Theatre is a bit like the circus: a stubborn anachronism surviving because we cannot bear to see it disappear - not because to do so would truly deprive us of anything quantifiable, but because it would force us to face up to the essential, anti-spiritual destructiveness of technological progress.
It is the idea of theatre that we cannot bear to see die, so rather than accept that it has been supplanted and superseded by cinema we go on pretending that they are two entirely separate things, when in reality of course the only difference is that cinema is permanent, perfectible, universal in its reach and vastly more resourceful in its ability to convey mood, location and multiple location, the control of pace, detail, subtle emotion, various forms of activity and suchlike matters.
I am being deliberately provocative, of course.
The unholy union of special effects technology and the cult of realism that has all but destroyed cinema as an art form has no means of corrupting the stage, and so theatre has remained pure, and been largely saved from the wrecking ball of cultural decline. Theatre cannot avoid artifice and suggestion, and the requirement that the audience use its own imagination to complete the effect, so it makes a virtue of these things, and is thus rendered an unquestionably higher (if not necessarily more efficient, if that's your bag) medium for creative expression than cinema. (Just as black and white movies are by the same definition better than colour ones, and silent movies better than talkies, potentially at least.)
Still, there's something about live theatre that I always find ever so slightly ludicrous, partly I suppose because actors are for the most part such silly people, and being essentially parasitic on society is fine only so long as you live up to your half of that reciprocal bargain, struck centuries ago with the rest of society, to maintain the humility commensurate with the dispensation from having to work for a living. The old stars did know this, and their chief mode of engagement with their fans was gratitude, whether sincere or not does not matter. This is too often forgotten by modern celebrities, and the spectacle of them capering about right there in front of you, rather than via the unreality of celluloid, tends to bring that home more forcefully.
And yet, there is one unquestionable advantage a good theatrical revival has over a rep screening of an old movie: it can transport you in ways even the most amenable cinematic surroundings cannot quite, back through time and into the skin of the original audience. Certainly that's been my experience: even in an authentic period cinema (and I am lucky enough to have Britain's oldest continually operating cinema as my local) I'm never quite sucked out of the contemporary audience and placed down into the original audience; I'm always me, watching an old film with an old soul, but never forgetful of the real world around me.
But when watching Rosamund Pike on stage in Gaslight I could somehow truly believe that she and I were Victorian, or that Jennifer Ehle in The Philadelphia Story was in some (mid-forties, perhaps) touring revival of the play, perhaps in a small American town. Those were my two best moments of transportation until now, with Keira Knightley in The Children's Hour in a fine old London theatre, and even though the real London in all its dismal modernity still stalks and swaggers outside, I am for a fleeting moment truly able to let the play drag me back to its proper situation: thirties Broadway. Off to thirties Broadway with Keira: you don't get an invitation like that too often.
The great American theatre of the late twenties and thirties is a jigsaw piece I've never quite been able to fit into the overall picture of the popular culture of its day.
So much of it drips with such glib and insincere pessimism, and so undergraduatish an emphasis on superficial formal innovation: yet this is the theatrical world in which such peerless puncturers of humbug as Benchley and Parker and Kaufman and Woollcott all spent their leisure hours and found their inspiration, and from which they made at least a part of their living and their reputation. And when you watch a piece like Hellman's The Children's Hour today, I can't help wondering how they stood for it.
America's was an essentially optimistic culture, one that enshrined the necessity of Wilde's injunction to look to the stars, even if from the position of the gutter. Surely once the Marx Brothers had destroyed the po-faced absurdity of O'Neill's Strange Interlude, mercilessly parodied by Kaufman and Groucho in Animal Crackers, there was no way back for this ersatz-European gloom-mongering and technique-as-content?
Does Mourning Becomes Electra get revived much these days? If so, does Orin's line "I'm just going in the study to clean my pistol" ever pass without an explosion of hearty laughter? Hard to imagine it could, but I suppose it must.
There were certainly a few laughs in odd places in this new production of The Children's Hour, though its own last act trip to the study to clean the pistol just managed to get past the audience in dignified silence, thanks largely to the commendable intensity of Elisabeth Moss (who is apparently in Mad Men, a programme you lot all love that I've never seen, but who I knew only from Did You Hear About the Morgans?, one of my wife's fast food comedies). I suspect its the cast that keeps the whole thing above water here: Carol Kane (better even than Miriam as the dotty aunt), Ellen Burstyn (an obvious presence, with complete and quiet command of every soul in the room, as the vindictive grandmother) and of course Keira.
Obviously, I went to see this for Keira, not from any eagerness to see two nice women have an appallingly bad time in thirties New England. I make no secret of my helplessness in the lure of this strange actress with the fascinating, spooky face.
Without Keira as inducement I doubt I would have even considered attending a revival of The Children's Hour, but it is often when our expectations are at their lowest that we derive the most from artifice, I guess. The play is a real downer, for sure, just the way they liked it in sophisticated New York circles at the time. It doesn't use its theme to make any points or point any morals - other than that it's wicked to tell lies, which the Brothers Grimm more or less had sewn up some time before Hellman opted to throw her two cents in.
Certainly it isn't about the injustice of contemporary attitudes towards lesbianism, as a stray line or inference frequently reminds modern audiences who would like it to be otherwise. It is the spreading of falsehood, not the reaction to the supposed iniquity itself, that we are obliged to be appalled at, and even that has no moral force: it is the means, not the end, and the idea is just to set up a situation in which bad stuff happens to nice people, and we all go home shaking our heads at how cruel life can be. (And that's even if we don't work in a coal mine all week and maybe look to entertainment as a source of diversion from our lot rather than reinforcement of its wretchedness.)
We are used to this sort of thing from the Russians, from self-indulgent existentialists, and especially from silly English imaginations like Thomas Hardy's. But Americans tend to be made or sterner stuff, and to rightly turn their noses up at the wallowing in ill-fortune Europeans still mistake for the definition of high art.
I'll confess with shame that I've never seen These Three, the thirties screen version of the play that substituted menage a trois for the love that dare not, and in Hollywood may not, speak its name. But I have seen the sixties remake with Audrey Hepburn and Shirley Maclaine, both excellent, panting as they carry the weight of the show up the steep banks of its narrative, before collapsing exhausted as Shirley hangs herself and Audrey is left wondering with the audience what she has gained from the experience. The film has an airless, suffocating morbidity, and a pronounced sense of its own worth rarely found in a film not made by Stanley Kramer.
Interestingly, however, I didn't get the same sense of irritation from the play, and in reflecting on that, and trying to account for it, I began to get a sense that maybe Hellman (and O'Neill and the rest - but not Arthur Miller; I will never, ever warm to Arthur Miller) were on to something after all. There are some plays that are essentially plays, and when you film them, however sympathetically, something vital is lost. They demand for their effect a form of connection that is proscribed by prerecording and the mere illusion of human presence, they need real people and real engagement, tangible and live. The charge of cynical pessimism must still stand, but on stage it seems less self-indulgent somehow, more cathartic, more useful as emotional experience. Certainly I didn't come away, as I do from the Hepburn movie, wondering what I was supposed to do with the last two hours other than get over it as soon as I could.
Even at its most meandering - and it is wordy, as you'd expect - I was content to give myself to it, avoiding trauma by imagining Benchley crumpled in the third row, perhaps making paper chains out of his programme, or Woollcott snorting derisively at the bar in the interval. And of course there was Keira; no point pretending there wasn't. A strange fusion of my two worlds - the past in which I wallow and what little of comfort I can claw from the present - and both of them dressed for Sunday. I was content.
(The Children's Hour is now playing at the Comedy Theatre, Panton Street, London.)