Dear Larry and Tony: Thank you.
Out all day on Monday, and off my feed yesterday.
At the risk of making a fool of myself before anyone with a copy of the script, Moby Dick Rehearsed, let me try to meet your request to tell you my memories of a London night, just about fifty years ago, this month.
Unlike impressions of a film which are concentrated by the camera and a single focal point on the screen, theater can be a more a more diffuse experience. Memory and time play tricks with one. But my concentration was certainly drawn to this production of Moby Dick Rehearsed. And the fact that so many of the cast -- Patrick McGoohan (The Prisoner), Gordon Jackson (Upstairs, Downstairs), Kenneth Williams (the CARRY ON . . . series), and Joan Plowright (soon to be Mrs. Laurence Olivier, a distinguished stage actress in her own right) -- later became household names, only added to my pleasure and concentration over many years.
It was at the Duke of York's Theater in early July, I should think, of 1955. I was in the last six months of U.S. Army Service, which I'd spent mostly in England (Lakenheath, East Anglia). My beautiful girlfriend at the time, Rosemary Hayward, a graduate of Teatro Conti, who worked at Keith Prowse, the ticket bookers in Baker Street, called my attention to a three week engagement of an original play in two acts by Orson Welles, Moby Dick Rehearsed. Rosemary was very high on Welles, having enjoyed the Orson Welles Sketchbook series on BBC Television, and I had not too long before seen a revival of CITIZEN KANE, at the Baker Street Classic Cinema -- the first time I'd seen the film since I was a kid, fourteen years before. Rosemary saw Welles' play in its opening week and urged me to see it, too.
She got me tickets, and coming down by train, Friday afternoon, on a weekend pass from Brandon to Liverpool Street Station, I went over to Baker Street on the Bakerloo line, and picked them up from her. She had to work late, but we agreed to meet for a late supper to talk about the production.
It was a warm summer's night in London, the temperature all of 60 degrees, so heat-exhausting that the publicans were taking the rare step of serving bottles of imported Carlsberg Ale, perhaps with a drop of lime, from ice filled wooden buckets behind the bar.
Continuing on, I found the audience gathered at the Duke of York's, a classic theater with excellent sightlines, and though I was seated some distance from the stage, just beyond what was then called (perhaps, still) the Dress Circle, I was able to see clearly the action, take in the hall's magnificent high proscenium, admire its raked stage and a thrust, which came out a fair way into the house.
Some men, workmen of sorts by their dress, were milling around on the stage. They were tying off on either side of the stage heavy hemp ropes, which hung down from the flys, as if they were drapes, further defining the space. Other men were chatting, smoking cigarettes, reading over copies of a script, or moving around ladders and trolleys. The Stage Manager (Peter Sallis) gave directions and asked some of the men to assist him. All of this went on for a few minutes, as the Stage Manager strode back and forth, on and off stage, looking at this, adjusting that. Suddenly, on an entrance, he announced that "the Maestro" was on his way in, and we realized that, without quite knowing it, the play, set in a late Nineteenth Century repertory theater, had begun.
The Maestro or Actor Manager (Orson Welles), dressed very much as he does in F FOR FAKE, in a long cape, seven league boots, and an Italianate hat with feather, appeared with his protegee, a Young Actress (Joan Plowright). He ordered the cast and crew to take their places for a scene in The Merchant of Venice or King Lear, I can't remember which, but after a another few minutes, for reasons I've also forgotten, he called a halt to that. I think the gist of it was, that they were just not up to Shakespeare, and that instead he was going to have them do an old crowd-pleasing melodrama, Moby Dick, from their trunk, which they had presented to audiences at another theater a week or so before.
The Actor Manager assigned the cast to their previous parts, and when it was pointed out that they had no one to play Pip, the Black cabinboy, he assigned the young actress to the part.
Some of the ensemble complained at the change of plans, but the Actor Manager gave them firm orders. The ropes were brought down again and became the rigging of the Pequod. A stepladder was stowed Stage Left as a long boat. Some men were directed to sing sea chanteys. One to play a harmonica. The others took their places, the Actor Manager made a gesture, and the house went black.
A pin spot illuminated a man (Gordon Jackson), seated with hands around his knees, at the tip of the thrust.
"Call me, Ishmael."
Ishmael explained how he had come to Nantucket and become a part of the crew of the Pequod through his interview with Captain Peleg (Jefferson Clifford). I don't remember Queequeg, but the Indian harpoonier, Tashtego (Joseph Chelton), may have taken his place in the dramatization. The Actor Manager disappeared to reappear as Father Mapple, delivering his stern sermon about Jonah and the Whale, and on the necessity of free and godly men to do their duty in standing up against evil and tyranny in the World. Later still, he emerged as Captain Ahab to give the crew their mission, to seek the White Whale, Moby Dick, which had maimed him, and so many of their fellow seafarers.
To hunt him down to the ends of the earth, until he rolled over, spouting black blood.
Much talk and lore -- before, after and in between -- of whaling and the fearsomeness of Moby Dick, sometimes emended or corrected by the Actor Manager.
My memory does not record if there was an actual break between Act One and Act Two. If so, I must have remained in my seat, possibly enjoying a coffee and light refreshment, which back then, attractive young women in dark dresses, white aprons and little caps, brought on previous order to your seat.
Act Two definitely got us into deep water. There were whale hunts, storms, threats of mutiny, and the first sightings of Moby Dick, who appeared to swim somewhere above our heads. The crew climbed and scrambled up the rigging for a better look. Sheet metal and flashing lights became thunder and lightning. Captain Ahab kept the innocent Pip close to him, sending him (her) to and fro as a kind of gofer and confidant. Starbuck (Patrick McGoohan), the First Mate, led opposition to Ahab, who was ignoring the legitimate hunt, in order to go on his crazy quest for a murderous white whale.
At the climax of the play, almost the whole crew, carrying polls to serve as oars and harpoons, or maybe they just faked it, somehow managed to hang off the stepladder-long boat upended toward the audience, rocking back and forth (with Ahab at their apex, exhorting them onward), their eyes stark in the flashing of lights, and the sound of wind-dashed waves causing them to shriek, as they faced their monster -- US!!
It was an unforgettable moment in the theater.
And after the Pequod had been sundered, and Ishmael saved by the curtain, the players came out to ringing applause.
Then, following several bows, Orson Welles stepped forward to thank the audience. As he took a further step, a flyweight fell from on high with a startling, bursting thump to the stage, spraying white sand all over the boards where he had stood a second before. Welles chuckled intimately, leaned forward, and said that forces had been trying to keep him and his casts from us for years, but they would not succeed. He urged us to go dragoon our friends and acquaintances, if we had enjoyed what we had seen, to come back to the Duke of York's in the remaining week(s) of the run of Moby Dick Rehearsed.
Meanwhile, he would remain our Obedient Servant.
Half an hour later, I was enjoying a glass of red wine with the lovely Rosemary at Genaro's in Soho, discussing Moby Dick Rehearsed, and preparing to devour a very strange, exotic Sicilian dish, unknown to the ordinary American at the time -- Pizza!
And so . . .
Ladies and Gentlemen [as I remember it all], that is the end of the story.
Last edited by Glenn Anders
on Mon Nov 05, 2007 11:43 pm, edited 1 time in total.