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

April 4th: Last night Linda came to the show, with two – they’re not quite friends, I think, the wife is someone she works with all the time à propos of her mother’s will, and she likes to keep in with the couple; they’re in banking, I have the impression. Linda seemed truly to enjoy the performance and thought her associates did too; certainly the woman. From L. I gathered that the N.Y. Times had thought the production lacked emotion. Linda `got it’ – the show, I mean – and may have been helped by her comparative English-ness.

April 5th: Among the stuff L. left at the Ex. Plaza for me was a full page ad. for us quoting reviews; seem plenty of good lines available to the publicity dept.

We have hired a half-size violin for Lucy and we did the third morning’s practice before they went off for a last look at F.A.O. Schwarz prior to Amber’s 18-40ish flight back to her family, departing J.F.K.

April 6th: Anna and Lucy (who was somewhat distressed by the departure of her friend) went off to see a relative and her husband in New Jersey. I know her as Nini (it’s believed I’ve met her) and I’m aware of correspondence being exchanged, and gifts, centring on Mrs. Jackson, Anna and Lucy; she’ s eighty something.

Have meant before this to note Dan Shore’s name; regularly is heard on Public Radio International; was an investigative reporter and now does mostly analysis, contributing short, pithy pieces on current topics and also adding a balancing view in talk shows; the kind of sane, clear-sighted and thinking American commentator, of the same mould as Arthur Miller.

April 8th: Lucy slept late, still recovering from the whirl of Amber’s visit but, in the end, we hired a car and drove out of New York, northwards. First time I’ve had an impression of what lies beyond the city. Went to Sunnyside, the farmhouse that Washington Irving adapted and extended when he became established and in which he lived with his extended family till his death in 1859 at seventy-six. Modest and poky, though comfortable; a story book house, superficially Dutch in style. Had heard of him and was aware that he is quoted but didn’t realise, as the costumed young female guide explained, that he was the first American writer to attain a large international reputation. Impressed Walter Scott who introduced him (and thereby other American writers) to his publisher, George Putnam. Was of English-Scottish parentage and spent seventeen years in Europe as diplomat and traveller. Not many years after he inhabited this house the ‘robber barons’ forced a railway track, on filled river, along the Hudson over which his terrace had a grand view to the West. He negotiated his own stop, however. His death, apparently, was an international event. This, again, an example of a contrast between the well-off who flaunt their riches and those who do not. Irving arranged hot and cold running water for their use in the `Spanish’ servants’ extension.

Drove on to High Tor park and walked in rocky woods in the late sunshine (the unpromising forecast had contributed to our hesitation in coming out at all). Distant views of the Hudson; a sense of its ancient beauty, but scarred with cold stores and a few other hideous industrial plants which could easily, and should, be removed. On the way back drove West of the river and passed through woodland in much of which were set houses, of various styles but predominantly clap-board faced, some with columns, many with a porch, a few brick; their lights were glimmering in the twilight, there was an acre or two between them, usually, and they clearly were inhabited by the rich. If you aren’t afflicted by loneliness it seems the perfect place to live; a very grand cottage in the wood. Entering New York via the George Washington Bridge in the darkness saw one of the most celebrated sights on this planet; south Manhattan lit up. Both sides of the river were magical, often, and reminded me of my first entry from the East in the eighties when David Black actually hired a limo to bring me into the city for the first time.

April 9th: 4p.m. we attended, at the Palace Theatre where ‘Beauty And The Beast’ is playing, the second performance of the Easter Bonnet show which has become an annual event over the past four years, here, to raise money to fight A.I.D.S. (B.C.E.F.A. is the banner or, Broadway Cares, Equity Fights AIDS.) Our company took part with a parody of McKellen’s ‘Richard III’ written by John Kane. A good show, most of it of course stemming from the almost exclusively dancing and singing character of Broadway. I most relished a rather brilliant solo dance by a man, ‘Tatiana Youbetchabootskaya’ (real name, Bart de Block) doing a ballerina’s sequence of steps. Also, from an off-Broadway comedy, centred on Einstein and Picasso, came a quote of Einstein characterising man as continuous with all of the universe, yet believing himself, and feeling that he is, separate – a delusion, as A. E. describes it; this ties up thoroughly with a book by Guy Claxton, which I’m just finishing, called ‘Noises From The Darkroom’, about the illusion that one is one’s conscious self and that the self runs everything; a denial of the importance, the pervasiveness and even the roles of the unconscious mind. All the sketches led to the introduction of an Easter bonnet; ours being, of course, a pink umbrella worn by Desmond Barrit!

For some reason all the glory seemed to go to ‘Victor/Victoria’ – its cast and crew raised the most money – and focused on Julie Andrews and her return to Broadway. Elizabeth McCann was one of the five or six judges of the competition and, so far as I can discover, the result was not rigged (as I hear on public radio, the Oscar awards are). Lots of sentimentality, especially from the two female vocalists at the end (one a black girl who, according to Linda, has more than once come back from the pit). I have very limited sympathy for the cause, as has Anna, since the wounds are now largely self-inflicted by a particular male section of the community and there are broader problems which could benefit from some cash. A final sum was displayed on cards, by dancers, indicating more than a million.

April 10th: Some of us answered questions, between the shows, posed by an adult study group; at the end their leader, somewhat ostentatiously, reminded them that the moment had come to contribute to B.C.E.F.A. – what an imposition, inflicted I believe as part of the basis on which we would speak to them!

April 11th: After music practice, we all joined Linda at the Metropolitan Museum, just after twelve, and spent most time in the special Chinese exhibition of palace art from Taipeh. Yet another case of treasures moved several times in the thirties and after from mainland China due to warfare, and finishing in Taiwan. High quality objects from ancient times through most periods signalling the superiority and lofty excellence of the Imperial system; especially paintings (Emperor portrait propaganda) and calligraphy. Snatched a look at some Van Goghs and Monets, Rembrandts, a couple of Vermeers and a few Fabergé eggs for Lucy’s sake before closing time.

April 12th: To the United Nations, after practice, on 42nd St. and the East River. We went on a useful tour taken by an Italian girl. Saw three of the four debating chambers, including the Security Council, and the guide made us well aware of the fundamental purpose of the organisation which is to prevent war; also, our attention drawn to the change to civil, regional and internal conflicts and how awkward these are to arbitrate and police; she illustrated the horror of the global land-mine problem, a three dollar weapon. Difficulty of having no sanction to force nations to keep up their contributions (the target is two thousand five hundred million dollars) and told that if they pay nothing, countries are excluded from the general debate. Good point made that the media tell us all about every minute war and its nastinesses but hardly comment on the vast bulk of steady peaceful activity the U.N. undertakes. Lucy bought a couple of cards and posted them from here – it’s international ground – to the tabby cats; also purchased an `endangered species’ first day cover. She was interested to see if there was a children’s rights booklet in the shop, following a conversation we’d had this morning on the way to the French Conservatoire. (Only stuff available a bit global and heavy!) Pleasant views from inside the building, including of a large, gleaming, reclining figure by Moore on the lawn.

Then, a return to the Nat. Hist. Mus. where Linda got us in free to the last Planetarium show of the day; pretty good, about the amazing cosmos; it’s objects, it’s creative processes, the big bang and the elements. Commentary got in a trenchant stab at the looming over-population problem forecasting that in 2,600 it will not be possible for people to lie down, yet not suggesting the easy palliative that humans will, or can, colonise other worlds – a favourite nonsense peddled by some here, who should know better. Left them at 5-15p.m., or so, en route to a show. At the moment `Dream’ seems to be packing the house.

April 14th: After the matinée caught an 8-10p.m. Amtrak train from Penn Station to New London, Connecticut, where I was met by Linda in a jeep, at about 10-50p.m., and we drove to her beach house at a place called Lord’s Point, near the town of Mystic. Anna and Lucy had travelled on Saturday evening and had spent to-day at a local aquarium watching an impressive dolphin and beluga display, as I heard later. Linda’s house is on stilts and, when the weather is exceptional, the sea actually washes underneath. Even at night the sense of comparative isolation and closeness to the water is full of charm. The house is wood and chests and rugs, with small partitioned rooms here and there, a wood burning stove and a loft, with a steep ladder stair up, where Linda sleeps. Supper and chat, then moved Lucy to her own room and shared with Anna.

April 15th: View from the house windows onto the bay and distant Fisher’s Island (with its dim, posh mansions) is familiar and re-assuring as if an instinct is saying that this is an apt place for a human to stop and live. Lucy showed me a full-grown horseshoe crab which they’d found, washed ashore. Linda has a small version on a glass side table, a pale bone colour with a slight sheen. Late start but then drove first through posh Stonington, a mainly clapboard gem with individual houses named after their sea-captain or shipwright builders or inhabitants (akin to Key West, though that’s larger and grander) and then to Mystic old, one-time, whaling port. A large, handsome, grey-haired man, whom we afterwards learned was called Don – who had the largest beer gut I have ever seen; it was on the way to being a deformity – drew our attention with a shanty to a demonstration of whale boat hunting, performed by a man and a woman (Sally). Thereafter, we followed an account of life aboard a whaling mother ship, watched sail-furling and a little sail handling, in which Lucy participated briefly and listened to a few more shanties. The whole town has been turned into a museum, but non-profit-making I seemed to gather, with clapboard houses open displaying printing, medicines, chapel – all the usual 19th C. activities and services; there is a scrimshaw and boat model museum, a rope-maker’s shed, a sail-maker’s, chandlers’ and so forth. Bought some, purportedly, fresh-caught sole for supper which we ate back at the house after a short drive and walk in the brilliant, late sun on a wetland in process of being reclaimed and improved. Saw a great egret, fishing. In the night the weather altered startlingly and there was a wonderful storm, wind howling and the waves threshing just outside; it’s a shallow shore and so the water is not threatening.

April 16th: Driven by Linda to New Haven where we caught a ‘commuter’ train back to New York Grand Central for about 1-40p.m. On the journey Linda quoted from the N.Y. Times that the famous lost treasure from ancient Troy was on show in Moscow. It had disappeared during, or just before, world war two and many surmised that thieves had melted down the gold. Schliemann, the discoverer, had once dressed his beautiful, young (I think Greek) wife in what he called Helen of Troy’s finery and this celebrated photograph of her was one of the few memorials remaining. It seems that the Soviet authorities stole the treasure when their armies over-ran Berlin and though a curator discovered the truth in the 70s, he was sworn to secrecy. Now, at last, the Russians have come clean and there are, apparently immense queues to view the loot. Germany has immediately put in a claim for re-possession and waspish exchanges seem inevitable between the two nations.

April 17th: Anna and Lucy were off, after a last practice, for a quick visit to Wall Street and the stock exchange; moderate tears from L. as we parted. They are flying to London at about eight to-night. Piers Ibbotson called notes at the theatre for 12-15p.m. and, very soon after, the notice that Elizabeth McCann is not extending our run was posted on the board; clarifies our plans and what a relief. Found a charming note from Lucy, left between the shows, asking to send her love to Alex and Desmond and sketching three pussies; also a diagram of herself in tears, crossed out.

April 18th: On my way back from paying Mr. Schmitt of the French Conservatoire for the use of his rehearsal studios at Carnegie Hall, I saw a man with a very large boxer style dog slip a neatly folded newspaper, clearly carried for the purpose, under his beast as it squatted to crap on the sidewalk! Returned Lucy’s hired violin to `Strings and Other Things’ opposite the Lincoln Centre and then went down to Chemical Bank in mid-town Broadway to cash three per diem cheques. Ellie McNulty returned my call. Vacuumed; a quiet day.

April 19th: Leo Rost rang at about 3-30p.m. Visit from Ellie McNulty. She was hired to play one of the pupils at the school featured in `Bonjour La Classe’ in which I played `Gilbert Herring’, the music master. She appeared back stage at one of the `Dream’ previews and said `hullo’ and introduced herself in passing as I edged towards the street door. Only to-day did I comprehend that she had come round to see me. She was here to-day as a result of writing me a letter. Apparently stage struck from the age of fourteen (as a result of seeing some `Shrew’, though put off by school Shakespeare), then went to the Slade, but didn’t finish because she was spending too much time hanging around films and plays. Nearly opened in a production due to tour, rehearsing in San Francisco, but failed to fall in with some deal to get round the labour laws via a trip to Mexico and is now an art student in New York, on a scholarship. However, yearning to act. Does stand-up comedy at various venues. Intelligent, talkative girl of paternally Irish descent; keen to suss how to get into R.S.C.

Reading about Ellis Island in the dressing room, note that Bartholdi was horrified when it was mooted than an immigration reception centre be located on Bedloes’, now Liberty, Island. Described it as a ‘monstrous plan’ and a ‘desecration’!!

April 22nd: Arrive at the Emp. State for 9-30 a.m.; alone in the lift, using up the ticket purchased when A. L & A. were here. Clear day, good views. At a closing down (supposedly) computer shop (I am still enquiring about printers) spotted what I think was an American tabby, sitting calmly at the entrance, with the world walking round it; the first free-walking cat I’ve seen in this town. Looked in on the monumental murals at the Rockefeller Centre and strolled by the fountains and the skaters, still going in April sunshine. Anna, on ‘phone, says Mrs. Péchon? (Lucy’s science teacher) delighted – and horrified – at the horseshoe crab L. took in; full of crawling things and salmonella; advises burying it for a year till it is eaten clean.

At 7.p.m. attended a tribute to Douglas Fairbanks Jr. in the Terrace Room at the Plaza Hotel – a red, white, gold, pillared and chandeliered old palace – on south Central Park and Fifth Ave. I had not realised that F. is a governor of the Friends of the R.S.C. The event began with an hour of cocktails and chat before we made our way to the dining room. To our surprise, those company members present were all put together on table 15. For once, an opportunity to mingle and influence was not taken. The meal (good enough, with a notable chocolaty pudding) over, Christopher Plummer took charge as M.C. Davis Gaines, of `Phantom of the Opera’, started off in a piercing, vibrato tenor on Cole Porter and hammed through ‘Where Is The Life…?’ from ‘Kiss Me Kate’; the lyrics rescued him. But, then, things got better. I had never registered that D.F. had tried really hard to have a serious War, making Captain in the Navy.

The best contribution came from a one-time critic on the ‘New Yorker’ Brendan Gill. He spoke very affectionately in an easy, witty way, quoting Mark Twain and how his Hertford, Connecticut, straight self ‘fell in love with the man’. Some of F.’s close, old friends were touching in their simplicity. Ruth Warrick, who played opposite him in ‘The Corsican Brothers’ and looking remarkably good, said how the two were the only survivors from the movie and how she had tested F. on the officer’s manual during shooting. Arthur Schlesinger, speaking without rising from his place and described as an historian, spoke of F.’s public service amongst other things. The only tiresome contribution came, disappointingly, from the British Consul-General, Sir Alastair Hunter, a co-host. What a sad contrast with the brilliance of Sir John Kerr in Washington. Sir A. merely strung together far too many, only partly apt, Shakespearean quotes often slightly re-written – ‘… his infinite variety’ for example; all rather like a sentence made up of instructions from a form (it was a device I once used to make something of a list of unparliamentary quotes for ‘TWTWTW’). Makes me doubt that Sir A. can be worth his money; wonder if I should write to John Major? He was just saved from total awfulness by messages he had to deliver from the Prince and H.M. At the last D.F. (an honorary knight, amongst lots of other things) spoke himself; said he would not do an ‘aw shucks’ response to all the fulsome tributing; was not entirely sure he deserved it all, but found it pleasant. Very sharp, unaffected and amused and amusing.

The American connection with the Stratford Memorial Theatre clearly long-standing; an example is the re-building after the 1926 fire. D.F. also has a link with the new Globe venture (about which I continue to hear unsettling reports, as to its currently poor acoustics and unfortunate sight-lines; lately from Desmond who has done a work-shop there). At the end, a gentleman asked if I were Derek Jacobi, seemingly prompted by his wife. Slight, though perfectly polite and charming, awkwardness getting out of that. Having surveyed the assembly throughout, this incident re-inforced my feeling that perhaps the gathering was of the truly, high-powered rich. They were almost all old and very old, lacking the beautiful women in tow I had seen on other occasions, were sitting next to a Schlesinger and so forth, anyway – Katherine Hepburn was there somewhere – so that it would only have pleased them to be sitting next to Sir Derek or Sir Ian and not ‘Robin Starveling’. Hence, perhaps, our not being interleaved with them; also most, I think, this time, had not seen the show.

Strolling back to the flat, after, passed several boutiques full of curious, decorative objects; vast bronze eagles and art deco-ish sexy statuettes, Lalique glass, some good Netsuke carvings and in the last shop, closing down, some poor, sexy N. figurines; a mix of quality and prices but giving a sense of rich persons’ junk. Three whores on a street corner, chatting amicably, graded to taste; a thirties, long-gowned yellow-ish one, quite staid, a standard black and a third more obvious high-shouldered, short-skirted girl – they went well with the open, over-stuffed shops. Passed a night-spot or restaurant with a greenish death’s head and circling clock-work figures – do I remember it from my last visit?

April 23rd: Tried ringing Leo Rost this morning; his friend Mel Levy tells me he’s left town with a troublesome eye which needs a cataract operation. Appears to be superstitiously happy about the casting and early progress of his latest play (which I presume he’s paying to have put on somewhere off-off). Wonder if I shall see, or even hear of, him again.

After the show Allied-Domecq threw a buffet supper up in the revolving room with the View on the forty-ninth floor of the Marriott Hotel, opposite our theatre. One ubiquitous Chicago-based ‘friend’ there – the one that gave us the first guided tour from the airport bus – with her friend David someone (whom I spoke to at cocktails last night and is a one-time curator at the V & A and collector of fine art and now general art consultant; we exchanged impressions of the P. of the Legion of H. and I sold him the Burrell Collection, which he has not visited). He was on the stair back-stage – with Chicago friend and, at the Marriott, indicated that he’d enjoyed ‘Dream’ (me, at any rate, because I didn’t get to talk to him again, properly). I was introduced to the person responsible for the A-Domecq/RSC connection, retired chairman Peter Jackerman (that’s how the name sounds) and his wife. Bouncy, pleasant couple. He spoke, briefly, and Desmond replied. Penny Downie there, as it turned out taking over in Peter Hall’s production of ‘An Ideal Husband’ at the Barrymore with nine days’ rehearsal and only for six weeks; heard that Nick Dear recently got some B.A.F.T.A. award and is full of work, so she is returning to London fast to look after the kids.

April 24th: Went to the Shubert Theatre (via the Booth stage door) to leave Mike Ockrent (he is about to open a musical there called ‘Big’) a note explaining that I could not get to last Monday’s performance. The stage-door keeper suggested I hang on and it ended with Mike’s emerging himself. Warm greetings; seemed to think he had invited those he knew from ‘Dream’ to Sam’s to-night, on 45th St. At his instance went round to the Barrymore stage door to leave Penny Downie a note with an invitation from Mike. However, when I got to our theatre, neither John Kane (whom Mike had remembered as Peter Crane) nor Emily Raymond had received any kind of invitation. It all turned out unexpectedly well; I turned up at Sam’s, John was already there with some guests; I sat at Mike’s table, he appeared, Penny also, John joined us after the departure of guests and only Emily couldn’t be there. Mike has had enormous troubles with ‘Big’, re-writing constantly ever since they got a critical thumb’s down in December in Detroit. Show is better now, he says, but not entirely secure. Penny and the American replacements are being rehearsed by Gillian Diamond; Peter Hall will only get his hands on it for a few hours, due to his usual frenetic busi-ness. (Came up that Nick got his award for ‘Persuasion’.) Joined by Mike’s new wife Susan Stroman. Mike’s slant on the Broadway scene is that everyone tries to open about now to get ‘Tony’ nominations; also that there is again one critic, Vincent Cambi who, if he cannot quite break, can make a show; just because he writes for the N.Y. Times – the other papers being ‘shit’. I wonder.

April 25th: Barbara Rosenblatt came for tea. Is doing a lot of voice work, especially dialects and coaching, over here; has lived in N.Y. since 1987 (born in London, but left when two).

Linda came round after the show, having seen ‘Big’. We went to Sam’s. Tells me the show has virtues but possibly lacks the scène obligatoire. Susan Stroman is a choreographer and has done very good things in ‘B.’, but they go on too long; case of spouse not having nerve, or judgement, to cut? L. confirms possibility of the Cambi/Times clout. Pleasant; Linda relaxed and smily; struck me again what an awful shame and waste that she should have staggered on a virgin (as I suspect she still is) all this time.

April 26th: Booked a flight to join up with Anna and Lucy for Yellowstone at ‘Time to Travel, (Anil Patel and girl called `Jeremy’), based in Iroquois Hotel on W. 44 – recommended by Linda. Bought replacement sneakers, supposedly designed by Paolo Gucci. At 5-30p.m. Mia Albright called at the flat. Her card describes her as poet, philosopher (only here could that be). She’d asked, at the last ‘American Friends’ after show chat, about submitting writing to the English scene. I’d told her to leave any script with me; which she did, within hours, at the stage door; a piece in film format set against the Am. Civil War. Very spare and effective, subtle writing. Some minor flaws which I broached. Good discussion; when she used the word ‘hypocrisy’ I said how that word summed up – unexpectedly, I was not prepared – my chief impression from working in the 80s in New York – my first time in America. Left a second script.

After first four weeks of ‘Dream’ through which we had splendid responses, there was a noticeable mixing of audience reactions for one week and now, from the fifth week we are getting, I am sure, largely innocent houses. However, compared with the deadness of Washington there seems to be a subtly difference sense of open-ness out there with an impression of growing grasp and comprehension as they make something of the material and, in the last hour, get it all and give us a terrific send-off; a sense that they have done appropriate work, it has been rewarding and are, partly, congratulating themselves on having scaled a height. Lindsay Duncan’s phrasing is, now, often first-rate but she still undermines herself by being partly inaudible and under-cutting for effect – a habit. Sometimes, especially at matinées, she is very good; fast, varied and full of energy.

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

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