I am by nature an accumulator. I don’t live in the past—the present is too full of surprises for that—but I often retreat there. It provides a sort of vacation from the noise and confusion of our own time, supplying a space where quiet contemplation of the theater’s life is possible. Not that the past doesn’t contain its own noises and controversies, but they are muted by the fact of being past; one can adjust their presumable noise to the amount of attention one spends on them.
Cleaning out the surplus goods that crowd my apartment, I find myself thinking a good deal about the theater’s past and how one reads it in the material that survives. As I said, I am an accumulator rather than a collector; accumulations are random. If I collect anything, it is the hidden factual links, chased down through passing remarks in books. They can’t be displayed on the walls, but they help me put together my own notion of the theater. The accumulated materials annotate them, rather than vice versa.
For instance, why do I own this silly and fetching photo of the late-19th-century American comedienne Rose Temple? She has no historical importance, though the photo suggests she was fun to watch onstage. The preposterous answer is that, when Gilbert & Sullivan began their joint career, there was no reciprocal copyright agreement between England and America. The huge London success of H.M.S. Pinafore spawned at least a dozen New York pirate productions before G&S and their producer, Richard D’Oyly Carte, could get over here to produce an authentic representation. (This is why, BTW, The Pirates of Penzance had its world premiere in New York: The authors were protecting their copyright.) And in one of those wholly unauthorized New York productions, Miss Rose Temple played the male lead “and sang several interpolated sailor songs.” That’s how things went in the freewheeling theater of the late 1870s and early 1880s.
And there is also a photo—offering a more somber and complex link to Gilbert & Sullivan—of the opera diva Madame Euphrosyne Parepa-Rosa, wife of the entrepreneur-conductor Carl Rosa, whose small but hardy troupe was still touring Britain as late as 1960. Madame Parepa did not live to see it. She died in 1874, and her husband returned to Gilbert the one-act libretto on which he had intended to compose a comic opera for her. My Savoyard readers already know the story: The libretto was Trial by Jury. Gilbert brought it elsewhere, Sullivan composed it, and a new world of music theater was born. It is hard to imagine Madame Parepa as part of that world. In the photo she looks imposing and ponderously earnest, hardly the light-footed, flirtatious Angelina of Gilbert’s text. Yet she must have had some gift for comedy, or her husband —whose record is that of a canny, if always struggling, entrepreneur—could never have conceived the role for her. Rosa, whose policy of English-language performances at “popular prices” allowed him to take risks on new English operas and European works just beginning to be discovered, such as Wagner’s Flying Dutchman, was no fool; some have credited him with creating England’s most influential opera company.
All an irrelevancy, you say? Far off and forgotten trivia? Well, we love antique memorabilia precisely for the doors it unlocks on the past. Yet here, for a change of perspective, is something much closer in time, and for me strong in personal recollections. In 1991, SoHo Rep produced a play that Mac Wellman had written in response to the Jesse Helms–led crackdown on the National Endowment for the Arts. In Wellman’s play, a Helms-like Southern senator is the recipient of an anonymous parcel containing seven obscene photographs. The play is entitled 7 Blowjobs—a title that, at the time, no news medium would mention or print, except for The Village Voice. (The New York Times reviewed it under the title SoHo Rep Presents. A San Diego production sent critic Welton Jones into hilarious verbal contortions, revising the play’s title into Seven Slow Slobs, Seven Faux Snobs, and the like.)
SoHo Rep puckishly compounded the offense by giving the play a logo designed as a parody of the 7-Eleven logo. Large corporations famously lack a sense of humor about such things, and the chain promptly issued a cease-and-desist order. (The threatened lawsuit was dropped when the show ended its run.)
Wellman’s play, which would probably be well worth reviving in this time of crooked Christianity on the march, has a giddy deadpan quality which should still provoke laughs—doubly worth contemplating now that its title apparently can be printed openly without causing any furor whatever. The Rep gave it a droll production, with that majestically funny and heartbreaking actor the late John Seitz as the bigoted senator at its center.
Naturally, the merch associated with the production was much in demand: To buy it meant supporting a troublesome play of the kind off-off-Broadway was born to produce, as well as spitting in the eye of corporate pomposity. Somehow, I ended up with two T-shirts (XXL) and a baseball cap. What am I to do with them now? Unlike 19th-century photographs, they don’t really belong in a theater library or museum collection. Are there collectors who specialize in off-off-Broadway curiosa? The same question applies, though with less personal poignance, to the mainstream commercial merchandise with which Broadway producers used to bless critics at Tony Award time. Here, next to my 7 Blowjobs T-shirts, is my Titanic mouse pad, which will hardly reveal much about Titanic to future scholars of the Broadway musical—though it might provoke useful questions about what a mouse pad was.
Some memorabilia, though, are so personal in their connection that giving them away becomes very difficult. Translate The Threepenny Opera, or a play with an execution in it, like Schiller’s Mary Stuart, and your roster of opening night gifts is likely to include more than one letter opener, engraved or stamped to mark the occasion. I think I have six from such occasions—all more or less useless, since snail mail has shrunk to a minimum and I habitually open envelopes with my fingers anyway. But what other use can they have, and who else would find them meaningful? One of the Mary Stuart gifts is suitably sized to be used as a paper knife, for cutting the pages of old but never-broached books. Yet even I barely read such books, or any books, anymore. Like letter openers, they are creatures of the pre-internet past, even more archaic than mouse pads.
And then there are items really too replete with personal meaning to be dealt with any way except reverentially. Here—somewhere in the chaos of papers—is a letter to me from Charles Nelson Reilly; the way the writing slopes across the page suggests that he may have been a little tipsy when he wrote it. I had published in The Village Voice an obituary for Leonard Frey, a superb actor with whom I had worked one season at the Yale Rep. In it I mentioned that when I met Leonard, to discuss the Molière play I was translating in which he was to play the lead, he was reading Holroyd’s biography of Lytton Strachey, and told me how fascinating he found Strachey as a potential acting role. Reilly wanted me to know that Leonard had played Lytton Strachey, opposite Julie Harris’ Carrington, in a play called Under the Ilex, produced at the Long Wharf in New Haven, with Reilly directing. He enclosed a photo of his magical two-person cast. Written with deep admiration for Leonard’s artistry, the letter is a keepsake I would never dream of selling. I keep it hidden away, which is why you will see no photograph of it here.
Even more meaningful among these locked-away memorabilia is a photograph the late and beloved Marian Seldes once gave me as a birthday present. It is a portrait of her in the 1954 Broadway production of Giraudoux’s Ondine, shot by Carl Van Vechten, the novelist, critic, photographer, and man about town, who in his heyday aimed his camera at all of New York’s stage stars in costume. The photo shows Marian as Bertha, a medieval princess who finds the knight she is engaged to unluckily ensnared by the water nymph Ondine, played by Audrey Hepburn, which makes his ensnaring easy to understand.
Losing her fiancé to a water nymph is bad enough, but Giraudoux has an extra humiliation reserved for Bertha: In front of the court, Ondine reveals that the princess is really a peasant girl secretly adopted by the childless king and queen, identifiable by the birthmark on her left shoulder. Ondine summons a chorus of Naiads who chant, in Valency’s adaptation, “Bertha, Bertha, if you dare/ Show the world your shoulder bare.” I used to tease Marian with this quote during our many phone conversations, which was one of many reasons for the gift. I wouldn’t part with it now for a thousand other pieces of memorabilia, or for the billion dollars that they almost certainly aren’t worth. Like Charles Surface refusing to sell the portrait of Sir Oliver in The School for Scandal, I’ll keep that picture “while I’ve a room to put it in.” Bernhardt and Duse, Madame Parepa and Miss Rose Temple are all very well in their way, but Marian was my friend and my muse. I can’t let her leave this house.