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

Mar. 12th: Spoke to Linda Barrett in New York. Told me that the Smithsonian has, after much politicking and negotiation, managed to rehouse the N.Y. American Indian collection which I visited three times (up in ‘offputting’ Harlem where it was not much seen) I’d just noticed that on an updated brochure offered to me in one of the museums, here. Linda indicated that she gloried in the Smithsonian and has worked in the Nat. Hist. (presumably in N.Y.) as a volunteer.

Then called Leo Rost collect, as requested, about the `Dorian Gray’ play he’d posted to me. He’s been advised to write either about Jews or gays, because they represent the only sure fire audience. Tells me his Jewish play didn’t work (I’m pretty sure I’ve read it) so here’s his one about gays. Only notable thing about it is that, with all it’s ineptness, there is an emotional line which is genuine, running through it and it tries, doggedly, to be happy at the end with all kinds of inconsequential and stock crime and sleaze boiled up along the way; as well as long passages of Rostian sub Wilde chat. (He made one up on the ‘phone: I spoke of tainted money and he was straight in with,`Right; ’tain’t the government’s money and ’tain’t mine’.)

Mar. 13th: Mostly a catching up day. Once more passed the black man who lives in a bus shelter on the Mall, on my way to the Capitol for 9a.m. Between one free tour and another caught most of what was being pointed to. A much grander building, of course, than the White House. See a couple of explanatory brochures which, between then, outline most of what was explained by guides; namely the Rotunda, symbolic focus of National Government, where presidents and worthies lie in state; which has a copy of Magna Carta recently given by Britain, large narrative paintings and there’s a story of the frieze fresco painter who fell off his chair and how the work was finished last panels, only recently (1962, I think), of modern events going as far as the Wright Bros.’ flight; also Statuary Hall, the old House debating chamber, where is the supposed site of John Quincy Adams’ desk from which he is supposed to have been able to hear every whispered confidence of the opposite side of the house, because of an architectural quirk (akin to the Whispering Gallery’s, I suppose) and which Adams exploited, according to legend, by pretending to be asleep. Effect still works; we tried it.

Group allowed into the Senate in session. Almost empty; one woman, in red; following the end of a drone by a Republican, hair splitting about some tax clause, a Democrat rose to speak about the Republican push for a moratorium on the Endangered Species Act. Interestingly, started his oration with a list of religious individuals and groups who support environmental protection; bishops and so on. Then went on to invoke the usual wildlife and ecological bodies in their advocacy almost certainly not the order in which a similar line would have been pursued in London; seems to confirm the reality of the persisting clout that God has here is it for the media; how much goes to the guts of opposing Senators? On to the National Gallery East Wing for a better look at Boilly. The Dutch genre influence very clear (Boilly was a collector). Survived the ancièn regime, the Revolution, Napoleon and after, changing his content but not his style; which is highly finished, humorous, narrative.

Return to the Air and Space Museum. Enola Gay, after its mission, was dumped on first one airfield then Andrews’ Base. There, it was slowly colonised by birds and small animals, mice and so on, which made their nests inside or in whatever crack they could find. Belatedly, the Smithsonian rescued it. There is film of the still living crew, speaking now and at the time, when young; pilot, navigator, gunner, bombardier… none has regrets; some are more thoughtful than others `war is the most terrible thing; any means to stop it, valid’. Glanced at the `Golden Age’ section. Time of the aviator stars competing for trophies in their amazing, latest, constanly bettered, crack machines; the Schneider is the only one I know, but there were lots of others; including U.S. ones of course. Finally, found a moon buggy (seeing the moon tools reminds me of Robert Bernal’s comment at the time, `ooh look, a spade…’)

Then to the Hirshhorn, which has very good small, and the odd large King and Queen Henry Moores. To Nat. Hist. Mus., for a better look at the Japanese landscape/seasons kimonos, which Linda mentioned, wishing she could have seen them; walked through the marine ecology exhibit which seems as rigorous as the rest of their displays and on, especially, to one of the Native American corridors. Set out very clearly, with not too much printed information and carefully chosen, clearly labelled and sited objects and models. Looked at the Yaghans of Terra del Fuego (small cape, the men had, not quite naked) the Hopi and so on. All these buildings are on the Mall, but the Museum of American Art, my last stop, is up 9th St. and on G. Noticeably exceptional painter from New York was John Sloan, shown among the `ashcan’ group. There were a couple of good Hoppers, some O.K. Homers, not bad landscapes including a large, dreamy Albert Bierstadt and some moving George Catlins… Indian men and women playing the ball game lacrosse, it must be, surely. He had a long life, was a lawyer, first and struggling portrait painter; became a showman in the middle of it, based on his Indian collection and drawings and paintings, but that sort of thing became unfashionable; had borrowed cash to fund his trips and was now in trouble; then twenty more years of travelling and painting in to his 70s, till 1872. Bit of so so folk art.

Mar. 14th: Rode the tube for first time. Arrived early near the Capitol; went into the Folger Shakespeare Library. Grabbed at once by a very helpful, volunteer, lady ‘docent’ who gave me a quick history (some of the R.S.C. had been in yesterday by arrangement); invited to see some kids performing in 200 seat mock-up of an Elizabethan theatre upstairs (snuck into the gallery). Interesting reading of `I had a Richard,’ etc., from one of the `Henry VI’s, done comically by a black girl (schoolchildren are called students, here). Wonder if she’d been directed, or thought it up herself but it reminded me of the point Patrick Tucker made, talking of the supposed rehearsal practice in W.S.’s day when they learned part scripts and only met for performance. His group demonstrated some unexpected comic effects in, for instance, the battlement scene at the start of ‘Hamlet’.

The story is that Folger, at Amherst, heard a lecture and recital by Ralph Waldo Emerson on Shakespeare and got hooked. F. influenced Rockefeller and was employed by him at Standard Oil. Worked his way up and became president of the company. Became known in Britain as an avid collector; his visits anticipated and material got ready for him. His wife supported him. They put up this building pleasant, ’30s in style to fit in with its surroundings, but cod Tudor inside, with a great banqueting hall. Very good bas reliefs of scenes from key S. plays low on exterior wall (designed to go high, but someone pointed out that children would not be able to see properly). Folgers had no children, so it’s all run by trusts and funders. Saw a quarto on display and glanced at other Renaissance material in cases as I walked though the great hall, the table set for the visiting kids to lunch. Apparently available to children in the whole of the U.S. to perform, so long as they can raise money to come. Folger said to have 79 Folios. (Apparently the couple toyed with setting it all up in Stratford but, as they were both Americans, chose the latter solution.)

Returned to Capitol for 11a.m. Charles Evans, our company manager, feeling ignorant about U.S. politics had arranged for someone from Sen. Edward Kennedy’s office to talk to us. Shown to the Senator’s office one of 32 in the old style still left in the original Senate building (R. side of dome, facing the Mall) and available to senior senators. Poky, vaulted, painted green, but splendid view of the Mall through two quite small windows; an original fire place used, firstly, to burn documents during war of 1812 (the burning was in 1814) as the British approached but, also, supposedly where the fire which burned the Capitol was started and where a torch was then lit to be taken to burn the White House (as with the latter, the shell of the Capitol is all that was, allegedly, left standing). This is a story Sen. Kennedy likes to tell, according to Nick, one of the two people who greeted and spoke to us. (Littlefield, his surname is, as I later discovered from Megan; a lawyer who has worked for Kennedy for six years, but started as an actor and has played Freddie Eynsford Hill in `My Fair Lady’!). The other person who answered our questions was, I think Kathy Kruise (seemed to have been involved with Hilary Clinton and the attempt to modernise the health care system). There were about ten of us, mainly cast but some some crew. It was slightly disorganised but in the end fruitful. Especially to get an, admittedly, Democratic partisan view of the Republicans’ approach and attitudes to issues .

For example, the Rs. thought the government shut down they forced would be cheered by the nation for getting government off people’s backs but it was a complete miscalculation; people missed not being able to visit the Grand Canyon, nor getting their welfare cheques. Another instance was the way they attacked all arts funding by focusing on one controversial photographer, of whom I’d heard, Robert Mapplethorpe; apparently shoots flowers but also homosexual genitalia with spectacular explicitness and emphasis; there was a disagreement between Kathy and Nick as to whether or not he was a good photographer! Nick supported him (why?). Republicans, as described, work on one issue at a time using one popular symbol; the controversial artist, the scrounging single parent. Now, N. told us, Clinton has learnt to use same trick. He offers the `V.’ chip (I think it stands for voluntary) forcing the TV networks to enable parents to censor their programmes, and the public, supposedly, says `Ooh… that will solve the problem of crime and violence’. This, rather than paying for more or better policing and appropriate social programmes.

Similarly, putting kids in school uniform will, in the public’s mind, solve the education problem, rather than having more teachers, better paid. Right at the beginning N. had spoken of the corrupting influence of big money, in terms of getting elected this was in the context of the current R. primaries and race for nomination to presidential candidate; but he modified that, later, said it was possible for a poor person, working tirelessly, over many years to achieve the presidency (he said it took ten million dollars to reach the Senate; I’d noted in San. F. that there were forty five candidates running for president).

Clinton has no money, we were told; does not own a car, or a house. I asked why so few of the public voted – about 30%. I know registration has been a problem; it’s much more difficult in the U.S. to get on the voters’ roll, something apparently favoured by the Republicans because the poor and inept are less likely to vote for them; but Kathy Kruise also pointed out that the Senate is composed almost entirely of old, white males a third of whom are millionaires; thus, only a minority of people feel represented. It’s changing slowly as more women enter the house.Then, taken by Nick on a tour of some rooms and sites within the building, mainly on the Senate side and most of which I’d seen yesterday, but his comments were illuminating. Not open to the general public is the lobby where pressure groups (mainly lawyers) crowd when there’s a big issue and persuade Senators, who stick their heads out from a room off the lobby. Hence the term, `lobbying’. Again in the old Supreme Court, and there N. told us two key judgements were made. One was not to make slavery illegal, which he says sparked off the Civil War.

As the Court, strictly within the terms of the old Constitution, could not deny the ownership of slaves, the parties felt they had to fight to decide the issue. I think an amendment was then made; only eleven such have ever been agreed by an extremely laborious and complex process. (The other, earlier, crucial judgement he mentioned I can’t remember.) N. regards Jefferson and Lincoln as the two most important figures in Americsan history. Within the Italian (Uffizi like) renaissance style wall decoration in the Old Senate building, new roundels have been painted in showing a Shuttle crew and the Apollo 11 moon landing. Finished in the Rotunda.

On mentioning that I had to scoot up East Capitol St. to a luncheon appointment, Nick asked who I knew there. Turns out Duncan Spencer is a friend of his, and his wife Megan also. Asked how I knew them and I explained about Tamsin Waley Cohen and Lucy. He said ‘small world’ and sent his love to Megan. Whom I then went on to visit at number 643. Her surname is Rosenfeld. She is the second wife of Duncan Spencer who is brother of José Waley Cohen (second wife, I learned, of Stephen Waley Cohen). Lunch in her very English house (in a, now, keenly conserved, still remaining `Victorian’ district of low rise housing on Capitol Hill) and an excellent chat.

Duncan still away delivering, from what I remember she told me on the ‘phone, a boat to Puerto Rico; though he is getting paid, it is also a great pleasure of his; rowing, something of a passion and generally a wet bob. Megan firmly says she is not joining him at the Boat Race this year. I said I had nothing to do with fun on water and wouldn’t say a thing about the subject. She has two kids, of eight and either ten or twelve who play very well with Tamsin and Freya. Also, was shown three sculptures by José; that’s what she did before marrying. Two were full size nudes, male and female; the latter after Degas, the former has a sailor’s peaked cap on his head; Megan does not know the models’ identity. She is a journalist (once a theatre reviewer but asked to be taken off that because of the poor quality of shows available to be seen in W.) on the Washington Post. Just completing a major piece, in the `Style’ section, on heresy. Apparently derives from Bishop Jack Spong’s (of Delaware, she tells me) persuading a fellow Bishop in, I think, New York, to ordain a homosexual.

I took the opportunity of raising the question of the religious ‘right’ once a specialism of hers. Thinking it out as she spoke she said just an intuitive opinion, based on some experience that supporters of the religious right come from people to whom something bad has happened or who are not doing as well as they would wish; in business, within a family, or in marriage who have suffered a trauma of some kind. People who grab on to a simple explanation of their difficulty, who think their previously bad way of life is the cause of their misery and who might, therefore, latch on to leadership offering an uncomplicated solution.

Nobody, so far, in the U.S. wants to refer the virulent, religious fundamentalism, with its support of private gun carrying, rabid attack on abortion, hatred of `big government’, anti-environmentalism, wish not to pay taxes, opposition to welfare, love of punishment and imprisonment and savaging of single motherhood back to the Pilgrim Fathers and puritanism; similarly with Megan, as a first reaction, but then she wondered. I wondered if there is some north / south split. That hadn’t occurred to her but she seemed to think it possible and pointed out the readiness of religious right folk to spill their guts about their problems in private and in public and live with the Bible, Christ and God on their lips, while in the north people believe it decent and proper to keep their religion and Christ out of the conversation. Clearly the outbreaks, at their most virulent, go in cycles but, I said, the inclination must surely always be there. Megan gave me a lift to G St. and I walked from there to the flat.

Mar. 15th: Went to the Zoo on Connecticut Avenue for eight o’clock, when the grounds open. Landscaped by the same architect who planned Central Park in N.Y. Good; part of the Smithsonian and conscious again of its trying to tell the balanced truth. For example on the gibbon information placard, describing social behaviour, was written that both male and female gibbons share care of their young as some humans do. Also, mentioned that only 3 per cent of mammals mate for life: namely bats, wolves, shrews and gibbons. The clearly new Amazonia rain forest exhibit made me think, as at the Shedd aquarium in Chicago, of a trapped, isolated bit of nature in wholly alien surroundings. Suppose we would be living in something like this if we colonised Mars. (Note the experimental bubble featured in New Scientist I think in Arizona.) Caught a rather distant and famous Giant Panda at feeding time. Overheard that the female has recently died and that the zoo is negotiating a replacement with China. Elaborate cheetah programme, which I visited when I first arrived, with videos, written information, a children’s tracking trail and the animals themselves in quite a lot of land, as were most of the creatures. The cheetahs are, apparently, made to run by dragging meat, or something like that, on a line so as to keep them in trim, as well as display them. Saw a white tiger.

There is an overhead brachiating track for the Orangs, leading over other pens to some learning centre. The carrying pylons have an electrified barrier to stop the animals descending in undesired places. Very strong emphasis on education, characteristic of the Smithsonian and, as always, free. Last free morning. Adrian at last night’s show and so a call to notes at the Eisenhower this afternoon. Response from the audience continues very muted. Megan says this is not a theatre town. (My dresser Tom Thomas A. Stanhope worked thirty years for the C.I.A. as well as in the theatre, in various capacities, but not as an actor; a tall, patrician gentleman; if he’s a typical Washingtonian, then I’m not really surprised the audience is muted.)

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

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