PRINT December 1990


THERE MAY BE differences of opinion and points of controversy on the subject of the Citizens’ Theatre in Glasgow, but its reputation as the most European of all British theaters is a straightforward matter of fact. European is a big word. In theater terms we must define it as relating to the classical repertoire of Germany, France, Italy, Russia, and Spain, as well as of Britain. And a certain outlook is implied, too, one that contradicts the predominant puritanism of the English-speaking classical theater on both sides of the Atlantic.

In 1990 the Citizens’, colloquially known as the Citz, celebrated its 21st year under the artistic directorship of Giles Havergal and Philip Prowse, who were joined in 1972 by the director and dramatist Robert David MacDonald. They inherited a famous but doomed Victorian theater in the Gorbals, a slum area of Glasgow situated on the south side of the city’s River Clyde. The theater had been the home of the Citizens’ company since 1945, when the playwright James Bridie secured the building as a putative base of Scottish nationalist drama. By the time of Bridie’s death, in 1951, the Citizens’ was renowned as a leading repertory company on a par with the Old Vic in London, the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, and the Gaiety Theatre in Manchester.

The British repertory movement received a boost after World War II with the founding by the economist John Maynard Keynes of the Arts Council, and the subsequent establishment of the principle of subsidies for the performing arts (a principle that has been placed under increasing threat during the ten-year government of Mrs. Thatcher). So Bridie’s move into the Gorbals was part of the postwar recovery in the European arts that had its parallels—at that time unacknowledged—in other theatrical undertakings. In 1947, for instance, Giorgio Strehler set to work at the Piccolo Teatro in Milan, and great international festivals were founded in Edinburgh and Avignon; the next year, Bertolt Brecht founded the Berliner Ensemble in Berlin.

This ground swell of shared Europeanism, relating to the philosophical and humanistic traditions of the continent as derived from the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, has been largely ignored in the British theater. The work of Fernando de Rojas and Carlo Goldoni, of Denis Diderot and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, lies at the very heart of most classical theater in France and Germany, if only as a jumping-off point. But in Britain, the theater culture has tended to be unduly dominated by Shakespeare, whose bardic status has dwarfed his Renaissance connections. Before the reign of the great Victorian producer and actor Henry Irving, leading actors felt free to interpret Shakespeare for their own ends. These ends might have been sentimental and crass, but at least “the Bard” was not treated as a precious museum commodity.

The side effect of Irving’s admirable “save Shakespeare” campaign has been an obsessive reverence for the Shakespearian canon, an approach enshrined in the institution of the Royal Shakespeare Company. The Glasgow Citizens’ under Havergal has been a necessary antidote. The sorties of the Citizens’—from the all-male Hamlet of the opening season, to a ferocious production of the first quarto of the same play, to a version of Macbeth done with no props or period costumes and as a gleefully outrageous postnuclear return to Ice Station Zebra—have reminded audiences that a theater is a place where received literary notions of dramatic masterpieces must be deconstructed, dismembered, and challenged in the present reality of performance.

And not just of Shakespeare. Jacobean standards like John Ford’s ’Tis Pity She’s a Whore and Thomas Middleton’s The Changeling have been cut and rejigged, subplots dropped, and locations switched. Similarly, an 18th-century comedy classic like Oliver Goldsmith’s She Stoops to Conquer was cut by a third by the simple expedient, according to MacDonald, of removing every third word. What is the philosophy behind this? It is not just an equivalent to the European appropriations of English drama undertaken by Brecht and his disciples; it is also a determination to be different, and, the Citizens’ being socially conscientious, to allow audiences to catch the last bus home and not be stuck in an unattractive part of the city late at night.

Bridie’s Citizens’ concentrated on new work and reheats of the post-Edwardian Royal Court repertoire in London, the plays of George Bernard Shaw, John Masefield, Granville-Barker, and Sir Arthur Wing Pinero. But Glasgow, which has had more theaters built and demolished than any other British city with the exception of London, was also a thriving seedbed of variety and music hall. This robust popular tradition found a crucial outlet in the development of pantomime; and in fact today’s Glaswegians remember these annual Christmas pantomime treats with far more affection than they do the plays of Bridie, the founding father.

After Bridie, the reputation of the theater was fitfully sustained over the next two decades. But in the 1960s, there was a rapid turnover of artistic directors and, by the time Havergal was appointed in 1969, the audience was missing and the theater building under threat of demolition. In their first season, Havergal and Prowse offered a conventional repertory program with some notable leading actors—Constance Cummings and James Fox appeared, respectively, in Tennessee Williams and Bernard Shaw. Still the audience stayed away.

In order to survive, Havergal and Prowse threw caution to the winds for the opening of the 1970 season and produced an all-male Hamlet with a setting of black parachute silk, an invented prologue of a couple copulating, stick fights undertaken in the near nude à la japonaise, and a generally wild, screeching, cavalier treatment of the text. The critics went berserk, the new regime was instantly dubbed scandalous, school teachers canceled their party bookings—and the audience came in droves.

Supported by their chairman, and assisted by two very bright and adventurous younger directors, Keith Hack and Robert Walker, the policy of what The Scotsman critic called “artistic sensationalism” was instantly adopted. By sensationalism was meant nudity, sexual ambiguity, irreverence, and youthful high spirits. In Scotland, even more than in England, the theater has been regarded primarily as a branch of education and moral example. The new Citizens’ was, therefore, construed as decadent and, because dimly perceived to be influenced by the Europeanism of Brecht, Jean Genet, and the Marquis de Sade, as “foreign.”

The critical reaction was generally hostile, especially in The Scotsman. Moral censoriousness was bound up in the shock of the relatively new: “It is shameful that this [Hamlet] should be the play’s first production in Glasgow for ten years, giving many people a warped impression of it” (Allen Wright, The Scotsman); “The present direction of the theatre has been and continues to be disastrous” (Christopher Small, Glasgow Herald); “By presenting a hideous exhibition of profanity and obscenity [De Sade Show, 1976], the Citizens . . . is defiling the name of drama. . . .We are debased” (Wright, The Scotsman). But at the same time the individuality and contemporary relevance of the theater was increasingly recognized, especially when London critics came to call.

Havergal and Prowse wanted their shows to be as exciting as concerts by Mick Jagger or David Bowie. To this end the actors they chose were young, beautiful, confident, and technically raw. They were encouraged to play large roles and to lay down their talent like a gift. Thus there was a male Cleopatra; a notable Troilus and Cressida in which the cast was scantily clad in loincloths, boxing boots, glittering cutaway dresses, and crash helmets; and a Christopher Marlowe Tamburlaine that harnessed the Marlovian “mighty line” and obscure rhetoric to an immediately fashionable mood of sexy realism and casual violence.

Such a mood may be traced to the homoerotic political theater of Genet, who was in many ways the Citizens’ household god. In 1971, Lindsay Kemp directed The Maids, and in 1982, Prowse mounted a trilogy of The Blacks, The Screens, and The Balcony. Taking a leaf out of Vsevolod Meyerhold’s book, Prowse designed a set that incorporated details of the Victorian architectural features of the auditorium and brought Genet’s political charades to life in a visual language that belonged only to the Citizens’: mirrors, transvestism, a brilliant white cut-out forest in a black void (for The Blacks), and sinister maskwork.

In the 1970s this style, in many variations, was applied to both the Jacobean repertoire and the Marquis de Sade, whose monster novels Justine and Juliette formed the basis of MacDonald’s 1975 De Sade Show. The explosion of dizzy verbal pyrotechnics in a chamber of sexual experimentalism, against a background of philosophical dispute and revolutionary politics, was unlike anything ever seen in the British theater.

The process was repeated at the time of the Genet retrospective in Philosophy in the Boudoir, Prowse’s response to de Sade’s 1795 dialogue in which a 15-year-old virgin is inducted into a school of libertinage. But by the early ’80s new elements began to appear in the production style: the sets might now be inhabited by leather-clad punks dispensing cocaine and tuning up the audio equipment. This juxtaposition of contemporary youth-culture decadence with the refined esthetic extravagance of European intellectual writers—be they Genet, de Sade, Mikhail Lermontov, or even Noel Coward—is a distinctive and persistent characteristic of the Citizens’ work.

The theater traveled abroad whenever invited—to Warsaw, to the Belgrade International Theatre Festival (BITEF), to the Venice Biennale in 1981 with Goldoni’s The Battlefield (a little like hauling coals to Newcastle, you might say, but the Citizens’ Goldoni was applauded above that of the other contributing nations), to Amsterdam and Rome. What differentiated them from many exciting British fringe groups of the 1970s—such as the Pip Simmons Group or the People Show—was that they were based in a proper theater and played not to a coterie audience but to an audience comprising mainly local working-class and professional customers. And so it is with other distinctive European companies, such as Pina Bausch’s dance troupe in the industrial Ruhr Valley town of Wuppertal, or the brilliant Katona Joszef Company of Budapest.

It must always be remembered that the Citz is a shoestring enterprise. The annual turnover is a mere £1.25 million ($2.4 million), with grants coming from the Strathclyde regional council, the city of Glasgow, and the Scottish Arts Council. About 37 percent of all income is earned at the box office, and all seats are priced at just £5, with concessions to students and elderly pensioners and free seats for the unemployed. (The Thursday night preview, really a full-dress rehearsal, is also free.) The costs of costumes and sets are usually fixed at about £5,000 ($9,750), an amazing statistic when one considers the visual sumptuousness of the productions. The very top budget has been £17,500 ($34,000) for one of Prowse’s Oscar Wilde revivals; but he has created memorable designs for as little as £1,000 ($1,950). In 21 years, Havergal has never put the theater into the red and is virtually alone among British theater managers in this respect. He refuses to present his board with the only problem any board really dislikes, which is that of a deficit. If there is no deficit, after all, the policy, whatever uproar there might be, is working.

I dwell on this because it seems to me fundamental to the nature of the Citizens’ work itself. Much of the German theater in recent years, with the exception of Peter Stein’s Schaubühne in Berlin, has sunk under the weight of its own budgets. At the Citizens’, the plays are light, fast, informal, and produced in circumstances distant not only from London but from metropolitan expectations as well. Most productions run for just three or four weeks, and all are rehearsed for a maximum of three weeks. If a play fails, it is soon gone, and the audience has only paid a couple of pounds anyway. It is one of the delightful paradoxes surrounding their work that the most seriously dedicated European theater should be one that also renews the vitality and playfulness of theater as an art form. The down side, if you like, is the fact that the really important productions disappear so quickly.

A watershed was the 1977 production of Chinchilla, MacDonald’s account of Sergei Diaghilev (known as Chinchilla because of a white streak in his glossy black hair) crumbling away on the Venice Lido, rather like Thomas Mann’s von Aschenbach in Der Tod in Venedig (Death in Venice). Although many of the figures of the Ballets Russes could be identified by aficionados—the central plot theme was the replacement of Vaslov Nijinsky by Leonid Massine in the impresario’s professional and personal affections—the play was really a company manifesto and an investigation into the nature of artistic collaboration.

The opening was unforgettable. Sitting before a bare white stage, we heard the sound of waves lapping quietly behind the exquisite, ethereal music of Igor Stravinsky’s Apollon Musagète. The lights rose and fell five times, revealing in snapshot style five increasingly populated beach tableaux of four boys in white towels arranged among a group of swish bohemians. Then, from the far depths of the stage emerged a hunched, drained man in a black coat with an astrakhan collar, Diaghilev, who became the dark center of attention

The text of Chinchilla was hard and bright and epigrammatic; the setting was bare, contrived of mirrors, platforms, chairs, and a skyscape. The esthetic mode, like that of the theater itself, was fiercely and creatively defensive. In other words, in subliminally aligning themselves with the struggles of the Ballets Russes, the Citizens’ were daring to see themselves in the European context of the greatest 20th-century revolutions in art.

The reality of this connection is proved by various of their dramaturgical campaigns: the great series of Goldoni productions and the forays into the German classical theater, as well as a notable performance of a contemporary documentary drama by Rolf Hochhuth. Almost emblematic was the 1978 production of Summit Conference, another original MacDonald text that charted a fictional encounter between Clara Petacci and Eva Braun, the mistresses of Mussolini and Hitler, on the eve of the invasion of Russia. These two decorative women, “who are not asked to functions,” bitched and gossiped in the style of Coward’s twin rivals in Fallen Angels and turned the conversational tables on the Nazi guard who had been assigned to their protection. This guard was teased and toyed with, but at the moment of his greatest humiliation, he admitted his Jewish antecedents, articulating an ideology that has not proved exclusive to Hitler: “In every country, someone within its frontiers is defining a group of fellow-citizens whose actions, while in no way considered criminal at present, are to be in some way restricted: and there, assured by bureaucratic continuity, are the seeds of an efficient killing operation.”

This is as good an example of the Citizens’ sense of history and European sweep as I can provide. And it occurs in a play many critics’ dismissed as rubbish. Prowse’s Europeanism can be traced to his temperamental affinity with Venice and the films of Luchino Visconti and Federico Fellini and to his Italian sense of style in costume; the historical perspective is, I fancy, provided by MacDonald, who, trained as a conductor at the Munich Conservatory, worked as a linguist for UNESCO and first fell into the theater through a working relationship with the great German director Erwin Piscator. This connection in turn led to his role as Hochhuth’s English translator.

A climactic production, in that sense of the sun setting in the gardens and the salons of the West, was the 1983 Edinburgh Festival production of Karl Kraus’ mammoth Die letzten Tage der Menschheit (The last days of mankind), written during World War I and published in 1919; while the Viennese beau monde sat around with their noses in newspapers and their heads in the clouds, the disintegration of intellectual life was heralded in images of war, prostitution, and disease. The Citizens’ achieved a stylistic apotheosis while introducing British audiences, for the first time, to the authentic voice of one of Europe’s master satirists.

In the same season, the Citizens’ also investigated how well Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s play Der Rosenkavalier, 1911, would stand up without Strauss’ music, while simultaneously recovering an even more fugitive Vienna in designs of breathtaking opulence and beauty. These enterprises complemented some extraordinary and rigorous experiments with Goethe and Friedrich von Schiller. Both parts of Faust were done in 1985, cut to the bone to make a real contemporary point about Faust’s enslavement to the business ethic; there was a prophetic echo of the inflation-infested economies of Europe as Faust rose to worldly glory by literally printing tons of money and reclaiming stretches of land from the sea. And a play like Schiller’s Die Jungfrau von Orleans (The virgin from Orléans, 1801), updated to Occupied France in the 1940s, exploited the full potency of Joan of Arc’s nationalist legend in a much more immediate, and recognizably European, historical context.

The Citizens’ 1987 Joan of Arc was a grave and stately affair, whose heroine appeared to be the inmate of a sanatorium, dressed in a baggy cotton dress. Captured by the English, the Maid of Orléans donned a brown overcoat, on which was stuck a yellow Star of David; she was transformed from Resistance heroine to scapegoat of the Occupation. The update worked because it simultaneously dissolved all objections to the historical inaccuracies of Schiller’s play while exploiting to the full the nationalistic potency of the Joan legend. Schiller’s Joan is not burned at the stake, but MacDonald superimposed a brutal execution on her battlefield expiry, and resurrected his dead heroine to breach the celestial rainbow (“The pain is short, the joy is everlasting”) as a group of gawking tourists reached for their cameras.

At one stroke, MacDonald introduced to the British repertoire a play that, written when Joan’s reputation was in eclipse and before the quest for historical truth about her was undertaken, Shaw had pompously derided as the tale of a heroine drowned in a witch’s cauldron of raging romance. Instead, Schiller’s work was revealed as modern, vibrant, and resonant with psychological anguish.

Not all of these Teutonic productions have been designed by Prowse, but most of them have been directed by MacDonald. Prowse himself has become increasingly active over the past 21 years as both designer and director, and his work has shown an evolution from the exciting flashiness of the Genet-influenced productions to the stately, lush grandeur of the productions of the great English language stylists, notably Coward and Wilde. A play like Coward’s The Vortex, 1924, for instance, became, in 1988, an entirely modern study of a young European pathologically addicted to drugs (the line “I’m a little beyond aspirin” was newly chilling); but it also looked absolutely ravishing—Prowse’s deployment of silks and taffetas, furnishings and flower bowls, was evidence of his total scenographic mastery. And the 1980s have also seen unrivaled productions of Wilde’s three “problem” melodramas, Lady Windermere’s Fan, A Woman of No Importance, and An Ideal Husband; these plays were conclusively and inspirationally rescued from the dusty old Shaftesbury Avenue conventions by highlighting the poignancy and pain beneath the still-glittering surface.

These lavish, dynamic Prowse productions caught the late 1980s mood of fin de siècle decadence as brilliantly as his earlier works had reflected the street culture of the 1970s. Perhaps the most outstanding example was the 1980 insouciant distillation of Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu (Remembrance of things past) into an unforgettably beautiful memory play contained within five receding great gilded frames and titled simply A Waste of Time.

A Waste of Time extended the principle of soliloquy into a full-scale theatrical event, just as Eastern European directors like Andrzej Wajda and Yuri Lyubimov have been prone to do with Dostoevsky and, for that matter, Hamlet. The action was set at that moment in the last volume when Marcel returns to society and, surrounded by the ancient marionettes of the Guermantes salon, is given a terrifying peepshow of his life. This salon, a hauntingly doomed and flamboyant arena, is clearly related to such other Prowse playgrounds as the Saint Petersburg gaming halls in Lermontov’s Maskerade and the mirrored Ritz in Coward’s Semi-Monde.

Marcel pivots away from the scene and sees that Gilberte is in gray—his love for her had been but a habit, a dream. Over there is the dreadful Verdurin, coarse and loud, hair bunched in a ginger mop. That wretched Vinteuil sonata will give her a headache, she screams, and it is played, softly, while Marcel asks a prim little Andrée what exactly it was she used to do with Albertine. And how often. Marcel, passive and asthmatic, has his life recreated for him as an act of memorial vivacity rather than, as in Proust, by his own determination to erect, at last, an artistic monument.

Taking a cue from Søren Kierkegaard, who was quoted in the program—“Life is lived forwards but it is understood backwards”—the narrative unspooled backward, with just enough nonchronological material inserted to keep us informed. Snapshot scenes sprang to life within the framework—the gaggle of girls on the Normandy coast, Baron de Charlus stalking his prey to the brothel, Swann’s declaration of impending mortality, the shattering rejection scene, the invasion of the Faubourg Saint Germain by louche café manners. At the center, quietly painting at her table, sat the Marquise de Villeparisis chivying Marcel toward a state of self-knowledge. Not only the workings of memory but the very nature of obsession were expressed in a jangling, theatrical manner that managed to respect Proust’s uninhibited digressions.

People talk about the Citizens’ style, but in truth there is no one such thing. If Prowse’s productions have become visually more lush, Havergal’s have become more spare and stark, culminating last year in an adaptation for four actors and some tables and chairs of Graham Greene’s Travels with My Aunt. And, of course, there has been MacDonald’s great series of Hochhuth, Schiller, and Goethe plays, providing bleak, monumental testaments to the genocidal and political atrocities of the 20th century. Future plans for the Citz include an adaptation of the four New Testament gospels, a production of Eugene O’Neill’s Mourning Becomes Electra, and another potentially significant Coward reappraisal, Design for Living. This season, MacDonald has translated and directed his seventh Goldoni production, The Housekeeper, to the usual mixture of acclaim and criticism. Typically, the action had been transplanted from the late 18th to the early 20th century, allowing MacDonald to play with questions of servants and the New Woman that would not have been appropriate in a more conventional reading. For his part, Havergal has just directed a revival of Shaw’s Mrs. Warren’s Profession. In such resonant collisions of the old and the new does the profound Europeanism of the Citizens’ reside.

Michael Coveney is theater critic of The Observer, London. His book The Citz: 21 Years of the Glasgow Citizens Theatre was published this year by Nick Hern Books, London.