Theatre yesterday and today

 

 

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THE TIME MACHINE


Throughout my life, I’ve always been intrigued by the notion of time travel. It could have something to do with growing up in the 1960s when all sorts of media were obsessed with the idea. Undoubtedly, I was influenced by the film version of H. G. Welles’s sci-fi novella The Time Machine (first published in 1895), which I loved as a child. The Time Tunnel was a 1966 one-season ABC TV series that I never missed as a nine year old. And with a number of episodes gleefully exploring the subject on Rod Serling’s television classic, The Twilight Zone (first broadcast in 1959), the notion of going back in time (never forward) left me daydreaming about its possibilities. In these dramatizations, often obsessed with righting some horrible wrong (preventing the assassination of Lincoln was one such Twilight Zone entry), my fantasies, due to my early love of the theatre, tended towards going back to see productions presented prior to my being born: ones you can only read about now. It comes up every time I see the “ABC” listings of plays and musicals running at a given moment when I’m doing research by way of an old New York Times Arts & Leisure section online.


By way of example, take the day I was born, March 4, 1957 (65.5 years ago). The following one-of-a-kind talents were all on Broadway:


JULIE ANDREWS

REX HARRISON

JUDY HOLIDAY

CHARLES LAUGHTON

JERRY LEWIS

BEATRICE LILLIE

FREDERIC MARCH

BURGESS MEREDITH

ETHEL MERMAN

ZERO MOSTEL

PAUL MUNI

WALTER PIDGEON

ROBERT PRESTON

RALPH RICHARDSON

CYRIL RITCHARD

JASON ROBARDS

EDWARD G. ROBINSON

GENA ROWLANDS

ROSALIND RUSSELL

ELI WALLACH


If you don’t believe me, take a look:



As you can see, even a second-tier list of stars I left out is enough to knock your eyes out: Don Ameche, Ed Begley, Paul Douglas, Tom Ewell… and that’s before you even hit “F” alphabetically. Not to mention un-billed greats like Susan Johnson (Most Happy Fella) and Mildred Natwick (Waltz of the Toreadors).


Which brings me to the crux of my raising the subject: what to choose. If, for argument’s sake, the time machine only allows for a visit back for a couple of hours, and you can only see one show, how to decide?


Shakespeare-file friends mention they would love to go back and attend the first night of Hamlet in 1661, as performed by Thomas Betterton. Or see the Hamlet of John Gielgud when he electrified London audiences in 1930 (“I have no hesitation whatsoever in saying that it is the high water-mark of English Shakespearean acting of our time,” wrote the esteemed critic James Agate). Of course, it was unedited and ran five hours, so let’s hope the Time Machine doesn’t take off without you.


Of course, this prompts the question of whether, due to styles of acting, if such Hamlets would be the sort of thing a modern audience would enjoy today. Would Laurette Tayler’s Amanda in The Glass Menagerie, hailed by many as the greatest and most naturalistic performance of its time, seem under or over cooked now? I’m guessing it would hold up just fine, but you never know.


There are so many to choose from during the Golden Age of the American Theatre (Jessica Tandy and Marlon Brando in Streetcar, Lee J. Cobb and Mildred Dunnock in Salesman, et. al). And don’t even get me started on musicals. The opening night of Oklahoma! when the title song brought down the house? Or the insane opening night of The Cradle Will Rock with the actors forced to do the entire play from the audience because they weren’t allowed on stage (look that up if you don’t know what I’m talking about). And what about a super fan like me being able to go back for Robert Preston’s opening night in The Music Man? Or wait a minute… what if my prior knowledge of his performance negatively impacted my viewing? After all, I’ve seen the film version a hundred times. Isn’t the element of surprise one of the things that makes theatergoing so astonishing at times? What if the buildup yielded disappointment?


Therefore, after careful consideration, I’m more inclined to view something of which there is no record and only lives in the memories of those who saw it (yeah, I’d take the low risk of Laurette Taylor any day). So, with that in mind, my choice is to experience what, if all the reports are true, made Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne the dynamic pairing of twentieth century theatre. Now that they’re gone, you can only see them perform together in one sound motion picture, a film version of their stage hit, The Guardsman (1931), for which both were nominated for Academy Awards, and shortened TV versions of two mid-century plays; their middling stage hit, The Great Sebastians and The Magnificent Yankee, about the life and times of Supreme Court justice Oliver Wendell Holmes.


Out of the twenty-seven plays they performed in together over forty years, the one to pick is easy for me. In what would prove their final Broadway engagement, The Visit (1958), by Swiss playwright and author Friedrich Dürrenmatt, allowed them to exit with the reviews of their careers. Not only were they each praised to the skies for their work, the play, as directed by the great Peter Brook, presented a prime example of what happens when the stars align (and I don’t mean just actors).


Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne in The Visit (1958).


New York Times ad for The Visit.


I’ll cop to the fact that there might be more worthy plays to go back and see, including those already mentioned such as the Williams and Miller triumphs. And, as for musicals, just thinking about the choices make me want to cry as much as Linda at Willy’s funeral. But the combination of Lunt and Fontanne is irresistible to me. Though thinking about actors I’d give a limb to see onstage, my mind reels at the missed opportunities of seeing my two favorite royal British actors, Paul Scofield and Laurence Olivier. Or the two noble American actresses, Ruth Gordon and Uta Hagen, who I only got to see late in their lives in vehicles unworthy of their talents. The list is endless, really. But with the Lunts and The Visit, my curiosity simply gets the better of me. I want to see with my own eyes the astonishing things of which it has been written they were capable (that is, if you believe everything you read).


What are your Time Machine fantasy travels? Please feel free to share.


Up in the Cheap Seats: A Historical Memoir of Broadway is available at Amazon.com in hardcover, softcover and e-book. Also, follow me here and feel free to email me with comments or questions at Ron@ronfassler.org.