Auden Calls "Night" Fun But Not Art

by W.H. Auden, published in the April 13, 1943 issue of the Phoenix

In spite of an air-raid alarm, Night Fell as it Must over Clothier Hall on March 26. Was it art? Don't be silly. The characters came out of the old clothes closet in mother's attic, the psychology from Aunt Daisy's Ethical Problems, the dialogue creaked along its well-worn lines like a pit pony. Was it fun? My, yes. What is good theatre? An excuse for carrying on charmingly in public. And which of us doesn't long to do that?

The Little Theatre Club carried on very nicely. Behind-the-scenes had done a sound job. Not a flat fell down, not a prop was missing, not a fuse blew, and the tempo was professionally snappy.

The chief honors must go to Pierson Scott McLean as Dan and Diana Rodman as Olivia. From his first entry in a most fetching busboy's uniform, until his last exit in handcuffs, McLean was never on the stage without dominating it with exactly the right kind of snake-like physical charm. Occasionally, I think, he overdid the facial expressions; the Dans of this world are poker-faced when they think no one is watching.

Laurels to Rodman

Miss Rodman's performance was, perhaps, even more remarkable, because Olivia is such an unsympathetic shy-making part. To convey to the audience that one is not simply neurotic but really corrupt, without the least help from the lines, must be very difficult, but Miss Rodman succeeded brilliantly.

I suppose Emlyn Williams would have objected to the Mrs. Bramson of Katherine Kehoe, but to me she was pure heaven. Instead of a horrid old beast who tormented everyone and very properly got murdered, we saw an adorable, intelligent battleaxe, with a heart of gold whose bad-temper was transparently just a camp. Incidentally, this made her final scene with Dan extraordinarily moving. For some reason I cannot explain, Miss Kehoe made me thinking all the time of a man dressed up. I kept expecting her to light up a cigar the moment the door shut. Yes, I suppose her rendering of the part was wrong, but I am very glad it was, as I prefer "The Importance of Being Earnest" to "Night Must Fall."

Coming to the rest of the cast, Barbara Stone and Marion Steuber were admirable stage domestics, and Doris Parker a competent nurse.

Paul Ousley made a very handsome detective, but in England, Inspector, we don't put our hats on inside the house. William Phelps as Hubert Laurie batted at a sticky wicket for that immortal Britannia of Burlesque which no blitz, I fear, will ever destroy. (And Hubert, my dear, where DID you get that liberty scarf in Act [---]?)

Entertainment or Art?

Robert Gilkey wrestled shyly with the vocabulary and cadences of legal prose. An anonymous organist gave a loud shudder at the psychological moment. An interesting effect, don't you think? Hm.

Yes, I enjoyed myself enormously like everyone else. But, dreary old highbrow that I am, I couldn't help asking myself whether dramatics at a small college like Swarthmore, where they are obviously not the training ground for future Broadway professionals, ought to be merely better and cleaner fun for the students than drugstore sundaes or the bars of Chester; whether they should not be an opportunity to produce plays like - what shall I say? - Ben Johnson's "Alchemist" or Cocteau's "Orphée," which unless a college performs them, are unlikely to be performed at all. Undoubtedly neither the actors nor the audience would enjoy themselves as much; but perhaps it would have more relation to the House of Learning which - correct me if I am wrong - a college is supposed to be.


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