Dear Jonathan Savile:
I know you will never allow this to be printed, but I am writing anyway, because if I didn’t I would go mad with rage.
I have read all your reviews since you began writing for the Reader, and I have hated there all. But the one in the January 26 issue on the Carter Centre Stage’s production of Chekhov’s The Seagull is the worst ever.
First of all, you are so horribly petty. All of those nit-picking complaints about the way some of the actors fail to pronounce their consonants. It doesn’t offend me one bit if American actors in a play about gentry life in old Russia say “Whozzat?” or “I wanneda say” or “I muz’ go” or “awready.” Sylvester Stallone talked juz’ like dat in Rocky and he awmost won the Academy Award. In fact, I bet nobody in the audience but you paid any attention to the way the actors were speaking. Frankly, I don’t much like it when actors talk differently from ordinary people, as if they were something special. It seems undemocratic, somehow. With John Napierala, who played old man Sorin, or Kathy Logan, who was the steward’s lovesick daughter Masha, you could hear every single consonant ringing like a little bell, but it was all pretty unnatural compared to what you hear in the real world, such as Mission Beach. And as for Gail Mackler,who played the young writer’s mother, her consonants were so clear that she sounded just like an actress playing a role. I don’t know whether you’re young or old ( I mean over thirty), Saville, but whatever your age you are a real old fogey. So what if that actor couldn’t pronounce r’s, or ch’s , or any th that came after another consonant, or any t followed by another consonant, or any l in the middle of a word? This isn’t London, you know; it’s San Diego What did you except, Sir John Gielgud?
And then, you are an absolutely insufferable pedant. As if it mattered whether the Russian names were pronounced correctly. I didn’t see any Russians in the audience, and no one else except a pedantic critic could tell the difference anyway, so what did it matter? Speaking personally, I liked the way those names sounded; SEMyon, and KONstantin, and BORis, and KiEV, and NiNOCHka, and MedveDENko. I especially liked Pyotr NikolaEVich and Irina NikolaEVna, and the name Masha HyiNISHna sounded just like music to me. Besides, even if the pronunciation did matter, how could the staff at the Old Globe possibly have found out how the names ought really to be pronounced? I’ve thought about it and thought about it , and I can’t even imagine how it would be possible.
One of the worst traits you show in that review is disloyalty. For years you’ve been praising Craig Noel, the director, so how could it be that his direction of The Seagull “lacked much of the sense of pacing that is so intrinsically a part of Chekhov’s dramatic style”? If the text is full of places where Chekhov indicates a pause in the dialog, expecting some kind of feeling of tension or melancholy of weariness to communicate itself by means of the pause, that’s Chekhov’s mistake. The play was slows moving enough as it is , and if Mr. Noel had let them all sit there saying nothing every few minutes or so the whole audience would have started screaming from boredom. The pauses he did leave in weren’t filled with any atmosphere or emotion or suggestiveness, it just seemed as though the actors had forgotten their lines and were waiting for somebody to prompt them. So much for pauses. And what about the set? You’ve never had anything but the highest praise for Peggy Kellner, the scenic designer, and now, even though you admit the sets were handsome and appropriate, you treacherously harp on the fact that the actors kept tripping over all those rugs. Maybe that’s the way nineteenth-century Russians really walked, tripping all the time Frankly, I found the rugs a great blessing, especially when the action was dragging so awfully. At least you could concentrate on watching whether someone was going to trip over that edge of the rug he had kicked up the last time he crossed the stage.
When it comes to the acting, I think you are terribly cruel to say that on the whole the more important the role was the less well it was acted. I don’t know why you fall all over yourself about John Napierala’s Sorin; he just seemed to me like a grumbly old Russian, complaining because he hadn’t gotten everything he wanted out of life. Who has? Or A.M. Charlens, who played the schoolmaster Medvedenko—I certainly didn’t notice that “deft technical skill” you babble about; you couldn’t even tell the man was acting. And as for Kathy Logan, in my opinion she upset the balance of everything by making Masha—who is a very important character—seem so real and touching. You do admit to admiring Gail Mackler’s performance—I suppose it’s because of her consonants—but you don’t seem to realize that she is completely lacking in personality. I saw her as Miss Prism in the San Diego Repertory’s production of The Importance of Being Earnest, and there she was a prim, mincing old maid; while in The Seagull she was a self-centered, flamboyant, sexy middle-aged woman, sweeping around the stage like a grande dame. You had to look at the name in the program to believe that it was the same actress. Now, I don’t call that acting. When Elizabeth Taylor acts a role, you always know it’s Elizabeth Taylor. Here it might have been two different people entirely.
In your review, you are sometimes just as inconsistent as that “actress.” For example, your comments about Deborah Taylor’s performance of Nina. Everything you say about her in the first three Acts is almost gushing with praise—her diction (how you harp on that!), her loveliness, her naive girlish awkwardness, the expressive way she holds her hands, the wonderfully natural and evocative way she speaks her lines. How then can you turn around and say that her performance in the Fourth Act is extremely inadequate, unconvincing, lacking in depth and stature? After all, the only difference between Nina in the first three Acts and Nina in the Fourth Acts is that in between Acts Three and Four she has run away to the city, had an affair with Trigorin, been deserted by him, given birth to a baby, watched the baby die, gone on the stage, dedicated herself to her career, and accepted the fact that it is her destiny to suffer. If Miss Taylor is a good enough actress to deserve all that praise in the earlier parts of the play, how could it possibly be true that she doesn’t measure up to the demands of the role at the end? It’s the same character, isn’t it?
Now, about Stephen Lynewood Brown’s performance as the writer Trigorin—I don’t know what you mean by calling it “just marginally acceptable” or by writing that “Mr. Brown lacked a central conception of Trigorin’s character, a conception that could have united the man’s various characteristics of speech and action and given them a coherent living sense.” Trigorin looked to me like a character without any central anything , just a poker faced man making a lot of long speeches, and I’m sure that’s what Chekhov intended him to be.
And as for the vicious destructive things you say about one other member of the cast, I consider those remarks completely uncalled for. How about all the effort? All the work? Don’t they count for anything? You talk as though the quality of an acting performance really counted, as theater in our little town ought to have more command of voice, expression, gesture, and movement than an enthusiastic pupil in a high school play, and as though Mr. Noel ought to be held responsible for a ghastly misjudgment in casting.
Finally, there is the tone of your review, which I find particularly repulsive . You seem positively angry at the way all those hard working, dedicated people at the Carter performed The Seagull. The way you talk about it, The Seagull is a tremendously great play, full of poetry, brilliant in its theatrical technique, with a dozen characters so full of human reality that they bring a whole lost world alive for us; a play scarcely to matched in its profound understanding of the absurdity and unhappiness of existence. I don’t know where you get ideas like that from. What I saw at the Carter was just another “classical” play, mostly boring and pointless, with a lot of actors sitting around and talking themselves blue. If that’s what Chekhov’s like, why get so hot under the collar about a production that lets us all know quite honestly that those old Russian playwrights just didn’t know much about writing for the stage?
And even if it’s true that the Carter hasn’t done such a good job with The Seagull, what’s the point in making the big fuss about it that you do in your review? It’s only the theater after all—not anything really important!
I dare you to print this.
A Disgruntled Reader