A classic, to hear Mark Twain tell it, is something everyone praises, but nobody reads. In a theatrical context, maybe that would become–nobody produces. At Actors Theatre of Louisville each year, scholars (some travel-weary, some eager, some with the ivory tower equivalent of cabin fever) are joined by critics, plain-clothed practitioners and the idle curious to witness classics placed in “context”–which I guess simply means a controlled or specific environment, a milieu of acknowledged boundaries or, again in theatrical terms, a backdrop against which to see. This year’s focus of the annual classics sighting was “the roaring ’20s.”
Now, the examination of the theatrical booty of any era against a constructed social, political, historical panoply is a strange and unnatural thing, because schools of work are annotated by scientists of literature as if they were describing as organic a thing as a new specie of moth. They never are. But after each new specimen is given an era-oriented name Jacobean tragedy, Restoration comedy, Victorian melodrama after each is fixed and wriggling on a pin, dissection in earnest can begin. The clinical examination is followed by that maddening temptation to conclude patly about the society in which a given play has been created by pointing to the play itself as evidence, while at the same time hypothesizing about the workings of the work itself by applying what we know of the society–the lessons of history. No double-blind experimentation here, no control group; this era-classifying is a pretty error-prone process.
Still, it can be useful. And the decade known as the roaring ’20s, coming as it did, epithet in hand, between the horrified relief of the Great War’s armistice and the Great Depression’s deafening crash, is actually a more sociologically organic chunk than most. A generation lost wound up in a Paris salon at 27 rue de fleurus de fleurus de fleurus; a noble experiment foundered as bathtub gin flowed like the water it replaced; Al Capone was not to be crossed, at least not on St. Valentine’s Day, but the Atlantic was, by the lucky Charles Augustus Lindbergh; Al Jolson became synonymous with the talkie; and Silent Cal made the business of America business, then retired from the firm, leaving Hoover holding the bag. Now that’s context for you!
What constitutes a classic in such a roller-coaster ride of an era? The ’20s were also a time of unprecedented and unrepeated fecundity on the American theatrical scene. There was the semper stuffy legitimate stage; there was that glorious war horse, vaudeville; there was their irredoubtable hybrid, the revue; and, of course, there was the renegade upstart, the motion picture.
Groucho glasses in hand
So when he cast about for a theatrical centerpiece for his festival, ATL’s artistic director Jon Jory lighted on one of the very few phenomena to find success in all those venues–the Marx Bros. Minnie Marx’s boys–Groucho, Chico, Harpo, eventually Zeppo and sometimes Gummo–paid their dues in vaudeville and the revues. The act came to the “legitimate” stage in George S. Kaufman’s The Cocoanuts (music by Irving Berlin) in 1925. Success in this show and their next Broadway effort, Animal Crackers, ensured their shot at national celebrity in the movies, fixed on celluloid at their zany apex. The Marx Bros. have long since passed through legend and graduated to icon status. So Jory’s decision to settle on a production of their first Broadway hit to fill his current bill was natural enough.
Representatives of the theatre met members of the press and colloquia participants at the Louisville airport with PR kits and Groucho glasses in hand. Lack of recognition definitely wouldn’t be the issue at ATL’s production of The Cocoanuts. Just the reverse….
Remember the almost imperceptible twinkle in the eye of Garrick’s Macbeth as he bade his lady “bring forth men children only”? Or Collie Cibber at his sybaritic best in Sentimental Husband? Or Laura Keane’s triumph in Our American Cousin? No, nobody does anymore. That’s what had hitherto made Classics in Context festivals attractive and valuable.
But who can forget Harpo, one hand on his bicycle horn, chasing through almost every scene after some platinum blonde or other; Chico hawking racing forms from an ice cream truck as he calls out, “Getta you ice cream, getta you tootsie frootsie ice cream;” or Groucho wheeling and dealing at the helm of Freedonia; or even, God bless her, Margaret Dumont with the generosity of a Rockefeller, the patience of St. Sebastian and the constitution of a Lippizaner standing stock still in the middle of it all? And for those with bad memories, there’s late night TV and the classic comedy section of the neighborhood video store.
Truth be told, watching The Cocoanuts in Louisville was a bit like paging through a 3-D comic book without the special glasses. The effect was a slight but distinctly disturbing fuzziness. One sat in the auditorium, watching three actors playing Groucho and Harpo and Chico, playing “Hammer” and “Harpo” and “Chico.” At the same time, in one’s mind’s eye, there was a reel running of the film. The whole experience was made stranger still by the presence in the audience of two “chronologically advantaged” women (as they came to be called during the weekend): Anne Kaufman Schneider, the playwright’s daughter, and Maxine Marx, Chico’s little girl. Just that afternoon they had shared the dais to give a kind of “I remember Papa” lecture. Slight fuzziness.
How odd to watch a man playing your father playing a part in a play. The effort seems doomed to failure, at least by the standards of anyone who is at all a Marx Bros. fan, let alone Chico Marx’s daughter. Still the dramaturg in me wouldn’t submit to the obvious conclusion: that these plays should now be shelved and never taken down again, not while celluloid lasts.
The titter response
But attention must be paid, acknowledgement must be made in the playing, to the fact that not only is it unnecessary to duplicate these men, it isn’t desirable. A way has to be found to (and I shrink from using this word) deconstruct the Marx Bros. in performance. Perhaps you need performers (comedians, entertainers) with established personae to be loosed on the roles not the roles of Groucho, Chico and Harpo, but of “Hammer” and “Chico” and “Harpo.” That way the parts would bend to their characters as they did when the Marxes clothes-lined the piece in 1925.
When you have actors playing the Marxes, the evening becomes a cutsie trick of impersonation, which takes all the natural bite out of the work. This was a general tendency at the festival. The vice of the period, and there was plenty of it, was trucked out and catalogued with a faint hint of amused superiority of which we were all guilty. The naughty lyrics of Cole Porter and Noel Coward do tend to trip off the titter response, but these men were actually velvet satirists. And the Marx Bros. were lunatic anarchists with scattershot accuracy, mowing down institutions, mores and other niceties with gay abandon and wanton disregard.
In fact, there was a terrific mordancy to nearly all the entertainment that came out of the era. Nowhere was that better established than in the films that Jory and his creative committee selected for the weekend. King Vidor’s The Crowd, and the more obscure The Pace that Kills and Our Dancing Daughters (these latter two with live piano accompaniment), were revelatory. Clearly, the roaring ’20s lived up to its press. Excess was king, whether it was born of genuine exuberance or merely masked desperation. When we think of the period, we see the whole decade as a great extended madcap adventure. But drugs, sex and booze were rampant, and they were handled with amazing frankness and humanity in these pictures. The effect on the audience at each of these screenings was always the same. At the top, easy laughter at the naivete of characters and filmmaker alike (evil drug dealers have names like Snowy the Peddlar); but as each film wore on, the relentlessness of the zeitgeist and the toll it takes on denizens of the zeit–particularly in the face of these people’s startling self-awareness of their punishment had a truly sobering effect. By the time the end credits of each film rolled, this modern audience was no longer laughing at the moderns, only with them.
If that could have been true throughout the festival, the weekend would have been an unequivocal success. Tackling such fresh history was a bold choice for a Classics in Context festival, but modern times call for modern measures.