"For of all sad words of tongue or pen, the saddest are these: 'It might have been!'" So said John Greenleaf Whittier, and he was right. The latest to rewrite his regrets with a "what if" fantasy is A.R. "Pete" Gurney, Jr. His play at Lincoln Center's Mitzi Newhouse Theater, The Grand Manner, "improves" on the reality of his first brush with Theatre.
The play is based on fact, somewhat — the operative word being "somewhat." In 1948 Gurney was in the advanced English class at St. Paul's School, a boarding school in Concord, NH, reading a lot of Shakespeare.
"We got to Antony and Cleopatra just as it was playing in New York with Katharine Cornell," he recalls. "I'd always heard about her because she came from Buffalo and my grandmother knew her family. I wanted to get out of school, so I got special permission to go down and see her for the class, which was an unusual thing at the time. And I had my grandmother write ahead, saying, 'Peter is coming to town. Can he come backstage?'
"I was a callow kid of 17 or 18, but I got backstage and met her in a room outside her dressing room at the Martin Beck. She said, 'Hello, Peter. How are you?' And I knew enough to say 'terrific performance' and all that. Then she said, 'Would you like to come and have a Coca-Cola?' I was too nervous so I said, 'No, thank you,' and left. That was the whole encounter. Later, I started to think what if I had stayed and had that Coke, what would have happened and what would it have done to me?" Basically, that's the play. Bobby Steggert is the boy Gurney; Kate Burton, who hails from theatrical aristocracy herself, is the grandly mannered Cornell; Boyd Gaines is her homosexual husband and director, Guthrie McClintic; and Brenda Wehle is her lover and general manager, Gert Macy — quite a merry little maze for a wide-eyed innocent to stumble into. Under Mark Lamos' direction, they mix it up accordingly.
"I could never have written this within ten years of having seen it, just for legal reasons — I'd be sued," Gurney admits. "Now, I think it's fair game, and I don't think I'm destructive or critical of these characters, but I do take liberties with them.
"Why now — or, at least, last year — did I decide to write a play about them? I'm not sure. I'm not a big keeper of things, but all these years I've kept my souvenir program that she signed that night. It has followed me. It would just come back into my head at certain points that this was my first sense of Broadway, of backstage."
A neighbor of Gurney's up in Connecticut, Alan Shayne, had been in that particular Antony and Cleopatra and reminisced profusely about the later-day legends in the cast: Godfrey Tearle was Cornell's Antony; Maureen Stapleton, the handmaiden who assisted her suicide; Eli Wallach, a soothsayer; Joseph Wiseman, a eunuch; Tony (then Anthony) Randall and Charlton Heston, assorted spear-carriers.
"Katharine Cornell felt very proprietary about her actors. She saw new actors around and brought them into the theatre. She noticed Brando's talent and made him her Marchbanks in Candida. She was very helpful to other actors, very concerned about their welfare. She went on the road a lot and made sure they were comfortable and had a place to stay. She played the grande dame role all the way.
"What defines a star today is very different. Katharine Cornell was a star because of her stage acting. There's a famous story of her opening in Seattle. The train was delayed because there was snow on the tracks, and the audience was told she would not get there till one in the morning. They stayed, and she played — till after three in the morning! And the audience still waited around just to greet her when she came out of the dressing room. That's a star — but a star of the stage."
And a true star of the stage she was. "Except for a bit in 'Stage Door Canteen,' she never made a movie and never wanted to," Gurney explains. "The little television she did you can find at the Paley Center — The Barretts of Wimpole Street, which was her big moneymaker, and There Shall Be No Night, which the Lunts originally did — and you can tell she's not comfortable with television. In fact, when she did it, she insisted on playing it straight through without stopping or shooting it from another angle. She had to get the feel of doing a play. She couldn't act in the movies without an audience because nothing was coming back.
"One of the last things they offered her was the head nun that Edith Evans wound up playing in 'The Nun's Story.' I know because Robert Anderson, who wrote the screenplay, was a pal up at Roxbury. They begged her, but she wouldn't. We talk about movie acting in the play. She didn't say it, but I made up this allusion that it's like talking on the phone when you're not sure the connection is still there. There's nothing coming back. She always needed an audience to react and respond."
Come to that, Gurney needs it, too. "I feel very strong that theatre is an important part of cultural life. It brings people together in a room to collaborate on a thing — and then to collaborate with an audience about making it work — particularly in America, where we are more and more isolated, listening to our own iPods and our own little private computer screens.
"It's so important that American audiences get that feeling of community which we have already created in working on the play."