Articles

How Stratford went to Broadway

The swirling violence of Tamburlaine had ended. The lights went up and a glittering audience stood and cheered. This is how Canada’s Stratford Festival Company gambled and worked for that moment

JUNE CALLWOOD March 3 1956
Articles

How Stratford went to Broadway

The swirling violence of Tamburlaine had ended. The lights went up and a glittering audience stood and cheered. This is how Canada’s Stratford Festival Company gambled and worked for that moment

JUNE CALLWOOD March 3 1956

How Stratford went to Broadway

The swirling violence of Tamburlaine had ended. The lights went up and a glittering audience stood and cheered. This is how Canada’s Stratford Festival Company gambled and worked for that moment

JUNE CALLWOOD

ON JANUARY 19 a Broadway marquee the color of new blood hung heavy over a surging opening-night crowd, dotted with ambassadors and celebrities, that had come to see the Stratford Festival Company of Canada in a sixteenth-century play called Tamburlaine the Great. Many in the audience saw the night as Canadian theatre standing tall, achieving its full growth after a largely unloved and faltering adolescence.

Inside the Winter Garden theatre, close to sixty Canadian actors and actresses were staring unbelievingly at their reflections in dressing-room mirrors. For all of them the night was the culmination of as many as twenty years of living on hope and not much food. The Broadway opening had happened at last; tension, panic and excitement watered their knees and turned their stomachs.

“This is the first time that our northern neighbor will have exported a major theatrical company,” Robert W. Dowling, chairman of the International Exchange Program of the U. S. State Department, had announced earlier. “It is an occasion worthy of tribute, which the State Department salutes.” (Few on Broadway

remember the tender French-Canadian play Ti-Coq, brought to New York a few years ago by Montreal’s Gratiën Gelinas. It closed after three performances.)

The boxes in the stately theatre had been draped with flags and bunting. Heads craned to watch Marlene Dietrich coming down the aisle, wearing two coats—a brocade one on top of a mink. Raymond Massey waited for an usher with his ticket stubs in his hand, and Franklin D. Roosevelt Jr. waved his program at a friend. A lovely woman in a sari leaned over the edge of the Pakistan ambassador’s box to stare at Jinx Falkenburg in a gold leather coat.

Behind the stage curtain, the production was receiving its final check. It had been reshaped, edited or restaged every day since its first performance two weeks before in Toronto. David Gardner, a burly young actor who was to deliver the prologue, waited in the darkness at the back of the stage and heard the orchestra in the pit play The Star Spangled Banner and, after a pause, God Save the Queen. He swallowed and tried to steady his breathing as the curtain slowly rose.

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THIN ON PLOT, HEAVY ON GORE, HERE’S THE PLAY THAT THE NEW YORKERS JUST WOULDN’T PAY TO SEE ►

How Stratford went to Broadway continued

It was nearly six hours later that the company of Tamburlaine learned that the play was a critical success. The American National Theatre and Academy, an organization interested in the exchange of national theatre groups all over the world, had invited the entire cast to a champagne supper in an elegant suite of an uptown hotel. The actors, newly scrubbed clean of the almost-black make-up that had covered most of their bodies, shouted as they read the review by Brooks Atkinson, the dean of New York critics, in the Times. Atkinson called them “the soundest classical company in North America.” Half an hour later the Herald Tribune was on the streets with Walter F. Kerr’s more tempered review. “They (the actors) are both virile and intelligent,” wrote Kerr, whose influence is equal to Atkinson’s, “and the scholars among us must be grateful for the bravado that has brought them to town in Tamburlaine.”

Kerr’s use of the word “bravado” was an intriguing one for observers of the theatrical phenomenon that is Tamburlaine. The Broadway production was the first time that Christopher Marlowe’s shapeless early work had ever been done in North America; it was the second time that it had been done professionally anywhere in the last three hundred and fifty years. The play is a curio that even Broadway, as it turned out, could not support for long. Despite the reviews, the company read on the theatre call board on January 28 that the show would be closing, two and a half weeks from its opening night.

The tendency to let Tamburlaine languish in the curricula of university courses in English was based on practical theatre values. The play itself, which ran five hours in its original version, is rich in language but destitute in plot and characterization. It requires an enormous cast, since even its present abridged version has one hundred and twenty-five speaking parts. The production costs, in addition to the staggering payroll, must also include about two hundred costumes and such effects as a carriage that can be drawn by men in harness, two elevated gold thrones and a steel cage big enough to contain a man. Before it opened on Broadway, Tamburlaine had cost almost a hundred thousand dollars.

As an added deterrent to reviving the theatrical monster, the role of Tamburlaine, the Scythian shepherd who conquered most of the fourteenth-century world, is the longest and most tiring in all dramatic literature. The actor who undertakes the part dominates the action in nearly every scene, leaving the stage only long enough to change his costume in the wings.

Broadway productions are always risky ventures but Tamburlaine the Great, for these reasons, seemed to many to be an excessively frail craft in which to launch Canadian theatre on Broadway. Even after its critical approval in most New York papers, the controversy over the choice of the play continued to rage. The argument may never be resolved, but those who watched the Stratford Festival Company of Canada getting ready for its debut in New York will never forget the exhaltation and exhaustion of those crowded preparations; nor will any wrangling debate ever spoil for members of the Tamburlaine company the one perfect moment to treasure a lifetime of that curtain call the first night on Broadway.

The choice of the play actually was made by three men: Tyrone Guthrie, the brilliant English director who shaped something historic out of the fragile vision of the Canadian Stratford Shakespearean Festival during the past three summers; Anthony Quayle, a baby-faced English actor who had undertaken, through sheer idealism, to revive the flagging English Stratford Festival and be its director for eight years; and Roger L. Stevens, an American millionaire who produces fine plays in New York with a

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How Stratford went jf to Broadway

rather awe-inspiring disdain for cost.

Stevens, an enthusiast who automatically visits the nearest theatre whenever he travels, had seen Quayle perform in many Shakespearean plays at Stratford-on-Avon. He remarked last spring to the actor-director that Quayle hadn’t been seen on Broadway for nearly twenty years.

“I’d like to bring you to New York next season,” he told Quayle. “What would you like to do?”

A smile lit Quayle’s face. In 1951 he had witnessed the world’s first revival of Tamburlaine the Great, directed by Tyrone Guthrie with a cast of the Old Vic Company. Donald Wolfit had starred in the play, which had a successful run in London and at »Stratford-onAvon, and Quayle had watched the performance with mounting excitement.

“I’d like to do Tamburlaine,” he told Stevens, “with Dr. Guthrie directing.”

Guthrie was willing, Stevens was charmed and Quayle was delighted. The next question was to decide in which country the cast would be recruited. All three doubted that, in an era of dirty-jeans realism, a cast of actors trained to speak in classic pearshaped tones could be found in New York. Actors’ union difficulties precluded any possibility of bringing a cast from England.

“How about Stratford, Canada?” suggested Guthrie, who retired as active director there last year. It was agreed upon instantly. Stevens’ Producers’ Theatre, a partnership of three New York producers, had been interested in bringing the Canadian Stratford company to New York, though its interest previously had been of the ephemeral rather than the concreteoffer variety.

A short time later an arrangement was made in which the Stratford Festival Foundation of Canada would pay production costs for Tamburlaine—the scenery, props and costumes — and Producers’ Theatre would handle the

rest, including salaries. Stratford’s part of the bargain rose above the early estimates, to about forty thousand dollars. The funds came out of profits that had been set aside to cushion the Festival against a bad season. If Tamburlaine failed on Broadway and this summer’s plays failed at Stratford, the company would be ruined financially. It seemed reasonably unlikely the fates would deal such a double blow. Producers’ Theatre had the larger share of the expense: one week’s payroll amounted to nearly fifteen thousand dollars.

It was known from the beginning that Tamburlaine could not make much profit for its investors. It was advertised for a limited eight-week run in New York to permit the Canadians to make a movie of Oedipus (presented for two seasons at Stratford) before beginning rehearsals for the coming summer’s Stratford Festival. Harold Kusell, company manager of Tamburlaine, estimated that it would require the full eight-week run, with capacity audiences, for Tamburlaine to break even.

“If your main concern in the theatre is making money, you don’t do plays like this one,” explains Robert Whitehead, one of the three partners in Producers’ Theatre. (Stevens and Dowling are the others.) Whitehead, a dapper handsome man thirty-nineyears old, is from Montreal, a former actor in New York who turned producer in 1947 and stunned the theatrical world with a production of Medea, starring Judith Anderson and John Gielgud. Whitehead frankly was tepid at the prospect of presenting Tamburlaine until he learned that Canada’s Stratford Festival Company was involved.

“I’d been waiting for a chance to bring a major Canadian theatre group to New York,” he told a reporter at a Tamburlaine rehearsal in Toronto. “This project suddenly interested me.”

Guthrie began rehearsals of Tamburlaine late in December in a basement

lecture hall at the University of Toronto. It was only three weeks before the opening night in Toronto’s Royal Alexandra Theatre. This was a shockingly brief time to rehearse, but because of the expense of so many salaries, rehearsal time had been reduced from the normal four to six weeks in an effort to keep costs down. Guthrie was depending, to offset this disadvantage, on his own familiarity with Tamburlaine and on the fact that most members of the company were accustomed to working together. Every performer came with his words already learned, including Quay le who had spent weeks absorbing more than a thousand lines.

“We won’t bother with a readthrough,” Guthrie announced calmly. “We’ll begin with the movement.”

The company began. Guthrie had recruited a cast that contained in its experience every aspect of the development of Canadian theatre. Almost everyone in the company had started in high-school drama clubs and churchbasement productions of James M. Barrie. Almost all had gone hungry and worn shabby clothes in order to act in a country that had no established theatre, but only small straining groups which usually flickered out in a vacuum of ennui. The knowledge that New York was the destination of Tamburlaine gave every rehearsal an extra dimension. All of the company cherished a vision of an opening night on Broadway, with the audience cheering and the critics ecstatic. A half dozen had come cruelly close, several had been in New York TV shows, but not one had ever been on a Broadway stage.

Clean laundry: no movie

Robert Christie, who had a good role as one of Tamburlaine’s captains, was one of the actors who had thought once before that New York was within his grasp. He returned from overseas in 1946 to be offered a part in a Broadway play, but he couldn’t get through border restrictions in time for the first rehearsal. Christie, a craggy-faced veteran of almost every major theatrical group in Canada, started acting in 1934 with the country’s first summerstock company at Bala, Ont., and went to Winnipeg in 1936 with the country’s first truly Canadian repertory company.

Another of Tamburlaine’s captains, William Hutt, cleaned chesterfields in Toronto after he decided in 1946 that he wanted to act. Last summer a New York producer, Kermit Bloomgarden, saw him in the Canadian Players’ production of Saint Joan, and asked him to read for a part in The Lark, a Broadway show that stars Julie Harris and Boris Karloff. It was his big break. He arrived at the theatre, was shown to the stage and handed a script. An actor had been hired to read opposite him. In the empty theatre sat the producer and some backers. Hutt was terrified; he read badly and lost the part.

Robert Goodier, who started acting for no salary in Montreal in 1932, was in an expensive production of Saint Joan which was headed for Broadway last winter. Its star, Jean Arthur, suffered a breakdown in Chicago, and the show closed. Goodier walked the streets of New York, looking for work as an actor; he stretched his money by eating only once a day. William Shatner, another of Tamburlaine’s captains, also started in Montreal, where he lived on thirty dollars a week. Twenty-eight dollars was required by his budget to eat and sleep; if he wanted to have his laundry done, he couldn’t see a movie.

Some members of the company were with the cast out of chauvinistic senti-

mentality. Lloyd Bochner, best known for his performance as Hamlet on Canadian television, turned down two offers of major roles in other Broadway productions in order to do a bit part in Tamburlaine. Goodier, whose part required him to be strung up in the air by his wrists and shot at with arrows, moaned that he was “an ant in a technicolor anthill,” but took his small part because of his respect for Guthrie and his desire—after twenty-four years in Canadian theatre—to be part of Canada going to Broadway.

The rehearsals went well, which is to say that utter chaos prevailed. Since Tamburlaine is essentially a one-man play, Guthrie’s genius for making bit players feel important was given infinite exercise.

“This is a dramatic moment for you, Peter,” he would say to an actor who had not a single line in the whole play. “This man is dying and you feel something. Show us you’ve hated him but you’re horrified at his death.”

The advance promotion for the Tamburlaine opening in Toronto spoke of “a cast of ninety-five,” which, one of the company dourly observed, must include the first three rows of the balcony. The company actually consisted of seventy-six, with most of the players doing two or even three parts. Of this number, twenty singers and dancers were from New York. The Americans were hired to help ease the cost of the payroll: the Equity union minimum for an actor at home is eighty-five dollars a week, and for an actor on tour one hundred and twenty dollars a week. During the New York run of the play, the Canadians would be considered on tour. The use of the Americans there saved approximately seven hundred dollars a week in salaries.

The first full dress rehearsal took place in Toronto’s Royal Alexandra Theatre the night before the Toronto opening. Technical crews, brought from New York, seemed busily certain of themselves and called instructions in broad Brooklynese. Guthrie, a lanky morose giant, stalked the aisles while Robert Whitehead slouched in a seat, making notes with the aid of a pencil flashlight.

After the first act Guthrie climbed angularly over the footlights and addressed his cast. “Robert Goodier, you’re fidgeting too much. Bill Hutt, you’re beating Don Davis much too timidly. You’ve got to show that you mean business and really lay it into him with your whip.”

He paused. “Is he hurting you?” he asked, reluctantly.

“No,” replied Davis.

“Fine, fine,” said Guthrie. “Now you’ll all have to get off the stage much more quickly ...”

“We’ll have to wing it opening night,” Whitehead observed after the rehearsal, using a television term to describe a show that has had little preparation. “We’re going to need every night of the Toronto run to get this in shape.”

His gloomy estimate turned out to be prophetic. The opening night of the Toronto run, attended by many of the city’s most prominent citizens, was made memorable by its catastrophes. A music cue went wrong during the opening moment, catching David Gardner after the first word of his prologue. He was forced to stand with his fist in the air for thirty long seconds until the music ended, and then begin his speech again. “In the interval, my whole life passed before my eyes,” he later remarked.

Tamburlaine contains a trick effect with arrows: Robert Goodier hangs by his wrists at the back of the stage while bowmen shoot arrows at him. Arrows

appear all over his body and he writhes and screams realistically. It’s a trick that startles and shocks — when it works. During the Toronto opening, the spring that controls the arrows that are hidden in Goodier’s costume failed, and the arrows rose languidly from the folds of his clothes, one at a time. During Barbara Chilcott’s death scene as Tamburlaine’s wife, someone backstage laughed long and hilariously. A ball-and-chain attached to the ankle of English actress Coral Browne, who co-starred with Quayle, made her mad scene somewhat ludicrous.

That night launched the dissension over the choice of Tamburlaine.' Many theatre goers in Toronto hated the production. “It’s an animated crime comic book,” snorted one patron. “Do you suppose they might be planning'to return with Son of Tamburlaine?” demanded another balefully, as the final curtain fell. Others overlooked the opening-night difficulties and were enraptured by the sweep of the spectacle, by the costumes and staging. “It’s theatre like a glorious tapestry,” observed one woman, “utterly magnificent.”

“I’ll bet five thousand dollars that it flops in New York,” a Toronto businessman remarked at a party. Lloyd Bochner heard of the offer. He found friends ready to help him cover the wager and phoned the businessman the next day. The businessman, startled, rapidly retracted his bet and wished Bochner well.

But the cast had little time for such diversions as betting with millionaires. In the ten days of the Toronto run, Guthrie called twenty-three rehearsals. Every day lines were lopped off speeches and the action quickened. Bochner suffered most of all, losing an entire scene next to the final scene— a fine spot for an actor to make himself memorable. William Cole, a twentyone-year-old musical-comedy singer, had only one line in Tamburlaine and this one was removed. Seven minutes were cut from the running time of the play, a considerable gain since, at Whitehead’s suggestion, many of the speeches were delivered more slowly to be better understood.

A few days after the Toronto opening, a carnival whipper named Tex Williams arrived from New York to join the company. He had been hired by Whitehead to enliven the several scenes of Tamburlaine in which whipping was required. Tex prided himself on his ability to cut a cigarette out of a woman’s mouth with his whip; he had performed, he announced, all the whip tricks in The Kentuckian, a movie starring Burt Lancaster. He rocked on his high-heeled cowboy boots and surveyed the members of the Canadian Stratford Festival Company, attired in goatskins and shields. “Man,” he said dolefully, “this is the craziest thing I’ve ever done.”

During the course of the Toronto run of Tamburlaine, Ernest Rawley, who is manager of the Royal Alexandra Theatre, observed that a perpetual line had formed from his box office to the street. Ticket sales were approaching a recordbreaking mark; a Wednesday matinee was sold out, a circumstance almost unprecedented. “It’s a hit!” Rawley told his friends. “It’s a palpable hit!” At the end of the run, the theatre had grossed about fifty-five thousand dollars, paying off Tamburlaine’s operating expenses in Toronto and leaving a small profit.

It cost Producers’ Theatre about

twenty-eight hundred dollars to move Tamburlaine from Toronto to New York. The sets, trunks, effects and costumes traveled in two boxcars. The cast rode a day coach, leaving Toronto shortly after dawn on a Sunday morning..

A redcap at Grand Central Station watched the company get off the train, stiffly tired and disheveled. “You people with a show?” he asked.

“Uh-huh,” one of the players said. “Ta mb urla ine. ’ ’

“Should be a hit,” said the redcap, gathering up some bags. “Got a real queer name.”

Most of the actors headed for hotels in the vicinity of the Winter Garden theatre, dropped their luggage in their rooms, then walked rapidly to the theatre.

It was a cold winter night, close to midnight, as they began to arrive under the red marquee. The signs were half painted, except for a banner that read, “The World Famous Stratford Festival Company—The Times,” but the front of the theatre displayed photographs,

eight feet high, of scenes from Tamburlaine. The Canadians walked from one picture to another, searching for themselves in the tangled groupings. Ted Follows, who played one of Tamburlaine’s sons, pulled his hands out of his overcoat pocket and observed that they were trembling.

“I hear this is a wonderful show,” said Dave Gardner, the actor who delivers the prologue, in a clear voice, as a group of pedestrians loitered to look at the pictures.

“It has those marvelous Canadian actors in it,” agreed William Hutt clearly.

Two men in narrow New York suits paused to stare idly at the display.

“This is the show that cost so much money, isn’t it?” one asked the other.

“Yeah, it’s from Canada. They got lots of dough up there.”

The next day, Monday, was an offday for the company to permit stage hands to set up Tamburlaine scenery.

Rehearsals began Tuesday afternoon and continued till midnight. Tamburlaine had to be restaged completely because the Winter Garden stage would not permit entrances and exits over the footlights and through the orchestra pit, as at Toronto’s Royal Alex.

“From Canada,” said a New Yorker eyeing the marquee. “Lots of dough up there.”

The actors bowed to a standing ovation. Most of them felt numb and some cried

The changes were tedious and minute, reflecting Guthrie’s passion for precision and perfection. Robert Christie, who had always made his entrance on the count of eight, quickened his timing and learned to enter on the count of six.

“Leave your costume alone!” Guthrie roared at Eric House. “You’re taking little suburban tweaks at it all the time!”

He paused to rearrange the fallen bodies on a staircase. “Thor,” he called, “try it with your left knee on the bottom stair; your left knee, you silly fool! No, take it back and go to the second step. That’s better.”

“Don’t breathe after the word ‘time’!” Guthrie shouted at another actor. “Unless I beat you every day you forget you’re not to breathe!”

While they worked, the Winter Garden spread its rows of scarlet seats in front of them. The theatre is the proudest possession of the Shuberts, set aside for nearly half a century for great musicals. In recent years Wonderful Town and Plain And Fancy played in the Winter Garden; in the Twenties Al Jolson sang Mammy for the first time in the Winter Garden, kneeling on a piano in the orchestra pit to get closer to the audience.

Rehearsal the following day began at ten-thirty in the morning, the cast and Guthrie taut with nerves and fatigue. Producers’ Theatre had invited about eight hundred students of New York High schools to attend a dress rehearsal performance, free of charge.

All through the afternoon, Guthrie and the cast worked over small movements. Quayle played his role without projecting his voice, to save his throat. A make-up man sat in the empty house, studying the effect of the lights on body make-up he was smearing on the chests, backs, arms and legs of most of the actors. Because of the extreme messiness of body make-up, the Tamburlaine company had found excuses to avoid wearing it in Toronto. They claimed that no showers were available to wash it off, that the color was wrong, that the human skin is too sensitive for so much make-up.

Producers’ Theatre was working out an ingenious solution to the shortage of showers, since the Winter Garden had but three. Anthony Quayle had one in his dressing room, Coral Browne and Barbara Chilcott shared another; this left one shower for seventy-three actors. It was decided to distribute pyjamas to the entire company, to be worn over the body make-up in order to protect street clothes from stain while the actors went to their hotel rooms to wash.

The company took an hour break at dinner time, just before the performance for the high-school students was to begin. Some put overcoats over their costumes and, with blood-stained headbands, hair in wild disarray and faces thick with make-up, went to the next-door drugstore for a hamburg. They ate stolidly, heavy with tiredness, and ignored the stares.

When the curtain went up for the performance early that evening, the actors could feel that the house was empty. A misunderstanding in the arrangements with the students had occurred; the theatre was sprinkled with fewer than forty people, most of them expensively dressed and regally mannered. Among them were actors Alec Guinness and Tyrone Power, and Sir Beverley Baxter.

The cast of Tamburlaine, relaxed by

weariness and the deserted feeling of the dark theatre, gave the finest performance in its till-then brief hectic career. “I’m afraid,” murmured the assistant director, Tom Brown. “I’m afraid they are too good tonight.”

The skimpy audience applauded while the cast, grinning broadly, practiced curtain calls. When the curtain came down, an electrician turned off all the lights but a bare-bulb working light over the stage, and Guthrie gathered the cast for a few final instructions.

“Eric, you are saying “croolest,” with two syllables, instead of erewel-est, with three. Watch that. And we’d better run through the scene with the three crowns again. You haven’t got the timing of the clapping right.”

The company rehearsed some more, going seven times over the entrance of a messenger that Guthrie wanted to have a shocking impact. When lie was satisfied, he called the cast together for the last time. They stood in a wide curve around him. Quayle, in a Paisley dressing gown, was heaving and his face shone with perspiration; some actors had done the scene in the newly issued pyjamas; the rest drooped in their gilded felt armor and draped cloaks, their faces sagging with exhaustion. Guthrie surveyed them slowly.

“Well,” he said softly at last, “hasn’t it been fun getting up a play. Good night.”

“Greatest Canadian uprising”

Most of the actors planned to put in the daylight hours the next day sleeping late, watching a movie in the afternoon and eating an early dinner. Instead they found themselves walking the streets of Broadway restlessly, meeting one another and having little to say.

No one in the cast, after the openingnight performance was over, could tell if Tamburlaine had been good or bad. They lined up, three rows deep and shoulder to shoulder, across the Winter Garden stage and bent their heads for six curtain calls. They heard the applause and the cheers, realized through the dazzle of the footlights that most of the audience was standing. Most of them felt numb and strange and some cried.

A few minutes later, William Shatner opened a bottle of champagne in the dressing room he shared with Robert Christie and William Hutt. Christie found, to his adult astonishment, that there were tears on his face. Hutt leaped to a chair and screamed with joy. Shatner passed the bottle and said fervently, “This is the happiest night of my life.”

The actors straggled out of the theatre some time later and went to hotel rooms to shower and dress for the party. They had an hour or two to wait for the early papers, twelve hours before all the seven critics in New York could be read. John Chapman of the News was still writing, calling Tamburlaine “the greatest Canadian uprising.” Tamburlaine was already doomed to be a connoisseur’s delight and a commercial failure. Succeeding performances were played to houses more than half empty, despite the unanimous appreciation of the critics for Guthrie and his Canadians. Within three weeks the actors were trailing home to Toronto and Montreal to look for work at the CBC to fill the gap. But no member of Tamburlaine would ever forget that night when Canada’s Stratford Festival Company opened on Broadway,