It’s always bracing to get to Mary McCarthy’s savage and dazzling pieces in her ‘Theatre Chronicles’ for Partisan Review. Last time, you may recall, she gave what-for to Clifford Odets, and in this issue (Vol 4, No.3, 1938), John Gielgud and Orson Welles are chastised for their acting and directing sins. What makes it a fascinating read is its place with the developing positions of Partisan Review in its opening issues. Here McCarthy attacks from what we might think of as an ultra-left position — that is, she finds in Welles’ anti-fascist production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar a politically under motivated version, and in Gielgud’s Hamlet, a dated and overly ornamented throw-back. [This reminds me of the now apparently disappeared RevolutionaryCommunistParty of the 1980s and 1990s– whose main theoretical strategy was to take anything the general left campaigned for and interpret it as a counter-revolutionary act. But enough of the internecine struggles of a now disbanded group.]
But Mary McCarthy’s ‘Theatre Chronicles’ were her first and perhaps her most enthusiastic pieces of writing: by enthusiasm, I mean the energy of her wisecracks and the glow of pride that gleams through the lines of her writing.
McCarthy’s distinguished biographer, Frances Kernan, assembled quotations from fellow PR writers, which suggest that MacCarthy was given the job of writing about theater because she was Philip Rahv’s girlfriend at the time. including Lionel Abel’s inimitable words:“I think its probably true that they gave it to her because Rahv and Phillips didn’t think it was important. “About the dtheater she was almost always wrong.”
When she published her collection of writing on the theater, McCarthy straightforwardly agree: “If I made mistakes, who cared? Being an Editor, at least in name, I had to be allowed to do something, and the ‘Theatre Chronicle” was “made work” , like the W.P.A. jobs of the period. I could not fail to see this or to be aware that nobody had much confidence in my powers as a critic.”
Returning to the ‘Chronicle’ at hand, McCarthy begins by continuing with what I take to be a general position among the anti-stalinist left (particularly with respect to what was turning into the Socialist Realism of the CP) that at the present stage of capitalism and of Stalinism, the American theater was in decline, even in it death throes. She begins:“The American Theater, unable to produce a renaissance of its own, has imported an old one. With the withering away of the American playwright the Elizabethan playwright has been called in to understudy.”
Revivals of Shakespeare’s plays now substitute for originality, she argues, and those revivals attempt to make the plays connect with contemporary audiences and issues. But McCarthy, finds that rather than using “new techniques” these new productions “play tricks” on Shakespeare’s works. She first makes fun of the competition among various revivals as “an annual Shakespearean World Series seems to have been written into the rules of the game. Last year it was John Gielgud verse Leslie Howard as the ball park; this year it will be Orson Welles versus Maurice Evans with Henry IV, Part I.” Then she moves to a more serious interpretation. She says that Gielgud is obsessed with the acting traditions of Hamlet, and that in the recent production, Gielgud “appears to have set up a virtual barricade of stage props between himself and the lines of the play.” And “His own performance was so decorated, so crammed with minutiae of gesture, pause, and movement that its general outline was imperceptible to an audience.” I think she is particularly annoyed that Gielgud would want to revive the techniques of the great actor-manager of the 19th century, Henry Irving. “He seems always more interested in his differences or agreements with, say, Sir Henry Irving, as to whether or not a sword should be worn at a certain point, than in any less conspicuous physical feature of the production.” Its all so old-fashioned, a rearguard action against the Modernism of PR. below: Gielgud as Hamlet; Irving as Hamlet.
McCarthy’s comments on Orson Welles’s production of Julius Caesar aappear to be intended to humiliate Welles by pointing to his political naivety. In this case it may be that Welles’ association with the Communist Party was an added incentive for McCarthy’s critique.
“If Mr. Gielgud’s production was a sort of ornamental appliqué imposed on the original, Mr. Welles’ Caesar was a piece of plastic scenery.” MacCarthy argues that Welles’ idea of producing a Julius Caesar in modern dress was in order to “say something about the modern world, to use Shakespeare’s characters to drive home the horrors and inanities of present-day fascism. I cannot believe that Mr. Welles issue ignorant of Roman history that he can equate Caesar with black reaction and Brutus with progressivism, when the exact opposite was the case. The core of her criticism is that:
“Julius Caesar is about the tragic consequences when it attempts to enter the sphere of action. In a non-political sense it is a ‘liberal’ play, for it has three heroes, Caesar, Antony, and Brutus, of whom Brutus is the most large-souled and sympathetic. Shakespeare’s ‘liberal formula’ , which insists on playing fair with its characters, is obviously in fearful discord with Mr. Welles’s anti-fascist formula, which must have heroes and villains at all costs.”
I am always admiring Mccarthy’s way of telling her truths as she records or imagines or invokes them, and i think she does a good job in her remarks on the Welles production by reminding us that we have to see what the guy who wrote the play in the first place was up to, if we have a hope of adapting its contentions to those of the present day.
But the best bit of the review to my mind,and I will leave you with this: is where she scolds Gielgud-as-Dramaturge:Mr. Gielgud, speaking of the first scene of Hamlet, where the Ghose appears on the sentinel’s platform, is full of pity and condescension for the Elizabethans. ‘One wonders, he says, how this scene could be played effectively when it was originally written. A noisy, fidgeting, mostly standing audience, no darkness, afternoon sunshine streaming on to a tie platform.’ The point is that the plays were written with these conditions, consciously or unconsciously in mind. There being no stage paraphernalia to create the ‘illusion’ the lines themselves had to do the work of scenery, careful costuming, and props. …. It is therefore a tautology to add externally to Shakespeare what exists already in the very finer of his plays, and the heaviness one feels in most traditional presentations of Shakespeare’s plays is the heaviness of repetition, of underscoring.