Since the opening of a splendid new theatre is a festive occasion, the following remarks about the performance will look like the death's head at a feast.
Shakespeare's "Troilus and Cressida," which officially opened the Loeb Drama Center on Saturday evening, is a long, ambiguous, dispirited play that professionals can hardly cope with. It is, I suspect, outside the range of amateurs. Although they can and do go through the motions of telling a story with considerable competence, they cannot endow it with a point of view. Nor can they become classical actors by working hard and willing it.
They are performing in a beautiful professional theatre. Every Harvard man who remembers the mean circumstances in which Professor G. P. Baker had to emigrate from Harvard thirty-five years ago will be elated by the taste, virtuosity and solid character of the Loeb theatre. In his time, Professor Baker could not have imagined such a plant. Any professional or university institution would be proud to have at its disposal a theatre that is so inviting, comfortable and versatile, and that has such perfect acoustics and sight-lines.
It has one virtue that is intangible but creative. As soon as the house lights go down, it can be forgotten as a separate entity. When the decisive moment comes, everything in the theatre is at the disposal of the actors. Thanks to the bountiful generosity of John L. Loeb and the professional enterprise of Hugh A. Stubbins and George C. Izenour, Harvard has acquired a theatre that it can use, enjoy and be proud of.
Although "Troilus and Cressida" presents formidable acting problems, it provokes an interesting use of the stage. Stephen Aaron, director, has employed the apron stage with the audience ranged around three sides; and he has designed a performance that is becoming to the play and platform. Todd Lee's setting consists of levels, shapes and areas that culminate in a round peak against a glowing cyclorama; and Walter Benson's lighting plot is superb, indicating the range and richness of the electrical equipment. No doubt it will be years before the staff learns to use the full potential of the new theatre. The staff has begun by reminding us that its technical proficiency it great.
In the Shakespearean canon, "Troilus and Cressida" comes after "Hamlet" and the powerful tragedies and at a time of the moody, enigmatic comedies that are unresolved and express a general distaste for life. There was a time when pedants were convinced that Shakespeare had suffered a nervous breakdown. Romanticists are sure that the Dark Lady of the Sonnets had betrayed him more wantonly than usual, and that, like Jimmy Durante, he was in a mowing mood.
Today we have to admit that we don't know what happened. But obviously Shakespeare lacked his familiar energy when he wrote "Troilus and Cressida." It is a long, wordy play without much plot, invention or scope. As a portrait of Shakespeare's mind at one period, it is provocative. As drama, it is dull. That is why it is seldom performed.
Under Mr. Aaron's fluid direction, the performance is letter-perfect and well disciplined. Although Robert Fletcher's costumes and properties are arbitrary in period and pertinence, they are fresh and colorful. Visually, this is a pleasant production; and Robert Bernat's incidental music is excellent.
Some of the characters are played with more enterprise than others. Daniel Seltzer's independent, personable Ulysses, Robert Thurman's willowy, boyish Troilus, William Fitz-Hugh's dim-witted Ajax with his fatuous pride, Alvarez Bulos' slippery Pandarus with oily speech and manners, David Stone's manly Hector, Travis Linn's pious Nestor, Jean Weston's over-wrought, unkempt Cassandra--all have individuality in one degree or another.
I'm sure the parents of Maria Livanos are happy that their daughter has none of the sluttish qualities of Cressida--a sensual, unprincipled creature of the stews, no finer than the Westminster whores who were neighbors of the Globe Theatre. And the parents of Diana Echlin should be gratified that although her Helen is beautiful she is not going to destroy the United Nations with personal wantonness. Most of the actors in this depraved drama look like upright citizens who are not going to betray Troy, Greece or the United States.
At the conclusion, Mr. Aaron has staged the assassination of Hector brilliantly. This is his best scene. It provides Shakespeare's contemptuous resolution of an apathetic story with a well-planned, well-performed climax in terms of theatre. But in my opinion, the enervated drama as a whole gives amateurs impossible problems. They cannot speak either the prose or the poetry with music or clarity. Nor can they strike sparks off one another, as a professional company can. They remain individuals acting at one another rather than with one another.
Obviously, a lot of hard work has gone into the first production on the stage of a new theatre that is both beautiful and useful. But in regard to the performance, a theatregoer has to ask himself a harsh though simple question. Is it interesting or is it dull? In my opinion, it is dull.
(Mr. Atkinson, who retired last spring as drama critic for "The New York Times," serves as guest reviewer for the opening production at the Loeb Drama Center.)