Ellen Stewart, the founder, artistic director and de facto
producer of La MaMa Experimental Theater Club, a multicultural hive of
avant-garde drama and performance art in New York for almost half a century,
died Thursday in Manhattan. She was 91.
Ms. Stewart had a history of heart trouble and died at Beth Israel Hospital
after a long illness, said Sam Rudy, a spokesman for La MaMa, where she had
lived for many years in an apartment above the theater, on East Fourth Street.
Ms. Stewart was a dress designer when she started La MaMa in a basement
apartment in 1961, a woman entirely without theater experience or even much
interest in the theater. But within a few years, and with an indomitable
personality, she had become a theater pioneer.
Not only did she introduce unusual new work to the stage, she also helped
colonize a new territory for the theater, planting a flag in the name of
low-budget experimental productions in the East Village of Manhattan and
creating the capital of what became known as Off Off Broadway.
She was a vivid figure, often described as beautiful — an African-American woman
whose long hair, frequently worn in cornrows, turned silver in her later years.
Her wardrobe was flamboyant, replete with bangles, bracelets and scarves. Her
voice was deep, carrying an accent reminiscent of her Louisiana roots.
Few producers could match her energy, perseverance and fortitude. In the decades
after World War II her influence on American theater was comparable to that of
Joseph Papp, founder of the New York Shakespeare Festival, though the two
approached the stage from different wings. Papp straddled the commercial and
noncommercial worlds, while Ms. Stewart’s terrain was international and
Her theater became a remarkable springboard for an impressive roster of
promising playwrights, directors and actors who went on to accomplished careers
both in mainstream entertainment and in push-the-envelope theater.
Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, Harvey Keitel, F. Murray Abraham, Olympia Dukakis,
Richard Dreyfuss, Bette Midler, Diane Lane and Nick Nolte were among the actors
who performed at La MaMa in its first two decades. Playwrights like Sam Shepard,
Lanford Wilson, Harvey Fierstein, Maria Irene Fornes and Adrienne Kennedy
developed early work there. So did composers like Elizabeth Swados, Philip Glass
and Stephen Schwartz.
La MaMa directors included the visionary Robert Wilson; Tom O’Horgan (who helped
create the rock musical “Hair” at the Public); Richard Foreman, who founded the
imaginative Ontological Theater Company; Joseph Chaikin, who founded the Open
Theater; and even Papp, before there was such a thing as the Public Theater.
Meredith Monk, the composer, choreographer and director, presented her
genre-bending pieces there regularly.
A few La MaMa plays, like the musical “Godspell,” moved to Broadway, and others
had extended runs in commercial Off Broadway houses.
“Eighty percent of what is now considered the American theater originated at La
MaMa,” Mr. Fierstein once said in an interview in Vanity Fair, perhaps
exaggerating slightly. His play “Torch Song Trilogy” was developed there.
La MaMa became the quintessential theater on a shoestring. Salaries were
minimal, ticket prices were low, and profits were nonexistent. For decades Ms.
Stewart often swept the sidewalk in front of the theater herself.
But an adventurous theatergoer would be rewarded there. More than 3,000
productions of classic and postmodern drama, performance art, dance and chamber
opera have been seen on La MaMa’s various stages. For Ms. Stewart a vast number
of them were leaps of faith, arising from her instinct and belief that what
artists need more than anything else is the freedom to create without
interference. She would typically appear onstage before a performance, ring a
cowbell and announce La MaMa’s dedication “to the playwright and all aspects of
During the earliest days of her theater she supported her family of artists —
her children, she called them — with the money she continued to earn designing
clothes. She installed a washer and dryer in the basement for the performers,
and many a visiting artist slept in her apartment or in the theaters themselves.
She didn’t begin directing shows herself until relatively late in her life. She
often said she didn’t read plays; she read people. Her gifts, as affirmed by a
MacArthur Foundation award in 1985, were intuitive and hard to pin down.
“If a script ‘beeps’ to me, I do it,” she said in an interview with The New York
Times. “Audiences may hate these plays, but I believe in them. The only way I
can explain my ‘beeps’ is that I’m no intellectual, but my instincts tell me
automatically when a playwright has something.”
Her programming stretched far wider than the American theater. It was at La MaMa
that Andrei Serban, a Romanian director transplanted to the United States,
refought the Trojan War with his reinvention of Greek tragedy, “Fragments of a
Greek Trilogy,” incorporating “Medea,” “The Trojan Women” and “Electra.” La MaMa
became a magnet for the most adventurous European and American companies,
including Peter Brook’s Paris group. Playing there now is “Being Harold Pinter,”
a politically charged production by the Belarus Free Theater, based in Minsk,
some of whose members were arrested and others forced underground by an
La MaMa’s range of activity was kaleidoscopic and multicultural, embracing an
Eskimo “Antigone,” a Korean “Hamlet” and a splashy re-creation of the golden
days of the Cotton Club in Harlem, directed by Ms. Stewart herself.
She was a theatrical missionary, scouting new talent abroad and planting La MaMa
seeds wherever she went. She produced site-specific performances all over the
world — a “Medea” created by Mr. Serban and Ms. Swados, for example, at the
ruins in Baalbek, Lebanon, in 1972. Satellite La MaMa organizations sprouted
from Tel Aviv to Tokyo. With the $300,000 MacArthur grant she bought a former
monastery in Umbria, Italy, and turned it into an international theater center.
Even when her network of theaters was reduced for economic reasons, she remained
the avant-garde’s ambassador to the world.
“If the play is good, then it’s good,” she said when asked about her devotion to
experimental work. “If it’s bad, that does not change my way of thinking about
the person involved. I may be disappointed in production values, but I’ve never
been sorry about anything I put on.”
Ms. Stewart was born in Chicago on Nov. 7, 1919 and spent her childhood years
there and in Alexandria, La. She was never eager to speak about the part of her
life before her arrival in New York, and details about it are scarce. She was
married at least once and had a son, Larry Hovell, who died in 1998. Her
survivors include an adopted son, Duk Hyung Yoo, who lives in South Korea, and
What is known is that she studied to be a teacher at Arkansas State College and
worked as a riveter in a defense plant in Chicago during World War II. In 1950
she moved to New York with the intention of going to design school, but ended up
having to support herself with a variety of jobs. At one point she was a porter
and operated an elevator at Saks Fifth Avenue.
According to a story she often told, on a visit to Delancey Street one Sunday,
she met a fabric shop owner who encouraged her dream to become a fashion
designer. He gave her fabrics to turn into dresses, and when she wore her own
creations to work at Saks, she created such excitement that the store made her a
Her theater career began as a good turn. Her foster brother, Frederick Lights,
wanted to be a playwright but had difficulty getting his work staged.
Sympathetic to him and to Paul Foster, another aspiring dramatist, she began a
theater in 1962 in the basement of a tenement on East Ninth Street.
Everyone already referred to Ms. Stewart as Mama, and one of the actors
suggested La MaMa as a name for her space. The theater was called Cafe La MaMa,
and later La MaMa E.T.C. (for Experimental Theater Club).
At first people were sometimes literally pulled in off the street to see the
shows: Tennessee Williams’s “One Arm,” Eugene O’Neill’s “Before Breakfast,”
Fernando Arrabal’s “Executioner.” Ms. Stewart would sometimes present a play —
like “The Room,” by Harold Pinter — without authorization.
Neighbors initially tried to close the theater down. They thought she was
running a brothel, she said in interviews. Otherwise, why would so many white
men be visiting a black woman in a basement?
But the shows went on. La MaMa was one of New York’s first coffeehouse theaters
and became a pillar of Off Off Broadway, which sprang up as alternative theater
when Off Broadway began pursuing a more mainstream audience. As word of La MaMa
spread, artists flocked to it.
Gradually federal and foundation grants came in, giving added certification to a
theater that became an important New York cultural institution.
In 1969, with the help of $25,000 from W. MacNeil Lowry and the Ford Foundation,
the company moved to a former meatpacking plant at 74A East Fourth Street, where
it created two 99-seat theaters and office space. Ms. Stewart lived above the
theaters. In 1974 she opened the Annex, a 295-seat theater a few doors down the
street in a converted television studio. It was renamed the Ellen Stewart
Theater in a gala celebration in November 2009. La MaMa also has an art gallery,
a six-story rehearsal and studio building nearby and an extensive archive on the
history of Off Off Broadway theater.
Ms. Stewart virtually never stopped working. Despite a variety of ailments, she
had been putting on about 70 new productions a year. The shows will go on. The
theater said it would continue to present its schedule without interruption, and
Mia Yoo, who has been co-artistic director since September 2009, will continue
in that capacity.
“When I think about the fact that she is in the last part of her life, even
though I’ve been there a lot of her life, I can’t bear the thought of this world
without her,” Elizabeth Swados said in a 2006 article in the theater journal
TDR: The Drama Review. “I can’t imagine La MaMa without her. There may be a
place called La MaMa that somebody brings good avant-garde international theater
to, but it will not be La MaMa. La MaMa is her.”
Mel Gussow, a theater critic and reporter for The Times
who contributed to this
obituary, died in 2005.
This article has been revised
to reflect the following
Correction: January 14, 2011
An earlier version of this obituary
mistakenly listed Adrienne Rich
those who developed early work
at La MaMa.
Ellen Stewart, Off Off
Broadway Pioneer, Dies at 91,
LONDON — At first glance Johnny (Rooster) Byron — the central
figure in “Jerusalem,” the great sprawling brawl of a play by Jez Butterworth at
the Royal Court Theater here — seems an utterly contemporary figure. Inhabited
with frightening fierceness by Mark Rylance, the unemployed, tax-evading,
perpetually stoned Johnny might be a cousin of the Gallaghers, the squalid
family of losers in the popular British television series “Shameless.”
But look deep into his eyes, which Johnny has a habit of asking people to do,
and you’ve fallen out of the 21st century. You’re hurtling back in time, and not
just to the 1980s, Johnny’s glory days as an Evel Knievel-type daredevil, or the
1970s, when Jack Nicholson became a star playing louche mavericks like Johnny.
Or even to Elizabethan England, when Shakespeare created a Johnny-like prototype
in the dissolute life force known as Falstaff. Where you wind up is in a
mist-veiled time when Druids danced and giants walked the earth — real giants
with names like Blunderbore and Yggdrasil.
Can we finally retire that most overused of lines from an English novel (L. P.
Hartley’s “Go-Between”) about the past being another country? On the British
stage this season past, present and future are one nation indivisible. In both
spring-green new plays and revivals of weathered classics, characters can’t take
a step without being tripped up, reproached, consoled and mocked by the England
That Was (and Is and Ever Shall Be).
During my month in London I kept hearing “Jerusalem,” the hymn based on the
William Blake poem that begins “And did those feet in ancient time/Walk upon
England’s mountains green?” Fast becoming an alternative national anthem (it’s
even roared out at soccer games), “Jerusalem” is sung as a curtain raiser to the
angry, funny new play by Mr. Butterworth with which it shares a title. But
“Jerusalem” also opens the sentimental comedy “Calendar Girls,” and the poem is
quoted by a fervent young socialist in “Time and the Conways.”
That’s J. B. Priestley’s somber but perversely hopeful tale of an
upper-middle-class family’s decline between the two world wars, recently seen at
the National Theater. “Time and the Conways” (1937) takes off from philosophical
notions of the simultaneity of past, present and future (ideas that also
fascinated Virginia Woolf). Rupert Goold’s handsome if stolid production gives
these notions literal life, including a final sequence in which two characters
appear (via technological magic) with their younger selves.
“There’s a great devil in the universe, and we call it time!” complains the
show’s heroine (a severely stylized Hattie Morahan), who sees her ideals of the
first act (when she’s a young woman) smashed in the second (two decades later)
before being returned to her youth for the third, burdened with a cruel
premonition of what awaits her. But her all-accepting Blake-quoting brother (the
appealing Paul Ready) asks her to look at things differently. “Time doesn’t
destroy anything,” he says. “It merely moves us — in this life — from one
peephole to the next.”
Of course views through peepholes differ. I can’t imagine anyone deriving much
comfort from the centuries-spanning glimpses afforded by “England People Very
Nice,” Richard Bean’s ruthless satiric history of the uses and abuses of
immigrants in Britain, also at the National, directed by Nicholas Hytner. The
accents of the characters may change, as new waves of foreigners wash up, but
the show’s central joke is in the sameness of its xenophobia and the two-way
resentment it breeds.
In contrast Tom Stoppard comes across as an old softie in David Leveaux’s tasty
revival of “Arcadia” (1993) at the Duke of York’s Theater. This dialogue between
past and present is set in the early 19th and late 20th centuries in the same
aristocratic country house. And it is ultimately a loving celebration of the
urge to make sense out of the mathematics, both inexorable and arbitrary, of
That the play is filled with students and scholars of different stripes, moving
in parallel lines in their respective chapters in history, has made it a
favorite of academics. (Oh boy, sexy professors!) What saves “Arcadia” from
being geek theater is its ardent delight in its own wit and its wonder at the
abiding force of human curiosity. Time is not about loss, the dashing
19th-century tutor (the charming Dan Stevens) tells his precocious pupil (Jessie
Cave), discussing the destruction of ancient documents by fire in the days of
Cleopatra. “We shed as we pick up, like travelers who must carry everything in
their arms, and what we let fall will be picked up by those behind.”
Mr. Leveaux’s production — which features a Muscadet-dry Samantha Bond and an
intensely abstracted Ed Stoppard (the playwright’s son) — is better on the wit
than the passion. But the emphasis on the warp-speed of thought, captured in
cascades of Wildean epigrams and paradoxes, keeps the show whooshing along
entertainingly. It has never felt so right that its mascot is a tortoise named
The town of Bath, where Starbucks-sipping tourists swarm over ancient Roman
ruins, is an especially advantageous place to consider time’s layeredness. It is
here that Peter Hall, a titan of the British stage, runs his own company (from a
Victorian jewel box of a theater). And it was here that, fresh from “Arcadia,” I
saw for the first time a production of “The Apple Cart,” a seldom-performed play
from 1929 by George Bernard Shaw, Mr. Stoppard’s bearish forebear in verbal
velocity and dexterity.
Shaw, who traveled all over history with his multipart “Back to Methuselah,”
focused specifically on what was to be in “The Apple Cart,” which depicts an
England set “in the future,” when the British Empire is on the verge of being
colonized by — guess who? — the American Empire. Nimbly directed by Mr. Hall,
this “Apple Cart” is a deft piece of prognostication, with its portraits of
craven special-interest-ruled politicians and of England as a super money
laundry for other nations.
The play, like much of Mr. Stoppard’s work, makes a beguiling case for the pure
theatrical momentum to be milked from ardently exchanged ideas. This is
particularly evident in the long scene, in which the beleaguered British King
(Charles Edwards) seeks refuge with his in-house mistress, the ravishing
Orinthia (Janie Dee), a character modeled on the formidable actress Mrs. Patrick
Campbell. Seductively acted by Mr. Edwards and Ms. Dee, the scene is a testament
to the powers of charismatic egotism, that “it” factor that transcends the
pettiness of daily politics (even if, on occasion, it dangerously shapes them as
The England portrayed in the Peter Hall Company’s fine revival of David Storey’s
“Home,” directed by Stephen Unwin, is frozen in its fadedness, as two old gents
(played by David Calder and Stephen Moore) swap quintessentially British
prejudices and platitudes. It all seems rather Beckettian, steeped in that
floating absurdity that comes from clichés stripped of context, until Mr. Storey
introduces other characters who anchor the play mercilessly in time and place.
Though more obliquely than “The Apple Cart,” this 1970 drama presents a
once-robust, now arthritic nation that has, for all practical purposes, been put
out to pasture.
There’s still energy left in the England of Mr. Butterworth’s “Jerusalem,” which
opened this month. But it’s the energy of an over-regulated, imaginatively
bankrupt society, a world of interchangeable housing estates and closed lives,
run as if by hamsters on wheels. Vividly directed by Ian Rickson, and also
starring Mackenzie Crook, “Jerusalem” is a portrait of an outcast of that land.
Mr. Rylance’s Johnny Byron pursues an existence of highly self-medicated
hedonism in a trailer in a forest glen, where teenagers gather to share joints
and booze and listen to Johnny’s sky-splittingly tall tales.
Set on St. George’s Day, while a tatty fete and fair takes place in the village
nearby, “Jerusalem” is the story of Johnny’s last stand against the townspeople
who want to evict him. Like a more famous Byron, Johnny is undoubtedly dangerous
to know. But in the astonishing performance of Mr. Rylance (who won a Tony Award
last year for “Boeing-Boeing”), he becomes a figure of grandeur, a man both
poisoned and exalted by his own mythomania.
That sense of self is rooted in an atavistic England, a time of strapping
warriors and untrammeled ids. And as the play courses through its more than
three hours, you understand why people seek out Johnny Byron’s neck of the
woods. They’re looking for the real, heroic world that inspired their tawdry
little St. George’s Day celebrations, a world that probably never existed but
that refuses to leave some fixed corner of their minds. They are searching for a
never-never land called Jerusalem.
December 26, 2008
The New York Times
By MEL GUSSOW and BEN BRANTLEY
Harold Pinter, the British playwright whose gifts for finding the ominous in
the everyday and the noise within silence made him the most influential and
imitated dramatist of his generation, died on Wednesday. He was 78 and lived in
The cause was cancer, his wife, Lady Antonia Fraser, said on Thursday.
Mr. Pinter learned he had cancer of the esophagus in 2002. In 2005, when he
received the Nobel Prize in Literature, he was unable to attend the awards
ceremony at the Swedish Academy in Stockholm but delivered an acceptance speech
from a wheelchair in a recorded video.
In more than 30 plays — written between 1957 and 2000 and including masterworks
like “The Birthday Party,” “The Caretaker,” “The Homecoming” and “Betrayal” —
Mr. Pinter captured the anxiety and ambiguity of life in the second half of the
20th century with terse, hypnotic dialogue filled with gaping pauses and the
prospect of imminent violence.
Along with another Nobel winner, Samuel Beckett, his friend and mentor, Mr.
Pinter became one of the few modern playwrights whose names instantly evoke a
sensibility. The adjective Pinteresque has become part of the cultural
vocabulary as a byword for strong and unspecified menace.
An actor, essayist, screenwriter, poet and director as well as a dramatist, Mr.
Pinter was also publicly outspoken in his views on repression and censorship, at
home and abroad. He used his Nobel acceptance speech to denounce American
foreign policy, saying that the United States had not only lied to justify
waging war against Iraq but that it had also “supported and in many cases
engendered every right-wing military dictatorship” in the last 50 years.
His political views were implicit in much of his work. Though his plays deal
with the slipperiness of memory and human character, they are also almost always
about the struggle for power.
The dynamic in his work is rooted in battles for control, turf wars waged in
locations that range from working-class boarding houses (in his first produced
play, “The Room,” from 1957) to upscale restaurants (the setting for
“Celebration,” staged in 2000). His plays often take place in a single,
increasingly claustrophobic room, where conversation is a minefield and even
innocuous-seeming words can wound.
In Mr. Pinter’s work, “words are weapons that the characters use to discomfort
or destroy each other,” said Peter Hall, who has staged more of Mr. Pinter’s
plays than any other director.
But while Mr. Pinter’s linguistic agility turned simple, sometimes obscene,
words into dark, glittering and often mordantly funny poetry, it is what comes
between the words that he is most famous for. The stage direction “pause” would
haunt him throughout his career.
Intended as an instructive note to actors, the Pinter pause was a space for
emphasis and breathing room. But it could also be as threatening as a raised
fist. Mr. Pinter said that writing the word “pause” into his first play was “a
fatal error.” It is certainly the aspect of his writing that has been most
parodied. But no other playwright has consistently used pauses with such
rhythmic assurance and to such fine-tuned manipulative effect.
Early in his career Mr. Pinter said his work was about “the weasel under the
cocktail cabinet.” Though he later regretted the image, it holds up as a
metaphor for the undertow of danger that pervades his work. As Martin Esslin
wrote in his book, “Pinter: The Playwright”: “Man’s existential fear, not as an
abstraction, but as something real, ordinary and acceptable as an everyday
occurrence — here we have the core of Pinter’s work as a dramatist.”
Though often grouped with Beckett and others as a practitioner of Theater of the
Absurd, Mr. Pinter considered himself a realist. In 1962 he said the context of
his plays was always “concrete and particular.” He never found a need to alter
Mr. Pinter’s ranking among his countrymen was first after Beckett. Beginning in
the late 1950s, John Osborne and Mr. Pinter helped to turn English theater away
from the gentility of the drawing room. With “Look Back in Anger,” Osborne
opened the door for several succeeding generations of angry young men, who
railed against the class system and an ineffectual government. Mr. Pinter was to
have the more lasting effect as an innovator and a stylist. And his influence on
other playwrights, including David Mamet in the United States and Patrick Marber
and Jez Butterworth in England, is undeniable.
The playwright Tom Stoppard said that before Mr. Pinter, “One thing plays had in
common: you were supposed to believe what people said up there. If somebody
comes in and says, ‘Tea or coffee?’ and the answer is ‘Tea,’ you are entitled to
assume that somebody is offered a choice of two drinks, and the second person
has stated a preference.” With Mr. Pinter there are alternatives, “such as the
man preferred coffee but the other person wished him to have tea,” Mr. Stoppard
said, “or that he preferred the stuff you make from coffee beans under the
impression that it was called tea.”
As another British playwright, David Hare, said of Mr. Pinter, “The essence of
his singular appeal is that you sit down to every play or film he writes in
certain expectation of the unexpected.”
Though initially regarded as an intuitive rather than an intellectual
playwright, Mr. Pinter was in fact both. His plays are dense with references to
writers like James Joyce and T. S. Eliot. The annual Pinter Review, in which
scholars probe and parse his works for meaning and metaphor, is one of many
indications of his secure berth in academia.
While it was not immediately apparent, Mr. Pinter was always a writer with a
political sensibility, which became overt in later plays like “One for the Road”
(1984) and “Mountain Language” (1988). These works, having to do “not with
ambiguities of power, but actual power,” he said, were written out of “very cold
He and his wife hosted gatherings in their Holland Park town house for liberal
political seminars. Known as the June 20th Society, the participants included
Mr. Hare, Ian McEwan, Michael Holroyd, John Mortimer, Salman Rushdie and
Germaine Greer. In their discussions, Mr. Pinter expressed the great struggle of
the mid-20th century as one between “primitive rage” and “liberal generosity,”
Mr. Hare said.
Through the years Mr. Pinter became known, especially to the English news media,
for having a prickly personality. “There is a violence in me,” Mr. Pinter once
said, “but I don’t walk around looking for trouble.” The director Richard Eyre
said in a testimonial book published for the playwright’s 70th birthday that Mr.
Pinter was “sometimes pugnacious and occasionally splenetic” but “just as often
droll and generous — particularly to actors, directors and (a rare quality this)
Harold Pinter was born in Hackney in the East End of London on Oct. 10, 1930.
His father, Jack, was a tailor; his mother, Frances, a homemaker. Mr. Pinter’s
grandparents had emigrated to England from Eastern Europe. His parents, he said,
were “very solid, very respectable, Jewish, lower-middle-class people.”
With the outbreak of World War II in 1939, Harold, an only child, was evacuated
from London to a provincial town in Cornwall. His feelings of loneliness and
isolation from that time were to surface later in his plays. When he was 13, he
returned to London and was there during the Blitz when his house was struck by a
bomb. He rushed inside to rescue a few valuable possessions: his cricket bat and
a poem — “a paean of love” — he was writing to a girlfriend.
Sports, poetry and his relationships with women were to remain important to him.
Vigorously athletic, he was a fierce competitor in cricket and tennis. Ian
Smith, an Oxford don and cricket teammate of Mr. Pinter’s, equated the
playwright’s art with his bold style of playing cricket. “Everything is
focused,” he said. “It’s about performance and economy of gesture.”
Mr. Pinter grew up on a diet of American gangster movies and British war films.
From the first he was a great reader and a hopeful poet, with strong political
judgments. When he was called up for military service at 18, as a pacifist he
refused to serve.
In diverse ways he remained a conscientious objector in the years to come,
echoing a line in “The Birthday Party,” in which Stanley, a lodger in a seaside
boarding house, is suddenly taken away by two strangers to some ominous future
as a friend cries out, “Stan, don’t let them tell you what to do!” Years later,
Mr. Pinter said he had lived that line all his life.
Mr. Pinter’s first poem was published in a magazine called Poetry London when he
was 20. Soon afterward he completed a novel, “The Dwarfs.” After studying at the
Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and the Central School of Speech and Drama, he
signed on with a repertory company and, performing under the name David Baron,
toured Ireland in plays by Shakespeare and others, often in villainous roles
In 1955, at a party in London, Mr. Pinter was struck by what he referred to as
“an odd image.” A little man, who later turned out to be the writer and
professional eccentric Quentin Crisp, was making bacon and eggs for a large man
who was sitting at a table reading the comics. Mr. Pinter told his friend Henry
Woolf about the incident and said he thought he might write a play about it. The
next year, Mr. Woolf, then a graduate student at the University of Bristol,
asked him if he could write that play for a group of drama students.
The resulting work, “The Room,” was Mr. Pinter’s first play. And with its story
of mysterious intruders and its elliptical speech, it showed that Mr. Pinter had
already found his voice as a dramatist. It opened in Bristol on May 15, 1957,
and was restaged three years later at the Hampstead Theater Club in London.
In 1956 Mr. Pinter married Vivien Merchant, an actress in the company. After
their son, Daniel, was born in 1958, they moved to the Chiswick section of
London. He wrote “The Birthday Party,” his first full-length play, drawing on
his memories of touring as an actor in Eastbourne, on Britain’s south coast.
The Pinters, who were temporarily unemployed and desperately poor, had an offer
to act in Birmingham, and Ms. Merchant wanted to accept it. But Mr. Pinter said:
“I have this play opening in London. I think I must stay. Something’s going to
happen.” She replied, “What makes you think so?”
They turned down the acting offer. “The Birthday Party” opened in the West End
in 1958 and received disastrous reviews. Then, prodded by the theatrical agent
Peggy Ramsay, Harold Hobson, the eminent critic of The Sunday Times of London,
came to see it at a matinee. What he wrote turned out to be a life-changing
“It breathes in the air,” Hobson wrote. “It cannot be seen but it enters the
room every time the door is opened.” He continued, “Though you go to the
uttermost parts of the earth, and hide yourself in the most obscure lodgings in
the least popular of towns, one day there is a possibility that two men will
appear. They will be looking for you and you cannot get away. And someone will
be looking for them too. There is terror everywhere.” He concluded, “Mr. Pinter,
on the evidence of this work, possesses the most original, disturbing and
arresting talent in theatrical London.”
Despite that review, the play closed that weekend. By contrast, Mr. Pinter’s
next full-length play to be produced, “The Caretaker,” which opened in London in
1960, was a dazzling critical success. “Suddenly everything went topsy-turvy,”
Mr. Pinter said.
In that play, two brothers live in a seedy house in London and, for inexplicable
reasons, invite a homeless man named Davies to share their quarters and to act
as a kind of custodian. Michael Billington, a critic for The Guardian and Mr.
Pinter’s biographer, has called the play “an austere masterpiece: a universally
recognizable play about political maneuvering, fraternal love, spiritual
isolation, language as a negotiating weapon or a form of cover-up.”
Mr. Pinter’s next play, “The Homecoming,” opened in London in June 1965, in a
Royal Shakespeare Company production directed by Mr. Hall. The story of an
all-male family headed by a Lear-like father and the woman (Ms. Merchant, who
starred in many of his plays) who enters and disrupts their domain scored a
major success in London. Though it received a mixed reception in New York, “The
Homecoming” won a Tony Award as best play and had a long run on Broadway.
After these first three full-length plays — all stories of raffish characters in
shabby environments — Mr. Pinter shifted his focus. His next three dramas were
set in the worlds of art and publishing: “Old Times” (1971), “No Man’s Land”
(1975) and “Betrayal” (1978), all studies of the unreliability of memory and the
uncertainty of love. In “Old Times,” a husband and wife encounter a woman they
may or may not have known in the past.
In “No Man’s Land,” a faded poet visits a wealthy patron for an evening of
recollection and gamesmanship, roles played in the original production by John
Gielgud and Ralph Richardson, who repeated their performances in New York the
next year. The elegant “Betrayal” is a play about marriage and duplicity and,
despite its use of reverse chronology, is among Mr. Pinter’s most accessible
works. It was made into a 1982 film starring Jeremy Irons, Ben Kingsley and
During the run of “No Man’s Land,” Mr. Pinter began an affair with Lady Antonia
Fraser, the biographer and historian, who was then married to Hugh Fraser, a
conservative politician. In 1980 Mr. Pinter and Lady Antonia were married, with
Mr. Pinter becoming the substitute paterfamilias of an extended family.
In addition to his wife, his survivors include his son, Daniel, and his
stepchildren, Benjamin, Damian, Orlando, Rebecca, Flora and Natasha. Years ago,
his son changed his last name to Brand, his maternal grandmother’s maiden name.
He had been estranged from his father, living as a recluse in Cambridgeshire.
After “Betrayal,” Mr. Pinter’s plays became shorter (like “A Kind of Alaska”)
and then, for about three years, they stopped. “Something gnaws away,” he
explained, “the desire to write something and the inability to do so.” He added,
“I think I was getting more and more imbedded in international issues.”
At the same time, he continued his involvement in films, highlighted by his
close collaboration as screenwriter with the director Joseph Losey, which began
in 1963 with “The Servant,” a depiction of class relations in Britain. That was
followed in 1967 by “Accident,” about a professor infatuated with a student (Mr.
Pinter and Ms. Merchant each had minor parts), and “The Go-Between” (1971),
about a boy’s complicity in an adult affair in turn of the century Britain, with
Julie Christie and Alan Bates.
His many screenplays for other directors include “The Pumpkin Eater” (1964),
about a woman (Anne Bancroft) drifting through multiple marriages, directed by
Jack Clayton; “The Last Tycoon,” Elia Kazan’s 1976 adaptation of the Fitzgerald
novel; and “The French Lieutenant’s Woman” (1981), a Karel Reisz film with Meryl
Streep and Mr. Irons.
With his plays “Moonlight” (a portrait of family relationships undermined by
years of divisiveness) and “Ashes to Ashes” (a story of “torturers and victims”
reflected in a typically uncommunicative marriage), Mr. Pinter returned to the
longer, somberly meditative form.
His final work, “Celebration” (2000), is a wry look at power-conscious couples
dining in a chic restaurant that bears a striking resemblance to the Ivy, a
famous theater gathering place in London. “Celebration” was inspired by the
playwright’s early days as an unemployed actor, when he took a job as a busboy
at the National Liberal Club. Because he dared to intrude on a conversation
among several diners, he was fired.
He often directed plays by others, especially those by Simon Gray (“Butley,”
“Otherwise Engaged”), and occasionally his own work. Increasingly and with
greater zeal he appeared as an actor — onstage with Paul Eddington in “No Man’s
Land” and in films like “Mojo,” “Mansfield Park” and “The Tailor of Panama.”
Throughout his life, he specialized in playing menacing characters, including
several in his own plays (“The Hothouse,” “One for the Road”).
In July 2001 the highlight of the Lincoln Center Festival in New York was the
presentation of nine Pinter plays, including a revival of “The Homecoming,” and
a pairing of his first and last plays, “The Room” and “Celebration.” Mr. Pinter
participated as a director and also acted in “One for the Road” in the role of a
dapper and sadistic government interrogator.
The Pinter festival was the capstone of a season that, in London, featured the
premiere at the National Theater of a stage version of his film script for
“Remembrance of Things Past.” Late in 2001 he directed an acclaimed revival of
“No Man’s Land,” starring John Wood and Corin Redgrave at the National Theater.
In December 2001, during a routine medical examination, he was found to have
cancer of the esophagus. In January 2002, while undergoing treatment, he acted
in his brief comic sketch “Press Conference” at the National Theater in a
malicious role as a minister of culture who was formerly the head of the secret
police. In 2006 he appeared in a weeklong, sold-out production of Beckett’s
one-man play, “Krapp’s Last Tape,” at the Royal Court Theater.
“Pinter looks anxiously over his left shoulder into the darkness as if he felt
death’s presence in the room,” Mr. Billington of The Guardian wrote, “It is
impossible to dissociate Pinter’s own recent encounters with mortality from that
of the character.”
Revivals of Mr. Pinter’s work have become increasingly frequent in recent years.
Last December an acclaimed production of his “Homecoming” opened on Broadway.
Mr. Pinter said he thought of theater as essentially exploratory. “Even old
Sophocles didn’t know what was going to happen next,” he said. “He had to find
his way through unknown territory. At the same time, theater has always been a
critical act, looking in a broad sense at the society in which we live and
attempting to reflect and dramatize these findings. We’re not talking about the
Speaking about his intuitive sense of writing, he said, “I find at the end of
the journey, which of course is never ending, that I have found things out.”
“I don’t go away and say: ‘I have illuminated myself. You see before you a
changed person,’ ” he added. “It’s a more surreptitious sense of discovery that
happens to the writer himself.”
Few writers have been so consistent over so many years in the tone and execution
of their work. Just before rehearsals began for the West End production of “The
Birthday Party” half a century ago, Mr. Pinter sent a letter to his director,
Peter Wood. In it, he said, “The play dictated itself, but I confess that I
wrote it — with intent, maliciously, purposefully, in command of its growth.”
He added: “The play is a comedy because the whole state of affairs is absurd and
inglorious. It is, however, as you know, a very serious piece of work.”
Mel Gussow, a critic and cultural reporter for The Times,
Stuart W. Little, whose many newspaper articles and books chronicled
developments in the theater from the 1950s to the ’70s, died last Sunday in
Canaan, Conn. He was 86.
The cause was congestive heart failure, said his son, Christopher Little.
A tireless theatergoer and fervent theater supporter, Mr. Little wrote a theater
news column for The New York Herald Tribune from 1958 to 1966, when the paper
folded, and then turned to longer-form writing. In the early 1970s he wrote two
well-received books. “The Playmakers” (W. W. Norton, 1970), which he wrote with
Arthur Cantor, a theater producer, was a thorough explanation of how Broadway
shows were produced, built and managed, and a lament that the theater was losing
its cultural influence, having yielded its primacy in the entertainment world to
television and the movies.
“This is the fabulous invalid’s story, told in multitudinous detail by two
sympathetic friends,” The New York Times Book Review said.
In 1972 Mr. Little published “Off Broadway: The Prophetic Theater” (Coward,
McCann & Geoghegan), which brought the same scrutiny to the varied universe of
small and experimental theaters that had emerged and multiplied around New York
City during the previous two decades.
For his 1974 book, “Enter Joseph Papp: In Search of a New American Theater”
(Coward, McCann & Geoghegan), he accompanied Papp, the impresario and leader of
the New York Shakespeare Festival, for a whirlwind year of furious fund-raising
and producing. It was not reviewed well, largely because critics thought Mr.
Little had been seduced by Papp’s charm and had become less an observer than an
Stuart West Little was born in Hartford on Dec. 12, 1921. His father was a
Mr. Little graduated from Yale in 1944 and served in the Office of Strategic
Services, the World War II progenitor of the Central Intelligence Agency, for
which his duties included writing psychological profiles of high-ranking Nazis.
He began his journalistic career in 1946 at The Herald Tribune, where he rose to
assistant city editor before taking on the theater column. For a time he worked
in television news at NBC. From 1986 to 2001 he edited the quarterly newsletter
of the Theater Development Fund, an advocacy organization. Earlier this year he
published “Home in Fenwick: Memoir of a Place” (iUniverse).
In addition to his son, who lives in Norfolk, Conn., Mr. Little is survived by
his wife of 62 years, Anastazia Lillie Marie Raben-Levetzau; a brother, Edward
H. Little of East Haddam, Conn.; a sister, Virginia L. Miller of Bloomfield,
Conn.; two daughters, Caroline Larken of Pewsey Wiltshire, England, and Suzanne
Little of New York City; three grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.
“He was proudest of the fact that he never became a critic,” Christopher Little
said. “He wanted to be liked by people.”
April 1, 2008
The New York Times
By CHARLES ISHERWOOD
LOUISVILLE, Ky. — The schisms in American society, both macro and micro, were
on vivid display at this year’s Humana Festival of New American Plays at the
Actors Theater of Louisville. The divisions between the religious right and the
secular left, the tech-fueled widening of the generation gap and the
ever-relevant question of what makes a modern marriage function smoothly were
among the themes explored by playwrights at the festival.
Gina Gionfriddo’s “Becky Shaw,” an absorbing comedy-drama about a blind date
that threatens to become a marriage-devouring black hole, was the festival’s
heat-generating event, surely destined for New York and beyond. Ms. Gionfriddo’s
“After Ashley” had its debut at the festival in 2004 and was later seen in New
York, while her lively if contrived black comedy “U.S. Drag” just concluded a
run Off Broadway. The new play marks an impressive stride for a writer with a
saw-toothed wit and a seductive interest in exploring the rewards and
responsibilities of emotional interdependence.
Devoted yentas and their grateful customers beware: “Becky Shaw” depicts an
innocuous set-up gone spectacularly awry. We do not meet the toxic title
character until midway through the first act, which begins in a New York hotel
room where Suzanna (Mia Barron) listlessly mourns her father’s death, while Max
(David Wilson Barnes), more or less adopted by Suzanna’s parents when he was 10,
tries to shake her out of it.
He is also trying to plug the holes in the family’s financial affairs, left in
disarray by Suzanna’s father, possibly because his business manager was also his
lover. Suzanna’s mother, Susan (Janis Dardaris), an imperious woman whose
multiple sclerosis has not stopped her from taking up with a much younger and
disreputable man, remains as impervious to Max’s warnings of dire economic
straits as Suzanna is to his tough-love approach to healing her grief.
Max’s role as the family fixer takes an unexpected turn at the end of this
crackling first scene. Ms. Gionfriddo, a writer for “Law and Order,” has
acquired a savvy aptitude for the deftly sprung plot twist. Firecrackers of
revelation explode every few minutes in “Becky Shaw,” which is almost as
quotably funny as Broadway’s scabrous “August: Osage County” — and that’s saying
Most of the choicest aperçus come from the superciliously pursed lips of Max,
played with chilly, magnetic allure by Mr. Barnes in the festival’s standout
performance. (It would be a shame if he were not allowed to reprise it should
the play have a future life; Mr. Barnes was also in “The Scene” by Theresa
Rebeck at this festival two years ago, a play in a similar vein that was mostly
recast with higher-profile actors — to deleterious effect — when it came to New
Max is cynical about all things romantic, and defines marriage as “two people
coming together because each has something the other wants.” Suzanna, who is
studying to become a therapist, at least likes to believe that she’s a true
believer in love. By the second scene she is happily married to Andrew (Davis
Duffield), a good-hearted would-be novelist scraping a living by working at a
law firm. There he meets the lovely but lonely title character (Annie Parisse),
whom they hope to pair off with the likewise single Max.
This is a bit like suggesting that a snake mate with a mouse, or so it first
appears when the nervous Becky arrives for their first date glaringly
overdressed and emotionally naked. But Ms. Gionfriddo keeps us guessing about
the character (ditsy or wily? victim, manipulator or a little of both?) as
divided allegiances — Suzanna’s to Max, Andrew’s to Becky — put a strain on the
marriage and expose unexpected vulnerabilities.
Intricately plotted and studded with scathing one-liners, “Becky Shaw” also
burrows into the ideas it engages about moral, intellectual and financial
compatibility in romance, as well as the level of emotional commitment various
relationships require. On the down side, virtually every scene would benefit
from some pruning, and the title character is the least convincing in the play,
at this point more a plot device than a credible woman. (It does not help that
the director, Peter DuBois, and Ms. Parisse, who may simply be too gorgeous for
the role, don’t seem to have settled on a consistent style for the performance.)
Still, “Becky Shaw” is a thoroughly enjoyable play, suspenseful, witty and
infused with an unsettling sense of the potential for psychic disaster inherent
in almost any close relationship.
The other significant show at the festival this year was “This Beautiful City,”
an ambitious, talent-stretching production from the New York troupe the
Civilians. Written by Steven Cosson and Jim Lewis, directed by Mr. Cosson, and
with songs by Michael Friedman, this collagelike revue addresses the rise of the
evangelical Christian movement.
Fans of this gifted troupe may be surprised at the sincerity — and generosity —
of the company’s approach to material that a hip New York theater company might
be expected to put across with a wink and a wry smile. The production is close
kin to “The Laramie Project,” the affecting documentary drama from Moisés
Kaufman’s Tectonic Theater Company about the cultural repercussions of the
murder of Matthew Shepard, a gay student in Wyoming.
As in their previous shows “Gone Missing” and “(I Am) Nobody’s Lunch,” the text
is largely drawn from interviews conducted by the company. The timing of the
Civilians’ visit to Colorado Springs, where mega-churches are as numerous as
McDonald’s franchises, was propitious. They were apparently on the scene when
Ted Haggard, pastor of the New Life Church and a leader in the movement, was
forced to step down after he was linked to a male prostitute.
But “This Beautiful City” is not a polemical exposé in the Michael Moore mold.
It is a thoughtful, exploratory foray into a world that, as the interviews make
clear, was alien territory to the show’s creators. Voices of faithful believers
are juxtaposed with those of critics of the movement’s power and its
prerogatives. The history of the evangelical explosion in Colorado Springs is
presented from various perspectives, as is the controversy over the powerful
sway evangelicals supposedly came to wield at the Air Force Academy there.
Playing several roles each, the half-dozen leading performers — some Civilians
regulars, some not — are all superb. None stoop to caricature, even when
portraying characters on the far side of religious fanaticism. The fresh-faced
Stephen Plunkett is a natural as a New Life pastor leading a youth group, and
later as Mr. Haggard’s son Marcus, who addresses his father’s troubles in a
speech that is surprisingly moving and eloquent. Marsha Stephanie Blake brings
down the house as a fiery preacher who takes over a major black church when its
pastor is forced out after he discloses his homosexuality.
“This Beautiful City” could use some editing too. The scenes set at a small
church called the Revolutionary House of Prayer consume excessive stage time,
and the ending is seriously flat. Mr. Friedman’s pleasant but unexceptional
songs don’t add as much as they usually do to Civilians shows, perhaps because
most of them are straightforward imitations of bland, folk-inflected Christian
pop. You naturally miss the Cole Porteresque wordplay and sardonic humor of his
The rest of the work at the festival varied from respectable to — well, to quote
an irresistible assessment from a man I overheard fleeing one show at
intermission, “not good is much too generous.”
On the respectable front Lee Blessing, the elder statesman among the
participating playwrights, provided a solid if sleepy two-hander in “Great
Falls.” Directed by Lucie Tiberghien and starring Tom Nelis and Halley Wegryn
Gross as a stepfather and his stepdaughter on a road trip, the play is a
well-observed but unspectacular voyage into familiar territory, perhaps fixated
a little too exclusively on the sexuality of the young woman, a glib wiseacre in
the “Juno” mold (and facing a similar problem).
If the title “Neighborhood 3: Requisition of Doom” sounds like something you’d
fire up on a PlayStation, that is entirely intentional. This play by Jennifer
Haley uses a kill-the-zombies video game as a template for a thriller about the
growing distance between distracted, self-absorbed parents and indulged,
alienated teenagers in suburban America.
Ms. Haley writes credible dialogue for her younger characters — a delicate
mission often bungled — but this material ill suits the stage. When worlds
virtual and real eventually must collide, the result is a dramatic fizzle,
although the production, directed by Kip Fagan, was convincingly acted and
sleekly if simply designed.
The divided soul of a black man is exposed in “the break/s,” written and
performed by Marc Bamuthi Joseph and directed by Michael John Garcés. Mr. Joseph
is a naturally captivating dancer, moving with transfixing grace at any number
of speeds. The performance is gloriously eloquent in its physicality, but less
engaging when Mr. Joseph stops shredding the air with his limbs and simply
delivers the opaque and meandering text about his various cultural travels.
I have been casting about for something charitable to say about “All Hail
Hurricane Gordo,” a comedy by Carly Mensch (still a playwriting fellow at
Juilliard) about two kooky, emotionally stunted brothers (Matthew Dellapina and
Patrick James Lynch); one kooky, emotionally stunted young woman (Tracee Chimo);
and a refreshingly well-adjusted white rabbit (name unavailable).
Perhaps I’ll just say that I loved the rabbit, and leave it at that.
LONDON (AP) -- Paul Scofield, the towering British stage actor who won
international fame and an Academy Award for the film ''A Man for All Seasons,''
has died. He was 86.
Scofield died Wednesday in a hospital near his home in southern England, agent
Rosalind Chatto said. He had been suffering from leukemia.
Scofield made few films even after the Oscar for his 1966 portrayal of Tudor
statesman Sir Thomas More. He was a stage actor by inclination and by his gifts
-- a dramatic, craggy face and an unforgettable voice that was likened to a
Rolls Royce starting up or the rumbling sound of low organ pipes.
Even his greatest screen role was a follow up to a play -- the London stage
production of ''A Man for All Seasons,'' in which he starred for nine months.
Scofield also turned in a performance in the 1961 New York production that won
him extraordinary reviews and a Tony Award.
''With a kind of weary magnificence, Scofield sinks himself into the part,
studiously underplays it, and somehow displays the inner mind of a man destined
for sainthood,'' Time magazine said.
Actor Richard Burton, once regarded as the natural heir to Laurence Olivier and
John Gielgud at the summit of British theater, said it was Scofield who deserved
that place. ''Of the 10 greatest moments in the theater, eight are Scofield's,''
Scofield was an unusual star -- a family man who lived almost his entire life
within a few miles of his birthplace and hurried home after work to his wife and
children. He didn't seek the spotlight, gave interviews sparingly, and at times
seemed to need coaxing to venture out, even onto the stage he loved.
But, he insisted in The Sunday Times in 1992, ''my reclusiveness is a myth. ...
Yes, I've turned down quite a lot of parts. At my age you need to weed things
out, but the idea that I can't be bothered anymore with acting -- that's quite
absurd. Acting is all I can do. An actor: That's what I am.''
Scofield reportedly had been offered a knighthood, but declined.
''It is just not an aspect of life that I would want,'' he once said. ''If you
want a title, what's wrong with Mr.?''
In 2001, however, he was named a Companion of Honor, one of the country's top
honors, limited to 65 living people.
His temperament, too, was unexpected in an actor who remained at the very top of
''It is hard not to be Polyanna-ish about Paul because he is such a manifestly
good man, so humane and decent, and curiously void of ego,'' said director
Richard Eyre, former artistic director of Britain's National Theatre. ''All the
pride he has is channeled through the thing that he does brilliantly.''
David Paul Scofield was born Jan. 21, 1922, son of the village schoolmaster in
Hurstpierpoint, 8 miles from the south coast of England. When he married actress
Joy Parker in 1943, they settled only 10 miles north, in the country village of
Balcombe, where they reared their son and daughter and where Scofield was in
easy striking distance of London's West End theaters.
Scofield trained at the Croydon Repertory Theater School and London's Mask
Theater School before World War II. Barred from service for medical reasons, he
toured in plays, entertaining troops and acting in repertory in factory towns
around the country.
Throughout the 1940s, he worked repertory and in London and Stratford in plays
ranging from Shakespeare and Shaw to Steinbeck and Chekhov.
In his 20s, he worked with director Peter Brook, touring as Hamlet in 1955. The
collaboration included the stage adaptation of Graham Greene's ''The Power and
the Glory'' in 1956, which Gielgud regarded as Scofield's greatest performance.
Scofield's huge success with ''A Man for All Seasons'' was followed in 1979 by
another great historical stage role, as Salieri in ''Amadeus.''
His later stage appearances included ''Heartbreak House'' in 1992 and the 1996
National Theatre production of Ibsen's ''John Gabriel Borkman.''
Scofield's rare films included Edward Albee's ''A Delicate Balance'' in 1974,
Kenneth Branagh's 1989 production of ''Henry V,'' in which he played the king of
France; ''Quiz Show,'' Robert Redford's film about the 1950s TV scandal in which
Scofield played poet Mark Van Doren; and the 1996 adaptation of Arthur Miller's
play ''The Crucible.''
February 21, 2007
The New York Times
By CAMPBELL ROBERTSON
BALTIMORE, Feb. 18 — Urban theater — or what has been called over the years
inspirational theater, black Broadway, gospel theater and the chitlin circuit —
has been thriving for decades, selling out some of the biggest theaters across
the country and grossing millions of dollars a year.
In the last two years, however, the tenor of the business has changed,
especially since Tyler Perry, the circuit’s reigning impresario, took in $110
million at the Hollywood box office with “Diary of a Mad Black Woman” and
“Madea’s Family Reunion,” movies that were based on his plays; they cost less
than $7 million each to make.
The bigger players are developing television series, and veterans who have been
part of the circuit for years suddenly have movie deals. The word in the
industry is that urban theater is about to go mainstream.
“A year and a half from now, if you’re not coming with a play, film script and
sitcom spinoff, you’re not going to be able to go anywhere in this business,”
said Gary Guidry, one of the founders of I’m Ready Productions, based in
Houston, another of the circuit’s big producers.
But the sight of crowds of theatergoers slowly streaming into the Lyric Opera
House here on Saturday and Sunday, continuing to walk through the door
throughout the first act and eventually filling just about every one of the
2,564 seats for a performance of “Men, Money and Gold Diggers,” prompts the
question: If this is not already mainstream, what is?
As white theatergoers were lining up for “Wicked” at the France-Merrick
Performing Arts Center across town, the audience filling up the Lyric, a
slightly larger theater, was almost exclusively black, mostly middle-aged women.
Many said they had heard about the play through the traditional lines of the
circuit’s promotion: radio ads, fliers in local business and church parking lots
and an astonishingly effective word-of-mouth network that precedes the show from
city to city.
Some aspects of urban theater are set in stone. Top tickets average about $30
less than those of touring Broadway shows. And it has become standard practice
to sell DVDs of the plays after the tour; Mr. Perry has reportedly sold more
than 11 million.
The plays, which typically take place in contemporary settings, are often
sprinkled with R&B solos and duets, and tend to be a mix between melodrama and
farce, with clownish archetypes, like churchy grannies and two-bit
entrepreneurs. And they all have uplifting plots, usually about a woman torn
between a glamorous philanderer, whose speech is laden with double-entendres,
and a humbler, more dependable man, whom she eventually chooses. (The more
muscular actors also have a tendency to take off their shirts.)
More than a marketer’s demographic description, urban theater is a genre like
the sitcom or courtroom thriller, and experiments tend to fare poorly. David E.
Talbert, a 15-year veteran of the circuit, said he once wrote a pure comedy
without an inspirational message and was bluntly advised by audience members not
to try it again.
Mr. Talbert, 40, is the other powerhouse on the circuit, along with I’m Ready
Productions and Mr. Perry. By Mr. Talbert’s own estimate, he has grossed $75
million over the last decade and a half with 12 plays, and counting. He likens
himself to Neil Simon as a playwright who tries to cater to his audience’s wants
and tastes rather than hew to some establishment idea of high art.
Mr. Guidry, 33, and his producing partner, Je’Caryous Johnson, 29, the author of
“Gold Diggers,” are not so content with the status quo. They have departed from
the form somewhat by adapting popular romance novels to the stage; like many
younger people in the business, when they first began attending the plays, they
felt the quality was, well, not great. Granted, they added, theatrical
distinction has never really been the main point. That point, in the view of
many, has been simply to have theater by, for and about contemporary black
Antonio Banks, who was snapping and selling souvenir photographs in the lobby of
the Lyric, summed up a prevailing attitude among theatergoers: “Not much is
offered to them,” he said. “If they can find an outlet, even if it’s not really
good, it helps them escape from reality for a while.”
That attitude has been changing. One reason, said Laterras R. Whitfield, a
28-year-old from Dallas who broke into the field four years ago with “P.M.S. —
It’s a Man Thang,” is that the market is becoming saturated.
“It appears to be so easy,” he said, “that a lot of people say, ‘Hey, I can do
this,’ and they just write a play and find somebody silly enough to promote it,
and then people go see it and say, ‘What is this mess?’ ”
The target audiences, in general, do not have much disposable income, and having
been burned too often with bad plays, they are more discriminating. The
excitement of going to see theater made explicitly for them, Mr. Johnson said,
is no longer enough. Without the equivalent of a Broadway imprimatur to
guarantee a certain level of production quality, though, reassuring theatergoers
is not easy.
“If I tell you ‘Les Miz’ or ‘Cats’ or ‘Hairspray,’ you immediately know what I’m
talking about,” said Brian Alden, whose North American Entertainment Company
promotes Mr. Johnson’s plays. “In urban theater, we’re marketing an unknown
product, so generally we’re marketing a name.”
But outside of Mr. Perry — who has also acted in many of his plays, most notably
in drag as the vigilante grandmother, Madea — there are no writers or producers
everyone knows by name, except for some of the older gospel impresarios, who no
longer have the buzz they once did.
So active producers are now heavily casting recognizable film and television
actors and singers.
At a recent, crowded performance of Mr. Talbert’s new play, “Love in the Nick of
Tyme,” at Newark Symphony Hall, none of the dozen or so audience members
interviewed knew Mr. Talbert. They did, however, know the name of the male lead,
Morris Chestnut, the heartthrob film and television actor. Mr. Chestnut and
other familiar faces in the circuit are not in the top ranks of fame; former
sitcom stars tend to be particularly well represented. But they are celebrities
of a caliber that would have been unheard of in a gospel play 10 years ago.
Increasing star power and the box office success of Mr. Perry, who is now
developing three television series and a few more movies, are signs of the
circuit’s move into big business.
But there are still few signs of acceptance by the cultural establishment.
Reviews of Mr. Perry’s first two movies, which were based on his plays, were
For now, critical disregard can be a selling point. On Feb. 13, the day before
the opening of “Daddy’s Little Girls,” Mr. Perry’s latest film, he sent an
e-mail message to the members of his database, complaining of the skepticism
from Hollywood insiders and journalists.
“It is as though we are all so unsophisticated that we won’t support a great
movie about a good father,” the message read. “We know the truth, so let’s show
them at the box office.” (The first weekend grosses were estimated at a robust
Mr. Perry declined to comment for this article.
The circuit’s position in the universe of black theater — particularly as
distinct from the work of black playwrights presented in literary theater — is a
topic that has long been discussed. While some scholars and theater
professionals have criticized gospel plays for trafficking in stereotypes,
others see it as another kind of drama, even finding, as Henry Louis Gates Jr.
put it in a 1997 article in The New Yorker, “something heartening about the
spectacle of black drama that pays its own way.”
Kenny Leon, who is directing the Broadway-bound production of August Wilson’s
last play, “Radio Golf,” works in the same building as Mr. Perry in Atlanta. “I
look at theater that is produced at some of the regional theaters and theater
that is produced on that circuit as two different things,” he said. “We
shouldn’t try to make them be the same things.”
No figure attracts more conflicting opinions than Mr. Wilson, who died in 2005.
Mr. Talbert, being almost hypnotically unflappable, is not shy about his view:
if the audiences who go to Mr. Wilson’s plays are predominantly nonblack, he
asked, then how significant could he be to black people?
But Mr. Guidry and Mr. Johnson, the young Turks, think the genre can continue to
develop while still staying true to its traditions. In 2002, when they produced
an adaptation of Michael Baisden’s “Men Cry in the Dark,” they did not advertise
its basis as a best-selling romance novel, fearing it would alienate the
church-based audiences. Now a play’s origin as a novel is a selling point.
And as for Mr. Wilson, Mr. Guidry said that “Fences,” Mr. Wilson’s Pulitzer
Prize-winning play, could do perfectly well with some judicious trimming, a
little more comedy and, of course, a savvy marketing campaign.
“Man, if it were called ‘Big Man, Stronger Woman,’ ” Mr. Guidry said, “this
thing could tour.”
October 31, 2006
The New York Times
By BEN BRANTLEY
Richard Gilman, the drama and literary critic
whose elegant, contentious voice resonated through four decades in American
letters, earning him both admirers and enemies of partisan fierceness, died
Saturday at his home in Kusatsu, Japan. He was 83.
His death, after many years of illness, was announced by his daughter Priscilla
Gilman, who said he was originally found to have terminal lung cancer in 1997.
Mr. Gilman, a professor at the Yale School of Drama and the author of five books
of criticism and a memoir, resisted pigeonholes, both in describing himself and
the playwrights he wrote about.
In an article in The New York Times in 1970 — an account of his experiences
directing a play at Yale — he wrote: “I don’t think of myself as a critic or
teacher either, but simply — and at the obvious risk of disingenuousness — as
someone who teaches, writes drama criticism (and other things) and feels that
the American compulsion to take your identity from your profession, with its
corollary of only one trade to a practitioner, may be a convenience to society
but is burdensome and constricting to yourself.”
That elaborate sentence, with its self-conscious detours and its jump from the
personal to the didactic, is vintage Gilman. The novelist D. M. Thomas described
him as “one of the least self-effacing critics one could imagine.” Mr. Gilman
was indeed, as he suggested, something of a hybrid, and not only in his
profession. His distinctive style as a writer was poised between academic
erudition and popular journalism.
His greatest fame, however, undoubtedly came from his association with the
theater and his combative definitions of what it should and shouldn’t be. As a
drama critic at Commonweal and later at Newsweek, he typically championed the
iconoclastic and the cryptic: the directors Jerzy Grotowski, Joseph Chaikin and
Peter Brook; the playwrights Harold Pinter and Peter Handke. And he consistently
dismissed the more naturalistic, commercial fare found on Broadway.
“People still go to the theater to identify with characters, not having been
apprised of their death,” he once wrote, with sardonic wonder, of mainstream
theater audiences. Plays, he said in “The Making of Modern Drama” (1974), his
most ambitious and arguably his finest work, should be “enactments of
consciousness” that free the mind from traditional perceptions. What he opposed,
he said, was “the turning of dramatic art into culture — something to use as a
storehouse of ‘higher’ feelings and recognitions.”
Mr. Gilman was one of a breed of philosopher-critics, including Robert Brustein
and Eric Bentley, who came to prominence in the 1950s and ’60s. They located in
modern drama the elements of abstraction, alienation and absurdity that had long
been at the core of discussions of other forms of art and literature. For many
of these writers, the essential history of the theater since the late 19th
century was, as Mr. Gilman wrote, “a record of attempts to work free from the
morass of illusions.”
But few of Mr. Gilman’s peers were as extreme as he in insisting that the genre
transcend the representational. Rather than imitate reality, he said, theater
should offer alternatives to it. Art, Mr. Gilman argued, should put its audience
“in the presence of a life our own lives are powerless to unearth.”
This search for the ineffable was more than a professional pursuit. In his most
personal work, “Faith, Sex, Mystery: A Memoir” (1987), the Jewish-born Mr.
Gilman wrote eloquently of his conversion as a 27-year-old from atheism to Roman
Catholicism. He left the church after eight years, though he refused to reduce
this episode in his life to psychological solutions.
“The point about the spiritual that I both start with and want to inquire
further into is that it isn’t coterminous with the psychological, it isn’t
simply an archaic term for it,” he wrote. “Something mysterious spills over.”
Mystery, he believed, was also what most defined greatness in art, and that
insight inevitably led him to write as much about what a work wasn’t as about
what it was. He said, for example, that Georg Büchner, the 19th-century German
playwright and author of “Woyzeck,” “gave form and expression to what had not
been allowed to happen, what still remained to be said.”
Chekhov, he wrote, “stripped art of all purposes of consolation and
Richard Martin Gilman was born on April 30, 1923, and grew up in Brooklyn, the
son of Jacob Gilman, a lawyer, and Marion Wolinsky Gilman. After graduating from
James Madison High School in Brooklyn in 1941, he enrolled at the University of
Wisconsin. From 1943 to 1946 he served in the Marine Corps in the South Pacific,
rising to the rank of staff sergeant, then returned to Wisconsin to complete his
studies and graduate in 1947.
In the 1950s, living in Greenwich Village, he wrote literary criticism and
reviews as a freelance writer before joining Commonweal as a drama critic, a
profession he said he had never aspired to. “I had no background in theater,
nothing but an amateur perspective,” he recalled later.
Yet it was precisely this outsider’s perspective that made Mr. Gilman stand out
both at Commonweal and then at Newsweek, where he was the drama critic from 1964
to 1967. His approach was more often literary, or even philosophical, than
strictly performance-oriented. As the critic Walter Clemons wrote, “the surface
of a theatrical event occupies his attention less than the core of its meaning.”
(Mr. Gilman, accordingly, had little use for critics like Walter Kerr and
Kenneth Tynan, who were celebrated for their immediate and sensory descriptions
of actors and acting; he preferred the cerebral self-consciousness of Susan
This perspective drew heated responses from some of Mr. Gilman’s intellectual
peers. Describing his experience as a drama critic, Mr. Gilman wrote, “The only
effect I could discern, apart from the few minds I might have taught to see
drama a bit differently, was that I had gained a reputation for being sour,
hypercritical, an outsider ranting against the party to which he hasn’t been
Indeed, his first book, “The Confusion of Realms” (1970), a collection of essays
on subjects from Eldridge Cleaver to the Living Theater, was attacked by Gore
Vidal in Commentary and Philip Rahv in The New York Review of Books. “Mr. Gilman
has through the years shown an almost immodest taste for conversions,” Mr. Rahv
wrote, “and at present he is evidently straining at the leash to launch himself
into the role of a leading exponent of the New — of the New at all costs, at
that — and as a Now exponent of the arts.”
Others found a cause for rejoicing in that same point of view. In a review of
“Realms” in The New York Times, John Leonard, who described Mr. Gilman’s writing
as “confrontation criticism,” wrote that “to grapple with his perspective is to
grapple with one’s own flaccid preconceptions; to be roused from torpor for a
cultural wrestling match.”
Mr. Gilman was a professor at the Yale University School of Drama from 1967
until his retirement in 1998. Among his students were the budding playwrights
Christopher Durang, Wendy Wasserstein and Albert Innaurato. He was also a
lecturer or visiting professor at Columbia and Stanford and at Barnard College.
Mr. Gilman was the president of the PEN American Center, the largest of the 82
centers of the international association of writers, from 1981 to 1983, and he
was the 1971 recipient of the George Jean Nathan Award for drama criticism. He
was also the author of “Common and Uncommon Masks” (1971) and “Decadence: The
Strange Life of an Epithet” (1979).
Two previous marriages — to Esther Morgenstern, a painter and dancer, in 1949,
and to Lynn Nesbit, the literary agent, in 1966 — ended in divorce. In 1992, he
married Yasuko Shiojiri, who had translated his books into Japanese. She
survives him. In addition to his daughter Priscilla, of Manhattan, he is also
survived by another daughter, Claire Gilman, also of Manhattan; a son, Nicholas,
of Mexico City; a sister, Edith Axelrod, of New Jersey, and four grandchildren.
A collection of Mr. Gilman’s essays, “The Drama Is Coming Now: The Theater
Criticism of Richard Gilman, 1961-1991,” was published by Yale University Press
in 2005. But his last original book, “Chekhov’s Plays,” a work-by-work analysis
of the Russian dramatist, appeared in 1996.
Reviewing it for The New York Review of Books, Aileen Kelly said that Mr.
Gilman’s “exposition of the relation between Chekhov’s ideas and his dramatic
techniques should be required reading for the producers and critics who persist
in interpreting the plays as studies in failure and despair.”
Its subtitle reflects what Mr. Gilman sought throughout his career: “An Opening
October 21, 2006
The New York Times
By ALAN COWELL
LONDON, Oct. 20 — The old man rose painfully
as the performance ended. The applause built slowly from a single clap of hands
to a tumult. Harold Pinter, playwright and actor, weakened by the years and by
illness, had just performed “Krapp’s Last Tape,” by his friend and fellow Nobel
laureate Samuel Beckett.
“It is beyond acting,” said Gillian Hanna, an actress in the audience at the
Royal Court’s Jerwood Theater Upstairs on Tuesday night. “There is something
about the coming together of this particular piece and this performance that
took me somewhere else.”
That place, she said, with a bleakness that might be expected, was “an icy
steppe” or an apocalypse.
It was not just the sparseness or the long, brooding silences that prompted a
degree of rumination in the audience at this hot-ticket run of only 10
performances. (The £25 — $45 — tickets for the performances, which end on
Tuesday, were reportedly being offered on eBay at seven times their face value).
Mr. Pinter is now 76, and has battled cancer of the esophagus. He said last year
that he would not write any more plays, so there was an inevitable sense of
“Given Harold’s recent health problems, there’s a coming together here that’s
more than just a performance,” said one member of the audience during a brief
question-and-answer session with the director, Ian Rickson, after the show.
“There’s a moment of theater history coming together here.”
The production had borne out his point. Mr. Pinter played the role of Krapp, a
69-year-old man revisiting a tape recording he had made at 39, in an electric
wheelchair, rising from it only to acknowledge the audience’s applause when the
“Perhaps my best years are gone,” the voice on Krapp’s tape intones in the
closing moments of this one-man, one-act play, first produced in 1958, which
probes the interstices of memory. “But I wouldn’t want them back.”
That, too, found an echo in the auditorium.
Sitting in the audience was Henry Woolf, 76, a school friend of Mr. Pinter’s and
a fellow actor who commissioned Mr. Pinter’s first play, “The Room,” in 1957 and
who offered his own critique with wry melancholy. “What I felt was a great
sadness at the leaking of my own life into the eternal drainpipe, and Harold’s,
too, of course,” he said.
The production, part of the program for the Royal Court Theater’s
50th-anniversary season and for the centenary celebration of Beckett’s birth,
has been hailed by British reviewers both as a triumphant final hurrah for Mr.
Pinter and as a lean and compelling performance by an actor-playwright whose own
plays draw heavily on broken language, pauses, silence.
Writing in The Guardian, Maev Kennedy called it “one of the most anxiously
awaited events in the theatrical calendar, the coming together of the two
masters of the speaking silence and the pregnant pause.”
During his session with the audience, Mr. Rickson, the director, said the piece
was so powerful that sometimes, when it ends, “often there’s just silence.”
He had, he said, eschewed parts of the original script that show Krapp gorging
on bananas. “This is the first ‘yes, we have no bananas’ ” version, he said,
speaking from a set strewn with boxes of tapes where Krapp has hurled them. The
wheelchair remained behind Krapp’s desk like a sentinel.
It was “an artistic decision,” Stephen Pidcock, a spokesman for the Royal Court,
Mr. Rickson asked rhetorically, “Were we serving Sam by taking the bananas out?”
He then offered a wry answer: “Harold said he had a conversation with Sam, and
Sam said it was O.K.”
Mr. Rickson called Mr. Pinter’s effort in performing the play “heroic.”
The two men rehearsed on afternoons from 2:30 to 6 for four weeks. Audiences,
Mr. Rickson said, had been “awed” — a mood caught by reviewers.
Last year Mr. Pinter’s health forced him to deliver his Nobel acceptance speech
in a video recording that showed him sitting in a wheelchair as he unburdened
himself of a passionate tirade against American foreign policy, saying, “The
crimes of the United States have been systematic, constant, vicious,
remorseless, but very few people have actually talked about them.”
His health this year seems more robust.
“Pinter’s stoic bravery in putting on this remarkable show shines through: he
sits and moves around in a wheelchair from necessity,” Nicholas de Jongh wrote
in The Evening Standard. At the end, he added, Mr. Pinter “walked out unsteadily
but his crucial place in modern theater is secure.”
In The Times of London, Benedict Nightingale bemoaned the excision of the
bananas but said that “in every key respect this is surely a performance that
would have delighted Beckett.”
Famously, the most frequently repeated stage direction is that Krapp should
brood, and, Mr. Nightingale wrote, Mr. Pinter does so “with an intensity that
signals the loss of hope, self-contempt and an inner bleakness that lets up only
when he hears his 39-year-old self remembering a dreamy moment with a loved one
in a boat that rocks ‘gently, up and down and from side to side.’ ”
“And all along Pinter makes you feel the gravity, the meticulousness, the sheer
power of his endeavor,” Mr. Nightingale wrote. “This is an old man’s last-gasp
search for a meaning he knows he’ll never find.”
October 15, 2006
The New York Times
By CAMPBELL ROBERTSON
“THE COAST Of UTOPIA,” Tom Stoppard’s sweeping
three-part epic that will be populating Lincoln Center for the next six months,
contains, among other things: 35 years of 19th-century Russian intellectual
history; more than 70 roles; discussions of Hegel, Schelling, Pushkin and Kant;
adulterous affairs, both secret and permitted; the revolution of 1848; scenes in
Moscow, Paris, Nice, London, under a large chandelier, at a picnic, beside an
ice skating rink. It examines the lives, public and domestic, of five
forefathers of the Russian Revolution: Alexander Herzen, a writer and pioneering
socialist; Mikhail Bakunin, an aristocrat turned anarchist; Ivan Turgenev, a
poet and novelist; Nicholas Ogarev, a poet and close friend of Herzen’s; and
Vissarion Belinsky, a brilliant literary critic. It also includes their lovers,
families, colleagues, antagonists, hangers-on and one ominous, cigar-smoking
If writing all that was a colossal undertaking, however, it may pale in
comparison with the effort of getting it onstage. This play, the first part of
which begins previews at Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont Theater on Tuesday,
will be one of the biggest in Broadway’s recent history, up there with the Royal
Shakespeare Company’s eight-and-a-half-hour “Nicholas Nickleby” in 1981.
Overseeing it all is the director Jack O’Brien. He has staged two Stoppard plays
(“The Invention of Love” in 2001 and “Hapgood” in 1994, both at Lincoln Center)
as well as “The Full Monty,” “Hairspray” and “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.” But he
was daunted by “Coast,” which he saw with the designer Bob Crowley at the
National Theater in London in 2002 . “Crowley and I looked at each other,” he
recalls, “and said, ‘No way, José.’ I wouldn’t know where to begin.”
The New York production is, if anything, more complex.
Part 2 of the trilogy begins performances in early December, when it will play
in repertory with Part 1 while Part 3 is in rehearsal. At the end of January the
first two are joined by the third. After that, all three — “Voyage,” “Shipwreck”
and “Salvage” — rotate in repertory through mid-March, including three
eight-and-a-half marathon days when all three parts are performed together. And
Mr. O’Brien had to line up a cast and crew that could remain available for that
Scheduling for any theater project is hard, and only getting harder. Directors
shoehorn productions in between movies, musicals and road tours; and what with
television series and movie deals, booking a top actor is like fitting in time
with the Dalai Lama.
All of this is exponentially harder when you’re talking about six and a half
months of constant rehearsals — full days and part days — and 115 performances,
including the three marathon performance days. Even harder when it’s an ensemble
piece, where the actor’s name will appear somewhere in the crowd below the
title. And harder still when it’s at a not-for-profit theater, with its
do-gooder pay scale.
But for Mr. O’Brien it wasn’t simply a case of finding willing actors: they had
to be top-shelf, the kind that can pronounce the word “Premukhino,” and
convincingly. So like the mastermind in a heist movie recruiting his own
crackerjack team, Mr. O’Brien spent the spring and winter cajoling and
persuading his first choices. The result of that long process is a glittery
41-member cast full of marquee names and six of the top designers in the
Age was another challenge. The principal characters in “Coast” start the play in
their teens and 20’s and end up in late middle age. After seeing “Brokeback
Mountain,” Mr. Stoppard told Mr. O’Brien that he preferred younger actors who
would eventually play old, as they did in the film, rather than older ones who
would initially play young.
That was welcome news for Mr. O’Brien; with younger actors, the play would be
sexier and more vigorous, less susceptible to the “snob hit” stigma that dogged
the London production. But it often also means performers with young families
and less financial security; in other words, actors who might not have the
luxury to take on this kind of project.
“These people work all the time,” Mr. O’Brien said, “and that they would give us
eight or nine months of their lives in the prime sort of moneymaking period.
...” He trailed off, but the meaning was clear.
Ethan Hawke, who was in Mr. O’Brien’s 2003 production of “Henry IV” at Lincoln
Center, was the first actor on the list. At a series of lunches, the director
gave him the hard sell. But even Mr. Hawke, a Hollywood star, has a family and a
new house to support. “I hadn’t made any money in a long time,” said Mr. Hawke,
who had been involved with a chain of artistically fulfilling but less than
lucrative projects. “So I said, ‘I need to find a job that can happen this
summer.’ ” After a few months of working in a Sidney Lumet film, “Before the
Devil Knows You’re Dead,” and a little rejiggering of the rehearsal schedule,
Mr. Hawke was on board as Bakunin.
Mr. O’Brien then used him as bait with which to recruit other actors, as well as
a benchmark for the age range (mid-30’s) of the other principals. But many
actors that age have more lucrative opportunities in Hollywood.
Robert Sean Leonard, for example, was an obvious choice, having worked with Mr.
Stoppard, Mr. O’Brien and Lincoln Center in 2001 on “The Invention of Love,” but
he was booked with his role on the TV show “House.”
Jason Butler Harner said that the night before his scheduled audition of “Coast”
he was walking around Greenwich Village in tears. A well-regarded Off Broadway
actor, he had been trying to take the next step in his career, and he knew that
a trilogy about Russian intellectuals was not necessarily the best way to do
that. “In order to get work in New York it’s easier if you’ve had a series on
the now-defunct WB,” he said.
So he skipped the audition. A few weeks later he was very close to landing a
role on a television show, a respectable one with good writing, he said, for
which he would receive more money than he had ever seen. He also kept hearing
that “Coast” was still interested. In the end he picked the role of Turgenev
over the TV series.
“It was the hardest decision I’ve ever had to make,” he said.
As each actor agreed, others followed. Mr. O’Brien got just about everyone he
asked for, including Billy Crudup, Martha Plimpton, David Harbour, Richard
Easton, Josh Hamilton and Jennifer Ehle, who is playing three different roles in
the plays. (“At first, until I saw the schedule,” she said, “I thought that it
was really inconceivable that I could do this.”)
Casting the more prominent roles, however, was only part of the challenge. The
play is being understudied from within, meaning backup actors are drawn from the
cast itself. In a typical production, actors would rehearse their understudy
roles once performances were under way. But because of the repertory rehearsal
schedule of “Coast,” the casting had to be done in a way that minimized the
instances where understudies appear in the same scenes as the actors for whom
they may substitute, since understudies need to rehearse separately. But with
sprawling party scenes, in which almost every character has at least a few
lines, the puzzle became incredibly convoluted.
Daniel Swee, Lincoln Center’s casting director, called it the hardest show he’s
worked on. “I’ve cast a fair number of very large-cast shows, but this is
definitely it,” he said.
“There are people I haven’t even had a conversation with yet,” Brian F. O’Byrne,
who plays the central role of Herzen, said at one point several weeks into
The actors, a handful of whom took an informal trip to Russia in late August,
came together as a whole in early September. A read-through of the play with Mr.
Stoppard took a couple of weeks. Rehearsals for “Voyage” are now well under way,
but work on “Shipwreck” won’t really begin until November.
“Usually there’s a place where you get to leave the interpretive process, after
opening night, where you kind of go, ‘Now, we’re on to the next phase,’ ” Mr.
O’Byrne said. “With this, we’re going to have opening nights, and they’re going
to be like, ‘Yeah, boy, this is opening night, I’ll see you in the morning” to
start it all over again.
Finding time for this project was hard for Mr. O’Brien too. Andre Bishop, the
artistic director of Lincoln Center, knew right away that he wanted both Mr.
O’Brien and Mr. Crowley, who had worked together on “Hapgood” and “The Invention
But Mr. O’Brien, who is about as serene as a bag of crickets, wasn’t available,
so the project stayed in limbo for the next few years. From time to time Mr.
O’Brien and Mr. Stoppard discussed the trilogy, including once in 2003, when
they happened to cross paths in Australia and spent a few days reading and
re-reading the play in a Melbourne hotel room.
But about a year ago Mr. O’Brien’s date book opened just enough (in the spring
of 2007 he’ll be directing a trilogy of one-act operas by Puccini for the Met),
and the board at Lincoln Center Theater was satisfied with a $7.5 million price
tag for “Coast.” So the play was on.
Lincoln Center’s plan, to stagger the openings a month and a half apart, with
all three rotating in repertory in the last few weeks — “folding them in like
egg whites,” Mr. O’Brien calls it — is a departure from the approach Trevor Nunn
took at the National, where all three opened more or less simultaneously.
The rollout plan fit Mr. O’Brien’s conception of “Coast” as an orchestral piece,
with three very different movements. That three-separate-plays-in-one idea, in
turn, ended up complementing the schedules of the designers.
Mr. Crowley, who is also designing “Mary Poppins” this fall, was generally
hesitant about designing another huge trilogy — it would be his third — and
decided he needed an equal partner. He reached out to Scott Pask, a friend with
whom he had never worked before. Mr. Pask agreed to split the trilogy: Mr.
Crowley would focus on the first part and Mr. Pask on the second, and they would
collaborate on the third.
For the same reasons the production will be using three lighting designers:
Brian MacDevitt, Kenneth Posner and Natasha Katz, with each responsible for one
play. (Their visions can’t diverge too greatly, because the plays will
eventually be performed one after another.)
There will, however, be only one person on costumes. Asked if this was her most
daunting project to date, Catherine Zuber, a veteran Tony winner, said that in
1999 she designed 6,000 costumes of varying historical periods for an 18
day-long festival in Switzerland.
But for most of those involved it’s the biggest project they’ve ever attempted.
And if the commitment is remarkable, well, there’s a reason for it.
“When does anyone get a chance to do this, in this country, on the Broadway
stage?” asked Mr. O’Byrne. “This is a dream job. I mean, I don’t think I’ll
understand that this is a dream job until March, when we’re not rehearsing and
we’ve just started playing it. But that period is only a couple of weeks at the
end. So, until then it’s just, like, head down and O.K., we’re getting through
November 24, 2005
By Dalya Alberge, Arts Correspondent
IT WAS the surprise hit of the autumn season,
selling out for its entire run and inspiring rave reviews. But now the producers
of Tamburlaine the Great have come under fire for censoring Christopher
Marlowe’s 1580s masterpiece to avoid upsetting Muslims.
Audiences at the Barbican in London did not see the Koran being burnt, as
Marlowe intended, because David Farr, who directed and adapted the classic play,
feared that it would inflame passions in the light of the London bombings.
Simon Reade, artistic director of the Bristol Old Vic, said that if they had not
altered the original it “would have unnecessarily raised the hackles of a
significant proportion of one of the world’s great religions”.
The burning of the Koran was “smoothed over”, he said, so that it became just
the destruction of “a load of books” relating to any culture or religion. That
made it more powerful, they claimed.
Members of the audience also reported that key references to Muhammad had been
dropped, particularly in the passage where Tamburlaine says that he is “not
worthy to be worshipped”. In the original Marlowe writes that Muhammad “remains
The censorship aroused condemnation yesterday from senior figures in the theatre
and scholars, as well as religious leaders. Terry Hands, who directed
Tamburlaine for the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1992, said: “I don’t believe
you should interfere with any classic for reasons of religious or political
Charles Nicholl, the author of The Reckoning: The Murder of Christopher Marlowe,
said it was wrong to tamper with Marlowe because he asked “uncomfortable and
confrontational questions — particularly aimed at those that held dogmatic,
religious views”. He added: “Why should Islam be protected from the questioning
gaze of Marlowe? Marlowe stands for provocative questions. This is a bit of an
insult to him.”
Marlowe rivalled Shakespeare as the most powerful dramatist of the Elizabethan
period. He died aged 29 in a brawl over a tavern bill. Tamburlaine the Great was
written not later than 1587. It tells the story of a shepherd-robber who defeats
the king of Persia, the emperor of Turkey and, seeing himself as the “scourge of
God”, burns the Koran.
Mr Farr reworked the text after the July 7 attacks. The production closed last
week. Mr Farr said in a statement: “The choices I made in the adaptation were
personal about the focus I wanted to put on the main character and had nothing
to do with modern politics.”
But Mr Reade said that Mr Farr felt that burning the Koran “would have been
unnecessarily inflammatory”. The play needed to be seen in a 21stcentury
context, he believed.He said: “Marlowe was not challenging Muslims, he was
attacking theism, saying, ‘I’m God, there isn’t a God’. If he had been in a
Christian country, a Judaic country or a Hindu country, it would be their gods
he’d be attacking.” He said more people would be insulted by broadening the
Inayat Bunglawala, the media secretary of the Muslim Council of Britain,
disagreed, saying: “In the context of a fictional play, I don’t think it will
have offended many people.”
Park Honan, Emeritus Professor at the School of English, University of Leeds,
and author of Christopher Marlowe: Poet & Spy, said: “It is wrong to tamper with
the play, wrong to shorten it and wrong to leave out the burning of the Koran
because that is involved with the exposition of Tamburlaine’s character. He’s a
false prophet. This is meant to horrify the audience.”
THE DEVIL CAN CITE SCRIPTURE FOR HIS PURPOSE
Sikh protesters claimed that the play at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre in
December mocked their religion because it depicted sexual abuse and murder in a
temple. The author, Gurpreet Bhatti, said that she had been threatened and
police advised her to keep a low profile. After a weekend of demonstrations, the
play was cancelled
Jerry Springer the Opera
It had a successful run in the West End but came under fire from Christian
groups and mediawatch-UK when it was bought by the BBC and shown on BBC2 in
January. They claimed that it contained 8,000 expletives and had mocking
religious undertones. Estelle Morris, then the Arts Minister, ended up defending
it in the House of Commons
Steven Berkoff inspired widespread critical debate with his interpretations of
Jesus’s life at the Theatre Royal in 2001. Berkoff, who wrote and directed the
show based on his own reactions to the Gospels, depicted Jesus as a foul-mouthed
social reformer rather than the traditional representation of him as a preacher
The Merchant of Venice
The latest adaptation a year ago, starring Al Pacino, re-opened the debate on
whether Shakepeare’s Shylock was a deliberately racist caricature. Many claim
that he reflects the anti-Semitism of the Bard’s age, an essential element of
the plot. But producers still come under pressure to tone down the more
THE OFFENDING LINES
Tamburlaine: Now, Casane, where’s the Turkish
Alcoran, And all the heaps of superstitious books Found in the temples of that
Mahomet Whom I have thought a god? They shall be burnt . . .
. . . In vain, I see, men worship Mahomet.
My sword hath sent millions of Turks to hell, Slew all his priests, his kinsmen,
and his friends, And yet I live untouch’d by Mahomet.
There is a God, full of revenging wrath, From whom the thunder and the lightning
breaks, Whose scourge I am, and him will I obey.
So Casane; fling them in the fire.
(They burn the books.)
Now, Mahomet, if thou have any power, Come down thyself and work a miracle.
Thou art not worthy to be worshipped That suffers flames of fire to burn the
writ Wherein the sum of thy religion rests . . .
. . . Well, soldiers, Mahomet remains in hell; He cannot hear the voice of
Seek out another godhead to adore:
The God that sits in heaven, if any god, For he is God alone, and none but he.
Amending great texts for political reasons
helps no one but the extremists
November 24, 2005
Self-censorship, while less abhorrent than
imposed censorship, is none- theless deeply alarming. It is an unhealthy society
in which people feel constrained about what they can and cannot say. Good taste
certainly dictates that caution may occasionally be advisable. Free speech
confers responsibility. But to rewrite 400-year-old texts because they may not
perfectly reflect contemporary concerns is a dangerous precedent. It is
therefore with a sense of unease that we report the tweaking of Christopher
Marlowe’s Tamburlaine the Great in order to protect Islamic sensibilities.
There are two broad concerns. Producers are not “improving” Marlowe by wielding
their pens or making him more palatable to modern-day tastes. They are merely
short-changing their audiences. And where does it lead? Shakespeare would need a
thorough overhaul. No more references to “the Turk”. Shylock could be made less
Jewish, or demand a mere drop of blood.
The other worry is more serious. The Muslim Council of Britain, with admirable
common sense, cannot understand the fuss about Marlowe’s depiction of the
burning of the Koran. But there will be wild voices in some Muslim communities
who will greet the compromise with glee and seek to leverage it; the cultural
mission creep of political correctness is endless. We are a confident enough
society not to require a 21st-century Thomas Bowdler taking ludicrous judgments
about what is and is not acceptable on our behalf. The 7/7 bombings
understandably gave everyone a pause for thought. But none of the social or
political issues they raised are solved by censoring a great Elizabethan play.
Wednesday December 7, 2005
The Nobel prize-winning playwright Harold Pinter has called for
Tony Blair to be tried for war crimes, in his acceptance speech to the Nobel
The 5,000-word speech excoriates the US government over
Guantánamo Bay and its attempts to destabilise Nicaragua in the 1980s.
But he saves his most savage comments for the UK, described as "pathetic and
supine" and a "bleating little lamb" tagging along behind the US in its support
for the Iraq war.
"The invasion of Iraq was a bandit act, an act of blatant state terrorism
demonstrating absolute contempt for the concept of international law," he said.
"The invasion was an arbitrary military action inspired by a series of lies upon
lies and gross manipulation of the media and therefore of the public ... a
formidable assertion of military force responsible for the death and mutilation
of thousands and thousands of innocent people.
"We have brought torture, cluster bombs, depleted uranium, innumerable acts of
random murder, misery, degradation and death to the Iraqi people, and call it
'bringing freedom and democracy to the Middle East'."
The 75-year-old will not be attending Saturday's award ceremony at the Swedish
Academy in Stockholm because of poor health. He will be sending his publisher,
Stephen Page, in his place to receive the 10m kroner prize.
But the author of The Caretaker and The Birthday Party has recorded a video of
himself reading the speech, looking frail in a wheelchair with a red blanket
over his legs.
In recent years he has been treated for cancer, and appeared with a bandaged
head earlier this year when it was announced that he had been awarded the prize.
One of the original "angry young men" who revolutionised British theatre in the
1950s, he has lost none of his fury in the speech.
"How many people do you have to kill before you qualify to be described as a
mass murderer and a war criminal? One hundred thousand? More than enough, I
would have thought," he said.
"Therefore it is just that Bush and Blair be arraigned before the international
criminal court of justice. But Bush has been clever. He has not ratified the
international criminal court of justice ...
"But Tony Blair has ratified the court and is therefore available for
prosecution. We can let the court have his address if they're interested: it is
Number 10, Downing Street, London."
He also discusses his early plays, the creative process, and the ambiguity of
Beginning with a 1958 quote in which he claims that "a thing is not necessarily
either true or false", he says that sometimes a writer has to escape questions
about the uncertainty of truth and stand up for what they think is right.
"I believe that these assertions still make sense and do still apply to the
exploration of reality through art
"So as a writer I stand by them, but as a citizen I cannot. As a citizen I must
ask: what is true, what is false?"
Wednesday June 11, 2003
and Imogen Tilden
The playwright Harold Pinter last night likened George W Bush's
administration to Adolf Hitler's Nazi Germany, saying the US was charging
towards world domination while the American public and Britain's
"mass-murdering" prime minister sat back and watched.
Pinter, 72, was at the National Theatre in London to read from War, a new
collection of his anti-war poetry that had been published in the press in
response to events in Iraq.
In conversation on stage with Michael Billington, the Guardian's theatre critic,
Pinter said the US government was the most dangerous power that had ever
The American detention centre in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where al-Qaida and
Taliban suspects were being held, was a concentration camp.
The US population had to accept responsibility for allowing an unelected
president to take power and the British were exhausted from protesting and being
ignored by Tony Blair, a "deluded idiot" Pinter hoped would resign.
After a big operation for cancer, Pinter returned to public life last year to
speak out against American belligerence. He called it a return from a "personal
nightmare" to an "infinitely more pervasive public nightmare".
The playwright said: "The US is really beyond reason now. It is beyond our
imagining to know what they are going to do next and what they are prepared to
do. There is only one comparison: Nazi Germany.
"Nazi Germany wanted total domination of Europe and they nearly did it. The US
wants total domination of the world and is about to consolidate that.
"In a policy document, the US has used the term 'full-spectrum domination', that
means control of land, sea, air and space, and that is exactly what's intended
and what the US wants to fulfil. They are quite blatant about it."
Pinter blamed "millions of totally deluded American people" for not staging a
He said that because of propaganda and control of the media, millions of
Americans believed that every word Mr Bush said was "accurate and moral".
The US population could not be let off scot-free for putting the country under
the control of an "illegally elected president - in other words, a fake".
He asked: "What objections have there been in the US to Guantanamo Bay? At this
very moment there are 700 people chained, padlocked, handcuffed, hooded and
treated like animals. It is actually a concentration camp.
"I haven't heard anything about the US population saying: 'We can't do this, we
are Americans.' Nobody gives a damn. And nor does Tony Blair." Pinter added:
"Blair sees himself as a representative of moral rectitude. He is actually a
mass murderer. But we forget that - we are as much victims of delusions as
In a British society where people were increasingly encouraged not to use their
brains, the only way to protest was by "thought, intelligence and solidarity".
· Michael Billington was last night voted theatre critic of the year
in a survey
of theatregoers for the website whatsonstage.com.
Portrait d'une société en crise
travers le prisme de six spectacles
joués actuellement à Londres.
«Imaginez-vous parachuté dans un pays inconnu. Chaque soir, pendant une
semaine, choisissez au hasard une pièce de théâtre d'un jeune auteur du pays. En
sept jours, vous en saurez plus sur cette société que bien des observateurs
avisés», disait le grand critique de théâtre britannique Kenneth Tynan. Soit.
Une semaine et six pièces plus tard (1), esquisse de la société britannique dans
tous ses états.
Cinq mariages à la dérive
Premier tableau, le sexe. Ou plutôt : mariages à la dérive et liaisons
dangereuses. Cinq de nos six pièces dépeignent les liaisons et lésions de pas
moins de onze couples en phase finale de frustration. Five Gold Rings, seconde
pièce de Joanna Laurens, 25 ans, nouvelle étoile du théâtre britannique dont la
poésie rappelle la regrettée Sarah Kane, met en scène un père de famille retiré
dans un désert. Abandonné par sa femme il y a trente-cinq ans, il ne désespère
pas de la revoir un jour. Pour Noël, le père attend ses fils, Simon et Daniel,
et leurs épouses, Miranda et Freyja. Deux jeunes couples en crise. Simon ne veut
pas d'enfant, Miranda ne rêve que de se reproduire. Daniel se dit impuissant
pour cacher son manque de désir pour Freyja. La nuit de Noël, Daniel féconde sa
belle-soeur Miranda par amour. Les nouveaux amants projettent de s'enfuir, mais
c'est sans compter les fantômes qui les guettent dans le désert. Et seule la
mort pourra sauver les vestiges de cet amour.
La mort constitue également l'unique échappatoire pour Paige, interprétée
par Harriet Walter, dans Dinner, de Moira Buffini. Cette hôtesse sophistiquée,
femme oisive, donne un dîner pour fêter le succès du dernier livre de son mari.
Au menu, une «soupe primordiale», brouet au plancton ayant mijoté trois semaines
au soleil. Malaise. Un couple invité, Hal, scientifique spécialiste des mouches,
et Sian, belle plante, journaliste vedette à la télé, se déchire. Plat de
résistance, «apocalypse de homard» : un homard vivant pour chaque invité. Avec
ce choix, plonger le crustacé dans l'eau bouillante ou l'épargner en le jetant
dans «le bassin à homard» du jardin. Pendant que les invités se décident, Lars,
le mari philosophe, commande des pizzas au téléphone. Au dessert,
«glace-poubelle», les déchets de la semaine broyés et gelés. Des charades amères
couronnent le tout avant le café. Mais Paige a plus d'un tour dans son sac,
réservant à son mari l'ultime humiliation.
Même les adolescents ne sont pas épargnés par les désillusions de l'amour
et du couple. Duck, première pièce de Stella Feehily, met en scène deux
adolescentes de Dublin depuis longtemps déniaisées. Elles passent leur week-end
soûles et demi-nues dans les clubs de la ville. Pendant que Sophie étudie, Duck
gagne sa vie comme serveuse dans le bar tenu par Eddie, son boyfriend dealer.
Celui-ci la prend pour son chien, la menaçant, l'humiliant sans cesse. Et Duck
se laisse séduire par Jack, vieil écrivain alcoolique qui l'appelle Gina
Lollobrigida. Lui, au moins, est tendre avec elle. Le temps de l'absence de sa
femme. Rien qu'une semaine.
Cadavre dans un lit
Dans Jumpers, écrit en 1972 par Tom Stoppard, alors âgé de 35 ans, Dottie,
ex-chanteuse et femme d'un professeur d'université, trompe son mari avec tous
les hommes qu'elle rencontre. Elle entend ainsi oublier le vide sidéral qu'est
devenu leur mariage. Le drame devient vaudeville quand l'un de ses amants meurt
d'une crise cardiaque dans son lit, et qu'elle cache le cadavre dans la chambre
conjugale... Résultat des courses, dans ce survol des moeurs amoureuses
britanniques : sur onze couples en colère, seuls deux s'en sortent à peu près,
et sans doute pas pour très longtemps.
Après la guerre des sexes, la lutte des classes. On croyait que
l'obsession de l'appartenance sociale n'était plus qu'un cliché en
Grande-Bretagne. En fait, il a la peau dure. Dans Dinner, un invité de dernière
minute s'installe à la table de Lars et Paige. C'est Mike, livreur de gâteaux
qui a besoin de passer un coup de fil après avoir encastré son camion dans le
portail. Parce que Paige veut se débarrasser de cet intrus qui n'est pas de son
monde, Lars insiste au contraire pour qu'il reste : «Désolé, Mike, cela fait des
années que nous n'avons pas parlé à un type de votre classe.» Comprenez «working
class». Une des invités, Wynne, se trouve des ancêtres ouvriers : «Mais enfin,
Mike, nous sommes presque de la même classe. Et en plus, je suis galloise !»
Comprenez, Gallois, Ecossais, Irlandais, inférieurs par définition à la «classe»
Fractures de classes
Révélateur également de ces fractures sociales profondes, After Miss
Julie, de Patrick Marber. Le jeune auteur dramatique a en effet choisi de
s'inspirer de Mademoiselle Julie de Strindberg, histoire d'un amour impossible
entre une aristocrate et son valet, pour parler de la liaison fatale entre une
jeune fille de bonne famille et son serviteur dans l'Angleterre de 1945. John,
le valet, interprété par le vigoureux Richard Coyle, est tenté par miss Julie,
la propriétaire de la riche demeure. Tous deux jouent le jeu cruel de l'amour
défendu. Elle lui intime l'ordre de baiser son pied : «Baisez ma chaussure,
John, et montrez votre respect pour votre maîtresse.» Au petit matin, déchirée
entre ses désirs et sa classe, Julie humilie John : «Rappelez-vous votre
position dans cette maison !», hurle-t-elle. «Laquelle ? Il y en a eu tellement
cette nuit», répond-il.
Des fractures sociales de l'après-guerre, The Permanent Way, nouvelle
pièce d'un ex-jeune rebelle, David Hare, nous ramène aux fractures de la
Grande-Bretagne de Tony Blair. L'intrigue tourne autour de l'incurie des
services publics et de la débâcle des chemins de fer en particulier. Hare se
penche sur les quatre derniers désastres ferroviaires ayant défrayé la
chronique. Désastres parce que rien n'a fonctionné et dont, par conséquent,
personne n'est responsable. Selon Hare, c'est la société britannique dans son
ensemble du Premier ministre (John Major puis Tony Blair) aux fonctionnaires,
en passant par les usagers dociles qui est responsable. La Grande-Bretagne
dessinée par le théâtre contemporain prend des allures de Dickens. Une seule
différence : à l'époque, dans le pays champion de la révolution industrielle,
les trains partaient et arrivaient à l'heure.
(1) Jumpers, de Tom Stoppard, au Piccadilly Theatre jusqu'au 6 mars (44  207
369 1734) ;
Dinner, de Moira Buffini, au Wyndhams Theatre jusqu'au 3 avril (44
 207 369 1736) ;
Five Gold Rings, de Joanna Laurens, à l'Almeida Theatre jusqu'au 17
janvier (44  207 359 4 404) ;
After Miss Julie, de Patrick Marber, au Donmar Theatre jusqu'au 7 février
(44  870 060 6 624) ;
Duck, de Stella Feehily, au Royal Court Upstairs jusqu'au 10 janvier (44
 207 565 5000) ;
The Permanent Way, de David Hare, au National Theatre à partir du 8
(44  207 452 3 000).
Wednesday October 17, 1990
Is Brian Friel the Irish Chekhov? He certainly wrests
poetry from everyday life and, since Friel's latest play, Dancing at Lughnasa,
imported to the Lyttelton from Dublin's Abbey Theatre, features five unfulfilled
sisters, comparisons with the great Russian are inevitable.
But watching this strange, haunting, powerful play, another work came to mind:
the Bacchae of Euripides.
Like Euripides, Friel presents us with a conflict between reason and passion.
His title is a reference to the Irish harvest festival named after the pagan god
Lugh. Friel's narrator/hero, Michael, in fact, takes us back to the warm,
harvest days of August, 1936, when he was a seven-year-old child being brought
up by his unmarried mother, Chris, and her four sisters in the family home in
Dancing is throughout a key metaphor; and in the most extraordinary burst of
ecstasy currently to be seen on the London stage, the five women release their
emotional and sexual supression by dancing to a reel issuing from the radio.
It is a brilliant and moving image that expresses Friel's point that there are
emotions that lie far beyond words. What might simply have been a nostalgia play
about growing up in rural Ireland becomes a study of the unquenchable passions
that underlie Catholic propriety. Friel constantly reminds us that beyond the
sisters' kitchen exists a world of pagan rituals.
Underscoring the point is the malaria-ridden brother Jack, home after 25 years
as a missionary in a Ugandan leper colony, where he has enthusiastically
worshipped strange gods.
Friel's universal themes emerge from a precise evocation of family life. You
learn, for instance, a vast amount about the sisters from their reactions to the
arrival of Michael's father - a charming Welsh flanneller.
Chris gently twirls with him in the garden to the strains of Dancing in the
Dark, Maggie gazes wistfully out of the window at a world of lost romance. It is
pure stage poetry, deeply revealing of character.
Gerard McSorley as Michael steers us through the narration without seeming
oppressively omniscient. And [there] are Stephen Dillane, very good as the
nimblefooted Welshman, and Alec McCowen, who is astonishing as Jack. What I
shall long remember about Mr McCowen as the mufflered, dying priest, is his joy
at learning that Chris has a love-child which in Uganda was a sign of good
That one moment epitomises the theme of Mr Friel's moving play.
of vicissitude as an actor in London, an account of which would wrench tears
from a turnip, I began to get the odd bit of radio, until one day, my star being
in the ascendant, I was cast in a radio play, All That Fall, written by Samuel
Beckett, and directed by Donald McWhinnie. That's when it started as far as I'm
concerned. That's when I started. Late in the day, I grant you, but better late.
Donald McWhinnie, whom I had first met on All That Fall, asked me to read a text
of Beckett's, From An Abandoned Work, then Molloy and Malone Dies. These
readings were in some way the genesis of my playing Krapp's Last Tape, and in
going to Paris with Donald to discuss the play with the author I met Sam Beckett
for the first time.
Two myths about this man should be destroyed forever. A man who has been in more
pubs than I have had hot dinners, who nipped away a couple of steps ahead of the
Gestapo, who was stabbed for no reason at all by a total stranger in a Paris
street, doesn't sound like a hermit-like recluse to me.
The second point is the cuckoo notion that he makes things difficult at
rehearsals. On the contrary, he makes things simpler, and clearer. We are
currently rehearsing Endgame and That Time with Donald McWhinnie, I embark upon
Hamm with trepidation.
Beckett's notes at the end of the rehearsal are proposals, suggestions, never
impositions or demands. Each suggestion is followed by an enquiring 'Eh?' — the
force of this 'Eh?' being 'What do you think? Am I right, I wonder? Will it make
it more difficult?'
I, as Hamm, recount how I dragged a depressed fellow to a window and pointed out
to him the rising corn and the herring. It was my wont to indicate this by
thrusting my arm magisterially in front of me. 'But, Pat, the land's on one
side, and the sea's on the other, eh?'
Sam said: 'Ideally, ideally, each fragment should be done in one breath.' Not
even Frank Sinatra could do it in one breath. 'Can't do it, Sam.' 'Well, if you
need a breath, let's see, there, there's a point where you could breathe.'
'Good. Thanks.' 'If you need another one, here's another place.' 'No, no, one's
'Are you sure? It wouldn't do much harm if you took another one there.' 'Quite
'All right, then, try it. That's it. That's it. That's it,' Sam beams
And this is the 'difficult' man. I wish he would bite some other people I know
with his difficulty.
things first: with this production of Eugene O'Neill's great autobiographical
work, "Long Day's Journey into Night," the National Theatre again finds the form
that lately seems to have deserted it.
Michael Blakemore's production will grow with time but already it gets right to
the heart of this mammoth work and contains a superlative, spine tingling
performance by Olivier as O'Neill's paterfamilias, James Tyrone.
The play itself is an unequivocal masterpiece. O'Neill compresses the whole
traumatic psychological history of his family into a single day in the New
England of 1912, giving the work the unity and drive of a great classical drama.
Though spinning the play out of his own entrails and writing it in "tears and
blood," he still gives the material universality by suggesting that we are all
of us inescapable victims of our inherited background.
The virtue of Michael Blakemore's production is that it opens on a level of
low-key family amiability and only gradually reveals the cracks beneath the
surface. At the start we might be watching a jocular family gathering in any
summer holiday retreat. Olivier as the great romantic actor, Tyrone, sports a
dashing neckerchief and chews on a cigar; his morphine addict wife has a
striking blanched beauty.
Only the sudden dropping of the masks when two people are left alone reminds us
that the house is rotten with suspicion and that, apart from the addicted
mother, the younger son is tubercular and the other a sottish failure. Skilfully
Blakemore makes the crucial point that O'Neill shows, Ibsen-like, how particular
evils spread through a family like a virus; and utilises the fact that two of
the four members are actors, to show us real passion breaking through the shell.
Olivier's Tyrone lapses into a thick Irish accent when cornered in argument or
when making last-ditch appeals to his residual Catholic faith. And even a simple
act like getting on a table to turn on the lamplight becomes a great heroic
Olivier shows there is a heartfelt passion aching to penetrate the actorish
facade. In the scene where he pleads with his wife not to go on another morphine
jag, the great jaw sags, the eyes gaze in despair and burying himself in her
dress he utters a cry of "Won't you stop now?".
The famous last act scene with bis tubercular son (O'Neill himself) is played
both as a defiant vindication of the character's miserliness and as a thrilling
piece of belated soul-baring.
This is as sustained a piece of great acting as we have seen in years.
A prophet is not without honour, save in his own country
... Tyrone, or more usually Tony, Guthrie, was a genius more appreciated, it
seems, by others than by his own countrymen.
Ask Americans, who named a theatre after him, or Canadians
who had a most refreshing dose of his originality. He was as tall or taller than
General de Gaulle and could sometimes be difficult to get on with though most
people loved him and responded to his direction with joy.
He could be perverse and irreverent too, and made old fogies even fairly young
fogies like myself raise their eyebrows. But when he got his hands on "Peer
Gynt" just after the war he showed the great measure of his imagination as a
producer - "Troilus" in the manner of Lehar, "The Dream" in the manner of Queen
Victoria's favourite composer Mendlessohn, those umbrellas at Ophelia's funeral
in the first Guinness "Hamlet" are among the things which have become part of
I seldom see a play today which is hailed for the originality of its production
without thinking, "Guthrie did all that years ago".
With Guthrie's death at the age of 79 the theatre world
from Scotland to Australia has lost the greatest and most inspiring director of
the prewar generation. Sir Tyrone brought to the theatre an unquenchable zest
and energy. "I like pomp but not off the stage," he once said. And on stage he
would provide a brimming energy, an inspired creation of business, which rarely
warred against the text and generally enhanced it.
His career was in his later years peripatetic. He was founder and director of
the Tyrone Guthrie Theatre, Minneapolis [and of] the Stratford Theatre, Ontario.
He was the last of the great generators - happy to see a theatre arriving in an
arid region and himself departing to continue in another place. Guthrie achieved
his greatest and seminal productions at the Old Vic. He helped Shakespearean
productions fully into the twentieth century by treating them to exuberant
irreverence allied to keen insight.
The Charles Laughton-Flora Robson "Measure for Measure", the Olivier "Henry V",
the Richardson "Peer Gynt" and his 1951 production of "Tamburlaine the Great"
are among those productions where his control and invention far outweighed his
occasional talent for eccentricity.
Nor was he afraid to bring the light of psychological interpretation into the
theatre. His 1938 "Othello" suggested an infatuated passion between the Moor and
Saturday July 7, 1917
A renowned British stage theoretician contrasts the
approach of two director friends, Max Reinhardt in Berlin and Konstantin
Stanislavsky in Moscow.
One of Reinhardt's men had said to me, "We can't get the
actors nowadays - the Falstaffs and Hotspurs. "They've all turned into
respectable married men interested in their homes and politics and what-not."
Stanislavsky was telling me a week later that what he always needed was a
company of good citizens. "Acting is not acrobatics, but the expression of life;
and of life at its normal not less than at its moments of crisis. And how are
they to express what they do not understand?"
Then I saw The Three Sisters and The Cherry Orchard. I had not believed till
then that there could be perfection of achievement in the theatre. Here is work
where character counts far more than theme.
I remember after seeing The Three Sisters rereading the book in my room. It was
like reading the libretto of an opera. The acting had been the music. And just
as music dwells with one I can still recall the interwoven scheme of that first
act, its comings and goings, the clustered meal table at the back, the quiet
talk on the balcony.
Then the scene at night-time with its atmosphere of broken rest. Then the last
act with its held-back message of death. Who was the chief painter of it?
Tchekoff, Stanislavsky, or the three actresses?
That is a question you forget to ask. It is because plays are produced there
when they are ready - are born, not aborted, as Stanislavsky says - that they
are living things, that their power over the audiences is the amazing power of
The Moscow stage is not an arena where some "leading man" carries all before
him, not a hothouse where the "leading lady" seduces an excited public. It is a
power in Russia and a part of Russia's true power in the world.
These things come not save by prayer and fasting. Some twenty years of
single-minded service can the Moscow Art Theatre look back on: its makers did
not search first for profits; they waited patiently for that token of success to
In their freedom from fear is the reward of patience. What [is their] idea? That
you must think of art in terms not of profit or success but of life, and of
normal life. And that life interpreted through art has double power. And that
the theatre served aright, keenly, sweetly, merrily, with passion and thought,
is not the least life-giving of the arts by which we both live and know we are
Few repetitions of the follies of a bygone time could have
been less expected than an imitation of the OP Riots at the present day. That
famous series of disturbances, as is known to all who are familiar with literary
and dramatic annals, began with the resolution of the Managing Committee of
Covent Garden Theatre to increase prices for admission in the early years of the
A furious and resolute section of frequenters of the house
refused to allow a word of "Macbeth" to be heard until the old arrangement was
restored, and for many consecutive weeks the nightly performances passed in dumb
show, the malcontents persisting in their clamour and the managers declining to
give way. Closely similar was the motive of the extraordinary and discreditable
manifestation made at the Haymarket Theatre on Saturday night. Mr and Mrs Sidney
Bancroft, who have just entered on the management, had determined to devote the
whole of the door to stalls, and relegate the usual customers for low-priced
seats to the tier above the boxes, which is commonly called the upper circle.
Even if ample notice of the change had not been given, it would have been
intolerable that the popular discontent should have been displayed in a vulgar
uproar which, until the better element in the audience prevailed, obstructed the
commencement of the evening's entertainment. It is doubtless possible to admit
the force of sentimental as well as economical reasons for unwillingness to
witness the abolition of the pit. One of Charles's favourite bits of
interpolation in "The Critic" was his injunction to the heroine: "When you say
that, you should look at the the pit - that's where the good judges sit."
That shows that the standard of taste in this part of the house must be presumed
to have undergone a change since Shakespere's [sic] time, when it was a
suggested apology for such ranting as might make "the judicious grieve". But to
suppose that any class of persons have a right to express their displeasure by
hooting and hissing because they are dissatisfied is so monstrous that it can
only be set down among many proofs of the strange notion that public rights
within the walls of a theatre are not limited by the ordinary rules of morals
and good manners.
It may safely be predicted that any attempt to renew the disturbance will result
in showing not only that there is a greater measure of fairness in popular
opinion than there was in 1809, but that we have a more effectual system of
recalls an exceptional talent
September 24, 2001
they say, ever erected a statue to a critic. But Kenneth Tynan has bequeathed
something even larger to posterity: a legendary life. This year has already seen
the publication of a revelatory memoir, Life Itself, by his first wife, Elaine
Dundy. The Tynan Diaries are imminent. And, as a prelude, we have an
extraordinary last interview by Ann Louise Bardach. As a result I suspect a
certain image of Tynan will prevail: the spanker, the star-fucker, the sexual
obsessive, the suave and ultimately ailing hedonist. He comes to seem like a
Marlovian over-reacher who was finally the victim of both emphysema and his own
is that we shall soon forget the very thing that made him famous: his ability to
write about the theatre with a voluptuous commitment. Most dramatic criticism is
as ephemeral as the work it describes. Very little survives as literature.
Hazlitt's essays on Kean and Kemble have a vivid, bloodshot urgency. Shaw's Our
Theatres in the Nineties memorably demolishes Irving and paves the way for
Ibsen. Agate wrote about great actors with gusto and allusive wit. To that
select list one has to add Tynan, who not only had the gift for pinning down a
performance but also, as both critic and National Theatre literary manager,
helped redefine British theatre.
For me Tynan's career falls into three distinct stages. At first there was the
celebrator of heroic individualism: something that sprang from a mixture of
temperament, timing and geography. Temperament because Tynan had the gift,
virtually from schooldays, of adulation. Timing because, having been born in
1927, he grew up during a period when the British stage was dominated by outsize
figures such as Olivier, Gielgud and Wolfit. And geography because, for all his
later hatred of Birmingham - "a cemetery without walls" - it gave him access to
a thriving touring circuit and to Stratford.
It is faintly unnerving to discover that, even as a Brummagem schoolboy, he
combined firm opinions with assured prose. In his immensely readable Letters you
find him, at 17, graphically describing Wolfit's Volpone to his friend Julian
Holland. "Hazlitt," he enthuses, "would have loved this performance. Almost
lovingly Wolfit savoured every syllable; and in the colossal 'milk of unicorns
and panther's breath' speech the house was burdened with verbal perfume. How he
impressed too with the hissing delivery of his triumphant 'I am Volpone and
thisssss my sssslave'."
Had he so chosen, you feel Tynan could also have given Cardus a run for his
money as a cricket writer. In another schoolboy letter he describes the stylish
Nottinghamshire opening batsman, RT Simpson, and the way "his drives ripple over
the ground in outward manifestation of an inner energy".
That ability to celebrate what he later termed high-definition performance found
its outlet in a book called He That Plays the King that he wrote when 23. Even
today, it remains the most exciting of all his books. It is emotional, excessive
and full of hyperinflation. What it proves is that, when you blend a
Daumier-like eye with a descriptive pen, you have great criticism. Thus he
writes, unforgettably, of Olivier in Henry IV Part Two: "This Shallow is a
crapulous, paltering scarecrow of a man, withered up like the slough of a snake;
but he has quick commiserating eyes and the kind of delight in dispensing food
and drink that one associates with a favourite aunt. He pecks at the lines,
nibbles at them like a parrot biting on a nut; for all his age, he darts here
and there nimbly enough, even skittishly; forgetting nothing, not even the
pleasure of Falstaff's page, 'that little tiny thief'."
Tynan, the celebrator of heroic acting, turned into the committed critic during
his years at the Observer from 1954 to 1963. This was the period of his greatest
renown, and again the timing was perfect. The London theatre in the mid-50s
could boast Rattigan, Whiting, Fry and Eliot, but precious little else.
Everywhere you found minor thrillers and country-house comedies set in what
Tynan wittily dubbed Loamshire: "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
Having analysed the disease, Tynan was fortunate in that the cure was at hand.
It came in a series of eruptions that took place within an extraordinary year in
British theatre from August 1955 to August 1956: the premieres of Waiting for
Godot and Look Back in Anger, the flowering of Joan Littlewood's Theatre
Workshop with Brendan Behan's The Quare Fellow, and the arrival of the Berliner
Ensemble with a three-play Brecht season. From being a night-nurse at the
bedside of British theatre, Tynan suddenly turned into a midwife. Instead of
wringing his hands he was able to raise his voice in salutation of a theatre
that at last seemed in touch with human pain and social issues. Of course, he
was not infallible: his opposite number on the Sunday Times, Harold Hobson,
grasped the importance of Pinter's The Birthday Party in a way Tynan signally
failed to do. But Tynan's gift was to make theatre culturally significant and
criticism itself glamorous and sexy.
Tynan's departure to become Olivier's literary manager with the newly formed
National Theatre company in 1963 was seen by some as a sad defection: "Librarian
for an obscure South London repertory company" was how Private Eye cruelly
described his new job. But, for a few years at least, Tynan had a palpable and
beneficial influence on the NT programme. His star-worship sometimes
contradicted the ensemble ideals of the directors, William Gaskill and John
Dexter, but it was clearly Tynan who goaded Olivier into playing Othello, who
shrewdly nudged many of the National's greatest hits into being and who
championed more adventurous work such as the William Blake musical, Tyger, and
Trevor Griffiths' The Party.
Around this time I got to know the man himself a bit and always found him
courteous and charming. I suspect it was my advocacy of The Party that earned me
an invitation to a Christmas Eve Tynan bash: half expecting a drug-filled orgy,
I found that we did an old-fashioned pencil-and-paper quiz over which he had
clearly laboured a long time. I was also touched when he rang me one day in
1976, clearly in a state of shock over a Times leader suggesting that he had
been corrupted by the pornography of cruelty: it took little prompting to
persuade me to write a letter to the editor, never published, refuting the
I don't feel that Tynan was in any sense depraved or corrupted. You could, at
worst, accuse him of exhibitionism or selfishness. But he was essentially a
libertarian and, as far as I can judge, his spanking activities, his sexual
Olympics and his transvestite role-playing were all carried out with willing and
enthusiastic partners. I also feel that what he did in his bedroom - or even a
Madrid hotel or Regent's Park - was very much his own business. What matters far
more is what he did in the columns of the Observer, the New Yorker, the London
Evening Standard and the Nissen hut offices of the National Theatre; and that
was to campaign tirelessly for a theatre that was vivacious, relevant and alive.
There was, I don't doubt, a tension between his star-worship and his Marxism;
but out of that tension sprang a vibrant prose that made his column compulsory
reading and had a galvanising effect on our theatre. What better testament could
a critic have than that