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CRITIC AT LARGE

Anecdotes Take Center Stage in New Collection

December 15, 1987|CHARLES CHAMPLIN | Times Arts Editor

Hollywood has a rich treasury of anecdotes: tales of treacheries, calumnies, insults, catastrophes, malaprops, romantic encounters bawdy, tender and illicit, rampant egos and eccentrics by the score.

Even so, it is hardly a two-reeler against the epic and even monumental repository of theater stories. But it is small wonder. The stage has had a running head start of at least 2,500 years.

A funny thing undoubtedly happened to Aeschylus on his way to the amphitheater. If not, there is the shocking anecdote of his death, said to have occurred when an eagle dropped a tortoise on his bald head, mistaking it for a stone.

Then, too, the claustrophobic intensity of the theater is perfect for the personal frictions that produce stories. Peter Hay (pronounced High), the Budapest-born, Oxford-educated artistic director of First Stage, which develops new theater works and workers in Hollywood, has gleaned several centuries' worth of stories into "Theatrical Anecdotes" (Oxford University Press: $19.95).

It is the literary equivalent of a bowl of popcorn, to be dipped into at leisure and often; and once you've started, just try to stop, even if you have pressing matters elsewhere. From Hay's obviously exhaustive research, the rewards are as varied in tone (funny, sad, instructive) as theater itself.

Here is Kaiser Wilhelm telling the great clown Grock, "I think you are even more famous than I am."

"I'm funnier," Grock said.

Colley Cibber, who was himself an actor as well as a dramatist and England's poet laureate, revealed the way actors were traditionally regarded. Of another performer he said, "His character as a gentlemen could have been in no way impeached, had he not degraded it by being a celebrated actor."

John Barrymore was once playing to an audience that was evidently universally afflicted with colds and coughs. At the start of the second act, he pulled a large fish from under his jacket and tossed it into the crowd. "Here, you damned walruses," Barrymore shouted, "busy yourselves with this while we get on with the play."

Hay does not include another Barrymore story. It may be part of the Barrymore apocrypha, which ranks with Goldwyn's in size. "Did Hamlet sleep with the queen or didn't he?" Barrymore was asked. "Only in the Chicago company," Barrymore said.

There are some trade secrets among Hay's anecdotage. Tyrone Guthrie is quoted as saying, "The director has but one task: to make each rehearsal so amusing that the actors will look forward to the next one." The waspish London critic James Agate took an even thinner view of directors: "Theater consists of two great arts: acting and playwriting, and there is no third art necessary to coordinate them."

As with all such collections of stories, you start remembering others that you've heard. Noel Coward has one of the fattest entries in Hay's index, and I was reminded of yet another story Coward told me in London in 1963.

His "Hay Fever" was being revived at the National Theatre, with Laurence Olivier directing and Edith Evans starring. A fine young film actress had been cast as the ingenue but quickly proved not quite right for Coward comedy. The question was how to replace her without upsetting Dame Edith, who was imperious and not young. A story was concocted that the ingenue had caught a fish bone in her throat and bruised her vocal cords. Olivier explained all this to Dame Edith, who smiled sweetly and said, "The poor thing, I was so afraid she might, from the very first rehearsal." The part was eventually played by Lynn Redgrave.

Many anecdotes profit from the manner of the telling. Peter Ustinov has a story about being in a London theater not long after the blitz, when nerves were still edgy. At the interval everyone was starting toward the foyer when a piercing, unlocatable voice began to count in an urgent hiss. "One, two, three, four . . ."--Ustinov says people actually began to crouch--". . . nine, 10, 11! We're in the 11th row back, dear," the shrill voice concluded.

Another Ustinov story concerns an amateur production in one of the London suburbs. At the last moment the director realized no prompter had been assigned. A gentleman who waited each night while his wife painted the sets was recruited, against his protests that he knew nothing whatever about show business. "Just be sure everyone has his lines right; that's all there is of it," the director said.

All went well in the first act; in the second, someone went blank. Silence. More silence. The actor, desperate, began to improvise. "The moon tonight is yellow . . . ." " Wrong! " said the voice from the wings.

But perhaps the most poignant anecdote I know came from an interview with Ruth Gordon years ago. It was the night of her Broadway debut and she was very young and very scared and very queasy. She sought out the director and said she could not possibly go on. The director was wonderfully reassuring, pointing out how good she was and what a great career lay ahead of her.

"There are no final notes you have for me, no last-minute advice?" she asked. The director pondered and shrugged. "Oh, there's one small thing I might say."

"Yes, yes?"

"Watch those mannerisms," the director said in a kindly way.

Ah, the theater.

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