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Armchair on the Aisle

More TV and video transfers are on the way.

When that species known as original television drama (Playhouse 90, The Philco Hour) became extinct in the ’60s, it left an empty nest that was never satisfyingly filled by that new bird, the made-for-TV movie. What is crucially absent from today’s socially self-conscious TV films, aside from high standards, is the theatrical sense of immediacy and spontaneity generated by the drama showcases of the 1950s, which were commonly aired as live performances.

Without a renaissance in original TV drama in view (the miniseries having swallowed up everything else in sight), we are witnessing instead a burgeoning interest in capturing important theatre productions—both regional and Broadway—on TV and videotape for home viewing. For the majority of the theatregoing public unable to see a live performance of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s legendary Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby, the public television alternative was very welcome indeed. Only those who experienced the bustling environmental production in a theatre scoffed at the notion of a flattened-out TV rendition. Few from the homebound audience, however, seemed to miss having a scone tossed in their lap by a soot-covered actor.

Since the success of the televised Nickleby, TV viewers have been offered, among others, A.R. Gurney’s The Dining Room, featuring most of the original New York cast; D.L. Coburn’s The Gin Game with Jessica Tandy and Hume Cronyn; a cable-aired taping of Sweeney Todd with Angela Lansbury and George Hearn; and a live performance of The Skin of Our Teeth from the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego.

The Skin of Our Teeth, taped before a responsive audience, was a welcome throwback to the live shows of the ’50s, but an exception to the current trend in televised theatre. While the increased frequency of live televised opera and symphonic concerts has refined the techniques whereby the camera can roam into the pit and beyond the proscenium, filming live theatre is nevertheless inhibiting to the full potential of camera mobility. As a result, most current theatre productions making the transfer to the tube are restaged substantially within the studio to maximize impact.

Examples of such restagings are the Showtime production of Master Harold…and the boys; Death of a Salesman with Dustin Hoffman, to be restaged for CBS by film director Volker Schlondorff; the RSC production of Cyrano de Bergerac with Derek Jacobi and Sinead Cusack, recorded by RKO pictures for the BBC; and the Stratford Festival production of Tartuffe with Brian Bedford, which will maintain its essential blocking but receive a revised physical setting for its Canadian Broadcasting Corporation version. Previous CBC productions of Stratford Festival shows (The Mikado, As You Like It, The Tempest) were shot during performance.

Many of these televised performances eventually make their way to video cassette stores, where they can be purchased for home viewing. The retail pickings, however, are invariably limited to the more highly publicized Broadway productions (Pippin, Sweeney Todd, The Norman Conquests). Unlike cassettes of flop movies (which have an astonishing after-life beyond the initial film run), video cassettes of commercially unsuccessful shows, when they are made at all, are not big sellers. Venturesome distributors like RKO (who in addition to the RSC’s Cyrano will film the RSC productions of Tartuffe and Molière) are challenging the theory that video does not create a new market for plays. In the meantime, the home cassette field is still too young to discern what impact, if any, the video market will have on playgoing.

A Nation Divided

While the “Rum Tum Tugger” number from Cats has just become Broadway’s first rock video, other shows continue to be recorded in their entirety for cable television and for posterity. Showtime’s latest addition to the growing roster of video-taped plays is a production of Athol Fugard’s searing South African race drama, Master Harold.. and the boys. Perhaps owing to the internal and intensely personal struggles contained in the play, Master Harold translates beautifully to the small screen, giving us one of the most successful theatrical videotapes yet seen.

This taut drama, which Fugard has tightened from 100 to 90 minutes for television, centers on the relationship between Hally, a troubled white teenager, and Willy and Sam, the two black servants who have virtually raised the boy and taught him decency in the midst of a country divided by apartheid. Zakes Mokae repeats his Tony-winning portrayal of Sam, John Kani (another veteran actor in Fugard’s works) plays Willie, and Matthew Broderick (following in the footsteps of talented predecessors Zeliko Ivanek and Lonny Price) is the boy. Where Price was an awkward young man inexorably trapped in a crisis of identity, Broderick, with his considerable charm and youthful good looks, is a more likeable but unlucky lad caught in a troublesome spot. The subtle change does not appreciably dampen Fugard’s shattering drama.

In fact, director Michael Lindsay-Hogg’s use of closeups—especially in a climactic scene where Hally speaks on the phone with his father, a man for whom he simultaneously feels disgust, pity and love—moves viewers so far inside the boy’s torment that they feel closely allied with him as he begins his descent into bigotry and shame in the play’s final scenes.

Master Harold debuted on Showtime in late November, and will be seen again on cable this year, as well as on public television nationally.

–Laurie Winer

Hearing Voices

It’s not just the message that’s important, arts organizations have learned in recent years—it’s who delivers it. The familiar voices of such notables as John Houseman, Charlton Heston and Alan King are currently on the airwaves lending support to arts projects in which they are particularly interested.

Houseman, who is a contributing editor of American Theatre, can be heard on radio station WQXR in New York, and other stations which carry Exxon’s syndicated Philharmonic Hour, in a one-minute spot endorsing the magazine and urging listeners to attend theatres across the country. “This magazine proves that the so-called ‘fabulous invalid’ is running and dancing and singing like never before,” Houseman proclaims in his roundest tones.

An equally authoritative message from Heston promotes the concept of business support for the arts in a public service announcement commissioned by the Business Committee for the Arts. The radio spot has been targeted by Parkway Communications for 300 classical and “beautiful music” stations throughout the country, in hopes of reaching high-income professionals and managers who are likely to contribute to the arts. Heston is a long-time advocate of business-arts partnerships.

King, the comedian and actor, has recorded two advertising spots for the Nassau Repertory Theatre of Hempstead, N.Y. In addition to an occasional stage appearance—most notably as Nathan Detroit in a City Center revival of Guys and Dolls—King has become a theatrical producer. His association with the Nassau company extends back several years.

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