, could be held 
criminally responsible for the inhuman treatment that led to the death 
of fourteen thousand Northern soldiers. Starvation and disease were 
rampant inside the stockade, and bullets and bloodhounds were avail- 
able for those who sought to escape. Could Captain Wirz have done 
anything to mitigate the horror? Yes, says the prosecutor, ambitious 
for revenge and promotion. No, says the defense counsel, founding his 
case on the postulate that in every instance Wirz was obeying orders he 
received from a superior officer. This squabble occupies the first half 
of the play, and it becomes, as witness follows witness, more than a little 
redundant. Clearly, the prosecutor is a blackhearted villain, the de- 
fending attorney is a champion of the underdog, and the accused — a 
bewildered neurotic with suicidal leanings — is a pitiable scapegoat. Or 
so we are craftily led to beheve. In the second act the balance excit- 



Part II: The American Theatre 339 

ingly shifts. Against the advice of the court, the prosecutor abandons the 
military question of what Wirz was permitted to do as a subordinate 
and takes up the moral question of what he ought to have done as a hu- 
man being. By a sudden paradox, the members of the tribunal find 
themselves at one with the prisoner, in that both sides are committed to 
an absolute belief in the necessity of obedience to authority. Undeterred, 
the prosecutor forces the crumbling, moaning defendant to explain why 
he acted on instructions that would result, as he knew perfectly well, in 
multiple murder. Wirz can only iterate that he did as he was told and 
had no authority to do otherwise. In the course of a single cross-exami- 
nation the victim becomes the villain, and Wirz is sentenced to death. 

The Andersonville Trial deals with an Army officer who is accused 
of exsessive obedience and condemned on the ground that he did not 
rebel. An obvious analogy is The Caine Mutiny Court Martial, which 
dealt with a naval officer who was accused of active disobedience and 
acquitted on the ground that his rebelUon was justified. This may seem 
like the same situation turned inside out; the difference is that Mr. Le- 
vitt's play contains nothing comparable to the repulsive epilogue that 
disfigured Herman Wouk's, wherein the defendant's own attorney 
changed sides after the verdict was announced, and excoriated his 
client for having acted under the influence of unpatriotic intellectuals. 
It is seldom wise to take the anti-intellectual position, however patriotic 
its implications may be, and Mr. Levitt commits no such stupidity. He 
does, however, seem to be offering an indirect justification for the death 
sentences that were imposed at the Nuremberg war trials, and this is 
somewhat disturbing in an author who seems in other respects to be 
lodging an outraged complaint against violence. His writing, especially 
in the second half, is vivid and pertinent, but at the end I was left re- 
flecting that a Confederate Beast of Belsen was perhaps too easy a target 
to destroy, and I could not help wondering how the author — and the 
audience — would have reacted to a play that used the same valid argu- 
ments against the men who, in strict obedience to orders, decimated 
Dresden and flattened Hiroshima. 

I have already mentioned some of the advantages of courtroom 
drama. Its principal drawback is that it can show us nothing of the char- 
acters beyond their public behaviour; we can only guess what sort of 
people they are in private, what impulses they follow, what convictions 
they inwardly hold. As directed by Jose Ferrer, The Andersonville Trial 
contains a full load of red-blooded public acting, much of which would 
have benefited from a little cooling down and a few brisk injunctions to 
refrain from inundating the audience with molten lava. Herbert Berghof, 



340 P^^ 11: The American Theatre 

as the doomed Wirz, resembles Lenin in his later years, and stews 
throughout in a state of suppressed uproar; he has some highly effective 
moments during his breakdown on the stand, but elsewhere he conforms 
to the demands of that modish acting technique, mistakenly associated 
with the teachings of Stanislavsky, whereby gesture precedes utterance 
by at least five seconds. In Mr. Berghof's case, the gesture is a stabbing 
movement of the index finger; in that of George C. Scott, who plays the 
prosecutor, it is a massaging of the forehead, as if the actor were in the 
grip of an uncontrollable migraine. Mr. Scott is an intense performer 
with a voice that can achieve maximum acceleration and minimum in- 
telligibility more swiftly than any of its Broadway competitors, and a 
chronic indisposition to admit that there are any nuances of volume be- 
tween whisper and yell. His eyes rove in a manner that recalls the Ger- 
man silent screen, and his profile has the steely, prehensile outUne of an 
invariably victorious bottle-opener. His very presence breathes melo- 
drama. It does, however, breathe, and I should like to see its vitality put 
to less febrile uses. My summing-up of the production is that it is full of 
impressive showmanship but that it too often fails to distinguish between 
showmanship and salesmanship. Perhaps, after all, there is no distinc- 
tion. 



Caligula, by Albert Camus, at the 54th Street Theatre. 

Albert Camus' Caligula is a cold, confused experience thet evoked 
in me the same kind of emotion that spectators at Cape Canaveral are 
said to feel when a rocket-launching fails. The aim is high, the ceremony 
tremendous, and the take-off full of flame and roaring. Then, suddenly, 
the missile shudders off course and centrifugally splinters, so that noth- 
ing is left but a hail of metallic fragments and the gentle, anticlimactic 
plop of a nose cone into the sea. The enterprise, in short, is mighty, but 
mightier stUl is the gap between aspiration and achievement. There is 
also, in much of Caligula, a curious discrepancy between manner and 
matter. What is being said seems strangely unrelated to what is being 
done. As often happens in philosophical drama, the drama and the phi- 
losophy are imperfectly wedded and appear at times to be scarcely more 
than nodding acquaintances. It is as if one were watching a silent Grand 
Guignol movie to which somebody had added, by way of dialogue, a 
sound track consisting of aphoristic excerpts from a series of lectures on 



Part II: The American Theatre 341 

the nature of power. At every turn one feels the presence of a restless 
mind and a supremely rebellious temperament, and these are quaHties 
that must be saluted, on Broadway as anywhere else. Seldom, however, 
does one feel the presence of a dramatist. Wtih gnomic eloquence Camus 
speaks above, around, and beyond the action; he hardly ever permits 
the action to speak for itself. Caligula is the work of a man superbly 
endowed to be almost anything except a playwright. 

It is also the work of a young man. In 1938, when he wrote it, 
Camus was only twenty-five years old and had just read Suetonius' Lives 
of the Caesars. Enthralled by the scabrous, gossipy charm of these un- 
reliable biographical sketches, he decided to dramatize the brief im- 
perial career of Caligula, the worst-behaved of the lot. Nearly twenty 
years later he came up with the following synopsis : 

Caligula, a relatively attractive prince up to then, becomes 
aware, on the death of Drusilla, his sister and mistress, that this 
world is not satisfactory. Thenceforth, obsessed with the impossible 
and poisoned with scorn and horror, he tries, through murder and 
the systematic perversion of all values, to practice a liberty that he 
will eventually discover not to be the right one. He challenges 
friendship and love, common human sohdarity, good and evil. . . . 
Unfaithful to mankind through fidelity to himself, Caligula accepts 
death because he has understood that no one can save himself all 
alone and that one cannot be free at the expense of others. . . . 
For the dramatist, the passion for the impossible is just as valid a 
subject for study as avarice or adultery. Showing it in all its frenzy, 
illustrating the havoc it wreaks, bringing out its failure — such was 
my intention. 

That is a fair and comprehensive summary of the play's theme. The 
trouble is that the play itself is rarely more enlivening than the passage 
I have quoted. Caligula sets out to demonstrate that unlimited personal 
freedom can be accomplished by the exercise of unlimited personal 
power. Abolishing the social bonds that link one human being with an- 
other, he robs, kills, and seduces, at whim and at random. He forces his 
courtiers to submit to the most gi'otesque humiliations and threatens 
them with death if they refuse to pay homage, both religious and finan- 
cial, when he dons a gilded wig and effeminately claims to be the god- 
dess Venus. He insists throughout that he wants the moon, and is fiercely 
incensed when he discovers that he cannot have it. As a final assertion 
of individuality, he strangles Caesonia, his long-suffering mistress, but 
even this does not bring him absolute satisfaction. He succumbs, shortly 



342 P^^i 11: The American Theatre 

afterward, to the daggers of his enemies, moaning as he dies, "I'm still 
alive!" The professed purpose of all this bloodshed is to prove that it is 
fruitless, as well as inhuman, to use power for power's sake and that one 
cannot find oneself by slaughtering others. 

My reaction to all this is easily stated. I couldn't agree more. I have 
heard the argument a thousand times, long ago from Lord Acton and 
every other day from Max Lerner, and although the text contains a good 
number of well-aimed homiletic barbs, none of them has the transfixing 
force of novelty, nor do they lend much profundity to Camus' recital of 
Caligula's atrocities. For a full and unbridled account of a tyrant's drive 
toward self-destruction, I still look to Tambwlaine, and Peer Gynt 
remains unrivalled as a study of the fallacy that is inherent in total dedi- 
cation to self-fulfilment. In Marlowe, as in Ibsen, poetry and character- 
ization are interlocked with — and inseparable from — ideas. Camus, who 
is no poet, cares about his characters only to the extent that he can 
impose ideas on them. This makes for an emotional climate that borders 
on the arctic. At one point Caligula displays fondness for a courageous 
young poet, at another he shows a certain amount of concern for a 
sincere and thoughtful adversary, but for the most part the people in 
the play have no human contact with each other. Instead, they describe 
themselves; they deliver introspective lectures, almost as if they were 
thinking of themselves in the third person; they analyze their motives 
and sensations with the detachment of onlookers from another planet. 
For each bloody deed Caligula has an accompanying aria of cerebration, 
and the arias get longer as the hour grows later. At the end we know 
little more about him than that his sense of humor is quaintly brutal and 
that omnipotence produces not absolute freedom but absolute loneliness. 
Compared with what we feel for him, it is a great deal. 

Sidney Lumet has directed the play around a stark grey monolith 
flanked by sweeping Ziegfeld-type staircases and resting on a heart- 
shaped rostrum that juts boldly out toward the audience. (Will Steven 
Armstrong designed this soaring, formidable setting.) For Caligula, Mr. 
Lumet has obtained the services of Kenneth Haigh, the British actor 
whose bristling rhetorical energy contributed so much to the success of 
Look Back in Anger. Few players are as skilled as Mr. Haigh at por- 
traying intelligent modern youth, especially in its moods of outrage and 
wry, puzzled resentment. His brow is commonly furrowed, sometimes 
to the point of peevishness, and he does not so much utter his lines as 
worry them, the way a dog worries a bone. He is courageous enough to 
take risks that most actors would avoid — as when, in Caligula, he strolls 
casually into a gathering of patricians, surveys them in contemptuous 



Part II: The American Theatre 343 

silence, turns to the audience, elaborately retches, and saunters out with 
unflurried aplomb. Yet, despite his manifold gifts, Mr. Haigh lacks two 
qualities that are essential if the incredible role of Caligula is to seem 
even momentarily believable. One is the ability to deliver outrageous 
commands as to the manner born; Mr. Haigh is deficient in this kind of 
effortless, fantastic arrogance. The other is the capacity to suggest mania- 
cal obsession; however hard he tries, however wildly he squints, Mr. 
Haigh is unable to conceal the fact that he is not, au fond, a madman. 
He is an enormously talented performer, but ineradicably sane, and I 
extend to him the same sort of sympathy that one would offer to an ex- 
pert motorist who had been inveigled into a chariot race. Caligula, I 
suspect, is one of those plays that come wholly to life only when the 
star is possessed of greater genius than the author. Since Camus is the 
author, this is a tallish order, and I do not blame Mr. Haigh for failing 
to fill it. 

Like most of his colleagues, he suffers at times from the bewilder- 
ment that inevitably besets Anglo-Saxons when they try to interpret 
Parisian plays. French actors, who abhor realism and are baSled by the 
notion of psychological consistency, can switch in a flash from outright 
farce to wholehearted tragedy. English and American actors are less 
agile, and one feels a definite jolt when, for example, the fairground 
barking that opens the second act of Caligula is instantly followed by a 
serious discussion of blasphemy. Colleen Dewhurst, wearing a regal 
smirk, voluptuously plays Cahgula's No. 1 mistress, and Philip Bourneuf 
gives the smoothest performance of the evening as Cherea, the Em- 
peror's loyal, bearded, and implacably stubborn opposition. The crowd 
scenes, as one might have expected, are a disappointment. Except in 
musicals, Broadway directors are seldom called upon to handle more 
than a dozen actors on the same stage at the same time. It is not really 
Mr. Lumet's fault that his touch, elsewhere so assured, deserts him 
whenever a mob assembles. The explanation is simply lack of practice. 

You may, in the foregoing, have discerned a touch of the petulance 
that critics are prone to display when a work that looked gigantic in 
conception falls short in execution. Let me make amends by declaring 
that, for all its evident flaws, Caligula is not a good bad play, like To- 
bacco Road, or a bad good play, like Summer and Smoke. It is something 
rarer, and therefore more to be cherished. Caligula is a bad great play. 

(1^60) 



344 P'^^i 11: The American Theatre 



Greenivilloiv, by Frank Loesser, at the Alvin; The Visit, by 

FrIEDRICH DiJRRENMATT, AT THE CiTY CeNTRE. 

Halfway through Greenwillow, a new-bom calf is baptized. (This 
is God's truth. I wouldn't joke about such things.) The animal is then 
trundled around the stage in a sort of wheelbarrow while Gideon, 
Gramma, Martha, Micah, Sheby, and Jabez sing a jubilant roundelay 
entitled "Clang Dang the Bell." Jabez is a small boy whose pants keep 
falling down. Like the others, he belongs to a farming family, name of 
Briggs. Amos, the head of the household, is not on hand for the purifica- 
tion ceremony, since he suffers from a yearning in the blood that forces 
him to spend as much time away from home as possible. His son Gideon 
fears that he may be cursed with the same disease, though why he re- 
gards it as a curse it is hard to say, considering what is going on at home. 
At all events, Gideon believes that he is in imminent peril of succumbing 
to wanderlust, and for this reason he refuses to marry Dorrie Whitbred, 
the girl he loves. She loves him, too, as she explains with crystal clarity in 
a song called "Gideon Briggs, I Love You." 

These honest rustics, with whom the hell, inhabit the hamlet of 
Greenwillow, which is an imaginary pastoral paradise that even Sir 
James Barrie might have found a Uttle on the quaint side. You may get 
some notion of the rarefied atmosphere of the place when I tell you that 
it makes Glocca Morra look like a teeming slum. To put it another way, 
Brigadoon could be the Latin Quarter of Greenvvillow. Fancifully, I pic- 
ture the village cut-ups trooping into the corner apothecary's, where 
they linger disconsolately over their sugar muffins and dock-leaf cordials. 
Evening service is over, and there is nothing to do until milking time 
except sing madrigals. " 'Tis a handy-dandy night, and the moon rides 
high," says one of them, in the local patois. "Let's go over to Brigadoon 
and pick up some broads." Unfortunately, no such scamps as these are 
on view at the Alvin. AU the same, I don't want you to go away with 
the idea that everj^one in Greenwillow is a model of virtue; no, by 
Jimmy-go-jerkins and rum-tickle-ree — to coin an oath that the townsfolk 
themselves might have coined if any of them had ever got around to 
using foul language. Among the assembled peasantry there is at least 
one heavy, whom it is almost impossible to describe without exhuming 
the phrase "old curmudgeon." He hobbles about on a stick of spiral 
design, cheating his neighbours and sneering at young love, and he is 
stricken in the second half by a mortal attack of something called "the 



Part II: The American Theatre 345 

shrivelly fever." (As he expired, I had a sudden flash of revelation. If 
Greenwillow were to be rewritten, with the characters transformed into 
animals or dwarfs, it would make a wonderful subject for Walt Disney 
at his worst.) Owing to an episcopal error, the tiny parish church has 
two ministers, one of whom preaches hellfire and damnation, while the 
other — a far more representative citizen — believes that the key to the 
good life lies in bonhomous glee-singing, gambolling on the green, and 
wolfing as much glutinous confectionery as you can lay your hands on. 
The name of this amiable simpleton is the Reverend Birdsong. He carries 
flowers in his umbrella and keeps kittens in his pulpit, and if that doesn't 
give you the flavor of Greenwillow, I doubt whether anything will. I can't 
think what else to say about the place, except that it is elaborately 
bugged — the stage bristles with microphones — and that it slightly re- 
sembles Al Capp's Dogpatch, minus the satire and the sex. It is also 
intensely religious; the script is packed with references to sin and 
salvation. After Paddy Chayefsky's rabbis and Rodgers' and Hammer- 
stein's nuns, we now have Frank Loesser's curates. 

Frank Loesser wrote it. That is the astounding fact, and that is 
why I have dwelt on the show so long. It was he who chose the novel 
(by B. J. Chute) on which it is based, he who collaborated with Lesser 
Samuels on the book, and he, unaided, who composed the music and 
lyrics. Occasionally, in numbers like "Summertime Love" and the rowdy 
"Could've Been a Ring," the words and the melody seem inseparable, 
as if matched by a master, but on the whole it is barely credible that 
this simple-minded extravaganza is the work of the man who created 
Guys and Dolls. In the last ten years Mr. Loesser has travelled from 
urban ingenuity to grass-roots ingenuousness; with Greenwillow he has 
reached the end of the line, and we must all wish him a rapid recovery, 
followed by a speedy return to the asphalt jungle. His cast, smartly 
directed by George Roy HUl, behaves as well as can be expected in the 
circumstances, which are profoundly daunting. As the rival clergymen, 
Cecil Kellaway and Wilham Chapman are respectively puckish and grim, 
and Ellen McCown makes a wistful, nondescript heroine. There is also 
a cow, unassumingly played by a cow. The hero is Anthony Perkins, who 
has acquired a splendid singing voice to back up his usual — but nonethe- 
less effective — portrait of distraught young manhood. Mr. Perkins has to 
cope with several of Mr. Loesser's unhappiest lyrics, including a line 
that runs, "I hear the tea-kettle sing away, a-wee!" The tea-kettle, of 
course, sings nothing of the sort, and the man who says it does is either 
a liar or the slave of self-conscious naivete. For a pohte epitome of ray 
feelings about Greenwillow, I must go to C. E. Montague, who once re- 



346 P^^t II: The Americaii Theatre 

marked that "the way to do big things in an art, as it is to get into the 
other parts of the Kingdom of Heaven, is to become as a little child, so 
long as you do it without thinking all the time what an engaging child 
you are." The italics are mine, and in them my judgment is implicit. 
And with that we'll drop the subject, since I don't wish to twist the 
knife in the wound. As one of Mr. Loesser's characters says, "Suppose 
we all tippy-toe out for a biscuit and broth?" 

After a taxing national tour, the Lunts have come home to New 
York with their celebrated production of Friedrich DUrrenmatt's The 
Visit. It closes on Sunday, and I urge you not to miss it, for there is 
nothing on Broadway of comparable power or penetration. The plot by 
now must be well known; a flamboyant, much-married millionairess re- 
turns to the Middle-European town where she was born and offers the 
inhabitants a free gift of a billion marks if they will consent to murder 
the man who, many years ago, seduced and jilted her. (Her birthplace 
is named Giillen. Like Greenwillow, it is meant to be a symbolic com- 
munity of microcosmic significance. The difference between the two is 
that Greenwillow exists in a timeless nowhere, ruled only by romantic 
love, while Giillen belongs to the modern, industrial world and is sub- 
ject to financial pressures that we can all understand and recognize.) 
Eventually, and chillingly, her chosen victim is slaughtered, but I quarrel 
with those who see the play merely as a satire on greed. It is really a 
satire on bourgeois democracy. The citizens of Giillen vote to decide 
whether the hero shall live or die, and he agrees to abide by their 
decision. Swayed by the dangled promise of prosperity, they pronounce 
him guilty. The verdict is at once monstrously unjust and entirely demo- 
cratic. When the curtain falls, the question that Herr Diirrenmatt intends 
to leave in our minds is this : at what point does economic necessity^ turn 
democracy into a hoax? Miss Fontanne plays the super-capitalist with 
bloodcurdling aplomb, and Mr. Lunt, as her sacrifice, makes memorable 
use of his defeated shoulders, his beseeching hands, and the operatic 
bleat of his voice. With these unique performers, not a syllable is lost 
or a gesture wasted. They are nobly assisted by Thomas Gomez, Glenn 
Anders, and the astute direction of Peter Brook. 

(i960) 



Part II: The America?! Theatre 347 



Three Individualists: ( 1 ) Gar bo. 

What, when drunk, one sees in other women, one sees in Garbo 
sober. She is woman apprehended with all the pulsating clarity of one 
of Aldous Huxley's mescalin jags. To watch her is to achieve direct, 
cleansed perception of something which, like a flower or a fold of silk, 
is raptly, unassertively, and beautifully itself. Nothing intrudes between 
her and the observer except the observer's neuroses : her contribution is 
calm and receptiveness, an absorbent repose which normally, in women, 
coexists only with the utmost vanity. Tranced by the ecstasy of existing, 
she gives to each onlooker what he needs: her largesse is intarissable. 
Most actresses in action live only to look at men, but Garbo looks at 
flowers, clouds, and furniture with the same admiring compassion, like 
Eve on the morning of creation, and better cast than Mr. Huxley as 
Adam. Fame, by insulating her against a multitude of experiences which 
we take for granted, has increased rather than diminished her capacity 
for wonder. In England two years ago she visited Westminster Abbey, 
early one morning when no one was about, and in this most public of 
places found a source of enormous private enchantment. A walk along 
a busy street is for her a semi-mystical adventure. Like a Martian guest, 
she questions you about your everyday life, infecting you with her 
eagerness, shaming you into a heightened sensitivity. Conversing with 
her, you feel like Ramon Novarro, blinded in Mata Hari, to whom she 
said: "Here are your eyes," and touched her own. 

I half-believed, until I met her, the old hilarious slander which 
whispered that she was a brifliant Swedish female impersonator who had 
kept up the pretence too long; behind the dark glasses, it was hinted, 
beneath the wild brown hair, there lurked the features of a proud Scandi- 
navian diplomat, now proclaiming their masculinity so stridently that 
exposure to cameras was out of the question. This idle fabrication was 
demolished within seconds of her entering the room; sidelong, a little 
tentative, like an animal thrust under a searchlight, she advanced, put 
out a hand in greeting, murmured something muted and sibilant to ex- 
press her pleasure, and then, gashing her mouth into a grin, expunged all 
doubt. This was a girl, all right. It is an indication of the mystery which 
surrounds her that I felt pleased even to have ascertained her sex. 

"Are you all things to aU men?" someone asks her in Two-Faced 
Woman; to which the honest reply (I forget the scripted one) would be: 
"To all men, women, and children." Garbo, Hepburn, and Dietrich are 



' 348 P^ft II: The American Theatre 

perhaps the only screen personalities for whom such a claim could 
seriously be made. "She has sex, but no particular gender," I once wrote 
of Dietrich, "her masculinity appeals to women, and her sexuality to 
men"; which is also true of Hepburn. Yet Garbo transcends both of 
them. Neither Hepburn nor Dietrich could have played Garbo's scenes 
' with her son in Anna Karenina; something predatory in them would have 
forbidden such selfless maternal raptures. Garbo alone can be intoxicated 
by innocence. She turns her coevals into her children, taking them under 
her wing like a great, sailing swan. Her love is thus larger than Hepburn's 
or Dietrich's, which does not extend beyond the immediately desired 
object. It was Alistair Cooke who pointed out that in her films she 
seemed to see hfe in reverse and, because she was aware of the fate in 
store for them, offered the shelter of her sympathy to all around her. 
Through the cellophane Kitsch (how it dates!) of the Lubitsch touch she 
pierced, in Ninotchka, to affirm her pity for the human condition. The 
words were addressed to Melvyn Douglas, but we all knew for whom 
they were really intended, and glowed in the knowledge: "Bomps wUl 
fall, civilizations will crumble — but not yet. . . . Give us our moment!" 
She seemed to be pleading the world's cause, and to be winning, too. 
Often, during the decade in which she talked to us, she gave signs that 
she was on the side of life against darkness : they seeped through a series 
of banal, barrel-scraping scripts like code messages borne through enemy 
lines. Sometimes, uttering sentences that were plainly designed to speed 
the end of literature, she could convey her universal charity only in 
glimpses, such as, for instance, a half-mocking, half-despairing catch in 
the wine-dark voice. Round the militant bluster of M-G-M dialogue she 
wrapped a Red Cross bandage of humanity. 

It is likely that too many volumes have been read into and written 
about her, and that every additional adulatory word reinforces the terror 
I am sure she feels at the thought of having to face us again and measure 
up to the legend. Possibly we exaggerated her intelligence from the be- 
ginning; perhaps she was perfectly happy with the velvet-hung, musk- 
scented tin lizzies that Salka Viertel and S. N. Behrman (among otliers) 
turned out as vehicles for her. Perhaps association with Lewis Stone and 
Reginald Owen, a stout pair of uncle-substitutes who crop up, variously 
bewigged, in many of her films, was vitally necessary to inspire her. Re- 
call, too, that Carl Brisson and John GUbert are known to have been high 
on her list of ideal men; and that we have no evidence that she has ever 
read a book. Except physically, we know little more about Garbo than 
we know about Shakespeare. She looks, in fact, about thirty-four, but 
her date of birth is disputable; the textbooks oscillate between 1905 and 



Part II: The Ainerican Theatre 349 

1906, and one biography ungallantly plumps for 1903, which may, of 
course, be a wound left by an embittered typesetter. Stockholm cradled 
her, and, like Anna Christie, she was the daughter of an impoverished 
sailor. She had a brother and two sisters, left school at fourteen, entered 
the newly expanding Swedish film industry, and was discovered by Mau- 
ritz Stiller. After the completion of Gosta Berling in 1924, her life is a list 
of movies, twelve silent, fourteen talking, and a file of newspaper pic- 
tures catching her aghast and rain-coated, grey-faced and weirdly hatted, 
on the gangplanks of ships or the stairways to planes. We often know 
where she is going, but never why. Occasionally a man is with her, a sort 
of Kafkaesque guard, employed to escort her to her next inscrutable 
rendezvous. Baffled, we consult the astrologers, who tell us that those 
born, as she was, between the end of August and the end of September 
are almost bound to be perfectionists; but what, we are left sighing, is 
she perfecting? 

She changed her name from Gustaffson to Garbo, the Swedish 
word for a sprite. I used to think the Spanish "garbo" an insult to her, 
having heard it applied to matadors whose work seemed to me no more 
than pretty or neat. A Hispanophile friend has lately corrected rrie: 
"garbo," he writes, "is animal grace sublimated — the flaunting of an 
assured natural charm, poise infected by joie de vivre, innate, high- 
spirited, controlled, the essentially female attribute (even in bullfight- 
ers). . . ." In short, "garbo" is Garbo without the melancholy, with no 
intimations of mortality. The word describes the embryo, the capital let- 
ter invests it with a soul. It is the difference between Gosta Berling and 
Anna Karenina. 

But here again I am acquiescing in the myth of gloom. Long before 
the fit of hoarse hysterics that convulsed her when Melvyn Douglas fell 
off his chair, Garbo had laughed, even if it was only "wild laughter in 
the throat of death," and made us laugh too. She was never wholly 
austere. Posing as a man in the tavern scene of Queen Christina, how 
blithely she made us smile at her awkwardness when asked to share a 
bedroom with the Spanish ambassador! A secret heart-smile, with the 
lips drawn back as if bobbing for apples, was always her least resistible 
weapon. Her gaiety coalesced, to the dismay of academic distinctions, 
with plangency. Her retirement is unforgivable if only because it means 
that now we shall never see her as Masha in The Three Sisters, a part 
Chekhov might have written for her. It takes lesser actresses to express 
a single emotion, mirth or mirthlessness. Garbo's most radiant grins were 
belied always by the anxiety in the antennae-like eyebrows; and by the 
angle of her head she could effect a transition, not alone of mood, but 



350 P^'t't II: The American Theatre 

of age. When it was tilted back, with the mouth sagging open, she was 
a child joyously anticipating a sweet; when it was tipped forward, the 
mouth still agape, she became a parent wide-eyed at her child's newest 
exploit. 

Some of her impact, certainly, was derived from the exoticism of 
her accent; hers was probably the first Swedish voice that many a million 
filmgoers had ever heard. Anglo-Saxons are notoriously prone to ascribe 
messianic characteristics to any stranger with a Slavic, Teutonic, or 
Nordic intonation; Bergner and Bergman are examples that come to 
mind, and the history of the London stage is punctuated with shrieks of 
exultation over long-forgotten soubrettes with names like Marta Kling, 
Svenda Stellmar, or Ljuba Van Strusi. Garbo was unquestionably assisted 
by the fact that she had to be cast, more often than not, as an exile : how 
often, to go about her business of home-wrecking, she arrives by train 
from afar! The smoke clears, revealing the emissary of fate, hungrily 
licking her lips. The displaced person always inspires curiosity: who dis- 
placed her, what forces drove her from her native land? If it was Garbo's 
luck to provoke these enquiries, it was her gift which answered them. 
The impulse behind her voyages was romantic passion. Bergner might 
have left home to collect Pekes, Bergman to go on a hiking tour: Garbo 
could only have journeyed to escape or to seek a lover. Which is, as a 
line in Ninotchka has it, "a netchul impulse common to all." 

Superficially, she changed very little in the course of her career; a 
certain solidity in her aspect suggested, at the very end, a spiritualised 
reworking of Irene Dunne, but that was all. She could still (and often 
did) fling her head flexibly back at right-angles to her spine, and she 
kissed as thirstily as ever, cupping her man's head in both hands and 
seeming very nearly to drink from it. And her appeal never lost its 
ambiguity. The after-dinner cooch-dance which drives Lionel Barrymore 
to hit the bottle in Mata Hari reveals an oddly androgynous physique, 
with strong-kneed legs as "capable," in their way, as the spatulate fingers: 
nothing is here of Merrick's "fleshie Principalities." Pectorally, the eye 
notes a subsidence hardly distinguishable from concavity: the art that 
conceals art could scarcely go further. If this undenominational temple- 
dance is seductive (and, like the swimming-pool sequence in Two-Faced 
Woman, it is), the explanation lies in our awareness that we are watching 
a real, imperfectly shaped human being, and not a market-fattened 
glamour-symbol. 

I dwell on Garbo's physical attributes because I think the sensual 
side of acting is too often under-rated: too much is written about how 
actors feel, too little about how they look. Garbo's looks, and especially 



Part II: The American Theatre 351 

her carriage, always set up a marvellous dissonance with what she was 
saying. The broad ivory yoke of her shoulders belonged to a javelin- 
thrower; she walked obliquely, seeming to sidle even when she strode, 
like a middle-weight boxer approaching an opponent: how could this 
athletic port enshrine so frail and suppliant a spirit? Queen Christina, 
reputedly her favourite character, is encased for several reels in mascu- 
line garb, and when besought by her counsellors to marry, she replies: 
"I shall die a bachelor!" And think of: "I am Mata Hari — I am my own 
master!" To lines like these Garbo could impart an enigmatic wit which 
nobody else could have carried off. Deficient in all the surface frills of 
femininity, she replaced them with a male directness. Her Marie 
Walewska was as lion-hearted as Napoleon himself, and I have heard 
her described as "Charlemagne's Aunt." Her independence (in the last 
analysis) of either sex is responsible for the cryptic amorality of her 
performances. In most of the characters she played the only discernible 
moral imperative is loyalty, an animal rather than a human virtue — that 
"natural sense of honour" which, as Shaw says, "is nowhere mentioned 
in the Bible." 

"Animal grace sublimated" : I return to my correspondent's phrase. 
If it is true (as I think it is) that none of Garbo's clothes ever appear to 
be meant for her, much less to fit her, that is because her real state is not 
in clothes at all. Her costumes hamper her, whether they are stoles or 
redingotes or (as on one occasion) moire, sequinned, principal-boy 
tights. She implies a nakedness which is bodily as well as spiritual. It is 
foolish to complain that, basically, she gave but one performance 
throughout her life. She has only one body, and in this incarnation that is 
all we can expect. 

Through what hoops, when all is said and done, she has been put by 
Seastrom, Cukor, Clarence Brown, and the rest of her mentors! She has 
gone blonde for them, danced "La Chica-Choca" for them, played a 
travesty of Sarah Bernhardt for them, stood straight-faced by for them 
as Lewis Stone warned her of "a new weapon called The Tank." Can we 
ask for more self-abnegation? A life of Duse was once mooted for her — 
what an education sentimentale, one guesses, she would have supplied 
for D'Annunzio! Later she hovered over, but did not settle on, a mimed 
role in Lifar's ballet version of Phedre. And at the last moment, when 
all seemed fixed, she sidestepped the leading part in Balzac's La Duchesse 
de Langeais. The most recent, least plausible rumour of all insisted that 
she would film La Folic de Chaillot, with Chaplin as the Rag-Picker. . . . 

So it looks as if we were never to know whether or not she was 
a great actress. Do I not find the death scene of Camille or the bedroom- 



352 P^^t II: The American Theatre 

stroking scene of Queen Christina commensurate with the demands of 
great acting? On balance, no. The great actress, as G. H, Lewes declared, 
must show her greatness in the highest reaches of her art; and it must 
strictly be counted against Garbo that she never attemped Hedda, or 
Masha, or St. Joan, or Medea. We must acclaim a glorious woman who 
exhibited herself more profoundly to the camera than any of her con- 
temporaries; but the final accolade must, if we are honest, be withheld. 



(2) W. C. Fields. 

If you had been visiting Philadelphia in the winter of 1892 and had 
wanted to buy a newspaper, you would have stood a good chance of 
having mild hysterics and a story to dine out on in after years. W. C. 
Fields, then a frowning urchin of thirteen, was spending a few halcyon 
months peddling papers; and his manner of vending contained already 
the germs of a technique which later made him one of the two or three 
funniest men in the world. While other lads piped about wars and foot- 
ball. Fields would pick on a five-line fill-in at the bottom of a page and, 
quite disenchantedly, hawk it at the top of his voice. "Bronislaw Gimp 
acquires licence for two-year-old sheepdog!" he would bellow at 
passers-by, adding unnecessarily: "Details on page 26!" And by the 
tone of his voice, his latest biographer* tells us, you would gather that 
Gimp was an arch-criminal, for Fields trusted no one. A flabby scowl 
sat squarely on his face — the same scowl that we see in the curious por- 
trait with which John Decker celebrated the comedian's sixtieth birth- 
day: with a doily on his head and a silver salt-cellar balanced on top of 
that he sits, squinting dyspeptically at the camera, perfectly well aware of 
the profanity of the caption: "Sixty Years a Queen." Fields disliked and 
suspected most of his fellow creatures to the end of his life: his face 
would work in convulsive tics as he spoke of them. For sixty-seven years 
he played duck's back to their water, until on Christmas Day, 1946, the 
"fellow in the bright nightgown" (as he always referred to death) 
sneaked up on him and sapped him for good. 

W. C. Fields: His Follies and Fortunes is certainly the best book we 
are likely to see about this droll and grandiose comic. Robert Lewis 
Taylor is a graduate of The New Yorker, and thus a master of the Harold 
Ross prose style — pungent and artless, innocently sly, superbly explicit: 

* W. C. Fields: His Follies and Fortunes, by Robert Lewis Taylor. 



Part II: The Ainerican Theatre 353 

what one would call low-falutin'. Like all The New Yorker's best profiles, 
this picture of Fields is composed with a sort of childish unsentimentality, 
the candour of a liquorous quiz kid. Taylor, having inscribed Fields' 
name glowingly on the roll of fame, beats him over the head with it. 
Except that he sometimes calls a mistress a "friend," he spares us little. 
We learn of Fields' astonishing consumption of alcohol (two quarts of 
gin a day, apart from wines and whisky) ; of his quite sincere cruelty (his 
favourite sequence was one in which he took his small niece to a fun fair 
and parked her "for safety" in the shooting gallery); of his never wholly 
cured habit of pilfering (on his first visit to England he strolled around 
stealing poultry hanging out in front of shops; it was his tribute to the 
salesmanship of the proprietors and, as he indignantly added: "You 
don't think I'd have stolen chickens in the Balkans, do you?"); of his 
jovial callousness towards his friends, towards most women, and towards 
the clergy. One rainy night Fields, fairly far gone, was driving home 
waving a gin bottle in his free hand, and generously gave a lift to a 
hitch-hiker. The man was outraged when Fields offered him a drink, 
and, explaining that he was a clergyman, went on to deliver a free 
sermon to the comedian — "I'll give you my number four," he said, 
"called 'The Evils of Alcohol.' " He was well into his stride when 
Fields nonchalantly pulled up alongside a hedge, kicked the man out, 
dropped a bottle of gin after him, and roared: "That's my number three 
— 'How to keep warm in a ditch'!" Equally savage was his exchange with 
a bartender in My Little Chickadee. "You remember the time I knocked 
down Waterfront Nell?" he said. The barman, pretty angrily, replied: 
"Why, you didn't knock her down, / did." "Well," Fields went on, un- 
perturbed, "I started kicking her first." He once genially condescended 
to teach an acquaintance of his, against whom he bore some slight grudge, 
a simple juggling trick requiring two paring knives. "I hope he worked 
at it," said Fields afterwards, "because if he did, he was almost certain to 
cut himself very painfully." Some of the managements for whom he 
worked complained about such jests as these. Fields never lost his tem- 
per on such occasions. "We must strive," he would say thoughtfully, "to 
instruct and uplift as well as entertain." And, eyeing them carefully, he 
would light a cigar. 

About all this Mr. Taylor is quaintly frank; and he is even better 
at describing (for nobody could ever explain) the mysterious caverns of 
private humour in which Fields delighted. There was the two-reeler en- 
titled The Fatal Glass of Beer which he did for Mack Sennett: it opened 
with Fields sitting on a campstool in a far Northern shack, wearing a 
coonskin coat and crooning to himself. From time to time he would get 



354 P'^'f't II: ^^^ American Theatre 

up, open the door, and cry: "Tain't a fit night out for man nor beast!" 
whereupon an extra would peh him in the face with a handful of snow. 
There was hardly any other dialogue in the film. 

Fields nearly always wrote his own stories (under pen-names such 
as Mahatma Kane Jeeves), and would drive studio chiefs to despair by 
his failure to understand that the fact that he appeared in every shot did 
not necessarily ensure continuity of plot-line. Still, he continued to scrawl 
plots on the backs of old laundry bills and to get $25,000 a time for 
them. Often he would wander through the streets wearing a false beard, 
a repulsive clip-in moustache, and an opera cape, and amble into any 
party he saw in progress, introducing himself as "Doctor Hugo Stern- 
hammer, the Viennese anthropologist." He first did this during the 
1914-18 war, "I remember telling one woman that the Kaiser was my 
third cousin," he mused; "she gave a little scream and ran like hell." 
His treatment of women often bordered on the fantastic: finding strange, 
unaccountable depths of hilarity in the Chinese, he made one of his 
mistresses dress in satin slippers and a split black skirt, and always 
called her "The Chinaman." Many of his letters to his last mistress and 
devoted nurse, Carlotta Monti, start out "Dear Chinese People" and are 
signed, even more bewilderingly, "Continental Person" or "Ampico J. 
Steinway." He liked ordering Chinese meals in his films: in International 
House (for Paramount in 1932) he called up room service and blandly 
asked for: "A couple of hundred-year-old eggs, boiled in perfume." 

Fields enraged most people he worked with. Mae West still 
remembers how stunned she was when, in the middle of a take, he 
benignly ad-libbed: "And how is my little brood mare?" He worked first 
for Mack Sennett and later for Universal and M-G-M (most notoriously 
in David Copperfield, in which he was narrowly restrained from doing 
his entire juggling routine) ; but after he left Ziegfeld's Follies in 1921 we 
are probably most indebted to Paramount, who suffered under him 
through twenty-one movies, including Tilly and Gus, If I Had a Million, 
Six of a Kind, Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch, Mississippi, and The 
Man on the Flying Trapeze. Much of the time they had to fight to keep 
him from cursing during takes : in retaliation he devised two expressions 
— "Godfrey Daniel!" and "Mother of Pearl!" — with which he baffled the 
Hays Office for more than a decade. They granted him a salary so 
spectacular that even Bing Crosby raised his eyebrows, and, by their 
unearthly tolerance, they allowed him to turn out a series of films which 
must rank amongst the least money-making comedy classics in cinema 
history. At last he left them, his powers quite unimpaired, and went to 
Universal for his last four pictures, You Can't Cheat an Honest Man, 



Part II: The American Theatre 355 

My Little Chickadee, The Bank Dick, and the amazing Never Give a 
Sucker an Even Break — the last two of which probably represent the 
height of his achievement. They were made between 1938 and 1942, 
when Fields was moving reluctantly into his sixties. Someday they should 
be revived by the film societies, for in addition to being amongst the 
funniest films of a good period, they are splendid illustrations of the art 
of film-making without portfoho, or cinematic actor-management. 

The function of a director in a Fields movie was clear right from 
the start. He either fought with or ignored them. He would reduce such 
men as Leo McCarey, Norman McLeod, George Marshall, and even 
George Cukor to impotent hysterics of rage by his incorrigible ad-libbing, 
his affectation of deafness whenever they suggested the slightest altera- 
tion in any of his lines or routines, and by his jubilant rudeness to anyone 
else who happened to be working in the neighbourhood. (Once, when 
it became known that Deanna Durbin was on a nearby lot and might 
be audible on clear days. Fields threatened "to get a good bead from 
the upstairs balcony and shoot her.") The only director to whose advice 
he ever paid attention was Gregory La Cava. "Dago bastard!" he would 
growl as, fretfully, he listened to La Cava's analyses of his gifts : yet he 
admitted that the director was in the right when he implored Fields not 
to work too hard for his laughs. What La Cava said is worth quoting, for 
it is acute and provides some sort of key to Fields' later methods. "You're 
not a natural comedian, Bill," he said. "You're a counter-puncher. You're 
the greatest straight man that ever lived. It's a mistake for you ever to do 
the leading. When you start to bawl out and ham around and trip over 
things, you're pushing. I hate to see it." He said that in 1934. 

La Cava was correct, as Fields' maturer films show. Fields quiescent 
and smouldering is funnier than Fields rampant and yelling. He played 
straight man to a malevolent universe which had singled him out for 
siege and destruction. He regarded the conspiracy of fate through a pair 
of frosty little blue eyes, an arm flung up to ward off an imminent blow, 
and his shoulders instinctively hunched in self-protection. It is hard to 
imagine him without the "as I suspected" look with which he anticipates 
disaster. Always his face looked injured (as indeed it was: the nose was 
ruddy and misshapen not through drink, but from the beatings he re- 
ceived in his youth); he would talk like an old lag, watchfully, using his 
antic cigar almost as a cudgel. Puffy, gimlet-eyed, and magnificently 
alarmed, he would try to outwit the agents of calamity with sheer pomp, 
and invariably fail. Everything he says, even the most crushing insult, is 
uttered as if it were a closely guarded secret: he admits a line rather 
than speaks it. Only his alcoholic aplomb remains unpersecuted: that 



356 f^^^ II: The American Theatre 

they cannot touch, these imps who plague him. Fields breakfasting with 
his screen family behaves with all the wariness of Micawber unexpectedly 
trapped in Fagin's thieves' kitchen. His face lights up only rarely, at the 
sight of something irresistibly and universally ludicrous, like a blind man. 
One remembers his efforts, in the general-store sequence of It's a Gift, 
to prevent a deaf and blind customer from knocking over things with his 
stick while Fields is attending to other clients. It was unforgettable, the 
mechanical enthusiasm of those brave, happy cries: "Sit down, Mr. 
Muckle, Mr. Muckle, please sit down!" (A stack of electric hght bulbs 
crashes to the floor. ) "Mr. Muckle, honey, please sit down!" 

His nose, resembling a doughnut pickled in vinegar or an eroded 
squash ball, was unique; so, too, was his voice. He both looked and 
sounded hke a cement-mixer. He would screw up his lips to one side 
and purse his eyes before committing himself to speech; and then he 
would roll vowels around his palate as if it were a sieve with which he 
was prospecting for nuggets. The noise that finally emerged was some- 
thing quietly raucous, like the crowing of a very lazy cock. (If you substi- 
tute "Naw" for "No, Sir" and cast Fields as Johnson, most of BosweU 
becomes wildly amusing, as well as curiously characteristic.) Fields' 
voice, nasal, tinny, and massively bored, is that of a prisoner who has 
been uselessly affirming his innocence in the same court for centuries: 
when, in It's a Gift, he drives a carload of people straight into a large 
reproduction of the Venus de Milo, his response as he surveys the frag- 
ments is unhesitating. "Ran right in front of the car," he murmurs, a 
little wearily. 

The recent revival of It's a Gift (Norman McLeod for Paramount, 
1934) was received gratefully by students of Fields' middle period. He 
does little heavy wooing in it, and robs surprisingly few people, but 
most of his other traits are well represented. The cigar is there; so is the 
straw hat, which nervously deserts him at moments of crisis and has to 
be retrieved and jammed back on to the large, round head which squats, 
Humpty-Dumpty-like, on the oddly boyish shoulders. There is Fields' 
old rival Baby LeRoy to spill a barrel of molasses, described by the 
comedian in a famous line as the "spreadingest stuff I ever saw in m'life." 
(To a friend who enquired the name of his new co-star, Fields rephed: 
"Fellow named LeRoy. Says he's a baby.") There is Kathleen Howard, 
the Fieldsian equivalent of Margaret Dumont, sneering with her wonder- 
ful baritone clarity at his "scheme to revive the celluloid collar." And 
there is the long and savoury sequence in which Fields, driven by Miss 
Howard's nocturnal scolding to seek sleep on the verandah, is kept 
awake by such things as a coconut rolling down a fire-escape, a squeak- 



Part II: The American Theatre 357 

ing clothes-line, an insurance salesman (who asks "Are you Mr. Karl 
LaFong, capital K small A small R small L capital L small A capital F 
small O small N small G?"), the whirr of bottles in a milk-crate, a "veg- 
etable gentleman" selling calabashes, and, of course, by Master LeRoy, 
who drops grapes from above into the comedian's mouth. "Shades of 
Bacchus!" mutters Fields, removing the eleventh. 

In the same programme as It's a Gift was a revival of Monkey 
Business, which the Fields section of the audience took in glacial silence, 
because this is script-bound comedy, the comedy of quotability. Groucho 
owes much to Perelman: Fields owes nothing to anyone, except dubiously 
Harry Tate. Fields strolls out of the frame into the theatre, while the 
Brothers remain silhouettes. Fields' fantasy has its roots in the robust 
soil of drunken reverie: theirs are in the hothouse of nightmare. They 
will resort to razors and thumbscrews to get laughs that Fields would 
have got with a rolled-up newspaper. Their comic style is comparable 
with his only in that, as Mr. Taylor notes, "most people harbour a secret 
affection for anyone with a low opinion of humanity." It is nowhere 
recorded what Fields thought of the Marx Brothers, but it is permissible 
to guess. Hearing them described: "Possibly a squad of gipsies," he 
might have grunted, pronouncing the "g" hard, as in gruesome. 

Fields is pre-eminently a man's comedian. Women seldom become 
addicts of his pictures, and it is no coincidence that his closest friends 
(John Barrymore, Ben Hecht, Gene Fowler, Dave Chasen, Grantland 
Rice) were all men. He belongs inseparably to the poolroom and the 
barroom — though rarely to the smoking-room; and while he looked like 
a brimming Toby Jug, it was always clear that no mantelpiece would 
hold him. Few wives drag their husbands to see his films, which may 
partly explain their persistently low profits. Like Sid Field, he rejected 
pathos to the last, even when working with child stars : he refused to tap 
the feminine audience by the means that Chaplin used in The Kid. It is 
appalling, indeed, to reflect what Fields might have done to Jackie 
Coogan, a less resiUent youth than LeRoy. Perhaps it is a final judgment 
on him that no self-respecting mother will ever allow her children to 
read Mr. Taylor's brilliant look — a chronicle of meanness, fraud, 
arrogance, and alcoholism. 

We know, by the way, Fields' opinion of Chaplin. Late in life he 
was lured to a cinema where some of the little man's early two-reelers 
were being shown. The laughter inside was deafening, and halfway 
through Fields uneasily left. His companion found him outside in the car 
at the end of the show, and asked what he thought of Chaplin's work. 
"The son of a bitch is a ballet dancer," said Fields. "He's pretty funny, 



358 P^^i 11: The American Theatre 

don't you think?" his friend went on doggedly. "He's the best ballet 
dancer that ever lived," said Fields, "and if I get a good chance I'll kill 
him with my bare hands." 

(1952) 



(3) James Cagney. 

Twenty-one years ago James Cagney, playing in his first film, in- 
vented a new kind of screen character. In more than fifty subsequent 
appearances he has polished and complicated it, but the type has re- 
mained substantially unchanged; and it may now be time to investigate 
its extraordinary influence. Morally and psychologically, it could be 
maintained that the Cagney code and manners have come to dominate 
a whole tradition of American melodrama. 

Before Cagney boffed Mae Clark with a grapefruit in Public En- 
emy, Hollywood had adhered to what was, by general consent, a reason- 
ably stringent set of moral principles. The film is no exception to the 
other popular narrative arts: in its infancy it clings to a broad and exag- 
gerated ethical system, based on pure blacks and whites. In the theatre 
this period is represented by the morality play, and was superseded by 
Marlowe, whose heroes were noble and wicked, fraudulent and pious, 
cruel and idealistic, at the same time. In the novel the period of over- 
simplification ended with the Romantics; and in the film it ended with 
Cagney. 

This is not to say that the American movie before 1930 was never 
immoral: the very urgency of the need for a Hays Oflice demonstrates 
the contrary. But its immorality, however blatant, was always incidental 
and subordinate : a sheikh might flay his wives with scorpions to enliven 
the curious, but he would be sure to be trampled on, baked, or impaled 
in the last reel. He was always transparently evil, and the flayee trans- 
parently innocent. In the early Westerns there is no doubt who is the 
villain; he is the man leaning against the bar in black frock-coat, ribbon 
bow-tie, and pencilled moustache. He is a kiUer, charmless and unfunny, 
and suffers dreadfully by comparison with the bronzed hero on the white 
horse; his part, too, is much shorter than the star's. In the twenties there 
was not only a rigid distinction between the good characters and bad; 
they were also evenly balanced in numbers and fame. Vice and virtue 
proclaimed themselves irrevocably within the first hundred feet, or the 
director was failing at his job. 



Part II: The American Theatre 359 

Cagney changed all this. In Public Enemy he presented, for the 
first time, a hero who was callous and evil, while being simultaneously 
equipped with charm, courage, and a sense of fun. Even more signifi- 
cantly, he was co-starred not with the grave young district attorney who 
would finally ensnare him, but with a bright, callow moll for him to slap. 
The result was that in one stroke Cagney abolished both the convention 
of the pure hero and that of approximate equipoise between vice and 
virtue. The full impact of this minor revolution was manifested in the 
1942-7 period, when Ladd, Widmark, Duryea, and Bogart were able 
to cash in on Cagney's strenuous pioneering. It now becomes fascinating 
to trace the stages of development by which the Cagney villain (lover, 
brute, humorist, and killer) was translated into the Bogart hero (lover, 
brute, humorist, but non-killer). It is an involved story. 

Probably it begins with the physical attributes of Cagney himself. 
One finds it hard to take such a small man seriously: how, after all, can 
a playful redhead of five feet eight inches really be a baron of vice? It is 
safe to say that if Cagney had been four inches taller, his popularity 
would be fathoms less than it is. Villains before him had tended to be 
huge; they loomed and slobbered, bellowed and shambled; you could 
see them coming, Cagney was and is spruce, dapper, and grinning. When 
he hits a friend over the ear with a revolver-butt, he does it as casually 
as he will presently press the elevator button on his way out. By retain- 
ing his brisk little smile throughout he makes one react warmly, with a 
grin, not coldly and aghast. Nobody in 1930, the year after Chicago's 
St, Valentine's Day massacre, at which Capone's lieutenants slaughtered 
nine men in a disused garage, would have tolerated any romanticisation 
of the gangster legend. When Muni played Scarjace for Howard Hawks 
two years later, he presented the mob leader as an unhealthy, ungainly 
lout, a conception clearly in key with contemporary taste, Cagney un- 
consciously paved the way for the advent of the smooth, romantic 
gangster of the late 'thirties; he softened pubhc opinion by sneaking up 
on it through a forgotten and unguarded loophole. He was never a ro- 
mantic figure himself — at his height you can't be — nor was he senti- 
mental — Cheshire cats never are — but he possessed, possibly in greater 
abundance than any other name star of the time, irresistible charm. It 
was a cocky, picaresque charm, the charm of pert urchins, the gaminerie 
of unlicked juvenile delinquents. Cagney, even with submachine-gun hot 
in hand and corpses piling at his ankles, can still persuade many people 
that it was not his fault. By such means he made gang law acceptable to 
the screen, and became by accident one of the most genuinely corrupting 
influences Hollywood has ever sent us. Cagney brought organised crime 



360 P^^t II: The American Theatre 

within the mental horizon of errand-boys, who saw him as a cavalier of 
the gutters — their stocky patron saint. 

But before the actor comes the script. What literary circumstances 
were conspiring to produce a climate in which the brutal hero could 
flourish? It would be superficial to neglect Hemingway, who was begin- 
ning to project on to the American mind his own ideal of manhood — a 
noble savage, idly smoking, silhouetted against a background of dead 
illusions. Surveyed impartially, the Hemingway hero numbers among 
his principal characteristics that of extreme dumbness: he is the sincere 
fool who walks phlegmatically off the end of the pier. He is honourable, 
charmless, tough, and laconic; and he is always, in some sense, a pirate 
or an adventurer. What Cagney did was to extract the moral core from 
Hemingway's creation and put smartness in its place. The result was a 
character charmingly dishonourable, but saved from suavity or smug- 
ness by his brute energy and swift, impetuous speech. Perhaps the 
simplest point of departure is that, whereas the Hemingway man never 
hits a woman for fun, Cagney made a secure living out of doing just that. 

The success of Cagney's methods made all sorts of variations pos- 
sible, chief among them the genre popularised in the novels and films of 
Raymond Chandler. Here the central character is tough, cynically coura- 
geous, and predisposed towards brutality; he is in fact identical with the 
Cagney version in all save one vital respect — he is on the side of the law. 
The process is thus completed: the problem of how to retain the 
glamour of the killer without the moral obloquy of murder has been 
solved. Let your hero be a private eye, and he can slaughter just as in- 
sensitively in the name of self-defence. 

Cagney himself has rarely compromised; at the height of his career 
he never hned up with the police or made any concessions to public 
morals beyond the token one of allowing himself to be killed at the end, 
as an indispensable but tiresome rubric. At his best {Public Enemy, The 
Mayor of Hell, The G-Men, White Heat) he flouts every standard of 
social behaviour with a disarming Irish pungency that makes murder 
look Uke an athletic exercise of high spirits and not a mean and easy 
transgression. He sweetened kilhng; and to have done this immediately 
after the Capone regime, during the era of the concentration camp and 
between two lacerating wars, is something of an achievement. 

He was born in New York in 1904 and educated at Stuyvesant 
High School and Columbia University; his background was East Side, 
but not the slum and tenement area. He began his stage career, mysteri- 
ously, as a female impersonator in 1923, and thereafter for six years 
danced and understudied in vaudeville. He was mostly penniless. In 



Part II: The American Theatre 361 

1929 William Keighley, then a Broadway director, saw Cagney and 
Joan Blondell in a romp called Maggie the Magnificent and starred them 
in Penny Arcade; the play was bought by First National, and all three 
went to Hollywood with it. Retitled Sinners' Holiday, it was released in 

1930. Cagney made eight pictures with Joan Blondell in less than four 
years, and she proved a perfect punch-bag for his clenched, explosive 
talent; the best of the series, Steel Highway, started a revealing vogue 
for stories about men who work in dangerous proximity to death-dealing 
machines. These films invariably centred on a character who was happy 
only when close to sudden extinction, who enjoyed tight-roping along 
telegraph wires or lighting cigarettes around kegs of dynamite. For such 
parts Cagney was a natural, and Wellman, who directed Steel Highway, 
quickly exploited the new star's edgy gameness by putting him into Pub- 
lic Enemy, with Blondell and Mae Clark. When the film appeared in 

1931, the age of the screen gangster had officially begun. Howard Hawks 
followed in 1932 with Scarf ace, which, though it had the advantage of 
one of Ben Hecht's best scripts, lacked Cagney's spearhead precision to 
hold it together. For ten years afterwards he led the gangster film to 
extraordinary box-office eminence, and four times appeared in the an- 
nual list of the ten top money-making stars. In 1932 Hawks made The 
Crowd Roars with Cagney and Blondell; in 1933 came The Mayor of 
Hell; in 1934 Michael Curtiz' Jimmy the Gent; in 1935 Keighley's ex- 
pert and sombre The G-Men; and finally, feeling that things were becom- 
ing too easy for him, Warners teamed Cagney with Bogart in Angels 
with Dirty Faces (1938) and The Roaring Twenties (1939). At this 
point he had made thirty-two films in nine years; the association with 
Blondell had dissolved, and his most frequent sparring partner was Pat 
O'Brien. 

Cagney was now maturely at his best. Even the most ascetic 
cineaste will admit that it is impossible to forget how he looked and 
talked at the height of his popularity. The spring-heeled walk, poised 
forward on the toes; the fists clenched, the arms loosely swinging; the 
keen, roving eyes; the upper lip curling back in defiance and derision; 
the rich, high-pitched, hectoring voice; the stubby, stabbing index finger; 
the smug purr with which he accepts female attention — Cagney's women 
always had to duck under his guard before he would permit them to 
make love to him. He was practically unkillable; it would generally take 
a dozen Thompson guns and a bomb or two to bring him to his knees; 
and he would always die running at, not away from, his pursuers, in a 
spluttering, staggering zig-zag, ending with a sohd and satisfying thump. 
He moved more gracefully than any other actor in Hollywood. And he 



362 P'^^t II: The American Theatre 

had a beguiling capacity for reassuring while he murdered: he would 
wrinkle up his face into a chubby mask of sympathy and then let you 
have it in the stomach. His relaxation, even when springing, was abso- 
lute; he released his compact energy quite without effort. When circum- 
stances forced him to shout, his face would register how distasteful he 
found it. 

Cagney's first rival in the game of romantic murder appeared in 
1936. Humphrey Bogart, five years Cagney's senior, had made half a 
dozen mediocre pictures since 1932, and had returned to the stage to 
play the escaping gangster, Duke Mantee, in The Petrified Forest. In 
1936 the play was filmed and Bogart was established. It was a new style; 
speculative, sardonic, sourly lisping, he stood out in direct contrast to 
Cagney, who was agile, clean-cut, and totally unreflective. Bogart fre- 
quently appeared unshaven; Cagney, never; but the challenge was clear, 
for both men speciahsed in whimsical law-breaking and both com- 
manded alarming sex-appeal. Cagney, who had captured several million 
infant hearts with pictures Hke Here Comes the Navy, Devil Dogs of the 
Air, and Howard Hawks' Ceiling Zero, had access to an audience to 
which Bogart never appealed; but Bogart split Cagney's female admirers, 
and was usually featured with bigger stars and better directors than 
Warners could offer Cagney. Bullets or Ballots (1936) followed The 
Petrified Forest; in 1937, after a brief and unsuccessful venture into 
legality as the D.A. in Marked Woman, Bogart made San Quentin and 
Kid Galahad; and he breasted the year with his superbly metallic playing 
of Baby-Face Morgan in Wyler's Dead End. He had added to the gang- 
ster film something which Cagney always avoided: the dimension of 
squalor. In Cagney's looting there had been an atmosphere, almost, of 
knight-errantry; Bogart, tired, creased, and gnarled, effectively debunked 
it. The two films they made together for Warners made an absorbing 
conflict of styles — with Cagney throwing his hard, twisting punches and 
Bogart lazily ducking them. Cagney's was the more accomplished exhi- 
bition of ring-craft, but Bogart's sewage snarl won him the decision. At 
times both men found themselves using the same tricks; each had per- 
fected his own version of the fanged killer's smile, and a good deal of 
The Roaring Twenties developed into a sort of grinning contest. 

The experience must have proved something to both Cagney and 
Warners, because he made no more gangster films for ten years. By then 
the war had begun, the mob was very small beer, and the echo of ma- 
chine-guns across deserted lots had lost its fascination for movie audi- 
ences. Bogart graduated to the side of justice, and the second important 
■change in the history of filmed mayhem had taken place. In 1941 he 



Part II: The American Theatre 363 

played Sam Spade for Huston in The Maltese Falcon — still the same wry 
brute, but more insidiously immoral, since now there was a righteous 
justification for his savagery. He repeated this performance in Across 
the Pacific, and when The Big Sleep appeared in 1945 it looked as if the 
pure gangster film was dead. In 1942 Paramount produced their answer 
to Bogart in This Gun for Hire — the soft and silky thuggishness of Alan 
Ladd; and Dick Powell entered what was by now a very competitive 
market with Farewell, My Lovely (1944) and Cornered (1945). Screen 
melodrama in this period was filled with ageing bandits, battering their 
way to glory under police protection. Meanwhile Cagney had not been 
idle, though films like The Strawberry Blonde, Captains of the Clouds, 
and The Bride Came C.O.D. (in which he daintUy plucked cactus nee- 
dles from Bette Davis' behind) were not materially helping his reputa- 
tion. In 1942 Curtiz made Yankee Doodle Dandy, a masterpiece of 
heartfelt hokum, and Cagney won an Academy Award with his sturdy, 
chirpy pirouetting; but the shamelessness of his early days seemed to 
have vanished. The woman-slapping outlaws of the forties were per- 
formed by feature players, not by stars, and they were mostly in the 
hands of Dan Duryea, the impact of whose rancid and lascivious un- 
pleasantness in The Little Foxes had been confirmed by his straw-hatted 
blackmailer in Lang's Woman in the Window (1944) and his raucous 
pimp in Scarlet Street (1945). The courage of nastiness had gone. 

In 1942 Cagney formed his own production unit with his brother 
William, and in seven years made only four films — Johnny Vagabond, a 
philosophical failure; Blood on the Sun, a commonplace espionage 
thriller; 13 Rue Madeleine, a documentary-style spy story; and The 
Time of Your Life — a shrug of a film, charmingly aimless and inexpen- 
sive, in which Cagney, as a talkative drinker, gave his best perfrmance 
since Yankee Doodle Dandy. The critics were suggesting that Cagney 
had agreed to accept middle-age and abandoned the orgiastic killing of 
his youth. Then, in 1950, he suddenly returned to Warners and, with 
Raoul Walsh, made White Heat. 

The style in that amazing film was the man himself: Cagney had 
never been more characteristic — flamboyant, serio-comic, and tricky as 
a menagerie. It is not easy to decide why he came back to straight gang- 
ster vehicles, though I have the impression that Twentieth Century-Fox 
had much to do with it; they had begun, in 1947, an ambitious campaign 
to sell Richard Widmark to the public. His weedy, snickering murderer 
in Kiss of Death gave an unexpected lease of life to the gangster film. 
Playing within the semi-documentary convention, he could not be per- 
mitted to dominate his films as Cagney had in the lawless thirties, but 



364 Part II: The American Theatre 

he had the same gimlet appeal and was tapping the same love of clever 
violence. By 1949 his popularity was such that it must have persuaded 
Warners to disturb the retirement of their senior hoodlum. 

Walsh and Cagney reverted in White Heat to the frankly artificial 
framework of Public Enemy: there were a few location sequences, but 
the main burden fell on the star's personality. The scenario made a genu- 
flection to contemporary demand by giving its hero a mother-complex, 
and Cagney staggered even his devotees by acting it up to the hilt with 
a blind conviction which was often terrifying: he never let up. The film 
dealt with the breakdown of a killer's mind and his slow, unwitting, un- 
admitting approach to the long tunnel of insanity. Cagney never indulged 
in self-pity for a moment: if the script called for a fit, he would throw 
one, outrageous and full-blooded; and by a miracle his integrity never 
gave out. The result was a lesson in neurosis which ranks, in recent 
Hollywood memory, only with Richard Basehart's in Fourteen Hours. 
One cannot unlearn the sequence in which Cagney, attempting to ward 
off a mutiny in the mob, succumbs to one of his recurring blackouts and 
drags himself to the cover of a bedroom, moaning in deep thick sighs 
like a wounded animal. And, above all, the scene in the prison refectory. 
Word is passed down the table to Cagney that his mother has been 
killed: he stops eating, grins spasmodically, murmuring to himself, and 
then goes berserk, letting out strange, bestial cries and punching, punch- 
ing at everyone with a compulsive defiance as he scampers the length 
of the hall. No other actor in Hollywood could have got away with that. 

The older, crisper Cagney was there too; even he has never out- 
done, for sheer casualness, the murder of the stool-pigeon, whom he has 
locked up in the luggage-trap of his car. "Kinda stuffy in here," the 
prisoner complains. "Like some air?" says Cagney, cocking a wicked 
eyebrow; and, stopping only to pop a hot dog in his mouth, fires six 
shots into him through the body of the car. The climax was nerve-rack- 
ing: cornered, he takes refuge in an explosives plant and is chased to 
the top of a huge circular vat of, presumably, T.N.T. Yelling: "On top 
of the world, Ma, on top of the world!" he sends his last bullet into it 
and is blown sky-high. It was audacious and incredible in retrospect, but 
such was the intensity of Cagney's playing that one refused to laugh. It 
is seldom easy to deride perfect stylists, even if one disapproves of the 
ends to which the style is being put. There could be no question, in this 
sequence, that a very remarkable actor had hit his full stride and was 
carrying his audience with him. 

I do not mean, by all this, to suggest that the crime film deserves 
over-serious analysis : it has always been openly unreal in structure, de- 



Part II: The American Theatre 365 

pending for its excitement on jazzed dialogue and overstated photog- 
raphy. But its influence on scripting and camera-work has been incalcu- 
lable, involving many of the most expert and adult inteUigences in 
Hollywood — Hecht, Hawks, Wyler, Toland, Huston, Wellman, Lang, 
Chandler, and Hellinger among them — and it has provided an incom- 
parable outlet for at least one unique acting talent. If it has had a perni- 
cious social influence, that is probably Cagney's fault, and there is no 
space here to balance the old scales between art and morality. For my- 
self, I do not mind walking the Edgware Road in peril as long as there 
is a Cagney picture at Marble Arch. A great deal of desperate urgency 
and attack would have been lost to the cinema if the gang film had not 
arrived, making fantastic technical demands on cameraman and electri- 
cian and recording engineer, with Cagney, safe and exulting, at the wheel 
of a bullet-riddled Cadillac. 



The Broadway Dilemma. 

"That the most exalted of the arts should have fallen into the re- 
ceivership of businessmen and gamblers is a situation parallel in absurd- 
ity to the conduct of worship becoming the responsibility of a herd of 
water buffaloes. It is one of those things that a man of reason had rather 
not think about until the means of redemption is more apparent." 

Such, in the spring of 1944, was Tennessee Williams' opinion of 
the theatre in New York, expressed just a year before he had his first 
Broadway success with The Glass Menagerie. Today, fifteen springs 
and many hits later, Mr. Williams appears to have found his means of 
redemption: he has joined the ranks of the "businessmen and gamblers." 
He and his director, Elia Kazan, own between them seventy-five per cent 
of Sweet Bird of Youth, the latest Williams play to have reached and 
ravished Broadway. In this development there is a parable of a very 
American kind. No longer is the artist a mere suppliant in the market 
place; he is packaging and selling his own wares. A playwright of Mr. 
WUliams' wealth and prestige can eliminate the middleman and share in 
the profits as well as coUect his royalties — a privilege unknown to nov- 
elists or indeed to anyone who writes primarily for the printed page. This 
is the climax of the Broadway process, the fulfilment of the Broadway 
dream — the birth, you might say, of a salesman. 

That a dramatist should thus turn tycoon is an event that may serve 



366 ^^I't II: The American Theatre 

as a symbol of the fantastic, pragmatic island through which Broadway 
runs. No other city of comparable size and influence is devoted exclu- 
sively — as New York is — to earning and spending. The nation's laws 
are not made here, nor is the country governed from here; yet Manhat- 
tan, whose ticking heart is the Stock Exchange, is the cultural capital of 
America. This is a singular state of affairs. In European countries, poli- 
tics and the arts almost invariably have their headquarters in the same 
place. (And when they don't, there is trouble, as in the case of West 
Germany, which has its seat of government at Bonn and its cultural 
heart in Berlin. ) What is odd about New York, making it unique, as far 
as I know, among the great cities of history, is that it performs the func- 
tion of an artistic capital in surroundings wholly dedicated to com- 
merce. In such circumstances, it is not surprising that playwrights be- 
come producers, or that New York is the only theatrical centre on earth 
without a single legitimate playhouse run on non-commercial lines, free 
from the necessity of showing a profit. 

The district around Times Square is New York in little, though 
writ extremely large: a barker's paradise, a shill's spawning ground, a 
wonder, a horror, and a surge of life. The square itself, where Broadway 
and Seventh Avenue converge and cross, is not a square at all. It is 
shaped like a diabolo, if you remember that ancient toy, and it looks 
appropriately diabolical. If you stand in the middle of it and turn slowly 
through 360 degrees, you will see (in the few seconds before you are 
mown down by a taxi) such things as Ripley's, Odditorium, where mal- 
formed fellow creatures are on view beside tableaux of medieval torture; 
a large number of souvenir shops, where you can buy plastic excrement 
to surprise your guests; and about a dozen cinemas, several of which 
specialize in heavily cut movies about nudist colonies and white slavery. 
You can also, if you have X-ray vision, see the American theatre, most 
of which is born and dies within a few hundred yards of where you stand. 
In Paris, Berlin, and Moscow there is no "theatre district." The same, 
to a slightly lesser extent, is true of London; it would take at least twenty 
minutes by cab to travel from the Palladium to the Old Vic. The geo- 
graphical compression of the New York theatre has no parallel any- 
where. The twenty-eight Broadway houses cluster around Times Square 
like iron filings round a magnet, so closely that half of them are squeezed 
into two city blocks — from 44th Street to 46th, between Broadway and 
Eighth Avenue. For a similar concentration of entertainment, I have 
sometimes reflected, you would have to go to the bordello district of a 
Spanish port. 

The concentration is more than physical; it is emotional as well. A 



Part II: The American Theatre 367 

Broadway opening is a much tenser affair than all but the most impor- 
tant of London first nights. More money is at stake; Sweet Bird of Youth, 
for instance, cost $150,000 to produce, and a musical could run three 
times as high. You would have to divide these figures by five to get the 
rough British equivalents. But, apart from finance, the atmosphere in the 
theatre is different. A London opening often has the feeling of a party; 
you mix with friends in the lobbies, which are usually spacious and Ed- 
wardian, you drink in the theatre bars during intermissions, and often 
you can smoke in the auditorium. Broadway, by contrast, is functional, 
urgently focussed on the business in hand; frivolity is an absentee from 
these nervous gatherings in the West Forties. No bars, no smoking, and 
few lobbies large enough to permit much mingling; during intermission 
you either read the programme in your seat or elbow your way out to 
shuffle, and frequently to shiver, on the sidewalk. At London first nights 
the most popular question is: "Are you enjoying it?" In New York it is: 
"Do you think it'll go?" 

Meanwhile, the seven daily critics are left to cerebrate undisturbed. 
One picks out Brooks Atkinson of the Times, with hat and coat on lap, 
looking gnomish, wily, and sedate; Walter Kerr of the Herald Tribune, 
who is toughly handsome, like a retired welterweight, and sometimes 
wears dark shirts that suggest both membership in the intelligentsia and 
allegiance to some nameless criminal syndicate; John McClain, the pres- 
ident of the Critics' Circle, beaming like the chairman of a business 
convention, and dressed rto match; Richard Watts of the Post, genial, 
chuckling, and — to use his favorite critical epithet — engaging; Robert 
Coleman, whose flowing hair and Chestertonian bulk consort strangely 
with a prose style that goes in for expressions like "slam-bang comedy 
smash"; John Chapman, plum-coloured above the collar and generaUy 
sunk in reverie; and Frank Aston, wiry and white-thatched, the newest 
addition to the seven make-or-breakers. Most of them spend the in- 
tervals sitting and pondering; it is no Hght task to pronounce verdict, in 
less than an hour of writing time, on an enterprise that has probably been 
in preparation for a year and may easily, in the course of its casting, 
financing, rehearsing, and rewriting, have driven several of its partici- 
pants to the edge of madness or beyond. The audience, aware that the 
show's statistical chances of success are about one in five, displays inor- 
dinate enthusiasm whenever the slimmest provocation is offered, ap- 
plauding every new setting, every new entrance (right down to the cop 
in the third act), every demonstration of physical agility (like climbing 
on a table), and almost every exit. This hair-triggered responsiveness 
can be highly distracting. In retrospect, especiaUy if the play has flopped, 



368 P^^i II: The American Theatre 

it reminds me of the ritual cheering with which observers on dry land 
offer encouragement to people on a sinking ship. When the curtain has 
fallen and the critics have fled up the darkened aisles to their typewriters, 
it takes a brave author to expose himself to the crowd as it spills into 
the lobby. James Thurber happened to find himself in this vulnerable 
position after the opening of The Male Animal, on which he collaborated 
with Elliott Nugent. The first man out was a critic he knew, who 
shrugged indecipherably and mumbled what sounded like: "Organ re- 
cital. Vested fever." The next was Marc Connelly, who told Thurber that 
he and Nugent had given Brahms' Fifth to a mandolin player. This upset 
Thurber considerably until he remembered that there is no Brahms' 
Fifth. 

Even the more conventional course of going to Sardi's for supper 
strikes me as pretty courageous if you are the author or, indeed, anyone 
involved in the play. Unless the evening has been unrelieved calamity, 
you are sure to be applauded as you shamble into the restaurant. I have 
watched this curious rite many times, and I have reached a few tentative 
conclusions. If you are applauded only by those at your own table, it 
means nothing. If to their applause is joined that of backers, press agents, 
friends, and gallant ex-wives, it still means nothing. If a few strangers 
chime in, still nothing. It is only when a large number of strangers ap- 
plaud standing up that you can be tolerably sure of one basic fact: your 
show will be running tomorrow. Assuming that you have chosen the 
Sardi's ordeal, there now follows an agony of waiting that goes on until 
half past midnight, when copies of the Times and the Tribune are cere- 
moniously distributed throughout the restaurant. For ten minutes the 
place rustles and crackles, while fingers fuss and get begrimed with 
newsprint; the whole room takes on the aspect of the ads about the Phila- 
delphia newspaper that "nearly everybody reads." The Atkinson review, 
mostly composed in short, declarative sentences, is studied first; next, 
one dives into the more florid prose of Mr. Kerr, who favours opening 
sentences like — and I parody: 

Along about halfway through "The Flatbush Thunderbolt," 
a frolicsome ditty called "That Old Dented Pillow" finds actress 
Tansy Brittle pausing in the act of caroling her maidenly distaste 
for unmade beds long enough to sweep her honeycomb hair out of 
her cornflower eyes, favor us with a dazzingly tooth-filled smile, 
and hiss at the conductor a mischievous: "What's with the tempo, 
bud?" I'm glad she asked that question. I'd been wondering the 
same thing all evening. 



Fart II: The American Theatre 369 

By current computation, if Atkinson plus Kerr plus any three other 
reviews are good, you have a hit; the same applies to Atkinson-or-Kerr 
plus Chapman plus Watts plus two others. Into such bizarre arithmetic 
does the Broadway industry conscript you. 

More anxious effort and nervous energy go into New York open- 
ings than into theatrical productions anywhere else on earth. I stress the 
anxiety and the nerves because they are the principal difference between 
the atmosphere of a Broadway premiere and the atmosphere, say, that 
attends a new production at the Moscow Art Theatre. The latter will 
have been rehearsed not for a rigid four weeks but for as long as the 
director thinks fit, after which it will gradually be shoe-horned into the 
repertory of a company that worries a lot about art but very little about 
economics. Security of this sort is a virtue; its vice is apathy. The Broad- 
way system of financial insecurity often induces the opposite vice of 
hysteria. Sometimes the hysteria can be creative, spurring people to 
ardours and self-discoveries of which they would not otherwise have 
been capable; only under the grimmest pressures are diamonds formed. 
But it can also be wasteful and neurotic; and it is never reassuring to 
watch. 

I shall always remember, after an opening in Boston, going to the 
director's hotel suite and finding, instead of the exhausted conviviaHty 
I had expected, a small factory operating full blast. In one room a fa- 
mous playwright (not the author of the play) was writing laughs into 
the first act; in another an even more famous playwright was gouging 
laughs out of the second act; and the director, leading me into the bath- 
room, asked me what I thought was wrong with the third. I said that it 
seemed to me to have come out of some other play. He said I was prob- 
ably right, because he had written it. Meanwhile, in the living room, one 
of the producers was talking, long distance, to a man in California, who 
was making radical suggestions based on the evening's performance, 
which naturally he had not seen. A popular song-writer was also con- 
tributing ideas, many of which were eagerly snapped up, although the 
show was not a musical. After an hour of this the first review appeared. 
It was a good one, and for several minutes we downed tools and toasted 
each other. Suddenly the director stumbled in, his face the colour of an 
oyster, holding the next review — a bad one. Within seconds everyone 
was back at work. As I slipped away, I asked the director where the 
author was. "Joe?" he said. "Oh, Joe's in Palm Springs." He waved 
vaguely and went on rewriting. 

The play whose parturition I briefly witnessed was a tragicomedy 
about back-yard sexual frustration and also a tremendous success. It was 



370 P'^i'i 11: The Afnerican Theatre 

a bad play, but it came at a time when "mood" was all the rage, and it 
was bursting with "mood" — a sort of steamy, twilit ambience of pubes- 
cent yearning. That was several years ago, and the vogue for such plays 
— best represented by The Glass Menagerie and The Member of the 
Wedding — has waned. Its expiring sigh may be heard in the subsequent 
spate of dramatized anecdotes about maladjusted children unable to 
"get through" to their parents. The parallel, and considerably older, 
fashion for "social drama," usually dealing with individuals crushed and 
humbled by society, seems likewise to have vanished. Since Arthur Mil- 
ler's The Crucible, no political play of any merit has been seen on Broad- 
way. 

To find out whether anything new is on its way in, it may be helpful 
to look at the theatre listings. As I write, twenty-six shows are running 
in New York, of which ten are playing to capacity. Five of the ten are 
musicals. In this department Broadway is still potent, although there is 
room for regret that the day of the great clown seems to be passing. A 
general display of ear-splitting good humour has replaced individual 
comic invention. The genius of Judy HoUiday was recently visible in 
Bells are Ringing, but the occasion was exceptional, and seven years 
have passed since Broadway saw a great male comedian in a musical — 
I refer to Phil Silvers, whose gaudy ego permeated a boisterous show 
called Top Banana that may come to be regarded by historians as the 
last outpost of vaudeville. The sixth of the ten sell-outs is the French re- 
vue La Plume de Ma Tante, which may owe some of its success to nos- 
talgia for the great days of the comic tradition. Two of the remaining 
four are domestic comedies safely spiced with sex. Both have a quality 
common on Broadway: built-in obsolescence. They will run for a sea- 
son, to be scrapped and replaced by something identical in every re- 
spect, except that the next model may feature a new husky-voiced young 
actress, a new setting (like Cuba), a new thematic twist (like incest), or 
a new old movie star coaxed panting out of semi-oblivion. 

So far, you notice, eight of the ten hits come under the heading of 
light entertainment. Yet a cab-driver complained to me the other day 
about the shortage of entertainment facilities in New York. "Take a 
couple who come in from out of town," he said. "Sure, the wife maybe 
wants to go a theatre, but the businessman wants to relax." The implica- 
tions here are frightening. One is that Broadway, despite its plethora of 
Ughthearted hits, is still not relaxing enough for visiting males; the other 
is that plays of any kind are of interest mainly to sensitive, emotional, 
artistic people hke women. 

The two theatre-fillers I have not yet mentioned are what we call 



Fart II: The American Theatre 371 

"serious" plays, meaning that they present a view of life from which 
the pain is not left out. The first is Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in 
the Sun, a humane tragicomedy that won the 1958-9 Critics' Circle 
Award; on the present Broadway horizon, this comes nearest to what 
I expect drama to be. It tells of an episode in the life of a poor, ambi- 
tious Negro family in Chicago, examining their reactions to a windfall 
of insurance money and their ultimate decision to buy a house in a white 
district. It is gay, earthy, thoughtful, and close to the facts — not the 
documentary facts so much as the facts of human feeling. It is not a 
masterpiece, but it has the quality without which no modern master- 
piece is possible : it evokes a life that relates to ours and makes sympathy 
endemic. 

The other "serious" play is Tennessee WUliams' Sweet Bird of 
Youth. I won't go into the plot, except to say that it concerns a Southern 
gigolo who returns to his home town, accompanied by a decrepit movie 
queen who is alcoholic but far from anonymous, and allows himself to 
be castrated at the orders of a local political boss whose daughter, many 
years before, he has unwittingly infected with venereal disease. (The 
emasculation is timed to take place on Easter Monday, which probably 
implies that Mr. WUliams means us to equate his hero with Attis, the 
ancient god who bled to death after castrating himself and whose sym- 
bolic rebirth was celebrated in Rome on roughly the same day as Christ's 
resurrection.) What interests me most about the play is what it has in 
common with Archibald MacLeish's J.B., which won the Pulitzer Prize. 
Both are obsessed with personal guilt; both are written in a vein of in- 
flated melodrama; and both were directed by Elia Kazan. The hero of 
J.B. is Job modernized, a prosperous businessman beset by a series of 
disasters culminating in a nuclear war that brings him out in a nasty 
(though happily non-lethal) rash. Although his misfortunes are clearly 
explicable in human terms, he insists on ascribing them to God, who 
periodically thunders at him over the public-address system. At the end, 
capriciously, the author turns about and asserts that there is no divine 
judge upstairs; there is simply conjugal love on earth. Since holocausts 
are inevitable, all we can do is try to get on better with our wives. 

Both plays have a missing facet: neither admits any human respon- 
sibility for the human condition. We see man in relation to forces, either 
cosmic and external (J.B.) or neurotic and internal (Sweet Bird), that 
are utterly beyond his control. He is aUenated from society, isolated and 
victimized, and nowhere is the possibility even considered that he might, 
in some madcap Utopia, be able to shape the circumstances in which he 
lives. Both heroes go through torments in expiation of sins they are 



372 P^i't II: The American Theatre 

hardly aware of having committed. It is as if suffering itself, in a vacuum 
and for no discernible purpose, were by deJBnition heroic, useful, and 
even necessary. 

I have heard reputable critics defend these plays on the grounds 
that they have "theatrical vitality," that they savagely assault the nerves, 
that they are hurricanes of emotion, and that they brutally lacerate the 
sensibihties. All I can say is that they represent, for me, wanton exploita- 
tions of human vulnerability, and that "theatrical vitality" without hu- 
man relevance seems to me as unpleasant as a carefully planned car 
smash. I confess that I have little sympathy with those who regard an 
ideal theatrical experience as something akin to sitting in the direct path 
of a herd of stampeding elephants. Perhaps the most alarming thing 
about the two plays is that hardly any of the critics mentioned the brack- 
ish hoHowness with which they are written; it was enough that they were 
block-busters. One felt, in many of the reviews, a hunger for Grand Sub- 
jects, for sonority and amplitude and universal repercussions — a hunger 
so intense that it seemed not only ready but eager to take the will for the 
deed. This appetite for grandeur, and its concomitant, a proneness to be 
deceived by pretentiousness, are not in themselves to be derided. What 
perturbs me is the nature of the themes and the quality of the emotions 
in which grandeur is sought and found. Their official acceptance paves 
the way for audiences composed rather of passive, masochistic voyeurs 
than of people seeking keys to the predicament of contemporary living. 

I have said that Elia Kazan directed both plays. In the past few 
years Mr. Kazan has grown harsher and at the same time more senti- 
mental — the latter epithet applies to any situation that is filled with more 
emotion, cruel or tender, than it can hold. It would be helpful if a com- 
mittee could be formed to prohibit the warlike use of Kazan and to re- 
strict him to peaceful purposes; for if his present tendency continues un- 
checked, it may mean the end of theatrical civilization as we know it. I 
spoke earlier of trends. There is only one trend in the Broadway the- 
atre, and its name is Kazan. It is up to him whether he follows his cur- 
rent path of violence or returns to pursuits that befit the compassionate 
man who directed A Streetcar Named Desire and Death of a Salesman, 
the best American productions since World War II. 

Broadway's problem is its economic need to appeal to the widest 
possible audience, instead of to the audience that a particular play may 
require. Since there are many playwrights who aim their work at a circle 
of spectators smaller than that which is required to make a Broadway 
hit, some other outlet had to be found. Hence Off-Broadway, the epi- 



Part II: The American Theatre 213 

demic of little theatres that now surrounds Broadway on every side ex- 
cept the West. In a night club last year a straw-hatted comedian sang: 

Give my regards to Oflf-Broadway, 
Remember me to Sheridan Square. 
Tell all the gang at the Jan Hus Auditorium 
That I will soon be there. . . . 

The movement is not new; it began before America's entry into 
World War I with the Provincetown Players, who staged the early work 
of Eugene O'Neill, and the Washington Square Players, who incubated 
the Theatre Guild and were incidentally responsible, in 1916, for the 
debut of Katharine Cornell. In the Thirties and Forties, however, the 
downtown bloom went to seed; Off -Broadway was ignored by the critics 
and concentrated mainly on amateur shows. In 1949 there were only 
five companies operating away from the Orion's Belt of Broadway. To- 
day there are twenty-four. The nourishment that hastened this startling 
proliferation was provided in 1952 by Brooks Atkinson, who wrote an 
enthusiastic review about a revival of Tennessee Williams' Broadway 
failure Summer and Smoke at the Circle-in-the-Square. Geraldine Page, 
who played the lead, was launched overnight; so was Jose Quintero, the 
director; and so was Off -Broadway. In 1953 the Phoenix Theatre on 
Second Avenue reopened its doors, under the direction of Norris Hough- 
ton and T. Edward Hambleton, and has stayed miraculously active ever 
since; for the most part it has staged revivals with visiting stars, though 
in 1954 it presented a non-star musical called The Golden Apple that 
won a Critics' Award and cost $75,000, which remains a record for Off- 
Broadway productions. 

Since then New York's little theatres have spread across the city, 
up from the Village to the East Seventies, the West Eighties, and the 
41st Street Theatre, on the very boundaries of Broadway. The Brecht- 
Weill Threepenny Opera opened at the Theatre de Lys in September 
1955, and you can see it there still. Siobhan McKenna appeared in Saint 
Joan, and Franchot Tone in Chekhov; and a couple of years ago Ten- 
nessee Williams decided to have his double bill. Garden District, un- 
veiled Off-Broadway, at the York Theatre on First Avenue. Apart from 
Miss Page and Mr. Quintero, the movement has fledged such valuable 
talents as those of Kim Stanley, Ben Gazzara, Jack Palance, Joseph 
Anthony, Jason Robards, Jr., Fritz Weaver, William Ball, and Hal Hol- 
brook, whose Mark Twain is the most convincing performance of an 
old man by a young one that I have ever witnessed. Off-Broadway has 



374 P^fi II: The American Theatre 

also presented an adventurous list of new foreign plays, among them 
works by lonesco, Beckett, Genet, and Brendan Behan, and it has of- 
fered fresh and startling insights into plays that Broadway saw and re- 
jected, such as O'Neill's The Iceman Cometh, Arthur Laurents' A Clear- 
ing in the Woods, and Miller's The Crucible. 

I cannot imagine anybody seriously challenging me when I assert 
that Off-Broadway today is the most active little-theatre movement on 
earth. This is not to say that it is without dangers. Ten years ago, if a 
Broadway producer received an offbeat script that impressed him, al- 
though it clearly needed a lot of revamping, he would probably buy an 
option and encourage the author to work on it, with the result that it 
might reach Broadway within a season or two. Nowadays, faced with 
the same script, he might well say: "See how it goes Off-Broadway, and 
then we'll think again." What I mean is that Off-Broadway may become 
a convenient receptacle into which all experimental plays are glibly 
siphoned; and that would be a glum prospect. 

Is there a place in New York where the idealism of Off-Broadway 
and the know-how of Broadway might wed? Not at present, I fear, but 
in 1963 there may be. That is the year in which the Repertory Theatre 
at the Lincoln Centre for the Performing Arts is due to open. Three mil- 
lion dollars have been contributed toward the buUding of the playhouse, 
which will seat twelve hundred and go up alongside a concert hall, a 
dance theatre, and the new Metropolitan Opera House. The Centre's 
president, John D. Rockefeller III, has appointed a committee to keep 
an advisory eye on the dramatic side of the project. The result could be 
a National Theatre, something unknown, though long sought, in Amer- 
ican history. 

How will it work? The chairman of the committee, a respected 
Broadway producer named Robert Whitehead, hopes to assemble a 
company of about twenty actors, under contract for not less than two 
years, and to stage six shows every season. One, or possibly two di- 
rectors would be employed on a permanent basis. But where will the 
actors, directors, and authors come from? Who will pay them? Mr. 
Whitehead's guess is that the theatre will need a minimum of $750,000 
to see it through its first year. After that, he thinks it wiU be able to pay 
its way. 

To my thinking, this is a fatal error. If the Lincoln Square Theatre 
is to supply a full spectrum of the riches of American drama, alternating 
them on repertory lines, it can never show a profit, any more than the 
Louvre or the Comedie Frangaise. It must not be asked to compete with 
Broadway on Broadway's terms, any more than the public library is 



Part II: The American Theatre 375 

asked to compete with Scribner's bookshop. It should be demanded of 
the new theatre that it should lose a solid, whacking sum of money each 
year, just as the Metropolitan Opera House makes an annual deficit of 
half a million dollars. The actors and directors should be paid well 
enough to lure them away from Broadway and Hollywood, and the same 
goes for scripts — the Lincoln Square Theatre should not have to go 
begging, cap in hand, for plays that Broadway has rejected. 

To carry out this, the only conceivable policy for such a theatre, 
the first necessity is money, and I have no doubt that one or another of 
the larger foundations can be cajoled into coughing up. The second ne- 
cessity is personal dynamism. There must somewhere be an artistic 
director with passion, zeal, and knowledge enough to create a tradition 
of repertory drama in a city — and a country — where it has never existed. 
His name might be Kazan; it might be Harold Clurman; it might be Lee 
Strasberg. It might even be an unfamiliar European name: Rudolf Bing, 
after all, came from Europe to reform the Metropolitan, and all the 
conductors of the New York Philharmonic before Leonard Bernstein 
were foreigners. 

"The trouble with the whole thing," a Broadway producer re- 
marked to me, a propos of the Lincoln Square Theatre, "is that there's 
nobody in on it who really gives a burning damn." He exaggerated, of 
course; but not, I think, absurdly. Many burning damns, in addition to 
a lot of money, will have to be given if this great chance is to be fully 
seized. The idea behind the project, according to Mr. Rockefeller, is 
that it should be "an enduring symbol of America's cultural maturity." 
This statement, I suggest, needs a httle modification. It is the "cultural 
maturity" of modern capitahsm, rather than of America, that will be on 
trial at Lincoln Square. 



Culture in Trouble. 

Since this year ends in a nought and is thus divisible by ten, nearly 
all the leading American magazines have lately been firing at their read- 
ers such stark, factitious questions as "What Trends WiU Guide Our Cul- 
ture in the Coming Decade?" and "Have We a Viable Stance for the 
Sixties?" A man from a national weekly telephoned me a few weeks ago 
to ask the former question. He caught me at a bad time. I had just seen 
a TV programme in which Jacques Barzun, Lionel Trilling, and W. H. 



376 P^'f'i II: The American Theatre 

Auden had discussed "The Crisis in Our Culture" with such fussy in- 
coherence that they seemed to be not so much debating the crisis as em- 
bodying it. Mr. Barzun sat bolt upright and smirked, while Mr. Trilling 
leaned so far forward in cerebration that he appeared, in close shots, 
about to butt the camera. Mr. Auden, looking like a rumpled, bulkier 
version of Somerset Maugham, slumped in his chair and squinted gaily 
at everyone, flicking ash at random, grinning mysteriously in the man- 
ner of Mr. Amis' Professor Welch, and displaying throughout the show 
the sartorial hallmark of the middle-aged English intellectual — a collar 
tip curling up over the lapel of his jacket. From time to time he made ec- 
centric interventions, as when he said he was ashamed to admit that he 
read newspapers, and when he suddenly asked Messrs. TriUing and 
Barzun how old they were. "Videowise," he emerged as a distinct indi- 
vidual with little to say; they, on the other hand, had plenty to say, but 
seemed devoid of individuality. They spoke with the corporate drone of 
a house organ (Mr. Barzun's "House of Intellect," no doubt), beside 
which Mr. Auden sounded like a mouth organ — i.e., a very human in- 
strument, capable of expressing great skittishness and great melancholy, 
but difficult to integrate into an orchestra. Together they formed a trip- 
tych of ofiicial American culture, and their appeal, especially to intelli- 
gent viewers under forty, must have been almost nil. 

What will happen to American culture at that level of punditry I 
would not care to predict. Yet elsewhere, in the theatre and among the 
younger writers, I do discern a trend — or, to be more exact, a strong and 
growing preoccupation with two themes. The first of these, mainly no- 
ticeable on Broadway, has to do with biography. Popular shows are 
tending more and more to be based on the careers of people still living 
or fairly recently dead. Two years ago we had Dore Schary's Sunrise at 
Campobello, which was concerned with Franklin Roosevelt's battle 
against polio; Gypsy, last season's biggest musical hit, explained how 
the youthful Gypsy Rose Lee became a successful stripper; and the most 
prosperous shows of the new season — Fiorello!, The Miracle Worker, 
and The Sound of Music — deal respectively with the early triumphs of 
Fiorello LaGuardia, Helen Keller's childhood struggle against physical 
handicaps, and the adventures of an Austrian family called Trapp, who 
escaped from the Nazis and became famous in America for their sing- 
ing. We have also had a play founded on the efforts of Harry Golden, a 
Jewish editor living in the South, to fight segregation through ridicule; 
and before long Judy Holliday is to appear in a dramatized biography of 
Laurette Taylor, whose problem was the bottle. 

I won't go into the quality of these shows, which, apart from Gypsy 



Part II: The American Theatre 377 

and Fiorello!, has so far been pretty poor; what concerns us here is their 
prevalence and popularity. In no other country has the theatre ever de- 
voted itself so zealously to biographical studies of the recent national 
past. The trend began in Hollywood with films like The Jolson Story, 
The Glenn Miller Story, and their numerous successors, all of which 
offered quasi-factual proof that it was possible for anyone, given enough 
talent and energy, to rise from the utmost obscurity to the topmost celeb- 
rity. Broadway has now followed suit, and American drama, which has 
hitherto given most of its serious attention to fictional characters de- 
feated by circumstance, appears to be changing its course; the new em- 
phasis is on real-life characters who triumph over circumstances. The 
individual, spurred on by courage, faith, and good will, not only survives 
adversity but emerges from it an object of national admiration. And if 
we complain (as we might in the case of an ordinary play) that this 
picture of life is facile and wishfully optimistic, we are easily refuted, 
because: "It actually happened." American audiences, of course, have 
an unbounded faith in victorious individualism; all the same, it does their 
suspension of disbelief no harm to know that the victory in question can 
be historically verified. 

Along with this interest in upbeat biography goes a second trend, 
which I hesitate to call religious or even spiritual, since in some of its 
manifestations it is neither. Less precisely, and therefore more accu- 
rately, it concerns the behef that what happens inside a human being is 
more important than what happens outside. This notion, of course, is 
usually expressed in Freudian terms: man is said to be ruled by the 
internal trinity of Ego, Superego, and Id. Sometimes, stated in another 
form, it declares that the summit of human aspiration and responsibility 
is achieved when one person learns to love another. The hero of J.B., 
the modern Job play with which Archibald MacLeish won a Pulitzer 
Prize last year, sees no hope in politics, psychiatry, or organized religion; 
discarding all three, he "finds fulfilment," as they say, by loving his 
wife. A similar conclusion is reached in The Tenth Man, a heartily ac- 
claimed new play by Paddy Chayefsky. The central character, a suicidal 
Jewish ex-Communist in the throes of analysis, is cured of his disen- 
chantment with mankind by taking part in a ceremony held to exorcise a 
supposed demon from the body of a young girl. "It is better to believe in 
dybbuks," an old rabbi tells him, "than in nothing." This eminently dis- 
putable statement weans the hero away from nihUism, and he achieves 
personal salvation by falling in love with the girl. 

In plays like this it is never suggested that society's relationship 
with man might be among the causes of his distress, and the idea that 



378 P'i'^t II: The American Theatre 

man might have a constructive relationship with society has clearly been 
abandoned as impossibly Utopian. Happiness lies within, and nowhere 
else; the world outside, brutal and immutable, is best ignored, since it 
can only bruise you and damage the inviolability of your soul. This 
doctrine of inner illumination crops up passim in contemporary Ameri- 
can writing. J. D. Salinger's Glass family, for instance, is mainly com- 
posed of latter-day mystics and self-slaughtered saints whose offers of 
disinterested love are constantly being slapped down by a society which 
their humility forbids them to criticize. The Beat extremists go much 
further, dedicating themselves to reaching enlightenment through lysergic 
acid or opium; and the most memorable theatrical experience at present 
accessible in New York is an Off-Broadway play called The Connection, 
which deals, somewhat in the manner of Waiting for Godot, with the 
mystique and the technique of dope addiction, including the lassitude 
that precedes the "fix" and the illusion of spiritual insight, soaring and 
superhuman, that follows it. (The author's name is Jack Gelber.) Nor 
must I omit Norman Mailer and the philosophy of Hipsterism that he 
expounds in his controversial new book. Advertisements for Myself, 
which is partly a Mailer anthology and partly an exercise in self-revela- 
tion. Soon after he wrote The Naked and the Dead Mr. Mailer became 
an active Socialist; now, symptomatically, he has swung to the opposite 
extreme and embraced a religion of outright, psychopathic (his own 
word) egocentricity. The Hipster, in brief, is a man who has divorced 
himself from history as weU as from society; who lives exclusively in the 
present; who thinks of himself as a white Negro; and whose aim is self- 
discovery through sexual pleasure, enhanced if need be by the aid of 
marijuana. 

Christopher Caudwell, in his brilliant Studies in a Dying Culture, 
attributed the decline of bourgeois art to two forces: 

On the one hand there is production for the market — vulgar- 
ization, commercialization. On the other there is hypostatization of 
the art work as the goal of the art process, and the relation between 
art work and individual as paramount. This necessarily leads to a 
dissolution of those social values which make the art in question a 
social relation, and therefore ultimately results in the art work's 
ceasing to be an art work and becoming a mere private phantasy. 

A ham-fisted paragraph, but not without relevance. Mr. Caudwell, 
who died more than twenty years ago, could not have predicted that 
Broadway, the theatre market, would take to selling the life stories of 
famous contemporaries; and if he had, it would merely have confirmed 



Part II: The American Theatre 379 

his opinion of commercialism. Meanwhile, what he says about art de- 
veloping into "private phantasy" is disturbingly borne out by the cult of 
inner fulfilment that I have just described. 

This movement, according to some observers, represents nothing 
more serious than — to quote one of them — "a transient reaction to 
Soviet atheism and materialism." I hope they are right. In fact, they had 
better be; American culture is tilting far too heavily in one direction, and 
it is becoming quite urgent that the balance should be restored. 

(i960) 



Ill: 



THE 



FBENCH 
THEATRE 



Les Niiits de la Colere, by Armand Salacrou, and Oedipe, 
BY Andre Gide; Fart age de Midi, by Paul Claudel — at the 
St. James' Theatre, London. 

M. Barrault's may be a grasshopper mind, but there is no denying 
its energy and versatiHty. It wears seven-league boots. 

Salacrou's Nuits de la Colere smells, I am afraid, somewhat of the 
typewriter and the deadline. It is a tale of the Occupation, of a moral 
weakling who betrays his best friend to the Gestapo. One regrets that 
the dialogue is so often unsubtle and journalistic, so easily led into sen- 
timentalism. The sheep (played with touching dignity by M. Jean 
Desailly) is not really a traitor: Salacrou shifts that responsibility to his 
wife, one of Mme. Renaud's piercing sketches of bourgeois frivohty. 
M. Barrault speaks for the hunted man with shrewd and sturdy com- 
petence — ^but how is it that five minutes after leaving the theatre one 
cannot recall this actor's voice? 

Oedipe, played frankly and formally as an intellectual vaudeville 
turn, fares much better. M. Barrault syncopates it, jazz-fashion, substi- 
tuting for Gide's lofty ironies a general mood of high good-humour. His 
own Oedipe is a ferocious sophisticate, squatting in angular boredom 
through Tiresias' admonitions, his pained eyebrows wriggling like ser- 
pents. He brings off one superbly hazardous thing in the last act: having 
blinded himself, he re-enters, stumbles towards his throne, bumps his 
eye against it, and recoils like a kitten from an electric fire. M. Barrault 
is hardly to blame if his costume and wig reminded me of Pocahontas. 
Among his prankishly incestuous children, the enchanting Elina La- 
bourdette stands out, a frail and witty Ismene. 

M. Barrault's most distinguished production to date is unquestion- 
ably Claudel's Partage de Midi. Set in and around China, this a very 
personal and oblique study of a self-wounding love. Mesa, a customs 
official, loves Yse, a married woman; he arrives, through mortal sin, at 
an intense apprehension of God — a sequence in which one may trace 

383 



384 P'^'f't III: The French Theatre 

the harsh growth of Claudel's own Catholicism. The performance (by a 
cast of four) is as lovely and mysterious to watch as a tank of tropical 
fish, and Felix Labisse's settings wonderfully enforce the mood. His 
first act, aboard ship, is particularly fine — a hothouse of canvas awnings 
alive with reflected ripples. 

The evening's single weakness is M. Barrault's own exhibition as 
Mesa. Gripped by the necessity of communicating to us an aspiring 
spirit, he shuts tight his eyes, clenches his fists, and mimes "aspiration" 
with an increasingly exasperated curtness, feeling, how deeply, the im- 
portance of Mesa's phght, but never soaring, never (to use his own 
phrase) "taking off." But there is something more than compensation 
in Mme. Edwige Feuillere's Yse: this is acting of a fragrance and fuUness 
for which my memory cannot find a rival, unless it be Mme. Feuillere's 
Marguerite Gautier two Christmasses ago. Her voice, even in agony, 
strokes the forehead of every man in the audience, and she can fire it to 
violence with the suddenness and attack of a lioness. Her moment of 
union with Mesa, in the second act, left one line quivering in my mind 
like a dagger: "// n'y a plus d'Yse!" She speaks it, as Bernhardt is said 
to have spoken Pelleas' "Moi! Moi! et Moil", in the tones of a strangled 
dove. 

(195O 



Thrice Blessed. 

Theatrically, Paris makes us all sybarites. The English critic, ac- 
customed to begging and yapping for the veriest crumb of quality, rap- 
idly finds that his taste for caviare is regarded not as a bizarre craving 
but as a natural appetite which not to satisfy would be a gross discour- 
tesy. 

Consider those Temples of Dramatic Gastronomy, the three great 
repertory theatres of France. Most ancient and blessed is the Comedie- 
Frangaise, whose twin shrines owe their dignity to the fact that, unlike 
any theatre in England, they are of the blood royal, created by 
Louis XIV's express decree. The English court patronised the theatre: 
the French court adopted it; and therein Hes the difference. To support 
its company of thirty societaires (elected for twenty years) and fifty pen- 
sionnaires (engaged for a season), the Comedie receives an annual sub- 
sidy of some £.380,000 — more than twenty times the sum granted to the 
Old Vic — with which it is able not only to keep new plays and estab- 
lished classics permanently alternating in its repertoire, but also to stage 



Fart III: The French Theatre 385 

reprises of lesser works applauded in their day and now revived to test 
their endurance, thereby ensuring that no masterpiece dies of neglect. 

The point about the Comedie is that it is the touchstone, the stand- 
ard of measurement, the guarantee of continuity, the rule which must 
be learned before it can be broken; the central blazing sun which, no 
matter how many satellites whirl off from its periphery, provides the 
dramatic universe with a constant punctum rejerens. Its acting style, 
clear as a chessboard and taut as a drum, blends the rhetorical past 
with the realistic present, welding the players together into an orchestra 
of concerted expertise. French is a language that easUy petrifies into 
cliche and formula. The end of the world, when it arrives, will surely be 
announced in French; but this very hardness and finality of outline has 
forced the French to bend the language to their will by means of gesture 
and inflection. What their tongue prohibited, their temperament has 
achieved. By making an unnatural effort, they became "natural actors"; 
and the Comedie enshrines the result. To see its production of de Mon- 
therlant's Port-Royal is to feel a bridge of solid architecture beneath 
one's feet; to see anything at the Old Vic is to leap from one greasy 
stepping-stone of individual talent to another. True style is a weapon 
which, though it may split mountains, can also crack nuts. Witness 
Moliere's Les Amants Magnifiques, the gracious frailty of which is ex- 
actly matched by Suzanne Lalique's settings, soaring and dissolving, 
shining in pearl and gold. 

Beyond question it was the Comedie that created the audience for 
classical repertory on which Jean-Louis Barrault drew when he seceded 
in 1946 to set up the non-subsidised Compagnie Renaud-Barrault at the 
Marigny. This is another Temple, but one in which the high priest 
preaches too many of the sermons. Barrault, a born director of high 
intellectual vigour, lacks both the stature and the presence of a great 
actor. About Alceste in Le Misanthrope there must hang a ruinous 
Byronic grandeur: Barrault, unable to supply more than a petulant 
asperity, is acted out of sight by Pierre Bertin as Oronte, a bland pink 
trout of a poet manque. Barrault's supreme virtue is that he will fly at 
anything; Shakespeare, Kafka, Fry — and even Chekhov, whose genius 
shrivels under the searchlight of the French language, which brusquely 
dispels his mists, sharpening his vague evocative outlines into razoi- 
edged silhouettes. One yearned, in Barrault's production of The Cherry 
Orchard, for the looseness of Enghsh. Chekhov's vital thhd dimension is 
achieved only by Jean Desailly as Lopakhin, the only character in the 
play whose approach to life is calculated, realistic, and thoroughly 
French. 



386 P^^^ III: The French Theatre 

Any other nation would have been satisfied with two such reper- 
tories. France insisted on a third and got it: Jean Vilar's Theatre Na- 
tional Populaire, installed at the Palais de Chaillot at a cost to the public 
of £55,000 a year. Low prices and a programme ranging from Corneille 
to Bertolt Brecht keep the gigantic fan-shaped auditorium regularly 
filled. I am myself antipathetic to the French classics; their starved 
vocabulary is a penance to my ear, and I agree with Stendhal that 
"I'alexandrin est un cache-sottise." For me Corneille's Cid does not 
flower, and I gloated when the audience failed to spot such transpositions 
as "honneur" for "devoir" and "violence" for "impatience." Yet from 
this prolonged display of baleful pomp one fact clearly emerged : that in 
Gerard Philipe the T.N.P. has the best jeune premier in the world, a 
limpid, lyrical young animal about whom the only reservation must be 
that animals seldom age well: an ideal Cid rarely grows up into an ideal 
Lear. About the T.N.P's production of Brecht's Mere Courage I have 
no reservations at all : a glorious performance of a contemporary classic 
which has been acclaimed everywhere in Europe save in London. Into 
this ribald epic of the Thirty Years' War the squalor of all wars is some- 
how compressed. Does Germaine Montero, as the sleazy, irresistible 
heroine, nag where she should dominate? Yes — but the play carries her. 
Never before have I seen a thousand people rise cheering and weeping in 
their seats. 

The three Temples, as international in scope as only truly national 
theatres can be, cruelly expose our shortcomings. Next year M. Julien, 
the ebullient impresario of the Theatre Sarah-Bernhardt, intends to re- 
peat the international drama festival he held so successfully last summer. 
On that occasion the English contribution was a somewhat depleted 
company of The Confidential Clerk. M. Julien is already worried. How 
shall he find an English group fit to compete with the French, German, 
and Russian contingents? Where, in the absence of a national playhouse, 
is our best to be sought? Must we forever shrink from committing our- 
selves to a theatre which should enshrine our drama, cradle and nourish 
it, presenting eight times a week a performance of which we can say 
to our guests: "This is English acting. This is our style"? If it be argued 
that there is no audience for such an experiment, I answer in the tradi- 
tional maxim of French actors: "The public always follows the crowd." 
And in any theatre, from Shakespeare's to our own, the intelligent public 
is ultimately the crowd. 

(1955) 



Part IW.The French Theatre 387 



La Flume de Ma Tante, at the Garrick, London. 

My allegiance to M. Robert Dhery, the star and author of La Plume 
de Ma Tante, dates from a rainy evening in Paris last winter when I 
attended a revue of his devising called Ah! Les Belles Bacchantes! 
Within ten minutes I had entered a new dimension of comedy, the 
dimension of calamity. 

Everything in the show went wrong: not loudly wrong but mildly, 
shiftily, provoking those tiny tremors that plague the nervous system 
when, in a large quiet room, a small object falls thunderously to the 
floor. While announcing the first item (a modest scena depicting the 
creation of the universe), the compere paused and stared, without com- 
ment but with immense disquiet, at something that was happening on 
the stage a few feet in front of him. Whatever it was (and he did not 
explain), it disturbed other members of the troupe as well; they would 
break off, in the middle of songs and sketches, to contemplate it. Glances 
of horror would be exchanged, and mute appeals flashed towards the 
wings. At length the truth transpired: what everyone on stage knew, and 
had determined to hide from us, was that gas was escaping from the 
footlights. No action was taken, because by now the cast had other 
things on its mind: a lion was at large in the backstage corridors, and one 
of the dressing-rooms was on fire. 

M. Dhery has been presenting shows like this for more than seven 
years, and I was a late-comer to the cult. In La Plume de Ma Tante he 
and his squadron of harassed stoics make their London debut. Over some 
of their work, it must be admitted, there hangs a pall of slip-shod im- 
provisation; and they are without their greatest clown, the irreplaceable 
Louis de Funes. Yet enough remains to throw serious doubt on the 
English definition of revue as an entertainment in which acid, modish 
people say acid, modish things. Nothing in the present show is satirical, 
and nothing is topical — how could it be, since M. Dhery's sense of 
humour has no malice and is quite untethered to time and place? If we 
seek a parallel, we may find it in the films of M. Jacques Tati and no- 
where else on earth. 

The deviser himself takes part, with a touch of Chaplin in his 
method and of Commedia dell' Arte in his hneage. He treats his com- 
pany, a bright-eyed troupe to whom ghastly things are constantly hap- 
pening, with enormous compassion. I am not sure why he intruduces 
M, Christian Duvaleix as "my brother-in-law, Amsterdam," but when 



388 P^^t UhThe French Theatre 

M. Duvaleix slinks ogling into view, the penalty is swift: his electric 
guitar blows up in his face. At this he betrays absolutely no surprise. 
Imagine the convulsions with which an English comedian would greet 
a similar mischance and you have the measure of M. Dhery's directorial 
tact, which amounts to a minor revolution in comic technique. Or con- 
sider Mile. Colette Brosset's appearance as an understudy involved in 
a pas de deux with an Eton-cropped ballerina whose interest in her is 
not exclusively professional; vaguely aghast, Mile. Brosset confides to 
the audience no more than a single, horrified whisper: "She must be 
mad!" And I have not yet mentioned the superb M. Jacques Legras, 
whose face is a fish-mask of utter despair and who eats dog-biscuits for 
solace; nor would it be fair to omit my delight in the brief item entitled 
"Domingo Blazes and His Courageous Latin-American Band." (Cou- 
rageous in what sense I do not know, though I suppose it takes courage 
of a sort to work for a bandleader three feet high.) M. Gerard Calvi's 
music is wanly haunting, and the dances are led with long-limbed aban- 
don by Mile. Nicole Parent, who shows in a bullfight ballet that she 
really knows something about how bulls are fought. 

M. Dhery's speciality is the comedy of disaster, the gaiety of quiet 
desperation, and because of this he provides the perfect response to the 
alarming events of our time. He teaches us, when confronted with calam- 
ity, to react with only the faintest of shrugs. We may look fooUsh, but 
we have kept our dignity. His basic theme is embarrassment, the agony 
of a man discovered in a moment of private aberration, of anti-social 
lunacy; and he implies that such lunacy is not only funny, but healthy. 
I shall often return to the Garrick in the weeks to come, knowing that, 
however much I may chafe at the passing crudities, there will always be 
golden moments at which, suddenly and without warning, tears of laugh- 
ter will stand in my eyes. Either M. Dhery is a genius or the word has no 
meaning. 



Stars from the East. 

The second Paris Drama Festival, now entering the seventh of its 
ten weeks, is already a resounding success. Every theatrical capital has 
sent a team except Moscow, and this will be remedied next year, when 
we are promised the Maly Theatre in Chekhov. One of the few flops has 
been Judith Anderson, playing Medea in a Widow Twankey wig and a 



Part III: The French Theatre 389 

style describable only as armpit rhetoric. One of my special joys was the 
great Neapolitan comedian Eduardo de FiUppo, appearing in his own 
play Questi Fantasmi! and giving a performance that combined the 
urbane authority of Louis Jouvet with the deadpan melancholy of Buster 
Keaton. But Paris, so far, has kept its loudest cheers for the Berliner 
Ensemble of Bertolt Brecht and — hors de categoric — the Peking Opera. 

Brecht's troupe, a post-war phenomenon, is some twelve hundred 
years younger than the Chinese opera, yet both have much in common. 
They presage an era in which drama, ballet, and opera are no longer 
separate arts requiring separate critics. They mix dance, mime, speech, 
and song in the service of the ultimate god: narrative. And both are 
popular forms, untouched by anything esoteric. The Chinese programme, 
made up of excerpts from longer works, contains little we would call 
opera; most of it is brilliant tumbling, acrobatics put to the task of telling 
a good story. An old man takes a girl across a river in a punt, but there 
is no river and no punt: the performers mime the action, with the deli- 
cacy of cats. Two warriors fight in a darkened room, miming even the 
darkness (for the stage is brightly lit), missing each other by inches, 
prowling and swooping through fifteen minutes of ceaseless comic 
invention. You may object that nothing very profound takes place; but 
I cannot call superficial an art that explores, with entranced and exqui- 
site love, the very wellsprings of physical movement, speaking the lan- 
guage of the body so ardently that a flexed arm becomes a simile and a 
simple somersault a metaphor. 

Bertolt Brecht's Epic Theatre borrows heavily from the Chinese: 
the emphasis is classically on how events happen, not romantically 
on the emotions of the people they happen to. Once in a generation the 
world discovers a new way of telling a story. This generation's pathfinder 
is Brecht, both as playwright and as director of the Berliner Ensemble. 
Last year he electrified Paris with Mother Courage; this year he brought 
The Caucasian Chalk Circle. My first impression was of petrified amaze- 
ment at the amount of money involved. From East Berlin Brecht has 
transported dozens of impressionistic settings, hundreds of costumes, a 
new revolving stage for the Sarah-Bernhardt, a new curtain, and seventy- 
six actors — scarcely more than half of his permanent company. Brecht 
has adapted the Oriental tale of the Chalk Circle to medieval Georgia. 
An army rebeUion unseats the governor of a city, whose wife flees in 
panic, leaving her baby son behind; Grusha, her maid, protects the child, 
finds it a father, and then, when the revolt is quelled, disputes posssesion 
of it with the real mother, now returned to power. The judge gives the 
chUd to Grusha because, in Brecht's words: "Each thing belongs to him 



390 P^^i III: The French Theatre 

who can do it the most good." If I was unmoved by what Brecht had to 
say, I was overwhehned by the way in which he said it. It is as shocking 
and revolutionary as a cold shower. In the British theatre everything is 
sacrificed to obtain sympathy for the leading characters. Chez Brecht, 
sympathy is nowhere; everything is sacrificed for clarity of narrative. No 
time is wasted on emotional climaxes. Situations which our playwrights 
would regard as cues for sentimental tirades are drowned by the clatter 
of horses' hooves or cut off by the whirr of the closing curtain. Three 
commentators, seated at the side of the stage, then outhne in song what is 
going to happen next. 

I have read a great deal about Brecht's theory of acting, the famous 
Verfremdungseffekt, or "aUenation effect." What it boils down to in 
practice is something extremely simple. The small parts are all general- 
ised. They wear masks down to their lips, fashioned like faces in Bosch 
or Brueghel and so exaggerated that we know at a glance what kind of 
people they are meant to be — drunken, prying, lecherous, miserly, what 
have you. We can thus concentrate on the principals, who wear no masks 
or make-up and play with absolute realism. These include Ernst Busch 
as the Judge and Angelica Hurwicz as Grusha (a fat girl, because Brecht 
does not want us to judge his characters on the easy grounds of physical 
attractiveness); but the supporting players are not neglected. Helene 
Weigel, the governor's wife, leaves no doubt that she is a great actress : 
she has eyes like the glint of hatchets, a clarion voice, and a physical 
technique as supple as that of Martha Graham. 

The whole production is superb : a legend for today told in Flemish 
and Oriental terms. One sees why Brecht feels that our method is as 
different from his as driving a carriage-and-four is from driving a car. 
Unless we learn it soon, a familiar process will take place. Thirty years 
from now Brecht will be introduced to the EngUsh critics, who wtU at 
once decry him for being thirty years out of date. The ideal way of 
staging Henry IV, Tamburlaine, Peer Gynt, and a hundred plays yet 
unwritten will have been ignored; and the future of the theatre may have 
been strangled in its cot. 

(1956) 



Part III : The French Theatre 391 



Le Chien du Jardinier, by Lope de Vega; Occupe-toi d'Amelie, by 
Georges Feydeau; and Le Misanthrope, by Moliere, at the 
Palace, London. 

"Us se moquent toujours de mon amour de la pantomime," said 
M. Barrault on Monday night, flashing his grin slantwise at the house. 
He was speaking of his colleagues, who had just queued up to recite, 
with prelusive ahemming, a number of French poems, and who now 
departed, leaving the stage free for M. Barrault to impersonate a horse. 

The simulation was superb; nothing more equine has graced our 
theatre since the retirement of a certain Earl's Court ingenue; and yet, 
when the actor had pranced off into the wings, my heart was with the 
mockers. I had seen, that evening, altogether too much haute-ecole 
theatre. The troupe had dandy-minced it through Le Chien du Jardinier, 
a chilling triviahty adapted from Lope de Vega; then had come the 
poems; and then the horse. In a way that he can scarcely have guessed, 
M. Barrault's climax was not quite inept. After two hours' demonstration 
of the dramatic uses of snaffle and curb, many of us, echoing Roy 
CampbeU's quatrain, were beginning to wonder what had become of the 
horse. 

These doubts persisted throughout the Renaud-Berrault company's 
first week in London. In the newer mises en scene one got a feeUng of 
dehydrated Luntishness, of a husband-and-wife team bent on titiUation 
rather than revelation; we were almost in the world of Julia Neilson and 
Fred Terry — an entirely respectable world, but poles apart from 
M. Barrault's avowed intent, "the cult of the Absolute." The creative 
6clat of ten years ago was distinctly dimmed. Some of the blame, no 
doubt, attaches to the bourgeois audiences of the Marigny Theatre; the 
rest lies with the mechanistic "robot" method to which M, Barrault has 
committed himself. It has led him into an increasing preoccupation with 
manner and an increasing carelessness of matter. The best of this week's 
productions, Occupe-toi d'Amelie, is as joyously volatile as it seemed 
seven years ago; DesaiUy and Bertin are superb, and M. Barrault's 
brief intervention as an aged clerk with a strangely pendulous right foot 
may weU be his finest performance; but already, through its virtues, the 
limitations of the style are visible. It fits Feydeau's characters, obsessed 
automata who butt into each other like dodgem cars; it suits, indeed, all 
farce and much comedy. It can make a superficial play seem a master- 
piece. It can also make a masterpiece seem superficial. 



392 P^^i III: The French Theatre 

Le Misanthrope is a case in point, Desailly and Berlin, at ease in 
any style, rise readily to the challenge — especially Bertin, whose out- 
size portrait of Oronte owes more to the Comedie-Frangaise than to the 
Marigny. Boobyish in looks and speech, the actor conceals beneath his 
pink, porpoise exterior a tremendous technical authority. And a dignity, 
too: a dignity gapingly absent from M. Barrault's Alceste. Though he 
has learned how to overcome his lack of inches, M. Barrault cannot 
coax his slim and foxy mask into the semblance of majesty. I do not say 
that Alceste is a tragic character, but I do say that he is trying to solve a 
profound and universal human dilemma — whether or not to accept the 
standards of the society into which one is born. Alceste decides to re- 
ject them; but where Moliere chides him for going too far, M. Barrault 
derides him for ever having begun. His Alceste is a mannerless, egotistical 
upstart, a small man inflated by pride. Only his prevailing bad temper 
distinguishes him from the artful valets whom M. Barrault has made 
his own in Marivaux, Lope de Vega, and other plays by Moliere. The 
part is cut down to fit the actor. 

Similarly, Mme. Renaud's Celimene, guileful and undulant, replete 
with bubbling chuckles, is an exact facsimile of former performances in 
comparable plays; and she repeats it as the widowed countess in Lope's 
comedy, tantalising her secretary with hopes of bed. Next week, in 
Claudel and Giraudoux, I hope to find the company's range broader and 
deeper than at present I think it. 

(I9J6) 



Christophe Colomb, by Paul Claudel, and Intermezzo, by Jean 
Giraudoux, at the Palace, London. 

In an age top-heavy with cerebration, who can resist the innocent 
physical exuberance of Jean-Louis Barrault? "Once upon a stage 
. . ." he begins, and goes on to beguile us with a whole armoury of 
theatrical magic. His production of Christophe Colomb is a child's dream 
of what the playhouse should be: a home of ecstatic noise, sweeping 
movement, and miraculous conjuring tricks. In discipHne and audacity 
it rivals Orson Welles' Moby Dick. The decor is a great slung sail, 
pendent over a rostrum; before it the chorus chants and swirls, whipping 
both halves of the story along — the triumphant, west-bound first half, 
ending when the sight of land converts mutiny into exultation, and the 
sobering return, ending in indigence and death. By using the sail as a 



Part III: The French Theatre 393 

cinema screen, M. Barrault makes the wooden O infinitely elastic: when 
the chorus speaks of doves (colombes) , we see them wheeling and 
fluttering on the canvas. 

Twice he extends the frontiers of the theatre by throwing on to the 
screen filmed close-ups of scenes that live actors are playing in the fore- 
ground, so that one's eye can choose between close shot and long shot. 
Surprise, both visual and aural, is exploited with stunning virtuosity; and 
the acting is pitched at a level of intensity that resembles flamenco sing- 
ing in that it almost transcends the banality of the words it is called 
upon to utter. Almost, but not quite : one cannot wholly disguise banality 
as insistent as Claudel's. Those confident sages who find Brecht's chroni- 
cle plays naive when judged by the standards of Western sophistication 
must surely have squirmed on Monday night, for Claudel's bombastic 
epic achieves a shallowness which not even an East German yokel 
could mistake for profundity. M. Barrault worships Copeau and fills his 
stage with doves, but only in a Uteral sense does the result resemble the 
Vieux Colombier. His style, being bold and explicit, works wonders with 
bold and explicit plays; but when it seeks to transmit the nuances of ob- 
servable reality, it fails, as an archer would fail who sought to hit a gold- 
fish. Its gesture is too broad; the air around it seems over-full of manual 
rhetoric. The flavour of life is condemned to death by underlining. It is 
as if a man were to expel into a recorder the amount of violently com- 
pressed air that is necessary to blow a trumpet. It is by pufl&ng its cheeks 
too strenuously that the company fails in its greatest test, the Giraudoux 
Intermezzo. 

1 do not mean to imply that this is a realistic play: Giraudoux's 
kaleidoscopic prose is purple to the last semi-colon, pure anthology stuff; 
yet unless the actors keep one foot rooted in reality, the point of the piece 
is lost. The only road to death, says Giraudoux, is life: to fall in love 
with death without having first embraced life is the supreme crime. It is 
committed by a young schoolmistress who falls in love with a ghost, 
which bureaucracy condemns to immediate exorcism. The first climax, 
in which the ghost reveals that he is really alive and is instantly shot 
dead, is cheated of its proper poignancy because in M. Barrault's pro- 
duction everyone on stage seems just as unreal as the ghost. The second 
climax is similarly muffed. Life and death, the known world and the un- 
known, battle for the girl's allegiance; and the village chemist (who de- 
scribes himself, exquisitely, as one chosen by destiny to carry out its 
transitions) tempts her back to life by besieging her ears with a seductive 
cacophony of everyday noises. She awakens an adult, reconciled at last 
to the impure tumult of reahty. 



394 P^^i III: The French Theatre 

In M. Barrault's production she awakens to a world of artifice. She 
awakens to Maurice Brianchon's settings, which are as dully styhsed as 
Pierre Bertin's performance as the Government Inspector. She awakens 
to a betrayal of Giraudoux's message, which is that the atmosphere of 
life itself, however polluted and imperfect, is wonderfully worth breath- 
ing. Cleverly as Simone Valere plays her, she awakens to puppetry. 

Jean Desailly, as her bureaucratic lover, shows once more his 
mastery of confusion, embarrassment, awkwardness, and perplexity, 
qualities that French playwrights demand so often of their male charac- 
ters and so seldom of their women. Popular French drama, like French 
theatre troupes, is a matriarchy. It is primarily designed for the entertain- 
ment of sophisticated wives, and many are the talents that have been 
enfeebled by the necessity of wooing the blue-rinsed Parisian female 
audience. No French playwright would dare to humiliate a woman as 
Blanche is humiliated in A Streetcar Named Desire; and no French- 
woman, as things turned out, was able to play the part properly. A few 
years ago George Jean Nathan asked one of his Paris colleagues whether 
Mistinguett was still alive. At the time she was, and the colleague said so. 
"And is Sarah Bernhardt still dead?" Nathan continued. The question is 
not as jocular as it sounds. Spiritually, Sarah lives on to dominate the 
French theatre, whose watchword is the gentle subjugation of the male. 
What names come to mind when you think of French acting? Not 
Coquelin or Lemaitre, but Rachel, Rejane, Bernhardt, and Feuillere, 
each with her foot exquisitely planted on some masculine neck. If you 
wonder why French actors shrug so much, let me remind you that the 
shrug, a sign of bafflement or apology, is the only defence they have 
against the consistent brilliance of the lines written for French leading 
ladies. 

One's summing-up of M. Barrault's theatre must be that it is balletic, 
comedic, mimetic, Dionysiac even, but essentially out of touch with life. 
Art preserve me from insisting that theatre should always be lifelike: 
that would be to fall into the old puritan error of condemning poetry on 
the gi-ounds that it is all lies and feigning. My quarrel with M. Barrault 
is that he feigns too much and too exclusively; he has uprooted himself 
from the soil that should nourish him. He has lost contact with his base. 
Many plays respond to his treatment, but not Intermezzo; not the best. 



Part III: The French Theatre 395 



Fauvre Bitos, by Jean Anouilh, at the Theatre Montparnasse- 
Gaston Baty. 

A sensation being bruited, I went last week to see M. Anouilh's 
new play, Pauvre Bitos, ou Le Diner de Tetes, which has split Paris into 
two camps — those who dislike it, and those who detest it. Mere dislike is 
the Right-Wing reaction, while active loathing issues from the Left: 
both camps, needless to say, are packing the theatre. Far more than An- 
tigone, Bitos is M. Anouilh's political manifesto. It is a cruel, discordant 
work, as bitterly imagined as written, in mood as violent as that of a 
neurotic schoolboy locked up in a dormitory while his classmates frolic 
in the sun; and its conclusion lies somewhere between 'A plague on 
both your houses" and "I'll be revenged on the whole pack of you." It is 
the blackest by far of M. Anouilh's plays. It is also the most cunningly 
constructed, a dirty act done with the utmost art, a torture-chamber de- 
signed by a master builder. 

In shape it resembles a fox-hunt, except that the fox in this instance 
has envenomed teeth. A truer similitude, perhaps, would be the slow 
tearing of wings from a wasp. Maxime, an arrogant young landowner, 
has inherited a derelict priory where in 1793 the revolutionary tribunal 
condemned several of his ancestors to death. Thither he summons his 
rich friends to a dinner at which each must impersonate a figure of the 
Revolution. Their aim is to vilify and humiliate the guest-of-honour, a 
Communist deputy named Bitos, who was once a lowly scholarship boy 
at Maxime's school. His entrance, as Robespierre, is a stupefying coup 
de theatre. The other guests are correctly clad in periwigs and ordinary 
dinner jackets; the ignorant Bitos arrives in full eighteenth-century fig, 
complete with knee-breeches and buckle-shoes. Atop his perruque 
there rests, absurdly, a bowler hat. Stifling his shame, he tries to pass off 
as high-born banter the increasingly savage gibes of his tormentors, who 
scorned him even as a child because, as Maxime icily observes, "vous 
manquiez de grace." The charade now begins to bare its fangs, declaring 
its contempt for the common man and his pitiful efforts to set up "an 
aristocracy of mediocrity." 

From taunts they proceed to direct intimidation. Robespierre was 
shot in the face on the eve of his execution; so a pistol, loaded with 
blanks, is fired at little Bitos, who promptly swoons. In a dream he re- 
lives Robespierre's life in counterpoint to his own, and finds that the 
melody is the same: both were sullen, unloved tots who grew up to 



396 P'^'^t ni: The French Theatre 

condemn in others the qualities they lacked themselves. Unable to please, 
Bitos has devoted his life to denouncing pleasure. This explanation of 
revolutionary zeal is painfully familiar, but it has seldom been advanced 
so liverishly, and never with so complete an absence of pity. Michel 
Bouquet, rightly divining his author's wish, allows no hint of pathos to 
soften his portrait of Bitos as a smug and bloodless puppet. But M. 
Anouilh's spleen is far from spent. Out, in the last act, come the thumb- 
screws. The revived Bitos is plied with drink until he consents to accom- 
pany the jokers to a night-club, where they plan to involve him in an 
unsavoury brawl. They are unexpectedly foiled. As a wise insurance 
against the charge of total misanthropy, M. Anouilh has admitted to the 
cast two people in whom human feehng is not quite extinct. One of 
them, a young schoolteacher, leaves the dining-room with a short and 
half-hearted paean to what he vaguely calls "le vrai peuple." The other 
is a girl who now urges Bitos to quit the party before further ignominy 
befalls him. He takes her advice, but turns in the doorway to inform her, 
in a frenzy of spite, that nothing is as crushing as pity; and that it is she, 
in consequence, whom he will remember with the purest hatred. 

As an essay in political thought, the play is imitative and negligible. 
As a study of human character, it is hysterical and often foul-mouthed. 
As a piece of dramatic architecture, it is, as I have said, exquisitely 
gripping. But it fascinates me most in another aspect: as an exercise in 
self-revelation. Whose side is the author on? The question has agitated 
Paris ever since the play opened a fortnight ago. To be sure, M. Anouilh's 
aristos are heartless sadists; but I have little doubt that his real enemy is 
Bitos, in whose wounds no knife is left unturned. This despised provin- 
cial upstart is drawn with an ugly, obsessive passion, almost as if he were 
a ghost that the haunted author were struggling to exorcise. The name 
Bitos called up an odd echo. I found myself thinking of the derisive nick- 
name, "AnouUh le Miteux," that Jouvet bestowed on the young upstart 
from Bordeaux; scruffy Anouilh, at whose work the maestro laughed, 
saying that it reeked of old socks. In every Anouilh play there is mockery, 
and in many there is hatred; but in this one I smell self -hatred. Perhaps, 
as Max Beerbohm said of Ibsen's attack on the artistic temperament in 
When We Dead Awaken, "it is but another instance of his egoism that 
he has reserved his most vicious kick for himself." Pauvre Jean, in fact: 
but how brilliant, how distastefully brilliant! 

(1956) 



Fan III: The French Theatre 397 



Twilight of a Critic. 

In an age when there are more successful commentators than 
important events to be commented on, the temptation to become a critic 
is enormous. Ours is a minuscule era with a million microscopes trained 
on it, and the natural tendency is to become one of the watchers rather 
than one of the watched. After all, why bother to make history if you 
can earn a better living as a non-combatant observer? The argument is 
powerful but specious. Those whom it has seduced into espousing 
criticism as a career should study the case of M. Paul Leautaud, the 
second volume of whose Journal Litteraire has just appeared in Paris. 

M. Leautaud, now eighty-three, was the illegitimate son of a 
prompter at the Comedie-Frangaise. He became a critic in 1907 under 
the name of Maurice Boissard: witty, hawk-eyed, vehement, and a 
master of paradox. In matters of style he revered the swiftness and non- 
chalance of Stendhal; of prettiness, and style for style's sake, he had a 
horror. Shrewdly and sternly he reviled the excesses of French classical 
acting, and became quickly notorious. He loathed tragedy above all 
things, and quoted with approval the remark of CrebiUon fils that French 
tragic drama, as exemplified by CorneUle and Racine, was the most per- 
fect farce ever invented by the wit of man. {Andromaque, which he 
liked, he defined as a brilliant psychological comedy.) "II n'y a de 
theatre," he cried, "que le theatre comique," by which he meant to 
endorse the tragi-comic while excluding for ever the purely, relentlessly 
tragic. On and off, he flourished for more than thiry years, always candid 
and often querulous, in the best traditions of French polemic. Yet in 
1941 he abandoned his craft and fled. Why? 

His enemies say that his egotism had grown so unbridled that 
to sit in silence for three hours while actors declaimed had become a 
torture to him. Others hold that he took fright when a rancorous 
tragedian, sitting behind him at the Comedie-Frangaise, set fire to his 
coat-tails. Whatever the reason, he retired with an army of pet cats to a 
tumbledown suburban house and locked himself in, like a wounded her- 
mit crab. Warily, five years ago, he crept out to give a devastating series 
of broadcast talks about his private life. For a while he became fash- 
ionable, and no salon was complete without this dwarf cactus of a man, 
with his pockets full of cat's-meat and his mouth full of insults. Soon 
afterwards he shuflQed back to his retreat, and nowadays to visit him is 
to court annihilation. At your approach an outpost or sentinel cat dashes 



398 Part III: The French Theatre 

indoors, presumably to warn its brethren to make the air hideous for 
your arrival. The door hangs on a rusted hinge, and the windows are 
broken and grey with dust. With a hopeful cry you announce yourself, 
and the response, from a high and smelly landing, is a strangled moan of 
grief. It comes from one who knew Zola, Huysmans, Peguy, Verlaine, 
and Remy de Gourmont; it is the sound made by a critic at the end of 
his life. Do not mount the staircase: M. Leautaud lives at the top of it 
purely, they say, for the joy of kicking you down. He exists in imminent 
expectation of being blown to pieces. In this he sees no pathos. He wants 
no sympathy save that of his cats; it is only when human beings invade 
his hermitage that he grows petulant. And this is his chosen fate: 
logically, for his kind, there is no other. You would become a critic? 
Consider M. Leautaud, and think again. 



La Dame aux Came lias, by Alexandre Dumas, at t