Flashback: Eric Idle’s Only Stage Play and How It Got to Germany

It was 40 years ago today, that Monty Python’s Life of Brian – the best known film by the British comedy troupe – was shown for the first time. The movie about Brian, a guy born on the same day as Jesus in a neighbouring stable and mistaken for the Messiah throughout the film, premiered in five theatres across the United States on August 17, 1979. Monty Python – the group was John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Graham Chapman, Terry Jones, Michael Palin and Eric Idle. They had made themselves a household name with their  TV show Monty Python’s Flying Circus, which premiered on British television in 1969. Their oeuvre mainly concentrated on TV, films, touring stage shows and records. Still today, they are certainly recognized as one of the most influential comedy groups of the late 1900s. In 2005, three of them were voted into the list of the Top 30 comedians of all time by other comedians from the UK and the USA.

Lesser known is the fact that one of the members of Monty Python – the one who was voted number 21 in aforementioned list – also wrote a stage play, that was produced in the London West End in 1982.

I was, at the time, engaged in English Drama Group of Münster University and in the spring of that year discovered what would become my favourite role I ever played on stage. As I usually did more than once a year during the 70s and 80s, I spent a few weeks in Britain. When browsing through some record shops in Soho one day, a poster for a play by Eric Idle caught my eye. The English Drama Group were, needless to say, all fans of English humour and comedy – Monty Python were cited regularly. Hardly having seen the advert, I had already bought a ticket for the play – hoping but not foreseeing, that I would spend one of the most amusing evenings in theatre at the Globe a couple of days later.

Revolving around a hilariously played protagonist William Rushton – long time radio and TV comedian – I saw what has been described as ”A satirical look at British social and political mores“, with all the Idle humour you could wish for. Every character in this comedy-cum-mystery is a little more than a bit over the top, mostly a bunch of upper class loonies (not quite as overplayed as in the Pythons’ sketch Upper Class Twit of the Year, but you get the picture).

The scene of Pass the Butler is the country home of the Charles family. Sir Robert Charles (a Tory) is Minister of Defence and Deputy Prime Minister of the UK – but he is dying, having suffered a heart attack about a year ago, which has successfully been withheld from the public until this day. He is on life support, laid in a coffin in the middle of the estate drawing room (i.e., the middle of the stage). The family have decided to pull the plug – it’s Sir Robert’s birthday and everyone gather in the room; Lady Charles, heir apparent Hugo (38), his twin sister Annabel (29); their younger brother Nigel, an Oxford student of Zen buddhism; Kitty, a nanny not just a little hard of hearing but also seemingly quite dim-witted; Ronnie, a politician friend of Sir Robert’s; and Butler, the butler. But right before the ceremony of switching Sir Robert off, they get the message, that the Prime Minister has died and Sir Robert is the new Prime Minister. They wait, yet within minutes, the life support machine stops – the Prime Minister has mysteriously been murdered by other means.

A police inspector had arrived on the scene beforehand, pretending to be a journalist, as well as a reporter claiming to be the police and they all together try to solve the riddle of the murder. In the evolving confusion, it is revealed that Sir Robert is not Sir Robert, but – no, no spoiler, just a word that Idle is playing on the themes of transvestism and transgendering. (Just a reminder: at the time, Margaret Thatcher was the first female British Prime Minister.) During the course of the rest of the farce, almost everybody learns that they are not who they and the audience believed they were – a typically Pythonesque chaos.

Critics did not give the play all the recognition it deserved. The first production was by the Cambridge Theatre Company in 1981 and it was then brought to the Globe in the West End in early 1982. Michael Coveney in the Financial Times reviewed its opening night as ”…a cheap reproduction of Joe Orton, combining elements of Loot and What the Butler Saw in a flagrantly tactless exercise of misguided hommage.“ The Daily Telegraph confirmed it to have ”an atmosphere of skyborne lunacy … splendidly nonsensical … kept its first night audience laughing continuously.“ The Harvard Crimson decided that “Idle uses the opportunity to take pot shots Americans, the British government, and the class system while moralizing on euthanasia;” whilst “the abrupt, anticlimactic denouement fails to resolve all the political and moral issues it raises. But as entertainment, Pass the Butler is more than satisfying.”

Pass the Butler only lasted in the Globe for less than five months. But it has been around time and again since then. One of the latest productions to be found on the web was by the Brighton Theatre Company from Brighton, Melbourne, Australia, in November 2018.

However, I at least was enthused and bought the book the next day, took it home to Münster and suggested it be our next production. The troupe was as positive about this as me, and thus it came to pass that, as far as I know, Pass the Butler had its German premiere on the Studiobühne of Münster University in February 1983, with yours truly thoroughly enjoying the part of Hugo, based on a fantastic Willie Rushton in the original.

Flashback: The Birthday Party

Harold Pinter’s play The Birthday Party had its London premiere – on this day in 1958 – at the Lyric Theatre in Hammersmith. The critics didn’t take to it and shot it down in flames – it was taken off after not even a week’s run. What made the play so controversial, and why is it still met with a mixed bag of emotions today? You’re about to find out.

Written during a prolific phase in 1957 that also saw two of his other plays set in claustrophobic rooms come to life – The Room and The Dumb Waiter – all of these rooms experience an invasion by unwanted intruders. This is about as much of a theme as we get; any approach to interpreting the play is an attempt as volatile as trying to penetrate a sealed and impervious surface with a toothpick.  Pinter himself never gave any explanation either, thereby evoking James Joyce’s concept of the artist “like the God of the creation, [who] remains […] above his handiwork […] paring his fingernails.”

British society at the time experienced massive changes. The NHS came to live,  social-housing schemes introduced and a solid education available to everyone in British society. Plays that merely depicted the lives of middle-class people ceased in popularity, seeing a new wave of plays such as Osborne’s Look Back in Anger and Beckett’s Waiting for Godot sweep the stages of the country. Against this backdrop of changes in politics, society and education, the theatre of the absurd became a loose movement where events and actions remain unexplained and illogical, not pursuing any kind of particular theme.

What was new and to a certain degree outrageous about The Birthday Party was what fellow playwright David Campton described as the ‘Comedy of Menace’. With Pinter, elements of intertextuality and an interplay of meta-stories, myths, archetypes and what’s today called lampshading proved too much for his contemporaries to stomach. Audiences were left bewildered by a play that was told in a very conventional way, but then let the action drift off and play with the audience’s perception of how a play was supposed to evolve. This posed too big a challenge to the audience and critics in the late 1950s, a circumstance that wasn’t helped by the use of language that was markedly poetic and laced with metaphors. To sum it up, an appreciation of the absurd had not yet found its way into people’s minds and is exactly what makes The Birthday Party so mysteriously nubile today.

I like the play as it keeps you in suspense throughout, conveying a world without any outside authority or governing moral values. The protagonists are the ‘bad guys’ who define arbitrary values. However, the absurd element of the play prevents the plot from following up on deeds in a way logical to human conduct in a way you’d expect it from conventional storytelling. There are stark allusions to death and violent revenge that, albeit never come to fruition, keep lingering on like a subtle charm of malediction. The two intruders are the harbingers of spiritual and psychological destruction, and none of the other characters have the guts to confront or even question them. And yes, some of the dialogue – especially the scenes involving Goldberg – is razor-sharp and witty in a way only Pinter could write it.

Photo by In Defense of the Artist shared under the CC-BY-2.5 license

Flashback: Marketplace 76

Wednesday, November 20th 2013, Marketplace 76 by Jan Lauwers & Needcompany at the Théâtre Molière de Sète.

During my first year of theater studies in Montpellier, I was told by a teacher to go see the show Marketplace 76. A few of my fellow students and I went there together, very excited to discover something new. My seat was in the back on the left, I sat and waited for the show to begin. The show was about a gas explosion happening in a village. They talked about how the survivors deal with each other despite grief, incest, pedophilia, suicide, and kidnapping.

While watching this show I couldn’t think of anything else, no time to check my watch, no time to remember when the last tram runs. I was fully absorbed by the singing, the dancing, the acting, and the scene coming to life in front of me. They were talking French and English, there was snow falling from the ceilling, dance metaphors that said things that would have been too hard to watch. I laughed, I cried, I squeezed my fists, I cried again, and at the end I was left empty.

I knew that theatre was what I needed in my life, but at the time, I wasn’t exactly sure what I wanted. This show made me understand which “kind” of theatre I wanted to do. So a few years later, I decided to pack my things and move to Germany. My goal was to get to act in different languages and to go on stage to make the audience feel the same way that I was feeling on that night of the 20th of November 2013.

Thank you, Jan Lauwers & Needcompany.