A Dramatic Debut Worth Noting
I'LL come clean: my name is not Olivier, or Gielgud, or Richardson. I've never won an Oscar. I've never turned down a script. No one has ghosted my autobiography at the triumphant close of my notable career: My career has not been notable (and I can't be sure it's at its close yet, anyway). I do not appear on chat shows discussing the finer points of Othello. In short, my name does not feature noticeably in "The Great Stage Stars" by Sheridan Morley. There are, presumably, reasons. But one of them - looking back, though by no means in anger - has definitely not been a lack of enthusiasm. I was, as my memoirs would doubtless start by mentioning, stage-struck from a surprisingly early age. Not just stage-struck; stage-bombed.
Initially, it may have been my elder brother's doing. One afternoon he decided to paint me red from head to foot - I agreed it was a marvellous project - and then he marched me into the room where my parents were, announcing "The Entry of Mephistopheles."
It was my first taste, I think, of dramatic effect, and, of course, coincidentally, of the power of makeup to transform and impress. When said parental persons finally recognized me, I was peremptorily dispatched bathward for a general cleansing job. I believe, however, that the sheer horror my appearance produced may have inscribed itself in my mental notebook as a Thing Worth Doing.
At the age of four or five, of course, I certainly didn't fully appreciate the symbolism involved in this incident. According to German legend, Mephistopheles was not a nice chap - an evil spirit, indeed - to whom Faust sold his soul. Mephistopheles followed up by having a characteristic ball with the soul in question. What, conversely, my brother may have done with the paint - diabolically redecorating my undoubtedly angelic physique - was to offer up my "soul" (well, not really) to the "evil spirit" ( kind of) known as The Stage. From that fateful moment on, I imagine, my future as an actor was determined. All my future lack of promise was foretold by the entry of Mephistopheles.
I can't remember whether it was Pooh or Stephanie who came next in the historionic order of things. Stephanie, I think. Stephanie fascinated me. She was an instance of something we didn't have in any shape or form at home: a girl. She lived down the road and had a pigtail. Anyway, she was good for ordering about (or at least that's the way I remember it) and she had to play all the parts in my plays that I decided she had to play. We had a window seat which was perfect, with curtains that could be drawn . The parental bunch were told to sit in a row and, since Stephanie and I, in spite of endless preparatory discussions, had never actually decided what the play-for-today was about, we improvised intensely, with many sotto voce stage prompts en route.
Parents, come to think about it, can be frightfully misguided at times. What they should have done was nip in the bud this early chaotic leaning toward theatrical performance. Instead, they pretended to enjoy it. It was my first delectable taste of favorable audience response. Things were going from bad to worse.
Then - before or after Pooh? - came "Hiawatha's Wedding Feast." Every summer, the family went to the seaside resort of Scarborough, and there I was introduced to "real theater," in a manner of speaking. This real theater came in two manifestations. First, there were the Fol-de-Rols. They were the tail end of the Victorian music hall tradition, and were probably frightful. To me they were wonderful.
The leading lady and the comic still stick vividly in my mind. Everyone found them hilarious. I had no sense of humor at all until I was about 15 or so, so I didn't know why everyone laughed quite so much. But I thought I'd better laugh too. Story has it that once I laughed so fiercely that I hit my head on the seat and the switch to tears was so instant and loud that the comic noticed and made some ad-lib wisecrack to mark the occasion. Everyone thought this was outrageously funny, so I laughed with th em, and some truism clicked inside me: that tears and laughter often go hand in glove.
The other experience of Real Theater at Scarborough was the annual musical held in the gigantic open-air theater. Summer nights being what they might be on the northeast coast, we all wrapped up like Inuits, and sat on cushions and comforted ourselves with thermoses of hot soup. If it didn't rain, this was an occasion of unadulterated magic. And the musical which really grabbed me was about Hiawatha.
I think I'm confused about it now - is this the musical with the song "Oh, Rose-Marie, I Love You" in it? Does it have Canadian Mounties and a snowstorm? If so, that's the one. The snowstorm was spectacular. An enormous rock literally opened up by the side of the stage, and snow was blown into the air from its inner regions, covering stage and audience alike. Wow. I entirely forget the story - or more likely never had much clue what it was all about even at the time - but Hiawatha marries Mini-Ha-Ha, or doesn't, or something. It was dramatic, positively, but I was also trying to find out what the snow flakes were made of.
When we got home again I decided that Stephanie and I would startle our captive audience by staging Hiawatha's wedding feast. Clearly the window seat was not adequate. This would be in the big outdoors. So a fire was lit - well, it was made of silver paper covered with orange cellophane - in the bushes, and a wigwam was erected on the lawn. The drama commenced. And then something cataclysmic occurred.
A thunderstorm brewed, threatened, darkened, and finally descended. It brought before it a rushing mighty wind - and the wigwam collapsed in a crumpled pile of garden canes and picnic rugs. I'm not sure where Mini-Ha-Ha was at the time, but Hiawatha was in full flow, center lawn, dazzling the audience with some soliloquy of inordinate grandiosity. Solemn business. And when the tent collapsed, so did his ego. It was a disaster! The world had fallen in. He simply burst into a gushing flood of bitter, inco nsolable tears.
The parent-people, realizing that things were serious for Hiawatha, managed to smother their chuckles, and came over to comfort me. "It's all right, it's all right!" they cried, "What could be better? A real storm! It makes it all very realistic!"
But it wasn't all right. What had happened was fearsome and ghastly: Art had been interfered with, dramaturgy disrupted. Infinitely more damning than any human critic, nature had made its comment on the proceedings. How easily ambition is flummoxed! How fragile true art is! How very early in the life of the amateur actor does the suspicion dawn that the illusion he would weave so subtly on stage can be shattered in a cruel instant. A set falls over, a moustache falls off, and reality has broken through. The would-be sublime crumbles into the undoubtedly ridiculous.
"Hiawatha's Wedding Feast" never resumed. And for a period, I resorted to stagecraft of a more modest sort. I took up puppetry, and dramatized Pooh in search of honey disguised as a cloud and then falling into a gorse bush. Indoors. On a miniature stage. Out of the weather.
Amateurs should operate within the limits of their capabilities. Rule No. 1.