Drunks On Stage

Programme for the Almeida Theatre’s 1998 production, starring Kevin Spacey, which subsequently transferred to The Old Vic and Broadway.

A long train journey recently saw me packing a copy of Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh for some not-very-light reading. My copy of the play is the size of a short novel so it’s no wonder that productions frequently last nearly five hours when performed un-cut. Iceman is set in a lower Manhattan dive, circa 1912, and concerns a group of dead-end drunks who have their feeble illusions stripped away by a glad- handing travelling salesman. O’Neill wrote it in the 1940s and I am told that it owes a lot to Maxim Gorky’s The Lower Depths, although it also draws on O’Neill’s experiences of Greenwich Village just before the Great War. A prime slab of American High Earnestness, its merits are undermined by O’Neill’s overt striving for profundity and his relentlessly emphatic, frequently preposterous, dialogue. And it has a lot of dialogue: O’Neill countered charges of repetition and verbosity by saying that bums in their cups repeat themselves over and over again. (He’s dead right there, I know that I do.) But the big speeches offer plenty of room for actors to show off, and big stars are attracted to the play by virtue of its scenery-chewing potential. The part of the salesman, Hickey, has been played in recent years by Denzel Washington, Nathan Lane, and, once upon-a- time, in London and on Broadway, by Kevin Spacey, in that long-lost period when he was the saviour of the Old Vic rather than a monster of Me Too. With a good cast and a good production, the play can appear better than it really is. But in spite of the interesting themes and setting, O’Neill is too overwrought for my taste. So if Iceman isn’t the definitive play about drinking that it thinks it is, where else should we look?

Programme for the original, 1972, London production, with Alan Bates in the title role.

The other book I had with me on the train was a Faber edition of plays by Simon Gray. Gray the playwright seems a bit neglected these days. His elegant and entertaining stage works do not fit the current trend for theatre as a form of social outreach. Like O’Neill, Gray wrote autobiographical plays that replayed certain themes: family, childhood trauma replayed in adulthood, marital infidelity, cognitive decline, and alcoholism. Usually the setting is a backwater of academic or literary life. Perhaps his best-known play is Butley, which sees Ben Butley – a chaotic English professor at a London university – conjuring displays of self-destructive bravado, his drinking fuelling his overall disintegration. It is a great part for an actor and the character has certain similarities to Hickey in Iceman; in fact, the afore-mentioned Nathan Lane also scored a hit with Butley on Broadway in 2006. But Gray is witty and urbane rather than ponderous and sweaty, and Butley wears its nihilism lightly, managing to be very funny within a scenario that isn’t funny at all. Likewise, Close Of Play, whilst more stylised, contains one of the bleakest descriptions of alcoholic decline you can find anywhere, punctuated by moments of perfectly-timed comic business. (My favourite is the moment when a self-confessed alcoholic’s short and shaky bid for sobriety is terminated by his stepmother giving him a bottle of Scotch.) The drinking in Otherwise Engaged is less central, but structurally important; moments of epiphany are marked by characters throwing tumblers of whiskey in each other’s faces. Gray’s writing is very autobiographical; and as performances of his plays dwindled, he gained a considerable reputation as a memoirist, with works like The Smoking Diaries reaching a public that knew little of his writing for the stage. He was candid about the life that fed the drama, about the failure of his first marriage, the death of his brother from alcohol, and his own drinking. Here is an extract from an introduction he wrote to that Faber edition of plays, discussing the production history of The Holy Terror:

A year later … it opened at the Promenade Theatre in New York, in a production that you would have described as eccentric if you hadn’t know that the director drank quite a bit before each day’s rehearsals and quite a bit after them, and more than a bit during them, while never losing the conviction, however many times he stumbled down the aisle and tumbled over the seats, often with a lighted cigarette in his mouth and another, also lighted, in the hand that wasn’t holding a champagne bottle, that he was in full command of his faculties, and that his genius for cutting through to the centre of things had never burned more fiercely – so, when he had trouble moving the actors around the furniture, he cut the furniture; and thus, when he had trouble deciding between different lighting effects, he cut the lighting. So and thus, on the press night the audience found themselves confronted by unnerved actors performing in house lights on a mainly empty set, and the actors could see not only the individual faces of the audience, but also the tops of the heads of the critics as they bent over the pads on their knees. The director himself, by the way, frightened, triumphant and drunk, was also highly visible and all over the place, now at the back of the stalls, now at the top of an aisle, now in the dress circle – if I’d been one of the actors I’d have stepped off the stage in the middle of my scene and murdered him, right there, under the house-lights, in full view of the critics: the report in the next morning’s New York Times might at least have marginalised the review.

Gray’s observations lead us into another area, something of a taboo in theatrical circles: genuine, on-stage drunkenness, whether deliberate or accidental. I have heard, anecdotally, that the great Irish actor Patrick Magee, Samuel Beckett’s favourite advocate of his own work, had a policy of drinking before going on stage, and it seems that this was not uncommon. [NB: See comments section.] A bit like 19th century French train drivers grabbing a calvados before their first shift, or Aeroflot pilots drinking vodka before a flight. I suppose, like everything else, that you have to know how to judge your capacity; and in any case, being pissed on-stage is now a sackable offence. Back in the 1970s, I heard a story concerning an actor who was found passed out in his dressing room during a prestigious Shakespeare production in one of the big venues. His colleagues managed to rouse him just in time for his entrance, and he staggered and extemporised through his part in idiosyncratic fashion. From the blankness of his mind he conjured his own, unique, form of blank verse; one example was: ‘Forsooth! He hath flaunt his SHUM!

Sydney Lumet’s TV version of The Iceman Cometh, from 1960.

Incidentally … The Iceman Cometh was first performed in 1946 and caught the attention of Raymond Chandler, who subsequently wrote to his publisher to point out that the play used the title of his 1939 novel The Big Sleep as a synonym for death. Chandler was convinced that O’Neill took the expression from him in the belief that it was authentic underworld slang, whereas Chandler insisted that he invented the phrase. Chandler noted: ‘The whole tenor of his writing in the play shows that he knows very little about his subject.‘ This might be a bit unfair but it invites a comparison between the styles of the two writers, how Chandler’s dialogue sings and how O’Neill’s lines land with a dull thud. But you can make up your own mind about Iceman by watching the vintage TV version in the above link: directed by the great Sydney Lumet, and starring Jason Robards as Hickey (a star-making turn for him), it makes a good a case as any for the play and keeps it relatively brisk at three hours and twenty minutes. This production also features a very young Robert Redford, in a rare appearance as an unsympathetic character.

Eugene O’Neill having an absolutely smashing time on holiday with his wife Agnes and daughter Oona. (Oona ended up married to Charlie Chaplin; see: Stomping At The Savoy (Part Two).)

Drunk Artist Round-Up

Francis Bacon by John Deakin, early 1950s.

There’s Francis Bacon in all his sinister pomp, as photographed by his friend John Deakin in the 1950s. Deakin was a very talented photographer, contracted to Vogue no less, but also a shabby, unpleasant drunk. He was so careless with his archive that by the time of his death his surviving prints and negatives were largely trashed. This was a pity as he was a Soho insider and his portraits of the principals of fifties Soho are very fine – although, in some cases, the fact that the prints are damaged gives the images an additional power: an authenticity borne of nihilistic carelessness on the part of the artist.

Like his some time friend and artistic rival Lucian Freud, Bacon used London lowlife as the raw material for his art and made it universal. But, naturally, the Soho scene of the forties and fifties was full of artists who failed to be anything other than local curiosities, ‘characters’ even, their art failing to transcend their immediate environment, and whose fate is to be remembered as footnotes in memoirs of the time. But some of them were talented, whilst others deserve to be remembered precisely because they were such specific products of the milieu. John Minton fits both categories. He was a teacher at the Royal College of Art and a prolific book illustrator but also a painter of real ambition. (He was also a man of means, as he was an heir to the Minton china dynasty.) A conspicuous fixture at The Gargoyle Club, to which he also contributed a mural to offset the works by Matisse, he would enter with a motley entourage of rough trade and proceed to dance extravagantly to favourite tunes like I’m Going To Sit Right Down And Write Myself A Letter. But for Minton The Gargoyle was more than just a place to dance: it was one of the few places where he could be openly gay without fear of being adversely judged.

John Minton: Self-Portrait, 1953.

The poet Ruthven Todd recalled Minton at The Gargoyle, ‘… his long sad clown’s face, lashed by breakers of dark hair, as he danced a frenetic solo on the otherwise unoccupied dance floor. His arms and legs were flying this way and that … Clapping and encouraging him was a ringside audience of the faceless nonentities whom he gathered as an entourage as a magnet does rusty filings.’ Minton felt marooned by the shift away from figurative painting and towards abstraction that happened in the later fifties – and the soaring success of his friend Francis Bacon, fleshy embodiment of the zeitgeist, probably didn’t do much for his morale either. His work was seen as decorative, illustrative, lightweight. One week of his appointment diary is blank except for one word scrawled across both pages: ‘DRUNK’. He killed himself in 1957, at the age of just 40.

Similarly, the tragic story of the demented, kilt-wearing, Scottish painters Robert MacBryde and Robert Colquhoun, universally known in Soho as ‘The Two Roberts’, is a cautionary tale of the fickle nature of artistic success. They were lovers, and shared a studio and an energetic social life in all the usual Soho and Fitzrovia hang- outs, as well as hosting parties at their studio in Kensington. But whereas John Minton inspired protective affection, the Two Roberts could be a social nightmare. In their cups they were fearsome, dancing the Highland Fling one minute, performing Scottish folk songs or reciting ballads, then abruptly threatening fellow punters to buy them a drink, or offering a handshake whilst concealing broken glass in an outstretched hand. As for the art itself, it didn’t really survive the period: both worked in a sort of sub-sub-Picasso idiom (that link is to a Colquhoun canvas, here’s one to a MacBryde) that was eclipsed by the passing fad of the ‘Kitchen Sink’ school of the fifties, and then the more durable fashion for abstract art. In addition to artistic redundancy, a succession of misfortunes overtook the pair. A retrospective exhibition was destroyed by vandals who broke into the studio on the eve of the private view; and Colquhoun expired at his easel, just 47, in 1962. MacBryde carried on as best he could, only to die a few years later in a bizarre traffic accident in Ireland, hit by a car as he was dancing a jig in the street outside a pub.

The Two Roberts: Robert MacBryde, left, and Robert Colquhoun. Picture Post, 1949.

Without wishing to sound callous, it is doubtful that posterity would remember MacBryde or Colquhoun at all if it weren’t for the ghastly vividness of their social lives and their impact on others within their circle. By contrast, Minton, has become more appreciated in recent years due to the numerous book jackets and illustrations that he executed with such fluency and skill. He might have been a ‘minor’ painter but his attractive and atmospheric book designs have helped to define our image of cultural life in fifties Britain. As for John Deakin, the surviving photographs are testament to a powerful, forensic talent for portraiture: a sort of guttersnipe Bill Brandt. His work seems to anticipate some of the bolder experiments of Richard Avedon, and its rediscovery offers a valuable record of the period. But Deakin the man is perhaps best remembered not at all: remembrances of him by acquaintances indicate a thoroughly repellent personality, a cadging drunk who turned out to be a wealthy miser. He was commissioned by Bacon to do a session of nude photographs of Soho scenester Henrietta Moraes, photos intended for use as the basis of a painting, and Henrietta discovered that Deakin had been selling additional prints to sailors in pubs. After Deakin’s sudden death, Francis Bacon found himself tasked with making formal identification of Deakin’s body and noted that in death Deakin was able to do one thing that he was never able to do in life: keep his mouth shut. And there are other artists who outstayed their welcome. Gerald Wilde was another ‘mad artist’ of the period, another fixture at the Wheatsheaf, the Caves De France, etc., a pioneer of Abstract Expressionism in the forties whose work was highly rated but whose drunken persona would try anyone’s patience. According to Daniel Farson, Bacon once held him in high regard but later on regarded him as ‘a dreadful bore’ who had once turned up at his studio at four a.m. demanding money for drink. As for himself, Bacon knew that he was lucky, hitting a raw nerve of the century and surviving to occupy Greatest Living Artist status. But his patience and good manners had limits. There’s a nice story about him at the Colony Room, politely refusing a rather insistent young artist’s repeated invitations to visit him at his studio, until Bacon finally had enough and said ‘I don’t need to see your paintings, I’ve seen your tie.’

See also:
Francis Bacon In The Colony Room
Spies and Queens at The Gargoyle Club
Rathbone Street Pubs

A Corner In Fitzrovia

William Roberts: ‘The Vorticists at the Restaurant de la Tour Eiffel: Spring, 1915’. Painted circa 1961-2. Ezra Pound front left, Wyndham Lewis in hat and scarf, centre, Rudolph Stulik with cake, right. (Tate.)

‘My friend, Marie Beerbohm, came often to Fitzroy Street. We all went in the evenings to the Eiffel Tower restaurant and ate and drank afterwards. One morning Marie came to see me. She said ‘An awful thing has happened; I was bringing with me half a bottle of champagne to cheer us up. I met Walter Sickert in the street. He saw it and said “Disgraceful that young girls like you should drink in the morning’ and he took it from me”’. (Nina Hamnett, one of Fitzrovia’s great monuments, reminiscing about the area as it was during the first world war.)

The Virgin’s Prayer (Anon):
Ezra Pound and Augustus John
Bless the bed that I lie on.

On the corner of Charlotte and Percy streets, just a few steps north of The Wheatsheaf, is a restaurant that used to be The Eiffel Tower. When I started hanging around Fitzrovia in the early 1980s it was called The White Tower, and even then it carried some residual cachet of its earlier years. From the first world war to the start of the second, The Eiffel Tower was a beacon of fine dining and civilisation during the dark years when British food was genuinely awful. But it was more than just a good restaurant; like the Café Royal in Regent Street, the Eiffel Tower functioned as a sort of sanctuary for artists, an informal club where the bohemian aristocracy could feast and play. This is where you would find the artistic personalities of the age dining on Canard Presse, Sole Dieppoise and other classics of old-world French cuisine. The benevolent proprietor was an Austrian restaurateur named Rudolph Stulik, a dead ringer for emperor Franz Joseph of Austria, whose lavish bill of fare constituted an impressive feat during wartime. And one can only wonder at the sullen resentment patrons in the Marquis of Granby opposite – a tougher and less artistically inclined pub than the others in the vicinity – might have felt towards the conspicuous consumption of the Eiffel Tower’s patrons. The fact that Stulik was performing a sort of conjuring trick keeping the place going at all was not outwardly apparent, although the seams sometimes showed, as when he had to ask patrons to pay in advance for their meals so he could buy the food with which to prepare them.

The Eiffel Tower was where one Bohemian generation advanced the cause of the next. Walter Sickert, William Orpen and Augustus John – veterans of the 1890s Decadent scene, all of whom rented studios on Fitzroy Street – partied with Nina Hamnett’s crowd, Pound, Wydham Lewis and the Vorticist mob, and later the Sitwells, Dylan Thomas and co., in an ambience of genial permissiveness. The restaurant offered a private dining room, as well as bedrooms for serious naughtiness. ( As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, it was in one of those bedrooms that Dylan Thomas consummated his relationship with Caitlin Macnamara, Augustus John’s 17-year old girlfriend, just a few hours after meeting her, the bill for the room charged to John’s account. By this point, Augustus John was approaching his goatish dotage, hence the saying that he patted the head of every child he met on Charlotte St., in case it was one of his own.)

Augustus John, circa 1955, by the great Alfred Eisenstadt for Life Magazine.

However, the glory days of the Eiffel Tower seemed to peter out sometime in the 1920s, its artistic demise coinciding with the genuine aristocracy – as opposed to the bohemian variety – crashing the place and sending the artists into flight. The shipping heiress Nancy Cunard – although a well meaning sponsor of the arts and certain artists in particular – seems to have led the invasion, and as a consequence the bohemian centre of operations moved a few doors to the north, to a place where the nobs and moneyed gentry were unlikely to follow. A pub. (The Fitzroy Tavern, still in business but no longer the epicentre of bohemian raciness.)

In the 1980s I knew Fitzrovia very well; I had a friend who lived on Whitfield St., right opposite the Fitzroy Tavern, and I availed myself of the local processing labs. (Like many other photographers, I flirted with incipient alcoholism by killing ‘anxiety time’ in pubs whilst waiting to see my film.) By then Fitzrovia seemed a bit like Soho’s poor cousin: the literary and artistic scenes had vanished and both the Fitzroy and the Wheatsheaf were just Sam Smiths pubs. But the media companies and ad agencies that dominated the area lent it a distinct flavour of its own, and thus the artists of an earlier era had been replaced by actors and ‘creatives’. Saatchi and Channel 4 had their headquarters on Charlotte St.; Mel Smith and Griff Rhys Jones ran Tallkback productions out of an office on Percy St., and the various theatrical agencies and dubbing studios meant that many famous faces would drift past in the grey afternoons. I remember seeing the young Stephen Fry, tall, grim and pale, wandering along the bottom of Rathbone Place at seven in the morning, apparently returning home from some all-night bash. The place still had a village feel and the restaurants were one-offs rather than chains. On the corner opposite The White Tower was the Venus Kebab House, the kind of unpretentious, not exactly brilliant, restaurant that used to be so common around here (and which fed generations of bohemians, bums and beatniks). The Venus’s saving grace was its location, which gave it enough room to spread tables outside in summer. At lunchtime on a warm summer’s day, the Venus lent this corner a palpable echo of the Mediterranean: one of the few instances I can think of where a restaurant has really achieved that in London. In any case, its fishbowl windows, erratic staff and indiscreet clientele made it a theatre of human comedy at all times, memorable for fights between diners (‘My mother warned me never go back to you after the first time you hit me!’), fights between waiters (‘That’s two orders of kleftico, you bloody shit!) or just pure farce, like the memorable night when the ceiling caved in. It couldn’t last, of course, it was too much fun. And with its passing, a little bit of London died. Last time I looked, there was a Café Nero on the site.

I’ve written about Fitzrovia a few times (see the links below), simply because the district offers a rich density of anecdote, and was peopled by men and women who lived in pristine pursuit of a bohemian ideal. The tragedy of so many of them was that they succumbed to ‘Sohoitis’, i.e.: spending all your time in the pub instead of working. In our own age, now that great cities have been purged of their unseemly artistic communities, and even photographers’ labs are a thing of the past, the contemporary version of Sohoitis is noodling on Twitter or Facebook instead of being productive on Photoshop or Microsoft Word. (This tendency deserves a term of its own.) But the temptation to drift online is all too easy to understand. London’s artistic communities have been driven away and artists have to make do with virtual communities, where the jokes and arguments, feuds and allegiances happen over social media instead of a mahogany bar sticky with drink. It’s supremely ironic that Facebook’s London office is in a swanky block on the west side of Rathbone Place, across the road from The Wheatsheaf. Even my own experiences of Fitzrovia are antique now, as distant from the grey, stooped 50-something writing this as the Blitz was to my callow 20-year old self. In time, perhaps my ghost will join all the others haunting Fitzrovia: waiting for eternally undeveloped film, or for lovely women whose shades will never appear.

The Fitzroy Tavern in 1949.

Further reading:

Julian and Dylan at The Wheatsheaf
Laughing Torso Meets the Great Beast
Rathbone Street pubs
Hangover Hamilton