Sunday, June 10, 2012

From the Splendors of the Past

                    Nugent Monck in Norwich

      I was told he was old, crotchety, and unpredictable. and who knows how he would receive me, once I got there-- to Norwich, to visit and learn what I could from the noted Nugent Monck, who had single-handedly established the long tradition of fine, non-professional regional drama in England. There were those who said that Monck knew as good as everything about staging plays. Be that as it may, he had surely known as good as everyone in the grand old days of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  I was told that he knew all the good old gossip-- and the dirt.
   So, I took the train down to Norwich and by hook and crook found the old man’s house. At eighty-one he was in what would turn out to be the last year of his life: He died two months after I visited him.
    I knocked at his door and in due time this shriveled, awful looking, little old man, 100% frontally naked, opened the door and, with not the slightest sign of interest or enthusiasm, ushered me in. With no preliminaries; he thrust into my hand an old, worn text of King Lear and a fresh Penguin copy of it, saying that some “dreadful man” wanted Harley Granville-Barker’s cutting of the play, and I was to sit right down there in the hallway of his quite ordinary middle-class English domicile and transfer Barker’s cutting to the new copy. Me! standing right there, holding in my hand the great Granville-Barker’s own prompt book for one of the most important productions of Shakespeare in all the modern movement!
   Well, I usually do as I am told, and so sat at a small table in the hallway and went to work, line by line, while old Monck went upstairs to put himself together (put some clothes on) for our visit.
    By the time he came down, I was almost finished with the first act and shocked at how heavily Barker had cut the text. It was a revelation.  And Monck somehow owned the prompt book of that storied production!
   He took me to dinner at a good hotel and seemed to be enjoying himself, even with me. I mused on the slightly salacious turn in his conversation on a young woman and her young gentleman at a nearby table. When  he had outlined our next day’s tour of Norwich, it was back to his house where he had a comfortable room ready for me. I believe I was a little afraid of him….
   Next day, we were off to his famous Maddermarket Theatre that he had founded in 1921. The old hall in which the theatre had been built, Monck told me, was on the site of a medieval oratory where a bad priest had been murdered by his inamorata right in the middle of his mass. And since a mass may never be left unfinished, the ghost of this rotten cleric keeps coming back, “appearing” on the stage, over the site of the altar,  trying to finish his mass.  Monck and all the people of his theatre swear by this: their bona-fide, residential ghost. It really was spooky.
    Then Monck wanted me to see the exact spot in the square where tradition has it that Will Kempe, Shakespeare’s famous actor of fools and clowns, after his break up with the company, dazzled all England  by Morris dancing, non-stop, from London all the way to Norwich. He ended his dance, “right there!” Monck said, pointing at a marker in the cobbles. As I love lore like this, I fell for this juicy bit, imagining that famous funny man with a moving mosh-pit, pressing en masse, behind him, raucous and obscene, following him to the end, to see him drop to the ground in the grand manner, in performative triumph.
    I think I was most seduced (and I must be careful with that word when in reference to Monck) when I learned that Monck had spent ten days in jail in Birmingham, in, I think it was 1919, for the crime of blasphemy. Think of that! He had dared, for the first time ever, to show on stage, one of the medieval mystery plays, the Nativity Play from the beautiful York Cycle. Just think, he sat in jail, doing time, for presenting a piece of medieval religious drama!  What could be more distinguished!
   On my own, I prowled around town a bit, went in awe of the cathedral with its gray-black flinty façade, and felt that I was coming to like Norwich, way out there, facing the eastern fens and the North Sea beyond. Cold, wet, and dark by definition..
   Monck insisted on our having a cab to the station and there he put me on the train back to London. He seemed reluctant, almost tender, to let me go-- poor old guy, so valiant, so brilliant, and now so alone-- and soon, so very soon, dead for all his pains.
    He had even cooked breakfast for me.

By the way: Some yeas later in London, in Covent Garden, a performance artist took an empty store-front space, painted it from top to bottom in bright, flat, featureless white, then spread white sand over all the floor and swept clean an oval race course track around the fairly large room.
    Dressed  in black pants and shirt, his face whitened, he proceeded to walk continuously, with an absolutely unchanging pace and without the least expression, for seven days and seven nights. How he solved the problems of his biology, I have no idea. I know only that he walked continuously and steadily.
   He was compelling, beautiful, meaningful to watch in his perfect composure. People came in off the street to watch a bit; some looked in from the sidewalk (pavement) outside. 
I went to see him three times during the week. On the last day. I stood up close to the track. When, in his trance-like  concentration, he passed by me, I whispered at him, “Thank you.” He flinched with the faintest suggestion of a smile and went on. He had heard me!
    At the end his work of art, there was to be a party to which anyone might come. I’ve always regretted that I did not, but on the other hand, the lovely spell of his work might have been wrecked. As it is, I have remained thankful for what he had shown me of the human creature.
   Much as a woman, four years ago, walked home from Denver to Powell, Wyoming-- 520 miles. She was and is still dear to me. I regard her long walk as a work of art that, like the performer’s In London. It thrills and illuminates. I should have thought of Will Kempe.

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