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At the Old Vic

By (March 1, 2008) No Comment
London Stage in the 20th Century
By Robert Tanitch
Haus Publishers Limited, 2007

When I was a young woman of indeterminate years (thank you very much), during the dark days of the Second World War, my parents framed their defiance of the bombs falling daily on London by becoming resolute theatre-goers. As often as possible, we would dress our best and venture out to the old Saville Theatre, or the Phoenix, or the Garrick…and of course the Old Vic. It was at the old Strand, if memory serves (and it well may not, since the program doesn’t survive and the performance was decidedly forgettable), that we saw a “Hamlet” which, even young, I somehow intuitively sensed was dreadful (or perhaps intuition had nothing to do with it – father was something of a confirmed mutterer). The actress playing Ophelia was particularly out of her depth, and at the point where Hamlet tells her, “Get thee to a nunnery,” a member of the audience said – not loudly but with perfect clarity – “We’re not picky, luv – get thee anyplace but here.”

The audience howled, naturally, and the show went on, but it was my first inkling of two things. First, that Londoners take their theatre seriously. The notice given to audience members in 1940 Westminster Theatre says it all:

The management is not liable for the safety of the audience in any consequence arising from acts of war. In the event of an air-raid warning during the performance, the audience will be informed from the stage, and those who so desire will be conducted by attendants to the vaults under the theatre, or to other shelters of which there are four within a few yards of the theatre – but the Play will go on.

And second, that the world of the London stage is no place for the faint of heart. With all due respect to Frank Sinatra, if you can make it here, you can make it anywhere.

Drama may have begun with the Athenians, but Theatre began in London, roughly a generation before Shakespeare. The curtains, the floorboards, the pressing crowd, and most of all the accountability of the playwright to the audience – these things were born here, centuries ago, of the alchemy arising from common penny-ticket holders elbowing next to the performers onstage in an explicitly secular setting. The towering genius of Shakespeare gave that phenomenon its christening and set some of its highest marks, and it has gone on since his day, a very much older and very different atmosphere from its pole-star, the New York stage, which developed centuries later.

Theatre critic Robert Tanitch has, with considerable insight and impressive diligence, compiled an exhaustive chronicle of that singular entity, doing his work in the manner of the Domesday Book, year by year, piling on the detail as he goes. He gives the show, cast, and venue of every major theatrical production mounted in London from 1900 to 1999.

Which must sound as unappetizing to all of you as it did initially to me, when my somewhat feckless grandson first presented me with a copy of London Stage in the 20th Century. The thing is distressingly oversized (a ‘coffee table book,’ in American parlance), with page after page of multi-columned small type. The first impression the totality gives is of being a vast and impersonal reference work.

A closer examination, however, proves just the opposite to be the case. The book’s appeal will be strongest among readers like myself, lifelong London theatre-goers who’ve seen many of the performances inventoried here. But for any attentive reader there is a story unfolding in these pages that grows in fascination and compulsion as the pages – and the years – go by.

A large part of this is due to Tanitch’s decision to double his labours and include, along with everything else, a running sample of representative critical response to the plays he lists. This inspired decision, more than any single thing, gives the book its distinction and makes it more an Anglo-Saxon Chronicle than a Domesday book. Note is made in this prodigious book – note of what was memorable and not, what was controversial and not, what was good and what was not.

Critics being what they are, they seldom agree with each other, and Tanitch drolly catches them in the footlights of history sometimes radically disagreeing.

  Paul Robeson’s groundbreaking rendition of Othello in 1930, for instance, filled many critics with awe, some with indifference, and some with something much worse, such as E. A. Baughan, who wrote in the Daily News, “The part of Shakespeare’s Moor was not written for a coloured actor of any kind.” Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot” elicited predictably hostile and bewildered reactions when it appeared in 1955 (audience members shouted “Rubbish! Disgusting! Take it off!”), but critic Kenneth Tynan wrote “It forced me to re-examine the rules which have hitherto governed the drama; and having done so, to pronounce them not elastic enough.” When Philip Hope-Wallace took in John Osborne’s “The Entertainer” in 1957, his response was “It’s no great play but no bad evening either.”

Another critic saw the same production and wrote “You will not see more magnificent acting than this anywhere in the world.” In 1996 Stephen Sondheim’s “Company” provoked from John Peter in the Sunday Times the comment “The show is indispensable to civilized life.” It also provoked from Sarah Hemmings in the Financial Times this: “The whole evening is as cool, polished, and hollow as a designer vase.” As you turn the pages, chuckling to yourself, you begin not to care who may be right or wrong: the bickering becomes its own reward.

Despite its cumbersome appearance, there are many other rewards to be reaped from Tanitch’s book. He has done a terrific amount of work moling his way through endless tunnels of moldy playbills and microfiched newspaper archives, and he has turned up a wagonload of gems no aficionado of the theatre would want to miss. Thomas Cramner’s speech at the christening of Elizabeth I in Shakespeare’s “Henry VIII,” performed in 1953 in honor of the coronation of the second Elizabeth to take the throne, was, we’re told, “constantly interrupted by applause.” The American musical “Oklahoma!” ran, we’re told, for a staggering 1,343 shows at the Old Vic (a few years later, another American transplant, “South Pacific,” fared less well, with one critic carping “We might have welcomed it twice as loudly if we had not been told from New York that it is four times as good as it is”).

And Tanitch is not content merely to list; he’s endlessly, sometimes maddeningly, opinionated. Someone like myself, an unrepentant stage-fan who has seen many of the shows in Tanitch’s chronicle, faces the appearance of his apostrophes with a mixture of anticipation and dread. One so enjoys agreeing with him, as when he singles out Michael Bogdanov’s National Theatre adaptation of Longfellow’s Song of Hiawatha in 1978 (the production’s title was shortened to “Hiawatha”):

The spectacle, full of visual flair and gentle humour, was far too good to be limited to the 6-12-year old range the National Theatre recommend.

This is entirely true; I took my young son to that show, and he was as bored as I was enthralled. (The following year, Bogdanov directed the finest “Taming of the Shrew” I have ever seen, with the sublime Paola Dionisotti as a perfect Kate).

But likewise one meets the inevitable disagreements with equal vehemence, as in his dismissal of Peter O’Toole’s 1963 performance as Hamlet at the Old Vic:

O’Toole entered from underneath the stage. The first thing the audience saw was a blond wig. Then a wracked and pained face, and, finally, a tall, thin body. It was obvious right from the start, that he wasn’t the Prince for the job.

I saw four shows of that “Hamlet,” marveling each time at the raw, searching brilliance of O’Toole’s portrait, particularly in his scenes with Diana Wynyard as Gertrude, and although I’m grateful to Tanitch for reviving those memories, I’m perplexed at needing to defend one of the greatest stage actors of the century from the heinous charge of wearing a wig. (It was about this run that O’Toole once commented, “If you want to know what it’s like to be lonely, really lonely, try playing Hamlet.”)

Occasionally perplexity can darken into something more serious, and again the source of the problem is Tanitch’s editorializing, which can sometimes lapse into lazy idiom and even lazier racial epithets, as in this description of Willis Hall’s excellent play “The Long and the Short and the Tall”:


Reconnaissance patrol in the Malayan jungle in World War 2 is cut off from the rest of the battalion. They capture a Japanese soldier. Some are prepared to forget the Geneva convention and kill him. The key role is the loud-mouthed, trouble-making Private Bamforth, the biggest shower since the Flood and up to every dodge and skive in the book. He doesn’t go a bundle on this death and glory stuff; yet, when the crunch comes, he is the only one who is prepared to make a stand for the Jap’s life.

One is unclear what to “go a bundle” might mean down round South Croydon, but one very much dislikes seeing the word “Jap” tossed off in a 21st century production. And at one point bad taste such as this degenerates into foul offense, when Tanitch expands on Joe Orton’s ‘Entertaining Mr. Sloane”:

The script is an outrageous mixture of violence, sex, and bad taste. With hindsight, it is not surprising that Orton should have been murdered by his lover, Kenneth Halliwell.

But these lapses must be forgiven in a book that is so over-brimming, so aswarm with anecdote and insight, and throughout so downright hilarious. Looking at its formidable size and content, the reader would least expect this aspect, and yet it is one of the most prominent: there is a good solid laugh on virtually every page.

There is Alan Brien, writing of Laurence Olivier’s 1964 turn as Othello: “This is the kind of bad acting of which only a great actor is capable.” There is Kenneth Tynan writing about a 1957 production of “Titus Andronicus”: “As Lavinia, Vivien Leigh reacts to the news that she is about to be ravished on her husband’s corpse with little more than mild annoyance of one who would have preferred foam rubber.” There’s Benedict Nightingale’s amusingly visceral response to Irvine Welsh’s “Trainspotting”: “Seeing it is like being asked to squelch barefoot through every bodily liquid known to man.” And there’s a priceless anecdote connected with Richard Burton’s ill-fated performance as Hamlet in 1953:

John Gielgud, foremost Hamlet of his generation, went backstage intending to take Burton out to dinner and made one of his classic faux pas. “Shall I go ahead or wait until you’re better – I mean ready?”

The great roll call of acting legends is sounded on every page, changing gradually as the decades wear on: John Gielgud, Laurence Olivier, Charles Laughton, Ralph Richardson, Rex Harrison, Paul Scofield, Judith Anderson, Peggy Ashcroft, Eileen Atkins, Ian McKellan, Diana Rigg, Judi Dench, Richard Burton, Claire Bloom, Peter O’Toole, Maggie Smith, Albert Finney, Brian Cox, Joan Plowright, Glenda Jackson – and thanks to the bounty of pictures Tanitch has included, these become more than names – we see these familiar faces in youth, in middle age, and grown old. And something more: we see them cavorting, and those of us who’ve ever only been spectators get a small glimpse of the ineffable joy, the incommunicable camaraderie, of those who risked terror and failure in order to entertain us. The procession is at once touching, edifying, and thrilling.

In a work of this size and scope, the occasional error is perhaps unavoidable, especially when even seasoned veterans have yielded to the temptation to let machines do their editing for them. Thus ‘skies’ can take the rightful place of ‘skiis’ in a passage that calls for the latter. This is also how ‘lightening’ can maintain its viral life when the meteorological ‘lightning’ is called for. Since both are legitimate words, a machine will not balk at their substitution – a human being is needed to pick the correct one. And it’s particularly jarring to read Lear’s towering lament rendered as “I am bound on a heel of fire.” Slightly more disturbing is the mis-alignment of photos with photo descriptions; for the 1989 production of “Hamlet,” for instance, we’re told that Daniel Day-Lewis originated the part, that Ian Charleson continued it until he died young of AIDS, and that it was then carried on by Jeremy Northam. But the accompanying photo is of young Mark Rylance “as Hamlet.” Readers who were not there at the time will not know which details are right – only that they can’t all be.

But these are matters that can be cleared up easily enough in subsequent editions of this wondrous feast of a book. In the meantime, let us be grateful to Robert Tanitch for doing so much work in order to show us – in all its shabby, valiant glory – the world of the 20th century London stage. Those of us who watched that marvelous pageant go by will treasure this volume, and those of you who did not will find in it the next best thing.

Honoria St. Cyr was an executive secretary in London for forty-five years and now enjoys her retirement years in Islington, tending to her garden and her books. She is still an ardent theater-goer.

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