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PETER LUKE'S Hadrian VII is a mediocre play with one outstanding central character. Structured like The Wizard of Oz, with a plot line that could have been borrowed from Putney Swope, this comic fantasy has more possibilites as soliloquy than as drama. Frederick William Rolfe, English recluse and neurotic who imagines himself Pope, has dreams more concrete than Dorothy's and ambitions no less earthshaking than Swope's. In treating the complex syndromes of Rolfe, playwright Luke has sidestepped the Putney-Swope assumption that what is sick must be funny: the Oz alternative (what is sick should be taken as fantasy) turns out to be dramatically unsatisfying and a little naive.
The play's overall success in its Boston production with the Stratford National Company of Canada must be attributed to a remarkable acting job by Hume Cronyn, just as Alex McGowan's tour de force "made" the show in London and on Broadway. Cronyn is superb, biting off bittersweet epithets, swivelling quickly, daintily crossing his legs on the Papal throne, as a long cigarette dangles from his fingers. Cronyn's determined effort to project nuance into Rolfe's fantasies generate an ironic tension. He makes Rolfe more interesting than the play might lead us to believe.
The play begins in Rolfe's London apartment. Creditors banging at the door, an over-sexed matron after the rent, Rolfe drones away at his avocation of writing. After shuffling through one assumed identity after another all his life, he has little to comfort him but a purple neckscarf and his selfesteem. Besides his disappointments as an artist, his principal frustration is the failure to secure a "vocation" in the Church of Rome, to which he converted "overnight" at the age of 26. Not even a lowly "clerk" let alone a prelate, this blustery paranoid and repressed homosexual aspires to be the first English Pontiff since Breakspear in the twelfth century.
The opening scene of the play, creaky and oldfashioned, establishes Rolfe's "identity" like the opening shots of Kansas in The Wizard of Oz; then, we enter a dream-world. The central characters in Rolfe's real life (his creditors, his landlady, his crude Irish friend, the tottery old scrubwoman Agnes) become suddenly transformed by his fantastic vainglory. There must have been some malice in Dorothy's transformation of her favorite farmhands into a scarecrow, a tinman and a lion. Similarly, Rolfe as Pope Hadrian VII can launch heroic reforms in the Church, patronize innocent Agnes with her pickled onions and her rooming house, and (last but not least) become a glorious martyr. Rolfe is assassinated by Jeremiah Sant, the fiery Ulsterman who aids Mrs. Crowe the landlady in blackmail schemes. His dream rounds out his neurotic life ambitions with a thoroughness missing even in Putney Swope.
This all sounds potentially bizarre and frightening, but Peter Luke and the director Jean Gascon have somehow drained the neurotic fire from Rolfe's dream and made his bitterness seem laughable. When we return to reality at the end of the play (the paper-mache reality of Rolfe's Cheapside flat), the play drops to the maudlin level which characterized its beginning. Like Dorothy awakening from her dream, we are reassured that all has been in fun. One more genius manque has bitten the dust.
In short, the structure of the play glosses over the basic problem in the material-how to put egomania on the stage. Rolfe obviously could emphathize only with his own person or with projections of his personality (the young alter ego George Arthur Rose and the Bishop of Caerleon). The other characters in his fantasy pageant fit into stereotypes of melodrama. Tocqueville was not the last egotist to structure a world view on the assumption that all other human beings are coarse and mediocre. A dramatic rendering of Tocqueville's Recollections would have just as many pitfalls as Rolfe's Hadrian the Seventh. Rolfe the "religious fanatic" leaves everyone else in the backwash of his own verbiage and self-esteem-ergo, they are mediocrities first, last and always. Curiously enough, Luke in his dramatic handling takes the fantasy at face value and glorifies the "mediocrities" without tracing their source in Rolfe's mind.
What was needed was not great seriousness or detail in the depiction of Rolfe's neuroses, but simply a more clear-cut emphasis on them. Rolfe no doubt took himself seriously. But the answer is not to join him in self-glorification any more then to laugh his "sickness" away (the fairy-tale ploy). Hadrian VII could have used a bit more malevolence without slipping into the Swopian mire.
RESERVATIONS about the play do not detract from the merits of the production. The acting, crowned by Hume Cronyn's compelling performance, is excellent. The other characters, however, are left with usually sketchy parts. Margaret Braidwood as Mrs. Crowe and Paul Harding as the Bishop of Caerleon were splendid, though Donald Ewer as Mr. Crowe's accomplice in blackmail burlesqued the role of Jeremiah Sant with a thick Irish accent. Liza Cole, Julie Andrews' mother in Hawaii, played the warm-hearted Agnes with unabashed charm. Her reward after the wildly sentimental scene with Hadrian in the Papal chambers was a well-deserved round of applause.
A special word of praise should go to Robert Fletcher for the costumes and settings, especially of the Papal scenes. The elaborate robes worn by the Cardinals and the uniforms of the guards were dazzling. Hume Cronyn, short and slender, was like a jaunty version of Pius XII when decked out in his garb as Pope.
What seemed lacking in Hadrian VII was a clear resolve to explore Rolfe's personality. Though we can readily laugh at what he has imagined, we are confused by a suspicion that Rolfe the man must have been more complex and brilliant than he comes across in his own fantasy. To present the man and his fantasy in one play, something had to go and it was not humor but psychological depth.
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