The Fall of the City by Archibald MacLeish, directed by Andrew Holmes. ANU School of Cultural Inquiry, College of the Arts and Social Sciences at ANU Arts Centre Drama Lab October 26-29, 2011.
Reviewed by Frank McKone
Following Andrew Holmes’ production of MacLeish’s Panic (on the blog August 25, 2011), The Fall of the City is his next research project. Holmes writes “I am currently undertaking a PhD in Drama, with a focus on revaluing Archibald MacLeish’s early achievements in the genre of verse drama. However, rather than focussing on the more traditional methods of analysis that have accompanied much discourse around MacLeish’s career as a playwright, I am seeking to understand how his plays work in their performance context rather than, as MacLeish himself would have put it, how they read as ‘thin little books to lie on front parlor tables.’”
Holmes states that The Fall of the City was the first American verse play written for broadcast radio, in 1937, which places it in context as an early example of work such as Australian poet Douglas Stewart’s Fire on the Snow (1941) and Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood (1954). The latter will be staged in May 2012 by Sydney Theatre Company as a “play with voices” rather than as a “play for voices” on radio.
Perhaps taking a cue from the original 1953 presentation at the YMHA New York of Under Milk Wood before it was broadcast by the BBC, where five actors stood on stage without moving, except for Thomas himself who stepped forward for the Reverend Eli Jenkins’ morning prayer, Holmes had his audience seated on the flat stage of the Drama Lab looking up at figures with white masks in the raked seating. Only Duncan Ley, as the radio reporter, was without a mask, speaking into his microphone.
In this role, Ley found just the right degree of precision of voice and clarity of descriptive expression for an announcer giving the radio audience a detailed mental picture of the scene in the city square, the flurries of movement and silences among the crowd (perhaps of 10,000, he tells us) as the Conqueror approaches. His commentary is interspersed with speeches, such as from a woman in the crowd expressing her fear for the future, a state minister on a podium seeking a peaceful response rather than violence in the face of terrorism, ‘messengers’ who report what has happened in a nearby city through which the Conqueror has just passed, a man in the crowd expressing the need to defend freedom. While each individual speaks s/he removes the mask, and the whole crowd (of 20 actors) move in stylised unison in response to the changing moods until the Conqueror arrives. Despite what has to be a deep apprehension, the crowd succumbs to the charisma of the Conqueror and cheer him as if he is a hero rather than a controlling dictator taking their freedom away from them.
This simple visual representation of the scene seemed to me to enhance the effect that the play would have if it were presented on radio today. Whereas radio in the 1930s had nation-wide sway (Orson Welles’ The War of the Worlds proving a highly disturbing example, apart from Hitler’s speeches), today perhaps only the talkback shock-jocks can claim to have anything like the same impact. I guess that MacLeish’s poetry would quickly fade into the ether, while Holmes’ stage treatment, though for a small audience, had strength in a message that is a warning that today we are not far from the dangers that developed in the 1930s. Only an hour or so before seeing The Fall of the City tonight, I saw the breaking news intrude across the ABC website that Alan Joyce had just announced the complete shutdown of Qantas indefinitely, until the unions ‘come to agreement’.
I certainly think that Holmes’ approach to taking MacLeish’s work out of ‘thin little books’ and onto the stage has worked effectively to show the quality of MacLeish’s writing. Since it would not be practical to take so many actors on tour, it could be worthwhile videoing this production of The Fall of the City. Even a limited television or YouTube distribution could bring MacLeish’s warning to the fore, at the very time we need it. After all, PhDs in the sciences have direct impacts in the real world. Why shouldn’t a Drama PhD?