Sunday, March 16, 2008

A Trip To The Theatre

A.G. MacDonnell's first novel 'England, Their England" is now mostly remembered for his chapter on the village cricket match, but there's a lot more to it.

Our hero, Donald, a young Scot making his way in journalism in the 20s, is asked at short notice to produce some theatre reviews for a literary magazine. There was no state subsidy of theatre back in those happy days :

Another thing which made it difficult for him to get his perspective right was the universally acknow­ledged fact that the English Drama, as acted in London, is the lowest form of theatrical art in the world, because the Public will only go to visit trash and would religiously boycott any of the really first‑class plays which are growing dustier and dustier in the cupboards of disillusioned playwrights, even if any manager was so insane as to produce them on the commercial stage. It is left, Donald soon dis­covered, to Societies, Clubs, Groups of Intelligent Theatre-Lovers, and Private Associations of Patrons of the Drama to produce these first-class plays on Sunday evenings for one performance only. Hardly a Sunday in the year goes by without the appear­ance of a masterpiece by Pirandello, Kaiser, Toller, Tchechov, Savoir, Lenormand, Martinez Sierra, or Jean Jacques Bernard, dazzling the eyes for a single day and then dying like the may-fly. Sundays have been on which no fewer than three separate Clubs or Societies have been performing Kaiser's From Morn to Midnight, while on five Sundays out of eight in February and March of one year it was possible to see Toller's Hoppla. Donald, who was conscientious and painstaking, spent a lot of time in the Chelsea Free Library going through the files of The Times and the Manchester Guardian in order to learn the technique of dramatic criticism from the two heads of the craft, Mr. Morgan and Mr. Brown, and he was surprised to discover that in the first seven years of the Peace, twenty-eight of these Sunday Producing Societies had been formed, and that of these twenty-eight, no fewer than twenty-three had started their career with Pirandello's Six Characters in Search of an Author.

It was to these Sunday performances of dramatic masterpieces that Donald was looking forward with especial eagerness. He was quite ready to put up with any number of adulteries and murders and high-kicks during the week for the sake of the works of genius, and it was with a real thrill that he presented
himself one Sunday evening, thirty-three minutes before the scheduled hour, at the theatre in Shaftesbury Avenue where he was to see, for the first time, a dramatic masterpiece.

There was no orchestra, and the audience came filtering into the stalls in a queer silence, broken only by the gay greetings of celebrities. For each member of the Club seemed determined to recognize, and be recognized by, as many fellow-members as possible.
It was almost like a competition, so fiercely did the necks twist, the eyes wander, and the lorgnettes focus. Sixteen people, all total strangers, bowed to Donald, and one man, an elderly, baldish bird with an eye­glass, went so far as to rise in his seat in order to bow more impressively. Donald blinked nervously and tried to nod in such a way that, if he really had met the other party somewhere, the movement would pass for a greeting and, if not, for a twinge of rheu­matism in the neck. But the strain became too great, and after a bit Donald concentrated passionately upon his programme.

The piece to be given was the translation of a German masterpiece by Herr Rumpel-Stilzchen, the great exponent of the new Illusionist Symbolism, and it appeared from the programme that the scene was laid throughout in a gallery of a salt-mine in Upper Silesia. It was called, simply, The Perpetuation of Eternity. The producer was Herr von Pumpernikkel, described on the back of the programme as "the Rheinhardt of Mecklenburg-Schwerin," and the incidental choreography was by Dripp. Donald was just wondering what part choreography played in life in Upper Silesian salt-mines when a gong was struck somewhere in the theatre and the lights went out. A pause of seven or eight minutes followed, and then the curtain rose, revealing the eagerly awaited gallery and the exquisite lighting effects of von Pumpernikkel, although actually the latter were not easily detectable at first, as the play opened in com­plete darkness, and for twenty minutes continued in complete darkness. This period of twenty minutes was occupied by a soliloquy by the Spirit of Polish Maternity which, in Rumpel-Stilzchen's original, was written in Polish. The translators, in order to pre­serve the sense of strangeness, of exoticism, had, rather cleverly, translated this part into Italian, and the delivery of the soliloquy was punctuated by frequent bursts of applause from those of the audience, apparently about one hundred per cent, who under­stood Italian. This applause grew more and more marked in emphasis and volume as von Pumper­nikkel's lighting gradually illumined the stage and it became possible to distinguish, even as far as the back rows of the stalls, between those who did, and those who did not, pick up the finer points of the Italian language. It appeared that Donald alone did not, until a big, burly man with a sardonic look on his face, who was sitting by himself a few seats away, observed loudly, "Beastly peasant dialect," where­upon everyone within ear-shot of him stopped ap­plauding and sneered vigorously. At the end of the soliloquy the lights, now flooding the stage with alternate purple and green, lit up the backs of a row of salt-workers who dug and chanted dismally as they worked. The foreman of the gallery then came for­ward and shot two of the workers, whether for bad chanting or for bad digging was not made clear, and immediately all the lights went out except for an illuminated screen of salt background upon which was thrown a cinematograph-picture of New York skyscrapers as observed from a Zeppelin. Then the Chrysler Building and the Woolworth Building and the rest of them vanished suddenly and were followed by a ten-minute reel from the Oberammergau Passion play, during which a negro with a megaphone, stationed in the wings, sang with great gusto a song that was popular during the War and was called, "When that Midnight Choo-choo leaves for Alabam." The curtain came down on the end of the second verse and the middle of The Last Supper. Subdued but sincere clapping greeted the end of the act, and the more senior of the critics went moodily out for drinks.

The second, third, fourth, and fifth and last acts were packed as full as the first with Illusionist Symbolism of the same brilliance and irony. It need only be said that among the "effects" was the murder by the salt-workers of a preference-shareholder of Cerebos Salt, Ltd., by throwing him into a quartz-crushing machine; the tragedy of his final screams, as his top-hat and mother-of-pearl-knobbed cane were sucked into the instrument like the last petals of a rose down a drain, was intensified by a most dramatic “throw-back” to the shareholder’s early boyhood with his dear old father, a town councilor of Hesse-Darmstadt, and his dear old mother, the town councillor's wife, who both drank a good deal of light lager and crooned some folk-songs. There was also a long scene of great poignancy between the Spirit of Irony and the Soul of Upper Silesia, during which the League of Nations came in for some nasty knocks, and there was a powerful bit of the most modern sort of Symbolism in which a salt-digger's mistress was confronted with a lot of the Thoughts which she would have thought if she had been, instead, a champion tricyclist. And Dripp's choreo­graphy turned out to be the Dance of Mourners at the Funeral of a Demented House-Agent, said to be symbolical of the housing shortage during 1925 and 1926 in the Silesian towns of Kattowitz and

In short, The Perpetuation of Eternity was, as one of the penny dailies said next morning, the most arrest­ing piece of thought-provoking symbolism that had been produced since Ernst Toller's Hoppla had been staged on the previous Sunday, or since Pirandello's Six Characters in Search of an Author on the last Sunday but two. The Times gave it three-quarters of a column, but Mr. Brown, to Donald's amazement, called it "a turgid Dripp from the village Pumpernikkel," and enquired "If this is Upper Silesia, what can Lower be like?"


Anonymous said...

I don't really get your point.

Modern theatre remains dominated by loony leftist nonsense. I recall watching a play in Leeds in the 1980s. I had thought it was by a group called "Impact Theatre" but since there are literally dozens of Impact Theatres returned by a Google search, I can't confirm. I wonder how many of them subscribe to a free market ideology?

My play was staged in an enormous paddling pool, within which was a climbing frame top by loudspeakers. The speakers played radio noises interspersed with political comments. The actors splashed around the stage making noise and occasionally dialogue.

I seem to recall that the plot was set in a dystopian future where a few "voices from the static" preach rebellion. Memory suggests that this was the title or perhaps the flyer slogan, but given the time interval I might be wrong about all details except the paddling pool.

My wife is a huge fan of such challenging and gets a bit upset when I point out the ersatz nature of the non-conformism. She likes the word "transgressive" too, which is a synonym of "predictable" (albeit my thesaurus is ood).

Anonymous said...

I think LT's point, if I might make so bold, is that back in the day this sort of nonsense was the preserve of am-dram and indulgent rich folks. There were never going to be enough paying punters to keep it afloat.

Present day the state funds it through various means, direct & indirect. Actors, directors etc can now pursue an entire career in this milieu.

One could go as far as to say the BBC represented some of the same thing.

Anonymous said...

Meant to say actors, directors and writers. Don't forget the writers!