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).)

Summers In The Dark

David Hemmings, Nikon in hand, prowls Maryon Park in search of … what? ‘Blow Up’, 1966.

The abrupt blooming of London after a November-like May has produced a palpable frisson of excitement in the city, all that pent-up energy seeking release from Covid morbidity. Suddenly, London is beautiful again. It’s the kind of weather that makes you want to put on a pair of white strides, grab a Nikon and a velvet jacket, jump into a vintage Rolls, and drive around town in search of nothing in particular.

Directed by the austere Italian auteur Michelangelo Antonioni (a man who didn’t do jokes), Blow Up features David Hemmings playing fashion photographer ‘Thomas’ abstractedly investigating a murder he may or may not have photographed. Thomas is a composite figure, a confection drawing on contemporary fashion photographers John French and John Cowan (whose studio doubles as Thomas’s in the film), as well as more obvious models like Donovan and Bailey. The film is a remarkable time capsule of London in 1965. Unlikely spots in Peckham, Woolwich, Stockwell, and the bomb-scarred City are rendered significant and hypnotic, whilst groovy goings on ‘up West’ look deeply silly. The piazza of the Economist Building on St James’s St., a prime example of 1960s Brutalism, is buzzed by a Land Rover full of mimes, who then proceed to drive across London in a vastly irritating form of ‘happening’ (a distant echo of the Bright Young Things who capered so pointlessly in the West End of the 1920s). Or that scene in ‘Ricky Tick’s club (a real club but the interior is a sound stage at Elstree) wherein The Yardbirds pretend to be The Who – Jeff Beck smashing his guitar on film as he never did on stage – before a zombified crowd. This vignette is only slightly more comic when you discover that the lone female dancer in the stripy leggings is the young Janet Street Porter. 

Hemmings/Thomas at the wheel of a Silver Cloud Mk.III. According to IMDb, this vehicle once belonged to Jimmy Savile. I prefer to think that this is not true.

Blow Up is often considered an indigenous product but this is false. Like many key films of the 1960s, it was a result of Britain’s sudden contemporary resonance and shitloads of American money. This is a point worth emphasising. An Italian director and production team, backed by MGM, chose London as an emblem of an international cultural moment. And their other choices were shrewd. A Spanish literary source, a story by Julio Cortazar, was adapted by Edward Bond; they commissioned a jazz score from the young Herbie Hancock; and Don McCullin supplied Thomas’s photographs. (McCullin is as British as they come, but he specialised in global warfare, not fashion.) The Yardbirds onscreen line-up included both Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page, but the band weren’t first choice. Antonioni wanted The Velvet Underground, before they even had a record deal, because he’d seen them in New York as house band for Warhol’s Factory. (The Velvets couldn’t get UK work permits.)

Blow Up was a touchstone for generations of photographers who wanted the lifestyle shown in the film. Hemmings floats around London in his achingly beautiful Silver Cloud convertible, occasionally retrieving his Nikon from the glove box to photograph tramps and strangers in parks, returning to his period-perfect studio on Pottery Lane, W11, for a fashion shoot with Veruschka and erotic encounters with the likes of Jane Birkin and Vanessa Redgrave. That side of it has been comprehensively sent-up (Austin Powers etc.), but the best thing about Blow-Up is its luminous depiction of odd, forgotten corners of London and its feeling for the atmosphere of the city. I can’t think of another film that conveys the sound of London in the summer: the soughing of trees in a park, of footsteps in city streets. It took an Italian auteur with no local knowledge to make a film with such an authentic sense of place. Nearly sixty years on, the film’s London locations have acquired their own folklore: the red houses Thomas drives past in Stockwell, the calm and green of Maryon Park in permanently unfashionable Charlton (Antonioni ordered that park grass be painted green), the dawn over Chelsea Embankment as Thomas leaves a Cheyne Walk party, and so on. (Ian Sinclair devoted a fair bit of Lights Out For The Territory to Antonioni’s treatment of south London.) And the fascination of seeing – or not seeing.  The centrepiece of the film is a 45-minute sequence shadowing Thomas in his studio, obsessively, silently, poring over huge prints, before returning to the darkroom to make yet another ‘blow-up’ to explain what he saw in Maryon Park.  Any photographer will tell you that the level of detail he pulls out of that negative is impossible, but it doesn’t matter: this scene captures better than any other the romance of working in a darkroom, of taking a tiny slice of time and making it something you can hold in your hand. What you make of it after that is up to you.

I suppose I had this image in mind when I got my first job, at 17, working as a press photographer’s darkroom assistant. I remember 1979 as a beautiful summer, which sat oddly with the fact that I was spending most of it in the dark. Also, my employer was based in dusty, unlovely Streatham, not Notting Hill. And the romance of working in a darkroom is contingent on being in control of your working hours – like Thomas in Blow-Up, it’s best to work at night if you can – and choosing what it is you want to print. As a press hack’s dogsbody, I was entrusted with printing indifferent photographs of celebrities at events. (I once spent an entire day printing photographs of John Inman, a task with no attendant glamour whatsoever.) As luck would have it, my older brother lived in Balham, just a couple of stops away from Streatham, so I availed myself of his hospitality more than was really good for me. My brother was a loosely-employed actor in his mid-20s, using his free time to experiment with various kinds of home-brewing. Some of his preparations would have challenged the most grizzled of Fleet Street paps, so my virgin liver didn’t stand a chance. One hot evening saw us drinking lukewarm Holsten Pils in a ratty local pub, before heading back to his maisonette to attack whatever he had left in the flat: dregs of red wine, Pernod and, finally, fatally, his home-brewed mead. The next morning I gamely dragged myself to work and was immediately ordered to run off a dozen snaps of Joanna Lumley, looking radiant at some VIP do or other. Bravely, I stepped into the dark and turned on the red light. Despite the throbbing chaos in my head, I made a good start and got out a few prints; but before long the acrid smell of the fixing solution got to me and I was sick into the wash tray, all over the divine Ms Lumley, who didn’t deserve such an indignity. I was let go soon after that. David Hemmings I was not.

At Home With Keith Moon

Keith Moon at Tara, early ’70s. Photo Alec Byrne. (Not commercial use!)

Stories of Keith Moon’s behaviour on the road and on the town are the backbone of rock music’s mythic past, that never-never land which seems as remote now as the England of Byrd and Dowland. Moon’s biographer Tony Fletcher suggests that the drummer’s hyperactivity and penchant for breaking things were symptoms of undiagnosed Borderline Personality Disorder, aggravated by the fact that he played in a band that parlayed violent destruction as performance art. By the early Seventies The Who’s huge success finally gave them a chance to have a breather from back-to-back touring and recording. Unfortunately, Keith wasn’t very good at sitting still and had no real interests beyond drumming for The Who. Nevertheless, he did the rock star thing and bought a country house for himself and his wife and young daughter. But it wasn’t deep in the countryside: the house was in Chertsey, inside the present-day perimeter of the M25, thus within striking distance of London’s clubs, and of a startlingly contemporary design. He bought it from film director Peter ‘Italian Job’ Collinson, who had built it on the site of a Victorian house he had blown up for a war film. (Apparently Collinson bombed the old house because he’d been refused planning permission to extend it: the film featuring its destruction is called The Long Day’s Dying.) Collinson called the new house Tara, and seems to have designed it himself; but no sooner had he finished it, in 1971, he decided to move to Los Angeles and put the house up for sale. Tara was an essay in futuristic opulence, a rambling agglomeration consisting of five pyramid-capped structures set in five secluded acres near a lovely stretch of the Thames: the ideal playground for a hyperactive man-child with time on his hands. (Although, tellingly, the one thing Tara lacked was a drum kit: Moon didn’t practice at home.)

Keith and John Entwistle with their vehicles at Tara: the Cadillac is Entwistle’s, the milk float is Keith’s. (Not commercial use!)

It was at Tara that many of the urban legends associated with Moon originated. It was here that he acquired a stable of cars that he couldn’t drive, including a Ferrari (that got wrecked), a hovercraft and a milk float. And it was here that he accidentally backed a Rolls Royce into a shallow duck pond, giving birth to the quintessential rock image of a Rolls submerged in a swimming pool. It was also during his tenure at Tara that Moon’s personality changed, errant playfulness curdling into something darker. His reliance on booze (principally brandy and champagne) became chronic, and the house became base of operations for his ongoing assault upon the straight world. The relentless japes and jokes and dressing up (as Hitler or Marilyn Monroe or Long John Silver, and usually in the company of Viv Stanshall) were reportedly hilarious or desperate or both: Keith never knew when to stop. Moon’s young wife Kim lasted a couple of years at Tara before she finally fled, taking her daughter but leaving her mother, who sounds almost as damaged as Keith. An account by a visitor:

‘Tara was like a sort of trap. In the morning or whenever people were awakened, you’d be aroused with a large gin and tonic or a Joan Collins, which was Keith’s mother-in-law’s own specially lethal version of Tom Collins. What were considered light drinks were imbibed during the day – gin, vodka, Pimms, beer alternating between the pub and the house. After six o’clock, though, it was serious drinking. Joan would switch from gin to Bells or Teachers whisky and Keith would switch from beer, or whatever, to cognac. The problem was that the days were all one long blur. Each hangover was hidden with yet more gin breakfasts in bed and so another round of semi-tired silliness would start’. (Richard Barnes, Maximum R&B, a biography of The Who.)

Fletcher’s biography contains a poignant anecdote from Jeff Beck, who visited Tara after Keith’s marriage had broken up, ostensibly because Moon wanted to sell Beck one of his cars (a fabulously ugly American ‘hot rod’; Beck demurred). The afternoon came and went, Keith gave Beck a tour of the house, warning him of the dog shit in every room, illustrating the custom-built cupboards full of junk that immediately fell out, playing Beck’s hit single Beck’s Bolero on a vintage jukebox that then repeated it over and over and over again. Meanwhile, Keith’s stunning but nameless girlfriend flitted about looking anxious, and ended up in bed with Beck. Next morning Beck and Keith’s girlfriend were woken by industrial noise coming from outside: it was Moon riding his hovercraft onto the lawn. Later, they went to the local pub with Beck driving Moon’s other Rolls-Royce, a drop-top Corniche. The pub regulars were fond enough of Keith to be a bit wary of Beck, seeing him as perhaps yet another hanger-on, but then it was back to Tara, Moon and the girl taking their clothes off in the back of the Rolls, surf music on the sound system, as Beck narrowly avoided wrecking the big car on an unexpected roundabout. Beck summed up his experience chez Moon thus:

He just seemed to have opened up all the sluices to enjoy life more, and this house was a piece of man-made nonsense which was a fashion accessory that enabled him to do what he wanted in the middle of nowhere. … He gave me the impression that the thought of staying more than two hours on his own there would be a torture. It looked like it and it smelled like it. (Quoted in Dear Boy: The Life of Keith Moon.)

On the town, somewhere … via Rex Features (not commercial use!)

Shortly thereafter, Moon followed in the footsteps of Tara’s creator and headed to Los Angeles, where he stayed for four years. He ended up selling Tara to another rock musician, Kevin Godley of 10cc. Sadly, but perhaps fittingly, Tara was not memorialised as a relic of rock’s golden age, or even as a piece of ambitious Seventies architecture: in 1990 Godley sold it to Vince Clarke, he of Erasure, who promptly levelled it and constructed his own millennial fantasy home on the site. But Moon was long dead by then, having expired in 1978 at the age of 32: an overdose from prescribed medication for alcohol addiction. (News of Moon’s death didn’t reach the planning committee of the 2012 London Olympic Games, who got in touch with The Who’s management to see if he was available to play at the opening ceremony.) As for Peter Collinson, he succumbed to lung cancer in 1980, just 44 years old.

More photos of Keith at Tara here.