Thursday, February 11, 2010
Well, I have good news Today! The 1952 Columbia recording of "Don Juan in Hell" has been re-released. Not in CD and not by the current owners of the rich Columbia catalogue who, I fear, are not particularly interested in re-releasing the many precious jewels in their vaults. Luckily, Saland Publishing considers that this recorded play will interest modern audiences, and has released the original two-vinyl set in two downloadable mp3 files, which are available at Amazon and iTunes at an irressistible price: let me tell you, these could be the best spent two dollars in your life.
"Don Juan in Hell" would deserve a real hugue post devoted to it, but today I'll just do a briefing.
The original Columbia cover of the recording
By the beginning of the fifties Laughton, through his association with Paul Gregory, was touring the States doing highly successful literary readings in whatever available space a stage could be improvised and an audience assembled. Laughton would mesmerize the public with words with just a bunch of books and a stool as props, declaring that "contrary to what I'd been told in the entertainment industry, people everywhere have a common shy hunger for literature", which was (and I fear, still is) a daring statement to make.
Gregory, seeing the box-office benefits of Laughton's literary crusade, wondered about the further possibilities of the act, and whether a play could be staged in such an economical (but effective) way with more performers. Discussing the matter with Laughton, they thought that the third act of George B. Shaw's Man and Superman, detached from the course of action of the rest of the play, would be a good choice for the experiment. This act presented a philosophical debate between Don Juan, The Devil, Doña Ana and the Statue (a.k.a. the Commander, Ana's father), and wasn't performed at all in most stagings of Man and Superman. Laughton and Gregory considered that the Don Juan in Hell act was long autonomous enough to be presented as a theatrical event on its own right.
They assembled three performers: suave Charles Boyer to perform the persuasive Burlador, the brilliant Agnes Moorehead to play Doña Ana, and Shaw veteran Cedric Hardwicke to play the Statue. Laughton would play the urbane Devil and direct the play. The four players would perform on a stage (bare save for the stools and microphones), wearing evening dress, apparently "reading" the play but under its minimal appearance there was a sophisticated dramatic work.
Hardwicke, Boyer, Moorehead and Laughton: The First Drama Quartette
George B. Shaw had clashed famously with a younger Charles Laughton when he performed professor Higgins while being a student at RADA: Shaw told Charles that he thought he was a dreadful Higgins, but predicted him a brilliant career "within the year". Shaw not only predicted Charles' quick ascent to lead parts, but also would, a few years later, consider him the best candidate to play Higgins of film (which sadly didn't materialise: I'd certainly would have liked to be able to compare such a performance with Leslie Howard's fine turn). When Charles asked Shaw for permission, the writer was still of the opinion that the third act was difficult to stage, but gave his blessings -and advice- to Laughton nonetheless. "Don Juan in Hell" is a compendium of Shavian themes, Hardwicke said it contained "the germs of virtually all his plays in one form or another", and Laughton considered it "a cathedral of ideas".
The play toured succesfully through many American cities and towns before its triumphant Broadway debut (a clever build-up characteristic of Gregory), and became a hit that revolutionized the American stage (1) and started Charles' -long delayed!- career as a stage director, a trade in which he would earn a remarkable and well deserved renown in the years to follow.
A few related links:
:: Terry Teachout reviews the mp3 and chronicles the First Drama Quartette's adventures in theaterland at Wall Street Journal
:: "The Happy Ham", an article about Laughton and the Don Juan In Hell tour (Time Magazine, March 1952)
:: A contemporary review of the play at "Time"
:: A post on Agnes Moorehead at Movie Morlocks, featuring an interview with Charles Tranberg, author of I Love The Illusion, a biography of the actress.
My paper copy of the abovelinked Time magazine, Simon Callow's seminal Charles Laughton, A Difficult Actor, Cedric Hardwicke's autobiography A Victorian in Orbit and Charles Higham biography of Laughton.
(1) There was a British interval of the Don Juan In Hell Tour during the Festival of Britain, in wich the four actors briefly toured the United Kingdom, but didn't play in London: The apparent reason being that someone in the British scene decided that, since a staging of the complete "Man and Superman" was played at the city, the London public wouldn't be interested in an alternative staging of the third act of the play, and one done by, *harumph*, "film stars". That someone obviously had a low consideration of the London's love for theatre or the fact that the play directed by Laughton had been sanctioned by Shaw himself, and sadly denied the Londoners the chance to enjoy both stagings.