THEATRE: Sophocles’ PHILOCTETES (409 BCE)

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This article is a continuation of the series devoted to ‘neglected plays.

PHILOCTETES (409 BCE) by Sophocles

Sophocles’ Philoctetes was first performed at the City Dionysia festival in ancient Athen in 409 BCE, winning first prize in the annual competition devoted to drama. It has subsequently had a rather chequered existence, nonetheless, is still regularly performed in Europe and the USA – but not in Australia.

download-1It is a ‘war play’ dealing with the character of Philoctetes and the ownership of a master weapon – Heracles’ Bow and Arrows – that is needed to end the Trojan War. At the time when Sophocles wrote Philoctetes and it was first performed Athens was entering the final years of the decades long and exhausting Peloponnesian War (431-404 BCE). Whilst achieving a number of military successes and the suppression of a couple of rebellions, nonetheless, Athens and the so-called Athenian League were also facing considerable international problems and defeats, particularly by the Persians as well as the ever increasing power of Carthage and the Carthaginians. Philoctetes may be considered a ‘war play’ but it is also a moral and ethical drama involving ‘keeping the peace’. Furthermore, it shows how in times of war a problematic person of value may be discarded and abandoned for the sake of personal ambition in the guise of action for the ‘greater good’. This hypocritical lie and deceit is exposed and denounced – but only after a long period of time, which is a lesson in itself – and only by someone who has the ethical and moral courage to stand up to the force of the majority.

Whilst the classical Greek mythic characters may occasionally reappear from time to time, sometimes in a Disney film, or referenced in a Marvel Comic blockbuster, or in a modern adaptation with a ‘modern’ twist, very rarely do we see in Australia see a fully mounted professional production of a classical Greek play. Recently, I raised this issue and was met with various responses ranging from complete ignorance to these vitally important plays being now considered ‘irrelevant’.

 

Putting aside their importance to contemporary Freudian analysis, there download-3are a couple of these plays that hold a significant place in Australian theatre history. download-2This includes Euripides’ Medea (431 BCE) and Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex (429 BCE). Medea was a big international success for Australian actors Dame Judith Anderson and Zoe Caldwell; Oedipus Rex was directed by Tyrone Guthrie for Sydney’s Old Tote Theatre Company in the 1960s and was a landmark production not only for Guthrie, but also for the fledgling Old Tote Theatre Company.

There have been subsequent re-workings and adaptations of these plays, and others, but nothing like these productions of the original works. Why? Who knows – irrelevance is too stupid to contemplate. It may be that, like others in this series of ‘neglected plays’, it is combination of factors, including not having the actors and directors who have the talent, skill, nor interest in scaling these challenging heights of great theatre. Also, it may be that Philoctetes does not conform with contemporary perception (mis-perceptions) of classical Greek drama, in that it is neither a classical tragedy nor a comedy. Like Euripides’ Alcestis (438 BCE) due to this perceived non-conformity to so-called classical rules, it has been labelled a ‘problem play’. However, it isn’t really a ‘problem’; it is what it is, and like Alcestis has a relatively happy ending. It is only a ‘problem’ if one refuses to accept the relative optimism of the ending. If labels are needed then Philoctetes, as well as Alcestis, could be regarded as prefiguring a future form of drama, particularly in 17th Century Jacobean London, that will be identified as ‘tragi-comedy’ – a dramatic narrative that has all the hallmarks and characteristics of classical tragedy, yet has a fortuitous classical comedy ending.

The classical Greek plays that are possibly known would probably include Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, Electra and Antigone, and Euripides’ Medea, The Trojan Women, and The Bacchae, and maybe Aristophanes’ Lysistrata. I think it highly unlikely that Sophocles’ extraordinary Philoctetes is known at all. Nonetheless, Philoctetes is still performed in Europe and the USA, including productions by the U.K.’s Cheek by Jowl theatre companies, and performed readings such as the annual Theatre of War series to military and civilian communities in the US and Europe.

Rather than being regarded as irrelevant and old-fashioned Philoctetes is seen by some, including me, as highly pertinent and apt for the modern world. Why?

Because Philoctetes is about the possession of the weapon – the master weapon to end all wars; or in this case the end of the Trojan War.

Philoctetes was a Greek warrior who held a special place amongst the Greeks as a great archer. He was one of the original suitors for the hand of Helen, but more importantly, due to assisting Heracles he was given Heracles powerful Bow and Arrows. Philoctetes was amongst the original members of the Greek army that went to Troy. However, on the journey to Troy Philoctetes was bitten by a snake, which gave him great pain as well as causing a hideous stench. So bad was the smell that it resulted in Odysseus, Agamemnon, Menelaus, and the rest of the Greek army abandoning Philoctetes on the lonely and deserted island of Lemnos. Now, ten years later, due to a prophesy by Helenus, son of King Priam of Troy that stated the Greeks needed Philoctetes and Heracles’ Bow and Arrows to win the Trojan War, Odysseus and Neoptolemus, son of the late Achilles, have come to Lemnos. Odysseus, knowing how much Philoctetes hates him and the Greeks, persuades the young and honorable Neoptolemus to trick Philoctetes and gain his trust by claiming that, like Philoctetes, Neoptolemus also hates Odysseus. Whilst initially very reluctant Neoptolemus agrees, gains Philoctetes trust and subsequently is given Heracles’ powerful weapon. Whilst Philoctetes goes through a bout of extreme pain, Neoptolemus suffers from guilt and decides to return the weapon to Philoctetes. Odysseus reappears and tries to prevent this. However, Neoptolemus refuses and after numerous threats Odysseus leaves. Neoptolemus tries to persuade Philoctetes to return with him to Troy with the weapon under his own free will. Philoctetes refuses, but suddenly Heracles appears from the heavens and tells Philoctetes to go with Neoptolemus to Troy, with the Bow and Arrows, where he will be cured and help win the war for the Greeks. Philoctetes agrees and he and Neoptolemus leave, bound for Troy.

That, in a nutshell, is the basic story of Sophocles’ play; there are other versions of the Philoctetes story, including plays by Aeschylus and Euripides that are now lost. Furthermore, Sophocles’ play has attracted a number of modern poets – my favourite being by the Irish poet and Nobel Prize winner, Seamus Heaney’s The Cure At Troy: A version of Sophocle’s Philoctetes (1990).  

Why did the Philoctetes story hold such an important place in ancient Greece, and why does it still hold, in certain quarters, such strong appeal? Whilst there may be some differences in the various versions, nonetheless, it is the importance and the possession of the weapon, Heracles’ Bow and Arrows, which remains the primary symbolic feature of all the versions. The actual weapon, it’s power etc, is not discussed – just desired. It is the moral and ethical debates debate about ownership and possession of this weapon, gained by either deceit and subterfuge or honourable means that is actually the main drama in Sophocles’ play. Sophocles places great emphasis on the ethical and moral dilemma facing Neoptolemus. He is driven to deceit for ‘god and country’ matters by Odysseus, for the sake of the Greek army etc, but he knows that this is wrong, hence his change of heart. He offers kindness, respect and honour to the old man, Philoctetes, and is justly rewarded. It is clear that Sophocles social and political message is on the side of honour, as exemplified by Neoptolemus. Sadly, this type of hero is not generally found in modern drama, except in the Marvel Comic films. Contemporary tastes tend to favour the anti-heroes, such as the WOLF OF WALL STREET, or other such dubious characters, more in the mould of Odysseus. Maybe I’m wrong, but as George Miller noted in his review of 100 years of Australian cinema, the modern ‘dreaming’ has become more ‘toxic’. It is notable that in Australian drama we do tend to have more of villains than heroes – poor box office? Perhaps – but as the popularity of the Marvel Comic film heroes suggest we still need our heroes.

TONY KNIGHT

 

THEATRE: Thomas Otway’s VENICE PRESERV’D (1682)

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har250214_venicepreservd_web_logo_640_27_3_14This article on Thomas Otway’s Venice Preserv’d is a continuation of the series devoted to ‘neglected’ plays.

Of all the ‘neglected’ plays so far discussed Thomas Otway’s Venice Preserv’d (1682) is by the far the best – it is truly one of the great English tragedies. Extremely popular as well as controversial, and with a performance history that spans centuries, it is somewhat bizarre that this brilliant play has relatively dropped out of fashion. There have been the occasional revivals and reinventions, notably the National Theatre Company’s in 1984 and the Glasgow Citizen’s Theatre Company’s in 2003, but nothing like the enormous popularity and frequency that it previously enjoyed.

venicepreservdor00otwaI first was introduced to Venice Preserv’d whilst a young directing student at The Drama Centre, London. I was assigned the play by Christopher Fettes to work with a student designer from the Motley Design Course, under the auspices and guidance of Glen Byam Shaw (1904-1986) and Margaret (‘Percy’) Harris (1904-2000) no less. Amazing when I think back on it. Furthermore, it was through working on Venice Preserv’d with the students and teachers at the Motley Design Course that I discovered the work of Edward Gordon Craig who had done numerous stage design concepts for the play. Looking at more modern stage designs for Venice Preserv’d it is interesting noticing Craig’s great influence.

 I have no idea why Christopher gave me this play – maybe he knew that I would love it. He was right – I did – and still do. Of the plays that still sit on my ‘I wish’ list Venice Preserv’d and Lope de Vega’s Fuenteojveuna are definitely the top two. This says a great deal about me and my particular tastes; namely that I like political theatre that has function in dealing with social injustice and crimes against humanity. It gives a ‘purpose to playing’.

0318Set in Venice in the late 17th Century Venice Preserv’d is a play about love, death, friendship and betrayal. It is a highly political play involving intrigue, rebellion, corruption and deceit, encapsulated by its subtitle – Venice Preserv’d, or A Plot Discovered. Whilst possible inspired by the Gunpowder Plot in 1605, nonetheless, at the time it was first produced in 1685 it was seen as an attack on the despised royalist government of the recently deceased Anthony Ashley Cooper, 1st Earl of Shaftesbury (1621-83). The elderly, scurrilous and decadent Venetian Senator, Antonio, was regarded as a satiric portrait of Shaftesbury. Antonio’s scenes with the courtesan Aquiliana, with his constant referring to his ‘Nicky-Nacky’, whilst hilariously funny also caused controversy, especially considering that ‘Nicky Nacky’ was contemporary slang for a woman’s genitalia. Furthermore, a century later, in 1795, performances of Venice Preserv’d at Richard Brinsely Sheridan‘s Drury Lane Theatre, featuring John Philip Kemble and Sarah Siddons, were involved in notorious ‘theatre riots’ and other disturbances in the wake of the American War of Independence and the French Revolution. The play was seen as ‘disgraceful to public morals, and so inimical to order and government’. The play continued to provoke strong reactions – an American production was banned in 1798, and there were further public demonstrations when the play was revived in 1809 and again in 1848, the year of numerous riots and rebellions throughout Europe.

Maybe this is why Venice Preserv’d is no longer often performed – it has the potential to excite heated and demonstrative passions. We have, overall, as audiences, become too passive. The popular drive is for harmless and diverting ‘entertainment’, hence the universal popularity and international success of musicals such as The Lion King, Wicked and Matilda. However, there are ‘political’ and ‘satiric’ musicals as well, exemplified by Hamilton and The Book of Mormon. The political and satiric message, however, has been filtered through comedy, making and criticism seemingly palpable and acceptable to modern audiences. Venice Preserv’d is something completely different. For a start, for centuries many of the respective audiences knew the play, often quoting from it, and/or saying lines along with the actors as they performed the play.

Venice Preserv’d has a very large cast of characters, which would make any theatre company’s General Manager, HR, and Board, gulp in fear and apprehension. Nonetheless, how thrilling it could be if done well. I have only ever been in one incident that could be called a ‘theatre riot’; when an audience erupts in fury and anger at what is being presented on stage. This was, for me, years ago when Sydney’s Old Tote Theatre Company did a production of Edward Bond’s Lear, where the blinding of Gloucester was so realistic and gory that most of the audience stood up, shouted and left in disgust. I remember I lent over to my naturally concerned mother and said, ‘We’re not going!’. Haha.

Essentially, Venice Preserv’d involves four young people, Jaffier and his newly married wife Belvidera, Jaffier’s revolutionary friend Pierre, and Aquilina, a courtesan in love with Pierre. Due to his scandalous marriage to Belvidera, a Senator’s daughter, Jaffier finds himself and Belvidera ostracised and impoverished, with little sympathy from Belvidera’s autocratic father, Senator Pruili. In despair Jaffier seeks consolation from his dear friend Pierre, and subsequently becomes involved in a plot by Pierre and his fellow conspirators to overthrow the Venetian Senate. The price for Jaffier’s involvement and silence is for Belvidera to be made hostage by the conspirators. The price for his silence is that Belvidera must be held as a hostage. Jaffier agrees and makes a sacred vow to assist the conspiracy and conspirators. Meanwhile, Pierre has his own personal problems. He loves the beautiful courtesan Aquilina, but she has as a client the corrupt old Senator, Antonio. Aquilina loathes Antonio and loves Pierre, but she will not give up her financial independence. She is suspicious and concerned, however, about Pierre and his secretiveness – she suspects the worst – and she is right.

Belvidera is held hostage by one of the conspirators, Renault, who attempts to rape her. Unsuccessful, he vows revenge. Belvidera is desperate. She confesses to Jaffier who is outraged and is persuaded by Belvidera to go to Venetian Senate and reveal the conspiracy, betraying his friend Pierre. Jaffier agrees and informs the Senate, being given a promise that he, Belvidera and Pierre will not be harmed. The Senate, however, breaks its promise and all the conspirators are condemned to death. Feeling the depths of guilt and dishonour, Jaffier threatens to kill Belvidera unless she can persuade her father not to execute Pierre and his co-conspirators. Meanwhile, Aquilina is doing her best to save Pierre in her dealings with Antonio. Belvidera, however, is successful – but the pardon arrives too late. Jaffier visits Pierre in his cell to beg forgiveness from his friend. Pierre forgives him but asks if Jaffier will kill him so that he does not suffer an ignoble public death. On the scaffold, Jaffier stabs and kills Pierre, and then kills himself in atonement. In the final scene, the insane Belvidera sees the ghosts of Jaffier and Pierre rise from the dead and subsequently dies of grief, guilt and shame.

Full on stuff, eh? It is! Despite the 3.5hrs length of the play (another potential drawback for modern productions) the play moves along at a hectic and fast pace. In his assessment of the 2003 Glasgow Citizen’s production The Guardian theatre critic, Mark Fisher wrote ‘so speedy and intense are the exchanges that they leave no space for distraction; all that matters is the passion of the moment’.

006e88d690266a91b623b1cd8643841d--quotes-women-english-literatureFor centuries Venice Preserv’d held equal status with the most popular and esteemed plays by Shakespeare. Unfortunately, Thomas Otway (1652-85) did not benefit from the success of his play, nor of his other success The Orphan (1680). Otway fell in love with Elizabeth Barry (1658-1713), for whom he wrote most of his main female characters, 200px-Elizabeth_Barryincluding Belvidera. Mrs Barry, however, did not return his love, preferring the advantageous attention of John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester (1647-80). Tragically, Thomas Otway died in abject poverty. There is an apocryphal story about his death first noted by the actor Theophilus Cibber (son of Colley Cibber) in his Lives of the Poets. The destitute and starving Otway was begging near Tower Hill. When he received a guinea from a passing stranger he rushed to the nearest baker, and due to his haste in eating choked on his first bite and died.

Part of the reason why Venice Preserv’d enjoyed its long popularity is due to the fantastic roles and the opportunities they offer to great actors. Some of the greatest English speaking actors have performed successfully in this play. The original cast included Thomas Betterton (1635-1710) as Jaffier and Elizabeth Barry as Belvidera, and their respective success in these roles, which they played for many years, greatly assisted in establishing the plays celebrated status.

Zoffany-Garrick_&_Cibber_in_Venice_PreservedIn the 18th Century the play was so popular that audience members knew respective speeches by heart, just like today some of Shakespeare’s most famous speeches are known (e.g. ‘To be or not to be”). James Quin (1693-1766),  David Garrick (1717-79)  and later John Philip Kemble (1757-1823) respectively played Jaffier for many years. Susanna Maria Cibber (1714-76) and Sarah Siddons (1755-1823) scored big hits playing Belvidera. In many ways Sarah Siddons‘ Belvidera became the centre of the play and a major reason for its continued popularity. William_Holl_the_Younger02Sarah Siddon’s Belvidera took on full responsibility for the fates of Jaffier and Pierre. How Sarah Siddon’s performed the final scene in which Belvidera goes mad and dies was recorded in 1808 – ‘her ravings, wild, terrible, desperate, were rendered more awful and impressive by the strong exertions in which her mind struggled from time to time to recover its balance and the evanescent glimpse of reason which glimmered doubtfully through the darkness of the soul’. When Sarah Siddon’s Belvidera died, ‘the terrible agonies of her death closed a representation of suffering nature almost too real and too dreadful to be borne’.

tumblr_mhh3pmhsih1qidnqfo1_500In the 19th Century Eliza O’Neill (1791-1872) and Fanny Kemble (1809-1893) respectively scored considerable success as Belvidera. Audiences rose to their feet and cheered Eliza O’Neill’s Belvidera’s death scene. Fanny Kemble wrote that she that she was so overwhelmed by Belvidera that she had to be stopped from rushing screaming from the theatre (bit O.T.T. maybe). Edmund Kean (1787-1833) and Sir Henry Irving (1838-1905) were also notable Jaffier’s in respective productions of Venice Preserv’d.

In the 20th Century Jaffier has been played by John Gielgud (1953), Alan Bates (1969), John Castle (1970) and Michael Pennington (1984). Belvidera has been played by Cathleen Nesbit (1920), Barbara Leigh Hunt (1970) and Jane Lapotaire (1984). Pierre has been played by Paul Schofield (1953), Julian Glover (1970) and Ian McKellen (1984). Notable Aquilina’s include Dame Edith Evans (1920) and Stephanie Beecham (1984).

This relatively small list of past great actors hints at another reason why Venice Preserv’d is now somewhat ‘neglected’ and unknown – it no longer attracts the contemporary ‘star’ actor; and yet this, the ‘star’ actor is what is needed for this play to work. The is partly due to the heightened emotions and passions that the respective roles require. Reducing these down to mere naturalism is not enough. The so-called ‘truth’ of the play does not lay with modern notions of naturalistic truth; the play has it’s own truth, for which is remains uncertain as to whether or not modern actors can match.

Whilst the characters may be something out of synch and/or out of reach of most modern actors, the theme and subject matter of Venice Preserv’d remain universal. It’s revolutionary political force against decedent authoritarian control is still extremely relevant. Furthermore, as evident in the relatively few productions in the 20th Century, the relationships, sexual, sensual and romantic, have been placed under post-20th Century psychoanalysis with startling results. For example, there is the sadomasochistic- masochistic aspect of the respective relationships, which may be a product of and comment on living in such a decadent world. Furthermore, the friendship between Jaffier and Pierre is more like a modern-day passionate ‘bro-mance’, equally as intense and romantic as Jaffier’s relationship with Belvidera.

I hope this rather lengthy post will encourage you to read Thomas Otway’s Venice Preserv’d. It is just one representative of what could be called ‘Restoration Tragedy’, complementing the more well known genre of ‘Restoration Comedy’. It does not sit alone – there are many other such wonderful tragedies, including John Dryden’s All for Love (1677) and John Lillo’s The London Merchant (1731). Furthermore, they complement other great tragedies of the times that are also relatively ‘neglected’ in Australian theatre (at least), such as Jean Racine’s, Andromache (1667), Britannicus (1669), and Phedra (1677). It can only be hoped that someone somewhere (including myself) will produce these ‘neglected’ classics and great plays, such as Thomas Otway’s magnificent Venice Preserv’d.

TONY KNIGHT

 

 

THEATRE: Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s LADY AUDLEY’S SECRET (1862): ‘Sensation drama’ & the ‘femme fatale’

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This is a continuation of the series involving ‘neglected’ plays.

Mary_Elizabeth_Maxwell_(née_Braddon)_by_William_Powell_FrithMARY ELIZABETH BRADDON (1835-1915) was a popular Victorian novelist, her most acclaimed and successful work being the ‘sensation novel’ Lady Audley’s Secret (1862). Initially published in serial form, the novel proved so popular that it was almost immediately adapted for the stage. There were a number of adaption, however, the most lasting and performed one was by the comedian Colin Henry Hazelwood (1823-1875); an irony in itself.download-2

It was subsequently produced many times throughout the 19th Century and well into the 20th Century – and then – disappeared from popular view. It was further adapted for ‘silent film’ in 1912, 1915, and 1920, Sadly, the 1915 version starring ‘the vamp’ Theda Bara, the most notorious and popular femme fatale of the early silent film era, has been lost. Perhaps the last big success it had in the theatre was in 1930 when Tyrone Guthrie directed it with Dame Flora Robson as Lady Audley.

220px-EdwardbraddonThere are a number of fascinating things about Lady Audley’s Secret, not least its theatrical history and influence but also a rather fine connection to Australian history. Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s elder brother, Edward Braddon (1829-1904), immigrated to Australia in 1845 and eventually became Premier of Tasmania from 1894-99, and was a Member of the First Australian Parliament. The suburb of Brandon in the Australian Capital Territory, and the Tasmanian electorate of Braddon are named after Sir Edward Braddon. However, our story lays with his sister and the ‘sensation’ of Lady Audley’s Secret.

Sensation fiction in novels and plays was the most popular genre in Victorian England in the 1860s and 1870s. The three novels that best represent this are Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White (1859-60), Ellen Woods’ East Lynne (1861), and Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret (1862). Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations (1860-61) and his unfinished The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1870) also fall into this genre. Many of the sensation novels of this time were subsequently adapted for the theatre and later film, even musicals.

The definition of this genre is that the story involves the uncovering of a secret, and is a deliberate mixture of romance and realism often involving murder, adultery, greed, forgery, blackmail, corruption, revenge, and madness. They are works of sheer melodrama. This is not something that can easily be dismissed as not matter how sensational the secret and action may be, invariably they are set within a relatively domestic world. The question of personal and social identity rises to the front, questioning individual and the world’s morals, ethics and actions. Invariably a kind of moral universe eventually exerts itself, with good triumphing over evil. One of the best essays on sensation fiction is John Ruskin’s Fiction – Fair and Foul. 

Furthermore, sensation drama, in theatre, film and television has been relatively and consistently present from the 1860s to today. Wonderful examples include Patrick Hamilton’s Rope (1929), as well as Alfred Hitchcock’s 1948 film of the same name, Emlyn Williams’ Night Must Fall (1935). Adding to these personal favourites, which are also now somewhat ‘neglected’ plays, is Reginald Denham’s and Edward Percy’s Ladies in Retirement (1940), which Charles Vidor turned into a film in 1941 with ida Lupino.

As with all the works cited in this series of ‘neglected’ plays, if you are seeking new acting scenes in which to work on you will find some pretty fabulous ones in these plays. The fact that we still love sensation drama can be seen in popular crime detective dramas, as well as in the modern musical versions The Mystery of Edwin Drood and The Woman in White

Very often this type of drama is based on a real-life event, adding to the complexity of the ‘identity’ issue, almost as if we need the incident to be dramatised in order to understand it. This is exemplified by Rope, which was inspired by the real-life murderers Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, as well as Lady Audley’s Secret, which was inspired by the life of child murderer Constance Kent (1844-1944). Issues of gender and class division and madness played a significant role in the Constance Kent case, as they do in Lady Audley’s Secret. This is exemplified by the last lines spoken by Lady Audley in the play – ‘Aye – Aye (laughs wildly) Mad, mad, that is the word. I feel it here (Places her hands over her temples)’.

Is Lady Audley mad? Or is she simply a cold-blooded psychopath? Or is she a type of proto-feminist character, a lowly female member of the Working Class, battling for upward social mobility against domineering men? She has been seen as all of these in subsequent analysis and re-inventions of the novel, play, and story. She certainly prefigures the ‘woman-with-a-past’ characters in the subsequent ‘problem plays’ in the late 19th Century, exemplified by Pinero’s The Second Mrs Tanqueray (1893) [see previous article].

However, she also belongs to the much older theatrical heritage of the femme fatale character in drama, which stretches as far back to ancient times with Helen of Troy and her sister Clytemnestra, as well as Medea and Phaedra. Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth, Alexander Dumas’s Lady deWinter in The Three Musketeers , and Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler are femme fatales, and modern times the femme fatale has been wonderfully portrayed a number of times by Glenn Close, in Fatal Attraction (1987) and Dangerous Liasons (1988). Aspects of Lady Audley can also be seen in Barbara Stanwyck’s Phyllis Dietrichson in Billy Wilder’s brilliant Double Indemnity (1944) and Lana Turner’s Cora Smith in Tay Garnett’s terrific The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946)I’d even add Ann Downs in Joseph Kramm’s Pulitzer Prize winning play The Shrike (1952), and Shirley Stoller’s Martha Beck in Leonard Kastle’s ‘cult classic’ The Honeymoon Killers (1970), which Francois Truffaut called his ‘favourite American film’ (check it out), and, of course, Sharon Stone’s stunning Catherine Tramell in Paul Verhoeven’s Basic Instinct (1992). 

One distinguishing characteristic of these characters, as well as Lady Audley, is that invariably they are ‘blondes’, or ‘redheads’. I have no idea why ‘blonde’ and ‘red-headed women have been associated with the femme fatale, but it stands as a rather curious essentially masculine construction and projection. Not only do you get the beautiful ‘Blonde Venus’ there is also the ‘Blonde Vampire’.

I’m actually not too sure where the femme fatale sits today. She and sensation drama is certainly still present, exemplified by the upcoming revival in London of the musical version of The Woman in White. It would seem that she primarily belongs in the world of gothic fantasy and horror, exemplified by Rachelle Lefevre’s Victoria Sutherland in the Twilight film series.download-23

However, the modern femme fatale may not be the personification of pure evil that she once was, such as Barbara Stanwyck’s Phyllis Dietrichson in Double Indemnity and Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth. Feminism has largely had an influence in diluting and reducing the evil power and nature of the modern femme fatale. download-22 This is highly apparent in Disney’s Maleficent (2014) in which the classic evil witch, although wonderfully played by Angelina Jollie, is given a relatively predictable ‘back story’ that makes her subsequent actions ‘understandable’ due to be the victim of male domination. This romanticised reduction concerns me a little, as it does with male villains, such as the vampire, as it seems to suggest that real evil, real evil people, male and female, don’t really exists, and that everyone and all evil actions are relatively ‘understandable’ – they are actually ‘nice’ people underneath all this. Rubbish. Real evil, real evil people, male and female, do exits, and their actions rather than being ‘understandable’ are repugnant, destructive, and – well – evil – and should be denounced. The potential danger of hypocrisy, and the gullibility of accepting ‘wolves in sheep clothing’ is remarkably pronounced; not all people are ‘understandable’ or ‘nice’.

download-24However, the above characters cited above are not really those that sit within the genre of sensation drama. As previously stated, and in reference to Lady Audley, sensation drama and the femme fatale really exists within a relatively domestic setting and not in the world of fantasy. This makes the modern femme fatale figure particularly dangerous. I am, however, hard put to find modern examples; although arguably Robin Wright’s Claire Underwood in the US TV series House of Cards (2013-2017) falls into the femme fatale archetype. As does Nurse Ratched in Dale Wasserman’s continuing popular play adaptation of Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1963)Furthermore, whilst Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth may remain the most ever-present femme fatale I doubt very much if we will ever see again Ann Downs in Leonard Kastle’s The Shrike, or Lady Audley in Lady Audley’s Secret. Nonetheless, you can always read and see these works, and the femme fatale remains, in various forms, a vital archetype in modern and classical drama – long may she reign.

TONY KNIGHT

 

 

THEATRE: Jean Giraudoux’s THE MADWOMAN OF CHAILLOT (1943)

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This is an article in the series devoted to seemingly ‘neglected’ plays and playwrights.

images-7Jean Giraudoux (1882-1944) was a major French writer in the early 20th Century, particularly in the period between WW1 and WW2. Many of his plays were international successes including Amphitryon 38 (1929), The Enchanted (1933), The Trojan War Will Not Take Place( 1935), Electra (1937), and particularly Ondine (1939) and The Madwoman of Chaillot (1943)images-10

Considering Giraudoux’s social and political position, as well as his heightened poetic realism, I find it rather extraordinary that he is now relatively neglected. Is this because a number of his great characters are elderly? His themes and subject matter are still extremely relevant to our complex modern world, just as challenging and, dare I say it, ‘innovative’ as they were when first written and performed. Maybe it’s the arguments – relatively long scenes, reminiscent of Shaw, in which a particular issue is debated. However, in context, they are still theatrically dramatic.

images-4The Madwoman of Chaillot is a case in point. Written in 1943 but not performed until 1945, this is truly a wonderful play – and very relevant for today.56198939

It deals with an eccentric old woman and her equally eccentric friends in Paris who are concerned with the environmental changes they see being inflicted upon their region in Paris, and elsewhere. These environmental and ecological changes are massive in their potential destructiveness, and are led and desired by a group of conniving and manipulative successful corporate businessmen. These corporate executives are known as The Prospector, The President, The Baron, The Broker. They plan to rip up streets in PAris to get at the oil hidden underneath. Countess Aurelai, the madwoman of Chaillot, is determined to stop them. She gathers together her own little army, made up of The Street Singer, The Sewer Man, The Flower Girl, The Sergeant, and most importantly The Rag Picker. Then there are her elderly so-called aristocratic friends – Constance, Gabrielle and Josephine.images-13

At a very strange tea-party organized by Aurelia the corporate executives are put on trial. This is truly extraordinary scene, and in particular The Rag Picker’s advocerial prosecutor’s speech is fantastic – breathtaking. One by one the corporate executives, these ‘wreckers of the world’s joy’ are judged, condemned and lured to a basement from which they never return – they disappear – or are they murdered. It isn’t actually stated, but the suggestion that Aurelai and her friends have actually deliberately led them to their deaths, and subsequently are murderers, is very unsettling. Nonetheless, the evil man have gone, and joy returns to the world. Still – what may, or has happened to bring about this happy ending is rather complex and creepy.

static.playbillThe play was a considerable success when it was first produced, and subsequently was performed in London, New York, and many other parts of the world. In 1969 Jerry Herman, Jerome Lawrence, and Robert E. Lee turned the play into the musical Dear Worldwhich starred Angela Lansbury. images-5

Also in 1969 British director Bryan Forbes made a movie version with a truly amazing cast featuring Paul Henreid, Charles Boyer, Yul Brynner, Richard Chamberlain, Danny Kaye, Oskar Homolka,  Nannette Newman, John Gavin, Donald Pleasance, and Katharine Hepburn as Countess Aurelia, with her friends played by Edith Evans, Margaret Leighton and Giulietta Masina – amazing! Unfortunately, however, the film is not really successful, despite the brilliance of the actors. Nonetheless,it is worth watching, especially if you are unfamiliar with this extraordinary play.

Many notable and terrific actresses have played Countess Aurelia, including Martita Hunt, Geraldine Page and Anne Jackson.

The play occasionally re-appears, usually in American Universities theatre courses, and in Europe, sometimes in rather exciting modern re-inventions. However, as far as I’m aware it hasn’t (surprisingly) been seen in Australia for centuries – literally.

It would be so wonderful to see this play live again on-stage. I am quite surprised that it is now in the ‘neglected’ plays bin, at least in Australia. Maybe it simply isn’t known about, not being taught in respective drama schools and History of Theatre course? Hence this article. It does feel sometimes that the respective state theatre subsidized seasons come from the list of plays in whatever History of Theatre course the deciding artists have authorities may have done as students – it is a bit limited and predictable.

Not only is The Madwoman of Chaillot extremely topical for today’s world it also offers great roles for senior actors – something, or rather person who are also somewhat relatively ‘neglected’ in the Australian professional theatre. A new production of this with a cast of some of our finest ‘senior’ actors and actresses would be amazing to see. The Madwoman of Chaillot is a play well worth reviving.

TONY KNIGHT

THEATRE: ALFIAN SA’AT – Singapore’s ‘enfant terrible’ & ‘prankish provocateur, libertarian hipster’

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download-10With Alfian Sa-at’s and Marcia Vanderstraaten’s  HOTEL (2015) about to open here in Adelaide as part of the Oz-Asia Festival I thought it opportune to write something about Alfian Sa’at, one of Singapore’s best modern playwrights. Most people in Australia may not be aware of Alfian Sa’at and his work. This is an attempt to slightly address that. He is an exceptional playwright, poet, and from my all to brief dealings with him, a really great guy as well. I first became aware of Alfian Sa’at’s work whilst I was living in Singapore. During that time I was fortunate enough to see a number of his plays being performed by Singapore’s terrific Wild Rice theatre company, led by another exceptional person, Ivan Heng, the Artistic Director and co-founder of Wild Rice. The productions I saw included Dreamplay (2000), which is Part One of Alfian Sa’at’s beautiful Asian Boys Trilogy (2000-07), Cooling Off Day (2011), Cook a Pot of Curry (2013), and my personal favourite, the intriguing The Optic Trilogy (2001). All these are terrific plays and make an excellent introduction to the world of Alfian Sa’at.

Alfian Sa’at was born in Singapore in 1977 and attended Raffles Junior College where his passion for theatre was first revealed. His tremendous creative spirit led to the publication of his first collection of  poetry One Fierce Hour in 1998. This was a instant success with The Malaysian New Strait Times praising and calling him a ‘prankish provocateur’ and ‘libertarian hipster’. What followed was a steady outflow of excellent work – a collection of short stories called Corridor (1999), many of which have been adapted for television, and his second collection of poetry A History of Amnesia (2001). All these are available and are excellent reads; personal favourite being Corridor.

It was partly due to this work, and subsequent others, that Alfian Sa’at earned the moniker of being Singapore’s enfant terrible. He is a ‘provocateur’. This rebellious stance is also evident in his many plays, which are often acute observations of contemporary life in Singapore, combined with a deep knowledge and appreciation of Singapore’s history, as well as World Theatre in general, and a delicious and mischievous wit.

download-7The Asian Boys Trilogy is something that could be seen during Sydney’s annual Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras and/or Adelaide’s Feast Festival. This is a terrific ‘gay’ play that is not only enlightening about ‘gay’ life in South-East Asia, past and present, but is also very entertaining. I have only seen Part One – Dreamplay, which is theatrically influenced by Strindberg’s Dreamplay, and was directed by Ivan Heng and featured the wonderful Singapore actor and dear friend Galeb Goh, amongst other excellent Singapore actors.

One sequence in Alfian Sa’at’s Dreamplay that I found particularly fascinating and gripping involved a relationship between a young Chinese-Singaporean and a Japanese officer during the horrendous Japanese occupation of Singapore during WW2. To be frank, Australians know virtually nothing about this tragic chapter of Singapore’s history, and yet we are intrinsically involved, not just because of the horrors of Changi Prison, but much much more, which time and space does not allow me to enter into here.

downloadCooling Off Day (2011) was actually the first Alfian Sa’at play I saw. It is a series of monologues based around the then recent Singapore General Election. I didn’t know much about the politics of Singapore so this was a terrific introduction. Whilst some of it went way over my head and was very local specific, nonetheless, it was extremely entertaining and enlightening. I loved the structure of the piece, a snap-shot of Singapore at a particular and politically important moment in time, the different voices and perspectives, a cross section of Singaporean characters and society, and the vital and engaging performances by the respective actors. It was also through this play and production that I became aware of the delights of Singlish.

Singlish is the English based patois or slang that is spoken in Singapore. When I was there Singlish was often denigrated as not being ‘proper English’ by those in the so-called social and academic elite, who can be ruthlessly and dully conservative. I loved it! When queried I would be mischievously provocative with these borish snobs, stating that I thought Shakespeare would have loved it too. Shakespeare was a words-smith and you only have to be familiar with his plays, as well as his contemporaries, to see how much he incorporated colloquial English (and others) slang into his works.

download-9I tried many times to speak Singlish, much to the amusement of my Singapore friends. I even had a couple of Singlish dictionaries, and would fervently implore my Singapore students and friends to speak Singlish as I just loved hearing it. Unfortunately, I never got the hang of it – lah. Friends would just giggle at my attempts, my problem centring on differences in stress. Australians follow our English-speaking heritage with an iambic word/vowel stress (Dee-DUM), weak-strong; Singaporeans follow their English-speaking heritage with a trochaic word/vowel stress (DUM-Dee), strong-weak. I couldn’t break my Australian cultural habit. Instead of saying the common ‘CAN lah’, I would say ‘Can LAH’, which generally produced shrieks of laughter. Nonetheless, I was acutely aware that whenever Singlish was spoken in the theatre, as in Alfian’s plays, it was like an electric current suddenly shot through the audience, making them excited and animated – it was fantastic! This was most apparent in Alfian Sa’at’s delightful domestic comedy CookPot of Curry – I didn’t understand half of it, but it didn’t matter, I just enjoyed the vitality of the show, and the joy of the Singapore audience as it would roar with laughter at recognition of themselves and their unique colloquial language. I am sure Hotel will have some Singlish in it – can’t wait to hear it again.

download-12As previously mentioned, my favourite amongst Alfian’s plays is The Optic Trilogy. This is a two-hander between an unnamed man and woman in three separate scenes. I remember this Wild Rice production clearly, which featured dear friend and colleague the wonderful Brendon Fernandez,  and how from the very first scene set in a hotel room I was absolutely transfixed – by the drama, the complexity, the language, and the brilliant performances. This is a play about deceit, full of poetic metaphors, and is often very funny. It has been performed in a number of other countries, but not, as yet, in Australia. This is the play that I would love to do in Australia. I can only encourage you to get hold of it, as it is published, and read it. But please – let me do it! Haha!.

Hopefully this brief little introduction to some of the works of Alfian Sa’at will encourage you to find out more about this terrific Singapore playwright and poet. It is well worth the effort. Also – if you haven’t as yet booked your tickets for Hotel here in Adelaide then please do so immediately – now! From all reports it is simply marvelous – both parts. I know that if you do you will not be disappointed and discover the joy of Alfian Sa’at, as well as Wild Rice.

TONY KNIGHT

THEATRE: THE SECOND MRS TANQUERAY (1893) by Arthur Pinero

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This is an article in a series of re-evaluation of major plays from the past that are not often found in modern History of Theatre courses, nor, despite their previous popularity are no longer performed today. For this article the exact period under review is 1890-1895. A quick overview reveals some truly extraordinary plays, some of which are still regularly performed – some are not.

This includes –  Pinero’s The Cabinet Minister (1890), Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler (1891), Wedekind’s Spring Awakening (1891), Wilde’s Salome (1891), Feydeau’s 13 Rue de l’Amour (1892), Thomas’ Charley’s Aunt (1892), Wilde’s Lady Windermere’s Fan (1892), Ibsen’s The Master Builder (1892), Hauptmann’s The Weavers (1892), Shaw’s Widower’s House (1892), Pinero’s The Second Mrs Tanqueray (1893) and The Amazons (1893), Schnitzler’s Anatol (1893), Suderman’s Heimat (1893), Wilde’s A Woman of No Importance (1893), Maeterlinck’s Pelleas and Melisande (1893), Shaw’s Arms and the Man (1894), Shaw’s Candida (1894), Ibsen’s Little Eyolf (1894), Shaw’s Mrs Warren’s Profession (1894), Wilde’s An Ideal Husband (1895), Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest (1895), du Maurier’s Trilby (1895), and Barrett’s The Sign of the Cross (1895). I am primarily concerned with the plays that whilst once were extremely popular and influential, yet nonetheless are no longer part of the overall modern repertoire, such as Arthur Pinero’s The Second Mrs Tanqueray.

download-2Arthur Pinero (1855-1933) was one of the most successful British playwrights of the late 19th Century. His most popular works include – The Magistrate (1885), The Schoolmistress (1886), Dandy Dick (1887), The Second Mrs Tanqueray (1893), and in particular his wonderful Trelawny of the ‘Well’s that is the most consistently revived of Pinero’s work.

220px-thumbnailArthur Pinero’s The Second Mrs Tanqueray (1893) was one of the most controversial plays of the late 19th Century and early 20th Century. It is what was known as a ‘problem play’ in that it dealt with the moral dilemma of a ‘woman with a past’. In other words she had relationships with men outside the marriage bed. The play was also famous as being the one that made Mrs Patrick Campbell a ‘star’. The Second Mrs Tanqueray maintained its relative popularity in the first half of the 20th Century. The American actress Tallulah 50446894Bankhead scored considerable success with on the New York stage early in her career in the 1920s. The play has also been filmed three times – two ‘silent’ film versions, a British one in 1916, and an Italian one in 1922, and another British version in 1952 with Pamela Brown as Paula Tanqueray and Virginia McKenna as Ellean Tanqueray. Subsequently, however, this once very popular play has slid into relative obscurity, with a notable National Theatre revival in 1983.

download-3In Pinero’s play, Mrs Paula Jarman, who was previously Mrs Paula Dartry, is a notorious London ‘hostess’ who has married the very respectable Mr Aubrey Tanqueray, becoming his second wife after the death of his very religious first wife. Complicating matters there is his daughter Ellean Tanqueray who being estranged from her father for years and brought up in a convent now comes to live with her father at his country estate with the second Mrs Tanqueray. Things are not going well in this household. Paula is acutely aware that she has been snubbed by the local gentry, nor is she and her step-daughter hitting it off – both are at fault, and Paula is acutely jealous and paranoid about her husband’s affection for his daughter. The sheltered and inexperienced Ellean is taken to Paris by an old family friend and falls in love with a young respectable army officer, Captain Hugh Ardale. It is all rather sudden, but her father doesn’t object to the match, until Paula reveals that in a previous life she and Hugh Ardale were lovers. The result is a tragedy – Paula, unable to shake her past, commits suicide.

download-4The early 1890s saw the production of numerous ‘problem plays’, as well as novels, involving ‘fallen women’, exemplified by George Moore‘s wonderful novel Esther Walters (1894). The so-regarded ‘problem’ of a ‘woman with a past’ is integral to Oscar Wilde‘s Lady Windermere’s Fan (1892) and An Ideal Husband (1895), as well as George Bernard Shaw‘s Mrs Warren’s Profession (1894). It is quite possible that Shaw was inspired by The Second Mrs Tanqueray, not just because he admired the character of Paula Tanqueray but also because it was played by Mrs Patrick Campbell whom Shaw adored.  Shaw’s play, however, whilst written in this period 1890-1895 was not actually performed until 1902 due to its subject matter.download

Shaw wrote a short essay about Mrs Patrick Campbell and The Second Mrs Tanqueray titled ‘An Old New Play and a New Old One’. It is a fascinating short essay by the cantankerous and condescending Shaw. In this essay he compares Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest with Pinero’s The Second Mrs Tanqueray, with a marked preference for the later. Shaw praises Mrs Patrick Campbell very highly (of course), stating that Paula Tanqueray is ‘an astonishing well-drawn figure’. His uber critical eye then focuses on the play itself. ‘In The Second Mrs Tanqueray I find little except a scaffold for the situation of a step-mother and a step-daughter finding themselves in the positions respectively of affianced wife and discarded mistress to the same man. Obviously, the only necessary conditions of this situation are the persons concerned shall be respectable enough to be shocked by it, and the step-mother shall be an improper person’. Whilst admiring Pinero for certain aspects of his writing, Shaw can’t help himself in placing Pinero is a relatively minor league. Of the character of Paula Tanqueray Shaw states, ‘she is a work of prejudiced observation instead of comprehension…Mr Pinero is no interpreter of character, but simply an adroit describer of people as the ordinary man sees and judges them’. Nonetheless, Shaw ultimately does praise Pinero, if in a rather pompous and condescending way – “Add to this a clear head, a love of the stage, and a fair talent for fiction, all highly cultivated by hard and honorable work as a writer of effective stage plays for the modern commercial theatre; and you have him on his real level. On that level he is entitled to all the praise The Second Mrs Tanqueray has won him’.

imagesShaw adds a wonderful caution in regards to reading the play in contrast to actually seeing it. The reader ‘must not expect the play to be as imposing in the library as it was on the stage. Its merit there was relative to the culture of the playgoing public’. This may be an all too common reason why some of the older plays become neglected, in that they do not read as well as they play.download-1

Perhaps we have forgotten how to ‘read’ such works due to modern influences and tastes, such as the predictable cry that such a play as The Second Mrs Tanqueray is no longer relevant, innovative, nor entertaining. This somewhat limited imaginative, dismissive and knee-jerk fashionable response flies in the face of such wonderful and internationally successful re-interpretations by Stephen Daldry of J. B. Priestley’s An Inspector Calls (1945) in 1992. There are many others – but we don’t see them in Australia. Recently the works of Terrence Rattigan have been re-evaluated and revived to great success.

images-1Shaw’s criticism of Pinero, in that he is ‘no interpreter of character, but simply an adroit describer of people as the ordinary man sees and judges them’, is the problem – on page when reading Pinero. It could be, however, a completely different story if Pinero (and others) are actually seen and experienced on-stage. I suspect it is. Rather than being ‘old fashioned’ I think that The Second Mrs Tanqueray, in the right hands, could be wonderfully re-invented for modern audiences. After all, the essential drama between a relatively priggish and censorious 18 year old step-daughter dealing with a glamourous and beautiful step-mother with a notorious past is still the stuff of great drama.

Furthermore, Pinero has some wonderful observations about life that are remarkably pertinent, relevant, and often very witty. For example, the confidante friend of Aubrey Tanqueray, Cayle Drummle, has this to say about Tanqueray’s overprotection of his daughter – ‘My dear Aubrey, of all forms of innocence mere ignorance is the least admirable. Take my advice, let her walk and talk and suffer and be healed with the great crowd…if your daughter lives, she can’t escape – what you’re afraid of’.

TONY KNIGHT

 

GREAT ACTORS: Olivia de Havilland

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Olivia_De_Haviland_1933DAME OLIVIA DE HAVILLAND was born 1 July, 1916, in Tokyo and at the grand age of 101 she is still alive and well and living in Paris. Whilst her parents were British, nonetheless she and her younger sister Joan (later known as Joan Fontaine) was raised in Saratoga, California by their mother. She made her acting debut in an amateur production of Alice in Wonderland. What follows in this rather lengthy article is essentially a tribute to Olivia de Havilland’s brilliant career. In my respective acting classes I am often citing past great actors and films, of which my young (and not so young) students are often completely unaware. Many have not even seen or even know about Gone With The Wind, which is perhaps the film that most would identify with Olivia de Havilland. However, there is so much more to this extraordinary actress and 20th and 21st Century woman.

Nmidnight_1935In 1934 she played the role of Puck in a local production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. That summer the legendary director Max Reinhardt came to Los Angeles to direct a production of The Dream at the Hollywood Bowl. One of Reinhardt’s assistants saw Olivia de Havilland in the Saratoga production. Due to this assistant’s praise Reinhardt offered de Havilland the second understudy for the role of Hermia. One week before the production opened Gloria Stuart (Titanic), who was playing Hermia, and the first understudy left the production and Olivia de Havilland went on. Reinhardt A_Midsummer_Night's_Dream_1935was so impressed with the then 18 years old Olivia de Havilland that he subsequently cast her as Hermia in his lavish 1935 film version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. She appeared with alongside other Hollywood legends including James Cagney, Dick Powell and a very young Mickey Rooney. Also in the cast was Australian actress Jean Muir who played Helena.

Following A Midsummer Night’s Dream she then appeared in Captain Blood (1935) with Errol Flynn. This hugely popular film, Olivia de Havilland’s ‘break-out’ film, led to more films in which she starred with Errol Flynn – Four’s A Crowd (1938), Dodge City (1939), The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936), The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939), Santa Fe Trail (1940), They Died With Their Boots On (1941).

Olivia_de_Havilland_and_Errol_Flynn_in_Captain_Blood_trailerThe 8 films that Olivia de Havilland did with Errol Flynn’s is a classic example of the successful on-screen romantic couple. Born from the Hollywood Studio system, as well as the classical theatre, many have tried to emulate this very specific but elusive kind of movie magic, but only a few have ever been as successful as the de Havilland-Flynn pairing. This includes, Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, and Doris Day and Rock Hudson. In modern cinema the films of Drew Barrymore and Adam Sandler are the only on-screen pairing that comes close, although I would also argue that the pairing of Kiera Knightly and Orlando Bloom in the Pirates of the Caribbean film series captures this special type of movie magic.

It'sLoveI'mAfterPosterIn the 1930s as well as the films she made with Errol Flynn she also appeared in a few films with Bette Davis, my favourite being It’s Love I’m After (1937). This marked the beginning of a life-long friendship between Olivia de Havilland and Bette Davis, which is an aspect of de Havilland’s current plans to sue the producer’s of the TV series Feud that deals with the relationship between Davis and Joan Crawford, and in which Catherine Zeta-Jones appears as Olivia de Havilland. One delightful little story about Olivia de Havilland’s relationship with Bette Davis can be found in the This Is Your Life: Bette Davis episode in which Olivia de Havilland makes a surprise appearance. She talks about her relationship with Bette Davis, who is sitting right next to her, and they laugh about how prior to The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex de Havilland was Flynn’s leading lady, but in Elizabeth and Essex she now was Bette Davis’ maid! Haha!

00aOlivia de Havilland also appeared in such ‘big budget’ epics such as Anthony Adverse (1936), but then came the biggest of them all – Gone With The Wind (1939).220px-Poster_-_Gone_With_the_Wind_01 I love Gone With The Wind, in which Olivia de Havilland played ‘mealy-mouthed’ Melanie Wilkes. She, like the rest of the film, is simply wonderful. I am fully aware that it now attracts some severe criticism in regards to its depiction of slavery and African-American stereotypes. Whilst there may be some validity in these censures, nonetheless, it is still a great film – for many reasons. Olivia de Havilland was amongst the first to congratulate Academy Award co-Best Supporting Actress nominee Hattie McDaniel when McDaniel won the award – the first African-American actress to do so. I love Hattie McDaniel’s quip when she was criticized as subscribing to so-called ‘Uncle Tom’ black stereotypes for her fabulous and memorable performance of Mammy: “I’d rather make seven hundred dollars playing a maid than seven dollars being one’.

images-1Despite being somewhat overshadowed by Vivien Leigh, with whom Olivia de Havilland enjoyed a great friendship and working relationship, nonetheless, de Havilland’s Melanie also displays a wonderful ‘cool charm’ and ability to successfully lie and deceive. This ‘cool charm’ is particularly apparent in the second half of the film, in the Atlanta section, involving the deception of the army in regards to her wounded husband, Ashley (Leslie Howard). Olivia de Havilland is also at her best in all her scenes with Vivien Leigh (and there are a lot) including the final ‘death of Melanie’ scene. She is also wonderful in her scenes with Clark Gable, comforting him after the death of Bonnie, and before that her one scene with the terrific Ona Mason as Belle Watling.

imagesOne terrific example of superb screen acting is the sequence in which Melanie recognizes from afar the returning battle scarred Ashley (Leslie Howard); in this short sequence there are no words spoken, and the range of emotions that go across Olivia de Havilland’s face is wonderful and extraordinary – from concern, intrigue, disbelieve, realization and finally rapturous joy. I love Gone With The Wind and have watched it many many times, and always find it delightful and discovering something new about it.

downloadOlivia de Havilland made 16 films during the 1940s. The best of these in the e 40s are Santa Fe Trail (1940), The Strawberry Blonde (1941), Hold Back the Dawn (1941) and The Died with their Boots On (1941). During WW2 Olivia de Havilland was an active member of the Hollywood Canteen, dancing and entertaining troops. This is somewhat reflected in the film images copyThank Your Lucky Stars (1943), in which she appears in a comic song ‘The Dreamer’ with Ida Lupino and George Tobias. Olivia de Havilland also bravely visited front-line troops on islands and other places in the Pacific war zone.

From 1943 to 1945 Olivia de Havilland was engaged in a legal battle with Warner Brothers to whom she was contracted. This was a battle for artistic freedom. A number of others, including Bette Davis, had challenged the fixed and rigid control the respective studios had over their contract players and failed. Not Olivia de Havilland. Her landmark victory meant that in future contract players were able to negotiate their artistic freedom and work with other studios. It went into law as the ‘De Havilland Law’. Even her estranged sister, Joan Fontaine, acknowledged her victory, stating, “Hollywood owes Olivia a great deal”. Subsequently, however, due to Warner Brothers’ influence, and the respective studios ganging together, Olivia de Havilland was ‘blacklisted’ and did not work for two years.

220px-ToeachhisownPOSTERIn 1945 she signed a two-picture deal with Paramount Pictures and subsequently made To Each His Own (1946), for which she received her first Academy Award for Best Actress.What To Each His Own exemplifies is Olivia de Havilland’s artistic need and desire to play characters that go through a considerable transformation, physically as well as psychologically. In To Each His Own Olivia de Havilland beautifully plays an unwed mother who has to give up her child. In this highly romantic drama the character she plays, Jody, ages from a young innocent American girl to an old woman in WW2 London. Whilst it is perhaps easy today to dismiss this sentimental drama, nonetheless, for its time it was covering controversial ground. Furthermore, To Each His Own marked the beginning of a new period in Olivia de Havilland’s career that saw her make films which what are possible her most impressive in regards to acting performances.

220px-The_dark_mirror_vhs_coverThis includes the complex ‘film noir’ psychological thriller The Dark Mirror (1946), in which she plays the dual role of twins battling each other in a torturous love triangle. This fascinating film, written by Nunnally Johnson and directed by Robert Siodmak has been regarded as a precursor to Johnson’s The Three Faces of Eve (1957). Olivia de Havilland was experimenting with the so-called ‘method acting’ technique, and did an enormous amount of research into the psychology of twins. It is speculative as to whether or not she also drew on her own problematic relationship with her sister, Joan Fontaine.

What is definite is that her work in The Dark Mirror in a way prepares Olivia de Havilland for her next two films that are in many ways the highlights of her career – Anatole Litvak’s The Snake Pit (1948), and William Wyler’s The Heiress (1949) for which Olivia de Havilland received her second Academy Award as well as a Golden Globe Award and the New York Film Critics Award for Best Actress. Olivia de Havilland is simply marvelous in both The Snake Pit and The Heiress. There is an extraordinary and truly fascinating depth and complexity in the respective characters that she plays in these films. 220px-Snakepit1948_62862n

The Snake Pit is a harrowing and profoundly moving story about madness and the insane. One is completely seduced by Olivia de Havilland’s character, Virginia – is she insane or isn’t she? Just as effective as Russell Crowe in Ron Howard’s A Beautiful Mind (2001) one is drawn into the world of Olivia de Havilland’s Virginia – a woman who finds herself in an insane asylum, but doesn’t know how she got there.  Heiress_wylerThe Heiress is based on Henry James classic novella Washington Square, and the play adaptation by Ruth and Augustus Goetz. It is a story about deliberate cruelty. A young woman, a wealthy heiress called Catherine Sloper who is cruelly treated by her father, brilliantly played by Ralph Richardson. She falls in love with a young man, Morris Townsend, played by the irresistible Montgomery Cliff, who deserts her after being offered financial remuneration by her father. Years later, after her father has died and Catherine has inherited her fortune, Morris returns in the hope that Catherine will forgive him and that now they can be married. Catherine goes along with Morris’ plans until the devastating ending. When challenged by her Aunt Lavinia (Miriam Hopkins) as to how Catherine can be so cruel, Catherine replies, “I was taught by experts”. This is a great story, complex and intriguing and Olivia de Havilland is simply brilliant, especially in the final scenes. Once again – as with The Snake Pit, and her other films in this period, one is seduced by her seeming innocence, unaware of the serpent that lies beneath until the end. Well worth watching.

220px-Rachel_moviepDue to family commitments and various theatre engagements in New York, which included playing Juliet in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and Candida in George Bernard Shaw’s Candida, Olivia de Havilland did not make another film until 1952. When she did it was the mystery romance, My Cousin Rachel (1952), which was Richard Burton’s first US film. This was followed by Not as a Stranger (1955), which was Stanley Kramer’s debut film, and also featured Frank Sinatra. Her marriage to French journalist Marcus Goodrich meant that she relocated to live in Paris. She returned to Hollywood to make Michael Curtiz’s western The Proud Rebel with Alan Ladd, and 1959 she was in the British courtroom drama Libel (1959), directed by Anthony Asquith with Dirk Bogarde.

220px-The_Light_in_the_Piazza_posterHer marriage to Marcus Goodrich ended in 1962, but they continued to TheLightInThePiazzacohabitate in the same house in Paris. In that same year Olivia de Havilland scored her greatest stage success, appearing with Henry Fonda on Broadway in Garson Kanin’s A Gift of Time. She also appeared in Guy Green’s film Light in the Piazza (1962) that many years later became the basis for Craig Lucas’ and Adam Guettel’s magnificent musical The Light in the Piazza (2005). In 1962 Olivia de Havilland published her semi-autobiographical book, Every Frenchman Has One, about her life in Paris, which subsequently became a bestseller.

220px-Lady_in_a_Cage_-_1964-_poster-1In 1964 Olivia de Havilland made two rather extraordinary psychological horror films. The first was Walter Grauman’s Lady in a Cage (1964), which featured a young James Cann. This is really odd 1960s film – and it is stylishly very 1960s, almost psychedelic at times, with the addition of a doco-drama element. The other film was Robert Aldrich’s Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964) with Bette Davis, as well as other ‘old Hollywood’ actors, Joseph Cotton, Agnes Morehead, Mary Astor, and Australian actor Cecil Kellaway. Olivia de Havilland took over the role that Joan Crawford was playing when Crawford became too ill and had to withdraw. This film also features the young Bruce Dern.220px-Hush_Hush_Sweet_Charlotte_Poster Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte is Robert Aldrich’s follow-up to his What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962). As Bette Davis told me (yes – me) Baby Jane was the better of the two films due its script superiority. Still – Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte is a highly entertaining film, with the seemingly innocent Olivia de Havilland being actually as ruthless and cold-blooded as she was at the end of The Heiress.

 The 1970s was the decade that saw the final major film works of Olivia de Havilland. None of them are particularly good or memorable, although Airport ’77 (1977) is the best of the series that followed the success of Airport (1970); and the disaster film The Swarm (1978) is rated as one of the ‘worst films ever made’, and one of the ‘100 Most Enjoyably Bad Movies Ever Made’. Her final film was forgettable The Fifth Musketeer (1979).

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s Olivia de Havilland was in a number of TV movies and mini-series. This included playing the Queen Mother in The Royal Romance of Charles and Diana (1982). Her best TV performance was as the Dowager Empress Maria in Anastasia: The Mystery of Anna (1986), for which she won a Golden Globe Award as Best Supporting Actress in a TV Series.

As the above indicates it is a phenomenal and highly diverse career.

She has been honoured many times, most recently being made a Dame of the British Empire the day before her 101th birthday on 31 June, 2017.

As previously mentioned, she is now back in the limelight due to her objections and legal battle with the makers of Feud: Bette and Joan (2017), in which Catherine Zetta-Jones plays Olivia de Havilland. Time will see how this all plays out. However, Time is not on Olivia de Havilland’s side. It is hoped that due to this incredible woman’s deserved status, as well as longevity and age, that no matter what she request that the respective producers will yield to her demands, and apologize for any offense. What does it really matter if Feud is shelved and unavailable for a few years. It has already been screened, and will soon fade into obscurity. We now are all fully aware that being a ‘celluloid hero’ doesn’t mean immortality; the ‘stars’ and films of yesteryear are now largely forgotten and unwatched. However, Olivia de Havilland is still with us. Olivia de Havilland now is really the only person left from the so called ‘Golden Years of Hollywood’. A wonderful actress, and a trailblazer, not only in terms of career but also in enabling other Hollywood artists to work freely. A LEGEND. Thank you Olivia de Havilland.

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TONY KNIGHT.

 

 

 

 

 

ESSAY: How I became a “leech” – CIVIL WAR, The Australian ‘Same-Sex’ Survey & Shakespeare’s TIMON OF ATHENS.

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images-9So – I have just posted my decision for the Australian ‘Same-Sex’ Marriage Survey. I had made my decision whether or not ‘Should the law be changed to allow same-sex couples to marry?’, correctly and accurately put a cross in the required box on the given form, sealed it in the provided government envelope and posted it. Just as I was dropping the envelope into the post-box a young woman was next to me doing the same thing. She smiled at me, I smiled back, and then she said, ‘I hope you are voting “Yes”. I didn’t reply, but smiled again and walked away. I had just taken a couple of steps when I heard, thrown to my departing back – “Leech!”.

I stopped, but did not turn around. I giggled. This was, perhaps, not the wisest thing to do as subsequently I was ascended/descended to another level and called, quite loudly, ‘F (expletive) leech!”. I kept walking.

download-3This young woman’s behaviour exemplifies the worst of this current Same-Sex Marriage debate. It has been completely divisive on a national level with both the ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ camps being extremely vitriolic and vicious in their condemnation of each other. Furthermore, if one has not publicly declared one’s choice, preferring the democratic right and privilege of privacy and silence, one can find oneself also condemned – or worse – threatened to be ‘de-friended on Facebook, and other social media. So – now I am a “leech”.

517VmScpieL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_The reason why I giggled was because of something that this young woman would not have known. She must have assumed that I was mocking her, which I can understand and appreciate. However, this was not the case. I giggled because just recently I have enjoyed doing some private tuition for an upcoming production of Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens; the final lines of which, spoken by the character of Alcibiades, are : ‘Bring me to your city, / And I will use the olive with my sword,/ Make war breed peace, make peace stint war, make each / Prescribe to other, as each other’s leech,/ Let our drums strike.’

Now – these final lines are quite complex and full of multiple meanings. In a play that deals with the betrayal of friendships, broken loyalties, and leeches, Alcibiades final lines are ambiguous. The word ‘leech’ implies someone who is like a blood-sucking insect; however, leeches were also used for medicinal purposes, beneficially and successfully removing bacteria from open wounds – they still are used for such purposes. There is an implied threat behind Alcibiades final lines. He a friend of Timon’s, but he is also an Athenian general who has swopped sides in the Peloponnesian War, which is the historical context of Shakespeare’s play, and now threatens to destroy Athens. He wins, but it is left unknown as to whether or not he destroys Athens. The real Alcibiades didn’t; but Shakespeare’s Alcibiades intends to bring in a military dictatorship – “I will use the olive with my sword”. Even the final line “Let our drums strike” suggests the power of military force.

8d47ff0582de15716307c776abf2196d.533x859x1Timon of Athens is a play that has long lived in relative obscurity. Now, in the 21st Century, it would seem that this cranky and bitter play has found a contemporary relevance. The opposite fate of the once popular and regularly performed The Taming of the Shrew, which due to the influence of feminism has somewhat drifted back into relative obscurity; but not Timon. It is a strange play, full of anger and bitterness. It is not even called a ‘tragedy’, yet is grouped within Shakespeare’s ‘Tragedies’ in the First Folio. It’s full title is actually ‘The Life of Timon of Athens. You don’t feel any type of sublime tragic catharsis at the end of the play – you feel relief.

imagesIt is often cited as prefiguring King Lear but I think it has more in common with Coriolanus. Both characters, Timon and Coriolanus feel betrayed by their own country. However, whilst Coriolanus achieves a kind of tragic dignity in his decline and fall Timon remains an embittered old man. Unlike Coriolanus, as well as Lear and other  so-called tragic characters, Timon isn’t even given an on-stage death; we are merely told he is dead. In Alcibiades final speech, at the end of the play, he reads from Timon’s epitaph, “Here lies a wretched man corse, of wretched soul bereft:/  Seek not my name. A plague consume you, wicked caitiffs left!/ Here lie I, Timon, who, alive, all living men did hate. / Pass by and curse thy fill, but pass and stay not here thy gait’. His friend Alcibiades tries to mitigate such bitterness – ‘yet rich conceit / Taught thee to make vast Neptune weep for aye / On thy low grave, on faults forgiven’. However, the faults are not forgiven. Timon certainly hasn’t forgiven anyone for his tragic fall. Alcibiades knows this, and quickly moves to ‘Dead/ is noble Timon, of whose memory/ Hereafter no more’. So that’s that re Timon; a person not even to be remembered. This is unlike the fate of any other main character in Shakespeare’s tragedies. Most are eulogised in some sympathetic form or other, with an appeal to remember their respective fates – but not Timon. He is disposed of as quickly as he was by his so-called friends in the play, like a piece of worthless rubbish whose memory would only disrupt the new world to come. Or – is Alcibiades wanting to remove any personal connection with Timon to disguise his own ambitions and intentions? A mystery.

images-1It is, however, this mystery, this non-neat ending, so different from Shakespeare’s other plays, that makes Timon of Athens so unique. It may also be one reason why the play is finding a new resonances with modern audiences. We know, now, that neat endings, are idealized and non-existent. This leads me back to the Same-Sex Survey. We know that no matter which way the vote goes it will not be, nor ever be, a neat ending. Furthermore, there is a mystery that may never be revealed about why respective and consecutive governments have failed to amend the current Marriage Act despite the overwhelming evidence that the majority of the population is not opposed to such change.

For those who don’t know this is a survey organised by the Australian Federal Government to garner a national opinion of whether or not the Australian Marriage Act should be amended to include Same-Sex marriage. You may well ask why? It’s a mystery – especially considering that homosexuality has been decriminalised for decades, and that same-sex de-facto relationships are recognised; that homosexuals are protected under the Anti-discrimination law; that opinions had already been asked for, with the response being overwhelming in the positive; that the Federal Government is spending $1.2million on something for which they already know; and that it is happening at the same time of funding cuts to universities and, of course, the Arts; and meanwhile the North Koreans are firing missiles over Japan, threatening the whole world’s peace. Nonetheless, the Survey form currently is being distributed and we are all busy responding with either a ‘Yes’ or a ‘No’, and our own private Civil War continues to rage on and on and on….a mystery.

It stands as a complete mystery as why the respective and consecutive Liberal and Labor Governments have consistently failed to push through this reform. This includes (not surprising) the Howard, and (surprising) the Rudd, Gillard, and Turnbull administration and governments. This failure is a major blot of shame on these respective governments as eventually, despite the current Survey probably ending nowhere, this issue of Same-Sex marriage will simply not go away and will finally be approved – it is inevitable.

The real tragedy about this debate and this current Survey is that it has been highly divisive on a national level. Both camps, the ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ supporters, have indulged in public denouncements of each other that have been vitriolic, vicious, and violent to the extreme. What is extraordinary in all this mish-mash is that very rarely is the actual Marriage Act cited. Opinions are based on emotional knee-jerk indignation and misinformation. For example, the Christian Right who are forcibly advocating a ‘No’ vote based on religion refuses to acknowledge that the Marriage Act is actually secular. Except for authorising ministers and priests, along with civil celebrants, to conduct marriage services, there is no mention of religious belief in the Marriage Act. Yet the Christian Right believe that any change to the Marriage Act to include Same-Sex Marriage will undermine religious freedom in Australia, despite absolutely no proof or evidence that this will happen. The paranoia associated with ‘Reds Under the Bed’ and anti-Communist witch-hunting has nothing on this baby. However, if we take the failure of the Menzies Government to outlaw the Communist Party through a national plebiscite in the 1950s as an historic precedent and indication then one can be hopeful that this current Survey will support the ‘Yes’ vote, reflecting overall modern Australians characteristic abhorrence of discrimination (at least on paper).

images-8The whole debate centres on a one-sentence definition of marriage at the beginning of the 1961 Marriage Act, which was regarded as not a satisfactory definition by the Howard Government in 2004. Due to two challenges to the 1961 Marriage Act by two individual same-sex couples the Howard Government pushed through Federal Parliament an amendment, which whilst challenged by the Green Party was supported by both Liberal and Labor MPs and Senators, and passed into law. This 2004 amendment specifically defined marriage as a union between ‘a man and a woman‘, and was designed ‘to ensure that same-sex marriages are not recognized as marriage in Australia, inclusive of those performed under the laws of another country that permits such union‘. The amendment was also to ‘prevent same-sex couples from adopting children from overseas‘. Whilst the 1961 Marriage Act also stated that marriage was between a man and woman it was the Howard Government in 2004 that brought in the boogey-man of social and religious non-conformity and abnormality. The issue of gender, and specifically ‘sex’ in the proposed amendment to the Marriage Act, which will allow Same-Sex marriage, is constitutionally problematic; hence the whole thing may collapse under a High Court ruling. There is a solution, however, if we follow the Canadian definition of marriage, which removes sex and gender, and states that marriage is ‘the lawful union of two persons to the exclusion of all others’. For further information see -(http://www.aph.gov.au/Parliamentary_Business/Bills_Legislation/bd/bd0405/05bd005). Unfortunately, these means that dogs can’t marry, but hopefully they will continue to love us anyway.

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I find it remarkable that most of what I have written above is not mentioned in the various emotional explosions blasted up on social media and other forms of news and information distribution. The tone, attitude and expression of most is ‘You are either with us or against us’ – from both camps. We are, in effect, in a state of Civil War, which has been hardly civil, and like all Civil Wars – there are no victors. The resentment that both camps will feel no which way the decision goes will fester like a rotten canker in the body politic.

What truly concerns me is the complete lack of respect for privacy. As the young woman today at the post-box exemplifies (joining far too many), just because I chose to exercise my democratic right and privilege and not disclose my decision, and no give her what she publicly expected, she punitively attacked me. I am sure, in her indignation she felt completely justified in doing so; I had rejected her advances. Generously giving her the ‘benefit of doubt’, maybe not – I don’t know. However, she said it so loudly and strongly that I think I can assume she wanted others to know too. This smacks of witch-hunting and mob rule and violence.

Am I being a bit paranoid? Maybe – but the level of abuse from both camps and the expectation that one should reveal one’s private decision is alarming. It is anti-democratic; it is the birth of fascism. In other words, “All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others”, based on the issue of public disclosure and revelation. I have nothing terrible to hide, and those that know me well can well imagine (correctly) what I may have voted – but I’m not going to publically declare and share it with all and sundry.

images-3It is our democratic right and privilege not to disclose which way we are voting. This applies to voting for respective local, state and federal governments, as well as the national survey. If we give in on this issue then the potential flood-gate of fascism pours forth, and the oven doors of non-conformity begin to open.  If you choose to reveal your decision then that is your choice. However, if you decide not too, exercising your democratic right and privilege, then you should not be ridiculed and criticized for not following the popular front. Sadly, and tragically, this has not been the case in this current debate. This expectation of public sharing in regard to voting, probably born by social media, is the un-neat ending to this hideous and divisive Civil War. The resentment and expectation, I fear, will remain no matter what the final decision.

download-2OMG – I’m sounding like Sir Thomas More in Robert Bolt’s A Man for all Seasons! However, unlike the real Sir Thomas More, I am not running around burning Catholics at the stake, and hanging, drawing and quartering others whom I suspect are undermining the fabric of society. However, judging by the various sentiments articulated and vigorously expressed by both camps in this current debate my fate could be the same as Sir Thomas More’s. Death due to silence.

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TONY KNIGHT

MUSICALS: FILM: Deep In My Heart (1954) – Sigmund Romberg

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downloadSigmund Romberg (1887-1951) is now a relatively neglected musical theatre artist; and yet, once upon a time, particularly in the 1920s, he was amongst the most celebrated of Broadway musical composers The film Deep in My Heart (1954), directed by film musical master Stanley Donenis a Hollywood ‘musical bio-pic’ based on the life of Sigmund Romberg.

The ‘bio-pic’ is a sub-genre of filmic ‘historical drama’, which remains the primary genre in world cinema. One only has to look at the respective film awards from across the world to clearly see that most ‘Best Film’ awards have gone to ‘historical drama’ films. The musical ‘bio-pic’ is curious genre, wildly different in form and structure. Some attempt to cover and entire life of a particular musical artists, and some focus only part. A number of ‘musical bio-pics’ are based on successful theatre musicals, others are original film works, In all cases, however, the popular ‘hits’ of this artist is interweaved into the narrative – sometimes successfully, sometimes not. Part of this challenge involves whether or not the particular song advances the narrative, and/or reveals something specific about the artist.

The most successful original works include Michael Curtiz’s Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942) which is based on the life of Broadway artist George M, Cohan, and brilliantly portrayed by James Cagney; Alfred E. Green’s The Jolson Story (1946) and Henry Levin’s  Jolson Sings Again (1949) with Larry Parks as Al Jolson.

In more modern times there are Sidney J. Furie’s Lady Sings the Blues (1972) about Billie Holiday, beautifully played by Diana Ross; Michael Apted’s Coal Miner’s Daughter(1980) about Loretta Lynn, played by Sissy Spacek; Mike Leigh’s Topsy-Turvy (1999) about Gilbert and Sullivan, played respectively by Allan Corduner and Jim Broadbent.

In the 21st Century we have James Mangnold’s Walk the Line (2005) about the early life of Johnny Cash, played by Joaquin Phoenix, and June Carter, played by Reese Witherspoon; and Stephen Freares delightful Florence Foster Jenkins (2016) with Meryl Streep in the title role, as the woman labelled ‘the worst opera singer in the world’.

Films based on Broadway musicals include William Wyler’s Funny Girl (1968) with Barbara Streisand repeating her performance as Fanny Brice, catapulting Streisand to international stardom. There are also a number of ‘made for television’ films and mini-series, such as Gypsy (1993) based on the Broadway musical of the same name about Gypsy Rose Lee, with Bette Midler as Lee’s mother, Rose; and Life with Judy Garland: Me and my Shadows (2001) with Judy Davis giving a mesmerizing and award winning performance as Judy Garland. There are many others, but these are my personal favourites.

Deep in My Heart is the fourth in a series of ‘musical bio-pics’ that MGM made in the late 1940s and early 1950s. The others include – Till the Clouds Roll By (1946) about Jerome Kern, Words and Music (1948) about Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, and Three Little Words (1950) about ‘Tin Pan Alley’ team Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby. All these films are highly fictionalized, sanitized and sentimental, to the point of absurdity, treatments of the respective real artists lives. However, they all worth watching as these films contain spectacular musical numbers featuring the greatest MGM musical stars, including Judy Garland, Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire, Cyd Charisse, Lena Horne, Frank Sinatra and Mickey Rooney. As one critic in Variety wrote about Till the Clouds Roll By – ‘Why quibble about the story?’.

I love the works by Sigmund Romberg. Deep in My Heart may not be historical accurate, nor is it particularly dramatically interesting, but the songs and the musical sequences are thrilling. They don’t necessarily capture the magical potency they have in the theatre, but as a tribute to Romberg, which is what the film essentially is, they are truly excellent. Furthermore, they are performed by great musical artists, including Gene Kelly, Ann Miller, Ann Blyth, Jane Powell, Howard Keel – and more. There is a wonderful musical number, ‘I Love to go Swimmin’ with Wimmin’, with Gene Kelly and his brother Fred Kelly, the only time they appeared together on-screen.

The film ‘stars’, however, are Jose Ferrer as Sigmund Romberg and Merle Oberon as Dorothy Donnelly, who was Romberg’s friend and wrote the book and libretto for The Student Prince (1924), Romberg’s most successful musical/operetta. Jose Ferrer is a terrific actor who rose to fame with his Academy Award winning performance of Cyrano de Bergerac (1950). Merle Oberon is one of the screens great ‘professional beauties’, and is also an excellent actress. Whilst Jose Ferrer is a bit hammy and theatrical as Romberg, in the most delightful way, it is Merle Oberon who brings real gravitas, heart and soul to the film. Her final scene is extremely moving.

Deep in My Heart follows the rise of Sigmund Romberg as a young ‘Tin Pan Alley’ composer in New York who prefers the more classical repertoire from his homeland Vienna than the contemporary and popular ‘ragtime’. After meeting Sam Harris he succumbs to popular tastes and writes a string of ‘hits’ with the hope that he will eventually be able to do his own preferred work. This he finally achieves with the production of Maytime (1917) and Blossom Time (1921), quickly followed by his masterworks The Student Prince (1924), The Desert Song (1926) and The New Moon (1928). He then lapses into relative obscurity, no longer deemed ‘fashionable’, Finally, however, after the death of his dear friend Dorothy Donnelly, and with the encouragement of his wife, he does a special concert at Carnegie Hall that honours him, his music and his legacy.

His legacy – yes! Romberg is perhaps still considered ‘unfashionable’, nonetheless, his work is still highly relevant. His highly romantic songs prefigure those one can find in the works of Andrew Lloyd Weber, as well as Claude-Michel Schonberg and Alain Boubil. These musical theatre artists, as well as Romberg fall into those works that bridge formal Viennese operetta and conventional jazz and pop orientated musical theatre. Romberg’s work is just as valid in musical theatre training as are the works of Gilbert and Sullivan – maybe even better – as they provide a ‘classical’ foundation for the singing voice that is perfect for modern musical theatre.

So why is Romberg not done? I know from bitter experience that in a number of cases in regard to training I had to insist that Romberg was included in respective exercises and showings. This was somewhat reluctantly agreed too, but with a shaking of heads and sense of patronizing and indulging the ‘old man’. However, in all cases, once one of Romberg’s songs was performed the magic happened. They have their own unique and dramatic potency that can enrapt an audience. Rather than simplistic, overt sentimentality they demand considerable depth and technical skill. This is best exemplified by ‘Deep in my heart, dear’ from The Student Prince, ‘The Desert Song’, ‘Romance’ and ‘The Sabre Song’ from The Desert Song, and ‘Softly, as a Morning Sunshine’ and ‘Lover, Come Back to Me’ from The New Moon.

1785fe118e0aacdc030679d40da77075--new-moon-vintage-paperLover, Come Back to Me’ is quite rightly one of the most important and wonderful popular songs from the 20th Century, evident in the many past and modern artists who have recorded their own versions of this beautiful song. Furthermore, there are the thrilling energetic numbers, such as ‘The Drinking Song’ in The Student Prince, ‘The Riff Song’ and ‘The Military Marching Song’ in The Desert Song, and Stouthearted Men’ in The New Moon. It is perhaps difficult for young people to appreciate that when ‘The Drinking Song’ was first performed in 1924 its enormous popularity was almost regarded as revolutionary in ‘Prohibition’ America. It is still a wonderful and powerful ‘show-stopper’.

This prejudice against Romberg, however, I fear will remain – until a visionary producer/director comes along and re-invents the work in the same way that Joseph Papp re-invented Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance in 1981, turning that show into a modern mega-hit. This could easily happen to The Desert Song, as it could with another similar work from the same period – Rudolf Friml’s The Vagabond King (1925). All of Romberg’s major musicals were turned into films. Whilst these films may endorse the ‘unfashionable’ opinion of Romberg, nonetheless, they are all we currently have as a record of these once extremely popular works – plus Stanley Donen’s Deep in My Heart. There are also, however, numerous recordings by past and modern singers, classical and popular, who at the very least are savvy and clever enough to appreciate the power and potency of the works of Sigmund Romberg.

TONY KNIGHT

GREAT ACTORS: ‘Sir Henry Irving & “The Bells” by Edward Gordon Craig.

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download-2SIR HENRY IRVING (1838-1905) was the greatest English actor of the late 19th Century. Sadly, however, very few now know anything about Irving. Yet his legacy lives on in London, primarily due the still operating Lyceum Theatre. This was Irving’s theatre – a grand proscenium arch theatre in which he performed his greatest roles, and to which the world came to be awed, entertained and shocked. Irving excelled at Shakespeare, yet his most famous role was Mathias in Leopold Davis Lewis’ The Bells (1871)download-3

This play is an English Gothic melodrama and was an extremely popular, rivaling other significant plays of the late-19th Century, including those by Boucicault, Ibsen and Wilde. It has been called the first ‘modern horror’ play, a label that is not without justification and truth. It is perhaps difficult to grasp nearly 150 years since The Bells was first performed how radically different and innovative it was at the time. In the biography Henry Irving: The Actor and his Times (1951), written by Irving’s son. Laurence Irving, there are details about the opening night performance on 27 November, 1871. It was performed to a relatively small house, who steadily became more and more intensely fascinated with the play. One woman fainted, and at the end the audience was in a state of stunned silence. In a modern edition of the play, Henry Irving and ‘The Bells’: Irving’s personal script of the play (1980), editor Eric Jones-Evans wrote,  ‘The play left the first-nighters a little dazed. Old fashioned playgoers did not know what to make of it as a form of entertainment. But when the final curtain fell the audience, after a gasp or two, realised that they had witnessed the most masterly form of tragic acting that the British stage had seen for many a long day, and there was a storm of cheers. Then, still pale, still haggard, still haunted, as it were, by the terror he had so perfectly counterfeited, the actor came forward with the sort of smile that did not destroy the character of the Dracula1stBurgomaster or dispel the illusion of the stage’. Irving was immediately catapulted to the forefront of English theatre, where he remained, often reviving ‘The Bells’, until his death in 1905. Not only was he extremely influential in regards to the art and evolution of acting, he also influenced the creation and evolution of the ‘horror’ genre. This is not just due to The Bells, but also because he was the primary source of inspiration for Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897)Bram Stoker was the business manager of the Lyceum Theatre, as well as operating as Irving’s personal manager/agent and friend.

imageI’m fully aware that some may be a little perplexed as to why I would even bother to write about the now largely forgotten Irving. However, I have just re-read The Bells, partly because the edition I found in O’Connell’s Secondhand Bookshop in Adelaide had as its preface a wonderful piece by Edward Gordon Craig (1872-1966) titled Irving’s Masterpiece – “The Bells”I don’t wish to dwell too much on Edward Gordon Craig, although there is much to relate and discuss. Suffice to state at that Craig is one of the grandfathers of modern theatre design. Craig knew Irving well, personally and professionally. He saw Irving perform in The Bells over 30 times, and this preface is extremely enlightening as it gives a glimpse of what Irving was actually like on stage in The Bells. 

downloadCraig writes of Irving’s ‘deep and human beauty which he lets you see’. In regard to Irving’s entrance in The Bells, following an ensemble scene of about 15 minutes, Craig provides a kind of challenging definition of true ensemble acting that runs contrary to modern assumptions and practice – ‘On his (Irving’s) appearance, they one and all fell back into their places, since to obtrude would have been out of the question.  Ensemble was achieved, but there was something to achieve it for, something for which it can lend support; ensemble supporting itself, is it not rather a ridiculous spectacle? That’ democratic acting if you like – “for we are jolly good fellows…which none of us will deny.” For Craig, true ensemble acting is non-democratic; it only exists when there is something, or someone, to achieve it for –  focus and a goal.

downloadWhat Craig isolates is the power of the ‘star’ actor. When Irving entered he was greeted with a thunderous round of applause. Ordinarily, as stated by Craig, and referencing Stanislavsky, such applause was an annoying ‘interruption’. However, in the case of Irving, and other ‘star’ actors, such ‘hurricane of applause’ is not an interruption. “It is no boisterous greeting by an excitable race, for a blustering actor – it was something which can only be described as part and parcel of the whole, as right as rain…Power responded to power…It was necessary to them – not him’. This is very particular type of cathartic release that is necessary for the audience ‘to take in what he was about to give them’. Curious. I’ve only ever experienced such a release on the commercial West End and Broadway stage, as well as the Kabuki theatre in Japan; in egalitarian ‘democratic’ Australia it never happens. Is this why we tend not to see and rate our actors as great? Because we, the judicious ‘democratic’ orientated audience, won’t allow it?

Henry_Irving_Vanity_FairCraig then references the classical Noh theatre of Japan; how an entrance of a great actor is preceded by ‘suspense’, followed by a ‘surprise’. In regard to Irving, as well as Edmund Kean, ‘an entrance was something to experience’ – ‘The manner of coming on made it extraordinary with great actors – it was this manner of timing the appearance – measuring its speed and direction – which created a rhythm that was irresistible’. Whist most actors do not possess the talent and skill to be ‘great’, nonetheless, the lesson here is in detail and timing, which is something that all good actors can concentrate on and achieve through thorough and precise preparation. The rhythm of entrances is also not just confined to the theatre but is a vital aspect of film – ‘suspense’ then ‘surprise’. The reward for such detail being, as Craig observes in regard to Irving, is the intense focus of attention of the audience on the actor – ‘now watch what he will do – better still, how will he do it – best of all, watch his face and figure, and follow what it is these are hinting at’.

download-4Close attention to detail and the subtlety of psychological gestures is not something that is generally associated with 19th Century English acting, and yet it would seem that Henry Irving, as well as Ellen Terry, was a master at such insightful depth. Craig exemplifies Irving’s attention to detail, psychological gesture, and depth in how Irving as Mathias in The Bells removes his boots after entering, listening acutely to what is being said: ‘It was, in every gesture, every half move, in the play of his shoulders, legs, head and arms, mesmeric in the highest degree – slowly we were drawn to watch every inch of his work as we are drawn to read and linger on every syllable of a strangely fine writer. It was perfect craftsmanship’.

download-1Craig clearly captures a hint of what made Henry Irving a ‘great actor’, not only as Mathias in The Bells but also in Hamlet, Macbeth, Faust and many other roles: ‘The thing Irving set out to do was to show us the sorrow which slowly and remorsely beat him down. As, no matter who the human being may be, and what his crime, the sorrow which he suffers must appeal to our hearts, so Irving set out to wring our hearts, not to give us a clever exhibition of antics such as a murderer would be likely to go through. He does not appeal to any silly sentimentality in you – he merely states the case by showing you that quite obviously here is a strong human being, through a moment of weakness, falls into error and becomes for two hours a criminal – does what he knows he is doing – acts deliberately – but (here is Irving) acts automatically, as though impelled by an immense force, against which no resistance is possible.’

What is stated above has become of crucial importance in modern acting; not just here in Adelaide but elsewhere I have taught and experienced so-called ‘modern’ and ‘innovative’ theatre. The attention to detail is one thing – and many of you have heard me exclaim – ‘Acting is detail‘. The other thing is deliberate simplicity rather than indulge in sentimentality (generalised passive-aggressive bleating and ‘playing the victim’). Acting is a deliberate process of creative and imaginative detailed choices; characters act deliberately and consciously, good and bad, and it should be automatic to make it seem as if it is spontaneaous, ‘in the moment’, as if experienced for the first timei, ‘as though impelled by an immense force, against which no resistance is possible’. Too often this is not the case; there is no sense of deliberate action, only sentimental and demonstrative re-action, usually of the bleating kind, complemented by face pulling and excessive and ridiculous gesturing that has no meaning, except registering an actor’s discomfort and not insight re the character.

Whilst by no means the whole story, nonetheless, Edward Gordon Craig’s short essay on Henry Irving in The Bells does complement many of the things I hold dear and teach – part of an essential Acting Manifesto. Many will, and have, dismiss and ignore such sensible and practical advice, preferring the histrionics and ‘theatricalism’ currently demanded by the modern theatre of despair and deconstruction. Stanislavsky also loathed and criticized overt ‘theatricalism’. However, like everything, this too will pass – even though so-called ‘innovative’ deconstructive theatre has dominated our stages for the past 30-odd years. I’m not sure our current 30-something and 40-something ‘bright young things’ can do anything else. They certainly show a reluctance to embrace and challenge themselves with any different ‘style’, and certainly become resentful and pouty when challenged in regard to their relatively limited vision and expression. I don’t mind being labelled ‘classical’, and have and will continue to challenge myself with as many different theatrical styles as possible. ‘Innovation’, an over-used word I have come to loath, is too often merely ‘distortion’ – leading to bad acting. I believe, like Craig and Irving, that the actor should follow and aim for ‘the most ancient and unshakable tradition, which says the Dramatist (not the director) is to take the audience into his confidence. The actor who fails to do this (via sentimentality, demonstration, and imposed generalised emotional bleating) fails as an actor’.

As a final postscript to this rather lengthy article, there is something else about Irving and The Bells that is worth mentioning in regard to great acting. After the opening night, Irving was returning home with his wife, Florence, in a carriage. They had just reached Hyde Park corner when Florence ridiculed Irving, stating – ‘Are you going to make a fool of yourself like this all your life?’ Where upon Irving stopped the carriage, got down, and walked away, and never saw Florence again. One thing that all truly great actors have, and in a way must possess, is an almost obessional  dynamic energy in which the love of the art of acting is first and foremost. This may appear as completely selfish and ego driven to some, to many, but it is really once again this compelling ‘irresistible force’. It requires and demands great bravery, sacrifice, dedication and determination – even in the face of complete failure, ruin and ostracism. Whatever happens on a personal and professional front the ‘great actor’ never ever stops creating. Take that as you will. Laurence Olivier was once asked ‘Why do you act?’, Olivier responded with ‘Why do I breathe?’ – and that about sums it up – there actually isn’t a choice. This must have been what Irving experienced, a kind of epiphany, after his huge success on opening night of The Bells. Ironic in a way; that at roughly the same time that Ibsen wrote The Doll’s House (1872), the most controversial play of the 19th Century due to woman leaving husband, children, home and security, Henry Irving did the masculine version of the same thing.He walked out of his marriage for his own art. Of course he felt guilt – but he couldn’t live with this kind of negative judgment; the ‘irresistible force’ demanded he embrace his new identity – judge as you may.

TONY KNIGHT