Thursday, November 24, 2011

"honesty is not easy to perform. iago's is the longest part, but othello's is the hardest."

Originally broadcast in the early 1980s on BBC Radio.

GOING ROUND by Alan Bennett

To Go Round means to visit an actor or actress in the dressing room after the performance, and I am not sure whether it is a ceremony peculiar to the theatre. Do clergymen, worshipping in alien churches, feel it incumbent upon them to go round to the vestry afterwards to congratulate the vicar on his conduct of the service? “The litany had me on the edge of my seat. And that canticle! I was on my knees.”

Are judges in their underpants surprised by colleagues who rush into the robing room in ecstasies over the summing up or the severity of the sentence? Do dons go round after lectures? Or footballers after a match? I think not. It only happens in the theatre. And it is one of the great advantages that television has over theatre that with television, you never have to go round. Or if you do all you find is dust, an old copy of Gardener’s Weekly and the vertical hold.

Which is actually slightly more rewarding than what you find at the back of a theatre. If, that is, you can find it. In the West End, stage doors are obscurely situated, often in streets so distant and unrelated to the front of house it almost pays to take a bus.

Like the box office staff, the stage doorman is seldom a lover of the performing arts. Persons wishing to see an actor or an actress are invariably regarded with hostility or regaled with the doorman's memories of Dan Leno. Of the two, the first is preferable.

Once past the stage doorman you start to look for the dressing-room of the actor or actress, and at this point I think I must stop saying actor or actress every time and for conciseness' sake just stick to actor. The gender of actors is in any case a fairly murky area, and they are often pretty vague about the matter themselves. But as you scour the bare stone corridors for the right dressing-room, you very soon realise that backstage of most theatres is a hell-hole. It is cold. It smells. And it is a labyrinth. In this labyrinth the situation of a dressing-room varies inversely with the status of the actor. The grander the actor, the lower and therefore nearer the stage his dressing room will be.

Suppose you are lucky enough to be going round to see one of the principals. You knock on the door and are told to come in. You do so and find someone extremely famous in a state of Considerable Undress. It is a fact that very few leading actors are in the least bit self-conscious. Speaking as one who can scarcely remove his tie without first having a police cordon thrown round the building, I find this unself-consciousness very disconcerting. An actor can conduct a conversation heedless of the fact that he is removing not only make-up and costume but also elastic stockings, corset, even his false teeth. He is standing without a stitch on and you do not know where to look. All in the public view. There will be people who will tell you that since an actor leaves the real person on the stage, he regards the rest as so much scaffolding. This is fanciful. It may be that he is just brass-necked. Which is probably why he is an actor.

However, do not be stricken by the sight of the actor in his smalls that you fail to embark on your compliments as soon as you have thrown open his door. Or, better still, before. Begin your enthusiasm coming down the stairs. Feel unable to control it. Let it bear you bubbling into the room. Because this is what you are here for. You have Come Round. He has performed: now it is your turn.

For that is what it is, Going Round: a performance. A performance which, if it is to convince, has to equal and indeed to surpass the one you have just seen on the stage. And whatever you thought, even if you slept through the whole of the second act, you have to go in there saying it was all marvellous. Marvellous. It was MARVELLOUS.

The actor is properly gratified. He is also suspicious. Other friends have been round on other nights who have not performed as well as you are doing. So he has his doubts. Actors are very uncertain creatures. And he is particularly uncertain because some well-wishers have gone round and told him he was terrible. Whereas here you are saying he was marvellous. And going on saying it. Which you must. Marvellous, marvellous, marvellous.

He stops you. “But tell me,” he says, ”what did you really think?" Take NO notice. And, above all, don't tell him. “Marvellous, marvellous, marvellous.”

So far, so good: he thinks you thought he was marvellous. But wanting (you fool) to introduce a note of reality into the proceedings and, by implying a criticism of someone else, to enhance how truly marvellous he has been, you add, “But I'm curious: what made you choose this play? I mean, who persuaded you?” And has the person concerned (though you do not say this) been forthwith committed to an institution for the criminally insane?

He is on to you like a rat. “Why, didn't you like it?” You instantly realise your mistake, and recover. “LIKE it? I thought it was marvellous, MARVELLOUS. You were marvellous. The play was marvellous. I've had a marvellous evening.”

He probes. ”What did you think of her?”

“Her? Well, I thought she was marvellous too. She was... marvellous.”

This is a mistake. Actors never like praise to go to anyone but themselves. Unless, of course, they are saints. And if they are saints they are in a damp vault below the south aisle after a life of exemplary devotion. If they are actors they are in a damp vault below Shaftesbury Avenue after a not so exemplary performance of Private Lives. The damp vault is about all they have in common.

But now his face has fallen. You thought she was marvellous. This must mean that you did not think that he was as marvellous as she was. It is, after all, well known that there is a limited quantity of marvellousness in the world. And someone else is getting a share. It is tragic.

Some visitors, thinking they have given the actor his due, now make the mistake of switching the conversation to topics other than the play: the furnishings of the dressing-room, for instance; the whereabouts of the loo; the air-conditioning in the theatre or absence of the same; the other members of the audience or absence of the same. This is fatal. “They came round,” he will go home and say, “and never a single word about the play.”

Whereas the single word you have to say is “marvellous”. Never stray too far from that.
But I have no room to talk. For on those occasions when I find I have actually enjoyed a play and want to go round and make my feelings known, then I invariably say the wrong thing. Or say the right thing, but in such a diffident way (wanting to be thought honest and not one of those frightful people who go round and just say “Marvellous”) that I end up convincing the actor that I hated him. Honesty is not easy to perform. Iago's is the longest part, but Othello's is the hardest.

And make no mistake about it: the actor knows. He knows you didn't like him, even if you did. He heard you not laughing. He saw you not crying. He knows; and in his heart of hearts he knows, too, that nothing you can say will help. The only thing that will help will be doing it again tomorrow night.

But when you have closed the door and thankfully departed he is left. And if he has given a bad performance he knows, and there is nothing one can say. So often, Going Round is like trying to comfort the bereaved. Except, when an actor has died a death, deceased and bereaved are one.

Alan Bennett is a British playwright, screenwriter, actor and author. His work includes "The Madness of George III" and the film incarnation "The Madness of King George," a series of monologues "Talking Heads," the play "The History Boys," and popular audio books, including his readings of "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" and "Winnie-the-Pooh." 

© Alan Bennett, from his collection "Writing Home", published by Faber & Faber (UK).


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