Mary Martin could never have imagined that she'd be opening in a straight play on the same night of another "South Pacific" opening nearby. When I first ran into a Russian play in Samarkand, in Central Asia, I certainly didn't expect that play's author eventually would provide a vehicle for Mary Martin.
But such coincidences make life interesting, and so Monday night Jane Powell opens with Howard Keel in "South Pacific" at Wolf Trap while the original Nellie Forbush will be playing a Russian circus veteran in the Eisenhower's "Do You Turn Somersaults?" and I will be bearing Aleksei Arbuzov in English.
After the Moscow Film Festival of 1963, I was determined to realize a crazy dream. When Ward Morehouse, a dynamic theater columnist of my youth, roamed the globe he alternated his usual "Broadway After Dark" with "Londan After Dark," Paris After Dark," etc. I resolved that one day I'd write a theater report datelined from the most exotic place I knew. I'd chosen "Samarkand After Dark" because James Elroy Flecker had written a poetic play I'd thrilled to but never have seen staged. "The Golden Journey to Samarkand." Besides, Tamerlane is buried in Samarkand and its mosques' blue tiles are among Asia's glories.
Assured that improvised solo travel was impossible in the U.S.S.R., I haggled for a few days at Intourist to extend may visa and work out a solo trip to Uzbekistan, one of the more remote of the 15 Soviet republics, where Samarkand, one of the worl's oldest cities, lies between two snowcapped mountain ranges.
So, quartered nondelluxe some distance from the heart of town and pressing my way there on shank's mare, I located, at dusk, the main drag. There I joined an audience of about 200 seated on benches before an open-air stage.
Speaking no Russian and glaringly the only non-Uzbek in the audience, I watched a play I later learned was called "My Poor Marat," involving a single room and three characters. Through the acting I gathered that the first scene occurred while bombs were falling in a city. A teen-aged girl, obviously cold, was huddled on a sofa, the room's only furnishing, and a youth burst in, at first happy then angry. You knew they were unknown to each other but that he was at home in the room.
During three scenes they thawed, the lighting plus flowers indicating spring-time. Yound Love was dawning by the time a second youth straggled in, evidently at death's door. Gradually the first two nursed him back to health and their bantering made me think of coward's "Design for Living." They loved each other with the compatibility of youthful assurance.
In a succession of scenes, with two intermissions for steaming spiced tea, the players became increasingly mature and the room itself more fully, finally quite fully, furnished. The second youth appeared to be the romantic winner and a stethoscope told me that the girl had become a doctor. But in the last scene the initial fellow returned and the interloper, by now a rather garrulous whiner, took his leave to the obvious pleasure of the rest of us.
Feeling through blind alleys and cow-paths of my moonless trek home, I decided this theater-going had been satisfying. Speaking neither Greek nor Arabic, I had experienced plays with which I was familiar in Greece and Egypt and while I'd had no background whatever for this one, I'd felt empathy with three people in a strange land, indeed also with the audience itself, for some had exchanged chatter and gesture with the stranger.
It was the art of acting that had moved me before that modest Uzbek stage, conveying concerns, conflicts and resolutions, I too, had matured with the three characters, they drawing the rest of us into the vital human need to reach out, trust and accept. They had done it through their bodies, faces, eyes, intonations and minds and were clearly skilled, trained actors.
It turned out that my "Samarkand After Dark" column probably was the first in English about a play that, within a year, had productions in 66 Soviet theaters. I correctly had guessed that its subject was the siege od Leningrad and a generation of its survivors.
The playwright, Aleksei Nikolayevich Arbuzov, was born in 1908. Orphaned as a child, he was raised by his aunt in Leningrad, where, at 14, he became "an extra" at the Marinsky Theater. By age 20, he was running mobile theater groups and had taken to playwriting. By now he has done more than 30 plays, many well-known to his countrymen.
Because Peter Brooks's "Marat/Sade" was then the rage, "My Poor Marat" became "The Promise" with its first production in England, where two of his earlier plays already had been presented. With Judi Dench, Ian McShane and Ian McKellen, it had a 1967 London run; but with Eileen Atkins replacing Dench, it subsequently mustered only 23 New York performances. As I often feel about British casts playing Russians in America, the added veneer of a second nationality diffuses authenticity, difficult at best.
Arbuzov has become an affectionately regarded Moscow friend to visiting theater people. Though he does not speak English, he has taken such colleagues as Lawrence and Lee, Bill Ball and Edward Hastings to the Writers' Union, his own and other theaters, forming strong, enduring ties in the West. Last year he had the satisfaction of a special Arbuzov season of three plays at England's Bristol Old Vic.
Originally, Ariadne Nicolaeff, who has been his usual English tanslator, called the Eisenhower's comedy "Old Times." Under that title it's had more than 50 European and Soviet productions within two years, but from one of its lines comes the new American title, "Do You Turn Somersaults?" With Anthony Quayle repeating his Londaon role as a doctor in one of those Soviet rest centers in the Sochi area, Martin plays a former circus performer, so the new title seems fitting. Arbuzov has a fondness for circus; be alludes to one in "The Promise." But for a major part of his career, Arbuzov has been haunted by the war that dominated the lives of his contemporaries.
By the time Arbuzov was touring his plays to the Soviet wartime troops, an American writer one year Arbuzorv's senior was covering American installations in another part of the world.
Soaking up local color, James Michener called his fictional stories "Tales of the South Pacific" and from two of this Pulitzer-winning collection, "Our Heroine" and "Fo' Dolla," "Oscar Hammerstein and Joshua Logan would fashion - and join by an incident of their own invention - what became Martin's "South Pacific" and another Pulitzer winner, only the second for a musical. As with Arbuzov, Michener has devoted much of his writing to the war that dominated the lives of his contemporaries.
Whether on eis in Uzbekistan or the District of Columbia, creative imagination can make all men one. Their striking similarity is that both the Russian and the American writers managed to findin the war that absorbed their generation themes of survival and affirmation.