SOME YEARS ago, impresario Tyrone Guthrie began a rather lengthy article by posing the question: Which of the plays being written and produced in our time are most likely to have meaning and significance for audiences a hundred years from now? Guthrie, as everyone knows, was not one of your run-of-the-mill theatrical entrepreneurs, but a profound and scholarly savant, truly a high priest in the Temple of Thespis. Well, when such a man raises such a question, you pay attention.
And so I read on. But I was not in the least prepared for the shock he had in store for me.
It was Guthrie's conviction that most of the crop of excellent plays gracing our stage--and our age--were destined to be blown into obscurity by the winds of time. Few indeed, he maintained, had the staying power of classics or would be theatrically viable a century hence. He then proceeded to tick off those few: "Death of a Salesman," "A Streetcar Named Desire" and "Room Service."
I did a quadruple take. "Room Service"--that wild romp of a farce spawned by Allen Boretz and myself--a classic? You can't imagine what it's like for someone like myself, who in the not-too-distant past had ground out funnies for Eddie Cantor, then served time in the dungeons of MGM and RKO, to be suddenly accused of co-authoring a classic. Most disconcerting. I would take Guthrie to task for it when we met (for the first time) the following week for lunch.
For some time Guthrie had been keenly interested in another play of mine called "Command Performance." We had exchanged a number of letters about it. The purpose of the lunch was to continue the discussion. His comments, his insights, were remarkable indeed. He seemed to know and understand my characters better than I did myself. All of which only heightened my desire to hear the why and wherefore of his high rating of "Room Service."
"Tyrone," I began--for we were on first-name basis by now--"about your article . . . I found it positively fascinating. But I just couldn't help wondering . . . why . . ."
When I hesitated for a moment, he completed my thought: "You just couldn't help wondering why I think 'Room Service' is a classic. Ah yes, I can see from the expression on your face--you're not at all sure that it is. How could Murray, a former songwriting jokesmith, and Boretz, who used to sell artificial leather, possibly turn out a classic? True classics are written by people with names like Molie re and Chekhov and Ibsen. Am I right?"
Damn the man, I thought to myself, with his diabolical knack for pulling the rug out. He studied the confused look on my face for a while then asked, rather casually, "How did you and Allen get to perpetrate this classic?"
I told him that we had met during the Great Depression when bonus marches, bread lines and soup kitchens were the order of the day. Unemployed college professors were on every street corner--selling apples. "And since," I continued, "social tragedies, like personal ones, all have their comic side, we decided as a tonic for the times, to do a comedy about a shoestring producer. But we had no story line, no particular character in mind. So we began to swap stories of our experiences.
"I, for example, had been conned by one sharpie into spending four months on adapting a hit Viennese play only to discover that my mentor didn't even own the American rights and was, in fact, hoping to use my adaptation to acquire them. Allen, on the other hand, had fallen under the spell of an elegant poseur who sported a pearl-handled cane, spats and a boutonniere. In deep-throated tones he revealed how "enchanted" he had been by some play of Allen's and that he intended to cast it with top stars only. After a four hour "conference" in the Automat he tried to borrow five dollars from Allen so that he could start immediately phoning those top stars.
"I then told my future collaborator about the penniless would-be Ziegfeld who had a positive genius for getting hold of due-bills and using the hotel credit thus acquired to ensnare innocents like myself. When I walked into his impressive looking suite he greeted me with champagne and caviar. This was followed by a sumptuous lunch. By the time we got to the baked Alaska I was eager to sign the play contract without an advance.
"He used the same technique to land an unemployed director, stage manager and scenic designer. Auditions were held in the hotel banquet room where he planned to conduct rehearsals, then backers' auditions. In lieu of salary advances, the starving company got free meals. On Thanksgiving Day he had them all invite friends--even families--to the hotel dining room where they consumed four turkeys, dozens of champagne cocktails and a mass of Corona cigars.
"Upon hearing all this, Allen--the greatest laugher I had ever met--was on the floor laughing uncontrollably. 'That's it!' he cried, echoing my own sentiments, 'that's our character!' We christened him Gordon Miller and during the next two months, while we fleshed him out, developed a story line and completed the first version, Allen spent most of the time on the floor, laughing. He kept laughing through the second version. And the third. Two years and 18 versions later he was still laughing--this time along with the opening night audience. They howled hysterically the next night and the next . . ."
"And will continue to," Guthrie interrupted, "as long as there is theater."
"But don't you think," I ventured meekly, "the theme is a bit narrow for a classic? I mean, a shoestringer trying to get a play on . . ."
". . . Can," he said, "if handled the way you and Allen handled it, reflect the most universal of all themes--David challenging Goliath. Mark my word, John, long after the Great Depression will have become a mere footnote in the history books and long after the Marx Brothers' mangled film version will have been forgotten--mind you, I adore the Marx Brothers but their slapstick-burlesque treatment has nothing in common with your beautifully structured play . . ."
His certainty, his enthusiasm, were music to my ears but his prophecy, alas, was unverifiable and so there remained certain doubts. Subsequently however, two events occurred that made me begin to doubt those doubts. The first event was a new French production not too long ago. The adapters decided to give it a sort of Brechtian treatment with a prologue song bemoaning the age-old struggle of actors--always frowned upon as outcasts--to be accepted as people, as artists. Enriched by this "focus of universality" the play was an enormous hit in all French-speaking countries.
The second event is the current Ralph Allen production of the play, now at the Kennedy Center, directed by Michael Kidd and starring the brilliant comic actor Hal Linden. It is now 46 years since the original production on Broadway--long before most of the cast, and a good deal of the audience--had been born. Yet there I was, on opening night in Baltimore, hearing the same kind of uninhibited, explosive laughter . . .
Lying in bed one night my mind wandered back to that conversation with Guthrie all those years ago and as I began to doze I had one of those dream-like visions . . .
The year was 2081. The place--that Great Theater in the Sky, suspended in misty limbo. Tyrone Guthrie, garbed in celestial white, as Keeper of the Classics, was shepherding Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, Allen Boretz and myself about, bringing us up-to-date on the worldwide productions of our works.
As he pressed some sort of electronic button a section of mist opened up, revealing, down below, a tribe of Watusis seated about, their eyes riveted on a Watusian production of "Death of a Salesman" with the tribal chief, spear in one hand and shield in the other, in the role of Willy Loman. Arthur Miller, looking glum and serious as ever, kept nodding his head in approval.
As Guthrie pressed another button a second piece of mist opened up to disclose the great Khyber Pass Amphitheatre where the Shiite Moslem Repertory Company was doing "A Streetcar Named Desire." The lady playing Blanche Dubois was wearing a white veil, of course. Tennessee Williams, roundfaced as the Wizard of Oz, smiled and beamed.
Now, for the benefit of Allen and myself, Guthrie cut open some more mist to reveal a production of "Room Service" under way on a space colony where 10,000 colonials were relaxing after a hard day of telescope building. Just then, the second act eating scene got under way and, as thunderous waves of laughter echoed through the sky, Allen was unable to resist joining in. Before long, tears were streaming down his cheeks and through his beard. Then, since there was no floor handy, he lay down on a cloud and rolled and shook with laughter just as he had a century and a half ago . . .