Saturday, September 12, 2015

Noel Coward's Hay Fever

Noel Coward's 1925 play, Hay Fever, which he purportedly wrote in three days, drew us to the Olney Theater today to see it performed by a sterling cast and a fine production. It's early Coward (he was all of 25 or 26 when it opened) and is a country-house comedy where the residents are a "bohemian" family led by a not-quite-retired leading lady of the stage.  They are all prone to be "rude" in the English sense, which means that guests visit for a weekend at their peril.

My first reaction was that there weren't enough good lines exemplary of the wit that Coward infused into such perennials as Private Lives, or in my view, even better, was Design for Living, based on a vision Coward may have once had of living together with the Lunts--Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne--the doyens of the American theater in the 1920s and 30s. There were dead moments when pairs of characters exited the stage and it took a while for the next scene and its characters to get going.

Apparently, in his early days, Coward was delighted by his trips to New York and spent time at a country house inhabited by the leading actress Laurette Taylor and her playwright husband, who were the models for this cast.  Too few recall that Taylor, in her waning days on stage, produced a masterful characterization as the original mother, Amanda Wingfield, in Tennessee Williams's The Glass Menagerie, when that classic premiered in 1945. 

Taylor's story is worth recalling because it was one for the books. She apparently overcame what had been years of alcoholism to record what was her greatest theatrical triumph. In Hay Fever, however, we see an eccentric actress trying to dominate her family and everyone else, producing nothing but conflict and distress for family and visitors.

Coward's being gay was never disclosed during his lifetime and his supreme archness and charm became legendary. The man was unstoppable from childhood in his love for performing (his autobiography was entitled A Talent to Amuse) which he carried on by putting on cabaret shows in which he sang his own classic songs in his late years. He staged patriotic morale-boosting shows in London in World War II and deserves to be remembered as an ornament of the theater.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

The Great Bert Williams

Two nights ago at the Museum of American History, part of the Smithsonian, we saw a screening of a silent film from 1913 called Lime Kiln Field Day, starring Bert Williams.  Doesn't ring a bell? I'm not surprised, because Bert Williams may be one of the greatest figures of American show business, but sadly, we have few chances to see what all the shouting was about.

He was a black comedian who starred in The Ziegfeld Follies, wrote and performed many highly popular songs, and has been lauded as the greatest performer ever in vaudeville. I've heard him sing one of his most famous songs, Nobody, transferred at the National Portrait Gallery from cylinder recordings. He worked in blackface, which was virtually mandated for black comics around the turn of the century, right at the time--not right after the Civil War which we would otherwise assume until C. Vann Woodward exposed the real history--when Jim Crow reigned supreme in American race matters.

Lime Kiln Field Day was intended to run for about 35 minutes as a feature film produced at the Biograph Studios in the Bronx, where many famous silent pictures, such as Mack Sennett's comedies, were shot.  The Biograph vaults turned up the old film a few years ago and talented professionals at New York's Museum of Modern Art restored them and figured out who the players were, often relying on sheet music covers.

Bert Williams stars, and shows all his talents, many very subtle, in the film. He was a master of facial expressions, slowly reacting to action with a look perfectly responding to the cue. We have to figure out exactly what he and the other actors are saying and doing because this film was never edited for distribution, when titles would likely have been inserted. The ease with which you can figure the story out attests to the truth of that great line Gloria Swanson as Norma Desmond uttered in Billy Wilder's marvelous tribute to the silents, Sunset Boulevard: "We had faces!"

The other actors, especially the female lead, Odessa Warren Gray, who later opened up a successful fashion and millinery store in Harlem, and Henry Troy, who plays Bert's rival for her hand, demonstrate their own excellence, too. The whole picture is highly sophisticated for its time, much more interested in characters than the great Mack Sennett comedies, but in many ways, reminiscent of the silent star who was most similar to Bert Williams in talent: Charlie Chaplin.

The tragedy of this picture's not being released was apparently caused by the release shortly after it was shot of Birth of a Nation, the D. W. Griffith epic that enshrined the Ku Klux Klan as heroic, and helped shaped American culture toward favoring the South as the Lost Cause, perpetuated, of course, in 1938, by the novel and movie, Gone With the Wind. We are finally beginning to rid ourselves of the accepted Southern version of the Civil War and Reconstruction, with the demise of the stars and bars and the recognition that the Civil War was indeed all about slavery. The reappearance of this silent movie should awaken us to the existence of the very strong theatrical tradition in the U.S. carried on by black performers and theatrical producers during those trying times.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

The Jesuits' Rabbi

When I moved to DC in 1979--after a few months living here in 1974-75--friends mentioned that a good option for High Holiday services was available at Georgetown University, where the school's Jewish chaplain, Rabbi Harold White, conducted services in Gaston Hall for large congregations that included both university students and broader community attendants.

We often attended back then, and it quickly became clear to me that Rabbi White was the rare clergyman whose sermons invariably left you with a lot to think about. I thought about this again when I read his obituary--he died Monday at 83--which recalled that he was Georgetown's first Jewish chaplain. The Washington Post obit noted that when he asked the Jesuits who hired him why they needed a Jewish chaplain as there were not many Jewish students on campus, they told him he was there for Christians as well. Georgetown, despite its Jesuit identity, wanted its students exposed to the several religions for which the university had established chaplaincies.I also heard that Rabbi White had been brought to Georgetown because the Jesuits wanted to have someone learned in theology with whom they could discuss the many topics that crossed religious boundaries. 

Aside from conducting good services with superb sermons, Rabbi White apparently also was a rare clergyman, especially when he started out, who looked at the positive side of interfaith marriages. He would perform them, observing that he found this offered a better likelihood that a Jewish partner would continue to identify with the faith. Having had the opportunity to hear many rabbis over the years, he stood out as the best rabbi in the pulpit I recall.

As in many universities, the combined holiday services used the longtime Conservative prayer book, edited by Rabbi Robert Gordis. In the never-united Jewish spectrum, this was the closest thing to a common denominator: too long for Reform, abbreviated in the Orthodox view. I always felt it provided the perfect basis for a brilliant rabbi, like Rabbi White, to use in relating his sermon to the service. Few of our newer prayer books--be they Conservative or Reform--possess the staying power of this well-edited and balanced one.

Rabbi White made you think. He did not preach about upholding rules or present tired arguments--I recall one rabbi who had but two sermons, on Israel and intermarriage: he was for one and against the other. That was just what Rabbi White wasn't. He had an unusual gift for taking everyday ethical challenges and forcing you to confront them with wisdom and imagination. For that ability alone, which he applied so well and for so long for so many, he will be remembered.