A Tribute to Charles Marowitz
by Peter Byrne
"We have become a society of pawns and cowards -- too sophisticated to dirty our hands with causes 'which are bound to fail anyway'."
—Charles Marowitz, Burnt Bridges
(Swans - May 19, 2014) Charles Marowitz has died.
If anyone else wrote an obituary like this one that spoke of himself as much as the deceased, I would be the first to jump on his back with a snarl. No doubt the subtitle ought to be "Marowitz and Me." He was a big-city American who ended up in London in 1956. I was one who took a six-month bite in 1957 and came back in 1960 to stay on for the feast. We both had a yearning to be in Paris but bowed to practicality and soon discovered that London was the only place to be. Then, though we had never met, you could say we parted ways. Both gluttons for the arts and learning, Charles became a maker and I remained a consumer. Co-workers in the theatre can tell you what he was like on the job. My view of him is that of a fan.
Charles had spent two years as a conscripted soldier in France while I haunted universities. He was broke but had the G.I. Bill of Rights that entitled him to education and a handout. Holed up in London drama schools, he was already an uncomfortable contrarian. Just as broke, with only my diplomas to keep me warm, I worked nights in Bermondsey's Peek Frean biscuit factory. Together with fresh immigrants from the Caribbean and grizzled vets of the Polish army afraid to go home, I mixed, in huge malodorous vats, the teatime dainties considered as British as John Bull's underpants.
His London schooling taught Charles he was no actor but a muscular director that would give no one, not even himself, an easy time. News of New York's Actors' Studio had reached London, and Charles, poring over Stanislavsky and astride his Lower East Side chutzpah, became a missionary to the natives. In character, he contested Lee Strasberg's Manhattan reading of the Russian master. Some young Brits were converted since it was evident that their theatre, for all it workaday skills, was worn out. Change had to come and when it came Charles was in the front row. By the end of the 1960s London would have a dozen fringe theatres. He set up the first of them in 1958 in Fitzroy Square.
Charles persuaded the British Drama League to let him set up its tiny rooftop studio as a fifty-seat theatre to be called In-Stage. The Square was still in its faded glory, not yet touched by any corporate dead hand. I tried not to miss a Sunday evening show. There were no tickets. A basket was passed and we threw in what clunky coins of the day we could spare. Charles was the live wire of the premises. His presence made the dusty makeshift place a theatre. Later he dubbed his young self naive and pretentious and called the style he tried to impose "anti-verbal, non-naturalistic, slightly surreal."
I settled into the neighborhood and lived in a rickety block in Torrington Place. The building had been bequeathed by a grateful employer to her Irish cook. As relatives from over the water gathered around the lucky woman, we all risked being washed away in a torrent of Guinness. The hydraulic elevator or lift, a relic, now had to be set in motion by a tug on a rope. It wasn't the former cook's crooked Cockney accountant that was going to right the ship. Running errands in nearby Tottenham Court Road I would see Charles going in and out of his favorite pub. He was a blade of a man whose facial hair seemed straight out of a makeup kit, and he brought the theatre with him like a halo.
In 1962 Peter Brook asked Charles to assist him in the preparation of the King Lear he was doing with Paul Scofield for the Royal Shakespeare Company. It would prove to be an historic production, marking all three of the men for the rest of their lives. It also left its mark on me. At the end of the year, on New Year's Eve, I ventured into marriage for the first time. As a special treat I took my bride that evening to the Aldwych Theatre to see King Lear. The marriage didn't make it to the end of the decade. Maybe I should have launched it with a comedy instead of a tragedy.
Charles worked with Brook in 1964 on the Antonin Artaud-inspired "Theatre of Cruelty" season setting up auditions for the company. One of his selections wasn't entirely approved of and he had to fight to include her. This was one-of-a-kind Glenda Jackson, then at the start of her career and afterwards the embellishment of Brook's unforgettable Marat/Sade and countless plays and films, ending up with a bang as a real-life, pugnacious, radical politician. The collaboration with Brook continued until 1965. No one was exempt from the New Yorker's pitiless scrutiny, even Brook, the brilliant boy wonder of the British theatre. Charles's unpardonable offense to theatre workers was that he, one of them, in a profession always under siege, lambasted his fellows in print. But Charles's criticism was strictly to the point and meant to achieve an idea of perfection that was not always shared. In the case of Brook we have only to read the Swans article by Charles, "Peter Brook at Eighty," of June 6, 2005, to feel his lifelong admiration for his former colleague.
And exchanging verbal blows was what we did on the Tottenham Court Road in those rumbustious years. In 1968 Charles found a basement in a disused old people's home at number 32 and with Thelma Holt created The Open Space Theatre. When urban renewal came, the private developers promised to build a new theatre for the company if they would move out temporarily. They did so in 1976 to the neighborhood's former post office, an art deco ruin, around the corner in Euston Road. The developers ultimately reneged on their promise.
The backward glances at the Open Space occasioned by Charles's death underline the sensational. They recall how the police intervened when the Open Space showed Andy Warhol's movie Trash. Or how the audience was frisked by mock prison guards before taking their seats for the play Fortune and Men's Eyes. But the theatre operated for a dozen years and there were plays by August Strindberg, Samuel Beckett, and Howard Barker along with Charles's many adaptations. No British experimental theatre had ever managed before or since to present a thoughtful repertory for so long. Many Open Space productions went on to success in other theatres. Sherlock's Last Case that Charles wrote under a pseudonym would reach Broadway. In what was perhaps the most intense moment in Britain's theatrical history, the Open Space contended with Chelsea's Royal Court Theatre as the city's hotbed of theatrical ideas.
In 1982 my peek-a-boo connection with Charles ended. Arts subsidies dried up and he left the faltering Open Space, forsook our quarter, and returned to the USA where he settled in California. He would be no less provocative there than he had been on the Tottenham Court Road, but from then on I could only read him, not espy him or his work. What disappoints me in the obituaries that have appeared since his death is how little they speak of his writing. He wrote thirty-some books and the most vibrant of them echoed the racket of the wrecking ball that was devastating our neighborhood.
The art scene of the times, for all its musical and graphic exuberance, was regimented by the written world. We woke eagerly on Sunday morning to read the great theatre chronicler Kenneth Tynan in The Observer. Like Peter Brook, he was someone Charles admired and still couldn't resist dueling with. Charles, a critic himself since he was a teenager in New York writing for the infant Village Voice, co-founded the magazine Encore. From 1954 to 1965 it looked over the shoulder, prodding, teasing, and dialoging with the people who were reshaping the British theatre. No little review was ever more attuned to art in the making. Criticism took to the streets, our streets, as never before. The extent to which reviewing became a dramatic form can still be felt in Charles's pieces collected in 1973 in Confessions of a Counterfeit Critic, A London Theatre Notebook 1958-71. To experience the cogency of his writing, readers have only to peruse the introduction to Burnt Bridges, 1990, the personal story of his London years. There is no better account of what was good and bad about the 1960s.
I also forsook the byways of the Tottenham Court Road. I wasn't going to trust the hydraulic elevator with my baby daughter and son. I would eventually hit the international highways. It wasn't until the new millennium that I started to tramp the London streets again. Charles was not only not there, but the theatrical historians appeared to have pushed him off stage as well. California for them was where old stage hands go when they die. Out of nostalgia I would often take down the Counterfeit Critic after lunch and sit in the Italian sun chuckling, cuvant mon vin. Then, one day, what do you know, I found we were both writing in Swans. The coincidence was too much to ignore. I began to reread Charles's books and looked into the new ones. I even started reviewing the merciless reviewer. * Charles's reaction was original but typical of him. By e-mail he thanked me profusely but pointed out that he had never requested a review from me or anyone else.
An Internet friendship developed with all the puniness of such undernourished things. They are after all conversations between shadows. Strong ideas rush across space between beings that don't know the first thing about each other, i.e., how they laugh, hesitate in reaching for words, or articulate a silence. In June 2012 Charles hadn't appeared in Swans for a while and I got through to him, Italy to California, and asked if he was unwell. No, he said, "apart from a gamey knee which slightly slows me down I am fit as a fiddle." He simply hadn't been in the mood for writing. The irony was that at the time I was busy thinking out a story. It was a satire, with grotesque twists, of sick and sometimes perfectly well people whose conversation consisted exclusively of updates on their aches and pains. Charles clearly had no place in that story. His wife Jane has told us now that he insisted she inform no one of the Parkinson's condition that would ultimately kill him.
There was only silence till the end of December 2012 when I heard from him again. His mood had obviously changed and the itch to write returned. He asked me what was happening at Swans. We chatted. I told him that I had read his play Artaud At Rodez and spoken about it in an article on "Poètes Maudits" to appear in the review Able Muse. ** I sent him the text but heard no more. He never wrote again in Swans.
Irving Wardle is the dean of London theatre critics. (Alas, all I share with him is Shakespeare's "four score and upwards.") He can be read in Swans, June 2, 2008, "The Chicago Conspiracy." Wardle deserves the next-to-last word on Charles. He notes in his obituary of his friend that Marowitz was "a director who, above all, loved the art of acting." Very true, but he was also someone who loved much else. For instance, he had a passion for what he called "scratchy old records over a hundred years old" that resulted in a 268-page book in which he told us about entertainers like Sophie Tucker, "The Last of the Red-Hot Mommas" and Bert Williams, "The Black Impostor." When Isidor Saslav published a wide-ranging article on the the cello in Swans, April 9, 2007, Charles, who didn't believe in letters to the editor, actually wrote an enthusiastic one: "I found Isidor Saslav's piece, "The Day of the Cello," an utter delight. It was a perfect blend of history, criticism, and academicism -- and sprinkled with nuggets of little-known information that made the world of stringed instruments come vibrantly alive." The last word about Charles has to be that he loved all of life right down to the smallest nuggets.
* My articles about Charles and his books in Swans:
- "Another Chekhov Worth Meeting," February 12, 2007
- "The Alarming Exclusion Of Charles Marowitz," November 5, 2007
- "Raging Silence: Charles Marowitz's Silent Partners," July 14, 2008
- "Eric & Bert: Eric Bentley's 'Bentley on Brecht'," August 25, 2008
- Singing Along With Marowitz," April 20, 2009
** "Lost in Translation: Poètes Maudits," in Able Muse, No.15, Summer 2013.
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