Lockdown and whatever we call post-Lockdown (new regs for London in force from today) has been a curse on everyone’s life. Resulting problems inevitably include boredom, loneliness, insomnia, and so on. I am well aware of my own good fortune, a happy marriage, a great family, a comfortable home. And so the least of the nation’s troubles has been my frequent inability, as a lifelong keen reader, to find a book I can really get into. Anyway, my present solution is, as it often has been these months, to re-read. I am getting a lot of enjoyment once again from “A Pride of Terrys”, Marguerite Steen’s absorbing biography of one of the most notable families in the history of English theatre.
The conditions of touring with a company in the Nineteenth Century are humbling for a present day actor (even though I believe that we have lost much of what Equity so notably achieved). And other contrasts can be fascinating. The fact that boys in plays were usually played by girls was a kind of reversal of the Elizabethan practice. And not because girls can more often pass as younger than they are — sometimes the girls were so young you wonder they could either learn or understand their parts. I remember Gilbert Wynne, who had played Prince Henry in “King John” at the Old Vic in 1961, telling us of a “King John” party that actors attended with badges saying what they had played in this relatively rare Shakespeare. Most of the other Prince Henries were old ladies.
The great Ellen Terry, as she became, grew up “treading the boards” She and her older sister appeared in Shakespearean boy parts, among others, in their very earliest years. Here she is as the young Mamillius in “The Winter’s Tale”: “… in an excess of zeal falling flat over the handle of her cart and, bawling with mortification, [she] got a big hand, and commendation from Mrs Kean [the manager’s wife]”. And Ellen broke a toe in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”.
No sooner had I read about this than I heard on TV about the presenter on “Catchphrase” who broke his leg walking down the stairs to introduce the programme. Show business can be risky — but so of course can life in general.
As well as — NOT always! — ‘break a leg’ to mean Good Luck, actors have tended to use the phrase ‘an exit without tripping’ to mean carrying something off satisfactorily.
I remember at school writing an imaginative essay in which a performer steps off the stage into the orchestra pit, or something. The teacher thought it was rather corny humour — well, I was about ten myself.
The only time I have tripped on stage, I turned it into ‘business’ and apparently convinced the only person from the audience I got the chance to ask that it had indeed been intended!
Many years after that I got an interesting reaction from a colleague when, coming down steps in “The Cherry Orchard”, acting my distress at having lost the family’s property at auction, I took two steps in one. My ‘sister’ murmured “Careful”, and I believe just touched my arm. She was dead right to put something in. Don’t ignore it because it’s only of the moment, but don’t lose the mood. She conveyed “Watch your footing, but for heaven’s sake come and tell us about the sale”. I believed I had a sister, in that brief off-script second. And I never have had one. It’s great when you convince yourself.
Well, I seem to have moved away from the Terrys. But in an interesting circle, because the descendant of that family whose tiny girls played boys was the great Sir John Gielgud. And Gielgud himself played Gaev in “The Cherry Orchard” with infinitely more distinction than my sketch of the part much later. The production exists in a television recording, which is good because I didn’t see it on the stage — though I did see him play another Chekhov protagonist. I was offered the lead in yet another Chekhov a few months ago. At least in theory — the theatre remains closed.
Well, I’d better stop running on and face the day, with London under Tier 2 regulations. Good luck to us all!