Theatre and literary

Literary & dramatic life

I found myself in charge of a small penniless theatre. A chance meeting resulted in an offer to help with a fundraiser backed by star actors.

“You should have a fundraiser. I think I could get you Tommy Lee Jones and Stockard Channing,” he said.

“That would be very kind of you,” I replied politely. I knew who he was, but I had never met him before. Brunch ended. In the car on the way home Rosalind said: “Do you think he means it?”

“Means what?”

“Well, Stockard Channing and...”

“You mean you don’t know who the other actor is?”

“No... As a matter of interest: do you?”


We pieced the name together and I called my stepson William in London. He’s an investment banker. As though I needed a stock recommendation he listed rapidly half a dozen films. “The most suitable for you would be The Fugitive.”

Rosalind collected The Fugitive from the video store. We watched Tommy Lee Jones very carefully, what he looked like, his style of acting, how he handled the role, mannerisms and so forth.

When the credits scrolled up at the end of the video, it turned out we had both been watching Harrison Ford. We re-ran the video.

That was the result of my first meeting with Daniel Selznick, the son of David O Selznick, the maker of Gone With the Wind, and of Irene Mayer, the daughter of Louis B Mayer founder of MGM. We had met at the house of a mutual friend in the Boston area where I live. This friend thought we might have something in common since Daniel’s whole life is the theatre, and I had become the boss of a small penniless company, The Poets’ Theatre.

It was odd that our first meeting was only in later life. His mother, and mine, Enid Bagnold (author of National Velvet) had collaborated in writing The Chalk Garden a successful play which Irene produced in London’s West End and on Broadway some ten years after the end of World War II.

I think it had been a difficult collaboration. My mother was good at lines, but not so good at “plotty-plotty”, a reason Binkie Beaumont of H M Tennent turned down an earlier version for London presentation. Irene then came on the scene. The two women would plod up to the fourth storey Tower Room of our house in Rottingdean, Sussex to re-write. It was a big house, and I do not ever remember visiting my mother during any of her morning writing sessions, with or without Irene. But apparently (and my mother must therefore have been the source) there were two large brown envelopes pinned to the wall. Into one of them went Irene’s cigarette butts – she was an inveterate smoker which already set a bad scene in our non-smoking household. The other was marked ‘PLUMS’. Typically, Irene would rave over a passage my mother had written, take out her scissors, cut it out, and put it into the ‘PLUM’ envelope saying we should never lose this wonderful piece of writing.

I don’t believe anything ever emerged from the envelope.

My mother would come down for lunch raging at that damn women for forcing her to rewrite her best lines. Although I don’t know for sure, I think it was Irene’s way of getting some plotty-plotty into the play.

On one of Irene’s visits to Rottingdean where I was brought up, my mother had sent me into the garden to collect her for lunch. She was in a torn red dressing gown, smoking, her hair draggled. She was beautiful even so. To break the ice - I knew the situation between these two women had been somewhat tense that morning - I admired her very evident costume jewellery. I was fond of Irene, so it came naturally to compliment her.

“Yes,” she said. “I like being in the English countryside with your mother. I can wear my jewels without having to worry. When I wear them in New York for a First Night or something I have an armoured car in front and two behind.”

So, it was not costume jewellery after all.

That was way back in the Fifties - 1955 was the year in which both Samuel Beckett and my mother premiered in London - the bookends of two different eras.

My meeting with Daniel took place 44 years later.

Shortly afterwards, he called me from New York: “Bob Brustein says you can have the American Repertory Theatre main stage. We need a script.”

We trundled through bad idea after bad idea trying to find something local and poetic. In desperation, one of Daniel’s suggestions, a Robert Lowell play, turned out to have an all male cast of 28. I remember because I had to order the script specially.

I will fight Daniel about who thought of it first, but we had both read reviews of a recently published collection of letters between Chekhov and his future wife, Olga Knipper. Ideal for two stars. We decided I should adapt them for the stage.

But - select a drama of less than 10,000 words from letters totalling fifteen times that amount... and all the collateral research? I felt diminished by the task.

“How’s the script coming along?” he called from New York one day.

“Just fine,” I lied. “I can turn it into something pretty interesting.”

“Good,” he said. “I’ve got Stockard.”

I thought I had better start getting a Benefit Committee together.

A month or so later, Daniel called again: “I’ve got Tommy, but he’s filming in Turkey in three months time, so you’ll have to have the Benefit before then. How’s the script?”

“Coming along fine,” I said.

Less than three months to go. Naturally, I had no script, and barely a Benefit Committee. Just one of those jobs alone could be expected to take six months. Both in three months?

I thought of our two mothers as Daniel spent hours on the telephone from New York going over the script I was now writing, and which I faxed to him periodically. “Good, good, that’s fine,” was how he always started, morale booster, and then went on to the changes he wanted. Sometimes I got so exasperated I simply refused to make the changes; my mother had often come downstairs from writing with his mother ready to throttle that damn woman, but in both cases - mine and my mother’s - the end result had been much better than it would have been without those demanding Selznicks.

Daniel, do you hear me? (He didn’t know all this at the time).

I completed the play (, Chekhov) just before the avalanche of bookings started. As a matter of policy the ART did not offer outsiders box office services, the main stage, yes, but no more than that, except that one of the ART actors Alvin Epstein agreed to narrate. I had thought I could merely take the calls for tickets at home, ask for the cheques and make a note of it. General admission, that is, you find your own seat in the theatre, first come first served.

When Daniel realised what a success the fundraiser was going to be he came down on me heavily: “You’ve got to have reserved seats.” I was about to refuse, there was just me to take the calls, I had no booking system, the play needed some tidying up, I had to organise the Benefit Committee.

With bad grace, I had to agree that Daniel was right and spent a hectic night programming a booking system into my computer from scratch.

The demand was so great, I sold the house seats - that is, the emergency seats you keep in reserve just in case you’ve made a mistake. But, I wanted the money.

Almost the last to turn up was Stockard’s comp. My mind went blank. I had put his ticket in a safe place. But, where? There were no house seats. Rosalind gave him mine.

We grossed $34,000 which was enough to put the Poets’ Theatre back into business.