In Moscow, the Play's the Thing
Elsom, John, The World and I
Two productions demonstrate vying extremes in theater: an understated but devastatingly truthful portrayal that resonates higher meanings, and an "in-yer-face" paean to chaos.
The much missed British music-hall comic of my childhood, Sid Field, had a catchphrase. Having driven Jerry Desmond, his straight man, to rage and fury, he would turn to the audience in bewilderment and say, "What a performance!" (meaning, "What planet does he come from?"). He could imply that he was in the presence of an imbecile or a serial killer and that we should all watch our backs or our wallets. Since Desmond played golf instructors, bank managers, and other figures of authority, Field had a bad effect on all our teenage attitudes.
"What a performance!" we said when the teacher made us do our homework again or when our parents saw our end-of-term report card. "What a performance!" we thought when the vicar warned us against the sins of the flesh. When we grew up and became theater critics (as so many of us did), we were ruthless with ham actors or those who seemed over the top. "What a performance!" we said to ourselves at Lawrence Olivier's James Tyrone (in Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey Into Night), Donald Sinden's King Lear, and Janet Suzman's Hedda Gabler. Great acting? (yes!); great plays? (of course!); powerful emotions? (naturally!). But over the top? Well, perhaps. British critics of my generation always preferred to underpraise with conviction rather than overpraise with enthusiasm. We took moderation to extremes.
This situation changed when the empire struck back and London's newspapers were bought by Canadian, Australian, and American press magnates. They demanded sexy copy, even from middle-aged, middle-class, and much-middled-around-the-middle British critics. Overnight, sober colleagues who would no more beat their wives than use a superlative were declaring that so-and-so deserved an Oscar, or that someone else should stick to porn movies, or that we had all been privileged to witness the greatest act of creation since Adam and Eve.
It was a shock to the system. The age of understatement was over. The late John Gielgud, an actor of the old school, despised awards and used his Oscar (for his role in the moderate screen comedy Arthur) as a doorstop. After his death, a new-wave BBC arts correspondent referred to it as his "most precious possession." She could not imagine that an actor might not prize an Oscar beyond everything else, not even an actor as distinguished as Gielgud, who was also a fastidious art collector. Show-biz hype had conquered all.
The theater billboards around London were filled with hyperboles--"the greatest since ...," "the finest ever ...," "the world's top ..."--and so on, duly credited with bylines and publication titles. When this first happened to me, I felt ashamed and wanted to go around apologizing, until a friend actually congratulated me for praising a show that I didn't like and having my name on a wall in Piccadilly as a reward. Then, for some strange reason, I felt proud of myself. Well, perhaps the show wasn't so bad after all.
A fellow critic fared worse, temporarily. We had seen a dreadful musical, clearly destined to pay a quick visit to the slaughterhouse where real turkeys go at all times of the year. But his name appeared on its posters with a quotation: "The best British musical since..." and the rest of the sentence was conveniently obscured. "How could you do it?" we asked him. "How could you possibly write those words?" "I was being ironic," he replied, "I wrote that this was 'the best British musical since last week.' It was only Tuesday!"
As it happened, this musical did better than expected. In fact, it became a minor hit. It caught the fancy of Japanese tourists who knew no English and those who wished the British theater industry a fate worse than death: survival as a curiosity. …