Le Moulin de la Gallete by Pablo Picasso
(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser February 2013)
“All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.” William Shakespeare
My friend Scott made a good part of his living as a rehearsal pianist for musicals running on Broadway in the 1970’s and early 80’s, and he had all sorts of theater connections that gave him free admission to virtually any show on or off Broadway, a privilege he invited me to take advantage of multiple times on each of the ten trips I made to New York between 1976 and 1983.
In 1976, the reigning Broadway sensation was the play Equus with Anthony Perkins having just taken over the leading role from Richard Burton who had taken over the role from Anthony Hopkins. Scott knew the stage manager of the theater where the play was running and arranged for me to be among a few dozen audience members who sat on tiered benches onstage as a living backdrop to the play.
We were shown to our seats a few minutes before the curtain went up and told not to fidget, not to pick our noses, and not to make any noise. “You are,” said the man directing us, “a Greek chorus echoing the action with your silence, and you are also a jury listening carefully to the evidence being presented. And please remember that several hundred people can see you, people who have paid good money to watch this play and not to watch you scratching your butt. Have fun.”
I wish I could say that seeing and being in Equus on that Broadway stage was one of the great theatrical experiences of my life, but I found the play simplistic and boring and not in the least mysterious, the performances ho hum, and the vaunted nude love scene a brief and ugly tussle. However, I did not share my feelings about Equus with Scott because he was a devout Broadway loyalist, which meant he believed that if a play was a hit, the play was good, and if the play was a flop, the play was bad.
Now in the same week that I sat through Equus, Scott and I attended one of the early preview performances of Trevor Griffith’s play Comedians, recently transported from London and directed by Mike Nichols with the young Jonathan Pryce reprising his role from the London production. And seeing that production of Comedians truly was one of the greatest theatrical experiences of my life and would dramatically influence my plans for the future.
When the third and final act of Comedians came to an end, I leapt out of my seat shouting, “Bravo!” and applauding madly, though the audience reaction was otherwise tepid. Scott stayed sitting during my outburst and was obviously embarrassed by my behavior, but I didn’t care. I had just seen a superlative performance of a remarkable play and I wasn’t about to keep my feelings bottled up. Mediocre Equus had elicited a standing ovation and multiple curtain calls for its stars, so why shouldn’t I rave about this brilliant new masterwork?
Well…when we emerged from Comedians, Scott took me to a nearby bar filled with people who had also just seen Comedians and I eagerly asked several of them what they thought of the play; and they were all oddly coy and noncommittal, and I couldn’t for the life of me understand why.
“What the hell is going on?” I asked Scott. “That play was sheer genius. The writing, the acting, the direction, the levels of meaning, the…”
“Todd,” said Scott, sighing, “the play hasn’t been reviewed yet so…”
“So what?” I asked, flabbergasted. “You wait until the New York Times says it’s good before you think it’s good?”
“No,” said Scott, gulping his beer. “But…sort of. I mean…it’s subtle and very British. It was a hit in London, but that doesn’t mean it will translate that well over here.”
“Are you insane?” I gaped at him. “We just saw it. What did you think of it?”
“I…I don’t know,” he said, shrugging. “We’ll just have to wait and see.”
Jonathan Pryce would win a Tony Award for Best Featured Actor in his role in Comedians, but the critics otherwise damned the production with faint praise and the show closed after 145 performances. I, however, was demolished in the best sort of way by Comedians and decided two things as a result of seeing that incomparable production: I was going to write plays again, and I was going to live in a city so I could get more involved in theater. By then I realized New York was not going to be that city, not yet anyway, for I lacked the psychic stamina to survive there—but I hoped Portland or Seattle might suffice to get me started.
“It is a mistake to look too far ahead. Only one link of the chain of destiny can be handled at a time.” Winston Churchill
Two weeks later, having recharged my batteries by taking the train to Boston and spending a few days goofing around with my pal Jerry and attending a few of his scarier classes at Harvard Law School, I returned to Manhattan and immediately went to see Comedians again. To my delight, I thought the play was even better the second time, the cast now well practiced and sure of their characters. I was in seventh heaven watching that play and felt more certain than ever that I wanted to try to write plays that might touch people as Comedians touched me.
I was in love again with mastery, with originality, with courage, with everything that had made me want to be a writer in the first place; and for the remainder of my time in New York I was in a state of enchantment. For though I knew very well I might never succeed as a playwright (or as a writer of fiction), the experience of seeing that masterful production of Comedians filled me with a desire to try. I knew if I lived frugally, I had enough money in the bank to grant me a year of freedom from working at anything besides writing, and I intended to dedicate a good chunk of that year to writing plays.
The sad truth about our culture, and perhaps most cultures, is that for every masterpiece that somehow manages to gain an audience, there are thousands of awful things filling our stages and bookstores and movie screens and galleries. Why this is so I do not know, I only know that it is so. Which is why those rare new masterpieces that somehow manage to sneak past the cultural gatekeepers are so important, for without them we only have the masterworks of the past to deeply nourish us—and we desperately need the blood of brilliant new work to keep our culture alive and vital.
“You are what your deep, driving desire is.
As your desire is, so is your will.
As your will is, so is your deed.
As your deed is, so is your destiny.” Brihadaranyaka Upanishad
I was bored to tears by the new art on display at The Museum of Modern Art, but never mind, they had Picasso’s massive and marvelous Guernica to gaze upon and Van Gogh’s magnificent Starry Starry Night approachable to within a few inches, and Henri Rousseau’s supernatural Lion and the Gypsy lit to perfection, so I visited these and a handful of other favorite paintings in that collection several times and felt wonderfully empowered by them. And I went to the Guggenheim to marvel up close at Picasso’s Moulin de la Galette and Modigliani’s fabulous Nude, and I visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art again and again to gawk at their five fabulous Vermeers.
I had lunch with my brave and eccentric agent Dorothy Pittman on two occasions and we had a stirring time imagining selling one of my novels and then another and another. She said she would hunt for a play agent for me when I had a play to show around; and dear Scott got me into seven or eight more shows to fuel my drama dreams, though none of those plays could hold a candle to Comedians; and at last I realized I was done with New York for the time being and ready to embark on the next leg of my big trip.
So I took the train to Philadelphia and spent three lazy days visiting friends in Bala Cynwyd and Narberth and sleeping for twelve hours a night, recuperating from the physical and emotional toll of Manhattan. Then I continued south by train to Virginia and stayed with my pal Rico who had recently moved out from California to work for the federal government.
One night Rico and I were reminiscing about high school and wondering about the fate of our fellow inmates, when I was reminded of Mark Russell, my great friend I hadn’t seen since the early days of high school when he and his family moved away to where I wasn’t sure. So I did a little telephone sleuthing and came up with a phone number for Mark’s parents in Connecticut. I called them and they gave me a phone number for Mark in South Carolina. Then I called Mark and a woman with a sultry South Carolina accent answered the phone.
“Hi,” I said, “my name is Todd Walton and I’m an old friend of Mark’s. Is he there?”
“Hold on a minute,” she said softly. “I’ll fetch him.”
A few moments later, Mark came on the line, his voice two octaves deeper than when we’d last spoken thirteen years before. “This is unbelievable,” he said, laughing. “I was just thinking about you. I was throwing the ball for my dog and wondering where Todd is now.”
“I’m in Virginia and I’d love to come see you, if that’s a possibility. I could get a motel room nearby or…”
“No, no, we’ve got lots of room for you,” he said, chuckling. “Come on down.”
So on a dark cold night in early November, I stepped off the train at the little station in Camden, South Carolina and looked around for an older version of the Mark I remembered from 1963—a clean shaven young man much shorter than I. But the only person waiting there was a tall man in a trench coat sporting a bushy brown beard.
“Todd,” he called to me. “I’d know you anywhere.”
“Mark,” I said, shaking his enormous hand. “I would never have guessed you were you.”