Relative oblivion and revivals

Image of Penny Candy paperback edition, by Jean Kerr

Penny Candy paperback edition, by Jean Kerr

While on vacation in California, I had the U.S. version of a famous online bookstore locate and then send me a copy of a collection of essays I once enjoyed in the very same yard-sale paperback edition. It is as old as I am, and entitled Penny Candy, by Jean Kerr. Back when, this book enabled me share other people’s experiences in a world rather different from my own, with the same efficacy and novelty as any Emily Brontë or Lois Lenski novel.

Rereading the brittle, acid-yellowed pages with nostalgic pleasure, I was immediately struck that some of the shorter essays, like the one I will transcribe below, would have made wonderful blog posts. I then went to find this particular one online, to discover that it is not easy to dig up – its original publication was in the Dramatists’ Guild Bulletin, an erstwhile publication of the Authors’ League of America, before being reprinted by Fawcett Crest [(c) Collin Productions, Inc.]. To my disappointment, the essay I had in mind has been reduced to being “a great quote” of its author, and its actual content apparently buried under many hundreds of millions of other English-language blogs, editorials and opinion essays.

So, I will consider that I have performed my requisite sourcing, and with no further ado, here I revive for the Internet annals:

I Don’t Want to See the Uncut Version of Anything
by Jean Kerr

Subtitled: “Reflections of a Part-Time Playwright*

Recently, I was heard to murmur against the endless frustrations connected with getting a play produced. I mean I was exploding in all directions and pounding on the table with the handle of a broom. My husband finally quieted me by saying, “How can you complain so much – do you know that Euripides was exiled?” Actually, I didn’t. But now that I know, it makes all the difference. In the future when shadows gather and vexations mount, I shall take solace from the fact that, in any event, I was never exiled.

But I don’t mean to talk about playwriting. My experience as a playwright is so limited that I think it would be hasty for me to theorize about it*. On the other hand, because of my husband’s sorry occupation, my experience as a member of the audience is enormous. It occurs to me that in the last eighteen years I have become the most experienced audience in America.

We are agreed that a critic is not, and never will be, a member of the audience. Not only is he paid to attend, he is paid to listen; and this sobering circumstance colors his whole attutude toward the material on stage. The critic says: This is an extremely bad play – why is that? The audience says: This is an extremely bad play – why was I born? There is a real difference.

Anyway, on those melancholy opening nights when one sees that the jig is up and the closing notice soon will be, I make little notes to myself. I list some of them here in the wistful hope that somewhere there is a beginning playwright who will believe that my prejudices are shared by some other people. I think they are. I think I am pretty close to being the square root of the ordinary audience. I notice that I perk up when other people perk up. I slump when they slump. And I most certainly do not keep my head when all about me are losing theirs. I think paradise will be regained on 44th Street when young playwrights understand that they must try not to write plays that will cause nice, ordinary people from Riverdale to wish they were dead.

Little Notes to Myself:

I believe that plays that are successful are almost invariably more entertaining than plays that fail. This will come as a revolutionary idea only to those who have spent their lives avoiding beautiful girls because they are rumored to be dumb.

It is perfectly all right with me when a character in an avant-garde play points to a realistic iron bed and says, “That is a piano.” It is still all right with me when another character sits down in front of the bed and plays The Blue Danube Waltz on the mattress. But thereafter I expect that nobody will lie down on the piano.

I think that if there are only three characters in a play, one of them ought to be a girl.

I do not wish to see musical comedies performed entirely on bleachers in which the leading man wears clown-white make-up (the only man in the world who can put on clown-white make-up and be Marcel Marceau is Marcel Marceau).

It strikes me as less than hilarious when an actor, impersonating a foreigner, is required to struggle with our quaint American colloquialisms. (“How ess eet you put it? I shovel you. Ah, no. I deeg you.”)

I do not like to hear the most explicit four-letter words** spoken from the stage because I number among my acquaintance persons of such candor and quick temper that, for me, the thrill is gone.

I have noticed that in plays where the characters on stage laugh a great deal, the people out front laugh very little. This is notoriously true of productions of Shakespeare’s comedies. “Well, sirrah,” says one buffoon, “he did go heigh-ho upon a bird-bolt.” This gem is followed by such guffaws and general merriment as would leave Olsen and Johnson wondering how they had failed.

It may have been bearable the first time it was done, but it is no longer bearable to see a comedy in which the ingenue yap yap yaps the whole first act long about the burdens of her virginity.

Images of brunch coats.

Brunch coats. They make everyone look terrible.

Also – speaking of the same kind of play – the heroine always does look as cute as all get out when, for reasons of the plot, she has to wear the hero’s bathrobe. On the other hand (and this is happening more and more), when the hero is required to wear her brunch coat, he looks just plain terrible.

I have noticed that an entertainment that opens or closes with the setting up or dismantling of a circus tent always gets good notices***. I don’t know what to make of this.

I have seen plays performed on steps in front of a cyclorama that I enjoyed – but not many.

I am wary of plays in which God or the devil appear in characters. We will waive any discussion of theology and I don’t mean to be irreverent when I say that, for all practical purposes in the theater, God is a lousy part. (A play I really loved, The Tenth Man, had to do with a girl who was being exorcised of the devil, but it may be relevant to note that we never saw the devil.)

I don’t want to see productions that run four and one-half hours. (I don’t want to see the “uncut” version of anything.) In a recent production of King Lear, the first act ran for two and one-half hours. By that time I considered that I had given up smoking, and I spent the entire intermission wondering if I should begin again. And I was once more made aware – during that interminable first act – that the most serious materials eventually seem comic if they are allowed to go on too long. For instance, during the protracted scene in which Lear (now mad) is talking to poor, blinded Gloucester, all I could think was: first they put his eyes out, now they’re going to talk his ears off.

One thing, though. Whatever their losses on other fronts, actors have got to keep their teeth in. I would have thought this went without saying until I saw two plays by Joe Orton. In one a slatternly landlady, who was competing with her brother for the affections of a male lodger, lost her dentures under the sofa. In another, a young man plundered the corpse of his recently dead mother, removing her false teeth so that he could use them as castanets. If this sounds funny, I’m not telling it right.

When The Little Foxes was revived recently, there were those who said it was too well constructed. To me, that’s like saying a Pan Am pilot is too conscientious. What I like about Lillian Hellman’s play is that you couldn’t play the second act first. I know all about improvisation and the free-form that mirrors the chaos of our time, but I do like to feel that the playwright has done some work before I got there.

I dislike seeing actors perform in the nude. Not that, at my age, I am shocked, but I become exceedingly uncomfortable as the naked performers begin to perspire under the hot lights and develop a tendency to stick to the furniture, or, worse, to each other. In the aura of silliness which prevails on such occasions, I find myself distracted from the plot (which seems merely to be against the audience) into practical considerations. Do they still call them dressing rooms? If an actor develops a boil in an unsuited area, is a Band-aid used, or the understudy? Is it possible to say to an actor, “I saw you in Oh, Calcutta!,” without laughing?

At plays like A Man for All Seasons, The Matchmaker, The Lady’s Not for Burning, A Streetcar Named Desire, The Odd Couple, The Great White Hope, Summer and Smoke, and The Front Page, I don’t make any notes at all. I just sit there and bask and bask and bask and then, when the glow begins to wear off, I go back again.

—-

* see her biography … multiple essay collections, a particularly rich and busy family life, no computer, and enough plays to qualify as full-time in my book.

** “Good authors too who once knew better words, now only use four-letter words. Writing prose, anything goes.” Cole Porter, Anything Goes (1934)

*** Kerr may be referring to J.B. among others, which was relatively appreciated by her husband.

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That French-American biomed researcher again.
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4 Responses to Relative oblivion and revivals

  1. Hooray for old books. There are a couple of collections of short stories from my grade-school days I’d love to get my hands on… if only I could remember their titles(!).

    I can completely imagine the sight, feel and even smell of those old, yellowing pages…