There are many opportunities during this crisis to check in online and stream videotaped performances of classical live shows. Supposedly this gives us a chance to see great actors and actresses in action – as if we were actually there - but I find myself hesitant to tune in.
Movies and television have never given me the joy that I recall from being there, in person, when great theater is happening. On the screen, shows feel manufactured to me and, even though I am often moved to laughter or tears, they hardly ever satisfy my hunger for live performances.
I can recall witnessing moments in theater that haunt me to this day. I am a child of the last century and my first experience of live theater was when I was 9 years old and the Gilbert & Sullivan operetta “Iolanthe” changed my life. However, that is another story and, for now, let me share just one of these remembrances.
THE ENTERTAINER (Broadway 1958) .
Laurence Olivier portrayed Archie Rice, a second-rate song and dance man in British Music Hall, in this play by John Osborne, directed by Tony Richardson. The show with its corny songs was engrossing, the audience silently attentive, all delighting in seeing the great Olivier bawdily singing and dancing.
In one scene, Archie admits to his daughter Jean that he is aware of his mediocrity having once witnessed a great performance in the American South. It was a black woman, a great blues singer (Bessie Smith?), and at that moment he realized the difference between schlock and genius.
It’s a family drama with three generations in conflict over loyalties, infidelities and past hurts. Meanwhile, his youngest son Mick, who is overseas in the army, is reportedly a prisoner of war while negotiations are underway for his release. Then suddenly the play turned, the mood, the suspension of disbelief shattered when Archie’s eldest son Frank ran into the theatre and down the aisle gasping and raging, “They killed him. Mick’s dead! The bastards killed him!”
Silence. The horror was too real. The audience stricken. And then Olivier, overcome with pain, staggered to the proscenium, grasped at the carved wooden frame and, in a voice redolent of a glorious black singer long dead, he sang the blues! Sang with the deep throaty magic of a great lost woman whose pain was in her voice.
That is live theater! No movie screen could ever capture the power of that event that has stayed with me for over 60 years.
Other scenes in live theater that are etched forever in my mind include Fredric March in Eugene O’Neill’s “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” 1956; Elizabeth Bergner in Romain Gary’s “First Love” 1961; Ralph Fiennes in Brian Friel’s “Faith Healer” 2006; Godfrey Cambridge in Ossie Davis’ “Purlie Victorious” 1962, John Shea in Arthur Kopit’s “End of the World” 1984, and Richard Burton in “Hamlet” 1964, directed by John Gielgud (available on DVD)
If you are interested in hearing about any of these Great Moments in Live Theater in future columns please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
GWEN VAN DAM: Loved your article re Theater...it's so true. I have indelible memories of great performances too, that have remained in my mind & have inspired me from the beginning. Some are: Gertrude Lawrence in "Tonight at 8:30", Julie Harris in "Member of the Wedding", Jason Robards, Jr. in "Long Day's Journey into Night", Ruth Draper(I was a child but I remember her), Kim Stanley in "Travelin' Lady", Geraldine Page in "Summer and Smoke", etc. So wonderful! Thanks for reminding me of them & others.
KAREN HEBERT: Brillant article Morna. Makes me want to go to the theatre!
CHRISTINE DIXON: Wow! Oh Momma, this is a fabulous column! I was moved to tears as "Frank ran in saying Mick's dead." I was able to see all of your words play out in my mind, which is a gift of a truly great writer. Thank you so much for sharing this wonderful work with me. Also, the details of a throaty Blues singer. I could hear the pain in my ears.