WHO’S AFRAID OF RASHOMON?

In 1950, the great Japanese director Akira Kurosawa helmed and co-wrote (with Shinobu Hashimoto) the film Rashomon, which featured a device involving its main characters’ telling different versions of the plot’s inciting incident. The alternately self-serving and contradictory stories they tell have made the term “the Rashomon effect” commonplace to this day. With Edward Albee’s recent passing, it brought to mind over the last few days a symposium sponsored by the Dramatists Guild of America many years ago, which gave proof to this adage.

Edward Albee (2009)

Having forever changed the American theatre (not hyperbole; it’s a fact), a group representing the forces behind Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?were brought together for a public discussion of the events that led to its creation. Moderated by playwright Terrence McNally, the transcript is printed in a book entitled Broadway Song & Story, published in 1985. For anyone interested in behind-the-scenes stories of how dozens of Broadway and Off-Broadway shows came to be, it is required reading and a delight to peruse. In the book’s introduction, McNally even mentions how “some of these discussions may read like scenes from Rashomon. Truth in the theatre is different from each seat in the house… It’s not that these people are incapable of telling the truth about what really happened. It’s simply that their separate notions of what ‘really’ happened are very often just that: separate and very much their own.”

Taking part were McNally as moderator (himself something of an expert on Albee having lived with the playwright for more than six years in the 1960s); one of Virginia Woolf’s producers, Richard Barr; its director Alan Schneider; and two of its actors, the original Martha (Uta Hagen) and the Nick (George Grizzard). Unfortunately, Albee himself, who was supposed to take part in the discussion, had to bow out at the last minute due to illness. It would have been a whole lot more interesting had he been present to guide some of the participants in their memories.

In this talk, Uta Hagen claims to have no recollection of the opening night, but the play’s director, Alan Schneider, remembers it vividly. “It was the most exciting night I’ve ever had in the theater, before or since.” This doesn’t seem all that strange, in that an actor can’t be outside the experience even for a moment, whereas the director, standing in the back of the house, can take in everything in any way he or she chooses, be it positive or negative.

In addition to how Virginia Woolf shocked certain segments of its audience by its frank language, it also caused raised eyebrows on Broadway when it was announced that there would be special matinee casts due to the difficulties for the actors in performing a play of such length and intensity eight times a week. When asked how this came about, the producer Richard Barr describes how the original plan of only doing six shows a week was thwarted when the theatre owner, Billy Rose, demanded rent for the two performances a week they wouldn’t play. “So I went to Uta,” Barr explains, “and asked her, ‘Don’t you think this is quite a deal to play eight times a week?’ She said, ‘Yes, I think — ‘”

At this point Hagen interrupts her producer’s version of events.

“Now, wait a minute! Edward said we would probably rewrite history in this session, and here’s the first rewriting of it. I can’t believe your memory is so dismal, Mr. Barr. You called me and and announced to me that I was going to be too tired to play the matinees. I said, ‘I am not.’ You said, ‘It’s very strenuous.’ I said, ‘Listen, I played eight times a week for two years in a row without a vacation in A Streetcar Named Desire and Virginia Woolf is not as exhausting as that’ … ‘I could have played Virginia Woolf twelve times a week.’”

To which Mr. Barr replies, “I yield to the lady’s memory.”

Other highlights: Grizzard, with the challenge of playing Nick ahead of him, asked Schneider the oft-asked question audiences have inquired about for years: “Why don’t Nick and Honey just leave, instead of taking all of George and Martha’s abuse?” To which Schneider replied, “Why doesn’t Hamlet kill the King?”

On the matter of George and Martha’s “child,” when McNally asks Schneider if he ever had any trouble with it, his response was “I had no trouble with the child that I remember.” Hagen pounces on this by saying, “Yes, you did. I said to you over and over again, from the first time we met at Sardi’s for lunch, that I felt very strongly that it was fabulous. I didn’t think of it as a device at all. I asked you, ‘How do you want to use the child, what do you think it represents?’ and you said, ‘I don’t know — I haven’t made up my mind.’ You made up your mind after we opened, but not before. And I asked Edward, ‘How do you want to use the child?’ and he said, ‘I don’t care. However you want.’”

Perhaps my favorite line through this whole wonderful discussion, is when Grizzard sums up how he had to play the moment when he discovers that the child is imaginary: “Nick … had three very big lines of ‘Jesus Christ, I think I understand.’ Supposedly, if I did it right, it built (one night I heard somebody say, ‘I wish I did’).”

One of the amazing things to come out of this talk is that a play of this length (over three hours), and a new play at that, was rehearsed for just two weeks and two days — fourteen days — then opened on Broadway after only ten previews in front of paying audiences. By every estimation, the play achieved a level of production value and acting prowess that was staggering, even if it had been rehearsed for a month. And it was produced for $47,000 and paid off its investors in three weeks. Sigh.

And finally one last word on opening nights: When the 2012 Broadway revival of Steppenwolf Theatre’s production of Virginia Woolf, which won Tracy Letts a much-deserved Tony Award for Best Actor in a Play, opened on a Saturday night, it was a very rare thing for producers to have scheduled. However, there was a reason for it. October 13th was the anniversary — the 50th, in fact — of the play’s first opening night (also on a Saturday). The Wall Street Journal’s theatre critic Terry Teachout (who was there), described the moment when Albee took an unexpected curtain call at the very end, by writing: “You could feel a shiver of excitement running through the auditorium as he tottered from the wings.”

I wish I had been there to pay tribute.

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