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Transatlantic traffic

Paul Ibell on the theatrical links between America and Britain

9 March 2013

9:00 AM

9 March 2013

9:00 AM

There has been a lot of discussion recently, prompted by the start of President Obama’s second term, about the ‘Special Relationship’ between the United Kingdom and the United States. What seems to have been overlooked in the analysis of politics, economics and diplomatic relations is that the strongest and most culturally important link between the two countries is their shared passion for theatre.

For all the razzle-dazzle of Broadway, the London of Elizabeth II remains, as it has since the rule of Elizabeth I, the world capital of the stage. Transferring from London to New York is a huge buzz for British actors, but it is a chance to sample the delights of Manhattan rather than a cultural pilgrimage. For an American, by contrast, appearing in the West End is a badge of honour, recognition as a serious actor in the city that gave birth to English-speaking theatre and is still seen as its spiritual home.

Far from being some sort of cultural cringe, this is just one element in a transatlantic theatrical traffic — a mark of mutual respect and shared heritage. A striking symbol of this is Shakespeare’s Globe, on Bankside. Unmistakeably English, lovingly recreated and looking as though a time machine has just dropped it beside the Thames, it exists only thanks to the determination of Sam Wanamaker, an American actor and director with a profound love of Shakespeare’s plays.

Two 20th-century playwrights, the very American Tennessee Williams and the quintessentially English Noël Coward (who died 30 and 40 years ago respectively, on 25 February 1983 and 26 March 1973), serve as good examples of the transatlantic theatre traffic that continues to benefit the cultural and commercial lives of London and New York.

Tennessee Williams is widely considered to be America’s greatest playwright. He achieved international fame with a string of dramas in the 1940s and 1950s, among them Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Sweet Bird of Youth and A Streetcar Named Desire. As a writer he was strongly influenced by European culture, from the architecture of the French Quarter in New Orleans, where he lived as a penniless young writer (and set A Streetcar Named Desire), to the sexual availability of impoverished young men in an immediately post-war Italy.

It was a relationship with one such youth that inspired his 1950 novella The Roman Spring of Mrs Stone. This was filmed in 1961 with the title role played by Vivien Leigh. She was a brilliant interpreter of Williams’s roles: partly because she was one of the leading actresses of her generation, but largely because her combination of beauty and mental instability made her ideal casting for the doomed heroines, their minds almost as damaged as their looks, that Williams specialised in.

The most memorable of these was Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire. Playing the role on stage in London, where she was directed by her husband, Sir Laurence Olivier, and subsequently in the 1951 film version with a stunningly sexual young Marlon Brando, Leigh’s stage role and private life dangerously overlapped. She won an Oscar but, as she was later to say, ‘playing Blanche tipped me into madness’.

Blanche represented the Old South, a genteel way of life that was finally dying out. This was another recurrent theme in Williams’s work, harking back to a past so very different from the modern, mechanised world, yet only just out of reach — its fragrance still hanging on the air. This had (and continues to have) a profound resonance with English audiences addicted to nostalgia, not least because his most successful plays, with their sense of lost youth and past glories beyond recall, were first staged in the very years when England was, as another American put it, losing an Empire and not yet finding a role.

At about the same time Harold Macmillan hoped that Britain could play Ancient Greece to America’s Rome. This was not an entirely accurate (or happy) analogy except in one area: we, like the Greeks, had invented the theatre that our successors as the world’s greatest power so admired. The Americans made a much better job of the art form than the Romans ever did and it is to English theatre’s credit that, far from resenting the cascade of American playwrights, lyricists, composers and choreographers, it welcomed them with open arms to London.

One of the earliest to realise that American theatre could be a role model rather than a threat was Noël Coward, who took an ocean liner to New York in the early 1920s. Despite his playboy image, he was a professional to his cigarette-wielding fingertips (‘work is so much more fun than fun!’) and, having been impressed by Broadway’s fluid writing and fast-paced delivery of lines, he returned to London determined to jettison much of the Edwardian staginess he had grown up with as a child actor and to bring American freshness and speed to both his writing and his acting.

Despite his consciously reactionary patriotism, Coward’s love affair with America continued to inform his work throughout his life and when he found himself, in the 1950s, out of fashion, out of work and in serious financial trouble, he knew exactly where to head — the United States. His song ‘I like America’ was a heartfelt one, for it was in the States — and in Las Vegas in particular — that he was able to reinvent himself as a cabaret performer and restore his critical and commercial fortunes.

America continues to love Coward’s songs and his stage comedies. The British continue to revive Tennessee Williams’s plays and have frequently staged not just his classics but also his later and at one time unfashionable works, which are increasingly valued for their strongly autobiographical elements. One such, Vieux Carré, was staged last year at the King’s Head, Islington, a tiny theatrical powerhouse founded by Dan Crawford, an Anglophile American expatriate.

Another such, and bearer of the flame for Tennessee Williams’s work, is his estate’s London agent, Tom Erhardt. A major player in the West End since he crossed the Atlantic to work for the legendary theatrical agent Peggy Ramsay, he also represents leading British playwrights such as Sir Alan Ayckbourn and Sir David Hare. The genial yet effective Erhardt has personified the mutual co-operation between the American and English stage for nearly 50 years, and it’s high time the Society of London Theatre gave him an honorary Olivier Award. As his career and those of the playwrights in his care proves, theatre provides our two nations with a lucrative, mutually beneficial relationship, whoever the President and whatever our politics. Harold Macmillan would approve.

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