An American Playgoer at Home serves as a companion volume to An American Playgoer in London. It captures the author’s theatregoing on his home territory in Northampton and Amherst, Massachusetts, in Hartford, Connecticut, in New York City, and in other places in the USA and in Canada as well. As a companion volume it covers approximately the same period of roughly four decades, from the early 1970s into the second decade of the new century. Almost all of the reviews are of live theatre; a few are of films that have an important dramatic quality or are a film version of an existing play, as in the instance of O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh.
The two volumes together speak at length of their author’s love for the theatre and dramatic art in its many manifestations. They reflect his long career as a university professor who devoted himself to teaching graduate and undergraduate students the history of western theatre from the Greeks to the present and the plays written and produced over that same period. Some of those plays have become classics, remembered, studied, and prized after their own age has passed. Others are works that may not have achieved such lasting fame but which in their own time drew audiences who had no thought for the future but sought entertainment or insight in the present moment, as part of living a culturally rich life. This is the stuff of live theatre, in any and all ages, based on the experience of a single work, augmented by a long series of comparable experiences. It is the particularity, even the uniqueness, of the individual experience, that matters. No one, however well versed in the history of the subject or however irresistibly drawn to live performance, goes to the theatre to see the collected Works of William Shakespeare or of some other immortal dramatist, classic or otherwise. Then and now, it is the individual play that beckons and rewards, or in some cases ultimately disappoints. Taking a chance and living in hope are the twin poles of possibility, present and future, for anyone who ventures into the theatrical surround.
The reviews found in these two volumes were almost all written in the minutes and hours immediately following a live theatrical performance, in an attempt to capture and set down the experience just undergone before sleep or any other distraction could dim the memory of the occasion. The writing done under the felt immediacy of this self-imposed task has been allowed to stand as is, for better or worse, with only minimal tweaking for occasional infelicities or inadvertent factual error. The result is a double chronicle of some forty-plus years of playgoing, at home and abroad, set down by an inveterate theatregoer who learned to take opportunities wherever they occurred. Making choices based on careful planning led to an ever-increasing knowledge of dramatists, theatres, actors, and acting companies and, gradually, the development of a well-honed instinct for the stunning scene, the memorable performance, or the lasting value.
One example of this long process may be allowed to stand for many. A production of Othello by the National Theatre, in temporary quarters at the Old Vic in Waterloo Road, a stone’s throw from Waterloo Station, in London, featured Laurence Olivier in the title role, Frank Finlay as Iago, and Maggie Smith as Desdemona. The most electric, terrifying moment in that generally compelling production came when the Iago, who had been making evil insinuations about the doubtful virtue of Othello’s much-loved Desdemona, having clearly overstepped himself was suddenly confronted by the enraged, black-faced Moor, who seized him by the neck and shoulders, threw him down on his knees, and in a ringing voice that captured his rage and fear, threatened the Ensign with mortal fury: “Villain! Be sure thou prov’st my love a whore! Give me the ocular proof!” That scene, and that moment, have been carried in mind undimmed since that night, an all-encompassing symbol of the memorable delights of live performance.
Some of the scenes described in these pages come close to that indelible experience. Overall, these reviews will be seen to capture the various delights and insights afforded by theatrical performance. The potential reader of these present pages is invited to share these experiences with the author of these reviews, who offers them in hopes that these records of decades of playgoing will appeal to any and all persons who have shared the pleasures and challenges of live performance or may be encouraged by them to see what further pleasures await the adventurous theatregoer.