Americans on the British Stage

By Hornby, Richard | The Hudson Review, Spring 2007 | Go to article overview

Americans on the British Stage

Hornby, Richard, The Hudson Review

THE BRITISH LOVE AMERICAN DRAMA. You are more likely to see revivals of our classic playwrights-O'Neill, Williams, Miller-on the London stage or at one of their major regional theatres than in New York or at one of our own regionale. There is little interest in Arthur Miller at American universities, but there is an Arthur Miller Centre for American Studies at the University of East Anglia, headed by the leading Miller scholar Christopher Bigsby. Miller himself had his late plays premiere in London, not New York. The best American play of the late twentieth century, Tony Kushner's Angels in America, also opened in London well before it hit New York. American playwright Richard Nelson, little known in his native land, has had half a dozen plays premiere with the Royal Shakespeare Company; his Two Shakespearean Actors, which is ironically about a major event in American theatre history, the Astor Place riot of 1849, opened at the RSC in 1990.

American actors are less welcome in Britain than our playwrights. Part of the problem involves British Equity, the actors' union, which, like all labor organizations, does not like its members to have to compete with foreigners. Our own Actors' Equity has retaliated by blocking British actors from performing on the American stage without a reciprocal agreement-one American there for each Brit here. Since British actors are much more likely to have training and experience in stage acting than our own, this can lead to embarrassing results. In 2005, for example, Brooke Shields, VaI Kilmer, Rob Lowe, and David Schwimmer-American film or television actors with minimal training or experience onstage-all performed in London to cool reviews even though they were appearing in American plays. The aversion of the British theatre to American actors results from the Americans' lack of stage know-how.

Nevertheless, there are exceptions. Two recent London productions are reminders that we do still have great stage actors in this country. Kevin Spacey as Jim Tyrone in Eugene O'Neill's A Moon for the Misbegotten and Frank Langella as Richard Nixon(!) in Peter Morgan's new play Frost/Nixon gave performances that are among the best I have ever seen in London or anywhere else.

Kevin Spacey first went to London in 1998 to play Hickey, the lead role in O'Neill's The Iceman Cometh, at the prestigious Off-West-End Almeida Theatre. The story goes that when director Howard Davies called to ask him to be in the play, Spacey agreed, then asked which role Davies wanted him for! The story is typical of the actor, who, despite a Tony Award and two Oscars, is a down-to-earth individual totally lacking any prima-donna airs. The show was a huge success, moving to the Old Vic and then to Broadway, winning the actor London's Evening Standard and Olivier Awards for Best Actor, plus a Tony Award nomination in New York. (Unfortunately, I missed the show, which was the toughest ticket of the season on both sides of the Atlantic.)

Spacey was so popular in London that in 2004, wonder of wonders, he became Artistic Director of the Old Vic Theatre. This venerable edifice in a drab area south of the Thames, far from the regular theatre district, goes back to 1818; it showed cheap melodramas, then became a temperance music hall (only tea and coffee served in the bars, which most managers would have seen as financial suicide), then under Lilian Baylis from 1912 through 1937 provided Shakespeare at cheap prices for the masses with some of London's best actors. The theatre was hit by a Luftwaffe bomb in 1941 but reconstructed it housed the important Old Vic Theatre School, then went back to performing Shakespeare, then in 1963 became the first home of the National Theatre Company, under Laurence Olivier. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, American managers like Augustin Daly and Charles Frohman ran theatres in London, but they were commercial operators noted for their business acumen; they also had a thorough knowledge of the London theatre from having sent New York shows there.

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