“OUT, OUT, BRIEF CANDLE!”: MY DRAMATIC STAGE CAREER
BY: JAMES F. O’NEIL
CHARISMA: Synonyms: allure, appeal, attractiveness, charm, glamor, magnetism, pizzazz (or pizazz). Example: Her acting skills were recognized and her significant screen charisma widely acknowledged.
I was told in speech class that from Ancient Greek χᾰ́ρῐσμᾰ (khárisma, “grace, favor, gift”), from χᾰρῐ́ζομαι (kharízomai, “I show favor”), from χᾰ́ρῐς (kháris, “grace”), from χαίρω (khaírō, “I am happy”) is easily translated for speech or drama as “ham,” as in “hamming it up.” Some have it; some don’t. It’s a divinely conferred gift or power. Yet it is luck, too.
A drama can be “a composition in prose or verse presenting in dialogue or pantomime a story involving conflict or contrast of character, especially one intended to be acted on the stage,” known as “a play.” Simply put, and easy to remember, it is “character portrayal in action.”
We’ve all had or have basic Aristotelian dramatic lives, with beginning, middle, and–of course–The End. Some lives are more dramatic than others–cover life-stories on People or Time, historical, political, religious lives. Some longer than others; some “snuffed out,” like brief “candles in the wind,” sadly “before their time.”
Yes, our lives are a series of ups and downs: Rising Action, Falling Action, with Complications and Crises and Climaxes–and Denouements, for good measure. As Kurt Vonnegut put it so well, “So it goes.”
Therefore, aside from the “usual” “dramatic” entrance at the “miracle” of birth most of us make, and then our daily living, careers, jobs, opportunities, few of us have or have had the actual opportunity to play out a drama or two on a stage, to “tread the boards,” before an audience. “LIGHTS!” “CURTAINS!” –complete with rehearsals and line readings and memorizations, greasepaint, and costuming.
I never had a burning desire to have my name in Broadway lights or my name in Playbill. Yet I did have some exciting times with theater/theatre and drama, both teaching and acting.
What did I know without ever having had an acting course? Where did it all begin? How does it go, “Once upon a time…”?
Doing puppet shows for the kids in the neighborhood when I was in elementary school, I was known as a “ham” for some time. I remember in 7th grade being in the front of the classroom, sitting on a wooden stool, dressed in a fuzzy men’s bathrobe (my dad’s): “Bah! Humbug!” My lines uttered in my first great “stage” production!
My career took off! Smaller roles were offered me as I progressed, a few high school plays, bit parts, minor roles. (I did have trouble with memorization, a definite downside for one seeking a stage experience.) Roles in college were limited, though I performed in at least one theater-in-the-round production, and in the musical Oklahoma, when I was a junior.
One important dramatic lead I had was in The Potting Shed, a 1957 play by Graham Greene. The psychological drama centers on a secret held by the Callifer family for nearly thirty years, a mysterious moment that occurred in the family’s potting shed. Family members recall the event, but “vital lies, simple truths” left a son rejected by his father, alienated from his family, and alone in the world.
I had the good fortune to play Father Callifer, the whiskey priest. No other part has moved me more or had a greater effect on my later life. [Some other acting I also did as a member of a folk-singing group.]
And then it was over, I thought. College ended. “English-Philosophy Major seeking work”: My jobs included hospital orderly, parts-man for a large electronics company, and USPS mail-truck driver. Then the big break, not at all planned as part of my “career goals” (my Uncle Bill thought I would make a great salesman): full-time teaching, with benefits and perks.
My first teaching job in 1963 paid $4500 a year and “Have you any drama experience?” “Of course.” “That’s another $250. We have a new auditorium and stage. You’ll be the first drama coach.” And into the fire of the crucible I went, to be tested.
Brother Orchid was the first real play I ever “directed.”
Based on a 1940 movie in which Edward G. Robinson plays an orchid-loving gangster (!), Little John Sarto, who aspires to “real class.” It’s a good ‘40s gangster movie, and a delightful play for an all-boys /men’s high school. Our total budget was $100.00. My wife was the make-up artist, using her best “putting-on-her-face” skills to a bunch of young men who probably have never forgotten the newlywed-wife of the newly-initiated English teacher/Drama Coach.
The play is fun to do and fun to watch. Sarto the Gangster is being usurped by another mobster (Humphrey Bogart). Not wanting to be “rubbed out,” Sarto escapes to and hides out in a monastery. Pretending he would like to become a monk himself, with humor and plot twists and resolutions, the gangster who likes flowers decides to become Brother Orchid, and does find real class.
The play was a hit, with its good acting, homemade sets, and parents’ support and help in the wings. Delightful. And I was re-hired for another year, this time to teach juniors and seniors, and to do one major play. So goes the history: Stalag 17. Success, and more homemade sets and another $100 budget. Then, my best production in my third year, mostly with seniors, many who were now “drama-savvy,” was Twelve Angry Men.
The father of one of the lead “actors” organized a party for cast and crew. The seniors were moving on; I was leaving the school for a new adventure in college teaching. My drama career was over. Not a long run, by many standards, but a few opening nights and a few successes.
I’ve seen plays, professional and non-professional, fewer operas, and have watched many, many movies (visual cinematic screenPLAYS). I have my favorites of each: West Side Story (Romeo and Juliet), La bohème, Phantom of the Opera, Macbeth (dark and bloody-hell), Shakespeare in Love (a favorite, a love story about acting and drama and Shakespeare–and, of course, mystery); the movie and play-within-a play A Chorus Line; and my favorite? Of all of Shakespeare? Movie (and its versions)? Othello: Ah! War, jealousy, sex, intrigue, love, racism, murder, suicide–and that green-eyed monster JEALOUSY. What great drama!
Looking back now at all my directing and acting, the happy and the sad, the fun and the serious–all part of my dramatic life–I reflect upon my brief tale, no woe, just good drama, and great memoriesofatime. Because of all this, in many ways I do appreciate acting, plays, and movies more since I have been “there”–not making movies, but the acting part. The hard work part. And, that part that got me high school yearbook recognition: “DRAMA CLUB.” Reward enough.
How to end here? “Our revels now are ended”? Or maybe, “All’s well that ends well”? I thought I might end with Macbeth’s familiar lines: “Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player // That struts and frets his hour upon the stage // And then is heard no more.” (Macbeth 5.5.23-26) Powerful. But not uplifting, though “dramatic” enough.
No, I thought I needed a real Swan Song, that which represented and summarized all my life and the liveliness of My Dramatic Life:
© JAMES F O’NEIL 2018
“The rarer action is // In virtue than in vengeance.” The Tempest 5.1.27-28