01 augustus 2012

Helene Hanff: Stagestruck

De Amerikaanse schrijfster Helene Hanff (1916-1997) is vooral bekend om 84, Charing Cross Road – een waar gebeurde romance in brieven tussen een New Yorkse schrijfster en een Londens antiquariaat. Maar eigenlijk was zij een gemankeerd toneelschrijfster, die in de jaren veertig en vijftig jarenlang de gekste baantjes en de miserabelste onderkomens verduurde om maar toneelstukken te kunnen schrijven die ooit, heel misschien, Broadway zouden halen. Die periode van haar leven heeft Hanff in 1962 met verve opgetekend in Underfoot in Show Business.
   ’s Zomers zorgden theatergekke jongelui als zij dat ze werk kregen bij een van de theatercircuits buiten de stad. Er waren twee soorten: try-outs van Broadway-producties, en het ‘package’ theater: een ster die met een toneelgezelschap op zomertournee ging met een stuk uit het ijzeren repertoire. 
Deertrees ran on the package system. In successive weeks, we had Tallulah Bankhead, Ethel Barrymore, Grace George, each with her touring company and her ancient hit. Grace George, who had been a reigning star when my father was a chorus boy, had long since grown old enough and rich enough to spend her summers sensibly in Europe. Instead, she was touring the summer circuit in Kind Lady.
   She arrived with her company at nine o’clock of a rainy Sunday night, having spent the day on the road from New Jersey where she’d played the week before. She announced that she would run through the play then and there, so that she and her company could accustom themselves to the new stage before the Monday night opening. But as I said, it was raining. Grace George walked into the theatre and realized there was going to be a hitch in her plans.
   Deertrees was built entirely of pine logs, by somebody who didn’t realize that the sound of steady rain on pine walls and a pine roof is deafening. During a heavy downpour, the players’ voices were completely drowned out and the show simply stopped. When the rain let up ten minutes or two hours later the show resumed. So at nine o’clock that Sunday night, Grace George and her company sat down in the damp playhouse to wait out the storm. The crew and staff drifted in and we all sat around, listening to the racket and batting at the bugs which had hurried in out of the wet. At ten, we began to wonder when Miss George would give up and go to bed.
   At a little before eleven, the rain stopped. And Grace George went up onstage with her company, and instead of walking through the play as the old lady held prisoner by two strangers and their half-witted daughter, gave a harrowing, electrifying performance that froze us to our seats. The performance ended at 1:30 a.m., after which Grace George, seventy if she was a day, sashayed serenely off to bed, looking forward to eight perfor­mances in the next six days with another traveling Sunday at the end of the week and that’s what I mean by Theatremania.
(H. Hanff, Underfoot in Show Business (1962), gecit. n. ed. Futura (1981), pp. 70-71.)

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