Thursday, April 2, 2020

1. ABELARD AND HELOISE (1971): From my (unpublished) ENCYCLOPEDIA OF THE NEW YORK STAGE, 1970-1975

"In Lieu of Reviews"

Around 40 years ago, I began a major project that eventuated in the publication of my multi-volume series, The Encyclopedia of the New York Stage, each volume covering a decade and describing every show on and Off Broadway. For some reason now lost to the sands of time, I chose to start with the 1970s. After writing all the entries through 1975 and producing a typed manuscript of 1,038 pages my publisher (Greenwood) and I decided it would be best to commence with the 1920s. So the 1970-1975 material was put aside as I produced doorstopper volumes for 1920-1930, 1930-1940, and 1940-1950. With those concluded, Greenwood decided the thing was simply too expensive and not sufficiently profitable, so the remaining volumes were cancelled, leaving my 1970s entries in limbo.

To compensate, I used the research I’d done on the 1970s to write a book for Greenwood called Ten Seasons: New York Theatre in the Seventies, which described all aspects of that era’s theatre, onstage and off. Many years later, in 2012, I began a post-retirement “career” as a theatre reviewer, which led to my creating this blog as an outlet for my reviews. Over the past eight years or so, I’ve posted nearly 1,600 reviews, a substantial number having also appeared on other websites: Theater Pizzazz, The Broadway Blog, and Theater Life.

Now, however, with the New York theatre in suspension, my reviewing has come to a screeching stop. This, then, is probably the perfect time to post as many as possible of the entries I prepared for the never-published 1970-1975 book. 

The entries that will follow are in alphabetical order. Each entry has a heading listing the subject categories of the work described, the author (A), the director (D), the producer (P), the set designer (S), the costume designer (C), the lighting designer (L), the source (SC), the theatre (T), the dates of the run, and, in parentheses, the length of the run. The original entries also contained the names of all the actors but I’ve omitted those here.

I will try to post at least one entry daily. When time allows, I’ll provide more. The manuscript exists on fading, fragile paper and, because no digital files exist, must be retyped. Hopefully, the tragic health situation we’re all enduring will abate before I get too far into posting these entries but, for the time being, devoted theatre lovers may find reading these materials an informative, if temporary, replacement for the reviews that normally occupy this blog. 

Sam Leiter
Keith Michell, Diana Rigg.

ABELARD AND HELOISE [Drama/Romance/Period/British] A: Ronald Miller; D: Robin Phillips; P: Elliot Martin, James Nederlander, George M. Steinbrenner, III b/a/w John Gale; S: Christopher Morley; C: Daphne Dare; L: H.R. Poindexter; SC: Helen Waddell’s novel, Peter Abelard and the letters of Abelard and Heloise; T: Brooks Atkinson Theatre; 3/10/71-4/24/71 (53)

Abelard and Heloise dramatized the famous twelfth-century love story of the 37-year-old theologian and intellectual Peter Abelard (Keith Michell) and the ravishing 17-year-old Heloise (Diana Rigg). After Heloiise bears his baby, Abelard is castrated by thugs hired by the girl’s uncle, a church canon, and the helpless pair determine to become monk and nun.

The play was politely received by the critics, who found it slickly written and produced but completely unexciting from an emotional, intellectual, or poetic point of view. “The play lacks inner emotional dynamics,” carped Harold Clurman. Clive Barnes, who thought it “a solid, serious play,” said it failed because it lacks the incandescence of poetry.” Jack Kroll, however, was one who believed it to be “an engrossing, well-crafted historical romance,” an attitude directly at variance with Martin Gottfried’s, which held that this was “The true garbage of the stage.”

A key factor for most was the nude scene between Michell and Rigg. Barnes said they might be “the first major stars to appear naked on the Broadway stage.” He thought it “the most tasteful, tactful, and apposite nude love scene I have ever encountered.” A few, though, found it either too dimly lit to make out the actors’ bodies, and “unnecessary and silly intrusion” (Gottfried), or simply unerotic.
Ronald Radd, Diana Rigg.
The exquisite Ms. Rigg, who received a Tony nomination for Best Actress, got the best acting reviews, despite her lack of “vulnerability” (T.E. Kalem). She possessed “a gritty, voracious sensuousness. . . ,” he remarked. Another Tony nomination went to Ronald Radd, who played Gilles de Vannes.

The show was first done in London with some of the same actors repeating their roles in New York.