Other formats

    Adobe Portable Document Format file (facsimile images)   TEI XML file   ePub eBook file  


    mail icontwitter iconBlogspot iconrss icon

The Spike or Victoria University College Review, June 1927

Drunkenness in the Theatre

Drunkenness in the Theatre

I can never gaze on a "drunk" scene in the theatre without marvelling first at the rapidity of effect of alcohol on the stage, and secondly at the poorness of the average actor's attempt to imitate a tipsy man. The blonde flapper of forty, who after two glasses of Penfold's, or one reasonable bumper of Moet & Chandon, gets recurrent attacks of the giggles, slaps the scion of a noble house in a spot between the cervical and lumbar vertebrae, and has to be carried off blowing kisses to the dress circle boxes, is, off the stage, a nice thing who can remain demure and appreciably young after helping a friend to finish a bottle of the brew of the ancient and honourable firm of Haig. The actor who, after three rapid-fire whiskies, knocks the hat-stand sideways, talks into the ear-piece of the telephone, and starts to pocket a string of onions, is the same man who has been to a commercial travellers' dinner and has seen them snoozing under the board when he found the right hat without trouble and went home. Which makes it all the more amazing is that people skilled in the art of imbibing should be as clumsy in a line in which they are as experienced as are these two. Yet there it is. Never page 4 a hiccough, never a manufactured stagger do I witness on the stage, but I feel that not only is the man not drunk, but that he has never been drunk, and that a subscription on the part of the Association for the Protection of the Public from Bad Acting to provide the mummer with a thimbleful of rum and a bottle of Apollinaris would be thoroughly justified. And that I should like to head it myself.

So have I felt when watching the drunk scene in "White Cargo," where Wallis Clark, after reeling round the stage for minutes at a stretch and being uncertain by a yard of the position of the table, made a dash for the door on his homeward way and negotiated three difficult steps with the tread of a toe-dancer. So have I felt when, at the beginning of "Is Zat So?" Barry Livesey laboriously removed his coat to fight Richard Taber, and then picked it up and donned it with the rapidity of a sixteen-year-old on a holiday on the farm, and up at six o'clock to see the sights. So have I felt when Richard Webster, as the Zouzou of "Trilby," delivered a drunken speech from a table at the wedding party in the Place St. Anatole des Arts, meantime performing feats of backward bending which it would take an acrobat to equal. So have I felt when Nat Madison, in "The Fake," tried to suggest the result of years of drinking by an intense clutch of the table-edge in a sitting-room at St. Margaret's Bay. And so have I felt when the hard-hearted Hamilton J. Power (Augustus Neville), completely befuddled by the unaccustomed load of two drinks in ten minutes, was swept into matrimony by Muriel Starr in "The Goldfish."

The only intelligent imitation of an imbiber which I have seen in the last ten years came from Cecil Kelleway. Setting aside Arthur Stigant's frolics in "The Boy," whichwere pure Stigant and inimitable, Kelleway's idea of the diner-out who has had a drink or two too many has been the only possible one. And it is so because Kelleway never represents any man as unable to carry his liquor. He does not try our patience with reels and lurches because he realises that by the time a man has reached that stage he is well-nigh incoherent and that it is an actor's business to be coherent. He does not hiccough because he knows that no one save a beer-drinker ever hiccoughs. Kelleway as a stage inebriate gives a good imitation of the man who is suffering from the aphasia induced by alcohol. His brain is clear enough, maybe; he knows perfectly well what he wishes to say, but the words die in his mouth and the instruments of pronunciation, ordinarily tractable enough, become enemies to be wrestled with. But apparently there is not the slightest likelihood of Kelleway's example being followed. The average actor, entrusted with a part which calls for an appearance of drinking, allows the fumes to mount to his head in less time than it would take to get him under an anaesthetic and there-after talks at the top of his voice, pounds every piece of furniture in sight and zig-zags from the footlights trough to the backdrop, clutching wildly at the scenery and threatening to demolish the whole set. Whereas he is probably so constituted page 5 that he could duplicate Barrett-Lennard's "Frasquita" feat with real liquor and swallow whole glasses of whisky neat without turning to ask for a chaser.

Now there are many things which must be borne in the theatre, but this is not one of them. Worse than a chorus with curvature of the legs, worse than a soprano whose top-notes cause nervous people to leave hurriedly before the first act is over, is an actor who is inefficient in the art of being drunk. And the position is so easily remedied. The mending of it will be expensive, it is true, but in the cause of art and truth the matter must be faced. The remedy is this: if Aristodemus and Neoptolemus have not the wit to play drunkenness satisfactorily let them be made drunk. And let them be made drunk in the manner of gentlemen so that they may know the difference between the feeling of that drunkenness and the sort of inebriety for which their favourite brand of rye whisky is responsible.—C.Q.P.