Magazine article The Spectator

Star Gazing

Magazine article The Spectator

Star Gazing

Article excerpt

Of all forms of modern theatre, one of the hardest to get right is the show about a great dead star; as it is also the only form of theatre of which I have any direct experience as a writer, you will perhaps forgive a few thoughts about the genre, prompted as they are by Tallulah, a generally very successful attempt to get us back to back to Bankhead at the Minerva in Chichester.

First off, we need to decide what we are actually supposed to be seeing: a vague impression of the original, or a lookalike impersonation? Second, are we witnessing a dramatised biography, or a critical hatchet job, or some kind of mindless concert celebration? These, maddeningly, often seem to work best at the box-office, or how else to explain the everlasting success of shows like Buddy or Elvis?

One considerable expert in a relatively new field is the dramatist Pam Gems, who when she does a real-life Piaf or (currently) Marlene deliberately abdicates her second act to a song-by-song concert, knowing that her audience here, unlike those she has for her 'real' plays, have come for the songs as well as the story. Then again there's the current Broadway triumph of Barrymore, a solo show about the only great classical actor of the Broadway Thirties, now being played by the only great classical star of the Broadway Nineties, Christopher Plummer.

Yet another category of the stage biography can be found in Master Class, which in form and content has a great deal more to do with the writer and the star playing the lead than with the reality of Maria Callas whom it was officially about. In short, then, here be dragons: not only for all the above varieties of experience, but also because of the audience. Who are we meant to be? Neutral observers of a life taken at the hilt but under floodlights now long extinguished? Judge and jury as to whether or not the subject really deserves this kind of posthumous attention? Adoring fans finally allowed to explore the star's home and its contents, albeit only in reconstruction, as if we were on a kind of package tour of whoever was the owner of our selected Graceland?

Sandra Ryan Hayward's Tallulah confronts most of these queries head on; her chosen star was one of those curious theatrical anomalies vastly more interesting offstage than on; since she died a drugged and alcoholic eccentric in 1968 at the age of 66, there have been no fewer than seven biographies of Tallulah Bankhead, which must suggest that Hayward is not alone in her fascination. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.