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

Mar. 4th: Vivienne telephoned; her birthday but the news about her headache still not hopeful; one more person to see.

7.30p.m. formal dinner given at the British Embassy by Sir John and Lady Elizabeth Kerr for the company and Sir Geoffrey Cass. Striking how much grander and more elegant the Embassy is than the White House. Brilliant bit of fake Shakespearean rhymed verse devised and read by Sir John including the names of distinguished guests, to greet them. Perhaps he’s worth taxpayers’ money?? George Perry, Secretary for something or other present; also Wilkie the president of the Kennedy Center and, according to the guest list, Stella Rimington. Another gathering of distinguished members of the thin, élite crust; the better than average looking show of fine women of all ages, as before.

Desmond Barritt, Monica Dolan and Daniel Evans responded with a twenty minute recital of material telling how it is to be an actor. Then, Sir Geoffrey made his obligatory, tubthumping speech. Apparently everyone has been coaxing him to make it shorter at least we were sitting, this time. I think he must have taken the point. Somewhat dry, but more terse and, in terms of trying to tell strangers what the R.S.C. does and hopes to do, very much to the point.

Many embassy staff present, interleaving the local worthies. Sat next, and spoke mainly, to Mrs. Glynn Jones wife of someone in Chancery division (contracts and commerce?); pleasant enough, chatty body but surprisingly uninformed; a housewife and mother according to herself, hoping her husband wouldn’t go into politics, but sticking by him through t. and t. Said she liked the `Rockettes’ at Radio City Music Hall in New York we decided they must have changed since I saw them (she hasn’t seen the `Dream’). Mr. Gore, P.R./Arts endowment, etc. for B.P. also adjacent; a slight person? Though I might be mistaken.

Mar. 5th: Morning to the Phillips Collection which lived up to its reputation. The boating party Renoir stunning, especially the bravura treatment of the glassware (sure I’ve seen it ‘on tour’ somewhere) and a splendid Matisse don’t mind Diebenkorn.

Lindsay Duncan has now been playing ‘Titania’ without a break since I last wrote of it and, although still inclined to dullness and quietness, especially in the crucial first meeting scene, is not now punching a destructive hole in the play as she used to do.

After the performance invited by Philip Bermingham, an English photographer, first encountered at the Embassy buffet lunch seemingly touting for work (now resident here and with a good looking, new, young american lady I inferred), to his flat in the Watergate for drinks. Supposedly had organised a party for the show, including members of the `Mars Bar’ family, with a view to assisting the raising of funds for the R.S.C. (One of the quietest audience responses so far, yet the guests said they enjoyed it hint given of the sheer incomprehension out there; people who not only don’t know W.S., but don’t go to theatre). Serious conversation with a lady who works for the Washington Post Company (also a family concern, but whether the same family…?) and her friend Micky, first about their despair over the politically driven movement against funding for the arts (only an aging senator still fighting a rear guard in support) and then about the religious ‘right’ in this country and creationism; expressed total bafflement as to its origin and source of vigour, but clearly equated it with support for guncarrying and other current horrors, like killing doctors who carry out abortions; seemed to think a complete polarisation will be necessary before sides are taken strongly enough to make `society’ decide what it wants. Didn’t accept my musing that the hatreds inherent in such prejudicial ideology might have come over with the Pilgrim Fathers.

Mar. 6th: From near 10a.m. took in three galleries. The N. Air and Space Museum very fine; good introductory tour, free, by a lady volunteer. Liked to throw out `tester’ questions; the birthday party in 1976… what happened 200 years before that? Perhaps her manner daunted people from answering or perhaps they didn’t know. I sensed a keen wish to teach, with an implication of the potentially profound, habitual, lack of knowledge of her auditors, so there was a pushiness mixed with a slightly condescending tone and, overall haste.

Essentially she was very sweet, very well trained (and constantly updating); an enthusiast. She was rewarded by one youth, knowledgable in technical matters. Wright Bros. original plane, `The Flyer’ and `Spirit of St. Louis’ on view; also a `Dakota’ from the designer Douglas (rival to Boeing; commerce wanted an inexpensive alternative and commissioned D., who later joined with McDonnell; from thence the DC lineage) which took me back to my first flight to Ireland to tour with the Old Vic. The guide said how lucky we were not to have to stand in line even for ‘Enola Gay’ which, in the season, is jammed!

Pursuing what I now see is the Smithsonian’s policy to be up to date (they note when their exhibit has lagged behind current research, as in the Nat. Hist. on the human derivation section where they apologise for still knocking Neanderthals) and try to tell the truth, I came across a good example with Richthofen; the Red Baron, hugely hyped the farther one gets from the time he flew; even when he was flying Germany used the, semi-fictional, legend to boost its war effort. Reminded me of the dogged addiction of folk to the Mons angel. Also, in the `Where next, Columbus?’ exploration section, the list of motives which prompted humans to go from home included enrichment, domination, conquest as well as curiosity, trade, adventure seeking, etc. etc.

Passing through the Hirshhorn Sculpture Garden; pleasant enough, visited the Freer and Sackler art musems. Full of fine things, including some central Asian horse furniture, etc. which I’ve always liked and Sassanid Hellenic and Roman and Indian influenced silver ware very bouncy, like the post Roman near Eastern and, I think, Egyptian ware in the Brit. Mus. Also strong on the Far Eastern, old and new. Special exhibit on the Chinese northern border, Wall area and its nomadic tribes

Mar. 7th: Corcoran Gallery a.m. good in parts, bit more of a rag bag (private museum based on a somewhat odd and eclectic collection Salon Doré, American art, the odd, good Gainsborough as well as some French Impressionists and moderns); then, for 1p.m., to Ford’s Theatre on 10th St., where Lincoln was assassinated to see… But, first, visited the museum in the basement where a small, but vivid, display tells the facts. A National Parks Officer began to recount the story of the assassination to an open mouthed audience, mainly of kids sitting on the floor, seeming to aim to finish just as the final call comes to seat ourselves upstairs. Full of embellishments, larded with semi-rhetorical questions and slim jokes, all for drama. Heard most of it before going up to find my seat. Desmond and I together, more or less below the fatal box, which is now draped with commemorative flags and a photo of Washington! Separate chairs, spindle backed, gilded with small red cushions. As Americans will, the husband of the couple in front of us turned and (overhearing me explaining to Desmond) informed us that Lincoln was shot from right there on stage, in front of us, the gun aimed up at him in his box. This is the tale I had always, vaguely, been told, reiterated recently.

Because the curtain was due to rise I interrupted fairly brusquely and said `no’. In fact, Lincoln was shot at close range in the back of the head from inside his box. The assassin, actor John Wilkes Booth, a confirmed supporter of the Confederacy had been plotting, with others, for months to stop Lincoln; at one time by kidnapping him. As the plotters saw the South losing they became desperate and the plan to kill L. was thought up. Wilkes knew the theatre and staff. He also knew the play. He made his way along a passage, through a private door into L.’s box. He waited for a big laugh in the show (`Our American Cousin’) which came at about ten o’clock; there was only one actor on stage and Booth fired. He had a piece of wood to block the box door shut, which they show in the museum. Bits of skull went everywhere; Lincoln was brain dead. The military fiancé of Mrs. Lincoln’s young guest intervened, was severely wounded in the arm by Wilkes with a knife. Wilkes then leapt from the box, a good distance (but he was known for his athleticism as an actor) and caught his spur in a flag or drape. (A putative flag is show downstairs.) He landed awkwardly on stage, broke his leg, nevertheless managed to find his way out through a gap in the scenery, to a horse waiting, ready, in an alley and made his escape.

But not for long; they got him and did him in (I think) and several conspirators were jailed, too. Lincoln was taken into the street till a bed was found for him in a lodging house, opposite (which I visited after), where he died some hours later. Again, fascinating the perpetuation of a false story; another, sharp, reminder of the Mons angel myth (which was deliberately started by two journalists still now, or until very recently, alive, and on tape in a brilliant extended interview within a documentary done by B.B.C. radio they cooked it up in a quiet moment of the Great War; 1915, I think?). Is it that people prefer the nonsense, or simply that the first, emphatic, wrong teller is repeated and no one ever bothers to check as I’ve found in my own case, when journalists look up past newspaper quotes and almost never go to source. In the case of the angel it was that human, seemingly recurring, need for miracles.

Meanwhile, what did we think of the play? Unfortunately, it fitted a comment which people like to make, which is that: ‘They don’t do plays like this any more.’ This was an example showing that oh yes they do. A barely believably turgid piece of rubbish called `The Magnificent Yankee’, written in 1947 about Oliver Wendell Holmes, played by aging star James Whitmore opposite even more frail Audra Lindley. As Desmond said he, Whitmore, was doing things which `always work’ as if they really did; but those bits of technical baggage stop working, after a while, and nobody dares say anything. The theatre, which had been re opened after being dark for 103 years, seems devoted to safe relics and ‘oldies’, though I don’t know, therefore can’t judge, some of the titles of their recent `successes’. Seems desperate to continue to conspire, as also happens in New York, to pretend that these examples of absolutely `dead’ theatre are not so; especially horrid to drag children to them in the cause of acquainting them with nationally important figures. Desmond and I left at the first interval.

Mar. 8th: Spent all day at the National Gallery. At 2p.m. some of the company assembled in the Rotunda for a talk and guided tour given by a member of staff, Eric Deneker. Excellent; told us about the convoluted method of funding acquisitions without appearing to cost the tax payer anything (the original collection is based on a private benefactor’s efforts, Mr. Mellon; a senator I think). Also explained that the whole concept is based on the London Nat. Gal. except that it’s more strait laced, because of the mores in force between 1900 and 1940ish; few nudes, etc., no naughty Rubens or Bouchers. D. Developed this idea when he interpreted for us Manet’s `Foyer of the Opera’, pointing out that it was about tophatted gentlemen (32 of them!) negotiating with prostitutes; also interpreted the clown dressed figure, cut off on the left, as a key member of the administration of the day, often lampooned and cartooned as a clown partly for claiming France’s poor showing against the Germans in 1870 was due to their debauched way of life! In the painting the minister is trying to wave the crowd away; a quixotic absurdity, whereas the painter just… shows; many of Manet’s close friends are portrayed and he includes himself. Mr. Deneker pursued his theme remarking on the misleading, bland titling of pictures with a Dutch piece, ‘The Suitor’, in which the coin held by the gentleman entering the room has been painted out at some time. His comment on the little spaniel standing in front of the bed was that it showed man’s brutish side and I said I’d been told it was for faithfulness amongst the broken egg shells, and open oysters, for looseness; but the ideas don’t conflict; the little dog is the only thing saying to the girl, ‘don’t do it; you owe yourself a better fate’.

Another Dutch picture, called ‘The Intruder’, shows the custom whereby the betrothed male appears to force an entrance to his beloved’s chamber to show his impatience before the wedding the mother, the other ladies present, all look calm and indulgent; only the bride looks a little pissed off. Also, pointed out a typical, calm, Dutch interior with an architectural cross, centre, inferred, understated. Mr. D. illustrated the evidence of the painter’s change of mind in Fra Angelico’s ‘Homage of the Three Wise Men’ (picture completed by Fra Lippi), also some pheasants added later, commenting on the controversy about whether to remove them or not; pointed out the almost naked, whitish grey figures in a ruined classical setting as pagans, drawn to join the queueing throng trying to reach and pay homage to the only true source of life; also, the white dog, lower centre, which probably refers to the Dominicans (`domini canis’, or dogs of God, a mediaeval pun) of whom Angelico was one it was painters who made a convention of three wise men, the number is not specified in the gospels, says D.; the attempt by Louis David to make Napoleon look tall, plus many symbolic references to his worth beard shadow to show him working till the small hours on the `Code’ (clock at four something), the bees, the discrete fleurs delys and so on, comparing it with propagandist art going back at least to Roman times.

Again, he tested us with a question about N.’s height; his information was 4′ 11″ to 5′ I said my historian said 5′ 6″. Well, well… Illustrated different approaches in the same century. The contrast between the brush work of Turner and Impressionists and the highly finished, disguised brushwork of the academic painters. The rest of our group drifted off, but I let him take me to the new East wing, which is architecturally rather good (vaguely like the Hyatt atrium in S.F., though much smaller); has an excellent display of small 19th C. French work, as well as an exhibition of luminous Boilly; otherwise is devoted to modern art.

Mar. 10th: Mechanicals, etc. and whole company group photos taken at interval and between shows at K. C. by Philip Bermingham; worming his way in fine. Just read that Lincoln’s box at Ford’s Theatre has, it’s claimed, been reinstated to how it was when he occupied it; hence the picture of Washington, I presume. Learned that George Burns died yesterday.

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

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