Two of the people who inspired me to become a playwright died in recent months. Neither of them was primarily known as a dramatist, but both of them helped define a theater that I wanted to be part of.
For many of my high school classmates, it was the Beatles who proclaimed a new wave of popular entertainment. For me, it was four other young Brits -- Alan Bennett, Jonathan Miller, Dudley Moore and Peter Cook, the stars and authors of "Beyond the Fringe."
I must have been twelve or thirteen years old when I saw excerpts from it on television in the early Sixties. I bought the Capitol record of the show the next day, committed most of it to memory, and shortly after began writing sketches in abject and inadequate imitation. There was little by way of physical production values or costuming (as I recall, they all wore suits and ties), so the material had the opportunity to shine unobscured by distractions. It was the first time I realized you could do so much with so little.
Though time has blunted the impact of some of "Beyond the Fringe," a surprising amount of it remains vivid and fresh. "Aftermyth of War" is something of a masterpiece. Taking the form of a mock documentary, its subject is the encrustation of sentiment and cliches on Britain's memory of World War II. The piece skips back and forth across the stage, alternating between broad comic set pieces, monologues and snatches of song -- a big subject engaged with a deftness that defies gravity. Another large set piece, "So That's the Way You Like It," is a devastatingly accurate parody not only of the more obscure of Shakespeare's history plays but of the silly posturing with which they are frequently played.
My favorite of the four players was Peter Cook and my favorite piece was his solo turn, "Sitting on the Bench," in which a coal miner bemoans not attaining his heart's desire to be a judge. The fault, he alleges, lay in having insufficient knowledge of Latin to pass the judging exams. So he became a miner, the mining exams being much less rigorous. "They only ask you one question: 'Who are you?' And I got 75 percent on that." The miner later was transformed into E.L. Wisty, the self-described leader of the World Domination League, whose goal as described in the League's brochures was total domination of the world by 1957. The League didn't have the funds to update their literature, so when it did achieve world domination, Wisty explained, they would declare it retroactively.
In common with Second City player Severn Darden (who gave brilliant improvisational lectures in the guise of a professor from the "Department of Interdiscipline" at Chico State College), Cook specialized in intellectual crackups on the synaptic highway. Darden's approach was to be so blinded by the trivial and absurd connections between things as to frequently miss the easily apparent. In contrast, Cook frequently played a character of philosophic disposition without sufficient mental equipment, making sober points that collapsed into absurdity, explaining the obvious in excruciating and hilarious detail, or taking a logical wrong turn and justifying it at any cost. In one sketch in which he was trying to educate Dudley Moore in the fine points of music appreciation, he insisted that Debussy's tone poem "La Mer" was a symphonic representation of the composer's mother wheeling in a tea trolley.
I met Cook when I interviewed him and Moore for Newsday on the occasion of Broadway incarnation of "Good Evening," their two-man show. I remember a cigarette, a polite, laid-back pose, and eyes that glinted with hints that he was running an internal ironic commentary on everything going on in the room, only fragments of which would be appropriate to share with a reporter.
Cook didn't leave behind a large body of material of "major works." His best, aside from "Beyond the Fringe" and "Good Evening," were some TV appearances and the screenplay of "Bedazzled," in which he and Moore starred. The Monty Python generation reportedly considered him the pioneering figure in the school of British intellectual-absurdist humor that made them famous -- if you will, the funny counterpart to John Osborne, who also died recently. Osborne was called the angry young man. Cook was the bemused young man. His bemusement has withstood the test of time better than has Osborne's bitterness.
"The Cambridge Guide to Theater" -- a large enyclopedic book which claims to be "the most comprehensive and up-to-date reference source on theater available today" -- does not have an entry on Viola Spolin. This omission makes the book's claim palpably ridiculous. Viola's work has had a defining influence on American theater, film and television. To paraphrase Charles Dickens, Cambridge is an ass.
Her work certainly had a profound influence on me.
I suspect that I am among many who first encountered her ideas in school. I remember the teacher of a creative dramatics class at Haven Junior High in Evanston, Illinois called on me to play a game of "Contact" with a girl I probably would have been too shy to speak to under other circumstances.
Growing up in Evanston and being interested in theater, of course I was introduced to Second City in nearby Chicago. After college in New York, I decided to write an oral history of the Compass Players and Second City called "Something Wonderful Right Away." I decided to write it primarily -- I must confess -- in order to have an excuse to meet these people who were my theatrical heroes. When I started work researching the book and began meeting the community, everybody I talked to told me that it all started with Viola. The first chapter in the book -- the first interview -- had to be with her. Everybody told me this.
But Viola wasn't everybody.
My tape recorder and I visited her in I think it was '74 or '75. She said she would only consent to be quoted in the book if she could review the chapter I wrote based on our conversation. Which was fine by me. So I turned on the tape recorder. We talked for several hours. I learned a lot. I transcribed and edited our conversation. I sent it to her. It came back to me with many pencil marks and notes -- corrections and clarifications. I incorporated these into the text and sent it to her. This came back to me with many pencil marks and notes. I incorporated these into the text and sent it to her.
Then I got a letter. She had decided she didn't want to be quoted after all. So many people had made money from her work in the past without either sending her royalties or crediting her. I didn't see what that had to do with my project, but if she didn't want to be in the book, she had the right not to be.
Well, of course, she was in it. Not quoted directly, unfortunately, but how could I talk to Paul Sills, David Shepherd, Barbara Harris, Mike Nichols, Paul Sand, Valerie Harper, Alan Alda, Richard Schaal, Del Close, Sheldon Patinkin and all of the others who found their artistic voices in a theater made possible by her work without her name being brought up again and again? And not just her name. Her spirit.
Before I started working on "Something Wonderful," I had thought that the theater existed primarily for the glory of the playwright. Being a playwright might have something to with my holding this view.
After talking with Viola and Paul, I realized that theater is about what happens when members of the community meet and make connection through playing. The only two necessary elements of the theater are actors and audience, and the writer's part in this is to help set up the circumstances under which the actor may create compelling behavior. This is profoundly different from my original idea of playwriting as a literary pursuit. I learned this from Viola and I think I am a better playwright for it. So, though I doubt she saw any of my plays, I am now the sort of writer I am because of her.
Sometime later, I saw Viola at a performance of "Sills and Company" in Los Angeles. By then, "Something Wonderful Right Away" had been in print for several years. She said she hoped I wasn't angry about her decision not to be in the book. I told her of course I wasn't. Disappointed, but never angry. There was a hug, and that was the last time I saw her.
She had chosen not to speak to me for the record. But she did speak to me. And I continue to listen and, I hope, learn from her. And sometimes I get the feeling she and I are playing "Contact."