Chapter 21 (Part 2) – Mamaroneck High School theater

At Mamaroneck High School, we had a wonderful speech and drama department, in my time run by very competent and beautiful Regina Frey. Allan and I got the extra-curricular activity of assisting in the drama department. What a dream!

Regina Frey, the wonderful drama teacher

Regina Frey, our wonderful drama teacher (Facebook, MHS Theater)

‘We’ did ‘The Skin of our Teeth’by Thornton Wilder, which I happen to have the program for, even though I don’t particularly remember the play. I like Thornton Wilder more for ‘Our Town’, but Regina’s productions were always first-class.

We did ‘Rhinoceros’ by Eugène Ionesco which I remember quite clearly. The way the actors gradually morphed from humans to rhinoceroses when they are infected by the disease ‘rhinoceritis’ was amazing. And this is amateur theater! Ionesco is very clearly using ‘rhinoceritis’ as a symbol for fascism. The whole production was fascinating.

Another memory still very present was when we did the tryouts for ‘Blood Wedding’ by Garcia Lorca, probably the most wonderful and sad play Regina ever did. In the tryouts, a very bright student of mine, Joan Stern, took her seat on the candidate’s chair and started reading several different lines of the Mother’s in the play. We were stunned. The girl was spellbinding. There was no question about it. She was going to make the play a great success – which she did. Well, she and the other actors. Laura Solow, the wonderful musician who was also in my French 3 class, was the Bride.

The program for Blood Wedding, as supplied to me by former student Mark Pierce, via Facebook.

The program for Blood Wedding, as supplied to me by former student Mark Pierce, via Facebook. Design – Claudia Golden

They were all excellent. I could hardly believe how a young girl like Joan Stern could be a natural actress the way she clearly was. Of course she had the script and had worked on the part at home before the tryouts, but hearing her doing the part, almost making us feel that we were seeing the play, was astounding.

I see from a Facebook site on Mamaroneck High School theater that Regina also did a couple of musicals, ‘My Fair Lady’ being one of them. Quite a production for a high school theater group. That was the year when I was in Paris and I have found out via the Internet that my ex-husband Allan played the Hungarian humbug linguist, Zoltan Kaparthy, who had once taken lessons from Professor Higgins. This was unusual, since teachers didn’t usually act in Regina’s productions. But Allan would have been a natural to play ‘that dreadful Hungarian’, as Professor Higgins refers to him, with his beard and long hair. He had, however, let go his fleece jacket for the occasion.

Der Theater am Schiffbauerdamm, founded by Berdholt Brecht – from a one-day visit to East Berlin in 1983. The sign at the top of the right-hand building says Berliner Ensemble.

Das Theater am Schiffbauerdamm at the Schiffbauerdamm riverside; from a one-day visit to East Berlin from West Berlin in 1983, via Checkpoint Charlie. The sign at the top of the right-hand building says Berliner Ensemble. (Photo O’Neall)

And there was ‘The Threepenny Opera’  in German ”Die Dreigroschenoper’.. My lifelong connection to Bertholt Brecht’s and Kurt Weill’s masterpiece began in 1946. The play’s first opening was on 31 August 1928 at the Berliner Ensemble, Theater am Schiffbauerdamm, founded by  Bertholt Brecht, a Marxist. However, because of the rising Nazi movement, he and Kurt Weill, with wife Lotte Lenya, were wise enough to flee to the U.S. in 1933.

‘We’ did ‘The Threepenny Opera’ in April 1946 at our theater in Malmö and I definitely remember certain scenes, even though I was just 13. I was in my first year of German in high school and I learned some of the texts of my favorite songs by heart, strongly inspired by Arne of course, who spoke excellent German.

Mr and Mrs Pëachum, the beggar king and his wife – Stina Ståhle and Robert Johnson. (Photo Molin)

Mr and Mrs Pëachum, the beggar king and his wife – Stina Ståhle and Robert Johnson. (Photo Molin)

The future Mrs Peachum, the extraordinary Stina Ståle and Mr Peachum, good old Robert Johnson, came to our place to listen to Arne’s 78 rpm records of the original version from 1928. I later saw the movie from 1931 before leaving Sweden for the U.S., with the unforgettable Lotte Lenya, who at that time had a very good voice. She was ‘Die Seeräuberjenny’ (Pirate Jenny) and she sings my very favorite song with her very natural and seemingly unschooled voice.
I even managed to find that very recording in a CD much much later in France.

My favorite excerpts:
Und das Schiff mit acht Segeln
Und mit fünfzig Kanonen
Wird beschiessen die Stadt.

Und legen ihn in Ketten und bringen vor mir
Und mich fragen “Welchen sollen wir töten?”
Und an diesem Mittag wird es still sein am Hafen
Wenn man fragt, wer wohl sterben muss.
Und dann werden Sie mich sagen hören “Alle!”
Und wenn dann der Kopf fällt, sage ich”Hoppla!”1

Mrs Peachum is telling Pirate Jenny (Inge Waern) that Mack the Knife belongs to her daughter, and to keep her hands off him. (Photo Molin)

Mrs Peachum is telling Pirate Jenny (Inge Waern) that Mack the Knife belongs to her daughter, and to keep her hands off him. (Photo Molin)

Sadly I don’t remember our beautiful Inge Waern, who was Pirate Jenny singing that song, but I do remember several other scenes. This was the beginning of my great fascination for ‘The Threepenny Opera’.2

I was delighted when Regina said they were going to do it at the MHS Theater. Brecht’s play is an adaptation of John Gay’s 18th century ballad opera ‘The Beggar’s Opera’ and it takes place in Soho in London. – In a love duet with Mack the Knife, Polly Peachum sings “Siest du den Mond über Soho? Wo du bist da will auch ich sein.”

Regina told us later – we were not present at the tryouts – that she asked our great male lead, Tony Schwab, to play Mack the Knife. Tony said “But I can’t sing”. Regina just very simply replied “Of course you can”. The part of Mackie doesn’t really take a very good singing voice. This is of course not really an opera and it’s mainly Pirate Jenny’s main song that is a bit difficult to sing.

We attended many rehearsals, and we even took over for Regina once when she couldn’t be there herself. We became a fixture in this production, more than in any of the others.

The show was a great success and even Der Kanonensong, which had made Tony particularly nervous, a duo between Mack the Knife (Mackie Messer) and Tiger-Brown came off very well. The two men are reminiscing about their days as soldiers in India.

After the show was over, the whole cast presented Allan and me with an LP record of the complete set of songs in English. It was a very moving gesture that we greatly appreciated. I had it until our French record player broke down in the late 80s.  Before leaving for France, we had to give my Garrard record player to our best friends, since it wouldn’t work in France on 220 volt. My Wharfedale speakers are still working beautifully and we complemented them with two of John’s speakers for our bedroom. 2

The Threepenny Opera was probably the high point during my six years at Mamaroneck High School, but there was another event that sticks very much in my mind. Allan and a younger English teacher colleague had the idea of performing Edward Albee’s ‘The Zoo Story’, one of my very favorite plays by Albee, which is saying a lot. I didn’t know Allan was all that fascinated by ‘The Zoo Story’, but he certainly knew I was.

This was in the spring of 1970 when Allan and I had separated.

I suddenly learned, probably from Allan himself, that he was doing the Zoo Story with a colleague. I even sat in on a rehearsal, but of course I had no comments to make. Allan, the former speech and drama teacher, was a pro for this kind of thing.

D-Day came around and it seemed as if the entire school, teachers and all were assembled in the amphitheater Allan had mysteriously found. An excellent venue (as the term is nowadays) for this kind of small-stage performance. The lights go up and the play begins. We are in upper Central Park and a man is sitting on a park bench, the only stage paraphernalia.

Allan is Jerry of course, the important part.

Jerry: “I said, I’ve been to the zoo. MISTER, I’VE BEEN TO THE ZOO!” … “And the zoo is around Sixty-5th Street; so, I’ve been walking north. “ … “Good old north.”… “[after a slight pause] “But not due north.”

Peter: “I … well, no, not due north; but, we … call it north. It’s northerly.”

A few brief comments from Peter now and then, who wants to go back to his reading.

JERRY: But you wanted boys.
PETER: Well … naturally, every man wants a son, but …
JERRY: [lightly mocking] But that’s the way the cookie crumbles?
… Oh, look; I’m not going to rob you, and I’m not going to kidnap your parakeets, your cats, or your daughters.

PETER: Oh, I thought you lived in the Village.
JERRY: What were you trying to do? Make sense out of things? Bring order? The old pigeon hole bit? Well, that’s easy; I’ll tell you. I live in a four-storey brownstone rooming-house on the upper West Side between Columbus Avenue and Central Park West. I live on the top floor; rear; west. It’s a laughably small room, and one of my walls is made of beaverboard; this beaverboard separates my room from another laughably small room, so I assume that the two rooms were once one room, a small room, but not necessarily laughable.

For THE STORY OF JERRY AND THE DOG!, Allan has found an excellent solution. It’s an extremely long monologue, so he sets the entire room in total dark, and he turns on the tape recorder where he has registered the whole speech. It was spell-binding, sitting in the dark, listening to Allan’s baritone voice telling the long story

And so the play develops into the final scenes with “Move over.” On the bench where Jerry has finally sat down, after just standing still and then walking around. And then again “Move over!”, until Jerry finally manages to get Peter to kill him.

At the end of the play the audience exploded in applause, that seemed to never stop.

When I came back from my one-year stint as an English teacher in Paris, Regina was married and she had left Mamaroneck High School. I missed her.

__________________

Another unforgettable theater event took place in the fall of 1971. Le Tréteau de Paris, a famous French touring theater group was going to put on a play, Caligula by Albert Camus, at the auditorium of Mamaroneck High School. This was the first time I had seen a play by another theater group performed on our stage.

It got to be a most unusual and fascinating theater performance, unique in its kind. Due to a strike by the traffic controllers at O’Hare Airport, the group nearly missed getting from Chicago, where they had last performed, to New York. However, the actors miraculously managed to get on a flight to an airport close to Mamaroneck, but all the props and costumes were left behind. That did not deter them, at least not for long. From the stage, before the beginning of the play, as we had been sitting there for quite a while eagerly waiting to find out if there was going to be a performance or not, they announced to us, the audience, what the situation was and asked us to bear with them since they would have to perform the play without props.

It was simply amazing. The actors were so skillful that you almost forgot that they were not really holding the imagined props in their hands. An unforgettable performance, and for more than one reason.

Albert Camus who was rewarded the Nobel Prize in literature in 1957

Albert Camus who was rewarded the Nobel Prize in literature in 1957 (Photo Wikipedia)

First of all the Caligula in Camus’ play does not bear much resemblance to the historical character. My memory of Camus’ Caligula is of a pessimist, but an idealist, who wants to do the impossible. He is reaching for the moon. It’s the passion for the impossible that stirs this Caligula.

The poster that was given out at the performance was expressive of a man’s wish to accomplish the impossible and I found it extremely moving.

It is one of Camus’ plays that belongs to the category ‘the theater of the absurd’ – He speaks of the ‘utter loneliness’, which could be the characteristic of God. ‘To be God is to be perfectly lonely.’ “Le sentiment de l’absurde confère à Caligula une liberté nouvelle, dès lors qu’il sait que sa condition est sans espoir.” 4(‘Caligula d’Albert Camus’ by Raphaëlle O’Brien)

Caligula reaching for the moon. I am not sure if the performance we saw was the same as the one at Le Théâtre La Bruyère in 1970, by Georges Vitaly, but the poster was certainly the same.

Caligula reaching for the moon. I am not sure if the performance we saw was the same as the one at Le Théâtre La Bruyère in 1970, by Georges Vitaly, but the poster was certainly the same.

Camus says that Caligula is the “absurd hero” (“le héros absurde d’une peinture de caractère”). Also, on the death of Drusilla, his sister and his mistress, Caligula utters the famous words “Les hommes meurent et ils ne sont pas heureux.” (“Men die and they are not happy.” – Caligula de Camus, Act I, scene IV)

I would prefer, however, instead of attempting a scholarly analysis to keep my own impression of the lonely emperor who dreams of reaching the moon, but in no way an evil emperor. This was not Caligula the tyrant, but Caligula the poet. 5

ContinuedChapter 22 – My fourth life begins

  1. The heartbreaking performance of Nina Simone who sang it in 1964, transformed it to a Black Power song, completely different from the way Lotte Lenya had sung it:

    There’s a ship
    The Black Freighter
    Turns around in the harbor
    Shootin’ guns from her bow

    And they’re chainin’ up people
    And they’re bringin’ em to me
    Askin’ me,
    “Kill them NOW, or LATER?”
    Askin’ ME!
    “Kill them now, or later?”
    … And in that quiet of death
    I’ll say, “Right now.
    Right now!”
    Then they pile up the bodies
    And I’ll say,
    “That’ll learn ya!”

  2. More photos from the performance of the Threepenny Opera at Malmö Stadsteater in 1946 Photo Magda Molin
  3. More photos from the performance of the Threepenny Opera at Malmö Stadsteater in 1946 Photo Magda Molin
  4. The feeling of the absurd gives Caligula a new freedom, as he sees that his condition is hopeless.
  5. Camus himself sees Caligula differently from the impression given by the poster and also by the performance we saw in 1971. In his own words: “Caligula, prince relativement aimable jusque-là, s’aperçoit à la mort de Drusilla, sa sœur et sa maîtresse, que le monde tel qu’il va n’est pas satisfaisant. Dès lors, obsédé d’impossible, empoisonné de mépris et d’horreur, il tente d’exercer, par le meurtre et la perversion systématique de toutes les valeurs, une liberté dont il découvrira pour finir qu’elle n’est pas la bonne. Il récuse l’amitié et l’amour, la simple solidarité humaine, le bien et le mal.” (Translation – “Caligula, a relatively kind prince so far, realizes on the death of Drusilla, his sister and his mistress, that “men die and they are not happy.” Therefore, obsessed by the quest for the Absolute and poisoned by contempt and horror, he tries to exercise, through murder and systematic perversion of all values, a freedom which he discovers in the end is no good. He rejects friendship and love, simple human solidarity, good and evil.”)

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