Magazine article The Spectator

Transatlantic Traffic

Magazine article The Spectator

Transatlantic Traffic

Article excerpt

Paul Ibell on the theatrical links between America and Britain

There has been a lot of discussion recently, prompted by the start of President Obama's second term, about the 'Special Relationship' between the United Kingdom and the United States. What seems to have been overlooked in the analysis of politics, economics and diplomatic relations is that the strongest and most culturally important link between the two countries is their shared passion for theatre.

For all the razzle-dazzle of Broadway, the London of Elizabeth II remains, as it has since the rule of Elizabeth I, the world capital of the stage. Transferring from London to New York is a huge buzz for British actors, but it is a chance to sample the delights of Manhattan rather than a cultural pilgrimage. For an American, by contrast, appearing in the West End is a badge of honour, recognition as a serious actor in the city that gave birth to English-speaking theatre and is still seen as its spiritual home.

Far from being some sort of cultural cringe, this is just one element in a transatlantic theatrical traffic - a mark of mutual respect and shared heritage. A striking symbol of this is Shakespeare's Globe, on Bankside.

Unmistakeably English, lovingly recreated and looking as though a time machine has just dropped it beside the Thames, it exists only thanks to the determination of Sam Wanamaker, an American actor and director with a profound love of Shakespeare's plays.

Two 20th-century playwrights, the very American Tennessee Williams and the quintessentially English Noel Coward (who died 30 and 40 years ago respectively, on 25 February 1983 and 26 March 1973), serve as good examples of the transatlantic theatre traffic that continues to benefit the cultural and commercial lives of London and New York.

Tennessee Williams is widely considered to be America's greatest playwright. He achieved international fame with a string of dramas in the 1940s and 1950s, among them Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Sweet Bird of Youth and A Streetcar Named Desire. As a writer he was strongly influenced by European culture, from the architecture of the French Quarter in New Orleans, where he lived as a penniless young writer (and set A Streetcar Named Desire), to the sexual availability of impoverished young men in an immediately post-war Italy.

It was a relationship with one such youth that inspired his 1950 novella The Roman Spring of Mrs Stone. This was filmed in 1961 with the title role played by Vivien Leigh.

She was a brilliant interpreter of Williams's roles: partly because she was one of the leading actresses of her generation, but largely because her combination of beauty and mental instability made her ideal casting for the doomed heroines, their minds almost as damaged as their looks, that Williams specialised in.

The most memorable of these was Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire. Playing the role on stage in London, where she was directed by her husband, Sir Laurence Olivier, and subsequently in the 1951 film version with a stunningly sexual young Marlon Brando, Leigh's stage role and private life dangerously overlapped. She won an Oscar but, as she was later to say, 'playing Blanche tipped me into madness'.

Blanche represented the Old South, a genteel way of life that was finally dying out. This was another recurrent theme in Williams's work, harking back to a past so very different from the modern, mechanised world, yet only just out of reach - its fragrance still hanging on the air. …

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