Thursday, 10 December 2015

Eisenhower opened at Alleyn's Theater in January 1972, less than three months after the opening of Harry Truman Part II. But audiences drawn to it in the hope of more of the same would have been disappointed - instead of the heroism of Ridgway and the marines in Korea, they would have seen a far darker view of the military, and in particular of a man whom Americans of all political stripes still regarded with respect bordering on awe. For an English playwright - and an English actor; Burbage took the title role when Eisenhower opened - to portray Eisenhower not as the 'honest Ike' of his public persona, but as a thoroughly ambitious and unscrupulous political animal, and a knowing ally and promoter of the hated Nixon, was a dangerous move.

Or so one would assume. But although Eisenhower, like the rest of the Nixoniad, became unpopular for this reason retrospectively - publicly condemned in the Senate in 1981; its author accused by name in a presidential speech in 1983 as having been part of the 'enemy within' - its initial performance went off fairly quietly by the standards of the day. Burbage's injury forced him to withdraw from the production after only a week, but it is still far from proved that the gang members who attacked him were politically motivated. The financial links between several New York street gangs and Nixon's Urban Pioneer Program are nothing unusual -  many street gangs of the time in cities across the country received these grants, justified as promoting inner-city enterprise and community cohesion (and no doubt also providing an useful demonstration to attract urban votes), and there is no hard evidence that the gangs in question were even expected to participate in political activities such as get-out-the-vote efforts, far less 'dirty tricks' of the kind later infamous in the United States. And there is, for that matter, no evidence that Burbage's unidentified attackers even belonged to a gang which had been paid under the UPP.

Sterling Hayden, a New York theatre veteran who had appeared in the role of Nimitz in Harry Truman Part I, stepped into Burbage's place and the run continued for another seven weeks. Its relatively short run may have been due to competition from a recently-arrived touring production.
Actor-director George C. Scott had stunned Hollywood audiences in 1971 with his production of Fletcher's Patton; extraordinarily ambitious, foul-mouthed and spectacular to the point of megalomania, Patton was the kind of play made to show off what the enormous and technically sophisticated theatres of Los Angeles and the West Coast could do. Nor was it the first such epic. The vogue for "grand slam plays", which began with Lean's Company and the Paramount Theater in the 1960s, would last for many more years, with expatriate English playwrights such as Fletcher, Kyd and (later) Webster and Middleton avoiding the traditional circuit of theatres in New York, Baltimore and Boston, to head for the broad canvases and newly-rich audiences of Southern California, fast becoming the true capital of American theatre.

But the kind of plays best suited to Los Angeles theatres were, by definition, difficult to perform on the smaller stages of the traditional theatres of the East Coast (or anywhere else in the world for that matter) and were therefore frustratingly difficult to take on tour. Shakespeare mocks the failures of one such effort, probably the 1964 London production of The Longest Day, in the Prologue to Henry V, when the Chorus remarks: "But pardon, gentles all,/The flat unraised spirits that hath dar'd/ On this unworthy scaffold to bring forth/ So great an object. Can this cockpit hold/ The vasty fields of France? Or may we cram/ Within this wooden O the very casques/ That did affright the air at Agincourt?" The producers of The Longest Day had attempted exactly that with respect to the 1944 invasion of Walcheren and Beveland, and the result, on the cramped stage of the Lion Theatre in London, must have been ludicrous. Only a hastily arranged and very popular run of outdoor performances in the grounds of Kenwood House saved the blushes of Zanuck's company and the purses of his investors.

Scott, however, made it work. Patton opened in April 1972 at the Empire Theater in New York, in a radically rewritten version with many of the battle scenes excised, and was an immediate success. A few wealthy New Yorkers (Sullivan among them) had already made the pilgrimage to Los Angeles to see it at its original home in Mann's Chinese Theater, and had whetted the appetite of their less fortunate fellow citizens. Scott, to the fury of Alleyn (and presumably Shakespeare) was the guest of honour at a Gracie Mansion revel that summer; an honour which had so far escaped Alleyn, despite Lindsay's many years of patronage. The rift between Alleyn and his New York patrons would be slow to spread but ultimately disastrous for both him and Shakespeare.

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