Not too long ago at a not-too-expensive French restaurant I thought I was having a bad reaction to the salad. My condition worsened, I sent complaints back to the chef, left my entree untouched, paid my bill and demanded to know the ingredients in the dressing so I could ascertain the proper antidotes. The owner refused to reveal the recipe.
When The Washington Post very graciously asked me to illuminate the present production of "Richard III" at the Kennedy Center, I thought of that incident and wondered if The Post's theater critic was not merely seeking the cure for some distressful reactions to opening night. "Mightn't there have been some MSG in the first act, or a slightly turned Bernaise in the second?"
Actually, I discovered that my own distress was a shellfish allergy brought on by an indulgent portion of cold shrimp consumed at a cocktail reception one hour earlier. So much for the truth of my review of that French restaurant.
The Washington Post, of course, is not the first to complain. The new wine of Potter's Field, my theater company, has given a number of critics hangovers. (Although I hear Mr. Lardner has been calling for a new theatrical wine at the Kennedy Center for some time.) I will not apologize for the avoidable. A young company with young ideas is new-wine. Its aging cannot be hurried. Anyone who has drunk the new wine in Vienna knows the perculiar morning-after it gives.
Because much of the public has enjoyed our wine and the connoisseurs have disliked it, "Richard III" is called controversial. Anne Crutcher of The Washington Star best clarified the argument. She quoted Edmund Burke as stating that we defend an illusion of human virtue by calling really heinous behavior insanity. She would have preferred a sane and crafty Richard, mythic in his evil, not pathetic in his illness, perfectly capable of standing trial.
I could not nor would not give her that performance if my life depended on it.
I definitely believe that evil is pathology, but I don't think that raises my estimation of the human animal any the higher. I am a Brechtian Catholic which means, I suppose, that I believe only God is good, Christ his most perfect creation and the rest of us the most over-inflated, hypcrictical, deluded pile of pathologies imaginable.
A controversial position to take. If evil is no more than pathology and if "Richard III" is played with such obvious disturbances, how do we explain our studidity in putting such crazies into office or the vengeance of a criminal code that punishes instead of treats" My answer to that is we shouldn't defend the criminal code and we must admit to ourselves how stupid we are. It might help us build a safer world. If nothing else it's an inspiration to our sense of humor.
Under these conditions, "Richard III" is our tragedy, not Richard's. If my portrayal strains the credibility of the critics, what does the career of Adolf Hitler do to their sense of reality? A first-year psychology student could have diagnosed his paranoia from skimming "Mein Kampf."
My approach to human nature is certainly not fashionable. A fashionable portrayal was Dustin Hoffman's Mr. Kramer. It was a skillfully marketed act of heroism. In retrospect, however, you are forced to realize that he was as neurotic as his wife, trading workaholism for daddyism, dropping one obsession for another. Little Billy Kramer will not fare any better under Mr. Kramer's new intensity than he would have under his mother's self-pity. No worse, but certainly no better. These symptoms were gracefully left on the editing-room floor.
While writing this article I have been told that Harold Clurman has died. That may be true, but as a symbol his soul will now be released to do the work he was unable to see done in his life on earth. He wrote a review of my performance in "G.R. Point" that almost convinced me to retire while I was ahead. After my experience with "Richard III," I sometimes regret not having done just that, knowing that no other man's respect or love of my work could mean more. However, here I am doing the impossible, defending in words what cannot be explained and hoping that some of this nonsense will bring people to the theater to see my Richard.
Where has this article led me? To a brief explanation of the "controversy" -- to a compliment for Ann Crutcher's insight and courage in venturing a guess -- a small but heartfelt thank-you to one of the single most influential minds in the growth of American theater -- then back to the table of indigestion or hangover from the Potter's Field salad and new wine. I would love my theater company to be on someone's restaurant list as a regular stop. Most people at this point, not connoisseurs, have enjoyed the fare. It's future menu, if it lives, is a production of "Henry V" set in the John Kennedy administration.
Laurence Oliver, during the Battle of Britain, was asked to do his movie of this hero king as an inspiration to the memory of England's courage. In these perilous days I would expect people to gain great joy from hearing the following words in a wonderfully memorable cadence from a man who looks vaguely like John Kennedy, whose face is being projected by closed-circuit TV from the stage to monitors in the theater, and seen against the backdrop of the presidential seal:
"Once more unto the breach, dear friends ... once more. ... In peace, there's nothing so becomes a man as modest stillness and humility ... but when the blast of war blows in our ears ... then imitate the action of the tiguh!"