Monday, April 9, 2012

The Moscow Art Theatre at Lunch

 And with that Same Fulbright Again....

    The Moscow Art Theatre troupe came to London to do a season of plays at Sadlers Wells Theatre. They did the four big Chekhov and two new plays properly authorized by the Soviet cultural authorities. I saw three of the four Chekhov and one of the social-realist variety. I was so very moved, listening to them in Russian, watching them in my English. All that broken hearted magnanimity. ( Months later, at my second cousin’s home in southern Sweden, I was stunned at how his dinning room resembled the birthday party room in Three Sisters, just across the little Baltic sea, of course.) 
    I somehow or other wrangled an invitation to a luncheon at the Criterion Restaurant in Piccadilly in honor of the Muscovites.

    It was some affair, I’m telling you. Everybody who was anybody in the British theatre establishment was there.  And the waiters (footmen, I should call them) in livery! My problem was how not to stare at the spectacle of Lawrence Olivier and Vivien Leigh sitting tables apart and not so much as glancing the other’s way. They were hating each other.
    I sat at the table with the “dowager” actress Mary Fagan, the first English Madame Ranevskya in Cherry Orchard so many years earlier.
    I was dazzled. And trying to behave myself in my brown (for God’s sake) suit. In Mary Fagan’s party was a young English woman who was supporting herself translating out of Russian all sorts of documents into English.  
    It was an excellent lunch with many tributes, introductions, toasts, and speeches, the English hosts were nearly servile in their deference to the Russians. It was, after all, the Moscow Art Theatre, the most influential theatre of the twentieth century. The Russians themselves seemed a bit ill at ease, displaying anything but what we ordinarily think of as the style of successful actors. The great lady who had played Ranevskya so ravishingly the night before appeared in what looked like a Monday wash dress, with her hair undone and frizzy. Actors for the Soviet were at one with the working class, after all.
    When lunch was over, I ended up out on the sidewalk in Piccadilly with this translator lady-- who was being quite nice to me-- and translating with one of the young  Russian actors who provided me with the trigger for this tale. He said that they were returning to Moscow to continue rehearsals on Shakespeare’s Winter’s Tale. He explained that they had been working on it for thirteen years and had it about ready to open.
   They had lost one Leontes who had died on them some years earlier and feared for the aging actor they now had in the role.
    This young artist of the theatre felt it imperative that they get home and get the play open before they lost a second jealous king.

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