Lettice & Lovage is the play that has taken dramatist Peter Shaffer back to writing comedy for the first time since his classic Black Comedy all of 20 years ago. It has also taken him back to Maggie Smith, the actress who in the 1960’s premiered not only that, but such other short comedies of his as The Public Eye/The Private Ear, and for whom he wrote this full-length piece back in 1986, thereby neatly forecasting the row that was to erupt a year or so later, when Prince Charles took it upon his royal self to object in no uncertain terms to the way London was having its antique architecture torn apart in the name of soulless and heartless progress toward new buildings of chilly anonymity and featureless modernity.
It played to capacity for almost three years at the Globe Theatre in the West End, with casts headed by Maggie Smith and then Geraldine McEwan and latterly Carole Shelley; Miss Smith would have brought the play to Broadway fully 12 months ago, had this last year not then become the worst of her life thus far.
“Just after I left the London cast, I went on vacation with my husband (the playwright Beverly Cross) to the Virgin Islands. Joannie Plowright was with us and the day she had to leave we bicycled along the cliffs to wave goodbye to her boat, and I’d forgotten that American bicycles have their breaks on the pedals so the next thing I knew I was flying over the handlebars into a large cactus. That did my back in for months, and then in England I developed the same kind of thyroid condition Mrs. Bush suffers from so what with the eyes and the bones I spent the next 12 months racing around from doctor to doctor and thinking I might never work again. It was like being in a long dark tunnel from which I now feel I’m emerging, blinking into the B’way lights.”
And this time, of course, she comes back to New York as Dame Maggie, the honor received in this year’s royal listing. So how does she feel about that?
“Amazed, especially as I hadn’t done anything for a whole year. Perhaps they award it now for medical rather than theatrical reasons.”
This is not, of course, her first visit to the Great White Way: indeed her career started there back in 1956 when, recognized in a fringe London revue by the producer Leonard Sillman, she became one of his New Faces at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre. Since then she has returned twice, in 1975 for Coward’s Private Lives and in 1980 for Tom Stoppard’s rather less successful Night and Day.
“That was just so English they couldn’t understand us at all over here, and we were off in a matter of weeks; but I do think Lettice & Lovage has a rather better chance of survival, if only because its central themes of destruction and preservation are ones that New York must also be thinking about.”
Since 1958, when Peter Shaffer made his name and his stage reputation simultaneously and almost overnight with Five Finger Exercise in the West End and then on Broadway, it is perhaps fair to suggest that all his major work, from The Royal Hunt of the Sun through Equus to Amadeus and now Lettice & Lovage (which Graham Greene might have termed and “entertainment” rather than a major drama, but which is nonetheless very characteristic and central to any understanding of his writing), has had one thing in common. Each script sets up two central characters in opposition, one of whom is flamboyantly unusual (Mozart in Amadeus, the boy who blinds the horses in Equus, Atahuallpa in Royal Hunt) and the other whom is defiantly average (Salieri in Amadeus, the psychiatrist in Equus, Pizarro in Royal Hunt) until dazzled by the genius of his opponent.
Here the two women, played as originally in London by Dame Maggie and Margaret Tyzack, are struggling over the nature of preservation and conservation: for Smith history is there to be rewritten and relived whenever possible, while for Tyzack it is a matter of archive and record, totally lacking in human possibilities. But the greatness of Smith’s performance, which won several West End drama awards, lies in the way that she created a stage character who, while totally mad to others, remains utterly sane to herself.
Whether describing her equally eccentric offstage mother, who once led all-female Shakespeare troupes around France lightly disguised as Richard II or merely demolishing everything and everyone around in a determined quest to bring the past into the rather less magical present, even if that does mean staging all the great death scenes from history in her own basement, Lettice is one of the great offbeat anti-heroines of our changing times, and one of the reasons, I suspect, why the Broadway opening had been this long delayed was the utter impossibility of finding a star actress remotely as capable as Maggie of playing comedy from a classical base.
Like no other actress of her middle-fifties age or generation, Maggie Smith has always spanned two quite different worlds of performance: her early training was in revue and comedy, from which she switched abruptly to Laurence Olivier’s National Theatre and then Robin Phillip’s Stratford Ontario for five-year stays in great classical work from Desdemona to Cleopatra. Her two film Oscars, given for The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and California Suite, are also a fair indication of her range there: the Scots schoolmistress forever determined to put old heads on young bodies, and the jaundiced actress-wife of Michael Caine up for an Oscar and dreading every minute of the awards ceremony.
Though Shaffer has now drastically rewritten the play’s last scene, in which the two ladies rather than setting out to the story London’s more hideous landmarks find themselves a far more feasible and lucrative way of dealing with them, the rest of Lettice & Lovage remains an immensely topical and universal debate about what we expect of history and tradition, and the extent to which these can prove of any of any use in a modern world which seems less and less to care about them or for them.
At a time when the West End seemed full of musicals and very little else, of note, the survival of Lettice & Lovage across three seasons was a reminder that Shaffer has always been able, even in the heart of the commercial theatrical jungle, to engage an audience in adult and literate debate about the way they live now: in that sense, he is one of the very few genuinely transatlantic writers of the century. A dramatist whose scripts have always seemed as totally at home in New York as in London, perhaps unsurprisingly since he has divided his adult life almost equally between the two cities.
Since he first staged Lettice & Lovage for the West End, the Australian director Michael Blakemore has gone on to give Broadway the City of Angels production which, more than any other in my view, marks the long-awaited rebirth of the American musical for the 1990’s. But his versatility as a stage director is nowhere better marked than in the way he has turned what could easily have been a two-woman conversation into one of the wittiest and most accessible productions of recent times.
Shaffer himself has called Dame Maggie “one of Britain’s best national treasures”, and to a certain extent his play is about our need to cherish the others before the bulldozers get around to them. It is perhaps precisely because Shaffer has spent so much of his life away from his native Britain that he sees, more clearly than most of us long-term residents, the danger of destruction all around: Lettice & Lovage is an affirmation of the human spirit at its most eccentric and resilient, and at the same time a sharp reminder that if we don’t look after our own history nobody else ever will.