The beautiful city of Edinburgh with the severe lines of the Castle and the Palace sitting high above was washed with rain during the entire week of the International Drama Conference. God was right. Last year the Edinburgh Festival sponsored a conference on the novel and became well-known for some highly seasoned confessions of homosexuality, dope-taking, and boiling praise of William Burroughs. This year, perhaps conscious that the days were tame and ambling by comparison, “a happening” was staged on the final day by a young American director and his American aides. “A happening” is an improvised entertainment and this one included a naked girl being wheeled across the organ platform on a TV trolley. Maybe the girl was improvised, although she said she was paid four guineas ahead of time and would do it all over again, but you cannot improvise a TV trolley and I guess you don’t improvise a taste for newspaper headlines.
The Drama Conference took place in McEwan Hall. Around the dome of this ugly nineteenth-century building run the words from Proverbs, “Wisdom is the Principal Thing.” Maybe, but not that week. About sixty delegates from many countries sat on the platform with Kenneth Tynan, as over-all chairman, and there was a new chairman for each day’s discussion. The whole affair seemed to be managed by John Calder, the publisher, as deep a worrier about paid public attendance as any Broadway producer. He had cause to worry. The first day’s audience, over two thousand, fell as the days passed, to under five hundred, and they could have been relatives.
There has long been a theory that the best actors are those who lead their emotional lives upon a stage. For many years I have been working on a theory that everybody in the theater—playwright, director, stage designer, prop man—are actor manqué. During the conference my theory became scientific fact. People who might have talked seriously among themselves were given an audience, TV cameras, and newspaper reporters. Heady stuff for actors manqué and designed, of course, to make words and ideas seem less important than personalities. For example, Arthur Adamov, a Frenchman who has written a number of interesting plays, became the Shirley Temple of the conference, although Shirley Temple was never so conscious of her charm. But Mr. Adamov was not alone.
The first day opened with the discussion, “Who makes today’s theater? The playwright, the director, or the actor?” A subject with built-in irritability. Obviously a fight had been counted on, but none came. I was part of that day’s panel, spoke briefly and not very well, and did not speak again. I did not want to speak again and nobody wanted me to. (Perhaps washouts are not the best reporters, but I’ve tried to deal here only with facts.) That day, Joan Littlewood, who is the most inventive and original talent in the English theater, made a warm-hearted but unfortunate speech that served as the …
This article is available to subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.