Tuesday, December 04, 2012

Lithgow Remembers Lithgow (and So Do I)

I've written before about how one of the cherished memories of my not particularly corrupt youth was watching Shakespeare plays in the outdoor theater at Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio.  Here's another who seems to share my nostalgia: John Lithgow, the actor, son of Arthur Lithgow: Arthur served as the driving force behind those unforgettable performances.  In his new memoir, John Lithgow writes:
 In the summer of 1951, in league with two of his faculty colleagues, [Arthur Lithgow--ed.] launched “Shakespeare Under the Stars,” otherwise known as the Antioch Shakespeare Festival. It was to last until 1957. The plays that had sparked the imagination of that lonely boy [=Arthur] in an attic room in Melrose, Massachusetts, came to life on a platform stage beneath the twin spires of the stately Main Hall of Antioch College.  In every one of those summers, my father’s company of avid young actors ... would achieve the impossible. Each season they would open seven Shakespeare plays in the course of nine weeks, rehearsing in the day and performing at night. Once all seven had opened, the company would perform them in rotating repertory, a different play every night of the week, for the final month of the summer.

Yep, I remember too.  I showed up at Antioch in the fall of 1953, unencumbered by any Shakespeare knowledge except a single viewing of Olivier's Hamlet at the old Rex Theater in Manchester NH (I didn't fancy it--and now that I'd think of it, I'd still say it is not one of Olivier's better efforts).  Well, that and compulsory school readings of Hamlet and Macbeth, which I may or may not have actually carried out--I took my academic responsibilities lightly in those days.

I can't remember which Antioch Shakespeare play was my first, but I know I was electrified.  I still carry vivid memories from the Festival of Othello, Tempest, Lear, Much Ado About Nothing, As You Like It. Taming of the Shrew, Julius Caesar.  Perhaps there were others I have forgotten; and sadly, I do know that in a spasm of adolescent folly, I eschewed the opportunity to see them all. 

One consequence of my early viewing is that I got to see the young John Lithgow at work.  He's about 10 years younger than I.  He reports that he played Mustardseed, one of the Fairy Queen's attendants, in Midsummer Night's Dream.  Bottom the Weaver says "I desire you of more acquaintance, good Master Mustardseed." and of course, that is exactly what we all wanted and got.

 I said I was "electrified."  Indeed I'd say that for several of the plays, I have never seen better.  I am intrigued to find that young Lithgow has a slightly different take.  He asks, "Were the shows any good?"  And he answers his own question: 
 In those days I thought they were magnificent. To my young eyes these were the greatest stage actors in the country, my father was the finest director, and Shakespeare couldn’t possibly be performed any better. As the years passed, I began to doubt my childhood impressions. How good could the productions have been with such hasty rehearsals, such threadbare costumes, and such an untested troupe? A twenty-six-year-old King Lear? A professor’s wife as Olivia? Grad students sprinkled among all the minor parts? Though I never lost my sense of awe at the magnitude of my father’s achievement, a certain skepticism crept in when I grew to be a theater professional myself.
On the next page, he softens his judgment.  He tells how he came by a copy of an original recording of a performance of Merry Wives of Windsor from Antioch in 1954:
The scene was spirited, fast-paced, and riotously funny. The tape captured the sound of the audience, roaring with laughter and showering the actors with exit applause. The actors’ unamplified voices were ringing and clear, their timing was expert, and their command of the material was unerring.   They were hilarious.

I'll see him and raise him here.  I think his original judgment was correct: The 26-year-old Lear he remembers with skepticism was Ellis Rabb; Rabb also played Ariel and Benedick and I suspect others that I have forgotten.   He died 15 years ago (way too soon), but I think he established himself in a long and distinguished career as a kind of director's director..   In any event, the Benedick was the best I've ever seen and the Lear was astonishing (I was understanding enough to grasp that a Lear so young--and skinny--was a tour de force).    I suppose I will have to concede, however, that they were perhaps best at comedy. Apart from many other examples, I still remember the Dogberry from Much Ado--would that have been Arthur Lithgow?  I remembered him with ironic fondness years later when I saw Kenneth Branagh's earnest effort at the same play on film, with a Dogberry who didn't seem to realize that it was all a joke.

Anyway, enjoy your memories, John.  It sounds like you had a magical childhood, and many ways a magical life.  I guess Shakespeare can do that to a guy, along with loving parents who know how to build such  framework for it.  

Quotes from: Lithgow, John. Drama: An Actor's Education  Harper Perennial. Kindle Edition.


The New York Crank said...

More than one of us remembers, Buce. I saw Ellis Raab in Hamlet, brooding, dark, and at one point punching the stage with his fist to emphasize..(WHAM!)....each..(WHAM)...word..(WHAM)...as...(WHAM!)...he..(WHAM)....

And the professor's wife, not at all bad, was Frannie Loud, wife of a physics and chemistry professor named Ollie (for Oliver, but nobody called him that) Loud. And the other two professor-colleaguese were Paul Treichler (a great character) and Meredith Dallas, another formidable director.

Dead and gone now, all dead and gone.

Crankily yours,
The New York Crank

Buce said...

Jesu, Jesu, the mad days that I
have spent! and to see how many of my old
acquaintance are dead!

We shall all follow, cousin.

Certain, 'tis certain; very sure, very sure: death,
as the Psalmist saith, is certain to all; all shall
die. How a good yoke of bullocks at Stamford fair?

Syd Walter said...

I, too, matriculated at Antioch in the fall of 1953 and I fell in love with Shakespeare and the stage watching Ellis Rabb as Lear. Perhaps we knew each other back then.
Syd Walter

Buce said...

Sydney, I'm not remembering the name right now, but I've reached the age where 100,000 brain cells die every day, so who knows. One of the few regrets after a long and not particularly corrupt life is that I didn't do very single one of the Antioch Shax offerings. I very much remember Rabb as a 25 (sic?) year old Lear, also as Ariel (succeeding nights?) also as Benedick--far more right than Kenneth Branagh. I also remember a magnificent Othello and a pretty good Taming of the Shrew--oh, and As You Like It. Maybe more will come back to me if I think at it.

Please feel free to search Underbelly for a miscellany of other notes on Antioch- or, for other notes on Shakespeare.

Buce said...

Um, Syd, matter of some delicacy. I just checked up on you in the Antioch College Alumni Directory. There's only one entry that seems even remotely relevant. It reads:

Walter, Sydney S. ii, 1958**

The two stars take you to a footnote which reads


May I ask where you are checking in from?