Playbill Readers' Circle for August: 'I Will Be Cleopatra' and The Crucible

Playbill Readers' Circle for August: 'I Will Be Cleopatra' and The Crucible Two giants of mid-twentieth-century theatre are highlighted in the August Playbill Readers’ Circle, featuring selections from the Drama Book Shop.

Two giants of mid-twentieth-century theatre are highlighted in the August Playbill Readers’ Circle, featuring selections from the Drama Book Shop.

The main selection is actress Zoe Caldwell’s memoir, "I Will Be Cleopatra." The script selection is an annotated version of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, a play that enjoyed a starry Broadway revival this year.

I Will Be Cleopatra (Norton Books, hardcover, $22.95) by Zoe Caldwell.
Four-time Tony winner Caldwell’s memoir of her childhood in Australia and her early years rising to stardom in Great Britain and North America. The title refers to the book’s climax; with Ms. Caldwell landing the starring role in Antony and Cleopatra at the Stratford Festival in Ontario.

Some might have said the climax of her early career was her Broadway triumph in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (Tony Award) or being chosen to originate roles in plays by Arthur Miller (The Creation of the World and Other Business) and Tennessee Williams (Slapstick Tragedy, also a Tony Award). But with the firmness and resolute devotion to the classics that have marked her entire career, Caldwell sticks by Cleo, which she played opposite Christopher Plummer in 1969.

Her book is structured like Moss Hart’s Act One or the Williams biography Tom in that it takes us up to the point when the subject became famous, apparently assuming that anyone who would buy the book already knows the rest pretty well. She asserts that her performance as Cleopatra served as the basis for all that came after — which has included other barely mentioned Tony-winning performances in Medea and Master Class, plus a stint in this summer’s Disney animated hit "Lilo and Stitch" as the Grand Councilwoman. Though Caldwell started her stage career (as she loves to recall) as the Lost Boy "Slightly Soiled" in an Australian production of Peter Pan, she seems to have been born to play Grand Councilwoman roles all her life. She was raised in the classical repertory tradition, and by her mid-twenties had appeared in major Shakespearean roles on three continents.

There are many points where her career might have gone on the rocks, but her book reads like a captain’s log of how she kept steering herself through the troubled waters of fame, with the star of her own talent always guiding her.

The slim, small-format book is packed with apt little word sketches of Caldwell’s friends and co-stars, some whom she liked (Albert Finney, Hume Cronyn, Jessica Tandy), some she disliked (Charles Laughton), some she admired and learned from (Judith Anderson, Paul Robeson). She describes her Slapstick Tragedy co-star Maggie Leighton as "very tall, very thin and frail, and looked like moonlight." Of her work with Plummer, she writes, "We were royal, we were carnal, we were leaders, we were slaves, and anything was possible."

Caldwell also refers to romantic issues, including a minor scandal with Albert Finney, and her affairs leading up to her marriage to producer Robert Whitehead, who died recently, and to whom this book is dedicated. She generally displays a ladylike circumspection about names and details, though, oddly, takes time to describe the breasts of many of the women mentioned in the book.

For Caldwell, theatre was almost literally her passport to discovery of the world and human nature, and her talent was her calling card. She’s one of the great modern divas of stage drama, and we can only hope that this will be only the first published volume of her life story. Who Will Buy? Caldwell fans. Fans of the classics. Young actors who want to learn what it was like to become a star in a very different era, with very different training and discipline. People who like Horatio Alger-like tales of those who rise from the bottom to the top by dint of talent and hard work.

The Crucible (Penguin Books) by Arthur Miller.
This new annotated version of the script offers several CD-ROM-like features. In addition to the same text used in the 2002 Broadway revival, the book features a foreword by the director of that production, Richard Eyre, an afterword by drama professor and author Christopher Bigsby, the text of a scene cut from the original 1953 production and other goodies.

But the highlight, apart from the playscript itself, is the way Miller interrupts his own text from time to time with commentary on his research into the people and society of the time, and offers insight into the real-life people who inspired his characters. The book gives glimpses of Miller’s research into the climate of religious panic that produced the eighteenth-century witch trials in Salem, Massachusetts, and vicinity which condemned hundreds of innocent people to hanging or burning on evidence that was corrupt or coerced.

The Crucible has always been received as an allegory of the destructive 1950's anti-communist campaign by Sen. Joseph McCarthy and the House of Representatives’ Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC), which sought to track down and expose supposed communists in American government, business and cultural institutions. History has shown that some of those pursued by the committee were indeed communists and a few were indeed Russian agents. But the fact remains that many were ordinary citizens pursuing their Constitutional rights to believe whatever they liked, and saw their careers, reputations and lives destroyed as a result.

Miller’s circle of friends and co-workers was deeply involved in both sides of the HUAC "witchhunts," though Miller himself has always sought to downplay The Crucible’s connections with that period. And, indeed, each generation seems to produce its own sort of ideological witchhunts, and the play grows more timeless as time passes.

The same might be said of Miller himself, who has been enjoying a renaissance, partly through the dedication of several key producers, which has led to Broadway revivals of The Price, All My Sons the Tony winning 50th anniversary Death of a Salesman, and the Broadway premiere of Ride Down Mt. Morgan. It was only a matter of time before The Crucible got another look, and that time arrived in 2002 with the Liam Neeson revival. A photo from that production appears on the cover of this edition.

In a fascinating note, director Eyre writes that in 1969 he did a production of The Crucible in Edinburgh attended by a party of schoolboys, with whom he met afterward to discuss the play. "About 25 years later I met one of the boys who had been present, who talked of the impression that the play had made on him. He said it had woken him up to the latent tyranny of a repressive society and the dangers incurred in dissent, and it made him want to become an actor. But he became a politician: his name was Tony Blair," now prime minister of Great Britain.

Who will buy: Anyone who ever saw the show, and wants to know more of what went into it. People who are considering seeing the show, and want to know what they’re getting into. Fans of political theatre. Theatre lovers curious about Miler’s research, how he turned fact into fiction, and history into allegory.