Archive for the ‘play’ Tag

Wilde wild Worthing

The 1895 production of ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’ (Irene Vanbrugh as Gwendolen Fairfax & George Alexander as Jack Worthing)

‘The Importance of Being Earnest’ comes across as the most metropolitan and refined of plays and yet it was not written in Oscar Wilde’s Cheyne Walk home in Chelsea but in a holiday home in Worthing, West Sussex. That’s how come the protagonist is named Worthing and his family origins include reference to a first-class railway ticket to Worthing.

JACK. The late Mr. Thomas Cardew, an old gentleman of a very charitable and kindly disposition, found me, and gave me the name of Worthing, because he happened to have a first-class ticket for Worthing in his pocket at the time. Worthing is a place in Sussex. It is a seaside resort.

LADY BRACKNELL. Where did the charitable gentleman who had a first-class ticket for this seaside resort find you?

JACK. [Gravely.] In a hand-bag.

LADY BRACKNELL. A hand-bag?

JACK. [Very seriously.] Yes, Lady Bracknell. I was in a hand-bag – a somewhat large, black leather hand-bag, with handles to it – an ordinary hand-bag in fact.

LADY BRACKNELL. In what locality did this Mr. James, or Thomas, Cardew come across this ordinary hand-bag?

JACK. In the cloak-room at Victoria Station. It was given to him in mistake for his own.

It’s the most famous exchange in the play, largely due to Dame Edith Evans’ defining performance in which she made the very most of the word “hand-bag”. That’s why, in the performance last night at Brighton Open Air Theatre, the inventive players of Slapstick Picnic just mouthed the word. It was a superb distillation into a two-hander, reminiscent of Steven Berkoff’s mannered acting in his brilliant ‘Decadence’ (Berkoff being a big fan of Brighton with a bolt-hole in Kemptown), whose comic invention Wilde would have enjoyed.

2021 (6th August) production at Brighton Open Air Theatre

In the summer of 1894 Wilde went on holiday for two months to Worthing with his wife, Constance, and sons, Cyril (9) and Vyvyan (7). It was the last summer before his life disintegrated. Constance travelled down with their two young sons on 7th August, Wilde followed on the 10th.

Wilde was married to Constance (35) but in love with Lord Alfred Douglas, known as ‘Bosie’. He had met Bosie in 1891. They were both at Magdalen College, Oxford. Within 8 months of Worthing, Wilde was in jail as a direct result of his infatuation with the handsome young aristocrat. 

Although it was a family holiday, Bosie showed up and stayed three times. He was a demanding, immature character and his egotism caused Wilde no end of problems.  

Meanwhile, Constance, lonely and unhappy, fell in love (in a platonic way) with another man, Arthur Humphreys (30), bookseller, publisher and a family friend, who came down to spend the day in Worthing with the Wildes on 11th August. She wrote him a heart-felt love-letter while he was still at the house, slipping it to him before his departure.

And to complete the bedroom farce Wilde became sexually involved with a local teenage boy, Alphonse Conway. Born in Bognor but raised in Worthing, he was six weeks past his 16th birthday when they first met. Plus there were two other teenage boys on the scene.

Meanwhile he was writing what is broadly acknowledged as his masterpiece, The Importance of Being Earnest – a landmark in English-language theatre. He had previously written three comedies but he peaked on this fourth.

Wilde was under pressure at that time financially so he really needed a hit play. He was also under pressure back in London from Bosie’s overbearing father, the Marquess of Queensberry, he of boxing fame, who was doing his utmost to harass his son’s lover. It was this crude man who finally landed a knock-out blow to the refined Wilde. The day before leaving for holiday Wilde wrote to Bosie of Queensbury: “It is intolerable to be dogged by a maniac.”

Wilde and Bosie had a sexual relationship for only a few months two summers before the Worthing trip. Queensberry, judging by Wilde and Bosie’s overtly gay behaviour in public, assumed it was on-going. Some four months after the Worthing holiday Queensberry left a visiting card at Wilde’s club on which he had written: “For Oscar Wilde, Posing as a Somdomite [sic]”. Wilde inadvisedly sued Queensberry for libel. He lost the trial, got convicted himself for homosexuality and ended up doing hard labour in Reading Gaol (where he served the last 18 months of his sentence) which broke his health although yielded a brilliant long poem.

Worthing was chosen as a place where Wilde would have peace to write. It was quieter than Brighton (which Wilde knew well) and Constance was able to rent a house from a friend who had gone north for the summer.

Wilde and Bosie, Alphonse and other male teenagers, swam, fished and went out every day on a sailing boat. Constance, whom he no longer loved (sexual relations between them had ceased around 1886), was left back in the house, isolated and saddened. She wrote to a friend: “I have had no-one to talk to, and I have been rather depressed.”

Wilde attended several events in Worthing over the summer:  a lifeboat demonstration, the annual sailing regatta and the Venetian fête, a lamp-lit water carnival, where, as a celeb, he presented the prizes for the best-decorated boats and made a witty speech in praise of Worthing: “It has beautiful surroundings and lovely long walks, which I recommend to other people, but do not take myself.”

Worthing provided several of the names in the play. Beside the protagonist Jack Worthing, Wilde found the name Bunbury in the Worthing Gazette. Miss Prism, “a woman of repellent aspect, remotely connected with education” is probably based on the “horrid, ugly Swiss governess” (as described in a letter to Bosie) looking after Cyril and Vyvyan on the Worthing trip.

Bosie was largely a hindrance and distraction to Wilde but he liked to bask in the aura of ‘Earnest’. He claimed he was in the same room while most of the play was being written and that some of the jokes were drawn from his own “repartee”. He was considered fairly witty and amusing. This Wilde child’s claims were no doubt overblown and another facet of the toxicity he brought to Oscar’s life. 

Oscar Wilde & Lord Alfred Douglas by Gillman & Co. (1893)
The Haven , the rented house in Worthing
Constance Wilde – 30th July 1894, a week before the Worthing trip
The lifeboat demonstration 22nd August 1894 – according to the Worthing Gazette “Mr Oscar Wilde was one of the occupants of a small rowing boat busily flitting about”

Very little of the concrete aspects of Wilde’s time in Worthing survives. The Haven, the house that Constance rented for the family, was demolished in the 60s. It stood at the northern (Brighton Road) end of the Esplanade terrace, four houses which stood between Brighton Road and the seashore at the eastern end of the town. The terrace eventually became a hotel. There is though a Blue Plaque on the site of the Esplanade terrace, a building called Esplanade Court. It is at the sea-end of the east façade of Esplanade Court (the opposite end from where The Haven actually stood). When the blue plaque was put up it caused a ripple of controversy in the town, a waiting room for heaven (or hell) with its dominant elderly population . Unworthy of Worthing said some of the duffers including a local historian: “This role model, a man preying on teenage boys with little or no education – I don’t think that would be regarded as heroic today. I think it would be regarded as smutty and reprehensible”.  All quite a contrast to Worthing’s neighbour Brighton whose alternative vibe is set by its LGBT community and whose current motto (devised by the local tourist board in response to the post-Covid term “the new normal”) is ‘Brighton Never Normal’. Oscar Never Dull.

Postcard No. 3

old german religious postcard traut bruckmann munich 1922 johannes st john passionspiele ober ammergauold german religious postcard traut bruckmann munich 1922 johannes st john passionspiele ober ammergau

 

old german religious postcard traut bruckmann munich 1922 johannes st john passionspiele ober ammergauold german religious postcard traut bruckmann munich 1922 johannes st john passionspiele ober ammergau

The third from my random collection of old postcards.

I think I took this as Jesus when I bought it (for 30p) because I’m fond of a good Jesus. My favourite is Jeffrey Hunter in King of Kings (also Captain Pike, original commander of the USS Enterprise in the first ever Star Trek).

Jeffrey Hunter in 'King of Kings' (1961) Directed by Nicholas Ray

Jeffrey Hunter in ‘King of Kings’ (1961) Directed by Nicholas Ray

But this turned out to be Johannes or John, presumably John the Baptist. He has a big crook so is clearly also a shepherd of men. I presume he too is an actor as the card is marked (in German) as an ‘Official Postcard’ of the Passionspiele (passion plays) at O. -Ammergau, Oberammergau, a village in Bavaria where a passion play has been performed since 1634. So not mediaeval like Brit passion plays, such as the York Mystery Cycle which dates from the mid-fourteenth century, but a good effort nonetheless. The Oberammergau plays are performed on open-air stages.

This one is dated 1922 and seems to be No. 74 in a series – that’s a lot of characters.

The printer was F. Bruckmann of Munich – Friedrich Bruckmann (died 1898). His older son Alphons and younger son, Hugo (13th October 1863, Munich – 3rd September 1941, Munich) took over F. Bruckmann KAG on his death. Hugo and his wife Elsa were among the early promoters of Hitler, helping him gain access to upper-class circles in the city.

From 1928 the Bruckmanns backed the National Socialist Society for German Culture. And from 1930 Hugo was a board member of the ‘Kampfbund’ (Pressure Group) for German culture, founded by Alfred Rosenberg. He was an NSDAP (Nazi party) member of the Reichstag (German parliament) from 1932 until his death in 1941. In 1933 he became a member of the board for German museums. It is suggested his personal influence on the Fuhrer helped reduce political interference in the cultural sphere. An attempt to ban Jewish books from libraries was successfully opposed by Bruckmann. Because Hugo knew the big man after the outbreak of war his publishing house was declared of special importance for the war effort. He was honoured with a state funeral in 1941.

Also mentioned on the back is ‘the Munich graphic business’ Pick & Co. They seem to have been in book publishing too. Alongside is a reference to “Kupfertiefdruck” which seems to translate as “Rotogravure” (literally Copper Gravure – Gravure is “a printing method in which an image is applied to a printing substrate by use of a metal plate mounted on a cylinder” so the cylinder explains the “‘roto” bit). Whether this is a rotogravure… Jesus (No. 1) knows.

On the front is written “Traut photo.”. Traut seems to be H. Traut of Munich. Here’s one of his from 1906:

three-girls-ladder-postcard H. Traut of Munich

Photographer: H. Traut of Munich (1906)

Atelier Henry Traut was in business from 1857 to 1940. It was based at Herzog-Wilhelm-Straße 32, Munich.

Here’s one of his ‘glamour’ photos:

henry traut photographer photograph glamour

And here’s the gen on him from the reverse of a postcard:

henry traut photographer munchen munich germany

So his speciality was taking portraits in private houses in daylight and artfully lit. There are whole books about him.

I found one other of his 1922 photos online:

ansichtskarte postkarte offizielle postkarte passionsspiele oberammergau 1922 traut postcard photo photograph

I”m not sure which number or character this is.

Other similar images from later years:

ansichtskarte oberammergau, passionsspiele 1930, johannes darsteller- hans lang postcard saint john

Another John from 8 years later (1930) actor Hans Lang

ansichtskarte oberammergau, passionsspiele 1930, jesus und maria mary postcard

Also from 1930, Jesus & Mary

ansichtskarte-oberammergau-passionsspiele-christi-abschied-von-maria-1900

An early one from 1900 – Mary’s farewell to Jesus

ak-oberammergau-passionsspiele-1950-judaskuss-szenenfoto-mit-anton-preisinger-u-hans-schwaighofer judas kiss postcard

A later one (1950) Judas’ kiss featuring actors Anton Preisinger (Jesus) & Hans Schwaighofer (Judas)

ak-ansichtskarte-passionsspiele-oberammergau-christus-anton-preisinger-autogramm-kat-events prob 1950 postcard jesus christ

At last No.1 Anton Preisinger as Jesus, complete with autograph (probably 1950)

ak-ansichtskarte-passionsspiele-oberammergau-christus-preisinger-anton-kat-events prob 1950 postcard jesus christ

Anton Preisinger as Jesus (probably 1950)

I like my one best.

Sydney Cohen vs 4,300 Italian Fascist troops: Syd won

sydney cohen syd king of lampedusa

Sydney Cohen

On this day in 1946 a plane went missing without trace over the English Channel. On board was Sydney Cohen, an RAF pilot and the ‘King of Lampedusa’. He was flying home to be demobbed but his aircraft crashed in the Straits of Dover. The wreckage was never found.

Lampedusa is a small island 175 miles (280 kilometres) south of Sicily. (These days it is most often referred to in relation to the European migration crisis, receiving migrants from North Africa.)

map lampedusa sicily tunisia

Syd Cohen was a tailor’s cutter from the East End of London. He was an orphan (born 1921) who before the Second World War lived with his sister Lily in a block of flats in Stoke Newington.

How he became Italian royalty is one of the great little stories of World War Two.

20 year-old Sydney Cohen joined the Royal Airforce in 1941 and was based at North Weald near Epping. He was subsequently stationed on Malta. On 12th June 1943 Sergeant Cohen took off from the island with his two-man crew in their Swordfish biplane. With him was Sergeant Peter Tait, navigator, and Sergeant Les Wright, wireless operator and gunner. They were on a search-and-rescue mission after reports of a German plane crashing into the Mediterranean. Returning from the mission their compass started malfunctioning and they found themselves off course (actually heading away from Malta) and low on fuel so had to make an emergency landing on the Island of Lampedusa.

fairey swordfish plane

Fairey Swordfish

“The plane had a fit of gremlins so we had to make for the nearest land. As we came down on a ropey landing ground we saw a burnt hangar and burnt aircraft around us.”

The Allies had been bombing the island. As Sydney prepared to submit to the inevitable fate of being captured…

“a crowd of Italians came out to meet us and we put our hands up to surrender, but then we saw they were all waving white sheets shouting: “No, no – We surrender!” The whole island was surrendering to us!”

“It was a bit of a shake-up but I put on a bold heart and asked to see the commandant. I was taken to the commandant’s villa but an air raid started and everybody suddenly dashed from the room. I concluded that the nerves of my hosts were a bit jagged. They asked me to return to Malta and inform the authorities of their offer to surrender. They gave me a scrap of paper with a signature on it.”

Sydney accepted the surrender of the commandant of the demoralised garrison, refuelled, flew the scribbled surrender on to headquarters in Tunis, and in effect single-handedly captured Lampedusa and 4,300 Italian troops. It was arguably the first step in the retaking of Europe by the Allies.

Surrendered weapons of the Italian garrison Lampedusa

Surrendered weapons of the Italian garrison

king cohen of lampedusa newspaper headline

The British press picked up on the story to help boost morale. ‘Lampedusa Gives In to Sgt. Cohen!’ was the front-page headline on the Sunday Pictorial the very next day. The News Chronicle gave it the headline: ‘London Tailor’s Cutter is now King of Lampedusa’ establishing the monicker which went on to provide the title for a highly successful Yiddish musical play by S.J. Charendorf.

grand palais yiddish theatre programme king of lampedusa sj charendorf

Programme from Grand Palais, East London

Charendorf was a Czech-American journalist, London correspondent for the Jewish Morning Journal of New York. He was on his way to the Ministry of Information to file his story about Sgt Syd Cohen when it occurred to him that it had the makings of a brilliant play. He turned back home to write it. He changed the hero’s name to Sam Kagan and created parents and a fiancee for him but Sam was clearly Syd.

poster king of lampedusa grand palais london

Poster from Grand Palais

In November 1943 Charendorf took his script to Meier Tzelniker, the actor-producer-director who ran the Grand Palais Yiddish theatre on the Commercial Road in Whitechapel. Tzelniker commissioned some music and wrote the lyrics himself. He also cast himself in the lead role alongside his daughter Anna. The show premiered on New Year’s Eve 1943/4. It was a slow burner but Charendorf got the newspapers interested in the story again and it took off.

King of Lampedusa 2nd act newspaper cutting

The King in Act 2

King of Lampedusa yiddish play

‘The King of Lampedusa’ was a huge hit at the Grand Palais with 200 consecutive performances.

play scene the king of lampedusa

Naturalistic East End cheek-pinching from The King of Lampedusa

The BBC went on to broadcast an English version with Sydney Tafler playing the title role.

In time it came to the treacherous attention of William Joyce aka Lord Haw-Haw. In one of his nightly propaganda broadcasts from Berlin he threatened:

“The Yids at the Grand Palais should not be laughing for much longer at the ridiculous play ‘The King of Lampedusa’ because they are earmarked for a visit from the Luftwaffe.”

Although Cohen went missing in 1946, he did get to see the play while on leave in Haifa in 1944. It was a performance in Hebrew at the Hamatae Theatre. But he never saw the London production.

A final weird twist of a bizarre story – In the wake of Sydney meeting his end on a plane, so did the would-be producer of a movie of the story. After the war the film rights to the play were sold, however the film was never produced because the producer who acquired them, Walter Sistrom, suffered a burst appendix on the plane taking him to Columbia Studios in LA and he died.

 

Enemies of the People – part 2

april-fools-day

The majority is never right. Never, I tell you! That’s one of these lies in society that no free and intelligent man can help rebelling against. Who are the people that make up the biggest proportion of the population — the intelligent ones or the fools?

Henrik Ibsen, An Enemy of the People (1882)

Human Behan

brendan behan

I promised previously on Drinker with a Writing Problem to report back on ‘Brendan at the Chelsea’ at the Riverside, Hammersmith once I’d seen it. Well on Thursday I made a bee-line back from the rather sober Oxford Media Conference to get back in time for the press night of the play.

As I emerged from Hammersmith tube I bumped into Grant Dean of Eidos (home of Tomb Raider) and his sweet little daughter. Grant and I know one another from the BAFTA Interactive Entertainment Committee – he went on to chair the Video Games Committee while I went on to the TV Committee to try and make the rest of interactive entertainment beyond games part of the mainstream of the Academy. I remember trying to convey to the TV Committee a concept I called ‘New Television’ (you can imagine how well that went down) and introducing to them, among a selection of other emerging sites, this new thing called ‘YouTube’ (which I’d only come across two or three weeks before). A couple of years down the track and Malcolm Garrett, Martin Freeth, Terry Braun, Martyn Ware, a few other stalwarts and I are still fighting that particular battle.

Meanwhile, back in old media Hammersmith I walked past a cinematic Hammersmith Odeon shiny in the night rain, down past the painter Frank Brangwyn’s walled house, to the Riverside.

And there I watched a barnstorming performance by Adrian Dunbar as the Irish playwright Brendan Behan. A charismatic, cathartic, compelling performance.

The play was written by Behan’s own niece – Janet, daughter of writer and playwright Brian Behan. I saw her straight after curtain-down in the foyer and I’ve never seen anyone so charged. It had taken her six years to get this very well written, tight, witty script staged. What a kick to see it realised with such skill and energy to climax in a standing ovation. What a kick to hear your audience join in the singing – “Fair fucks to yer!” responded Brendan (whether that was in the script or not – no idea).

In the bar after, the superbly talented, modest and warm Brid Brennan, who played Behan’s missus, told me and the Missus that, from her experience, the kind of reaction the performance prompted from the audience that night was something very special. My Missus reckoned the turning-point was the scene where a drunken Behan crashes on stage at a performance of his play ‘The Hostage’ on Broadway – in his naturally ebullient way, he breaks into song (Adie has a wonderful classic Irish tenor voice) and the Riverside audience joined in becoming the Broadway crowd.

Equally stunned on emerging was Anna Nygh, Adie’s wife, also an actor. She’d heard him rehearsing the lines around the house (a helluva lot of lines as he drives the two hours of dialogue) but had no notion quite how much he was inhabiting the character – or vice versa… She summed it up by confirming ‘It’s taken his acting up a level’.

The action is centred on Behan’s room in the legendary Chelsea Hotel on West 23rd in New York. He’s struggling to write a book about New York of which he’s already drunk the advance. It’s not only his publisher he’s let down but also his mistress and baby son. And his wife Beatrice is just about to show up from Dublin. With a tape recorder on his desk and a pint of whiskey under his mattress, he reflects on the journey that brought him from inner city Dublin to the weird&wonderful diversity of the streets of New York, through which the paparazzi pursue him. One of the highpoints of the play is a Berkoff-like set piece when Behan enacts the moment a journalist lured him out of sobriety by sending a free drink over to him at a bar, three fellow under-cover hacks watching from the shadows.

The show is punctuated with cracking lines. Like the one about the definition of an Irish homosexual – a man who prefers a woman to a drink.

When Adie emerged from the dressing room afterwards, I had to congratulate him for making such a good fat man. He’s so slight in real life but with just a bit of a belly added beneath his shirt he played Behan’s drinker’s bulkiness with such conviction you saw it in his restricted diabetic movements and bloated lumbering.

What ‘Brendan at the Chelsea’ showed above all was the paradox of a man who clearly loved life and spent every day trying to kill himself. He expressed a great fear of just being an ordinary human Behan which was why he disappeared to New York in the first place – he loved being immersed among the extraordinary flotsam of a big city.

The play is on until 3rd February – do yourself a favour

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