Palace and Garden

by Robert Brustein | July 8, 2002

Maria Stuart may not seem like the perfect project for Ingmar Bergman's biannual exploration of classical texts. Written in 1800, some years after Schiller had completed The Robbers and Don Carlos, it is a typical product of Sturm und Drang--more workable perhaps as an opera libretto than as a dramatic text. Maria Stuart has a lot of strong scenes, particularly the confrontation between the two rival queens and the Machiavellian plotting of the treacherous courtiers. Indeed, it is not only Schiller's most powerful play; it may be the best imitation extant of Shakespearean tragedy.

That is not faint praise. Shakespeare was imitated so much that the proprietary Germans of Schiller's generation used to refer to him as unserer Shakespeare. Schiller taught himself Shakespeare's knack for probing the nasty psychological motives beneath the courtly gambits and the heroic attitudes of political life. But Maria Stuart also displays some of the limitations of German bardolatry, namely a style that oscillates wildly between soaring poetry and heavy declamation, between psychological intimacy and starchy posturing, and a plot driven largely by the interception of a few incriminating letters. (Brecht was later to satirize these conventions mercilessly in Saint Joan of the Stockyards.)

Like so many playwrights drawn to this subject (Maxwell Anderson was another), Schiller was no doubt mesmerized by its two female roles. So, apparently, is Bergman. Two queens from the same family line, one Protestant, the other Catholic; one an aging spinster, the other a sensual inamorata; one a guilt-ridden executioner, the other a defiant victim--what tasty meat for hungry classical actresses! The current production certainly gives Bergman regulars Pernilla August (Maria) and Lena Endre (Elisabet) a splendid opportunity to stalk each other like two ravenous jaguars. In fact, the production by the Royal Dramatic Theatre of Sweden, which recently had a four- day run at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, is filled with striking scenes and strong performances. (I was particularly moved to see the great Bergman stalwart Erland Josephson playing the minor role of Mary's counselor Melvil.)

But as one who suffered through another version of this work initiated two seasons ago by the American Conservatory Theater, what kept me most engaged during the opening formalities was trying to guess how the director could make this sometimes stuffy heroic masterpiece conform to his obsessions with political brutality and unbridled sexual appetite. I was remembering Bergman's unforgettable Hamlet, in which Claudius took Gertrude from behind in full view of the court, as well as his Peer Gynt, in which the horny hero competed with the lubricious trolls for the prize of Satyr of the Week. In Bergman's theatrical world, there are no humanitarians or idealists, only vandals and lechers driven by resentment, vengeance, and insatiable lust--a worldview that begins to seem prophetic after September 11.

The director certainly manages to keep the play active and moving from its earliest, most ceremonial moments. Gorn Wassberg's setting is a platform stage decorated with a huge emblem of England in front of which English courtiers dressed in Charles Koroly's crimson costumes enter with a courtly bow. The scrim behind the setting changes color according to the moods of the play and the whims of the director. But the physical and psychological muscles of the production are flexed for one inexorable purpose: the eventual execution of Mary, Queen of Scots.

Although Queen Elizabeth I and Mary Stuart probably never met, in Schiller they share a single powerful scene. In Bergman's production, on the other hand, the two women are almost never out of each other's earshot. Bergman created a similar sense of ubiquity in Hamlet: even after her suicide, Ophelia continued to be a ghostly on-stage character. Here, sharing the same platform stage, Elisabet listens to counselors while Maria meets with her advisers and lovers, and Maria hears the voices of the court while Elisabet decides her fate.

That fate is foreordained. Mary Stuart represents a dire political threat to Elizabeth, especially since the queen has no progeny. It is not simply that, in league with the Earl of Bothwell, Mary had her husband Darnley murdered. More threatening than Mary's homicidal past is her Roman Catholicism, which has the potential to revolutionize Protestant England. Despite all Elizabeth's efforts, the Stuarts do eventually assume the throne of England--first James I and then his son Charles I, who loses his head to Oliver Cromwell over much the same religious differences.

In contrast with the thrice-married Mary, Elizabeth's "wish has always been to die unwed." Nevertheless, in her scene with Leicester, this redheaded Virgin Queen mounts her prone lover while discussing affairs of state, after which he rips open her bodice and she strokes his crotch. (Leicester, by the way, aside from conducting simultaneous affairs with the two queens, seems to be grabbing the behind of every available waiting woman.)

Some critics have bridled at Bergman's sexual interpolations. But he is simply trying to expose the private reality behind the public faade (he also lets Endre's Elisabet enjoy an occasional cigar). In short, every Bergman production is another tile in his mosaic of revisionist history. When Maria, preparing for death, takes off her dark gown to display a red dress and crucifix, removes her black wig to reveal a shock of white hair, and kisses Leicester fiercely on the way to the block, we realize that we are in the presence of an eighty-three-year-old theater artist at the height of his powers.

Currently playing at the Manhattan Theatre Club are the British playwright Alan Ayckbourn's House and Garden. Both plays are based on a stunt that has attracted a lot of press attention--namely, that the same characters (and actors) appear in both plays simultaneously. You have probably already read about how the actors are required to shuttle between City Center Stage I and City Center Stage II and back again for each scene in order to make their entrances on time, including consecutive curtain calls. What occupied me most during this interminable evening of theater was trying to figure out some way to walk out on both plays at the same time.

That being physically impossible, I resolved to endure a complete performance of Garden on a Saturday evening and then give House a big skip at the Sunday matine. Each of these plays takes two and a half hours to perform (by a slowly ticking clock). To see both back-to-back is to spend a total of five hours with these insufferable people, which is an hour more than O'Neill asks us to spend with the Tyrones in A Long Day's Journey Into Night--and that's an interesting family. Now I know what Horace meant when he said that life was short and art was long.

Having been privy only to what happened in the garden, I cannot tell you what went on in the house. But given the limitations of this kind of writing, it's not hard to guess. Ayckbourn gestures toward telling a story in the Mayfair tradition, but the plots of these plays are purely incidental. What they are actually about is how the same actors play the same roles in two different plays and places. In this Upstairs, Downstairs world, most of the upper-class characters are slinking about having affairs, hiding behind rosebushes, and jumping into pools, while the lower orders are busy expressing their disapproval. The housekeeper spouts malapropisms such as "The beef will be indelible" or "I've been held up and humidified," while the gardener spends a lot of time chewing his tongue disdainfully like Barry Fitzgerald in Bringing Up Baby. Actors are perpetually making metronomic entrances and exits, obviously in order to get upstairs to the next theater on time, so that a reviewer becomes less concerned with evaluating their performances than with measuring their blood pressure. As a result, I cannot tell you what I thought of the actors aside from the fact that they managed their British accents all right, and I cannot make a judgment on John Tillinger's direction other than to say that, like Mussolini, he made the trains run on time.

Garden (and one may assume House as well) is written in the style of Michael Frayn's considerably funnier farce Noises Off. It is a genre in which the gimmick is forced to do the work of the imagination. Writing such as this puts the British theater in a time warp to the world of such immortals as Ben Travers and Benn Levy and Frederick Lonsdale, all of whose plays seemed to have been set in Berkshire featuring the same nerveless characters. It was a period when nothing more serious broke across the brows of the theatergoing public than whether the breakfast eggs had been sufficiently coddled or whether the serving maid had showed up late for lunch with her knickers missing.

In 1955, my colleague Kenneth Tynan wrote a piece lamenting "The Lost Art of Bad Drama." He was thinking of a whole genre of successful bad plays whose elements he described like this:

At no point may the plot or characters make more than superficial contact with reality. Characters earning less than L1000 a year should be restricted to small parts or exaggerated into types so patently farcical that no member of the audience could possibly identify himself with such absurd esurience. Rhythm in dialogue is achieved by means either of vocatives ("That, my dear Hilary, is a moot point") or qualifying clauses ("What, if you'll pardon the interruption, is going on here?"); and irony is confined to having an irate male character shout: "I am perfectly calm!" ... Women ... should declare themselves by running the palm of one hand up their victim's lapel and saying, when it reaches the neck: "Let's face it, Arthur, you're not exactly indifferent to me."

Tynan's requiem for the thoroughly bad play was premature. With Ayckbourn's Garden (and presumably with House as well), it is enjoying a splendid renaissance.

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