The droll master of the throwaway line

``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.''

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.

In our company, a young couple without funds decided impulsively to get married and Edward arranged the whole event, secured the use of the chapel at Old North Cambridge Baptist Church, and with boughs, wildflowers, two laurel wreaths sprayed gold, and Elizabethan costume borrowings produced what must have been one of the most notable weddings of the season.

To foreign visitors he would say, ``Send us your scripts, what of the playwrights from your country?''

I lent my round caf'e table to the production of ``Orpheus,'' by Jean Cocteau, translated by George Montgomery, and the table was wobbly. Edward tilted it, and when set it was appropriately like a Braque Cubist painting.

Intermission was over one Saturday matinee performance of ``The Compromise or Queen of Caribou,'' by John Ashbery, who was inspired by Rin Tin Tin. Blue Feather, his wife Mooka, his tribe, two Mounties, and Baby Jim were in place and the audience was headed back up the stairs. A Cambridge policeman was standing directly across Palmer Street. I was theater manager at the time - one of two stints in that capacity - and I was asked, ``What's going on here?''

``Just a small meeting,'' I lamely replied.

He was more insistent and asked if we had a license of assembly. (Not exactly.) By that time the curtain had gone up and my powers of persuasion were useless, so I sent an usher backstage to fetch Edward - emergency. Just as it looked as if the show might be stopped, Edward came around the corner and in the most cavalier way said, ``May I help you, officer?''

``What's going on here?''

Edward stepped back into the middle of the street and if ever anyone was on stage it was he - with a poignant gesture of suffering nobility Edward said, ``Words, words, words.'' And it worked, the officer went off talking to himself about Harvard Square types.

THE evening of Winston Churchill's passing, Edward came to my apartment. He was burdened with more sentiment than he could give voice to. He had spent much time with the Churchills and had directed Sarah Churchill in many plays. Instead of talking, he picked up my copper teapot with a viking dragon's head for a spout. In silence he polished it to a high glow.

To many, Edward was a transmitter with a direct line to the ancient Greek dramatists. Under his direction, actors had a heightened, mindful awareness. To allude to earth meant to bend down and grasp a handful of the ancient stuff and let it run through the fingers. The actress Myrna Casas, in the role of Jocasta, captured that great passion when she reached up helplessly, hopelessly in the air, her arm like a serpent, after realizing how she was implicated with Oedipus.

Leo Lerman, in interviewing Edward for a magazine article, asked him what acting he had particularly admired and he described Anna Magnani's performance in Rosellini's ``Rome - Open City.'' In hearing of her husband's being dispatched by the Fascists, she ran and fell and crawled and ran to the scene, animal, instinctual, not studied.

Once I was going over some program copy with a tough Boston printer and when he came to Edward's brief biography he sat up, pointed, and said out the side of his mouth, ``Hey, this guy's a heavy!''

On Feb. 15, the Poets' Theatre will present the Nobel Prize-winning Russian poet, Joseph Brodsky, in a reading of his work at the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, Mass.

Brodsky will read in both Russian and English, and a scene will be performed from his only play, ``Marbles.'' His contributions to world literature include two books published in English, ``A Part of Speech,'' and a 1986 collection of essays, ``Less than One.''

Brodsky served a five-year term of internal exile, after which he was banished from the Soviet Union in 1972. He has since become an American citizen.

The original Poets' Theatre, founded in 1950, had its heyday in the '50s and early '60s, performing new work by poets for the theater. In October of 1986, a revival of sorts took place, which has carried through to this presentation. The writer is now publicity director for the group.

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