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Book Review : Schneider's Memoir Is Bitter but Sweet

January 29, 1986|RICHARD EDER | Times Book Critic

Entrances by Alan Schneider (Viking: $25)

"When I first met Sam, I wanted primarily to latch on to anything that might help make 'Godot' a success on Broadway," Alan Schneider wrote of his initial encounter with Samuel Beckett. "When I left him, I wanted nothing more than to please him."

It began as a stiff few hours in which Beckett gave enigmatic answers to the hungry young director who was to introduce "Waiting for Godot" in America. It turned into a week of companionship, a pub-crawling trip to London to see Peter Hall's version of the play, and eventually a lifelong friendship and collaboration.

"Do anything you like, Alan," became Beckett's familiar farewell when Schneider would go to Paris to consult him over other works he brought to this country: "Endgame," "Krapp's Last Tape," "Happy Days." This, from an artist proverbially incensed and litigious over the slightest deviation from text or stage directions.

The bond between the austere, almost monastic Irishman and the tumultuous American was remarkable. It infuses "Entrances," Schneider's posthumously published memoir, with a sweetness that lightens its uneasy and sometimes bitter pages.

"Godot," with Bert Lahr and Tom Ewell, was a resounding historic failure when it opened, of all places, in Florida. Schneider was fired by the producer, Michael Myerberg, who brought it to New York with a new director, a new actor in Ewell's Vladimir role, and a slant that made Lahr's Estragon the center of what had been written as a duet.

Beckett assured the shattered Schneider that he was not troubled by failure. After all, he wrote, he "had breathed deeply of its vivifying air all (his) life."

Schneider had fulfilled his commitment to the playwright's intention; a commitment which, along with a reputation for being talented, difficult and sometimes wrong-headed, singled him out during his 45 years in the American theater.

Schneider was an idealist plagued by the reverse bad conscience of a would-be star. His appetite was for a Broadway diet of excitement, praise and smash hits. His digestion was that of a serious artist dedicated to excellence. His digestion both governed his appetite and frustrated it. After veering into some big Broadway bonanza, he would adjust course and steer back into non-commercial projects, swearing all the way.

Schneider, born in Russia during the revolution, was taken to America by his physician parents when he was a child. He grew up in Maryland, determined at first to be a physicist. He aspired to "clean labs and regular paychecks," he writes. "All my life I've wanted order, continuity, connection and a measure of sanity."

Theater, into which he drifted after an apprenticeship at Catholic University in Washington, provided just the opposite. Several times he had an opportunity to go into radio and, later, television; but he kept returning.

He was divided all his life, his memoirs show; simultaneously obsessed and disenchanted. The division, in fact, was his special achievement.

He believed that there should be a single American theater, ranging in scale from Broadway grandeur to garret poverty, but united by artistic aspiration. For the part of his life covered by these memoirs--roughly to 1966--if he rarely sold out to Broadway, he never entirely gave up on it either.

"Entrances" is a stormy ride. The plots, betrayals, fits of temperament and crude self-interest he ran across make for hair-raising and often comical reading. He recalls the late Audrey Wood, Broadway's star agent, storming up to him because her client was allowed to hold the children twice in a play, while another actress held them six times.

Clearly, Schneider's temperament was both erratic and touchy. He is as schizophrenic on the subject of reviewers as anyone else in the theater. He alternates between lamenting the low caliber of reviewing, and quoting every snippet of praise.

Faced Many Betrayals

He is quick to register or suspect injury. In a rather brittle preface, Edward Albee, after praising him, remarks that "even in so horrid a place as the commercial theater in the United States, the number of people who betrayed Alan is staggering." The storms were frequent in the non-commercial theater as well.

Early in "Entrances" Schneider recalls a short story he wrote when he was young about an actor who walked out on his own Academy Award. He comes back to it at the end. Clearly he regards it as his own symbol. A reader might modify it slightly:

All his life, Schneider walked out on his own Academy Awards. He always resented it afterward.

But he kept on walking out.

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