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!
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!”
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.
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!
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.
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.
Another great mix of shows this month, from Tom Stoppard’s new play, to Ibsen, Beckett and newer plays in smaller London venues.
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 …