Buds are breaking out on the trees in Rochester, New York, near Lake Ontario, where I live. We have been wading through the snow of a very long winter, waiting for this to happen. Yesterday morning when I woke up the buds had yet to appear. When I got back a few hours later, sure enough, there they were. Now the buds are squeezing out the green, matching the rich Kelley green of the earth. Even when the snow is knee deep, you can dig below and find, astonishingly, bright green; a reminder of things to come. Everlasting green, mere nostalgia? A mirage? A notation in a diary?
Last night a friend asked me what theatre memories I had that remained long lasting. As I talked away, musing and sipping some excellent New York Riesling, I drifted into memory non-stop. Clear, fluid reminiscences. Here are the vagrant recollections that turned me on:
At the Rainbow Warrior Festival in Santa Fe, about ten years ago, just a moment or two before the dancers arrived on stage, a Hopi elder gave a benediction in his native language. As he was speaking in the Palo Soleri amphitheatre, a triple rainbow appeared, music began and the mattachine dancers from one of the pueblos emerged; a spiritual syzygy if there ever was one.
Late 1950's, Circle In The Square, Off-Broadway. Jason Robards, as Hickey, delivering the memorable confession from O'Neil's The Iceman Cometh to a cast that included his wife at the time, Colleen Duhurst; also Robert Earl-Jones (James' father), a young Christopher Walken, and a host of other theatre luminaries. Robard's guilt-ridden enticements to the bar flies, urging them to rise up and reclaim their lives, captivated the audience. Iceman, directed by the eminent O'Neil director, Jose Quintero, went on for six hours (with a break). It was my introduction to superb professional theatre and I wanted to be on a stage just like that. Three quarter round, the art of the possible, eminently suitable for the occasion. The experience scarred me for the better.
Early 1960's, Alley Theatre, Houston, Texas. Albert Deckker as Willy Loman in Death of A Salesman. This was the original Alley in an old fan factory. A small theatre-in-the-round, Nina Vance directing. As Willy moved in and out of his life, scene by scene, in a theatre space the size of a spelunker, we were inside Willy's head. Willy mumbling to himself, scraping away with a garden tool at his front porch, attempting to make sense out of his life. The largely dressed-up small crowd silently weeping. The betrayal of the American Dream taking place with palpable immediacy. I wish Aristotle had been there to experience it. He might have revised his theories and spared generations of students the indulgence of superior notions about who is a recognizably identifiable hero. It wasn't "merely" pathos - with all the put down implications of the word. Willy was a laid off guy growing old, taking on his demons and losing the battle. Deckker marshaled Willy's struggle for sanity with just the right ingredient of fighting against odds. Ask any one laid off these days whether "outsourcing" is a better word than "pathos". If you are trying to maintain your dignity against odds, you might very well get into a car crash. Things haven't changed much since.
For sheer laughter, the late 50's: Elaine May and Mike Nichols at Mister Kelly's in Chicago. Riding waves of laughter as they improvised, finagling their way through an incredible display of comic virtuosity. The audience seated on the stairs, out of their seats, stumbling around in the aisles with uncontrollable laughter. Not once, during this deluge of wit and satire, did Nichols and May ever crack up. They were like head to head twins, totally in lock step.
Martha Graham, also in the 1950's, was it Clytemnestra? At one moment in the dance, she stood still, a lonely figure, with all the exquisite chiseling of an artist sculpting her work; the sheer pain, isolation, and dignity of a human being playing solitaire with the gods came through. It was her life's work emerging. My heart stopped by her compelling trance actions.
Man of La Mancha, at the ANTA theatre in Washington Square, NYC. Richard Kiley as Don Quixote, Joan Diener as his lady, Dulcimer. A huge staircase unfolded down from the top of the theatre. The orchestra up in the rafters, split in half, at opposite points of the stage – music bouncing off the walls. As the guard walked down the descending stairs to Quixote's cell below, Kiley emerged. From that moment on, we knew we were in for a special musical treat with an increasing velocity of song and dance. The tragic notion emerged that we are merely "flies" to "wanton gods". The more pixilated and foolish the vision of Quixote, the closer we came to Cervantes's novel revelation: we are all in this together.
When Lorraine Hansberry was brought to the theatre dying of cancer to see the memorable production of her RAISIN IN THE SUN, we all stood up and applauded: her play, her courage, her talent, the talents of a superb cast, and her joyous, ravished smile.
Four theatre episodes at the depths of the Vietnam war: Joan Littlewood and Charles Chilton's OH WHAT A LOVELY WAR. The shocking and stupid loss of lives in the First World War, fought over to gain a few yards here and there. The insanity of zealous nationalisms, treated as a sardonic musical riff. Staged by Littlewood with brilliant comeuppance squared off on all sides of the "war to end all wars". Peter Brook's version of Peter Weiss' MARAT/SADE: what more can I add to this eponymous parent of total theatre experience? Except to say that I preferred the Broadway version to the original East Berlin production Weiss preferred. The Scaramouch atmosphere heightened the Great Debate between the Marquis de Sade and the revolutionary, Maret. Peter Ustinov's THE UNKNOWN SOLDIER AND HIS WIFE (Christopher Walken as the Unknown Soldier) giving the devil his due with spirited comic relief and verbal dexterity. At a time when all the world was a stage. We were the fallen angels who had yet to face the facts. Sound familiar?
Andre Serban's THE TROJAN WOMAN at LaMama, around the corner from the Bowery, also during the Vietnam War period. LaMama herself, Ellen Stewart, ringing her always present bell with transparent pleasure, resplendent in colorful garb, led us into a large hall through huge doors that opened widely into Troy. Here we were, in Troy, moved about from one scene to the next in the cavernous space by soldiers. Apprehending theatrical attacks of one kind or another: a baby thrown off a rampart into a net below held by the performers and the audience; a sky high Clytemnestra throwing off her blond wig, transformed into an African princess mad and scarred with pixillated prophecy. Antiquity then and now, rolled into one. A theatrical action painting, a happening brilliantly executed, morphed into fresh, original staging. We were moving on the wheels of a sun chariot full of luminescent insight. The idea of theatre was captured and unequivocally realized in unexpected ways. Before those ways became a cliché.
THE HOSTAGE, late 1950's, Sheridan Square Playhouse, NYC. The fiercely rambunctious, independent playwright, Brenden Behan, lifting yet another round of beer, and singing "don't throw stones at your mother, throw stones at your father instead!" While in New York, Behan would occasionally join his cast, improvising lines, driving the cast crazy. Julie Harris weeping over the corpse of the young British soldier, who had been captured by her IRA brethren and then killed, in retaliation for the hanging of an IRA soldier in London. Suddenly the dead young soldier rose, very much alive, and with a quick song and dance routine, pealed off "the bells of hell go ting-a-ling-a-ling, for you but not for me, death where is your sting-a-ling-a-ling and grave thy victory?" Kick-em-in-the-shins comic reversal came to a head, leaving the feet behind. If death ever got the finger he got it then. Behan had it down pat. His wicked and surprisingly sad sense of humor kicked in for all it was worth. When asked what he thought about visiting the United States, he retorted that any country that did not tuck in its elderly at night with a beer, warmth and comfort, should have second thoughts about what it stands for.
And, all those other times, in plays long gone but not forgotten, where talent, grit, grace, or insight emerged, almost on its own, propelled by a generosity of spirit, hard work, and the love of craft, the experience of theatre was varied, frequently untrammeled by the pittance of everyday hassles: who screwed who and who wished they had. Film and television have replaced theatre as the national past time. News casts have become the theatre of illusions: false advertising heaven, talking heads screaming at one another, small time hustles and bustles, in short, snake oil on a wide 42 inch flat screen with surround sound. Noise the final arbitrator of identity, jerking off the senses.
If you have similar theatre memories, right up to the here and now, drop me a note. A little wine does wonders.