Wednesday, May 08, 2013

Mercoledi Musicale

In my post yesterday about my first visit to Stratford I mentioned that the Beatrice for that production of Much Ado About Nothing was the Scottish actress Eileen Herlie.  Miss Herlie had a fascinating career.  Though 16 years younger than Olivier she played Gertrude to his Hamlet in his 1948 film version of Shakespeare's tragedy.  She was to repeat the role in the 1964 Broadway outing with Richard Burton - though at least this time she was 7 years older than her son.  That famous production was directed by John Gielgud who had directed her previously in the West End in Medea.  She was a member of Gielgud's classic company in his season at the Lyric Hammersmith and played frequently on the West End.

Fame - or infamy depending on your point of view -  came early in her career: in 1946 she appeared as the Queen (left with co-star James Donald) in John Cocteau's exercise in intellectual melodrama, The Eagle Has Two Heads.  As the Queen of an unnamed Ruritanian country she performed what was one the longest speeches in the history of the English stage.  Ronald Duncan's translation contained some 2,982 words; her twenty-one minute tirade ranged from memories of her dead husband to an invitation to a young poet, who resembles her dead beloved, to assassinate her.  It was a performance that left opinion divided and very few on the fence - it was either a tour de force of acting or a theatrical pony trick.

Herlie was to divide critics, and audiences, throughout her varied career.  Harold Hobson adored her but she was the victim of Kenneth Tynan's acid tongue on more than one occasion.  Her Medea was memorably sent up by Hermione Gingold as "the grreat tradddgic awktress".   A transfer to Broadway of Thorton Wilder's The Matchmaker brought her to North America in 1956 and she stay there until her death in 2008.  During that time, in New York and on tour,  she played classics, modern (Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf), comedy, melodrama and musical comedy.

Eileen Herlie in  publicity photo for her
role as Myrtle Fargate in All My Children.
She was to play the role for 32 years.
Musical comedy?  Yes, though she really didn't have much of a singing voice the one thing Eileen Herlie had was presence.  In 1960 she held her own against Jackie Gleason and won a Tony nomination for Take Me Along, a musical adaptation of Eugene O'Neil's Ah Wilderness.  Two years later she appeared with Ray Bolger in the ill-fated All American.  With a script half-written by the young Mel Brooks - he failed to delivery act 2 and director Joshua Logan had to take over - and a story tailored to the talents of a fading star the show didn't stand much a chance of success.  But what it did have was Eileen Herlie and a lovely song that was to become a standard, Charles Strouse-Lee Adams'  Once Upon A Time.

Though it has been recorded by everyone from The Four Tops to Tony Bennett there is something quite touching and lovely about Bolger and Herlie's delivery on the original cast album.  Neither of them had great voices but they, and to my mind particularly Herlie, bring to it an aching melancholy of young love past, perhaps lessons learned and maybe even a quiet acceptance of the way life has turned out. 

In 1976 Eileen Herlie all but deserted the stage for the world of television soap opera.  She was to play the role of Myrtle Fargate on All My Children until three months before her death in 2008 at the age of 90.

As I said earlier - her's was a fascinating career.

May 8 - 1886: Pharmacist John Pemberton first sells a carbonated beverage named "Coca-Cola" as a patent medicine.

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1 comment:

Debra She Who Seeks said...

I can't say I'm familiar with her but I had read once that a much younger actress than Olivier had played his mother Gertrude in his Hamlet. aha! so that was her. Thanks for this post -- interesting info.