Thursday, November 26, 2009

Boris Karloff Blogathon - The Bishop on Broadway

After the twilight years of classic Universal horror - and as the studio segued into tales of sci-fi and radiation-spawned monstrosities - and as Val Lewton's efforts for RKO drew to a close, Boris Karloff increasingly explored non-cinematic opportunities to ply his craft as an actor. He eagerly embraced the nascent medium of television, but, true to his stage roots, he also accepted a handful of offers to "tread the boards" on the Great White Way. In 1941's Arsenic and Old Lace he appeared as gangster Johnathan Brewster, for whom plastic surgery has rendered the spitting image of a certain horror film star (pity every production that followed, professional and otherwise, charged with the difficult task of finding a performer to compare with the incomparable Karloff), and he was the villainous Captain Hook in the 1950 musical adaptation of J.M. Barrie's Peter Pan, with score by Leonard Bernstein. In 1955 came the role that Karloff considered the proudest moment of his long and storied acting career: Bishop Pierre Cauchon in Lillian Hellman's adaptation of the Jean Anouilh play about the martyrdom of Joan of Arc, L'Alouette - The Lark.

The chance to adapt the play came at a time of great difficulty for playwright Hellman. Respected for such stage works as The Children's Hour, The Watch on the Rhine and The Little Foxes, Hellman was called before the House of Representatives Committee on Un-American Activities in 1952, and told to give up names of associates with Communist sympathies. She refused, but rather than know the martyrdom of a contempt citation, she was dismissed with the degrading comment, "Why cite her...? After all, she is a woman." There began a period of blacklisting and poverty, with Hellman unable to see her original work produced - at one point, she was even forced to sell her house. Instead, she turned to adaptations, a prospect that did not fill her with excitement. But when presented with Anouilh's script, she found an occasion for pointed political commentary. Like fellow dramatist Arthur Miller did in 1953's The Crucible, she would find inspiration from history, and whereas the accused of Salem met their fate at the end of a noose, Hellman's protagonist would be burned at the stake. That climax was not without personal resonance.

There was a problem; halfway through the adaptation, Hellman discovered that she didn't care for the story. Whereas Anouilh's Jeanne d'Arc was true to the title - a lark singing in ecstasy to the glory of the Almighty - Hellman envisioned a tougher character, a sturdy peasant girl capable of leading armies into battle. (I would argue that the tension of this dichotomy actually led to a better script and a more complex Joan - child, woman, warrior, saint.) The experience left Hellman somewhat distant and embittered toward the project, reminding her yet again that the world was not interested in her original ideas.

Broadway producer Kermit Bloomgarden, with a reputation for shows of great literary import, would bring the play to New York. Hellman would remain a very hands-on playwright, involved in every element of the production, including the hiring of neophyte
Broadway director Joe Anthony. The first-timer was considered a gentle, approachable sort, open to input from the performers. However, he was consistently overruled by the ever-present Hellman, who routinely barked out directions to the cast, testing the patience of even the most professional of the crew. In his autobiography, cast member Theodore Bikel tells of an occasion at a rehearsal of his solitary scene as Beaudricourt, the landowner who is worn down by a relentless and optimistic Joan. When the girl exited the stage, Bikel placed his head in his hands in frustration, only to hear Hellman shout out from the back of the theater, "What was that supposed to mean? Don't do that! I don't like gestures!" Bikel's response is worth reprinting in its entirety -

Miss Hellman, I cannot accept such a statement. If you do not like a particular gesture, then we might discuss it with the director and if we should all agree that it is wrong or inappropriate, then we might consider changing or eliminating it. But to have you say to me - categorically - that you do not like gestures - in the plural - directly attacks one of the principal things my profession is all about. Words are your department, Miss Hellman, gestures are mine. I wish you would realize that my work starts where yours ends.

Having been in such rehearsal situations myself, I can imagine the tomblike silence that followed. Certainly such difficult dynamics required a cast of utmost professionals, and with Karloff in the role of Bishop Pierre Cauchon, the show had a performer who embodied professionalism and courtesy to fellow actors and crew. For Karloff, here was a part that allowed him to demonstrate new colors within his actorly palette. Audiences that arrived at the show expecting him typecast in the role of a grand inquisitor had to be surprised. Instead, his was a paternal figure, protective of the innocence he saw within the young martyr, and fearful of the destiny that awaited her if she did not renounce her claim to be a vessel for the Holy Spirit. (How could she be? After all, she is a woman...) Karloff received glowing reviews for his work, and earned a Tony nomination for Best Actor in a Play, but lost to Paul Muni in Inherit the Wind.

For all his professionalism, there were moments that saw the great man (almost) crack. Directors often admonish actors not to tamper with the play's dialogue offstage in jest, lest those unorthodox re-writes accidentally find their way in front of a paying audience. Bikel tells of a performance when this happened. The line of dialogue, delivered by one of Joan's prosecutors, was supposed to be, "When the devil wants a soul for his own, he appears in the shape of a beautiful girl with bare breasts!" What emerged from the actor's mouth was Bikel's backstage parody - "He appears in the shape of a beautiful bear with girl breasts!" Poor Boris was the one who had to deliver the follow-up line, and the cast could see him struggle to suppress his laughter.

The show was a great critical success, but the reviews for star Julie Harris were positively rapturous. By the time the show had opened at the Longacre Theater on November 17, 1955 (going on to run 229 performances, a smash for a straight drama), Harris was already an Oscar-nominated actress (The Member of the Wedding), and in 1953 received the first of her record-setting five Tony Awards and ten nominations for her portrayal of Sally Bowles in
I Am a Camera (later to be the source material for the musical Cabaret). She earned her second Tony as Joan of Arc, graced the covers of national magazines, and was the toast of New York City. She also developed a warm relationship with Karloff, and the two spoke of each other with great fondness in the years that followed. Both reprised their roles when The Lark was adapted for television as an installment of the Hallmark Hall of Fame that aired on February 10, 1957 (and will hopefully be excavated and released someday on DVD).

An interesting sidelight - The Lark marked the second time that Karloff acted in a production with music from the pen of Leonard Berstein, albeit indirectly.
Bernstein composed a set of choruses for seven voices plus simple percussion that served as incidental music for the play. Three of the songs are in French and based on folk songs of the period; the remainder are his interpretations of movements from the Latin Mass. The works are published in two volumes and have gone on to become choral concert staples. They were pre-recorded for New York performances of The Lark - which meant that Bernstein had minimal working contact with Hellman, an old friend. Their successful endeavor inspired them to collaborate on a musical version of Voltaire's Candide, one of the legendary "interesting failures" in musical theater history. The free-wheeling Bernstein clashed violently and often with martinet Hellman, and the friendship was irrevocably broken. Years later, eyebrows were raised when Hellman agreed to speak at a televised 60th birthday celebration for the maestro - and spent her time speaking only of Bernstein's recently deceased wife Felicia.

Earlier this year, Karloff's daughter Sarah auctioned off a number of items from her father's treasure trove of mementos, believing that they best belonged in the possession of fans. Two items stood out among the rest: a scrapbook of notes, photos and reviews from The Lark, and, more impressive still, Karloff's original script, filled with annotations and pasted-over rewrites. The notes in the margins reveal a very workmanlike approach, utterly practical, devoid of the psychological over-analysis in which some performers indulge. Perhaps it is because that Karloff recognized a compassionate humanity in Cauchon, compassion which he shared in abundance and used as a wellspring. Maybe it is because his work in The Lark allowed him to show the humanist within that made Pierre Cauchon Boris Karloff's most cherished role, and we should hope that its televised version will someday surface, that future generations may know an equally-cherished man.

(This post is dedicated to the joyous memory of Thomas F. Nevins - teacher, mentor, director, colleague, friend - who passed away two years ago this week. He saw and loved the original New York production of The Lark - and was able to direct his own version before he passed away. God love you, Tommy. Now shut the hell up.)


Gord Shriver said...

Excellent write-up. Julie Harris wrote to me in 1972 and told me she loved working with Boris, She wanted him to play KING LEAR, but he thought he was too old. I've seen the kinescope of the Hallmark version of THE LARK and it's great to see Boris and Julie and Basil Rathbone and Denholm Elliott acting up a storm,

Anonymous said...

Beautifully written piece. As a lifelong fan of Karloff and an actor myself, I love reading intelligent articles that address his proficiency as an actor.