Leopoldstadt – Footnotes

Leopoldstadt – Footnotes

Leopoldstadt – Footnotes

The Footnotes to our episode on Tom Stoppard’s majestic play Leopoldstadt include observations on the origins of its title, the metaphoric resonances of the child’s game, Cat’s Cradle, and how Gustav Klimt’s art is an apt choice to help paint the play’s story.

The title of the play
In our conversation Patrick revealed that Leopoldstadt had not been the original working title of the play, but it was an appropriate title. The checkered history of the Leopoldstadt area of Vienna certainly reflects the historical vicissitudes of Jews in Austria. It’s association with the Jews goes back to 1625 when Jews were banned from living within the city walls, and huddled together in a ghetto on the other side of the Danube. They were evicted again in 1669 by Emperor Leopold 1, and the site of their synagogue was cleared to make way for a church dedicated to St Leopold. The area was named Leopoldstadt by the Christian population in gratitude to the Emperor.

After Emperor Joseph issued his Edict of Tolerance in 1782, Jews began to return to Leopoldstadt, although they were still generally banned from the city itself for another century. By the late 19th and early 20th century the area was again associated with the Jews, particularly following the first world war by the poorest people. 

In the Reichskristallnacht pogrom of 1938 the area was once again the focus of persecution when six synagogues and thirty-one prayer houses were destroyed. Today, the Leopoldstadt area of Vienna is no longer Jewish: following the 20th century wave of expulsions only 3% of the population is Jewish.

So the origin of the name Leopoldstadt represents a bitter irony in its association with the Jews of Vienna. The title of the play is a short-hand for targeted discrimination, but it is also a definition of community; a place where people of a kind live together whether by choice or necessity. It’s history also testifies to the way that the identity and interpretation of a place and people can change almost arbitrarily through the currents of history. As the play itself asserts, it is important not to forget the realities of the past that can be lost or obscured over time.  

Emperor Leopold 1st 1640-1705

 

 

The Leopoldstadter Tempel – the largest synagogue in Vienna
Destroyed on Kristallnacht 10 November 1938

 

 

 

 

Cat’s Cradle
The string game that Nathan and Leo play with Ludwig in 1938, and which they remember together when they meet again in 1955 is not only a poignant  personal touchstone; it also has metaphoric resonance in the themes of the play. In typical fashion Stoppard gives us a few clues to these thematic reverberations, such as Ludwig’s observation that there seems to be “no rhyme or reason” in the progress of the game, but in fact “each state comes from the previous state”, as do the events that follow in the flow of history. There is actually a pattern in the game, a mathematical order that is hard to discern underneath the apparent randomness, as the mathematics professor likes to believe there is in nature, despite the chaos of the world they are living in.

Ludwig also points out that the knots in the string in the game “always stay the same distance from each other”, because they never cut the string – a metaphor I think for the fixed links in the family tree that cannot be broken. The individual knots are “not allowed to show up anywhere they like”, just as Leo cannot disown his ancestral origins no matter how far away he travels.

The Cat’s Cradle is a small but glinting example of Stoppard’s art, in that it adds beauty and emotional depth to the personal stories, at the same time as it elaborates on the largest questions in the play.

Gustav Klimt
In the play Gretl is having her portrait painted by none other than Gustav Klimt (1862-1918), one of the founders of the Viennese Seccesion movement and most famously the painter of The Kiss (1907). His work is renowned for its symbolist imagery as well as for its eroticism, which adds an appropriate  frisson to Gretl’s choice of artist. Klimt painted a number of portraits of women from the highest ranks of Viennese society, including two illustrious portraits of Adele Bloch-Bauer,  the wife of wealthy Austrian industrialist Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer. Bloch-Bauer who was one of Klimt’s most important patrons, and a respected member of fin de siecle Viennese society. Although Adele’s portraits post-date Gretl’s sitting, they may have partially been a model for the story of her painting. Like Hermann Merz, Bloch-Bauer was Jewish, and in 1938 he fled Austria and his art collection was subsequently seized by the Nazis. After the war the Bloch-Bauer portraits became the subject of a long-running dispute over their ownership, which was only finally resolved in 2006 when the family reclaimed and sold them.

As we learn in the last act of Leopoldstrasse, Gretl’s portrait was also the victim of Nazi pilferage, and Rosa is embroiled years later in a determined battle to recover it from the Austrian state. The fate of the painting is symbolic not only of the lost possessions and lives of the Jews, but of the erased identities of the individuals of the past, one of the running themes of the play. As Nathan tells us, the painting was originally titled “Portrait of Margarete Merz”, but it now hangs in the Belverdere gallery in Vienna known only as “Woman with a Green Shawl”.

There is another reference to Klimt in the play, specifically to his paintings of ‘Philosophy’, Medicine’ and ‘Jurisprudence’, which he was commissioned to produce for the great hall of the University of Vienna. The paintings were greeted by outrage because of their allegorical imagery which many deemed pornographic, and they were never displayed at the university. The painting of ‘Philosophy’ has been described as illustrating an idea prominent at the time that the “purposeful progress of history was ultimately governed by incomprehensible and uncontrollable cyclical forces of nature.” A meaning that sounds particularly fitting for the cycles of persecution and devastation that we witness repeated in the play and over the history of the century. Are these uncontrollable, destructive forces part of our fundamental character as human beings? As Ernst says about the meaning of the paintings: “The rational is at the mercy of the irrational. Barbarism will not be eradicated by culture.”  As if to highlight his point, a postscript to the story is that Klimt’s three university paintings were deliberately destroyed by the Nazis on their retreat from Vienna in 1945. Barbarism indeed.

 

 

 

Adele Bloch-Bauer I (1907)

 

 

Philosophy (1900, 1907)

 

 

The Texts
If you are interested in buying the play text or other related books, we’d be delighted if you choose to purchase them by following the links below. We will earn a small commission on every book you purchase, which helps to keep the podcast going. You will also be supporting an independent bookseller. Thank you.
Suggest a play
We’re always open to suggestions about plays to talk about, so if you’d like us to discuss a favourite of yours, please email us at plays@theplaypodcast.com. Let us know why you think we should cover it, and if you know anyone who’d be excited and qualified to talk about it with us (even yourself if modesty permits!).
Plays suggested for discussion by our Guests and Listeners - which gets your vote?
  • Add your own suggestion
You might also be interested in …
033 – Leopoldstadt by Tom Stoppard

033 – Leopoldstadt by Tom Stoppard

Tom Stoppard’s ambitious new play Leopoldstadt is a sweeping work of history and ideas which charts the diaspora and decline of an Austrian Jewish family through the convulsive events of the first half of the twentieth century. It addresses profound moral questions of identity, memory and prejudice that are insistently relevant in our time. It is not only a towering intellectual achievement, it is also very personally poignant because it is based partly on Stoppard’s own remarkable family history.

Leopoldstadt opened in the West End in January 2020, only to be closed prematurely by the pandemic a few weeks later. Happily it has returned to the London stage this Autumn, and I am privileged and delighted to talk in this episode with the director of the London productions, playwright Patrick Marber.

032 – Footnotes Volume 3

032 – Footnotes Volume 3

Footnotes Volume 3 is a recording of the facts and observations that we’ve published on the website to supplement the plays that we’ve covered in episodes 24-31. A smorgasbord of trivia and analysis ranging from Greek Tragedy to the stock characters of Commedia dell’Arte , through the music of Bob Dylan, the filming of Caryl Churchill’s Escaped Alone during lockdown, and the theatrical installations of Samuel Beckett.

A compendium of dramatic intelligence!

031 – Happy Days by Samuel Beckett

031 – Happy Days by Samuel Beckett

Samuel Beckett’s third great dramatic masterpiece Happy Days is a timeless exploration of existential threat and personal survival. It’s central image of Winnie buried in a mound of scorched earth also speaks to our own time when many have endured enforced confinement in a world struck by collective disaster.

Irish actress and Beckett scholar Lisa Dwan, fresh from her triumphant performance as Winnie at the Riverside Studios in London, joins us to share her unique experience of playing Beckett and this majestic play.

Recent Posts
The 2020 Theatre Diary – March

The 2020 Theatre Diary – March

Before the theatres went dark this month I was lucky enough to see Caryl Churchill’s A Number at the Bridge, and spend more than seven hours in thrall to Robert Lepage’s Seven Streams of the River Ota at the National. Plus, some thoughts on what we miss when there is no theatre.

The 2020 Theatre Diary – January

The 2020 Theatre Diary – January

The January roundup included both classic plays, such as The Duchess of Malfi, Uncle Vanya and Three Sisters, as well as recent musicals Dear Evan Hansen and Girl from the North Country

Leopoldstadt – Footnotes

Happy Days – Footnotes

Happy Days – Footnotes

The Footnotes to our episode on Samuel Beckett’s timeless play Happy Days include observations on the power of Beckett’s theatrical imagery, as well as the indeterminate nature of time in the play.

Installation artist
When I asked Lisa Dwan about the striking visual tableau that we see on stage in Happy Days, she described Samuel Beckett as an “installation artist”. The visual settings of his plays are extraordinarily arresting. They are simple, yet mysterious and powerful. The lone tree in the otherwise empty place where Vladimir and Estragon wait for Godot, or the room with the windows set high up in the wall, two dustbins and a single throne-like chair in Endgame. We are aware that these particular locations are part of a larger world, but the characters do not have any agency to change or exit their self-contained space. Their constrained circumstances prompt many questions – what is in the world beyond? How have they arrived in this situation? How do they practically survive without the usual necessities?

In fact it is notable how quickly we put aside such questions and accept the status quo of the world we are witnessing. We understand very quickly that the space that the characters occupy is a metaphoric one. As Lisa observed, Beckett’s landscapes reflect a “psychological state”. We experience directly the state of existential uncertainty and enquiry the characters do, and we also understand that there are no rational explanations for what we are seeing. We accept that any answers are going to be unknowable, and we simply adapt to the circumstances we are presented with, as the characters do.

In stripping back the physical world to a minimum Beckett also imbues it with a sense of existential challenge, so that what we witness and experience is essentially consciousness itself. How we respond to psychological pressure, doubt, or fear. As Lisa so succinctly put it, Beckett was “putting the mind on stage”.

Lisa Dwan on the set of Happy Days
at the Riverside Studios

 

 

Diane Wiest as Winnie
photo by Gerry Goodstein

 

“The old style”
Throughout the play Winnie refers obliquely to how life was in a time before as being in “the old style”. Although she never explains explicitly what occurred to separate her from the past, we understand her reference to be describing a world and a life that we would recognise as normal. She describes her first dance, her wedding day, and even an encounter with a man in a tool shed.

Winnie suggests that time passed differently in “the old style”, where the definition of a ‘day’ was not signalled by the ringing of the bell: “Not a day goes by, to speak in the old style”. Linear time as we know, and it used to be for Winnie, no longer seems to apply. There does not appear to be any sunset; the weather never changes; nothing grows; and in fact Winnie suggests that things that she removes from her bag will reappear again tomorrow. Time is an artificial construct of the old world and a way of thinking: “May one still speak of time? Say it is a long time now, Willie, since I saw you. Since I heard you. May one? One does. [smile] The old style!”

Yet we do have a sense that Winnie’s time is running out. The earth has risen to engulf her up to her neck. “Ah well, not long now, Winnie, can’t be long now, until the bell for sleep.”  And of course the title of the play refers to transient, subjective and limited time. In the end Winnie exclaims: “Oh, this is a happy day, this will have been another happy day!…After all….So far.” Ambiguous, inevitably.

The Texts
If you are interested in buying the play text or other related books, we’d be delighted if you choose to purchase them by following the links below. We will earn a small commission on every book you purchase, which helps to keep the podcast going. You will also be supporting an independent bookseller. Thank you.
Suggest a play
We’re always open to suggestions about plays to talk about, so if you’d like us to discuss a favourite of yours, please email us at plays@theplaypodcast.com. Let us know why you think we should cover it, and if you know anyone who’d be excited and qualified to talk about it with us (even yourself if modesty permits!).
Plays suggested for discussion by our Guests and Listeners - which gets your vote?
  • Add your own suggestion
You might also be interested in …
033 – Leopoldstadt by Tom Stoppard

033 – Leopoldstadt by Tom Stoppard

Tom Stoppard’s ambitious new play Leopoldstadt is a sweeping work of history and ideas which charts the diaspora and decline of an Austrian Jewish family through the convulsive events of the first half of the twentieth century. It addresses profound moral questions of identity, memory and prejudice that are insistently relevant in our time. It is not only a towering intellectual achievement, it is also very personally poignant because it is based partly on Stoppard’s own remarkable family history.

Leopoldstadt opened in the West End in January 2020, only to be closed prematurely by the pandemic a few weeks later. Happily it has returned to the London stage this Autumn, and I am privileged and delighted to talk in this episode with the director of the London productions, playwright Patrick Marber.

032 – Footnotes Volume 3

032 – Footnotes Volume 3

Footnotes Volume 3 is a recording of the facts and observations that we’ve published on the website to supplement the plays that we’ve covered in episodes 24-31. A smorgasbord of trivia and analysis ranging from Greek Tragedy to the stock characters of Commedia dell’Arte , through the music of Bob Dylan, the filming of Caryl Churchill’s Escaped Alone during lockdown, and the theatrical installations of Samuel Beckett.

A compendium of dramatic intelligence!

031 – Happy Days by Samuel Beckett

031 – Happy Days by Samuel Beckett

Samuel Beckett’s third great dramatic masterpiece Happy Days is a timeless exploration of existential threat and personal survival. It’s central image of Winnie buried in a mound of scorched earth also speaks to our own time when many have endured enforced confinement in a world struck by collective disaster.

Irish actress and Beckett scholar Lisa Dwan, fresh from her triumphant performance as Winnie at the Riverside Studios in London, joins us to share her unique experience of playing Beckett and this majestic play.

Recent Posts
The 2020 Theatre Diary – March

The 2020 Theatre Diary – March

Before the theatres went dark this month I was lucky enough to see Caryl Churchill’s A Number at the Bridge, and spend more than seven hours in thrall to Robert Lepage’s Seven Streams of the River Ota at the National. Plus, some thoughts on what we miss when there is no theatre.

The 2020 Theatre Diary – January

The 2020 Theatre Diary – January

The January roundup included both classic plays, such as The Duchess of Malfi, Uncle Vanya and Three Sisters, as well as recent musicals Dear Evan Hansen and Girl from the North Country

Leopoldstadt – Footnotes

Escaped Alone – Footnotes

Escaped Alone – Footnotes

In our Footnotes to the episode on Escaped Alone I’ve shared some background on my experience filming the play with our local theatre group, as well as some further thoughts on Caryl Churchill’s uncanny prescience.

Filming Escaped Alone during lockdown
I am privileged to be a member of the play selection committee at my local amateur theatre club, and during the past 18 months it has been very difficult to plan future productions in our theatre. We decided that one way we could continue to make theatre happen in some form would be to stage a play in the theatre without an audience, and film the result for presentation online. We knew that with various lockdown restrictions in place we would have to choose a play that we could mount while complying with the legal and moral criteria in place. This meant choosing a title with a small cast – we might be limited to having no more than six people together during rehearsal for example; and that also required a relatively simple single set, and minimised the physical interaction within the cast. We selected Escaped Alone firstly therefore because with its cast of four sitting fixed in their garden chairs throughout it could be practically staged maintaining social distancing.

There were a number of other equally compelling reasons that we wanted to do Escaped Alone: the play offered four wonderful roles for older women, a fact that is probably unique on the stage; it also displays all of the challenging power as well as the humour characteristic of Caryl Churchill’s wonderful language; and finally, because of the extraordinary prescience of its vision of a world overcome by collective disaster. The play speaks to our fears about the future of the planet, as well as our personal anxieties, for example when isolated by age or the pandemic, while also offering some salvation in the strength of our community, as friends, neighbours or open-minded theatre goers.

When it came to staging the play our director, Daniel Wain, had the vision to realise that we had an opportunity to film the play not just as a record of a single theatrical performance, but as a film in its own right. This meant that we could shoot the production in multiple takes and with different camera angles and perspective, rather than as a single run-through. We hoped that this would  provide additional detail and texture to the dynamics between the characters, as well as an enhanced focus on the intense personal monologues that each of the women deliver. It also offered an opportunity to suggest a particular interpretation of Mrs Jarrett’s role as the messenger or narrator in the form of the play.

After weeks of rehearsal with the text via Zoom, in our gardens and finally in the empty theatre, we were ready to film. We spent a day constructing the set, and setting up the lighting, sound and camera infrastructure; followed by four long, intense days of filming to complete the 124-page shot list. The cast were phenomenally patient and professional, delivering funny, deeply moving performances, often many times over! It was an enormously rewarding, collaborative experience, which felt like an appropriately resilient and communal response to the challenge of the pandemic. One that we hope is also true to the spirit of Caryl Churchill’s prophetic play.

Teddington Theatre Club’s film of Escaped Alone will be broadcast online for five nights from 02-06 September 2021. Click here for more information and to buy tickets to watch.

The cast on set for Teddington Theatre Club’s film production of Escaped Alone

 

The Handmaid’s Tale

Prophesy
Elaine joked during our conversation in the podcast that if Caryl Churchill writes about something happening in the future in a play, that event will come to pass! It is impossible not to be struck by Churchill’s prescience in the pictures she paints in Mrs Jarrett’s monologues of a world overcome by environmental disasters, as well as by the violence and anarchy that may ensue when mankind fights over scarce resource, or law and order has broken down under the pressure of extreme events. Although the language or images she uses may seem too surreal to be true at times, the detail is so close to what we know that it feels that it could happen, or already has.

It reminds me of the extraordinary reality of another prophetic writer, Margaret Atwood, who famously said about her novel The Handmaid’s Tale that it contained nothing that hadn’t already happened somewhere in the world.

As Elaine also suggested Mrs Jarrett is like the messenger in Greek drama who brings truth the characters do not want to hear. I was reminded of the sooth-sayer Tiresias from Oedipus Rex and Antigone, for example, who despite his physical blindness is able to see and tell us unpalatable truths. Caryl Churchill is a sooth-sayer of sorts I think.

The Texts
If you are interested in buying the play text or other related books, we’d be delighted if you choose to purchase them by following the links below. We will earn a small commission on every book you purchase, which helps to keep the podcast going. You will also be supporting an independent bookseller. Thank you.
Suggest a play
We’re always open to suggestions about plays to talk about, so if you’d like us to discuss a favourite of yours, please email us at plays@theplaypodcast.com. Let us know why you think we should cover it, and if you know anyone who’d be excited and qualified to talk about it with us (even yourself if modesty permits!).
Plays suggested for discussion by our Guests and Listeners - which gets your vote?
  • Add your own suggestion
You might also be interested in …
033 – Leopoldstadt by Tom Stoppard

033 – Leopoldstadt by Tom Stoppard

Tom Stoppard’s ambitious new play Leopoldstadt is a sweeping work of history and ideas which charts the diaspora and decline of an Austrian Jewish family through the convulsive events of the first half of the twentieth century. It addresses profound moral questions of identity, memory and prejudice that are insistently relevant in our time. It is not only a towering intellectual achievement, it is also very personally poignant because it is based partly on Stoppard’s own remarkable family history.

Leopoldstadt opened in the West End in January 2020, only to be closed prematurely by the pandemic a few weeks later. Happily it has returned to the London stage this Autumn, and I am privileged and delighted to talk in this episode with the director of the London productions, playwright Patrick Marber.

032 – Footnotes Volume 3

032 – Footnotes Volume 3

Footnotes Volume 3 is a recording of the facts and observations that we’ve published on the website to supplement the plays that we’ve covered in episodes 24-31. A smorgasbord of trivia and analysis ranging from Greek Tragedy to the stock characters of Commedia dell’Arte , through the music of Bob Dylan, the filming of Caryl Churchill’s Escaped Alone during lockdown, and the theatrical installations of Samuel Beckett.

A compendium of dramatic intelligence!

031 – Happy Days by Samuel Beckett

031 – Happy Days by Samuel Beckett

Samuel Beckett’s third great dramatic masterpiece Happy Days is a timeless exploration of existential threat and personal survival. It’s central image of Winnie buried in a mound of scorched earth also speaks to our own time when many have endured enforced confinement in a world struck by collective disaster.

Irish actress and Beckett scholar Lisa Dwan, fresh from her triumphant performance as Winnie at the Riverside Studios in London, joins us to share her unique experience of playing Beckett and this majestic play.

Recent Posts
The 2020 Theatre Diary – March

The 2020 Theatre Diary – March

Before the theatres went dark this month I was lucky enough to see Caryl Churchill’s A Number at the Bridge, and spend more than seven hours in thrall to Robert Lepage’s Seven Streams of the River Ota at the National. Plus, some thoughts on what we miss when there is no theatre.

The 2020 Theatre Diary – January

The 2020 Theatre Diary – January

The January roundup included both classic plays, such as The Duchess of Malfi, Uncle Vanya and Three Sisters, as well as recent musicals Dear Evan Hansen and Girl from the North Country

Leopoldstadt – Footnotes

A Taste of Honey – Footnotes

A Taste of Honey – Footnotes

The Footnotes to our episode on A Taste of Honey include thoughts on sins of the mother, and Shelagh Delaney’s real people.

Sins of their mothers
One of the themes that the play suggests is that it is difficult to escape repeating the patterns of behaviour we absorb from our parents. It’s a point that Helen even recognises despite her general negligence as Jo’s mother. When Jo announces that she is engaged to be married, she ironically chastises Jo for not learning from her own mistakes. We also talked in the podcast about how Jo replicates Helen’s behaviour in seeking self-worth by seducing a man and getting recklessly pregnant.

To underline the potential cycle of repetition there are echoes of Helen’s first marriage in Geof and Jo’s relationship. Helen’s husband was incapable of satisfying her sexual needs, as Geof is for Jo, and in a mirror image Geof is willing to care for another man’s child, which Helen’s husband wasn’t. The theme adduces a literary reference in Ibsen’s Ghosts when Jo tells Geof about her father, and her concerns that she has inherited his mental weakness, as Oswald inherited syphilis from his father in Ghosts. In fact it is clear that it is the sins of her mother that have the most impact on Jo. 

Lesley Sharp as Helen and Kate O’Flynn as Jo
at the National Theatre
Photo: Alastair Muir

 

Shelagh Delaney 

Real people
Shelagh Delaney was determined to write about the real world that she saw around her; to show the vitality and resilience of the working-class people who were struggling to cope with the hardships of life in Salford in the 1950s: “I see the theatre as a place where you should go not only to be entertained but where the audience has contact with real people, people who are alive.”  The real people we meet in A Taste of Honey are living in impoverished circumstances, are poorly educated, feckless and flawed, but are also survivors, funny, determined and independent. For a time Jo is holding down two jobs, because as Helen warns her “There’s two w’s in your future: work or want”. Tellingly it is not difficult to relate to this portrait of deprivation when we look at the current disparity in wealth and opportunity between regions of the country that is in need of “levelling up”.

Delaney’s cast of real people includes a single mother, a mixed race couple, a homosexual student, and a black maternity nurse. It is not just hindsight that affirms that Delaney was not only presenting the real world of her time but a vision of the emerging plurality of our society.

The Texts
If you are interested in buying the play text or other related books, we’d be delighted if you choose to purchase them by following the links below. We will earn a small commission on every book you purchase, which helps to keep the podcast going. You will also be supporting an independent bookseller. Thank you.
Suggest a play
We’re always open to suggestions about plays to talk about, so if you’d like us to discuss a favourite of yours, please email us at plays@theplaypodcast.com. Let us know why you think we should cover it, and if you know anyone who’d be excited and qualified to talk about it with us (even yourself if modesty permits!).
Plays suggested for discussion by our Guests and Listeners - which gets your vote?
  • Add your own suggestion
You might also be interested in …
033 – Leopoldstadt by Tom Stoppard

033 – Leopoldstadt by Tom Stoppard

Tom Stoppard’s ambitious new play Leopoldstadt is a sweeping work of history and ideas which charts the diaspora and decline of an Austrian Jewish family through the convulsive events of the first half of the twentieth century. It addresses profound moral questions of identity, memory and prejudice that are insistently relevant in our time. It is not only a towering intellectual achievement, it is also very personally poignant because it is based partly on Stoppard’s own remarkable family history.

Leopoldstadt opened in the West End in January 2020, only to be closed prematurely by the pandemic a few weeks later. Happily it has returned to the London stage this Autumn, and I am privileged and delighted to talk in this episode with the director of the London productions, playwright Patrick Marber.

032 – Footnotes Volume 3

032 – Footnotes Volume 3

Footnotes Volume 3 is a recording of the facts and observations that we’ve published on the website to supplement the plays that we’ve covered in episodes 24-31. A smorgasbord of trivia and analysis ranging from Greek Tragedy to the stock characters of Commedia dell’Arte , through the music of Bob Dylan, the filming of Caryl Churchill’s Escaped Alone during lockdown, and the theatrical installations of Samuel Beckett.

A compendium of dramatic intelligence!

031 – Happy Days by Samuel Beckett

031 – Happy Days by Samuel Beckett

Samuel Beckett’s third great dramatic masterpiece Happy Days is a timeless exploration of existential threat and personal survival. It’s central image of Winnie buried in a mound of scorched earth also speaks to our own time when many have endured enforced confinement in a world struck by collective disaster.

Irish actress and Beckett scholar Lisa Dwan, fresh from her triumphant performance as Winnie at the Riverside Studios in London, joins us to share her unique experience of playing Beckett and this majestic play.

Recent Posts
The 2020 Theatre Diary – March

The 2020 Theatre Diary – March

Before the theatres went dark this month I was lucky enough to see Caryl Churchill’s A Number at the Bridge, and spend more than seven hours in thrall to Robert Lepage’s Seven Streams of the River Ota at the National. Plus, some thoughts on what we miss when there is no theatre.

The 2020 Theatre Diary – January

The 2020 Theatre Diary – January

The January roundup included both classic plays, such as The Duchess of Malfi, Uncle Vanya and Three Sisters, as well as recent musicals Dear Evan Hansen and Girl from the North Country

Leopoldstadt – Footnotes

Girl from the North Country – Footnotes

Girl from the North Country – Footnotes

Some further brief thoughts on Elizabeth’s ability to tell the truth as she sees it, on the echoes of Chekhov in Conor’s play, and the melding of the songs and the play.

Elizabeth the truth-teller
Elizabeth suffers from early onset dementia. It is the nature of the disease that her powers of perception vary and it is difficult to determine how clear her mind is or what she will say at any given time. Another feature is that the disease seems to reduce the learned inhibition to say whatever one is thinking regardless of social niceties or taboos. Elizabeth is unrestrained in describing what she sees and in fact in so doing she has the capacity to pinpoint the truths that others are leaving unsaid. She senses, for example, that the travelling Bible salesman, Reverend Marlow is “a louse”, and challenges Mr Perry to “find someone your own age you old goat” when he is in pursuit of Marianne.

Given that she sits relatively silent and inactive most of the time, we also underestimate her powers of observation and understanding, so are somewhat surprised when she calls out Nick on his relationship with Mrs Neilson, “your little lady woman up in your attic”. And more poignantly when in the end she intervenes to stop Nick from giving up his life and vows to stay with him despite her not loving him the way he wants. Elizabeth is much more than just the madwoman in the corner. She’s a truth-teller.

Shirley Henderson as Elizabeth at The Old Vic
Photo: Manuel Harlan

 

Jim Norton (Mr Perry) and Sheila Atim (Marianne)
at the Old Vic
Photo: Manuel Harlan

Chekhov
We talked in the podcast about how Conor’s play has some of the elements of Chekhov’s drama. It certainly has a Chekhovian setting, with an ensemble of characters revolving around the boarding house, as they do in the great Russian estates, each with their own stories of hope, heartbreak, tragedy, and stoic suffering. Like Chekhov, despite the characters’ obvious failings and flaws, most are granted some dignity in their suffering. It may not always excuse their behaviour or character, but at least we understand its source and recognise some of our own weaknesses.

One of Chekhov’s great strengths is the depth of focus he gives to even the minor characters, as Conor does here. Each of them is given a story that reveals the heart of their emotional identity. The son Gene, who can’t bring himself to declare the truth of his love and need for Kate, and his disappointment for failing to make more of himself. The Burkes,  who know but cannot admit the reality of their financial and emotional desolation. And even Mr Perry, for example, who we mostly feel a sort of disgust for because of his inappropriate pursuit of Marianne, but there is a moment when he speaks of how hard it is to grow old alone, with only the memories of the warmth of being with someone else. We feel some degree of empathy for his desire and sadness.  I think Conor may have said that all modern playwrights follow in the footsteps of Chekhov, and I mean it is as a compliment to him that his play does so.

 

The songs and the play
Conor McPherson’s Girl from the North Country is an extraordinary collaboration between the playwright, and musician and song writer Bob Dylan. The resulting play with music is a distinctive and rich form, combining all of the effects and power of live drama: dialogue, character, story, staging, with the lyrics and melodies of the music. I was particularly interested in asking Conor how he came to select and meld the Dylan songs that he chose with the play, as he wrote it. His answer suggested that his choices were largely led by instinct. However I couldn’t resist myself trying to read connections between the songs and specific characters or themes of the play.

Some of the songs seem to have a direct connection: the story of the black boxer Reuben Carter in Hurricane has its obvious parallel with the character of Joe Scott, who is also on the run from the law. Mostly however the songs suggest a feeling or meaning that could apply to any of the characters – their hopes for love or honour – or they may reflect the mood and challenges of the times they live in. The lament: “How does it feel … to be without a home… having to scrounge for your next meal”, for example, from Like a Rolling Stone speaks for any of the itinerant characters drifting from one place to another. The plaintive gospel of Slow Train suggests that change in America is coming, albeit too slowly, especially in the South where racial laws are still outdated.  And of course, many of the songs intone the ache of love lost or misplaced, which so many of the characters feel.

It was a huge privilege to talk with Conor about his magical creation. As he said, the theatre can be a spiritual place, like a church, and the music in the play certainly magnifies the drama in the way that music in a church can. With Conor’s assistance I was all the more grateful to be able to feature a few excerpts from the music in the podcast.

 

 

 

 

The Texts
If you are interested in buying the play text or other related books, we’d be delighted if you choose to purchase them by following the links below. We will earn a small commission on every book you purchase, which helps to keep the podcast going. You will also be supporting an independent bookseller. Thank you.
Suggest a play
We’re always open to suggestions about plays to talk about, so if you’d like us to discuss a favourite of yours, please email us at plays@theplaypodcast.com. Let us know why you think we should cover it, and if you know anyone who’d be excited and qualified to talk about it with us (even yourself if modesty permits!).
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  • Add your own suggestion
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033 – Leopoldstadt by Tom Stoppard

033 – Leopoldstadt by Tom Stoppard

Tom Stoppard’s ambitious new play Leopoldstadt is a sweeping work of history and ideas which charts the diaspora and decline of an Austrian Jewish family through the convulsive events of the first half of the twentieth century. It addresses profound moral questions of identity, memory and prejudice that are insistently relevant in our time. It is not only a towering intellectual achievement, it is also very personally poignant because it is based partly on Stoppard’s own remarkable family history.

Leopoldstadt opened in the West End in January 2020, only to be closed prematurely by the pandemic a few weeks later. Happily it has returned to the London stage this Autumn, and I am privileged and delighted to talk in this episode with the director of the London productions, playwright Patrick Marber.

032 – Footnotes Volume 3

032 – Footnotes Volume 3

Footnotes Volume 3 is a recording of the facts and observations that we’ve published on the website to supplement the plays that we’ve covered in episodes 24-31. A smorgasbord of trivia and analysis ranging from Greek Tragedy to the stock characters of Commedia dell’Arte , through the music of Bob Dylan, the filming of Caryl Churchill’s Escaped Alone during lockdown, and the theatrical installations of Samuel Beckett.

A compendium of dramatic intelligence!

031 – Happy Days by Samuel Beckett

031 – Happy Days by Samuel Beckett

Samuel Beckett’s third great dramatic masterpiece Happy Days is a timeless exploration of existential threat and personal survival. It’s central image of Winnie buried in a mound of scorched earth also speaks to our own time when many have endured enforced confinement in a world struck by collective disaster.

Irish actress and Beckett scholar Lisa Dwan, fresh from her triumphant performance as Winnie at the Riverside Studios in London, joins us to share her unique experience of playing Beckett and this majestic play.

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The 2020 Theatre Diary – January

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Leopoldstadt – Footnotes

Present Laughter – Footnotes

Present Laughter – Footnotes

The Footnotes to our episode on Present Laughter include thoughts on the real Garry Essendine, and the morality of the amorous liaisons that they all prosecute.

The real Garry Essendine
One of the features that enriches Present Laughter is the equivocal nature of Garry himself. There is a persistent suggestion that there is more to him than the extravagant showman that he is playing most of the time. His wannabe lovers would like to think that they will bring out his true character hidden beneath the showy exterior; a man who will be honest and sensitive, and most of all, faithfully loving to them. As Joanna puts it: “I want you to be what I believe you really are, friendly and genuine, someone to be trusted. I want you to do me the honour of stopping your eternal performance for a little, ring down the curtain, take off your make-up and relax.”

And Daphne similarly confuses when he is acting and when he is not. Although she claims to “know when you’re acting and when you’re not”, she pointedly gets it completely backwards, believing that “it was the real you” when he first makes love to her, and that he is acting when he tells her he does not want her to come to Africa with him.

Of course it is Liz who knows him best: “He’s not nearly as flamboyant as he pretends to be.”  She and we know that Garry is always much more in control than he lets on, aware of the stakes he is playing with and what is required to sustain both his pleasures and his position. There is a sense of his potential vulnerability when ironically having complained about his lack of peace from the demands of all around him, he is unhappy when he finds himself alone on the eve of his departure to Africa. And he is certainly dependent on Liz for practical and emotional support – Coward is partially playing with this by conjuring Garry’s surname as an anagram of ‘neediness’.

Garry himself proclaims that he has a clear-eyed view of himself and his behaviour: “I always have believed that there’s far too much damned nonsense talked about sex…To me the whole business is over-rated, and always has been. I enjoy it for what it’s worth, and what is more, I fully intend to go on doing so for as long as anybody’s interested. And when the time comes that they’re not – I shall be perfectly content to settle down with an apple and a good book!” His great speech perfectly captures the contradictions of his character: it is overly-dramatic, it contains some truth, and it is deluded – it is virtually impossible to imagine Garry settling for the apple and a good book!

Andrew Scott as Garry at The Old Vic
Photo: Manuel Harlan

 

Andrew Scott as Garry with Kitty Archer as Daphne
Photo: Marilyn Kingwill

“Casual scampering”
Garry is determined that his persistent philandering does not “do any harm to anybody”, but Liz is less sure: “You do harm to yourself and to the few, the very few who really mind about you.”  There is an ongoing debate through the play as to the morality of casual sexual relationships, what Liz neatly labels “casual scampering”, though judging by the behaviour and views of most of the characters, and the final results, it is far from a serious moral contest. For Liz, Garry’s “buccaneering” is “rather undignified”, and most injudicious only when it really threatens to unsettle the professional team that keeps the whole Garry Essendine show on the road.

Both of Garry’s seductresses, Daphne and Joanna, are happy to settle for what Joanna calls the “fun of love” without the “pangs of love” or strings attached. “It’s an adult point of view”, one which Daphne is also content to go along with: “I don’t wan’t to marry you or anything like that…I’ll just be there when you want me, when you’re tired and lonely and want someone to put their arms around you.”

Henry and Joanna’s marriage appears to accommodate his multiple affairs, and Garry’s valet Fred prefers to conduct a non-exclusive, long-term relationship with Doris the dancer at the club he frequents in Tottenham Court Road. (Although touchingly we learn that she will be coming to see him off at the quayside when he departs for the tour of Africa). Garry professes to be outraged by all of these “immoral” attitudes, a stance which is clearly pretentious and hypocritical, as confirmed by his big speech reaffirming his determination to continue to pursue his pleasures “for as long as anybody’s interested.”  It is hard not to hear Coward’s own voice behind Garry’s final proclamation on the matter: “I’m an artist, am I not? Surely I may be allowed a little licence!”

The Texts
If you are interested in buying the play text or other related books, we’d be delighted if you choose to purchase them by following the links below. We will earn a small commission on every book you purchase, which helps to keep the podcast going. You will also be supporting an independent bookseller. Thank you.
Suggest a play
We’re always open to suggestions about plays to talk about, so if you’d like us to discuss a favourite of yours, please email us at plays@theplaypodcast.com. Let us know why you think we should cover it, and if you know anyone who’d be excited and qualified to talk about it with us (even yourself if modesty permits!).
Plays suggested for discussion by our Guests and Listeners - which gets your vote?
  • Add your own suggestion
You might also be interested in …
033 – Leopoldstadt by Tom Stoppard

033 – Leopoldstadt by Tom Stoppard

Tom Stoppard’s ambitious new play Leopoldstadt is a sweeping work of history and ideas which charts the diaspora and decline of an Austrian Jewish family through the convulsive events of the first half of the twentieth century. It addresses profound moral questions of identity, memory and prejudice that are insistently relevant in our time. It is not only a towering intellectual achievement, it is also very personally poignant because it is based partly on Stoppard’s own remarkable family history.

Leopoldstadt opened in the West End in January 2020, only to be closed prematurely by the pandemic a few weeks later. Happily it has returned to the London stage this Autumn, and I am privileged and delighted to talk in this episode with the director of the London productions, playwright Patrick Marber.

032 – Footnotes Volume 3

032 – Footnotes Volume 3

Footnotes Volume 3 is a recording of the facts and observations that we’ve published on the website to supplement the plays that we’ve covered in episodes 24-31. A smorgasbord of trivia and analysis ranging from Greek Tragedy to the stock characters of Commedia dell’Arte , through the music of Bob Dylan, the filming of Caryl Churchill’s Escaped Alone during lockdown, and the theatrical installations of Samuel Beckett.

A compendium of dramatic intelligence!

031 – Happy Days by Samuel Beckett

031 – Happy Days by Samuel Beckett

Samuel Beckett’s third great dramatic masterpiece Happy Days is a timeless exploration of existential threat and personal survival. It’s central image of Winnie buried in a mound of scorched earth also speaks to our own time when many have endured enforced confinement in a world struck by collective disaster.

Irish actress and Beckett scholar Lisa Dwan, fresh from her triumphant performance as Winnie at the Riverside Studios in London, joins us to share her unique experience of playing Beckett and this majestic play.

Recent Posts
The 2020 Theatre Diary – March

The 2020 Theatre Diary – March

Before the theatres went dark this month I was lucky enough to see Caryl Churchill’s A Number at the Bridge, and spend more than seven hours in thrall to Robert Lepage’s Seven Streams of the River Ota at the National. Plus, some thoughts on what we miss when there is no theatre.

The 2020 Theatre Diary – January

The 2020 Theatre Diary – January

The January roundup included both classic plays, such as The Duchess of Malfi, Uncle Vanya and Three Sisters, as well as recent musicals Dear Evan Hansen and Girl from the North Country