June 2, 1970: Café La Mama

The Royal Court

I saw Café La Mama last night at the Royal Court, a double bill of Cinque by Leonard Melfi and Arden of Faversham. I had already seen their Arden two weeks previous in a bill with Jarry’s Ubu and felt cheated that my booking didn’t result in a completely different program. As it turned out it was good fortune to see Arden again. I came away much more enthusiastic over the production than I was before.

Cinque is a satirical spoof of American society sub specie Western Americana. The scene is a ranch — a bare stage with painted sawhorses, the fourth wall being posited as a huge imaginary television set. The time is “then or now,” both, in fact. The characters have names like Tom Brown, Maude Smith, Horace White, and Abigail Pepper. The style is gross exaggeration, which struck me as being in the Laugh-In tradition. The theme grows out of the contrast between the euphoria artificially induced by a decadent society (imaged in the “beautiful picture” of the television set) and the disease and violence that are more the reality. There is some good fun in the sexual frankness of the characters, whose archetypes are the sinless heroes and heroines of the Western. For instance, Tom Brown, who is in love with Abigail Pepper, praises her qualities in a list that includes not only the eyes, hair, and teeth, but her breasts and her cunt. Similar satirical capital is made out of an explicitly incestuous relationship of “Mother Maude” and son Tom: her greatest pleasure in raising him has been to buy him new underwear, and Tom tells her what a beautiful and wonderful thing it is to have an erection. The climax of the play comes when the four central characters (above-named) fall inexplicable victims to sudden fits of coughing which apparently are fatal; but death is beautifully avoided when Sheriff Sunshine arrives on the scene and changes to another channel, where the two couples are married and a happy ending saves all. The significance of the title escapes me.

Arden of Faversham. I was surprised to realize that the previous performance, which had left me very unsure, had grown on me unawares. Almost from the first moment, I felt that this was a brilliant production, superbly conceived and faultlessly executed, and including some extremely fine individual performances, most notably Michelle Collison as Alice. What else is amazing is the way that the director, Andres Sherban, has taken complete liberty with the script and yet has managed to convey much the same spirit of extreme and unexplainable torment that domestic tragedy has always supposed to be inextricable from human love. All we are telling you is the truth, the simple truth, says the epilogue. The truth is in fact pure, simple, and terrifying. Domestic tragedy, from Arden to George Barnwell to Death of a Salesman, has always specialized in the naked reality, in the facts of the matter. Sherban is devotedly faithful to this long and honorable tradition, whether he realizes it or not. Yet his method of carrying out the production, his style, his means, are almost wholly his own. True, there is evidence of oriental influence in the ceremonies of sight and sound, and possibly even greater influence from the theater of Grotowski, where realistic playing is abandoned in favor of the almost puppet-like reduction of the actor to a naked victim of forces beyond his control. Yet there is also an indefinable something that probably should be called the Café La Mama style that brings a lot of the heterogeneous nodes eclectically gathered from here and there in the contemp­orary theater  into cohesion.

The stage is completely bare. The production begins with the setting in motion of a metronome, followed by loud, slow, deliberate clapping. Later, wide leather belts are slapped hard on the floor to punctuate speeches. Throughout the play rhythms of harsh sound, including loud whispered echoes and even choral-like harmonies sung slowly on “Ah—ummm,” are used.  The effect is to give a distancing clarity to what might otherwise be formalist activity or unbearably immediate emotion. Still, the play is strong enough, and the climax is almost unendurably viscerally affecting. Much of the dialogue has been dispensed with, leaving a clean line of action.  No new dialogue is introduced, and the combin­ation of actors on a bare stage in everyday old clothes speaking the intense Elizabethan of the text is jarring, probably intentionally so. Added to this is the extremely original use of light — not only the expectable resources of the contemporary stage, sparsely but effectively alternated with sudden blackouts and spots, but strong flashlights, some with blinkered devices, which are shone full in the eyes of other actors, onto joined hands or locked arms, or shook back and forth within a narrow arc resulting in an almost strobe-like effect, very fine to see. There is great variety in these things, especially in the degree of tightening and relaxing of tension while yet maintaining a cumulative relentlessness true to the spirit of the original play and the existential horror, as we would now call it, of its ending in the murder of Arden and the subsequent discovery of the crime.

This climax is clearly the most original part of the production. After a series of events in which Alice’s hopes to end her husband’s life have all miscarried, Arden comes downstage and sits center, cross-legged. A large, clear plastic sheet is spread open on the floor and ceremonial equipment, indistinguishable except for a large hand saw, are placed in the center. Mosby comes downstage, claps Arden on the shoulder, and he obediently and expressionlessly rises and goes upstage center, where he is laid down head facing the audience after being stripped naked by Alice and the other actors. Now begins his castration and murder, Alice herself wielding the saw and then, with blood red hands, cracking open an egg in each hand and letting it fall on Arden’s naked chest. This is horrifyingly real, even though we know the eggs are eggs and even though we sense how precariously the scene verges on the edge of the ludicrous. There are a few laughs from the audience, but it is embarrassed laughter for relief of tension; more general are gasps of “Oh, ohh.” Arden is now rolled up in the plastic sheet, and we can see, though indistinctly, his bloodied naked body through the overlapped plastic, a limp, gaunt victim of human lust and cruelty.

The attempt to bury him is unsuccessful. His arms and hands protrude through the trap door of the grave, and the corpse rises to incriminate the guilty. Now, having suffered, Arden’s body is unwrapped and the rest of the actors, holding the plastic before them, march downstage in a line, while one recites the epilogue driving home the “simple truth.”

A brilliant production, profoundly effective and disturbing. There is no saving Shake­spearean grace of cosmic design in this play. It is compounded of unexplained horror, and the real truth is “simply” that human beings in all days and times are cruel, and suffer. On the way out I overheard a cultivated feminine British accent speaking of being very much impressed but asking what this play had to tell us. The message is that there is no message. Domestic tragedy, it might be said, is the bleakest and most pessimistic of dramatic forms. There is some­thing that hits me as very superficial about whatever invocations of religious Providence may be found in a play of this sort. It might be possible to attribute this, from a historical point of view,  to an irredeemably “middle-class” inability to reconcile specific human events with overall design of some kind. One of the identifying features of middle-class drama is that morality is there but only incoherently so. In some cases, Arden being the prime example, there is a Manich­aean sense that evil is sui generis. That impression was as strong in last night’s performance as it has ever been for me. We do these things to each other, out of love or hate or weariness, and there is no help for it.



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An American Playgoer in London by Joseph Donohue is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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