Tuesday, August 21, 2018

My Log 636 August 21 2018: Chronicles from the Tenth decade: 72 A book recalls the slow process of my cultural education: Peter Hall’s Diaries

I was 17 when in 1945 I quit after four years of high school, and got a job on the lowest rung of journalism. Looking back, I was ill-prepared for life, had a rather limited breadth of knowledge about the world and how it works, and a very narrow range of interests.  Of course, I knew an immense amount about cricket and its history. And I was accustomed to having on my bedroom wall photos of All Black Rugby teams since 1905, and knew the names of every player. But I can hardly describe such knowledge as an adequate foundation on which to embark on a working life.
In addition I had been brought up in complete ignorance of sex and its essential place in modern life; and I don’t believe that at the time I had ever heard of such concepts as homosexuality, nymphomania,  or any other of the many specialties into which such knowledge is  divided. In other words I had been brought up in such a way as to make it almost impossible for me to embark on rewarding relationships, especially with the opposite sex.
In one thing I was extremely lucky. I found the profession of journalism ridiculously easy, so, once I got into a writing position, which happened after six months, I was able to leap  ahead at double quick pace, and after two and a half years I was regarded as a trained journalist of senior rank (as defined in the union agreement), a position that should have taken me seven years.
At the age of 22 --- far too young --- I married, and my wife and I headed off to have a look around the world. First to northern Queensland, where we experienced for the first time the discomforts of a really tropical climate, with its multiplicity of wild and dangerous animals, later to India, where the dreadful condition of life of a majority of the world’s people was brought home to us, and finally to Englsnd, where --- to get on to the subject of this Chronicle, at last ---  for the first time in my life I became a customer of what is generally regarded as the high culture of modern society, in this case, the incomparable British theatre.
I have already described, I am sure, probably in an earlier Chronicle, how we were able to be present at performances by the world’s greatest actors, simply by laying out the magnificent sum of one shilling and sixpence for a seat in The Gods, the far upper reaches  of a modern theatre for drama. I have to confess my introduction to high drama did not come particularly easily for me. I had been bored out of my skull in high school by Shakespeare, had never understood a word of it, and in our frequent trips to the Old Vic theatre, the London seat for Shakespeare productions in the 1950s,  I was for quite a while far less than enthralled. Fortunately, at other theatres, great actors playing more naturalistic theatre were much easier to understand.  I remember one occasion --- I think it was in Caesar and Cleopatra --- a play by Bernard Shaw written in 1898, when, as Caesar, Laurence Olivier, in a position well back from the audience, and with his back to us, whispered the answer to a question which, even to those of us up in The Gods, was perfectly audible, a demonstration of voice control that completely astounded me.  Another great pair who were playing a series of Shaw plays were John Clements and his wife Kay Hammond. The play that I enjoyed most I think was The Doctor’s Dilemma, written in  1906, a very amusing story about a dying genius, a thoroughly detestable, self-centred person whose genius nevertheless commanded maximum efforts to save him. Unfortunately, he was handed on from one medical specialist to another: each of them had his own specific cherished solution to every illness. One I remember was the doctor who claimed he was suffering from a nuciform sac, whatever that was, and insisted on treating him, unsuccessfully for that.  Shaw’s prescience with this play has always impressed me. Years later, in Montreal, my wife appeared to fall seriously ill, fell into the hands of a man described as the greatest heart doctor in the city, who scared her half to death by equipping her with an arm band that would enable anyone to see at a glance what was wrong with her should she collapse in the street, as he seemed to think inevitable. She remained in this half-stricken condition until a younger member of the profession, who happened to be the son of one of our friends, asked the eminent doctor if he could examine her. When he did so he discovered there was nothing wrong with her heart: she was simply suffering from post-menopausal hormone imbalance. I have since heard of a number of people who have suffered from the obsessions so amusingly illustrated by Shaw in his play undermining the medical profession and its pretensions so long ago.
I have other vivid memories from my theatre-going in those early days of my education. Sam Wanamaker, a harsh-voiced but riveting American actor, teamed with Michael Redgrave in a Clifford Odets play about a drunken shell of an actor who was offered by the American producer a chance for one more attempt at rehabilitating his reputation. With Googie Withers playing the hard-done-by wife, this play was so compulsive that I returned to it at least twice. Wanamaker, a refugee from the oppressive political system that was imposed on much culture in the United States in the 1950s, later adopted as his personal project a scheme to rebuild on the South Bank of the Thames, in almost the exact place of the original Globe theatre in which Shakespeare’s plays were first performed, an exact replica of the original theatre --- a project triumphantly brought to a conclusion, so that it is possible to see the plays in the same conditions as Londoner originally saw them in the seventeenth century  --- truly a gift from abroad that Londoners must  cherish.
Do not worry, dear reader, I did eventually get on to Shakespeare, and I can remember the exact occasion: it was in Edinburgh, where Claire Boom and Alan Badel combined to play Romeo and Juliet and at last their speaking of the lines was so luminous and clear that I was able to follow what they were saying  and become throroughly engrossed in the story.  Alan Badel was a magical actor, a man with a voice that was itself like a musical instrument, and although Bloom was not his equal, she was so lovely to look at as a young girl to make up for any other inadequacies.
I have at last arrived at why I decided to write this. Today, passing my favourite bookshop, The Word on Milton street, I chanced upon a huge volume of 500 pages called Peter Hall’s Diaries, for the customary out-front price of 50 cents. When I returned to London in 1960 to represent The Montreal Star Peter Hall, who had been a wunderkind in the British theatre since his first production at the age of 23, had founded a new company, the Royal Shakespeare Company, at the Aldwych theatre in central London, with the object of introducing the best of the great bard plus the best of international theatre. Working with the even more brilliant talents of Peter Brook, this company attracted me, as a persistent theatregoer by this time, to many unforgettable productions. I will never forget the  feeling in the audience at the conclusion of Rolf Hochhuth’s play The Representative, about the alleged indifference  of the Pope to the fate of the Jews in Nazi Europe.  When one entered the theatre one was confronted not with a stage curtain, but with two vast rolling metal doors, the doors to a gas oven. Every scene played by the Pope was played inside this oven, and when the play was over so intense had it been that the audience sat, without applause, in stunned silence for at least three minutes, before they could even stir themselves to leave the theatre.  That was not Hall’s work, but it represented the sort of challenging theatre he and Peter Brook placed, month after month,  before the London audience.
I notice since I started to write this that Hall died last September at the age of 86, and was generally agreed to have dominated the British theatre in its last 50 years.
The Diaries are not the sort of book I would normally read, but I started in on it this afternoon, and am already deeply interested in the rivalries and tensions revealed during the 1970s, when Hall’s Shakespeare Company was merged with the new National Theatre that had been directed by Laurence Olivier for its first years before it had its own new theatrical home.
I can tell I am going to read on: already the sharp dislike of Hall for Kenneth Tynan, the acerbic critic who was the dramaturge for the National Theatre during Olivier’s reign, has added a bit of spice. When the question of Hall’s taking over from Olivier as director of the theatre was raised, Hall made it clear that if Tynan were to stay, as he was manoeuvring to do, Hall would not take the job. Although he accuses Tynan of creating problems for his takeover, when the two eventually met, someone had tipped the wink to Tynan who accepted it without further debate. He was out, and Hall was in.
Hall had four wives, the first of whom was the French actress and dancer Leslie Caron. From each of them he had children, six in all, and one of them, Rebecca, is one of my favorite actresses presently working. A mistress of seduction, even though she is only moderately good-looking: she seems to have inherited from her father an instinct for the drama that was on show in Woody Allen’s beautiful film, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, in which she plays the plain English girl who is pursued by Javier Bardem, as a typical Latin lover. To my mind she ran away with the picture, even against such strong performers as Penelope Cruz, Scarlett Johansson, and Bardem.

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