Saturday, September 30, 2017

Every Good Boy Deserves Favour by Tom Stoppard & Andre Previn

This is perhaps one of the more unusual reviews I have written. I am not an actor. Well, there were a few times back in my school days, sure, but not really. So it was certainly a change of pace to be cast in a role in an actual play. Not a speaking role, but a role nonetheless. 

This is also one of the more unusual plays I have reviewed. I expect that very few ever get the chance to see it live. The reason is directly related to the fact that I had a role in it.

Back in 1977, Andre Previn was the conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra. This was before his stint as conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, which is where my memory of him begins. (As an LA resident at the time, I remember it was big news when Previn retired, and Esa Pekka Salonen took over.) Anyway, Previn approached playwright Tom Stoppard with the idea of writing a play wherein the orchestra was a character. As Stoppard noted, this isn’t the sort of project one could or should say no to. The problem was, Stoppard didn’t really have any ideas about what to write. The original idea was of a millionaire who had his own orchestra. (Hey, maybe they should do that, rather than spend billions on sports teams…) But that didn’t really suggest an interesting and relevant plot. Then, Stoppard though about a lunatic with an orchestra in his head. That was more promising, but Stoppard still didn’t know where to go with the idea.

Then he met Victor Fainberg, a Soviet dissident exiled to the West, who had a fascinating story of being imprisoned in a mental hospital for his “antisocial” opinions. Things clicked for Stoppard, and the play came together. Previn wrote the music, and the whole thing was premiered for Queen Elizabeth II’s silver jubilee. Patrick Stewart and Ian McClellan were among the actors in the original.

I was able to find an online copy of the script (which is otherwise really hard to find). You can read it here in PDF, along with Stoppard’s introduction to the play, which is quite fascinating.

The main characters are two patients in the asylum, both named Alexander Ivanov. One is a political prisoner, locked up until he recants his “slander” and expresses gratitude for his treatment. The other is genuinely insane, and hears an orchestra in his head. Not just an orchestra, but a rather bad one. For purposes of clarity, the sane man is called “Alexander” in the script, while the mad one is “Ivanov.” However, both are referred to as “Ivanov” by the other characters.

There are four other characters in the play. The psychiatrist is also an amateur violinist in a real orchestra. (Which means in some scenes, he mimed along with us. We also parodied his practicing - there are a lot of musical jokes in the score, and they often come at the expense of the characters.) Alexander’s son Sacha struggles with his father’s imprisonment, and also rebels against the system. His teacher (unnamed) tries to make him conform. The final character is the Colonel, who must ultimately make the decision whether to free Alexander.

The play is a dark comedy. It ends on a positive note, but it is pretty tragic in the middle. It is also quite humorous, with music, geometry, politics, medicine, and more up for biting satire. A knowledge of music does help in understanding some of the jokes, as does a familiarity with Russian literature.

The opening scene begins with the orchestral overture, which Ivanov is conducting - and accompanying with a triangle. But it is not going well, clearly, and he cuts the orchestra off, complaining about them to Alexander.

Ivanov: I know what you are thinking.
Alexander: It’s all right.
Ivanov: No, you can say it. The cellos are rubbish.

It goes downhill from there, with successive sections of the orchestra being roundly abused by Ivanov, who really wishes he could have a better orchestra. Previn’s score includes crazy dissonances and weird rhythms to illustrate the jumble of Ivanov’s mind. It is supremely challenging stuff. 

 A bit of the violin part.

However, Ivanov has a fondness for musicians, even if he is tormented by his orchestra. He mentions that he even invites them into his home and feeds them real food. But he is mixed up in his head, and things don’t quite come out right.

Listen, I’ve had clarinet players eating at my own table. I’ve had French whores and gigolos speak to me in the public street, I mean horns, I mean piccolos...

Ivanov insists that Alexander tell him which instrument he plays. Alexander is not a musician and says so, but Ivanov won’t take no for an answer. Poor Alexander is legitimately afraid for his life given Ivanov’s erratic and aggressive behavior. The doctor has to figure out how to cure Ivanov, if possible, and “cure” Alexander, who will have none of it.

In a rather funny exchange, the doctor tries to convince Ivanov that while he, the doctor, plays in an orchestra, Ivanov does not.

Doctor: Did the pills help at all?
Ivanov: I don’t know. What pills did you give them?
Doctor: Now look, there is no orchestra. We cannot make progress until we agree that there is no orchestra.
Ivanov: Or until we agree that there is.
Doctor: But there is no orchestra. I have an orchestra, you do not.
Ivanov: Does that seem reasonable to you?

Alexander later complains about Ivanov to the doctor. The doctor notes that Ivanov complains about Alexander too:

Doctor: He complains about you too. Apparently you cough during the diminuendos.

I’m with Ivanov on this one.

The doctor and Alexander go at it on this and other occasions regarding the problem of Alexander’s incarceration. The doctor is a pragmatic man. He would like to help Alexander get out, but explains that he has to pretend to have treated Alexander, and Alexander must pretend the “treatment” cured him. But Alexander refuses to play the game, instead going on hunger strike. This is inconvenient, because Alexander’s name is known to the West, so his death would crack the facade that the Soviet Union has stopped murdering dissidents.

The problem, of course, is that the Soviets cannot handle dissent, and must suppress it by whatever means are necessary.

Alexander: I have no symptoms. I have opinions.
Doctor: Your opinions are your symptoms. Your disease is dissent.

The doctor indicates that the case is being personally handled by the Colonel, who is a “doctor,” but not a psychiatrist.

Alexander: What’s his specialty?
Doctor: Semantics. He’s a doctor of Philology, whatever that means. I hear he is a genius.

Later, Alexander and Sacha have a dialogue (but they are in different places, so it is a disconnected dialogue.)

Sacha: Papa, don’t be rigid. Be brave and tell them lies. Tell them lies! Tell them they cured you! Tell them you’re grateful!
Alexander: How can that be right?
Sacha: If they’re wicked how can it be wrong?
Alexander: It helps them to go on being wicked. It helps them to think that perhaps they are not so wicked after all.
Sacha: It doesn’t matter. I want you to come home.
Alexander: And what about all the other fathers? And mothers?
Sacha: It’s wicked to let yourself die!

This is a really telling moment. In a month where the term “grateful” has been thrown around as what protesters should be, it seems quite relevant. People should just stop protesting injustice, and show gratitude that it isn’t worse. On a related note, “ungrateful” is the “uppity negro” of the 21st Century. I think Alexander has it right. By playing the game, going along with the system, he would be allowing those who continue the system to think of themselves as less evil. And our modern protesters against a system of white supremacy would, by remaining silent, allow those who continue to benefit from and support that unjust system to think that they are somehow not really complicit with evil. This has come up too regarding my ongoing protest against Trump and those in the GOP who are openly white supremacist. I understand it makes people who voted for them uncomfortable. That is the point. I and others are here to remind you that you bear moral responsibility for the harm that comes to people such as immigrants, refugees, victims of police brutality, and those Americans in Puerto Rico who are being neglected in a way that white communities in Houston and Florida will not be. I’m not going to tell lies and pretend things are fine.

There are a number of other interesting and humorous scenes. There are also a couple of monologues by Alexander that kind of drag. I wondered about them until I read up on the play, and realized that Stoppard drew them from Fainberg’s memoirs. They aren’t just there to give background, but to give a voice to the real people who suffered under the Soviet regime.

Back to the humor. During one of the doctor’s sessions with Ivanov, he realizes he is late for his rehearsal. Ivanov is reciting his mantra about not having an orchestra, but the doctor fails to realize this, and snaps at Ivanov “of course there is a bloody orchestra.” Ivanov is thrilled to “discover” that his orchestra is “real.” And off the orchestra goes into triumphant music.

Ivanov is left by himself in the doctor’s office until Sacha comes for a visit. Ivanov impersonates the doctor, but goes off into an increasingly bizarre set of “postulates” by Euclid which confuse music and geometry.

“A triangle with a bass is a combo.”
“Two triangles sharing the same bass is a trio.”

And my favorite:

“A trombone is the longest distance between two points!”

In this particular performance, Jon Sampson played the colonel, Belle Born played Sacha, Abby Bowles-Votaw played the teacher. All were fine in these minor roles. Credit to Born for her sung parts - picking up the pitch from the music cannot have been easy given the scoring.

Ross Hellwig played Alexander. Hellwig came up from Los Angeles, and has some TV and stage credits. Unfortunately, I didn’t get a great view of his facial expressions from my angle, but overall, I think he did a fine job in the most difficult part. He seemed genuinely haunted and tormented.

Don Kruszka is well known here in Bakersfield for his puppet shows. Not only is he a talented actor, he designs and builds his puppets, which are astonishingly detailed and creative. My wife saw him act in something else a while back, but this was the first time I saw him in a full role on stage. He is quite good - and, since he got to sit with us in the violin section, we got to talk a bit. He is a down to earth guy with a sense of humor, and it was fun getting to know him.

Karl Wade took the role of Ivanov, and pretty much stole the show. It was interesting rehearsing with him, because he experimented with different takes on certain of the lines. All of the different flavors were great, fitting well with the lunatic character, even as they differed from each other.

It was challenging putting together a show like this on two rehearsals. The music isn’t easy, and we had technical issues to address. First, we only got to use the actual location and set for one rehearsal. That’s one as in “1.” Yikes. And furthermore, for reasons that are unclear - I wasn’t in the loop. We didn’t have electricity to our stand lights, and the actors lacked microphones. So full lighting and sound wasn’t in place until the performance itself. Cold sweat time. Anyway, kudos to the actors and to director Jennifer Sampson for rolling with it, and pulling off an excellent performance under trying conditions.

It was a real pleasure to be able to participate in an unusual and thoughtful production. May we all remember that totalitarianism starts with labeling dissenters as “ungrateful” and “antisocial.” Allegiance which is coerced isn’t real anyway. Respect is earned by governments no less than by people. And a trombone is always the longest distance between two points…


  1. Sounds like the type of play that I world like - quite absurd. The use of only four characters seems to follow in the tradition of plays like Endgame and Waiting for Godot. I'm not surprised that McKlellan and Stewart starred in the original production.

    1. Just to clarify, a total of six characters: Alexander, Ivanov, the Doctor, the Colonel, Sacha, and the Teacher. But yes, definitely an limited cast, and an absurdist plot.

      There is a version on YouTube. None of us who listened to it to get a feel for the music thought the acting was particularly good. Ours were definitely better. :) Definitely interesting. You can find a copy of the play online if you want to read it. I linked it in my post.