The Royal Shakespeare Company’s U.S. Tour – Robert’s Diary Chapter Four

Feb. 11th: Champagne and cakes offered to the company by the English Speaking Union, front of house, at the Shubert after the 2p.m. show. Lively conversation, mainly about the character of audiences, especially the midwestern, in which I have found a warmth but also a reserve. After the 7p.m. perf. more champagne and cakes f.o.h. this time offered by the Stratford Theatre, Ontario and also the local Shakespeare Repertory who are playing `Twelfth Night’ (directed by Michael Pennington). The latter group asked us to Dublin’s on N. State and Maple for after show drinks and food. Met and talked to some nice people, including the `Sebastian’ and `Viola’ who really do look very much alike.

Later spoke to a, slightly older, married couple; Mary ‘Scott’ (originally German father’s name) and Brooks Derra. Came, at last, to the vexed question as to why electric kettles cannot be bought in the U.S. first hit me when Anna and I were in New York and we tried to replace the lethal Hayman Chaffey kettle and could only find a slightly less deadly whistling hob kettle tea is available everywhere. I’m still sure someone will push it into this market one day and clean up. Locally, many actors strive hard not to join Equity, even to the point of working under several names, so as not to cease to qualify for much of the work available in this area; there are supposed to be a hundred and twenty two small theatres working in Chicago.

Feb. 12th: Visited the Shedd aquarium. Well set out and the oceanarium pretty spectacular with baluga whales, dolphins, harbour seals and sea otters; thought of Lucy as I watched the latter swim on their backs as she would have loved them. The display with the dolphins was surprisingly restrained; just showing the leaps and upright swimming on their tails, and so on, that is part of their normal behaviour no racing about for flung fish or jumping through hoops. The commentary emphasised that this is the basis of their `training’ and the whole complex was trying quite hard to convey an ecologically sound message; though there is still an odd feeling of an infinitesimally small selection of wild things trapped in a bottle. Much of the display in the oceanarium is about temperate rain forest.

The Field Museum, to which I went after, is disappointing. A very strong impression that they have priceless objects jade, oriental stuff, acres and acres of Pacific and Native American, and fairly desperately jam some items together, here and there, linked with an implausible theme. Very much a glass case museum, still, especially the vast bag of stuffed creatures which most modern museums have largely chucked out. One of the better co-ordinated sections is the Egyptian one! In fact, the place clearly can’t decide what it should be. The plant division is probably very useful if you’re focusing on a particular thing, though there’s no sense of anything leading to anything; an ambient impression that everything has to justify itself in terms of human use and industry. Perhaps it should be turned into an ethnic or anthropological centre at the moment it’s a mess.

Feb. 13th: Dropped in at a small museum/entertainment centre at 605 N. Clark St. calling itself `Capone’s Chicago’. Mainly a half hour `animatronic’ drama between Capone and `Carry A. Nation’ (the temperance campaigner still don’t know if she made that name up who was married twice and whose first husband was a drunk) and other key figures, carried out inside what seems to be three or four gutted houses. The bones of the story; prohibition in 1920, when Capone arrived in C. Taking over from Torrio till 1931 when Frank Wilson, a treasury cop, got him for tax evasion. Alcatraz, and then Capone died on his Florida estate of syphilis! Interesting, the sentimental valediction of the changed, rebuilt and revived Chicago at the end but fun. Sense in both S.F. and here that citizens love, or want to love, where they live. Not strongly felt sentiment in Britain. Bought copies of original newspapers (but best one, blown up in the small, but pleasant enough museum display, not available). Reference, here, to the Thompson sub machine gun which was avidly taken up in gang land the Chicago typewriter. It was made by Colt, for a differently named New York ordnance company; reflected on how many done in just by one arms maker. Advertised for use in protecting ranches (vivid illustration of home steader shooting down whole gang of raiders from his porch), banks, homes. In the shop, an encyclopaedia of gangland for sale. Also bought a `skyline of C.’ which grows when immersed in water we shall see. Outside of buildings painted with false window scenes and shop fronts. Learned (from the doorman at the Club) that Capone’s C. is thought to be cheap and inferior (seem to be comparing it with Disney incidentally, he and ten others went to `The Dream’, Saturday, I think seemed to like it).

Walked back on Michigan Avenue, part of the Magnificent Mile; fine views. Wanted to check on a building I have seen from a distance and turned out to be 35, East Wacker Drive; I’m certain it was the inspiration for all those Soviet Russian State Palaces which look like nasty, over elaborate wedding cakes. It, itself, a slightly better decorated version than its imitations, I think.

(My dresser’s Jerry’s father apparently ran errands for the prostitutes in Capone’s south city fief when he was a lad. They were reliable payers and, at that time, were also health inspected.)

Feb. 15th: Walked up Michigan Avenue to Lincoln Park (about an hour) to the Zoo. Because there is no, or so little, central funding each separate animal building is the result of some private benefaction. I have noticed this everywhere the Field Museum, for example. As a result, the facility does not fit in with any over all educational, or artistic, or ideological scheme so the effect is of a confused mish mash. By far the best complex at the Zoo seemed to be the bird house. However, it claims to be a world centre for rescue captive breeding, especially of gorillas. The whole is free and, possibly because of that, has an air of half hearted commitment and sad near neglect. A particularly striking instance of what I’ve seen elsewhere, here, when there is only inadequate funding. Full funding is, of course, rampantly on show in the bank and commercial buildings and shops.

Nevertheless, there was a persistent, slightly querulous message displayed everywhere about the horrific impact of humans on the rest of nature. A ‘docent’ or volunteer sat in the monkey house with a range of primate skulls in front of him going from monkey through human to gorilla. Very patiently replied to one fifteen year old or so youth that `no, they weren’t dinosaur skulls, but the skulls of creatures related to ourselves,’ and explained why they were shaped and sized differently, etc. etc. Nearby was an exhibit of an ‘old time’ heavy barred cage, explaining how the keeping of captive animals had altered. Yet, overall there is still an atmosphere of forlorn entrapment. Of course, it’s mid-winter, and several houses were closed for refurbishment or reconstruction. The light fall of snow helped the melancholy. Did see a very long legged, S. American maned wolf and on the way out some, seemingly, jolly sealions (one huge) and harbour seals. Walked back. The shops O.K., but the best section is, really, from the old water tower to a little south of the Art Institute. As everywhere, no hesitation in using favourite motifs from elsewhere; mainly gothic, romanesque/Norman and neoclassical in every combination, with the occasional renaissance palace and even tudor/late mediaeval cloister. (Out from 8.45a.m. to 1.30p.m.)

Feb. 16th: Morning, went to observation platform of the Sears Tower. Amazingly flat part of the globe; perhaps hence the urge to give the landscape features, with the high rising buildings; otherwise, vast areas of typically American low rise which, from this aeroplane height, looks like the squalid planetary skin disease I became aware of flying south to film in Switzerland in the seventies. There is a series of permanently running commentary loops, one of which pointed out a triangular sectioned building as `the most human penitentiary in Illinois,’ noting the five inch wide windows from which the inmates could view the surrounding architecture, and the exercise yard on the roof (with its invisible netting to prevent helicopter rescues). The prison turned out to be just a few hundred yards from the Union League Club and a very classy building, its windows carefully placed for aesthetic effect. Later, at a 12.15p.m. Consular reception and lunch, the view from Mr. and Mrs. Robert Chase’s sixty first story apartment windows much more dramatic than from Sears, just because one is in closer touch with other buildings. Confirmed from Jack Thornberg (the national president of the Eng. Speaking Union’s husband she’s Maria, or Doe, Th.) that the lake is indeed transformed in the summer when boats sail it.

Feb. 17th: Last look at the Art Institute; some lovely American painting, mainly landscape, as well as furniture in the basement.

Feb. 18th: Morning walk, first to the ‘correction center’ which is round the corner in Clark St. and is, in fact, prism shaped and has a formal, tree planted garden within the cut off triangular bit of its section; then by the lake shore in the cold sunshine. Saw a number of large birds standing out on the gently heaving ice, some of which looked like geese (Canada?). Then, later, watched a scattered group of some kind of duck; I could hear them whistling, rather than quacking, actually swimming and diving on an ice free part of the lake. They seemed to be headed somewhere because they either flew off (in disgust?) or vanished in the brilliant, reflected light on the rippling water.

3p.m., last performance of ‘Dream’ in Chicago (Lindsay Duncan deigning to play ‘T.’ (while Emily Button off to London to support, briefly, her French Algerian false papered failed traveller fiancé, Stefan)!! After the show joined John Kane to visit the Victory Gardens Theatre on Nth. Lincoln Ave. to see ‘Unmerciful God Fortune’ by Edwin Sanchez. Shouldn’t have worked because one of its chief female characters could see events in people’s lives when she held their hands. Nevertheless the device, used emblematically, poetically to imply an extreme empathetic gift as if speaking for the all seeing author, oddly, worked. Set in the Puerto Rican immigrant community, the play was about death and coping with it (and a questioning of the validity of remaining alive at all under some circumstances, so about euthanasia, too). At times very well acted, the writing spare and moving.

The building houses four theatres, two of two hundred seats and two of sixty, or so. Shown one of the latter. Sometimes they hire out, and in the case of the Sanchez it is a coproduction. John has gathered from the artistic director that he is looking for plays they specialise in new writing. Sanchez, apparently, is usually jollier than this hence the comparatively low attendance. As soon as we walked into the auditorium (just in time) there was a sense of a local audience; quite different from what we’re used to. Funding seems to be a constant struggle; there is an amazing list of contributors, in the programme.

As to funding John grabbed a taxi to go on to a party I caught the ‘El’ from Fullerton St. and, in being assisted to be on the right platform, got chatting to a young woman who has done two years as a medical student (originally she’s from Peru, Ill.!) and, because of the intense competition, is going sideways into a Master’s course in hospital administration. Apparently, to fund themselves, students can either get a part-time course with a built-in job or, more usually, take out loans. Some employers pay for tuition but, it seems, graduates can be landed for up to twenty years repaying a hundred and fifty dollars, or so, a month (or could it be a week?). Again, a clear sense from her that the difference between a Bachelor’s degree and a Master’s she sees as $30,000 per annum, or so, and $50,000; as a giver of a lifestyle. Especially after the incident at the Zoo confirms my sense that the upper level of living standard is open to a thin, privileged slice at the top of this, local, society. (Telephoned Branwen told her it seemed quite clear to me, viewed from Sears T., what should be done with Ch.; people ought to be helped into clustered, good quality high rise accommodation, and the sprawl judiciously bulldozed and returned to a natural or semi-natural state).

Feb. 19th: As we were driven to O’Hare airport had a sharp sense of wasted, once industrial land, planted with freeways and tracts of poor quality, low rise housing some of the dwellings seemed tiny. (O’H. supposed to be the busiest airport in the world but, from the Sears Tower I couldn’t see a single plane taking off or landing, nor one anywhere in the sky!).

Looked like farm land on the way to Washington and then, coming to earth, saw a carefully organised landscape with many trees, the roads winding, not regimented highly populated but if humans must colonise everywhere a much more attractive kind of land use than Ch. Same with Washington itself; low rise, not outstanding architecturally, but human scale. Wa. sent up in Chicago by the theatre going tour guide (Mary Bagliera?, now I come to think of it, according to her badge) as ‘not really a city’ people just work there, or visit.

On the bus drive from Washington National airport (lots of reconstruction going on, but landscaped) going down Pennsylvania Avenue, saw a cop running towards us, then several racing, flashing police cars and in his L. driving mirror our smart, grey uniformed, black driver (I seem to know that 80% of Washington is black) said he could see the cops going for someone who was attempting to steal a truck and, yes, he was down, they were on him, they’d got him. Other members of the company, at the back, apparently saw something of the incident, too. (Desmond then spoke of a murdered cab driver in Ch. and I recalled intermittent tales, right from our stop in S.F., of horrible happenings; no idea how they ranked in the statistics or how the two cities rate, criminally and violently, these days in comparison with N.Y.) Driver (incidentally have noticed drivers universally run their engines, however long the wait, before moving) somewhat haphazardly, but happily, got us to our ‘digs’ which are as good as in S.F. away from the dress code, the lack of light, the inclusive take out and the constantly misreporting ‘phone message taker.)

We are a stone’s throw from the Watergate Hotel (which has a SAFEWAY in the basement, amongst other useful shops). Georgetown is seven minutes’ walk away, it’s high street rather like an English country town’s (looks most attractive at night). We’ve brought the thaw, and rain; just traces of snow. Public service radio, again, not as good as in S.F. but, instead of playing jazz and blues music for long periods as in Chicago, here there is a classy selection of the classics, with only brief spasms of news on the one minute past the hour. Proper information progs. seem to stagger on about 4p.m. Chicago was more expensive than S.F. and Wa. is even more so.

Waiting for a Chinese meal ‘to go’ except, here, they seem to say ‘take out’ I watched three middle aged gentlemen seat themselves (this was at the Hunan Garden in Georgetown) and the man facing me began to talk about a colleague working with guppies who was having problems with his filters; which he’d, apparently, devised himself. I couldn’t hear all the talk but, since I am just finishing `The Beak of the Finch’ in which there features a researcher on the evolution of guppies, I wondered if I’d serendipitously fallen over a connection since this a heavily academic town, amongst other things. (Lots more beggars and dossers again all black, and male perhaps because it’s warm.)

Read Chapter Five of Robert’s RSC US Tour diary. 

Further chapters of Robert’s US Tour will be published on this site – please sign up to receive regular updates by visiting the Contact/ Subscribe area of this website.