Celebrating World Theatre Day in a pandemic that prevents one from going into a theatre might seem to be an oxymoron. Or it might be the best time to really understand what one has lost. Absence and abstinence make the heart grow fonder.
Speaking of contradictions, I’m pondering theatre from at least two directions, as the title might suggest, and they bear on one another. As I mentioned recently I’m reading Hermione Lee’s biography of 83 year-old Tom Stoppard, whose voice & whose talent I associate with the joys of youth. His spirit of fun is unquenchable, a natural successor to The Goon Show and contemporary with Monty Python. Yes I associate him with a brand of British wit.
And I watched Young Cassidy, a 1965 film based on the early part of playwright Sean O’Casey’s autobiography. “John Cassidy” was what the playwright called himself.
A third direction might be to recall the professor at the University of Toronto who introduced me to both playwrights, namely Michael Sidnell. You may recognize the name from his multiple volume Sources of Dramatic Theory, the text used by many Canadian professors, especially if they studied with him. As an undergrad I recall a certain reverence with which Sidnell spoke of Synge & O’Casey, and Yeats.
And I remember when Sidnell read parts of Stoppard in class (especially the short versions of Hamlet) that were huge fun. Now of course this third direction is a nostalgic recollection that goes back to a previous century. While it hasn’t been that long since I was in a theatre seeing a show (although it’s now more than a year), it’s the same direction if you’re looking back: whether it’s just over your shoulder by a matter of months, or years. Or decades.
I understand that Young Cassidy was a commercial disappointment, at least according to the commentary on TCM, and it’s no wonder. We’re in that curious transition period between Ben Hur and The Last Temptation of Christ, when studios were losing or loosing their grip, when the whole idea of film and what’s to be filmed were changing.
Lee’s bio of Stoppard offers a critique of Young Cassidy, that can be seen via a pair of quotes, the key words boldfaced.
Quote #1 “Scribbling a few notes to himself on a cold November morning’s rehearsal of Dogg’s Our Pet, with Geoffrey Reeves directing, he noted that his “suspicion of participation theatre” was being remarked on, and observed wryly to himself:
“My idea of theatre: audience sits, listens and goes home.”
Quote #2 “In those interviews he was constantly asked about how serious a writer he was, whether his plays had a message, whether he was conservative, and wrote against the prevailing trend of political theatre, and what his views were on the issues of the day. His response, which knowingly risked sounding dandyish or frivolous, was always to resist being fitted into a slot or a single fixed point of view—except in his firm belief in theatre as entertainment.“
Stoppard is a towering figure of the 20th century theatre, and big enough to cast a shadow that looms over the first part of the 21st as well. We’d never think of Beckett that way, probably not Pinter either. Maybe Stoppard’s such a huge success—artistically & commercially—because he was so clear-minded and purposeful about what he was doing. After an apprenticeship as a theatre critic Stoppard wrote plays that never threaten to contradict the aphorisms we might draw from those two quotes:
…that the audience sits, listens & goes home,
…that theatre is entertainment.
Never mind academic studies of plays & drama, is this perhaps how the studios understand film? I wonder.
I wish MGM had been that lucid in preparing the trailer for Young Cassidy. They sound somewhat conflicted, unable to reconcile the pure artist & the carnal man. Perhaps their anxieties about the project are showing? It didn’t make as much money as the studio might have expected, for the investment in talent. Rod Taylor gave a spectacular performance, and yet because the film did poorly at the box office, this notion that he couldn’t deliver was probably held against him with the inevitable unfortunate impacts on his career.
Although clearly the film’s failure is not Taylor’s fault. There are several possible suspects, such as the direction done by two people. And then there’s the promotion & marketing. The trailer suggests that the studio didn’t really know how to sell the film.
But if you’re curious don’t let the trailer dissuade you.
Nora, the lover & admirer of Cassidy portrayed by Maggie Smith, is so in awe of the great man that she fears she will hold him back. I fear this could describe the way they promoted the project, a bit paralyzed in the presence of the subject.
The film may be flawed but it’s far better, far deeper, far more fun, than you’d ever know from the trailer. I wonder what O’Casey or Yeats might have thought of the film.
Perhaps I should ask Professor Sidnell?