Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Play Review: Epitaph for George Dillon

by John Osborne & Anthony Creighton

I’ve had a paperback copy of this play on hand for many years. I purchased it in a used bookstore in some long-forgotten state south of the Mason-Dixon line. Doubtless I was an Angry Young Man myself when I bought it, but the first pages reminded me why it has taken at least a decade for me to crack the cover. I was also a Lazy Young Man.

Reading should be its own reward, and I’m happy to affirm I started reading for pleasure at an early age. But until at least The Complete Works of Wm Shakespeare (Abridged) was published, stage directions were not very pleasant to read. They had none of the verve of the rest of the play (at least one hoped) and were less entertaining than a cereal box (which is a too-neglected branch of juvenilia).

There were exceptions before the send-up of Shakespeare, of course. O’Neill’s stage directions were often very entertaining, all the more so because he rarely meant them to be. I had an undergraduate professor who insisted that if you failed to clinically implement every one of Bernard Shaw’s stage directions, your production would never be any good—this made me put off reading Shaw for far too long, and this teacher will never be forgiven for that. And of course today we are often bombarded by the whimsy of Paula Vogel’s protégées. You wouldn’t know it, but sometimes they are telling an entirely different story on the page than what you see on the stage.

But I was intrigued by a recent NY Times article about a group of California actors stretching themselves thin to present a showcase production of Epitaph for George Dillon over on 45th Street. I missed their production, which closed on June 15, but thought I should at least (and finally) read the play, block after block of italicized text and all.

Before I do that, however, let me just say shame on the NY Times for running Patrick McGeehan’s article on the 28th, almost two weeks after the curtain went down on Epitaph. Shame on them for their condescension, describing a group of older-than-average performers with West Coast careers and an astonishing threshold for sacrifice as “aspiring actors.” Imagine the uproar from readers, editors, and advertisers if the paper of record were to run a single feature about a commercial run—and only after it closed. Suppose it suggested that one of the prepubescent moppets of Broadway—one of the Lion King cublets, perhaps—were of less than professional grade.   

Moving on…

The first play by either John Osborne or Anthony Creighton, and written together, Epitaph for George Dillon reads almost like a first attempt—a first attempt by at least one gifted writer and two men well acquainted with the theater—but a first attempt. While engaging, it lacks the basic craftsmanship I lauded in previous posts regarding the likes of Somerset Maugham and Ben Travers. Osborne was something of a revolutionary of his day, so you wouldn’t expect him to take after the old timers. Inspired by postwar American writers, he embraced kitchen sink realism and sought to put morbid comedy and searing drama center stage. But his nuts and bolts are at sixes and sevens in Epitaph.   

I know it sounds nitpicky and minor, but the entrances and exits in this play mean that whoever stages it must have a bit of the choreographer in him. Just figuring out where the front door must be in Mrs. Elliot’s house makes her floor plan seem like an amusement park. Characters appear suddenly at French windows and from around the stairs, sometimes with the benefit of not being seen, that it often appears that this is all a contrivance in service of convenience so that the speaking order can make sense. I realize that lower-middle class homes of 1950s London were rather cramped and ingenious exercises in making the most out of living space, but… please. If Travers and Maugham had been given a crack at advising on Epitaph, perhaps it wouldn’t have so much dust on it today.

What makes it worth dusting is the unflinching factual basis that the story draws upon—well, mostly. George Dillon is a struggling actor. But not the kind of struggling actor you see in movies or even in most plays. He is actually a real struggling actor. He is in his thirties, he is well educated and even “posh,” and he is not especially attractive. And like most actors, at least those without connections, he often has to survive on the kindness of strangers.

One of those strangers is Kate Elliot. She works in an office from which George recently quit and took a shine to him. Bowled over by his charm and high manner, and optimistic about his future as an actor and playwright, she invites him to stay in her home, much to the initial chagrin of her husband Percy, two daughters, and her sister Ruth Gray. Kate is the type of character many actors have come to know and rely on. They often take the shape of teachers, aunts, parents of friends, or even employers in the real world. Motherly and never less than supportive, you always feel torn between your need for their company and help and your guilt and fear that you are taking advantage. They are willing to do almost anything and trumpet any semblance of success their charge has won.

And because of this they actually symbolize a type of vicious circle. To them, background work is just a few steps away from being a movie star. But you know it isn’t. They think your headshot is so handsome, and inquire whether they can order a wallet-size. Oftentimes they’ll clip an ad out of the classifieds, one that is seeking models and talent, and pass it on to you in good faith unaware that such ads have nothing to do with the serious road you want to hew. And with each act of their kindness you hate yourself a little more through the smile. Heaven forbid you confess to them the poverty and loneliness, the sleepless nights and depression and risk having them realize their faith in you would have been better spent on a 401K or little league team. And so you must go on and allow them to believe, unwilling to disappoint, and sinking an inch or so deeper into hell by the month.

But unlike Kate Elliot, most of these emotional benefactors do have their limits. George is able to borrow substantial sums of money from her and live in her house, dally with both sister Ruth and daughter Josie, and Kate supports him. Kate supports him even when it revealed that George has been married. Osborne and Creighton attempt to justify this by giving Kate a son about George’s age who died in the war. They also give her a dysfunctional relationship with husband Percy, which doesn’t make complete sense. Percy is never shown to be drunk or abusive. His only crime seems to be being middle-class and set in his ways. Still, a deeply unsatisfied woman has always been a key ingredient of great drama.

So all right, she would toss out her husband in favor of an admittedly dishonest lodger and self-loathing sponge. But would she alienate her sister because of him, or ensnare her youngest daughter? Kate seems willing to. She’s not so much ignorant as she is looking the other way. And this says more about Kate than it does George.

The fact is George is not such a bad person. But someone who is stuck in life usually views himself as at least inadequate, so how can he be good? The real tragedy is that Kate may be the only person in the play who sees George as being altogether worthwhile. The best advice he gets is from Ruth, who says to him, leave the house and “be with your own kind.” But of course he can’t. Because when you live your life through the cracks, as most actors do, there are very few of one’s own kind.

A nomadic, bohemian life is fun and socially acceptable until about 25 or so. After thirty you really have no place left to go. By then the kids think you’re creepy, and you wouldn’t like most of them anyway. Your peers have moved on, and anyone who would employ you expects you to be stable—yes, even in the theater. Twice in my life I have landed jobs after sleeping in a park or a car the night before. But if I had said so at the time, I never would have been hired.

This is the life we have chosen, and we don’t make apologies. But there comes a point when you realize it is futile to try to make the rest of the world understand. And so you wind up living in extraordinarily unpredictable ways. No matter what happens to me later in life, no matter whether every day hereafter brings me untold success, there are certain things I shall never forget. I will never forget getting married and taking my new bride home to a single room we rented from week to week from a Spanish family in Washington Heights. I will never forget washing a shaving in public sinks before auditions because I had no place else to go. I will never forget walking 200 blocks home in the middle of a winter night because I had no money for the subway (struggling actors may be prolific debtors, but most of us don’t steal).  Once you reach George Dillon status, the question of talent is beside the point. The older you get the fewer your options, and the harder it is to turn back even if you want to. Most of us don’t.

But what is George’s epitaph of the title? What is it that kills him, if not defines him? Don’t let that innocent cough peppered throughout Act One fool you. As desperate as George is financially and in matters of the very soul, there is one thing he has got—the National Health. Being British, George can be treated for any disease for free. If he had been an American actor shy of his 12 Equity weeks, well this may have been a tragedy indeed. No, it seems that George’s death is unexpected success.

Barney Evans bursts onto the stage in Act Three in one of the most entertaining and enjoyable scenes, if wholly disjointed. He comes out of nowhere, smashing the established tone of the play to pieces to inform George that he caught wind of his latest play, staged in a ratty out of the way hole on a nonexistent budget (basically a showcase or weekend engagement at the Producer’s Club—or perhaps something not unlike what the California actors put up). If George is willing to tart up his play with some cheap and titillating changes, then Evans thinks it can be a hit out on the circuit. George agrees, and before you know it he is pulling in more money than Percy down at the firm.

And it is understood that in addition to living on with the Elliot family George is going to marry in to it. With sheer luck he’s had the opportunity to make more money than he thought possible—despite frequent bravado. And all he had to do was rape his play. And so in some respect George Dillon, the Artist, is dead. And if he is no artist, what is he? How do you sum him up? And is it an entirely bad thing?

In the best scene of the play, the scene between Ruth and George, George movingly recounts an army story. While under heavy German bombardment, he admits to his fellow soldiers that he is an actor. And with the very mention of the word, he feels no more fear of the bombs… but instead feels shame at how trivial and meaningless his path in life is. Such a passage could only have been written and relayed by someone who has lived an actor’s life.

If anyone out there is too afraid to live the life for themselves (and this means pursuing it well after thirty), there is no shame in that. But if you would like a glimpse of it, or to wonder what it probably would have been like if you hadn’t gone to law school at 28, Epitaph for George Dillon is your best bet.

Because let’s face it, you probably don’t talk much to struggling actors. You can only trust them to be honest with you on stage.   

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