Sunday, May 13, 2012

The Very Flesh of Charles Laughton

             How to write “Laughton” ten times and write the
                      beautiful word Plangent the very first time

                     It occurs tom me, and sadly, that there is
                     an entire generation who know little about
             Charles Laughton, one of the greatest of stage and screen,

    In London, that year, Charles Laughton, having taken up the cause of a new, young, and not very good playwright, put his great influence and fame behind a production of this young man's new play. Laughton would even star in it. What an opportunity that was for us to see this great actor in person, live, on stage! We could hardly contain our excitement when we found ourselves at a matinee of the production in a West End theatre, the name of which I cannot now remember.
    Anyhow, the  play began and we were at once drawn into the magnetism of Laughton's personality, his peculiar body, and mesmerizing voice. The play itself was of little interest: it was all Laughton, bumbling around up there, snorting and huffing about in a depressing bachelor flat, the likes of which London is replete.
   Well, quite soon, at Laughton’s  every turn, there was a bit of applause and silly, nasal  male laughter. These tenders of adoration became more and more frequent, louder, and  disturbing, They turned into big clapping, roaring laughter, and remarks on how he loved the play and Laughton. The audience was terribly on edge and getting angry.
    Suddenly, Laughton stepped out of character and called for the curtain to be brought down. We in the audience sat in stunned silence-- until Laughton came out from behind the curtain to the apron of the stage to tell us that he really could not go on with this mischief in the audience and that the house management would have to see “this fellow” out of the theatre before he could go on-- and that he would be back when the offender was removed. So the curtain closed on him, the house lights came up, the ushers found the seriously drunken "fellow" and threw him out.
    When calm was restored in the theatre, Laughton again came front to tell us  how sorry he was for this embarrassment  to the production and the theatre  and that now he proposed to continue with the play if that suited us in the house. He became so very charming and humorous, He asked us what it is he ought to do. Should he go back and start again at the top of the act? Or should he recommence right where he had brought the curtain down before? He bantered with us, encouraging us to decide our pleasure. The finest sort of happiness swept through the crowd: we were all simply and over-whelmingly charmed. All that funny bantering with the great man. We decided that he should start again, back where he left off. That was fine with him; so he had the curtain taken out and proceeded to lecture us  quite "sternly" like a funny old uncle. He was, by God, going back into that set and climb up on that bed and pretend to go to sleep and if he heard one peep out of any of us, he would again stop the play and have us all thrown out into the street.
    He  then made a "big  production " of  getting his fat, lumpy body up on the bed, smiled, and waved a  cute little wave to us out in  the house and fell instantly to snoring.
    And so, we had shared this once in a lifetime, intimate moment with this great artist, a brief moment when we felt swamped in happiness. We went back to watching him at his work in this altogether forgettable play, but suffused with this gift that he had given us. Charles Laughton had recognized us, his audience, with  warmth and generosity. He had shown us himself -- and recognized in us his life's greatest treasure: an audience.
    A moral to this story? I believe that we all attend live performance with the shyly hidden desire to see something go wrong. One of the joys of the theatre is to see how actors can get out of trouble, perhaps as a model of the way we can, with an active imagination, get out of our own all too real troubles in life.

By the Way: My boss at the British Drama League took Betty aside and asked her how Americans made the good coffee of which she had heard. It was revealed that Miss MacKenzie just kept on adding a bit more ground coffee on top of that already used until the basket would hold no more. Miss MacKenzie was a survivor of the not so remote  bombing of London.

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