From 'Album Of A Play Doctor'

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FILM JANUARY 1, 2007

From 'Album Of A Play Doctor'

In 1945 I thought I was a novelist. For ten years, until 1941, I had thought I was a theater man, a member of a repertory company for life, working as one contributor to the production of great plays. That had collapsed. Then for a couple of years I had worked at various magazine jobs to support myself while I wrote novels. Luck with my second novel had allowed me to quit magazine work and to concentrate on writing--novels, mostly. I was hoping to make a long circle back to the theater in some way. Then I suddenly cut across that circle on a short axis.

Claude Leland, who had been in that ten-year theater company with me and had subsequently become a dialogue director in Hollywood, came back to New York to work on a Broadway production. He was assisting Michael Brimmer, a film director in his thirties who wanted to have a hit on Broadway. In those days many Hollywood figures wanted Broadway hits as much for their egos as for their careers, to prove that they weren’t merely film people. Michael had signed to direct a play and had brought Claude, who had worked with him on a film. Apparently Michael’s theory was that, since he had never directed in the theater, he ought to be prepared for a few tiny problems in which he had no experience: Claude could brief him on them.

Claude called me when he got to New York, and I saw him several times. I was invited to an early rehearsal of the pay and met Michael. Then the play opened a pre-Broadway tour in New Haven, and, after four days, it moved to Boston for a couple of scheduled weeks. The night it opened in New Haven it was in trouble the day after the Boston opening Claude telephoned me and asked whether I could possibly help in the rewriting. I had never done anything like that, but Claude knew me, knew my work, and had recommended me. They had asked him to telephone. I never learned how many they had called before they got to me, but I didn’t care. The idea of the enterprise, more than the specifics--being called in to rescue a play on the road, to join in the romance of high-powered show business--was too glittery to resist. I had seen the play, called Heritage of Glory, and knew it was no better than its title. Still it would have to have been a lot worse than it was before I would have let it shut me out of this adventure. I told Claude I would come up to Boston and see. …

I went in and saw the play again. It was about the thirty-year-old son of a famous general. The general, who was meant to suggest MacArthur, had died on Bataan; the son, after competent but undistinguished war service, was back in civilian life trying to cope with the public’s memory of his father and with his wife’s and little son’s hero-worship of the old man. …

I watched the show and made mental notes. The script was worse than I had remembered. This made me feel fine. I saw, as the thing progressed, how I would slash, rewrite, insert. The work would have been harder for a better play. The show went by like a patient on a stretcher, and I was the surgeon who would operate. The worse the case, the more I would shine.

Later that night there was a meeting in Bernie Manheim’s suite at the Ritz. Bernie was the producer. He was also a sailor in the U.S. Navy. It was now only a few months after the war’s end, and Bernie had not yet been discharged. He had enlisted in the navy three years before because he had connections and could get himself stationed at Church Street in New York with light duty.

Bernie looked like a thug. He had a bull chest, a flat nose, a truculent mouth, and he walked with his hands usually clenched in fists. His voice and his speech were like an assault. The paradox of his face was his gray eyes, which were beautiful. I had heard stories from Claude and others, often told with a proud grin, that Bernie had been a top mobster in the wholesale produce markets and was very rich, that he had been in various troubles with the police and once had narrowly escaped a murder charge. True or not, the story didn’t strain belief.

Bernie had arrived at the Ritz while I was at the performance. His pea jacket and sailor hat were on the sofa next to him. He and I had met before, and he shook hands with scowling seriousness. Zack Someroff, the business manager of the production was with him. Zack was a sweet-faced dimpled man, witty, formerly handsome, now fat with compulsive eating. Bernie ordered sandwiches, to go with the drinks already in the room, and Zack ate most of the food, chuckling and shrugging as he attacked each fresh sandwich. …

Very soon Bernie said, “OK, let’s cut the shit already.” He said to me, “The thing, the whole thing is, do you think you can improve this fucking show?”

I said, “Bernie, a child of five could improve it. I can improve it about two hundred percent, I guess, at a minimum, but I’m not sure that then it will really be any good.”

Zack chuckled in his disarming way, as if this scene, like all of his life, were being performed for his amusement. “If you made it too good,” he said, “you’d only upset Bernie’s accountants. Just make it good enough to bring in.” To New York, of course. “So we don’t look like total slobs. What you saw tonight we just can’t bring in.”

“How much time do we have?” I asked.

Michael decided it was time to make his presence felt. “Not much. But I’ve been working out a rehearsal schedule--“

“Wait a minute,” said Bernie, “what’s not much?” To me he said, “I already discussed with Zack. We’ll close Saturday here. We’ll save here a week. Tomorrow Zack calls Marvin.” Marvin was the manager of the Broadway house they had booked. “We’ll see whether we can put off for a week the opening, at half rent. That shithead owes me a favor. I got him that red-headed usher he’s banging these days, right this moment, I bet. He owes me one.”

Zack smiled benignly at me. “Now you’re in show business.” …

It was moving fast, it was whirling around me, I was the center. I loved it. I felt I had been born for the moment. …

“All right,” I said, announcing a decision I had made the moment Claude telephoned me in New York. “I’ll do it.”

Michael coughed happily and swigged at the medicine he took from his topcoat pocket. “Fabulous,” he wheezed. Behind him Claude glowed.

The members of the cast welcomed me with hardly a grumble. Partly this was because they knew they were in trouble and help of some kind was needed. Partly it was because Claude had propagandized for me, partly because Zack told them I reminded him of his famous cousin when young, partly because Michael had a rapidly swelling sense of incompetence and wanted to get out from under a looming disaster by building me up as competent, therefore responsible. And partly it was because from the very beginning I did things to a script that showed a grip.

The only one who disliked me was an ancient actress named Florence Forbes--I had books at home with pictures of her as an ing?nue in the 1890s--who played the hero’s mother, widow of the great general. I disliked her first. She looked like the hero’s grandmother, and she played the role with every clich? she could remember and many that she didn’t have to think of because they were second nature to her. She was an old theater animal and must have scented my dislike of her under my restraint. Her dislike worked itself out by affecting her memory for new lines which, before my coming, she had handled well. The last night in Boston she took her little grandson on her lap, intending to console him with my new line, “Things look gloomy now, darling, but don’t worry, it’s all passing.” What she said was, “Things look gloomy now, darling, but don’t worry, it’s all permanent.”

By the time we were all on the train coming down from Boston, we were full of the elation of triumphant return, although we all knew that we were facing a week’s pause while I finished rewriting the script. Marvin, the Broadway theater manager, had agreed to a week’s postponement of the opening so that they would have some time to rehearse the new script. That railroad car was suffused with the Spirit of the Second Chance. …

What I remember most clearly about the week of rewriting are the praise and the club sandwiches. I can’t remember the actual writing. The pages spun through the machine--better, certainly, than they had been. I had lunch in the room every day, a club sandwich. I handed clumps of sheets every day to Michael and Zack--Sailor Bernie kept away--and Michael kept shaking his head in tight-lipped Hollywood awe and Zack just kept dimpling. I went home at night, tired but almost too happy to sleep, anxious to get back to the hotel room the next morning and write some more praise.

The set was ready at the Commodore; we went back uptown. Euphoria reigned. Everyone knew, which was true, that the show was getting better and better. “King Lear it ain’t,” said Paddy. “Maybe not even The Cherry Pickers. But at least now the curtain goes up and down right, and we don’t bump into each other.” He thought it was better than that. So did the others. …

The first dress rehearsal had gone smoothly. The second dress rehearsal went better. The audience was enthusiastic--not a full preview audience, just a couple of dozen people whom Zack had rounded up somewhere. Every laugh line got a laugh, every curtain brought applause. The air hummed backstage.

Then we opened.

 

Early the next morning I went out for some breakfast groceries. I felt that the few people in the street had read the reviews and were staring at me. Later I went out to get some things for lunch. I felt that the many people in the street were staring at me. When I went up to the theater that evening I thought that the crowds on Broadway were turning their backs on me and were looking at me over their shoulders.

In the theater itself the stagehands were consoling, the company sore but plucky. Rose Mackaye kissed me and gave me a flower for my buttonhole that she had brought from her windowbox at home. Michael looked like a captain who had given a lieutenant a chance that had been bobbled. “That’s the Army, lad,” his look seemed to say. “Shape up or ship out.” Claude seemed to keep himself behind Michael at all times, looking over Michael’s shoulder at me in sorrowful moist-eyed agreement. Bernie had disappeared. He had disappeared about halfway through the party after the opening at the luxe Central Park West apartment of a business friend of his, a partial backer of the show. When the reviews started to come in, Bernie had begun to get sloppily drunk. His wife, a birdy dyed blonde, had dragged the heavy sailor away. I never saw him again.

The reviews had been characteristically incompetent to discern the good elements of the show, like some of the performances, but in sum they were not unjust. They could not have been just to me because they could not take into account the script and the staging with which I had started. How often I and others had told ourselves not to see the improvements disproportionately. How little effect our own warnings had made on us. …

I was haunted by the idea of poetic justice, as if I had been punished for straying from the kind of theater to which I had once devoted myself. In one way I disliked the idea because it was possibly priggish, but mostly I was proud of it because I had really known such a devotion: and it could now mark me out for such a high idea as poetic justice.

Proud or not, right or not, I was homeless again. I had to find another country in which to be a citizen, let alone a king.

Stanley Kauffmann is the film critic for The New Republic.

By Stanley Kauffmann

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