May 10, 2013

On the Occasion of a Not-Unbirthday

This past Sunday was not my unbirthday. It was also not Karl Marx's unbirthday. Coincidence? And all those Cinco de Mayo celebrations every year ... yes, for me. So many people! So much wonderful food! I always tell them not to make such a fuss, but they do insist. Terribly sweet.

To acknowledge the occasion -- and at my age, and given my health, about all I can say is, "Hell, managed to survive another year! Still here to annoy you!," and then I laugh a lot -- here are a few things that have nothing whatsoever to do with politics, and therefore are not at all representative of the shit end of life. And thank God for that.

During the first season of Britain's new National Theatre in the early 1960s, Laurence Olivier, its first director, decided to revive an early Noel Coward classic, Hay Fever. In my not at all humble opinion, it is one of the funniest plays ever written; the second act curtain, if done well, is brilliantly hilarious to a degree that might cause one to collapse helplessly on the floor. Olivier asked Coward himself to direct. It was an enormous and well-deserved boon to Coward's reputation, which had suffered mightily during Coward's set-to with the "angry young men" who emerged as playwrights during the 1950s. (Coward later made amends for some of his intemperate remarks during the fracas, which went on for a long time and played out in full public view, with vituperative newspaper columns among other battles.)

Hay Fever is about a wildly flamboyant, staggeringly narcissistic theatrical family. They are also hugely entertaining (after several hours, they might well not be so in real life, at least that has been my experience, but this resolutely and triumphantly has nothing to do with "real life"). It turns out that each of the four members of the family (the mother, a well-known actress of a certain age, the husband, a novelist, and a son and daughter, both about 20-ish) has invited a guest to their country house for the weekend, unaware that the other three have done the same. (Once the weekend has taken a serious turn for the worse, one of the family refers to the visitors as "the drearies.") The family members are each looking forward to an innocent (?) romantic entanglement with their guest.

One of the visitors is Myra, who has designs on the husband. Myra is described, as I recall by the mother-actress in one of her more acid moments, as a far too obvious, would-be temptress who "uses sex as a shrimping net." In the revival, Myra was played by a very young Maggie Smith. The scene between her and the husband was done on television -- and here it is. Truly wonderful. (I just watched it again, and it is about as perfect as these things get.) From various reports, Maggie's most hilarious moment occurred in the third act, during an incredibly awkward breakfast when the guests are plotting their escape from this plainly insane and dangerous family. After eating a tiny morsel of food, Maggie-Myra declared, with contemptuous disdain that would shrivel galaxies: "This haddock is disssssgussting." At which point, the entire theater erupted, according to those same reports. Too bad that moment wasn't captured, but you can hear Maggie saying it with her nasal twang, can't you?

One of my favorite theater stories occurred during that revival. It was a big prestige production, so the celebrated Edith Evans was cast as Judith, the mother-actress. That was perhaps inevitable, but Evans was by then too old for the part and not at all glamorous or charming in the required manner. (The divine Rosemary Harris played Judith in a Broadway revival in the mid-1980s, and she must have been perfect in the part. I could happily kill myself for not managing to get to New York to see it.) I attended a Noel Coward tribute evening in Los Angeles in, oh, I think it was the late 1980s. Michael York was on the panel, as was Lynn Redgrave. Redgrave had been a member of the National Theatre company during its early years.

Redgrave told several tales about the Hay Fever rehearsal period. She was a wonderful mimic, and her Edith Evans impersonation was wonderfully funny, while also being very affectionate. In addition to not being right for the part, Evans had great difficulty remembering her lines, which drove Coward more than slightly crazy. Finally, before an early preview performance (not in London, as I remember), Coward went to Evans' dressing room. He informed Evans that her understudy -- Maggie Smith again! -- was entirely prepared to go on, and if Evans failed to offer marked improvements to her performance, Maggie would be put in. Evans was line-perfect that night, and close enough to perfect from then on. (The theater can be very cruel, which is news to no one.)

But the story I adore is a different one. Because some of you may be ignorant tarts who know far too little of the glorious history of The Theahtuh, I need to tell you that, very shortly after Christopher Marlowe trod the earth (far too briefly, and who ordered him killed anyway? and why?), Beaumont and Fletcher were also writing (mostly heavy-breathing potboilers of the kind then popular).

At one point in Hay Fever, Judith is playing "lady of the manor," exulting in the simple, beautiful country life (which she can't wait to escape via a return to the stage, where she will be loved once again by her adoring fans). She looks out across the sweet little river but a short distance from the house. During rehearsals, Evans would insist on saying, "On a very clear day, you can see Marlow." And she kept saying it: "On a very clear day..." Coward finally couldn't bear it another moment. "Dear Edith," he exploded, "the line is, 'On a clear day, you can see Marlow...' On a VERY clear day, you can see Marlowe -- AND BEAUMONT AND FLETCHER!"

She said it correctly after that.

If you want to experience a somewhat muted sense of what an evening of Coward would be like, there is a complete performance of Present Laughter on Youtube (Part I, and Part II). The play is second-rank Coward; I've always thought it would benefit significantly by being cut by roughly half an hour, or even slightly more. (Private Lives and Hay Fever, both of which I consider divine, move like lightning.) And the production is good, but not exceptional. Donald Sinden gives a fine performance in the lead, which is a killer role (originally played by Coward himself), Dinah Sheridan is lovely, but several of the others range from merely adequate to verging on poor. I blame the director, for the performers in general work far too hard at what they think is funny, rather than simply inhabiting the characters. Still, it's the entire play rather than selected scenes, taped during a live performance. And it's far more enjoyable than many other ways of whiling away a few hours. (I saw the New York revival with George C. Scott in the lead -- he also directed -- in 1982. Scott was truly wonderful, and hugely funny. Of course, he was a spectacular actor; in comedy, he was spectacularly funny. I still remember him from Plaza Suite close to 50 years ago, especially in the farcical third act. And Scott in Present Laughter was a revelation in terms of the range of performance that the play can contain: it's hard to imagine an actor as different from Coward in almost every respect. In that NY revival, Nathan Lane made his Broadway debut in the can't-miss, very showy role of the young playwright; he was wonderful, as is the actor in the Youtube performance. It's a terribly funny part when done well.)

My not-unbirthday wouldn't be complete without Maria Callas. Here's a Callas performance I don't think I've mentioned before: Dalila's first aria, "Printemps qui commence," recorded in 1961. Callas's voice was in serious decline, but she still had the resources needed for this particular piece. And it is a miracle of expressivity, phrasing, word and tone coloring, and everything else that is part of great interpretation. (You should know what she's singing during this initial seduction of Samson: here's the text with poor translation.) Mentioning Callas gives me the opportunity to once again offer two earlier essays for those who might be interested. They remain among my handful of personal favorites: my initial tribute to Callas and her art; and this later, admittedly wandering collection of ruminations on a variety of subjects. In that second piece, the concluding section (beginning with, "In my work, I write what I do...") tells anyone who cares the reasons that impel me to write, and why I always return to certain subjects. (Speaking of cuts: I seriously considered cutting a third of that second essay before publishing it. But then I thought: What the hell. It's my blog, and these are the subjects I love more than any others. So I left it the way it was. But as I said, it wanders in parts. Permit me the indulgence, if you will.)

If you wish to forget politics entirely for a while -- and those of us who remain remotely sane must desperately wish to do so, at least now and then -- I hope you enjoy a few of the links.