THE BRIEF description in the front of the script says: "Joshua a crumbling butler."
So, in my idea of the best method-acting, I come out on stage for our very first rehearsal--and my first formal play--hunched over, hands shaking, and taking tiny little steps. The dry British voice says:
"Mr. McCain . . . do you have a hernia?"
The voice belongs to Michael Finlayson, visiting professor from England to American University, and director of the school's spring play, "Ring Round the Moon," a French farce by Jean Anouilh.
Finlayson is very experienced and very good director. That is obvious even to my amateur eyes. He is a graduate of England's elite Royal Academy for Dramatic Art, and over the years has directed Rex Harrison, Edward G. Robinson, and David Attenborough--with whom Americans are getting better acquainted on the PBS series "Life on Earth."
Recently, Finlayson has become a specialist as visiting professor to the drama departments of American colleges. He's been hired by the University of Texas, Penn State, State University of New York and now, American University.
I happened on the scene accidentally.
I'm a writer, and started working on a play last fall. As I worked, I became more and more aware how difficult the art of writing drama is--to sustain interest, develop plot and build characters, entirely through dialogue. No fancy camera shots, no lurid novel descriptions, no sound effects--just speech.
I found out that an alumnus of American University can take any course at the school for $25. Now that has to be the best deal on any campus, anywhere.
So I signed up for an acting course to learn more about stage business and, by acting out various parts, learn what makes good dialogue and a good play.
I remember one of the bits I chose to do for class was the opening monologue from "Richard III," the famous "Winter of Discontent" piece. I went at it the way Eisenhower went after Normandy. I moaned and screamed and reflected . . . and at a very dramatic point I plunged a dagger into a prayer book. I was terrific.
"My word, why don't you just declare war on something?"
Finally, I auditioned for "Ring." And Finlayson selected me, with some reservation, for the part of the old family servant.
I started out in what I thought was the best architecture of the English butler. Looking back, my initial efforts came out like World War II's Lord Haw-Haw with hemorrhoids and a tracheal intubation--all tightness and pain.
"Just be real, Joseph, real!" Finlayson hammered at me. "Forget all the butlers you have seen on American telly. They are cartoons at best, abominations at worst.
"You must be real, and warm, and caring, and feeling."
And night after night, I would try my bit and Finlayson would slap his hand against his forehead and make a note. At one point, I was so convinced I was pulling down a very excellent cast that I offered to be replaced.
"Have I asked you to be replaced? Why don't you take care of your part and let me do the directing?"
And finally one night, after a rehearsal, Finlayson had nothing to say about Joshua. I knew I had gone so far beyond redemption that he couldn't say anything. He had given up.
After the rehearsal, the other actors filing out of the theater, I was hanging my head in misery. Finlayson looked over at me, matter-of-factly:
"Much better, Joe. Much, much better. Don't you feel better about it?" he asked, with a smile.
In spite of the fact that moments before I had felt like Cornwallis about to get his general's evaluation after Yorktown, all of a sudden I felt much better, indeed.
In fact, I felt bloody marvelous. Almost like an actor, by God!