Liz 'n' Dick - 'n' us

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They have become one word: Liz 'n' Dick. Ever since they played Antony and Cleopatra, they have been condemned to be Antony and Cleopatra in an endless sequel of daily life.

Nothing seems capable of separating them - least of all divorce.

And so they have returned to the stage together in Noel Coward's ''Private Lives,'' playing it from the title down as if it were a roman a clef, written just for them.

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Private lives indeed! Even the television cameras were there to spy on the charade-within-a-charade at the Boston opening.

Look at their faces on the TV clips - weary beyond all belief from playing Liz 'n' Dick. They allotted only a few days for rehearsal, but in every other sense, they have been cranking out their routine as one of the longest-running performances in history.

Their flight to personal freedom two decades ago has turned into a kind of public slavery.

They have become our dancing bears with permanent iron collars on their necks.

We pay $45 a ticket to see them in ''Private Lives,'' but we pay them little respect.

A sometimes affectionate snigger is the best they get from audiences watching them mime Coward's divorced couple - pretending to rekindle a spark from their old flame.

What a way to treat grandparents! And the end is not in sight. For we show no quarter to those we make celebrities. Once we have them typecast, that's it.

We made Marilyn Monroe play Marilyn to the end. Judy Garland could not get out from under ''over the rainbow'' - not if she had lived to be 100. Why should Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton be allowed an escape clause as they travel in lock-step through life as America's ordained celebrity a deux ?

The awful things we do to real people when their image suits our consumer's fancy!

With their script written by gossip magazines rather than Noel Coward, how Liz 'n' Dick must envy an acting team like Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy, free to play anything within the whole human experience that they and a dramatist can imagine.

Of all the stock parts, none becomes more stock as the years go by than that of the Great Lover. If you contemplate a Don Juan or a femme fatale long enough, Lord Byron wrote a friend, you end being forced ''to giggle and make giggle.''

Must Liz 'n' Dick fans - the term makes one tremble - conclude by crudely ridiculing what they began by crudely glamorizing? It is an unpleasant idea - to think that we cannot quite forgive them for charming us, as they charmed one another. That would make us part of a messy triangle - responsible beyond the responsibility of voyeurs. That would make our derision even uglier, as a form of self-derision too.

As the double theater of ''Private Lives'' heads for an estimated $4.5 million Broadway run, nobody comes out of this looking good. Liz 'n' Dick are not guiltless of exploiting us; we stand accused of manipulating them.

The American public has one of the shortest attention spans. A celebrity is supposed to be famous for about five minutes - then we forget why. But once in a while we go to the other extreme, and that stubborn refusal to forget can be even crueler.

Who could have dreamed that the whim to be Liz 'n' Dick would lead to such consequences? Four decades of them - counting the two lives.

At the moment, Noel Coward is supplying the plot line. But will there ever come a time when it is possible to drop the curtain? Would Liz 'n' Dick remember who they had been before they became Liz 'n' Dick? Would we? Can anybody recall the reality in a world made up of vanity mirrors and refracting lenses?

In short, just how do we restore to Liz 'n' Dick - and to ourselves - the right to original innocence?

The subject may be frivolous. The question is not.

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