Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Norman S. Poser's "The Birth of Modern Theatre"

Norman S. Poser is professor emeritus at Brooklyn Law School.

Here he dreamcasts an adaptation of his new book, The Birth of Modern Theatre: Rivalry, Riots, and Romance in the Age of Garrick:
A film based on The Birth of Modern Theatre? Why not? The book has plenty of action, taking place both on and off the stage, as well as fascinating characters: love affairs and romances; bitter backstage rivalries and close friendships; audiences that consider themselves essential participants in the theatrical experience and riot when they don’t care for a play or a performer; a criminal trial over a claimed sexual assault; a zany restaurant and lecture center run by an eccentric actor; an out-of-control bigamous duchess; and much more.

So who should play the leading roles in the film? I have a few suggestions.

The most important character in the book is David Garrick, actor, playwright, and theatre manager, a man of short stature (only 5 foot 4) but with boundless energy and talent to match. He was as compelling in comedies and farces as in Shakespeare’s tragic roles. His management of the Drury Lane theatre for thirty years made it the envy of Europe. He charmed everyone: dukes and earls sought him out; his circle of friends included artists, politicians, and judges. His marriage to a Viennese dancer was a lifelong romance. My choice to play David Garrick is the versatile Dustin Hoffman.

Peg Woffington was the leading actress of her day. She was slightly taller than average, with a graceful figure, luminous eyes, and soft, full lips. The word “witchcraft” was often used to explain the hold she had on audiences, whom she thrilled as Shakespearean heroines, aristocratic ladies, and even as a young man about town. Before Garrick’s marriage, she had a steamy affair with him, which ended only when he refused to marry her. While she had a reputation for sexual promiscuity, she was devoid of hypocrisy. I would choose Scarlett Johansson to play Peg Woffington.

Samuel Foote was known for his skills as a social critic. In the plays he wrote (and starred in), he mercilessly lampooned corrupt politicians, hypocritical preachers, war profiteers, quack doctors, dishonest lawyers, social climbers, and other questionable or shady members of contemporary society. He was the leading wit and humorist of his day. But when he dared to satirize a member of the nobility, he found himself in deep trouble. Eddie Murphy should play the role of Samuel Foote.

Kitty Clive was the London stage’s queen of comedy. She delighted audiences as a giggling, plotting chambermaid, but also as the quick-witted Portia in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. Off the stage, her direct manner and kind heart made her a den mother to her colleagues. She was generous to those who pleased her but ready to unleash her fury on those who crossed her. Melissa McCarthy would be a natural as Kitty Clive.

Charles Macklin was rough and blunt in his speech and manner, irascible and didactic, with a temper that sometimes led to violence; he once killed a man in a backstage brawl and narrowly escaped hanging. But he was an innovative actor, who introduced natural, psychologically based acting to English audiences. His signature role was Shylock in The Merchant of Venice; for over forty years, his appearance in that role would guarantee a full house. He remained devoted to the theatre throughout his life, which spanned nearly a century. I would choose Al Pacino to play Charles Macklin.
Learn more about The Birth of Modern Theatre: Rivalry, Riots, and Romance in the Age of Garrick.

--Marshal Zeringue