Comedy Satire Irony and Deeper Meaning.
by Christian Dietrich Grabbe.
This was the first play I can lay claim to directing. I was a student of Drama and English at Manchester University at the time and I was in my final year so it must have been 1966.
Each year in England the National Union of Students put on a play festival, and each University could submit a production for consideration. It was a competition, and it culminated in those productions which had been selected, all coming together in the same week and staging their work, one after the other, at one of the universities. It was quite an occasion and the competition was fierce. A winner was chosen by the leading drama critics of the day. Critics such as Harold Hobson, J. W. Lambert and Benedict Nightingale were in attendance. In those days their reviews could make or break a professional production. Some people thought that success at the N. U. S. Drama Festival was a passport to the professional theatre – and perhaps it was, though not in my case.
I offered to direct a play and suggested this little known work – little known to English audiences that is – as I thought it would be bright and lively and probably very funny. The play was originally brought to my attention by a good friend, Anne Marie Fearon, as she had seen it at the Traverse theatre in Edinburgh. As far as I was concerned, if it was good enough for the Traverse, it was good enough for me.
Well the Drama Committee at Manchester liked the play and so I received the green light, which was for them a bit of a gamble really as I knew next to nothing about directing. Nor, in fact, did I know much about German theatre of the early 19th Century either. Nor apparently did anyone else. Quite a number of people assumed that I had written the play with this strange title, and was using Seedy Grabber as my pseudonym!
In view of what was to happen later, let me just say that I directed the play as well as I could. I was more or less following my instincts as an actor, but I was not sending the play up or out to attack the audience, or the critics or any of the other things that I was later accused of doing. I did edit the play as some bits seemed laboured and I did rewrite some bits which seemed obscure, but otherwise I tried to follow the plot.
And here is the plot.
It is a hot summer’s day. We are in the middle of a forest where four scientists discover a strange bundle. Disputing what this might be, they carry it to a baron’s castle nearby. There the strange object turns out to be the Devil himself. He has come to earth to escape from the spring cleaning in Hell. However, he has fainted from cold since the hot summer temperature on earth is, to him, unbearably cold. However, in the castle he recovers, settling happily on the burning fires of the fire-place.
But being the Devil he immediately starts making mischief. He buys a beautiful young bride from her groom. This is not difficult to do, as the groom, heavily in debt, is not really interested in the girl at all, but only in her dowry. The devil then promises the young woman to a man who is lusting after her, but on condition that he first kill thirteen tailor apprentices!!!
Inadvertently, the devil gives away his identity by asking a blacksmith to fix a new horse shoe to his hoof. This inspires the drunken school teacher to organize the construction of a cage, in which they will put a copy of Casanova’s memoirs as bait for the devil. This turns out to have been a good idea, and the Devil gets trapped,
Meanwhile, another man, who has just returned from Italy, manages to liberate the young girl from the clutches of the man to whom she had been promised by the devil. At which point the Devil’s grandmother comes along, accompanied by her servant, the Emperor Nero, and together they liberate her clamouring grandson, the Devil, from the schoolteacher’s cage. They take him back to hell, where the spring cleaning has finally been completed.
With the Devil safely out-of-the-way, the young girl is free to marry her liberator. .
As you can see, it is, actually, a very funny play, but the convoluted story is difficult to sustain. The style I more or less chose for the production owed something to Aristophanes, something to Music Hall and a lot to farce. It also had lots of music ranging from the grand march from Verdi’s Aida to (I think) Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue and Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor.
The designer was Richard (Dick) Rothrock, from the USA. He had joined the Drama Dept. diploma programme, and his sense of theatre and his love of things radical were a source of great strength. The design consisted mainly of coloured blocks, all of different sizes, and ramps which we could move about. The design pushed me out of any thought of Naturalism set. It was bright and cheerful and allowed the action to flow quickly. We got on well, Dick and I a he challenged me and made me ask interesting questions of myself and my assumptions. Apart from being a strong influence on the play, Dick was ultimately responsible for my being invited to work in America. But that is another story.
We had a splendid and very talented cast led by Knight Mantell who played the drunken school master, John Downie who played the Devil, Mike Weller, Linda Broughton who played the cheerful maid …. I wish I had a programme to hand, though I doubt if any still exist. I have written to Manchester university to see if the Drama Soc. still has any in their archives, but they inform me that none of the stuff from the ‘old days’ can be found.
I remember little of the rehearsal process, except that it was fun, and at time hilariously funny. Knight Mantell as the drunken school teacher with his pupil was a special gem. I do recall being surprised at the way the play started to come together. I found that as I watched the actors reactions to one another and saw the ways they moved and the patterns they made, ideas simply came to me. If this was directing, it didn’t seem too complicated and the actors seemed to be happy…. and so was I
The performances at Manchester in the newly constructed University theatre were well received on the whole, and somewhat to our surprise we were invited to the final in Bradford.
Regarding the actual performance in Bradford..
The time in Bradford was a blur. I can’t remember sleeping. I recall that we had difficulties adapting the set to fit the smaller Bradford theatre. Arranging the lighting, sound etc. was a nightmare. Luckily we had the technical director from the Drama Dept. with us, whose name, sadly, I can not recall, but to whom I owe a great debt of gratitude. Without him, and his energy and his knowledge, I doubt if we would have had a performance at all. Many of the cast also helped, so it was a team effort.
During the day before we were scheduled to perform we had a rehearsal in a loading bay, and Knight Mantell was taken ill and for a while it looked as though I might have to take his part. That would not have worked. I could never have learned the lines in time, and in any case, he had made the role his own. We were all greatly relieved when he said he felt well enough to perform. However, we had not had a decent rehearsal on the set and I this, and the quantity of adrenalin that was flowing, meant that the actual performance went somewhat over the top.
Unfortunately I did not get to see the performance! I was in the wings for a while, so I knew we had got off to a good start. Then, for some reason, I had to go up to the tiny space where the lights were controlled. I could just hear the production but not see it – a design fault in the building if ever there was one. Anyway, I could hear there was much laughter and some shouting and I thought, “It all seems to be going well.” I was not aware until later that there had been some ad-libbing at the critics expense or that water had been sprinkled about. To this day I do not know what happened exactly except that the critics felt offended.
The day after the performance there was the usual critical forum which, of course I attended. When it came to Comedy, Satire etc. J. W. Lambert asked if the director was present. I stood up and was astonished that immediately that the people who were near me, none of whom I knew, moved away from me. I gathered that the critics were angry, and there was one unfortunate incident. J.W. Lambert asked me a long question – it seemed to go on and on – and I lost track of what he was talking about, so when he had finished, I asked “Could you repeat the question please?” This evoked laughter – I may have laughed too as I was a bit spaced out – but the net result was that they thought I was ‘taking the piss’ again and they moved on without any further ceremony.
After the critical feedback meeting, a few people came up to me and said they thought it was bloody good, and not to take the comments too hard. That was nice but I was not too bothered. By now I knew that one of the critics had been seemingly threatened with a sword…. and that lines had been ad-libbed. But if I compare this with the kind of reactions theatre has evoked in times gone by, it seems pretty insignificant and totally within the spirit of the play. Many years later I was to direct The Accidental Death of an Anarchist and that play brilliantly combined satire which could get under the skin with brilliant humour.
Later that day, as I was leaving the building, a small, and clearly disturbed, group approached me and accused me of anti-Semitism! They started shouting and I thought I was going to be involved in a punch-up. I pointed out that it was true that the original play had anti-Semitic sentiments, but the production did not. Indeed the performance we gave poked fun at a lot of things and that they, by protesting in this way, were being a bit ridiculous themselves. I can’t be certain but I think I was getting a bit angry by this point. Everyone seemed to be taking pot shots at me and at the production, but yet the audience had been happy to fall into the aisles laughing and standing on their seats the previous night.
Later still I was told that a group wanted to see me in the scene dock. The person who brought the news would not tell me what it was about, and so I thought “Right this is it.” I assumed that it was the same group and so I looked round for some of the cast to go with me. I figured we could give as good as we received. But I could not find anyone, so I went alone. And lo and behold, there were a number of the cast. They had bought some vodka and rum to give me All was well. The next day we packed up and left. I saved those bottles for many months, I was so moved by this act of generosity.
The critics were true to their word. Here are some comments they offered. I am quoting from memory, so please forgive me if I get some things wrong, and I can not remember who said what.
“Phil Mann’s production of Comedy …etc was a riot.”
“If there was a single good thing I could say about this production I would; but there isn’t.”
“This production of Comedy… etc brought the N. U. S. Drama Festival to its lowest ebb in its ?? year history.”
Some years later when I returned to England from America, I was attending a drama meeting and the topic turned to the N.U.S. festivals. I did not reveal the fact that I had once been involved. Someone was reminiscing and said, “But did you see that production of Comedy, Something and Something a few years ago?” Immediately there was laughter, and I heard the stories about how funny it was, and how no one knew what to expect next and how the critics had been abused etc. etc.” When I was asked if I had seen it, I could reply quite truthfully, that “No. I had not.” But to this day, I wish I had.
I shall be interested to hear comments from anyone who saw and remembers this production.