It’s like admitting you like tinned salmon. To hell with it. I have no shame. I like tinned salmon and The Sound of Music.
Christopher Plummer’s portrayal of the aristocratic Austrian Baron von Trapp — amused, understated and ironic — is everything I fancy in a man: heavy-lidded sleepy cynicism personified. Which is why his autobiography, recently published by Knopf, was such a welcome present to find under the Christmas tree. In it, Plummer examines his career with an instructive lack of vanity, concluding that his success, as the title of the book suggests, was achieved In Spite of Myself.
Make that “in spite of alcohol,” too, because the book is awash in accounts of drunken actors, himself included, failing to turn up for performances or — when they did turn up — doing so in such a pickled condition as to remove their capacity to speak, perform or do anything other than get in the way of other actors forced to improvise around them. It’s presented as riotously funny, which — to the drinkers — it must have been. The stories are told with perverse pride as if being present at the booze-up was a confirmation of talent, whereas, in fact, Plummer’s genius was ill-served by sousing.
When, once upon a time, I had notions of becoming a great stage star, I started, as all student actors did, at a desk in the wings of the stage under a tiny light, where, every night, I turned over the pages of the play script in sync with where the actors on stage had got to, ready to prompt if one of them missed a line or dried up. Towards the end of the run of any play was the most dangerous point. By that time, the actors were so used to the script that they could do it on auto-pilot. Plus they were often tired, because they were rehearsing a new play in the daytime and beginning to celebrate the end just a tad before the play actually closed.
That’s what happened towards the end of the first Abbey Theatre production of Brian Friel’s The Loves of Cass Maguire starring Siobhan McKenna, a legend in her own lunchtime.
McKenna was the great Irish actress. The definitive Pegeen Mike. The minute she walked onto the stage as Cass, the returned working class Yank, the audience erupted in applause.
I thought she was a complete fraud, but earnestly observed her each night in young cannibal mode: you have something I need and I may, by fierce watching, be able to absorb and internalise whatever it is.
Cass Maguire has one scene where the old woman sits on a couch and has a conversation with her grandson, played, in that production, by the wonderful Niall Buggy. Came the night when Niall emerged out of the darkness at the back of the stage and gave McKenna the cue for her (lengthy) first speech. Silence. I prompted McKenna. Niall gave the line again, louder. Silence. Another prompt from me, this time in a hissing shriek, because I could see that she had fallen asleep. Niall copped on at the same time, and — like one of the great barnstormers Plummer writes about — played the entire scene on his own, along the lines of “I know you’re asleep, but if you were awake, I know you’d say…” It worked rather better than the normal scene did, so the curtain for the interval fell to thunderous applause, which concealed the noise the tiny stage manager made as she arrived out in front of the two actors, banged down a percolator of black coffee and an oversized mug, drew back, and with all of her considerable force, belted McKenna back and forth across the face until she blearily regained consciousness. A litre of caffeine later, she was almost fit for the rest of the performance, and Buggy was a hero. Wot a laff.
Wot a laff those alcohol-sodden theatre days were, to be sure, each performance followed by drinking sessions in the nearest pub, going on until the small hours in hotels like Groom’s, every one of the drunks convinced they were the wittiest, most talented, least appreciated performer in the world, the one or two teetotallers present letting on to agree, letting on to find the 90th reiteration of a not-so-funny story riotous, steering clear of those — like Donal McCann — who were never moved by liquor into benign incoherence but, instead, into shockingly cruel mimicry of young actors like Buggy, who had to pretend to be amused. Wot a laff.
Later, McCann’s alcoholism became so uncontrollable that the great Joe Dowling made an extraordinary arrangement with St John of God’s. In order to have McCann on stage, sober, throughout the run of a particular play in which he was breathtakingly good, Dowling had him brought, each night, from the hospital to the theatre by two heavies who sat in the wings, led him back to the dressing room and stood over him, whether on stage or off stage, until it was time to bring him back to St John of God’s for the night.
The excuse for all this drinking (not that anybody at the time felt the need for an excuse) was that alcohol was a countervailing force against the emotional demands of major parts. The excuse was that it had ever been thus, that alcohol was the catalyst of greatness. The excuse was the story of Barrymore reading his lines off his spear when his wet brain could no longer learn them — but still giving a stirring performance. Excuses came with the territory and nobody told the truth.
Instead, we all collaborated, the media included. Co-dependents to a man and a woman, we bought into the notion that geniuses in pressured professions needed and were entitled to drink and wouldn’t be half as good sober.
While the theatre still has more than its fair share of alcoholics, the level of tolerance and collaboration has dropped. Film actors are shoved into detox and rehab at a much younger age because producers on tight budgets can’t afford the cost of a cast hanging around waiting for a hungover cast member’s late arrival.
Similarly, corporate Ireland doesn’t pay out much rope to drinkers and the long liquid business lunch is largely a thing of the past.
On the political stage, however, the tolerance continues. Our public representatives have their very own equivalent of Groom’s Hotel, called the Dáil Bar and it takes decades for the media to even suggest, in the most safely coded language, that a particular politician is drinking too much. Remember, it was print media that came up with the phrase “tired and emotional” as a way of conveying “stinking drunk” without saying so.
Sooner or later, the media will tire of its co-dependency with hard-drinking politicians, just as the media tired of covering up for hard-drinking actors.
Sooner would be better.