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The droll master of the throwaway line

By Harold Gaarder / February 9, 1988

``As I looked up from the book between lines, I saw the face of the man in charge. He was completely absorbed, his eyes wide, his forefinger across his lips as though calling for cosmic silence and attention. And his face changed expression along with the dialogue, as though galvanized by what our voices were saying. His eyes went from actor to actor.''

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THIS description of Edward Thommen, artistic director of the Poets' Theatre, is by Peter Davison, poetry editor of The Atlantic Monthly. Richard Wilbur's verse translation of Moli`ere's ``The Misanthrope'' was about to have its 1955 world premi`ere in the small, Spartan, loft-theater, 24 Palmer Street, Harvard Square, in Cambridge, Mass.

We were co-laborers in this play-building project, I usually as stage manager, and it was always fascinating to watch how with Edward, life and art fused. The stage was indeed unconfined, not just a separate playing area. Edward was always the director, sculpting away. After rehearsals it was customary to stroll down Palmer Street (``the street of dreams'') to Sinclair's Restaurant.

There between reviewing progress Edward found time to reinvigorate a harried waitress; he showed her a new hairstyle and gave her a crash confidence-instilling blitz to the extent that when she went back into the kitchen for our order the chef didn't recognize her. ``And besides, dearie, you'll be amazed how your tips will snowball,'' Edward confided drolly. And to actors who were displeased with their roles he would chide with the heavily accented quotation from Mme. Maria Ouspenskaya, the actress with whom he received training from the Stanislavsky Moscow Art Theater Company: ``There are no small parts, only small players.''

Again and again he would speak of the company ensemble spirit. Another after-the-theater evening Edward invited the cast and crew back to his place for a supper party. After a miraculous buffet of hot cider, baked beans, corn bread, cole slaw, and apple pie, Edward suddenly proclaimed in the stentorian tones of a circus ringmaster: ``And now, Ladies and Gentlemen, something from the Old World!''

THE sound technician cued an aria from ``Madame Butterfly'' on the phonograph while Edward huddled in his pullman kitchen. Then slowly toward us he made a stately entrance, napkin on head, a coat on backward - belted to hold the stuffing - and cheeks plump with Kleenex. Carefully he assumed a chair in the royal box at the opera and regaled us with an extended pantomime of Queen Victoria valiantly struggling to maintain composure while coping internally with a full grouse dinner.

A mutual friend, Grace, had an attack of the just-moved-in blues in her new apartment. All around was a hodgepodge of cartons and furniture, and Edward, with a few deft touches and a minimum of shifting, created a monumental groupage complete with back lighting. ``Edward, you have achieved a temple-like serenity out of chaos,'' Grace said. The master of the throwaway line, Edward said, ``It's always like that before curtain time.''

I, at one point, expressed bafflement at an unclear passage in one of our literary works - not everything was as lucid as ``The Misanthrope,'' and Edward said, ``Well, Harold, sometimes we must appear that we know what we are doing, look poised, well spoken, groomed, and go through the motions until we catch onto the meaning again.''

He always had a sense of the occasion. Alan Ginsberg received a notable Harvard Square reception after a poetry reading. Edward saw to that. He provided white linen and candlesticks at the front left table of the Hayes-Bickford Cafeteria, and a tuxedoed waiter (Harvard student) with white napkin on left forearm, who brought from the cafeteria counter scrambled eggs and English muffins.