In 1959 Luchino Visconti was directing an extremely obscure Donizetti opera, Il Duca d’Alba, for the Spoleto Festival, and he decided it might be charming, not to say economical, to stage the production using old warehouse scenery, rather than any design in the modern idiom. So he went to the established firm Parravicini, in Rome, and asked the old man behind the counter for his help.

He wanted, Visconti said, something that would be approximately right for the following odd collection of scenes: The Town Hall and main square of Brussels at the time of the Spanish occupation of the Low Countries; the interior of a brewery; a room in the Town Hall; a lady’s apartment of the same period; and, finally, the Port of Antwerp.

What opera is this? asked the old man from Parravicini. It sounds very familiar.

Oh you won’t have heard of it, said Visconti. It’s hardly ever been performed.

Nevertheless, said the old man, do tell me the title.

It’s Donizetti’s Il Duca d’Alba, said Visconti.

Of course, cried the old man, how foolish of me. We have it. We have Il Duca d’Alba.

And it turned out that Parravicini still possessed the original scenery, which Visconti was able to dust down and use in good effect.

* * *

If the story has charm, it is as a tale of the unexpected. Visconti had wanted to spring a surprise on his audience, and he ended up being utterly surprised himself. But that charm would disappear rather fast if we were told that Visconti had tracked down the original scenery because he hoped thereby to make his production authentic. The authenticity of the sets, such as it was, came as a decorative extra, a further twist to what had begun as a joke.

* * *

Now we go back to Parravicini in a different spirit, because we believe that by walking backward we can achieve authenticity, and we find the same old man sitting at his ledger, just as he had done in 1950, and we explain that we, too, have a production in hand, and we list the scenery required.

What opera is this? inquires the old man. It sounds very familiar.

Oh, we say airily, it’s hardly ever done—you probably won’t have heard of it…

Nevertheless, replies the old man…

It’s a very rare Donizetti, we say; it’s called Cunegunde di Duisburg.

The old man claps his hands together in delight. Cunegunde di Duisburg! he exclaims, Of course I should have guessed. Let’s see now (leafing through his ledger), act one, the marketplace in Düsseldorf, followed by the chapel in the forest, the banqueting hall of the Bremerhaven Chamber of Commerce—yes, it all looks complete and in good shape. And the costumes of course are magnificent.

The costumes! We gasp: surely they must be falling to pieces by now.

The old man darts us a disapproving look. There have never, he insists, been any complaints, either about the sets, or about the costumes, or about the singers, indeed. Great care has always been taken to maintain each original production complete and in tip-top condition.

Now wait a moment, we explode. Do you mean to say that we can hire the authentic original scenery, and the costumes, and the singers, too?

And the orchestra, says the old man (who during the course of this exchange has come to resemble Dr. Coppelius, and who, we notice for the first time, is wearing a strange pointed hat and a long cloak), and of course the original instruments…

My dear sir, we almost cry, it’s a deal. A complete original production—the thing is bound to be a sellout.

I would strongly advise, says our new friend, against selling any tickets at all, for it would be quite wrong—quite undermining of the authenticity you seek—to mount the original production in front of anything other than the original audience, which as it happens we also possess.

We strike a deal at once, and can hardly wait for the evening to come round when the original production will be given once again to our original audience—when our perfect revival will fill the theater with its gorgeous authenticity.

And on the night we make sure to set out early for the opera, determined to slip in unnoticed and enjoy the whole evening from some obscure vantage point. However, turning into the opera square, we seem to encounter some immovable barrier, some force field invisible to the naked eye. We make a detour. We approach the theater from every small side alley we know, but in each case we come up against the same obstruction.

It is dark, there is mist, and now a blizzard begins. Soon the air seems to be full of arriving coaches, sleds, vehicles of every shape and description and we hear, or we fancy we hear, the excited greetings of the arriving audience, and we dimly perceive, or think we dimly perceive, the glow of the carriage lamps. Then silence seems to fall, and there is nothing but the sense of the horses under their blankets and the occasional shared joke among the drivers. We stamp our feet. We test the barrier again. We attempt, in wheedling tones, to attract the attention of the coachmen, feeling they should know a trick to slip us in. The hours pass, and once again the air is full of apparent noise, as the audience rushes to their vehicles and dashes off into the night.


And now the barrier comes down, and we are able to dash forward into the theater, hoping to catch a glimpse at least of the departing players, or to find some souvenir of what, we are convinced, must have been an extraordinary evening. But the place is already deserted, and though we fancy the air still carries a whiff of candle grease and patchouli even about that we cannot feel entirely certain.

For the past is that which is complete, and it is useless to try to intrude upon its completeness, or to complain when the man from Parravicini arrives to present his bill. We have not been swindled. We have merely swindled ourselves if we think that the theater can repeat itself or might be cajoled into so doing.

If we were goatherds, and had never visited a city, and we came for the first time, in our best clothes, into the market square at noon, and we looked up and, to the sound of carillon, a door slid open and out came a procession—Death and the Maiden, the Moorish dancers, the Three Wise Men, a Saracen, Saint George and the Dragon, whatever it was; and we exclaimed, How wonderful! They have a theater here—how the street vendors would laugh at us for our peasant ignorance.

Or if we went to a fair and placed a coin in a slot, and a tiny coffin opened and a skeleton waved a scythe at us, and a little guillotine sliced off a woman’s head, and a piece of silken ectoplasm flitted past a window, and then the mechanism stopped with all elements back in place—the lid back on the coffin, the head back on the women—and we said: Splendid, now we have seen the grand opera, let’s find something to eat! How certain the fairground workers would be that they could skin us alive before we were out of their clutches.

When I was a child I adored the light operas of Gilbert and Sullivan—the Savoy Operas, they are called, and my favorite was The Mikado. And though these were the staple fare of amateur opera companies at the small town or village level, there was only one professional company that had the right to perform them—the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company. For some time I knew the music—and knew the words by heart—but only from records, and it was a great moment when an adult told me that he had tickets next week for the D’Oyly Carte, and we were to see The Mikado. And if we clapped enough at the end of certain songs, the singer might be induced to perform an encore—or maybe if we were lucky he might perform more than one encore, and there might be different jokes in each. And these predictions turned out to be true. I was enchanted—with the sets, the costumes, the performances, the whole thing.

Ten years or so later, working in London, I noticed one evening that the D’Oyly Carte were in town, and would give The Mikado that evening. For old time’s sake I went along, and soon realized I had made a mistake. The same sets, the same costumes, and the same performers should not perhaps have surprised me, but the same jokes in the same sequence of encores—and the encores provoked by a suspiciously low level of applause—hit me with the force of a religious disillusionment. These operettas had been produced by their author, W.S. Gilbert, and his production books had long since ossified into law, so that what I had seen as a child was a production dating back to 1885 (the sets had been redesigned I think twice) upon which no one had been allowed to make anything more than the most marginal improvements. It was a matter of absolute ritual—for as long as the magic spell of the copyright lasted—that each generation would take its children to see what they had seen—productions which fell prey to such a necrotizing tendency that, in the final years of the company, a friend of mine, accompanying a child one evening, actually heard one of the actors call out to another as he left the stage: “Well, love, mine’s a double whiskey—what’s yours?”


The poets who gazed on the ruins of Rome fell in love with the paradox that, while most of the solid structures had perished, the Tiber remained the same.

Lo que èra Firme huió solamente,
Lo Fugitivo permanece y dura.

(Only what was firm disappeared: the fugitive remains and endures.)


immota labascunt:
Et quae perpetuò sunt agitata manent.

(The motionless disappears: what is in constant motion survives.)*

A similar paradox governs the theater. What the shops call “theatrical ephemera”—old playbills, autographed programs, photographs—are the least ephemeral and the most preservable of all things theatrical. But who can preserve a performance? a production? Even the old costumes, observed close up, have a sad, disillusioning quality. Was anyone ever taken in, we ask ourselves with a shudder, by all this sham? And what fills the cases of the theatrical museums—fine though these institutions may be—begs us to pay attention to it for the value of its association: Look at me—I am Nijinsky’s left shoe! Admire me—I am Duse’s corset! But there are limits to the admiration we can muster, limits to the attention we can lavish on the old socks and stockings of someone else’s heroes and heroines.

There are paintings of famous moments in famous performances—Edmund Kean as Richard the Third, on the night before the Battle of Bosworth—and these paintings are always instantly recognizable as being depictions of theater rather than depictions of events. What comes across the centuries is the falseness of the gesture, whereas the whole reason for painting the scene was not for its falseness but for its truth. This was the moment when Kean froze the blood.

In film, too, when a director wishes to suggest that we are now watching a play, he will introduce a kind of lighting from beneath, the falseness of which will suggest footlights. But it was never the intention of the inventors of footlights to introduce a false, an “alienating” effect onto the stage.

Everyone knew that they were dealing in an illusion, but nobody felt this implied that the whole project was a deception. It is when it is reproduced that theater seems so false.

Every critic is aware of his powers of destruction, but some of these are more dismaying than others. We might go to a festival and see some work we particularly admire. We write it up. It receives an award. Coming back to our hotel rooms, we switch on the television for the late-night arts program and—oh no!—someone has pointed a camera at that charming production we so admired, and the result looks terrible. Surely, we think, we cannot have been deceived by all this shouting, all these gross gestures? We hope and pray that all our friends, all our readers, have gone to bed. We seem inadvertently to have trampled on our own, our cherished little reputation.

It’s like listening to opera on radio, listening live or to a live recording. How odd, we think—Figaro seems to be making an awful lot of noise, tramping around stage. When we were at the opera house, there was none of this din.

And of course we remember that there would have been such a din, but because we could see what was causing it we were able to filter it out. But the microphone alone has no attention mechanism. If the noise is made, it must be registered.

Good films can be made on the basis of stage productions, but only by transforming something stagey into something filmic. The production itself is unreproducible.

A small London theater mounted a remarkable Hamlet. Everyone who saw it was enthralled by the boldness and stylishness of the interpretation. (It viewed Hamlet as a case of “possession.” When the Ghost spoke, its voice came from Hamlet’s stomach.) When what had been planned as a short run came to an end, it was universally assumed that the production would transfer to the West End, but this never happened. The actor who played Hamlet had no wish to continue. When asked over dinner why not, he said: “You see…it’s already legendary.”

This was a happy man, serving the right art. He knew that everything in the theater must end, and he took a sly pleasure in that transience. He was the opposite of the aged Sarah Bernhardt, condemned by her vanity to storm the stage with her wooden leg. He had given his Hamlet. Schluss damit.

Freud, in his essay “On Transience,” describes taking “a summer walk through a smiling countryside” in the company of “a taciturn friend and of a young but already famous poet.” Who these two were cannot be established. Perhaps Freud made the story up. He tells that

The poet admired the beauty of the scene around us but felt no joy in it. He was disturbed by the thought that all this beauty was fated to extinction, that it would vanish when winter came, like all human beauty and all the beauty and splendour that men have created or may create. All that he would otherwise have loved and admired seemed to him to be shorn of its worth by the transience which was its doom.

The proneness to decay of all that is beautiful and perfect can, as we know, give rise to two different impulses in the mind. The one leads to the aching despondency felt by the young poet, while the other leads to rebellion against the fact asserted. No! it is impossible that all this loveliness of Nature and Art, of the world of our sensations and of the world outside, will really fade away into nothing. It would be too senseless and too presumptuous to believe it. Somehow or other this loveliness must be able to persist and to escape all the powers of destruction.

But Freud goes on to say that “this demand for immortality is a product of our wishes too unmistakable to lay claim to reality: what is painful may none the less be true.”

Nobody can contemplate his own mortality with indifference, but we might, with Freud, dispute the pessimistic poet’s view “that the transience of what is beautiful involves any loss in its worth.” I should like one day to revisit Greece, and maybe this time to see the ruins at Epidaurus, but not, please God, not to see a tragedy performed in those ruins. I have no more desire to see a tragedy performed at Epidaurus than to observe Christians being thrown to the lions in the Colosseum. The stage cannon, fired in salute, that caused Shakespeare’s Globe to burn down, taking with it all his production books, leaving us guessing about so much—that fire did us all a great service. It released the plays into the free republic of our imagination.

Chekhov’s art grew from essentially transient forms. He began writing, for newspapers or magazines, short stories—not the short stories for which he is famous today but little sketches often amounting to no more than a joke. None of them took more than a day to write and there are apparently more than five hundred of them. Chekhov’s progress as an artist reminds me of that of the painter Lyonel Feininger, whose early work involved the most marvelous caricatures. As his paintings grew in grandeur and sublimity, those cities, cathedrals, seascapes became more elevated through abstraction. Nevertheless one can often see the remains of those characteristic grotesque figures, still lurking in the shadow of the cathedral, as if Feininger was happy not to forget where he had come from.

Chekhov’s great plays emerge from these newspaper sketches, these jokes, these vaudevilles, and to the very end you can see the loving attention he would pay to a small sketch. If we were asked to guess which role in The Cherry Orchard Chekhov wrote for his wife, the actress Olga Knipper, we would all surely assume that it was Ranevskaya. It wasn’t. It was the governess Charlotte, whose party tricks were already in Olga’s own repertory. People said of Olga that she was Charlotte. She became Ranevskaya. If we extract Charlotte from the context of the play, the figure is little more than one of those newspaper sketches. But of course this sketch is no more than a recipe for a performance, and a performance within the grand context Chekhov had devised.

Chekhov’s art is defined by his mortality. What we think of as essentially Chekhovian is nothing other than the stage he had reached at the time he happened to fall ill. Had he lived, he had plans to set his next play in the Arctic. He was moving in the direction of symbolism—a fact which some of us might find rather shocking, although the signs are there in The Cherry Orchard. And of course symbolism itself would have been transformed by Chekhov’s attention.

From a strictly horticultural view there is no doubt that the cherry orchard in this play ought to be cut down. It shouldn’t have been allowed to reach the unproductive stage. Cherry trees are not the same as olives—they do not enjoy immense longevity. Forty or fifty years is quite enough.

Some of Chekhov’s contemporaries thought that the play was a salutary attack on Ranevskaya and her class—useless, unproductive people who should be consigned to the dustbin of history. But from the way Chekhov wrote—that equable, sketch-writerly way—one can detect no recommendation one way or another. Chekhov, who knew he was dying, provided a meditation on transience: on our love for something we know we must leave. And although Ranevskaya seems to suffer from a chronic inability to listen to sound advice, there might nevertheless be some wisdom somewhere concealed in all that improvidence. She might know, in a way, that the cherry orchard has to come down; she might know that we must all in the end make these farewells.

This Issue

April 4, 1996