HomePast ColumnsAbout
Broadway Bound

Episode 37

YOU KNOW THAT OLD JOKE ABOUT ACTORS BEING CRAZY?

Wednesday, September 16, 1998
Clara McComiskey, the lighting designer,
secretly visits the Producer's Office
atop the Drema Paige Theatre.

"Anyone home?"

Clara! Yes, come in. I just made a fresh pot of coffee. May I offer you a cup?

"Please. Milk, no sugar. Do you have a few minutes to talk?"

Of course. About what?

"The fire."

Clara, we went over all this yesterday. How many times do we have to tell you it wasn't your fault? The investigator said that loose wire on the footlights obviously happened when they were being put in. In fact, the fire department was very complimentary of the way you had those old footlights installed in that fireproof tray. It was just a small electrical fire that could have happened anywhere. We didn't even suffer any smoke or water damage, thanks to you and your forethought. In fact, I was going to come down later to see if you had them working again.

"I know the fire wasn't my fault. At least, I know it now."

What do you mean?

"Jimmy and I spent all yesterday afternoon and most of the evening rewiring them and triple checking everything."

I know. I spent yesterday calling around canceling the first preview to make up for the lost day. So, what do you think? Will we be ready to start previews Saturday?

"That's not my problem. I'm ready to open now. What is my problem - our problem - is that those wires were tampered with. That fire wasn't an accident. Somebody who knew what they were doing pulled those wires deliberately."

Who?

"It could have been anyone. It would only have taken a few seconds. Whoever did it wouldn't even have needed any tools. One good hard yank in the right place would have done it. And it didn't happen when the footlights were being installed; those wires were inside the casing."

Have you told anyone else?

"And possibly tell the one who did it I know it was deliberate? I may be old, but I'm not a fool. You're the only one who knows other than Jimmy and me. And Jimmy won't tell anybody about it unless I okay it first. Or, in case something suspicious happens to me."

Aren't you being a little melodramatic?

"All I know is that I've seen things like this happen before. And none of them were the accidents people thought they were!"

Sabotage?

"You know the rumors as well as I do. In fact, I hear you've got a lot of insurance on this production and on this theatre."

The bare legal minimum, actually, on both. We couldn't afford more than that. Trust me. I'm not about to burn down this theatre. I'd lose money, not make it.

"You're not even upset that I suggested it might have been you, are you?"

Why should I be? The idea is preposterous.

"Damn."

Clara, I'm really having a bit of trouble following your train of thought on all this.

"Well, if it's not you - and I really didn't expect it would be you - then something I saw Monday night now looks a lot stranger than I thought it did at the time."

Which was?

"Robin was smiling."

What's strange in that?

"You know I was up in the light booth when the fire started."

Yes.

"I had a clear view of the stage. The second the smoke and flames started, Drema ran to the stage manager's station to pull the fire alarm."

They tell me that's why we still have a theatre and a play to open in three days. Drema's fast reaction saved everything.

"Yes. But there was a few seconds - it seemed like full minutes at the time - before Drema came back and pulled Robin off the stage."

She evacuated the theatre.

"Yes. But in those few seconds Robin just stood there, not six feet from the fire, staring at it, watching it burn."

Lots of people are paralyzed in the first few seconds of an emergency.

"Robin was . . . she was smiling . . . it was scary, her smile . . . she was staring at the fire and smiling like she knew it would happen."

Are you sure about this?

"I wouldn't be telling you this if I wasn't. What do you know about Robin?"

I take it you're not referring to her resume?

"Are you aware that Robin has a history of mental illness?"

Drema never told me about that.

"I love Drema, but she's in complete denial about Robin's mental problems. When you force her to admit the girl has an illness, she makes jokes about it helping her to be a great actress like . . . like whoever that was in Gone With the Wind."

So you're saying Robin may have had something to do with the fire?

"Yes. No. I don't know. I don't know what I think. Now I'm sorry I said anything about it!"

Don't be. Thank you for telling me. I did need to know about this.

"The thing is . . . "

Yes.

"There was a fire at the last theatre Robin was working at in London . . . just before she came over here to live with Drema . . . "

Yes.

"It broke out opening night."

I see.

"More than 20 people died . . . "


In his day, the early '50s through the late '70s, theater critic Kenneth Tynan (1927 - 1980) was a prime mover. From his perch at The Observer in London, and later at the New Yorker, he championed a rising generation of angry young playwrights: John Osborne, Arnold Wesker, and their like. From his position in the '60s as the first literary manager of Great Britain's subsidized company, the National Theater, he worked with Laurence Olivier to break the conventional commercialism of the West End and its stultifying stranglehold on English-speaking theater. This collection of his letters, Kenneth Tynan: Letters, provides a fascinating glimpse into the life, work, and soul of one of the century's great critics.

Kenneth Tynan, gifted controversialist, effeminate womanizer, emphysema-ridden smoker, and purveyor of eros for the intelligentsia, died too young, in 1980. Yet he crammed his life and writing with passion. Tynan's letters are a masterful mix of observation, wit, and intellectual ferocity. Edited by his wife Kathleen, they are a strong delight from the very first entry (one of many castigating editors) to his final communiqué, a verse marking his son's birthday, which ends: "NOW THAT YOU'RE NINE, / I'M SURE YOU'LL BE FINE - / FUNNY, AND FINE, AND CLEVER - / AND I SEND MY LOVE FOR EVER."

Tynan is never one to be restrained by received values. In 1943, aged 16, he is already dashing off an amorality play: "The whole point of it, I feel, is that the Devil is horrified by the goodness of God and considers him immoral." (In a later missive, he claims that Christ was "something of a criminal flop" - when it came to His earthly career, at any rate.) And a really good day for the young overachiever consists of chatting with an amiable Communist, listening to a skeptic on Anglo-American relations, and going to the flicks with two girls; "Necked with both - both have filthy minds but are pretty and well-spoken," he reports. "We therefore got on excellently."

Throughout, Tynan is magnificently aware of his strengths - beginning one epistle with "Credit title: this is a damned good letter" - and profligate with his bon mots. Detailing one sexual conquest, he waggishly confides, "I have not yet decided whether I am the fly and she the flypaper, or I the fly and she the ointment." He's also capable of going from the ironic to the lyrical, though it's sometimes difficult to tell the two apart. When Tynan tells one of his many Oxford girlfriends, "I feel a sort of divine compassion for the whole human race when I'm with you - because they aren't," he seems utterly sincere, but it's hard to avoid the note of taunting superiority. Nonetheless, this collection really comes into its own in Tynan's university years, for postwar Oxford "was fast, piratical and quite clever," and he was among the best and brightest. The mere thought of his being one of C.S. Lewis's students gives one pleasurable pause.

Tynan's early accomplishments are almost legendary, and this book will only fuel the flames. After he graduated, his success both in the theater (which he saw as central to public life) and journalism seems to have come easily, but these letters prove how tireless he was. They also are important as cultural and social history. Here are Tynan's earnest and acidulous takes on his famous debate with Truman Capote over the moral responsibility of the writer; the scandal that eventuated from his use of the word fuck live on the BBC; as well as his sincere defense of pornography and struggle against censorship. This last, unfortunately, led to his squandering his talents on the mass-market naughtiness of Oh! Calcutta. Writing to his wife Kathleen, Tynan claims, "I know that nobody ever changed history with a letter . . . " Many audacious examples in this collection prove him wrong.

Tynan was an avid letter writer, corresponding with the likes of Marlene Dietrich, Norman Mailer, Orson Welles, John Lennon, Tennessee Williams, and Lillian Hellman, among others. This extraordinary collection, spanning 1949 to 1980, features many of his letters, including some of the most beautiful love letters ever penned.

Kenneth Tynan: Letters
by Kenneth Tynan, Kathleen Tynan
List Price $30.00
Random House
ISBN 0679426108


Back

Broadway Bound is written by Mike Reynolds


Wanna' talk to others about this column or anything else theatre related? Check out All That Chat!




Terms of Service

[ © 1997 - 2014 www.TalkinBroadway.com, Inc. ]