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

April 28th: After the matinée to the Promenade Theatre with Linda (2162, Broadway and 76th) for 7p.m. perf. of ‘Picasso at the Lapin Agile’ by Steve Martin. Pleasant, often witty comedy, with an especially good performance by Mark Nelson as ‘Albert Einstein’. Went on to a gathering at a flat on Central Park West (round about 90th). Host, Gordon and his wife; all people who had been associated for about ten years with a touring acting group, the A.P.A., for whom Linda had done a couple of plays. George, a stage manager, confirmed some of my information about why costs to produce on Broadway are so absurd; says there is hope, which supports the hint of change I’ve noticed on this trip. Rosemary Harris there; was with the company for eight years and married to its inspiring genius, Ellis. Last time I bumped into her, long ago, I think she thought she knew me; this time not at all sure, but gracious. I’d only seen her act at the R.A.D.A. not long before I left. She explained, to-night, that when a student, she’d run out of money and had gone to do seventeen plays in so many weeks, before returning to drama school.

April 29th: Morning, returned to Liberty and Ellis Islands with Linda (who has never been to the latter before) to fill out the information there had been no time to take in with the kids present. Emma Lazarus, in fact, wrote her poem specifically to help raise funds in America for the pedestal, in 1883; she must have seen drawings and photographs of the figure building in France. At Ellis, one of the most striking displays is of the ‘exhibited as found’ equipment – typewriters, filing cabinets, fans, hospital gear – surviving from the last time the reception centre was used and the photographs of laid tables, covered with dust and peeled paint which go with it. From Bowling Green walked Broad and Wall Streets, by the Fraunces Tavern and Liberty Hall and Pierpoint Morgan’s headquarters bank for a while, before returning to 47th and the Brooks Atkinson Theatre and an 8p.m. performance of Sam Shepard’s ‘Buried Child’. Parades the surviving ghouls of a ‘middle’ America, Illinois perhaps, independent farming culture; touch and go as to whether it would ‘pay off’ but it does; a sense of monumentality, Greek bucolic tragedy possibly stemming from O’Neill; emptiness, archaism, a hint of incest, the phantasies of family-centred values and imaginary trad. all-American heroes. Played for dark laughter and using an outsider witness, a girl, to represent us. Is the young man who inherits this horror meant to imply any sort of hope? And, I am fascinated as to whether the play will run – on Broadway.

April 30th: At 4p.m. turned up at William Morris (1325 Av. of the Ams., but on 53rd St.) to meet David Kolodner, following a ‘phone conversation I had with Sue Latimer. His assistant, Liz, came out to say he was delayed, then was asked in at nineteen minutes past. Smooth, slightly shiny, bespectacled jewish man of forty or so. Perfectly pleasant, chatty, turns out he has only been with the firm nine weeks. I said I must be Martian to him, so did a rapid sample of work centred on ‘Keep It In The Family’ ref. ‘Too Close For Comfort’ suggesting he might want to view ‘Gilbert Herring’ from ‘Bonjour La Classe’, in which I look much as I do now. He had a large list of credits and was fascinated by ‘Heil Honey, I’m Home’. Also mused that Latin Quarter was not torn down but, possibly, a porno house! (Noted that various ambulatory staff were on headphones, permanently.)

May 1st: Talked to Mia Albright between shows about her second script (first nineteen pages v. promising – Sherlock Holmes ‘solving’ America – then falls apart). She left a third script. Read Vivienne’s latest, horror tale as she struggles to free herself of years of pain. Medical people are now saying that they do not know enough to help. (We are even less able to.)

May 2nd: Down to new-ish American Indian museum set up by the Smithsonian, lodged in the old Custom House opposite number one Broadway and now called the George Gustav Heye Center. So extremely different from the one I went to three times in Harlem in the 80s that it’s a shock. This, an attempt to convey a flavour of all pre-European American groups, with a very strong emphasis on their cultural continuity and survival into the present; a focus on individuals and very special objects either for emotional or artistic reasons, in no historical or geographical order. Done in close consultation with native groups, in a sense highly political, perhaps with reparation as the chief motive.

Caught part of a guided tour to kids given by a native American; spoke of the status of the shirt-wearer (Crazy Horse for example) and the significance of the earth colour of the lower half of the garment as a reminder, when away from his folk negotiating to keep in contact with the ground, yet topped by the sky colour for ideas and loftiness; the broad, trailing band on the magnificent, feather head-dress again connecting the chief to the earth; the cradle-board in which an infant was bound, tighter when it had tantrums and was hooked to a tree or tripod at eye height so that it could watch the adults working and be easily kissed. A woman’s ghost dance dress explained with its suns, moon and star (looking cross-like) – the ghost dance came late, offering followers the return of the buffalo, the rising of the ancestors and the going away of the white man. Also, a peyote stache and a loose feather fan which, as it was flapped, partook of the power of the eagle from which it came. The nat. Am. took the opportunity to stress that it was D.D.T. that almost wiped out eagles and not Indian hunting, that there was more power in feathers got from live eagles and that to-day he had a government permit which enabled him to acquire eagle feathers. Throughout, personal statements on video and it all, steadily, made sense but I missed the brilliant concentrations of superb artefacts grouped by tribe and district; not one stone, waist game belt on display, or mention of that pastime – in fact most of the astonishing collection not on show.

Walked on to the World Trade Centre and beyond through to the W. Finance Centre, between the restrained, pastel awninged stalls, into the glass and palmed lobby out to the new marina. What I first thought was one of four or five docked luxury cruisers was, indeed, a craft with a heli-pad on top (small blue chopper parked, with its door invitingly open) and a sign advertising charters. Liberty and the Verrazano Bridge down the Hudson in mid-distance.

Back at the flat, got a call from William Morris (U.S.A.) arranging an interview.

May 3rd: 10a.m., opening time, at the Guggenheim. Pleasant spattering of 19th and early 20th C. works tucked in on one level; rest, interesting or cheerful and decorative rather than exhilarating or affecting or moving (note that the photographer, who has an annexe called after him, is spelt Mapplethorpe). On to the Met. past the reservoir in Central Park where spring is faltering no longer but coming on strong in the light rain. Renewal of acquaintance with an overwhelming collection, unless you live here and can become a member. Again, changes in lay-out meant that I missed the multitude of brilliant Indian metal statuettes of gods, sexy and otherwise, which astonished me the last time I was here (pretty sure this was the place they were on show). Memorable American painting of the old French trapper in a canoe with a fox on a lead and his half-Indian son (William Merrit Chase?). Also, there is a room-ful of exceptionally good El Grecos. A long-ago given permission to expand into the park means that you get lovely glimpses of the new greening from many places in the building, walking through, as well as the calming airiness of the views across and over the sculpture court.

May 5th: After the matinée went to ‘Cow Girls’ at the Minetta Lane Theatre in the village with Linda; story of classical trio booked into a country and western venue. I find it strangely moving to see performers pick up instruments and effortlessly play them, as they evolve a tale. Apart from the appallingly directed first ten minutes the simple, emotional narrative binding the six women musicians, works. It is the big show climax that they attempt that is a, comparative, let-down – the music is less good than that before sung and played and hardly a gesture is made towards tying up loose story ends; but by then the event’s been so engaging that we mostly forgive. Supper in a typical local, I think Greek, dive.

May 6th: I joined Linda, who had got a good place in the line (queue to us) to see the special Picasso portrait exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art. Especially interesting because the organiser (an eminent Director of Dept., William Rubin, just retiring from the gallery as I learned from public radio) has taken trouble to identify the women on display with those in P.’s life. I was startled to spot a young woman about three-quarters into the show, where Marie-Therese Walter was featured, who looked extraordinarily like her.

At 3-45p.m. turned up on the fifth floor at C.B.S., corner of 6th Ave. and 52nd, to be taped reading for the part of ‘Lipman’, a newspaper owner, in a new sit-com. called ‘Ink’. Talked first to Amy Herzig, casting; then the monitor packed up and it seemed I would have to come back another time; but we had a go anyway. I tried it my way and was asked to go again, playing a complete ‘ineffectual’. However, it seemed to me the script was one draft behind, since it retained a good deal of blustery fight-back. Could be a reason why they are having trouble unearthing an actor for this character; the stars, male and female, are cast. Herzig best casting director I’ve had to act with! Monica Dolan followed me for an interview and I noted that more of our company were scheduled to see C.B.S. Supper later with Linda at her place.

May 7th: Took the A train for a renewal of acquaintance with the Cloisters museum in Tryon Park; arrived as it was opening at about 9-30a.m. Noted, this time, that many of the objects were acquired through rescue. Lovely view from one of the re-constructed cloisters out on George Washington Bridge. Hovered, to overhear helpful explanations of the unicorn tapestries and the Robert Campin annunciation from two of the several assidudous guides taking groups. A lovely morning, a chance to breathe. Saw an almost black squirrel in the park.

May 8th: Rang Liz at William Morris to report on Monday’s meeting and say that Amy H. had talked of its being useful to have me on tape for other things, and my feeling that this ‘Lipman’ was limiting and perhaps they should pass on ‘Gilbert Herring’. Telephoned Wyoming ref. our holiday, as requested by Anna.

May 9th: Posted note to Vivienne, sending greetings to her gnomes and saying I had heard nothing from her brother-in-law Alan Finch – but then he rang, finally, at about 11-30a.m. Ellie McNulty rang with news about a stand-up slot she’s doing; had lost my number, she says, so ‘phoned the Plaza desk. Between the shows talked more to Mia Albright at the flat. Her third play is perfectly do-able; I suggested she try it on the Royal Court first. She has a strong and dangerous wife of a southern plantation owner at its centre, it’s set in slavery days, with an excellent theme of male manipulation running through – the men win.

May 9th: 10a.m. renewed acquaintance with the Frick, on 5th Av. and 70th. A few of the best from some of the greatest, describes it; ‘The Polish Rider’ and a magnificent self-portrait of the old man; three Vermeers, an exceptional Monet, some exquisite bronzes and then, of course, there’s the house itself – a palace – which, I note, Henry Clay Frick (a coal man, Rosenblatt tells me) only enjoyed for about five years. On, for 1p.m. opening, to the Whitney Museum of American Art (Madison and 75th); nice Hoppers and a retrospective on two floors of Edward Kienholz (plus wife, for last twenty years). Entertaining, treated assemblages and whole rooms, blatantly political with varying targets and transparent; but, inventive and personal enough to ‘catch’. Afternoon, talked to Anna and completed bookings for our Wyoming holiday. Supper at Sam’s, after the show, with Barbara Rosenblatt.

May 10th: Met Linda at the Nat. Hist. Mus. at about 11-50a.m. (she was late). Lunch and then did the Amber exhibition properly. Linda no longer a volunteer (her function has been discontinued) but sticking around by doing her origami (in fact, she was complimented by a young waitress at the restaurant for her gold origami ear-rings, though she’d not made them herself) so she went off at 2-30p.m. I did a survey of the museum (not possible with kids in tow). Confirmed the clarity of the message, especially in the human origins section, that evolution drives the emergence of species and that we are as accidental, and not determined, as any other. A room in the basement devoted to extinguishing and extinguished species, based on photographs – one person in the gallery, that I could see. (No trace of the ‘Oink-oink’ cat in any of the shops – Linda has tried the junior one in the basement).

After the show to Sardi’s where American Express was offering drinks and desserts on the fourth flour to the company and those of the audience who, as users of its card, had accepted tickets for ‘Dream’. Addressed by a group of two couples at a table near the door (again, beautiful – young – women bought by somewhat older, successful men) who confirmed my sense that much of our audience is now made up of ‘innocents’. None had seen Shakespeare on stage before (only been taught and turned off it at school). They spoke of having to tune in to the language and one couple asked if seeing more made it easier; yes, I said. Asked if any of it had been changed for a modern audience; seemed amazed when I said, no. Wanted to know how many Americans in the cast; asked if we were always as good as this; I said we were human and variable and the couple that had been to London, and saw only musicals, had toyed with booking for Stratford. I told them to ask, judiciously, and then go to what was rated. Some productions better than ours, I said. On the way out I ran into a young man on the first (English ascription) floor who also loved it and had only ever read Shakespeare. Said once he had told his mother the story in the interval she had been well drawn in; asked if I might go back upstairs as he was sure mom would like to meet me; I cried off. (I seemed to have inspired Heidi, Alfred Burke’s wife, to proseletyse in similar fashion).

May 11th: Leo Rost telephoned at about 11.30a.m. Back in town, his play is on; seems pleased enough. We made a provisional arrangement to meet between the shows on Wednesday. At the theatre, before the matinée, passed on my last night’s experience of the innocent to Alex. He has been discouraged by the kind of response we have been getting, sometimes blaming himself – quite wrongly, I believe.

May 12th: Anna Carteret (I directed her in ‘Semi-Detached’ at Lincoln) with Penny Downie, among others of the cast of ‘An Ideal Husband’, came round after the 3p.m. matinée, having seen it. Leo Rost outside, too, with his friend Mel Levy (as well as Linda, whom I was expecting). Briefly accepted Leo’s offer of a drink in an adjoining bar. He slipped me a programme of ‘Bob’s Butch Bar’ his play at the Bosakowski Theatre, Primary Stages at 354 W. 45th (I’d already been posted a flyer to Executive Plaza). Thank goodness his plays at exactly the same times, pretty well, as ‘Dream’! Leo his best, warm, generous, gracious self. Linda faintly tight about the smoky atmosphere but it went well, till we took ourselves off to see ‘Antigone in New York’ by Janusz Glowacki at the Vineyard Theatre (spelt such!) somewhere round Irving Place and E. 16th St. Workmanlike translocation of the idea, from Euripides, that humans are trapped within their own characters as much as within society’s rules; evoked through three homeless immigrants, a cop (black) standing for ‘Creon’ the law-enforcer. ‘Three Tall Women’ and a Nicky Silver play started at this theatre. Walked some of the local streets and squares before the show, passing Tammany Hall and Washington Irving’s house, and had supper after at Pete’s.

May 13th: Returned to Bronx Zoo at 10a.m. opening time and took the mono-rail ride round the section called Asia. Crossed and re-crossed the ‘Irrawady’, according to the commentary, and went through a large terrain from which the public is now excluded; saw the heads of, reputedly, the largest cattle in the world, called Galla (I hope). Beautiful, sharp day; re-traced some steps, but newly visited the Mouse House and the Mexican grey wolf. Message of human damage being pushed here as hard as anywhere in the States I’ve visited, but I wonder how much is carrying to the hordes of kids being raced in groups round the site? Do their teachers stop to explain? All the signs are that it’s still impossible for most Americans to conceive of any possibility other than that humans have priority when it comes to acquiring money or achieving comfort.

The radio tells me that the Constitution has been amended 17 times (I think Littlefield’s figure, in Washington, was 11).

May 14th: Shopped, especially for walking shoes at Weber’s, in the morning. Cancelled our only double booked holiday lodging at Anna’s request.

May 15th: The ‘Oink’ cat turned up at the desk, found by Linda! (I’d given her a competent description, at last, having talked to Anna). Some of us replied to questions, after the matinée, from a group of girls attending Notre Dame school; Desmond insisted on harping on simulated sex in the bower, how it had been cut for New York. To finish the girls recited, in unison, a section of ‘Titania’s’ speech for us, about the ‘Little Indian Boy’s’ mother sailing on the land to fetch her trifles… Their (young) teacher, lauded by them, or they, must have recognised its beauty. Then a smaller group of us replied to members of a youth group, purportedly new to Shakespeare and possibly to theatre, all non-European except their leader, and slightly older than the holy sixteen-or-so year olds, after the evening performance. Apart from all the usual questions about division of responsibility for staging, characterisation, etc. one young man said he was so taken with the fairies’ movement that he supposed we were dancers – encouraging.

May 16th: A tidying, Drama Bookshop, ringing William Morris (they have received ‘Gilbert Herring’), day. Mia Albright came to flat at about 5-30p.m. for a chat; turns out she was an activist feminist, once. Written self-published stuffed about a world in the grip of ‘male-ism’ and ‘wife-ism’. After the show, crossed with Linda who had just left me a script at the Plaza. Came up for a tea and chat. Liked Penny Downie in ‘An Ideal Husband’ (liked the show).

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

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