Monday, November 2, 2020

369. OLD TIMES. From my (unpublished) ENCYCLOPEDIA OF THE NEW YORK STAGE, 1970-1975

Robert Shaw, Mary Ure, Rosemary Harris.
OLD TIMES [Drama/British/Friendship/Homosexuality/Marriage/Sexcdexx] A: Harold Pinter; D: Peter Hall; S/L: John Berry; C: Beatrice Dawson; P: Roger L. Stevens i/a/w the Royal Shakespeare Company; T: Billy Rose Theatre; 11/16/71-2/26/71 (119)

Rosemary Harris, Robert Shaw, Mary Ure.

Old Times, by Britain’s then most respected dramatist, offered a controversially enigmatic excursion into the dim hallways of the remembered past and its effects on the relations of three characters. These are film director Deeley (Robert Shaw), his wife of 20 years, Kate (Mary Ure), and Anna (Rosemary Harris), Kate’s college friend of two decades earlier. In Deeley’s sparsely decorated seaside country home, Deeley and Kate greet Anna’s arrival.

During the course of the often mysterious, evocatively surrealistic, pause-and-non sequitur-filled conversations that ensue, the characters recall their past of many years earlier. Anna and Kate may or may not have been lovers, Deeley and Anna may or may not have met previously. Their memories are shifting and elusive; the actual and the imagined past are intermingled, impossible to unravel, and the impression of past events, even when false, seems to bear more weight than the factual events that actually give rise to those impressions.

Anna herself may not be real—she may be dead or possibly just an aspect of Kate that Deeley has conjured up from his imagination. In the cat and mouse parry and thrust of chatter among the three, Deeley appears to be forever dominated by the women. He ends the play weeping in a position of subservience to his wife.

Mary Ure, Robert Shaw, Rosemary Harris.

A sexual tension underlies the action throughout, as Deeley clearly desires both women, and they, in turn, appear to hunger for one another. Pinter himself described the play as “about sexuality, and the key to the play is the line, ‘Normal, what’s normal?’”

There were a number of extremely positive critiques of Old Times, among them Clive Barnes’s vigorous approval of it as “the finest play yet of a master dramatist. . . . This is a marvelous play, beautiful, meaningful and lyrical. A joyous, wonderful play, that people will talk about as long as we have theatre . . . and a great cast in what I am tempted to think of as a great play.” Old Times, observed Henry Hewes, “is . . . an indelible theatre etching, and a delicious excursion into the tricky business of memory.” Its central message, he said, was “that the fatal fascination of a woman can be her secrecy, and that the curses of a man can be his passionate need to penetrate that secrecy.”

Martin Gottfried was among those who were disappointed. He noted that Pinter’s “technique has taken on the quality of a playwright’s game that seems as coy as the characters who play it.” T.E. Kalem was bored by the “flaccid” characters, and Walter Kerr suggested that the author had robbed the work of an important dimension by playing down the active role of the environment in the proceedings. John Simon, perhaps the most consistently outspoken anti-Pinterite among New York critics, found Old Times an empty exercise: “In Pinter, I see only a clever ex-actor turned playwright full of surface theatricality underneath which resides a big, bulging zero.” He attacked the play as “A parlor game” in which “we care neither about the characters nor about the issues.” The fact that the 70-minute drama, lengthened by its many pauses, had been passed off as a full-length work was “pitiful” to Simon, who would live long enough to see such relatively short plays become increasingly common in the next century.

Barely anyone quarreled with the masterful production, staged with noteworthy understatement by Sir Peter Hall (who had done it earlier in Paris and London). Also highly admired were John Bury’s coolly chic set and lighting, and the sensitive, virtuosic portrayals by the dream cast of Shaw, Ure, and Harris.

Old Times received a Tony nomination as Best Play, and a Drama Critics Circle Special Citation. Rosemary Harris’s acting, Peter Hall’s direction, and John Bury’s scenic design also received Tony nominations, while Hall and Harris each won a Drama Desk Award, and Bury won Variety’s poll for Best Designer.