Baron spell

It is not every actor whose latest volume of memoirs is serialized in the Daily Mail and the Mail on Sundayas was Sheila Hancock’s Old Rage (Bloomsbury, £18.99) last month. This was quite the honor. Yet no doubt many were surprised to see that the Mail missed an open goal – that probably isn’t the correct theatrical metaphor – by declining to publish Hancock’s revelations in Old Rage about her work with Harold Pinter.

Early in their respective careers, during the mid-1950s, Hancock and Pinter spent “many months” touring “moribund seaside resorts” with the Barry O’Brien Company. In Bournemouth and Torquay, as Hancock recalls it, there wasn’t much for the elderly residents and Butlin’s-bound holidaymakers to enthuse about. “I cannot think we cheered them up a lot with our seasons of second-rate plays in shaky, ill-painted sets.”

Pinter was known back then, if known at all, as an actor, going by the name of David Baron. He “did not hide his disdain” for the whole situation, and shunned the post-show drinks by claiming to be “too busy writing”. (This would be around the time, we surmise, that he was working on the one-act play The Roomvarious poems and the early version of his novel The Dwarfs.) Hancock thought him “darkly handsome” but a “rather over-the-top” actor. His roles included Mr Rochester in Jane Eyre and the “wicked husband”, Jack Manningham, in Patrick Hamilton’s Gas Light. His wife Vivien Merchant was also in the company; all were kept going by dreams of a “rosier” future.

Capping this vision of the great days of rep is Hancock’s recollection of being asked, a few years later, to perform in a revue at the Lyric Hammersmith. This was not long after that same theater’s production of The Birthday Partyand she was to act in a sketch by Pinter – a two-hander called “The Black and the White.”

The sketch concerns two old women working their way through bowls of soup in a milk bar, while watching the passing buses. It also includes plenty of Pinter’s famous pauses, which, he insisted, should be long. Count to fifteen, he told Hancock and her fellow performer, Beryl Reid; Since both were old hands, taught to obey the theatrically prudent rules “Don’t drag” and “Don’t leave any pauses that allow the audience to heckle or boo”, they were reluctant to follow orders. They found, however, that Pinter was right. “The audience hung on our words, or rather our silences, and then hooted with laughter.” Once this potential was realized, “Beryl and I became drunk with power and the sketch tripled its running time”.

Perhaps, Hancock wonders, that was the beginning of the end for the trademark “Pinter Pause”. The writer did, after all, develop the habit of advising actors to ignore the pauses and silences that his scripts called for, “if they don’t make sense”. Many Pinterians argue for retaining them as one of the distinctive features of his work. But do they know to count to fifteen? For a pause, that is. A silence is a totally different matter.

The lady stepping so nimbly across this page was first seen in Paris, in 1895, by Joseph Conrad. She belongs to that “ultra-fashionable world” to which the novelist refers in The Arrow of Gold (1919); that late novel harks back to an earlier one that he began writing, then abandoned, around the same time that he sketched this stylish Parisienne. The Sisters, which was posthumously published in 1928 with a sympathetic afterword by Ford Madox Ford, concerns a “Dreamer” who aspires to paint. Instead, however, he spends his time dabbling in Paris, this “land of Bohemia”, and staring unhappily from the “windows of commodious hotels”.

While Conrad himself was working hard at perfecting the art of prose, he was also distracting himself, “during his writing hours”, with drawings such as this one. As we learn from a new academic study by Johan Adam Warodell, Conrad’s Decentered Fiction (Cambridge University Press, £75), many of those drawings were probably “burned at the end of the day”. This lady is one of the few survivors, “newly discovered”; she now resides at Indiana University’s Lilly Library, in Bloomington. It is impossible to know for certain, but Dr Warodell suggests that Conrad may have stopped doodling in his margins not too long after giving up The Sisters. Lord Jimthe story of another dreamer, was only a few years away.

In case anybody is still puzzling over the identities of the modernist barflies Martin Rowson depicts in his graphic take on The Waste Land (May 13), we have been asked to provide the relevant names. First published in 1990, Rowson’s Waste Land Breeds noir atmosphere out of an unholy mixing of Raymond Chandler with TS Eliot, and has been stirred up again for the poem’s centenary: the original artwork is now on display at Shandy Hall in Yorkshire. We challenged readers to name the writers and artists gathered together in a single panel, on a rainy night at a pub called – what else? – The Hanged Man.

Conrad is present, of course, as is his sometime collaborator Ford, sitting at the piano. Nearby are Richard Aldington, William Carlos Williams, Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, John Quinn, WB Yeats and Wyndham Lewis; hunched around a chessboard are Vivienne Eliot, Louis Zukofsky and TS Eliot. Also present but not officially listed are, we think, Katherine Mansfield and Ezra Pound. Rowson’s hard-boiled gumshoe protagonist decides that this lot look “about as welcoming as a Bay City station cop who’s just found out both your legs are already broken”.

There is worse ahead, though: Yeats is to be found in a second pub, entertaining another rough literary crowd with a ditty on the mandolin. “Young girls with hyacinths do it / Statues standing up on plinths do it…” If you have no idea what we’re banging on about, count yourselves lucky. You clearly haven’t spent enough time in Rats’ Alley, and you should keep it that way.

Dervla Murphy’s characterization of adolescent reading as a “literary vacillation” between childhood and grown-up books (June 10) struck a chord with at least one reader. “Some of us never lose the habit”, David Harris writes from Poole. “A survey of the rather untidy pile of books at my bedside reveals Herodotus and Hornblower, Pepys’ diary and Paddington as well as a battered copy of First Steps in Latin.”

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