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Black Lamb


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The best show ever

May 1st, 2007


arthurjean-copy.jpgA while ago I wrote about often having been asked who was the best I’d ever worked with, and the difficulty of giving a definitive answer. Less frequently I’m asked what was the best performance I’ve ever seen. That’s an easy one: Jean Arthur as Peter Pan.

Considering how well I remember details of that performance, it’s perhaps surprising that I can’t think of the year, but this is being written from Los Angeles and I don’t have access to my records in New York: suffice it to say that it was comfortably over half a century ago. A few years later there was another production, also a musical, with Mary Martin. It was very well received, and later done on television, and quite a lot of people remember it, and it suffered greatly (in my opinion) by comparison with the Arthur version.

Peter Pan is generally considered to be a story for children, particularly by people who haven’t read it. Ms. Martin’s version pretty much hewed to that line; it emphasized the comedy in the material, and the dual role of Mr. Darling and Captain Hook was played by Cyril Ritchard, one of the most accomplished farceurs of his generation. There were of course a lot of laughs in Ms. Arthur’s production as well, but essentially her take was Peter as a tragic hero. Her costar was Boris Karloff, and his Hook was absolutely terrifying. He got the laughs all right, but it was perfectly obvious that he wanted to drink that boy’s blood.

You may remember that Peter’s first appearance is after the Darling children have gone to bed: he comes in through the bedroom window in search of his shadow, which Mrs. Darling has accidentally detached (don’t ask — read the book). For Ms. Martin’s Peter this was rather an inconvenience; for Ms. Arthur it was a disaster. From that moment I was totally absorbed. I hung on her every word, I was mesmerized by her every gesture. And I wasn’t the only one. This was an evening performance, not a matinee, so there were a lot of adults in the audience, and they was as enthralled as I. At the end of the first act Peter was trapped on a small island with the tide coming in. (I don’t remember why he couldn’t fly to safety, but he couldn’t. Read the book.) The curtain line was “To die will be an awfully big adventure”; if I could come up with a line reading to match that one once in my life I would be ecstatic, and if I could once in my life induce an audience reaction like the one she got — well, I don’t know. What tops ecstatic?

But the best was yet to come.

Toward the end of the second act, Tinker Bell, the fairy, having drunk some poison intended for Peter, is dying. Peter comes down to the lip of the stage and tells the audience that only their belief in fairies can save Tink, and begs them to clap their hands if they believe, and on this particular evening the entire audience stood up. It was one of the loudest ovations I’ve ever heard, and as I write this the hair on the back of my neck is standing up, too.

I don’t know if you knew this, but Ms. Arthur was almost pathologically shy. To give you some idea, her house in Carmel had one of the most beautiful views in the whole state of California; this did her little good because she had a tall fence built around the whole property so that no one could see in. Anyway, the producers had laid on a limo service to get her away from the theater as quickly and unobtrusively as possible. On this evening it was raining a bit, and I was standing with my mother outside the stage door with the program and pen, and the limo arrived and stopped so that I was right beside the passenger door, and the stage door opened and Ms. Arthur came out sheltering under the arm of Mr. Karloff, and they came bustling toward the limo, and Mr. Karloff saw me standing there with tears running down my cheeks and he stopped.

And Ms. Arthur looked up at him to see why, saw he was looking at me, and she looked at me, and then she grabbed the pen and the program and signed it for me and they got into their limo and drove away. •

Posted by: The Editors
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