13th November 2008, Art Workers Guild, London
THIS EVENT HAS TAKEN PLACE
Anthony Dunn is the official literary biographer of Wold Mankowitz. He is Visiting Principal Lecturer in English at the University of Portsmouth and as both academic and theatre journalist has publhhsed extensively on post-war British Theatre.
In his autobiography Kicking Against the Pricks, Oscar Lewenstein records that 1959 had been a good year for "our two companies", by which he meant the English Stage Company at the Royal Court and the joint-production company, Lewenstein/Mankowitz Productions, formed in 1955. The stage-musical version of Mankowitz's novella Make Me an Offer won the Evening Standard award for Best Musical of 1959 and had a combined run at the Theatre Royal, Stratford East, and the New Theatre in the West End, of 267 performances from mid-October 1959 to mid-June 1960. The joint-production company managed two other successful transfers from Stratford East to the West End in the same year: Shelagh Delaney's A Taste of Honey ran for over a year at Wyndham's, then at the Criterion, and Brendan Behan's The Hostage had a total run of 452 performances at Stratford, then Wyndham's.
Lewenstein's other company at the Royal Court took the bulk of the other Evening Standard major awards; Willis Hall's The Long and the Short and the Tall for Best Play, John Arden and Arnold Wesker for Most Promising Playwright, and Eric Porter as Best Acting Performance in the Royal Court production of Rosmersholm. Lewenstein was particularly pleased by the success of Willis Hall's work - "exactly the kind of play that Wolf and I and the English Stage Company had wanted to present, directed and performed in an exemplary way" - and summed up 1959 as a good year for the joint-company's production of plays which were "all successful artistically and financially, and all socially and theatrically progressive".
Lewenstein and Mankowitz complemented each other. Lewenstein, seven years older than Mankowitz, was a theatre entrepreneur of the Left. He was a Jewish Communist from the East End, largely self-educated, with solid experience of Left theatre through his years with the Unity Theatres of London and Glasgow. He was a founder-member, along with Ronald Duncan and George Devine, of the English Stage Company at the Royal Court, of which he had been General Manager since 1952.
Mankowitz was also East End Jewish, but had gained a scholarship to Downing College, Cambridge from East Ham grammar-school, where he read English under Dr Leavis and graduated in 1946. He remembered with admiration the rigorous professionalism of Leavis's approach to literary texts, contributed to Leavis's highly-influential literary journal Scrutiny, and co-edited with Raymond Williams and Clifford Collins two other important literary journals, The Critic and Politics and Letters (1947-48). But, as he says in a long, wide-ranging interview with Gerald Davies of the Dublin Art Gallery (hereafter the Archive Interview), conducted the year before his death, literary criticism alone wouldn't support his family and he began writing journalism and running an antiques shop specialising in Wedgwood in Piccadilly Arcade in 1947. In the Archive Interview he also describes himself as "a Freudian and a Marxist living in Ireland" and recalls being expelled by Robert Bolt from the Cambridge branch of the Communist Party for "cultural deviance".
The Marxist deviance in much of his work is, I suggest, a valuing of exchange over production, and a fascination for the 'trickster' figures who effect such exchanges, rather than for workers who produce goods. His version of "the people", a much-debated term in the years after the end of "The People's War", is either what he called in an interview for the Jewish journal The Day (Dec. 22, 1957) the "little people of the world" whose "full Jewish flavour" he is trying to get into the English he writes; or, as he announced in a heated debate with, in particular, Colin Wilson at the Royal Court on November 18, 1956, "the veteran Cockney, old, out-moded...an infantryman who sweats and stinks...and has no place at all...yet embodies - for me - much more fundamental qualities than the outsiders, the insiders, and the backsiders". Mankowitz's people, in this period are small-time dealers, whose theatres of operations are the markets, not the factories, of the metropolis, and whose cultural inheritance is a mixture of East European Yiddish and East End Cockney.
Two early Lewenstein/Mankowitz productions cover this spectrum of interests. They mounted a production, with an English cast of Meier Tzelniker, Maureen Lipman, Alfie Bass and David Kossoff, directed by Sam Wanamaker, of The World of Sholom Aleichem, a 1953 off-Broadway hit. It opened at the Embassy Theatre on January 11, 1955, and ran for some two months. Mankowitz saw his novellas and stories of this period as continuing the heritage of the great Yiddish chroniclers of the absurdities of life in the stetls of Russia and Eastern Europe. His London was a series of closed villages and his cockney the equivalent of Yiddish which he called "robust, vulgar, poetic...a great and sweet language for men to write in".
The following year the joint-company mounted the first West End production of Brecht/Weill's Threepenny Opera. Lewenstein notes in his autobiography that they wanted it to open the first season of the English Stage Company at the Royal Court, but Devine did not think the work suitable for the occasion so Lewenstein bought back the rights from the Court, agreed to give it a small percentage of the profits and, after raising production money from the wife of a West End impresario, produced it at the Court under the name of 'Peachum Productions Ltd. ' It had a successful run at the Court of six weeks from February 1956, then transferred successively and successfully to the Aldwych and the Comedy to total 167 performances.
This production also had an American presence, with the translation by Marc Blitzstein and direction by Sam Wanamaker. It could be argued that the close association of the English Stage Company with Brecht as playwright and theorist was initiated by a Jewish production company, with a Jewish translator and director. Indeed the key roles in production and finance of Lewenstein and Neville Blonde, and the presence of a member of the Seiff family on the Board of Management, point to the very important Jewish role in the survival of the English Stage Company in the first ten years of its existence.
Mankowitz, on his own admission, was something of a sleeping partner in the joint-company. Lewenstein handled the finances and was acute enough to spot the potential of, for example, Ionesco's Rhinosceros (with Olivier in the lead, 1960) or Sartre's Nekrassov (1957). Two productions actively instigated by Mankowitz, The Punch Review (1955) and The Art of Living (1960) were lightweight and not financially successful. With the latter Lewenstein records that he had begun not to take Mankowitz seriously because he felt "he was playing a part in a Hollywood film as he started to direct operations from the stalls at an audition". Mankowitz admits in the Archive Interview that he regarded producing as a kind of game, a hobby, but, as we have suggested, production as both fictional theme and professional practice haunted him throughout this period.
The one production in which he took great pride was Moby-Dick - Rehearsed, Orson Welles's adaptation of Melville's prose-epic. It ran for twenty-seven performances from June 19, 1955, at the Duke of York's Theatre and had a near sell-out audience. Gordon Jackson played Ishmael, Joan Plowright Pip and Patrick McGoohan Starbuck. An irascible Kenneth Williams played Elijah and later complained in his diaries about having to participate in a load of pretentious rubbish. Welles adapted the novel as an exercise in meta-theatre in which a group of nineteenth century actors rehearse this version of the hunt for the White Whale, slipping in and out of their roles as Young Actor and Ishmael, Young Actress and Pip, miming the pursuit and harpooning of Moby Dick, and using minimal props of ropes and platforms. Welles played the Actor-Manager, Father Mapple and Ahab and created a script which mixed prose with blank- verse renditions of Melville's prose.
The venture was as over-reaching as the hero's mad quest for vengeance. The Times report comments on the illusionist skill which conjured a typhoon out of "a dense tangle of ropes with here and there a spar" and J. C Trewin for the Illustrated London News seats us at the performance when he praises the imaginative economy of the stage-props: "A twist-and-twine of ropes had fallen from the flies; lamps sway overhead. And there, with voices and off-stage noises suitably orchestrated, is as fierce a hurricane as we could wish".
It was this Welles as conjuror who fascinated Mankowitz. He had already put his business skills at Welles's disposal earlier in the year. He had met him in Paris and found him "cutting some footage of Don Quixote with scissors". Mankowitz realised that Welles couldn't handle money so he arranged the sale of the novelization rights to his film Mr. Arkadin (English title: Confidential Report) to a French newspaper which ran the novel (ghosted by Maurice Bessy) serially before the film opened in Paris in March. Back in London Mankowitz negotiated with the BBC for a series entitled The Orson Welles Sketchbook, which was a success and he was offered a second series.
Welles's artistry, for Mankowitz, was the artistry of the trickster, with which he also identified himself. Early on in the Archive Interview he says that nearly all his books have been about the trickster archetype, that he himself has been a great trickster and that Welles "was like a character I might have written if I'd had the talent, but Orson wrote himself because he did have the talent". Welles had already played his greatest trick with his 1938 dramatisation of H. G. Welles's novella, The War of the Worlds, which convinced nearly two million Americans that Martians had indeed landed in the United States.
The radio play was broadcast by Welles's Mercury Company, and its title was apt, as Mercury/Hermes in classical mythology was the messenger of the gods, the go-between, the patron of thieves and merchants, the guardian of the boundary-stones between city and countryside where natives and aliens meet to do business. Mercurians, as Yuri Slezkine points out in his The Jewish Century, are professional cultivators of people and locate value in dealing and exchange. They are literate, multilingual, mobile, agile and curious. They are indispensable bridges over boundaries between tribes, kingdoms and states. They have, over the centuries, turned themselves into what Slezkine calls "service nomads", an accurate description of Welles's career after Citizen Kane, and a no less accurate description of Mankowitz's varied career in esoteric scholarship, avant-garde theatre, journalism, television, prose-fiction, musicals and film script writing.
Mankowitz, however, in his first stage-play, The Bespoke Overcoat, adapted from Gogol's short story "The Overcoat", was more concerned with service-providers than service nomads. It ran at the Arts Theatre for thirty performances, between June 25 and July 7 1953, and Lewenstein was so impressed by it that he suggested to Mankowitz that they form their joint production company. Its sixteen short scenes switch between three distinct lighted areas on stage; A - which is the shipping warehouse of Ranting (Harold Kasket) who employs an ageing clerk Fender (Alfie Bass) and then fires him for a younger, more energetic clerk (Oscar Quitak); B - which is an open unfurnished space downstage; and C - the room of Morry (David Kossoff), a tailor and Fender's life-long friend.
Fender has died of pneumonia before the play opens. He had ordered a bespoke overcoat from Morry, but was unable to pay for it since Ranting fired him, without compensation, for the younger clerk. Friendship has been vitiated by exchange, but the series of flash-backs which recount this story make it clear that Fender's ghost has no animus against Morry. He wants what he is owed by Ranting and takes, with Morry's help, a sheepskin coat from the warehouse and then fades back to his after-life, a very pleasant hotel with central heating, constant hot water, room service and as much Kosher food as you want. Morry gets more and more drunk on brandy throughout the play which helps to blur the line further for the audience between fantasy and reality.
The play, however, is more than a sentimental tale. Mankowitz counterpoints to the two friends' 'archaic' world of human skills and service an emerging 'modern' world of technology. Scenes Six, Nine, Twelve and Fourteen show Ranting's gradual transformation of his ancient warehouse practices by modern service-providers.
In Scene Six he recounts to the audience his admiration for new office technology he has seen at an exhibition: "a dictation machine, a suspended filing system, a place special for telephone directories, and a permutation for working out football pools as they should win". With such technology he won't have to worry over his old clerk's mistakes. Scene Nine has Ranting as a strap-hanger on the Central Line extolling the quality of his new "American style coat". Scenes Twelve and Fourteen feature the new clerk. He has his head in his hands at the end of Scene Twelve, exhausted like Fender at the pace of Ranter's stock-taking; but by Scene Fourteen he is upright and virile, informing Ranter that he doesn't gamble or box because he's developing his muscles to compete as Mr. Universe. "The body beautiful", he tells Ranter, the body, it is implied of the new order, not the hunched and dying bodies of the old regime.
These scenes were omitted in the film version, scripted by Mankowitz, directed by Jack Clayton and a Cannes prize-winner in 1955. The black and white concentration on the degradation and poverty of Morry and Fender produces a narrative of people akin to Jack London's People of the Abyss, stuck forever in a world of near-feudal immiseration.
Critics mainly concentrated on the London Jewishness of the play. The Manchester Evening News critic found it as "London as Aldgate Pump...as alien as herring sandwiches, yet not a nuance was lost on the audience". Richard Findlater began his championship of Mankowitz with a lengthy over-view in Tribune. He saw "theatrical persons not animated photographs", on stage; Jews who had "a common idiom, with a rhythm of its own, rooted in a common society"; and a play whose form was fluid "using the electrician to create atmosphere and punctuate the story, but above all liberating the actor from the stuffy conventions of the naturalist, fourth-wall play, with asides and soliloquies galore". Here is the avant-garde Mankowitz, who had written favourable reviews of Canetti's Auto-da-Fe' and of Sartre's plays for The Critic and Politics and Letters, and championed Joyce as the supreme fiction-writer of the twentieth century; and who co-existed with the populist Mankowitz, who appeared on Juke Box Jury and Guess My Story, judged beauty contests and broadcast on 'Woman's Hour'.
The second professional stage-production of The Bespoke Overcoat was as part of a double-bill which opened at the Embassy Theatre on January 13, 1954, and ran for about three weeks. David Kossoff and Alfie Bass reprised their roles as Morry and Fender, but Kossoff also played Nathan, the grocer, in the lead-play, The Boychick, with Arnold Marle as the last owner of a decayed theatre, Alan Tilvern as his son Alex (stage-name Blue) and Maureen Lipman as Alex's long-suffering girlfriend Sadie. The Boychick was Mankowitz's first attempt at a two-acter, but the critics much preferred The Bespoke Overcoat.
Bernard Levin admired Mankowitz for creating, with The Boychick, Jewish characters and situations without self-consciousness. "He is concerned neither to defend nor to apologise, still less to preach" but to write a play whose Jews "are neither saints nor devils, but human beings". But his greater praise was reserved for Bespoke...which he called a masterpiece.
The New Statesman's review gave an accurate summary of the central encounter in The Boychick, between Sergius, "a bankrupt actor-manager...in his decaying theatre awaiting the return from America of his only son, dreaming of a fortune and a restored theatre and prosperity all round" and the son Alex (Blue), "who turns out to have been nothing more than a small-time music-hall turn without his father's talent but very much with his capacity for easy self-deception". The review went on to summarise the critical consensus about the play's structure: "There are a variety of moods well caught, but the material never begins to form itself into any satisfying shape".
In retrospect, and with the hindsight knowledge that the play is a remarkable 'prefiguring' of Osborne's The Entertainer of three years later, The Boychick rewards more detailed critical analysis. The play's central conceit, of a theatre as a 'home' and theatre as a 'place' of illusions, not only draws on a Western tradition from Aristotle to Pirandello and Brecht of dramatic representation as "the fiction of the presence of a world known to be hypothetical"; but also appropriates that tradition, unselfconsciously, for a play of Jewish characters, for whom 'home', 'place' and 'identity' are emotively charged terms in post-war Europe, who speak a Jewish idiom, and are pursuing the dream of reviving Yiddish theatre.
At the same time, 'home', in drama and the novel, usually denotes the domestic realist mode and in The Boychick, Nathan, the henpecked grocer, his wife Bella and Alex/Blue's long-suffering girlfriend Sadie act out that convention. But 'place' is far more indeterminate, a site for symbolist or expressionist theatre. Sergius, his beloved wife now dead, eats and sleeps in his theatre and has four years left to run on its lease. In Act II, Scene I, Sergius persuades Alex/ Blue they can go into joint-production and revivify the theatre. As the lights come on and the curtain rise and falls it is as if his home is being refurbished. By the start of Scene II "The stage is crowded with improbable properties and a large costume trunk" and the home has its new furniture. But from the moment in Act I Scene I when Sergius reads out Alex's letter from America his home was always likely to dissolve into a place. Alex finds himself "between place, neither in the last place, nor in the next place. In fact in no place at all. But sometimes there is no place to be in like no place. And that's where I am". At the start of Act II Sergius is serving his son coffee and rolls in their stage-bedroom, but father and son soon swerve from mundane domesticity to existentialist reflection, a version of what Cheyette, with reference to Pinter, calls "assimilationist modernism":
Sergius wants to re-open his place and pout on the old Yiddish melodramas, but Blue is fresh from his career as a magician and tale-teller in American vaudeville and he knows that a modern audience wants "girls, songs, jokes, movement, colour...Automatic machines - iced drinks, hot coffee, hamburgers...". Sergius is astounded and confused but Blue presses on and asks him if he wants "Strindberg with Tchekov and Shakespeare with Ibsen" and Sergius replies with pride: "That's all I want. That's all I want, all the time". Blue then accuses him of cultural snobbery since his repertoire was only ever tear-jerkers and melodramas, but Sergius answers him with a commitment to artistic value which unites and fuses very different theatrical traditions:
And where better for these doublings - of elite and popular art, of Jewish folk-theatre and Western classical theatre, of, perhaps, Mankowitz himself as Leavisite populist - to take place in the theatre, the quintessential site of masking and shape-shifting? The joint-productions of father and son cannot succeed any more than can the joint production of a milliner's shop as proposed by Sadie to Blue. Father and son dream the dreams of different generations, and the economics are impossible since, at the end, Nathan has to sell the stage-props to pay the interest on a loan raised to purchase them, which has in turn been raised by pawning the theatre-lease to a neighbourhood bookie. Blue is a gambler, not an investor, an actor, a story-teller, another of Mankowitz's tricksters. Production is not his forte. He flourishes best with exchange, of his charm for Sadie's love, of his soul for the American Dream. The horse which fails to deliver the winnings that could finance the new theatre is called End Product, and he defines himself to Sadie at the end, when they are discussing marriage, as a man who has to be "the big deal, the biggest deal...So let the horses work it out for me. If they win I am just a big deal. If they lose I am just me".
Lewenstein thought 1959 had been a good year for his two companies. 1958 and 1959 were excellent years for Mankowitz. As well as writing two six-episode series, East End-West End and The Killing Stones for ATV in 1958, he hosted his own interview series, Conflict, also for ATV, in the opening months of 1958 and, in the theatrical field, wrote the 'books' for two successful stage-musicals, Expresso Bongo (1958) and Make Me An Offer (1959). This popular cultural form would be his preferred mode of theatre until the end of the period under discussion, the mid-60s.
He wrote the book for and produced Belle which ran for fifty-two performances between May 4 and June 10, 1961 at the Strand Theatre; Bernard Delfont was the producer for Mankowitz's book of the immensely popular Pickwick, with Harry Secombe in the lead, which ran for 694 performances at the Saville Theatre from July 4, 1963 to February 27, 1965; and Mankowitz did a skilful cut-and-paste job on the novel Passion Flower Hotel by Rosalind Erskine to produce the book for the musical of that name which ran for 148 performances at the Prince of Wales from August 24, 1965. The lead producer was Gene Gutowski in association with Wolf Mankowitz Productions Ltd.
In the Archive Interview Mankowitz says that musicals amused him more than plays because of the problems of co-ordinating their many elements of music, movement, acting and scene-changing. With a simile that would have appealed to the sex-starved boarding-school girls and boys of Passion Flower Hotel he compared the ensemble-work of musicals to "trying to get a daisy-chain of 100 people to come off simultaneously - practically impossible but a marvellous explosion if you could do it".
Expresso Bongo and Make Me an Offer were certainly successes. The former, after try-out runs in Nottingham, Birmingham and Leeds, came into the Saville Theatre on April 23, 1958 and had a run of 316 performances until January 24, 1959. Oscar Lewenstein and Neil Crawford produced, William Chappell directed, and Julian More, David Heneker and Monty Norman provided lyrics and music. The latter was a Theatre Workshop production, with inevitable strains over production and direction between Joan Littlewood and Mankowitz, with book adapted by Mankowitz from his own novella of 1952, and music and lyrics again by David Heneker and Monty Norman. It played from mid-October 1959 for some two months at Stratford East then transferred to the New Theatre where it ran until mid-June 1960. Performances totalled 267.
The book of Expresso Bongo is a direct adaptation of a Mankowitz short story, of the same name, published in the same year in the Atlantic Monthly. An anonymous narrator (called Johnnie in the stage-play), a small-time Soho music-agent, recounts the tale of his rise and fall as the owner and transformer of an amateur bongo-player, Bert Rudge, into an international record-star, Bongo Herbert. The narrator astutely realises that this moment, 1958, is a moment of cross-over and mix. His imaginary blurb for Bongo's first record advertises "something that's new, a swaying calypso beat woven around a rock foundation".
The older generation has been exhausted by the war. They are stuck in old-fashioned attitudes so "the kids were on their own - except for their discs and their fancy dress, and scrappy bits of entertainment like Bongo". Leon's modest coffee-bar in Frith Street becomes 'The Tom-Tom', heaving with sweaty teenagers attracted by Bongo's "elemental violent energy coupled to an inane but genuine gaiety". When Bongo from Hoxton moves up the artistic scale to a season at the Diplomatique Café he also moves up the class scale. He now mixes, much to the narrator's suspicious disgust, with "these classy, kittenish debs, the doggy younger sons of dukes, and the tired old fashion-wise operators of neither sex".
He also meets Dixie Collins, an ageing variety star who has risen beyond her Brixton origins, built a career in America, and has now returned to London to become "a pillar and oracle of café society". She renegotiates a fairer contract for Bongo than the greedy narrator had inveigled him into and the story finishes with the narrator trying to get his stripper girlfriend Maisie a lead role in a musical version of the life of Omar Khayyam, to be made by Kakky Katz, an extinct Hollywood producer. The narrator is an agent and should have been the master of the moment of exchange, the contract. But he bungled it by not getting legal permission from Bongo's parents, and he has over-reached the market by demanding fifty percent of his client's earnings. He is alert to, but unaware of the full power of the interested parties who swiftly gather round the developing property that is Bingo Herbert.
Two musical numbers in particular underline the cynical nature of the whole enterprise. The first is a series of alternate lines sung by Lady Rosemary, her daughter Cynthia, Linda Laverick of the Evening World and Johnnie explaining why they love Bongo:
The second is towards the end of the play, when Johnnie and Dixie are tussling for possession of Bongo, who now has higher aspirations than being a pop star. Johnnie and Dixie remind him, in a very Brechtian number, 'Nothing is For Nothing', of the way of their world:
Line up for the rat-race,
Man must live on man
Nothing is for nothing
Nothing is for free
I'll look after you, Jack
If you'll look after me
Critics recognised the contemporaneity of this exposure of the star-making mechanism. T. C. Worsley for the New Statesman admired "the choice of contemporary words in their sharp, astringent dialogue" and Philip Hope-Wallace's review for the Guardian delighted in this attack on "the cult of the moronic teenager" but also noticed the cross-class critique in the second half when "the Hoxton wonder-boy...swims up into the "deb" and Claridge's world, another jungle no less kindly observed by Mr. Mankowitz and his partners". Paul Scofield played Johnnie, another cross-over from classical to musical theatre to rival that of Olivier in The Entertainer the previous year. Alan Brien gives us a precise description of Scofield's characterization: "one of those leather-skulled, dead-eyed agents who edge along the back-streets of Soho like a tortoise with a leaking shell".
The stage-musical of Make Me an Offer, its fourth incarnation after the novella and its TV version of 1952 and the film of 1954, was running in the West End from December 12, 1959 and was thus concurrent with the film of Expresso Bongo. The familiar cast of dealers from the novella, Wendl, Sparta, Charlie, the Redhead (now the country-house owner) and Americans follows the same plot of double-dealing before and during the auction of the country-house (here called Cramping Grange) and the "knockout" agreement, a scam whereby everyone profits from the auction, is played out as a full stage-scene back in the Portobello Road. It dramatic potential is exploited to the full as, according to the stage directions: "The seven of them form a circle with WENDL centre - fairly close - a conspiracy but an open one observed with interest and admiration by the other DEALERS".
Mankowitz's rewrite for this version has, however, sharpened the split between Charlie's domestic and business lives, and his wife (here called Sally) has several bitter songs about Charlie's lack of success and her role as a house-bound mother. "If I was a man", she announces to her girlfriends in Act I, "I would be adult and responsible/I'd accept a little blame for the facts of life/Wouldn't always take it out on my weary wife..." The girls chorus back: "But the law of self-importance/Is all a man obeys" and Sally replies: "A man's world they say/In their pompous way". The Redhead's role, by contrast, is built up as that of a ruthless, upper-class businesswoman, called Lady Celia, who buys the shop behind Charlie's pitch in Portobello Road, owns Cramping Hall, seduces Charlie and only mixes with the street-traders to learn the tricks of their trade. She needs the money from the house-sale, she tells Charlie, in order to marry a sweet boy who won't inherit until his father dies. So she seduced Charlie in order to learn how to get the best price at the house-sale. Charlie affects disgust at her cynicism, which provokes the most complex statement of value in Mankowitz's work to date:
Charlie's idealism still flickers at the end of the play when he remembers looking out at night over his back yard and smelling the stocks his mother had planted. "The air was deep green, just like that vase", he says. "I knew then that a beautiful thing isn't just something you deal in". He is reconciled to Sally and another baby and limits his ambition to a large lock-up on the Portobello Road.
The happy ending may have accorded with producer Joan Littlewood's desire to create plays that "celebrated the power of laughter and the vitality of the excluded", but the emotional balance of this play lies with the scathing wit of such songs as "Business is Business" and "Break Up". Mankoiwtz resisted improvisation of his scripts and Leach adds that the musical "was created with the specific purpose of transferring". Its East End provenance needed a West End home. Mankowitz's aim was not to celebrate community strength and vitality but, as always, to dramatise the moment of exchange as the fulcrum of capitalism. A strong American presence is therefore vital here in ways that it would not be for, say, Sparrers Can't Sing.
Mindel and Sweeting, the American dealers for Californian and Chicago buyers, are far more integrated into the Portobello Road community (a West End community) of trickster-dealers than in previous versions of the tale. In the first scene of Act One Wendel and Sparta sing a brief recapitulation of historical theories of money from Bentham to Keynes. Sparta sings: "According to Karl Marx, the means of production and distribution...", but Wendl cuts him off and reminds him he's talking to Americans. This is meant as an oblique reference to the Cold War, but Sparta would have completed his verse with "exchange", which, as Mindel and Sweeting's song "Concerning Capital" demonstrates, is now an American province. The third verse, sung by both American and British dealers, begins "You've got to have Capital/With a capital D [ollar]" and concludes: "Then we fill up our ship/At the end of the trip/And pay with capital D/For culture with a Capital C". Culture, capital and 'the people' now form a complex diagram of interacting forces.
Pickwick, with lyrics by Leslie Bricusse, music by Cyril Ornadel and direction by Peter Coe, was an unashamed grab for the public heart and the public, judging by the play's run, was happy to be taken. Two of Harry Secombe's numbers, "If I Ruled the World" and "Look into Your Heart", became recording hits. Mankowitz filleted Dickens' episodic sprawl into a tightly coherent narrative which begins with Pickwick about to enter the debtors' prison, The Fleet, and then recounts, among other incidents, the duel between Dr. Slammer and Mr. Winkle, Mr. Jingles' elopement with Rachael Wardle and Pickwick's trial for breach of promise. Sam Weller is a Mankowitz-type trickster and Bricusse gives him Mankowitz-type sentiments in the number "Talk" whose refrain is that in any tight situation you have to "Talk your way out of it...Talk around about a bit/But talk!"
Bricusse and Mankowitz also collaborated as founder-members of a dining-club, the Pickwick Club, located opposite the Arts Club in Great Newport St. which opened at the same time as the musical. It was founded as an exclusive club for professionals in the entertainment industry and, according to the Free Trade Review, had lush Dickensian décor with "candle flanked gilt mirrors, deeply padded brass studded banquet seating, a well stocked bar and, as a magnificent centre piece, a set of four brass gas lamps". Its third founder-member was Desmond Cavanagh, married to the sister of Jeanne Moreau.
According to various sources the club attracted the new generation of actors, producers, writers, and pop stars. In the latest volume of his autobiography Seventy Not Out Michael Caine calls the club the "hub of the so-called Swinging Sixties" with a roll-call of star customers including Francois Truffaut, the Beatles, Terence Stamp and Harry Saltzman, who offered Caine the lead in The Ipcress File when dining at the Pickwick with Mankowitz. Caine's biographer Michael Freadland calls the Pickwick Club "a symbolic place, an institution haunted by those in show-business who could afford to be there. It was one of the signs he had now arrived"; and Edina Ronay, the daughter of Egon Ronay, and the girlfriend of Terry Stamp then Michael Caine recalls in a note in The Observer that as a young actress in London in the Sixties The Pickwick was one of the clubs to be seen in: "All we seemed to eat was steak - steak and salad or steak and vegetables". Mankowitz, with this venture, was at least keeping a presence among a new wave of actors and producers.
Mankowitz's other two musicals proved much less successful and, in the case of Belle, highly controversial. Despite the joint-company's satisfying year of 1959 the Daily Mail reported in July 1960 that the partnership was dissolving. Mankowitz presented This Year, Next Year by an unknown writer Jack Ronder, first at the Edinburgh Festival of 1960, then for a short run at the Vaudeville in the autumn. He also undertook an independent production of Shelagh Delaney's second play, The Lion in Love, in late 1960. Lewenstein, John Osborne and George Devine saw it on its initial run in Bristol and Philip Roberts quotes Devine as saying that it should be given a Royal Court run "as an act of faith in Delaney's artistic talent". The Evening Standard's "Londoner's Diary" reported Mankowitz's complaint that he "ha[d] lost a lot of money on the venture", but at least its Court run of 28 performances in 1960/1 produced box-office takings of more than twice the production costs.
Mankowitz was not dissuaded. Production seems to have held a magical allure for him. He and Monty Norman, like Osborne and Littlewood, wanted to make a musical which would draw on the traditions of the great music-hall era in Britain of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The result was Belle or the Ballad of Dr Crippen, with music and lyrics by Norman, a book adapted by Mankowitz from a play by Beverley Cross and production by Mankowitz. Val May directed, Loudon Sainthill designed the set.
The play was subtitled a 'Music Hall Musical' and the whole action of Crippen's (George Benson) affair with his secretary Ethel le Neve (Virginia Vernon), the poisoning of his mediocre actress wife Belle Elmore (Rose Hill), the flight by ship across the Atlantic, and Crippen's identity and arrest through a Morse-code message was played as a series of music-hall 'turns' by vaudeville artists as if recreating the old Bedford Theatre in Camden about 1910. Mankowitz was thus attempting to dramatize his fascination with the theatricality of theatre in a popular cultural form. George Lasher (Jerry Desmonde) and Mighty Mick (Davy Kaye) introduce the turns with the wise-cracking of the period; the poisoning of Belle is a farce and maybe unintentional; and the Morse-code arrest provokes the best song in the show, 'The Dit Dit Song' (later recorded by Tommy Steele) where the lovers tap out with their handcuffs on the railing of the ship 'I Love You' in Morse-code.
This is also another London-centred work by East-Enders Mankowitz and Norman. Make Me an Offer was devised in the East End, moved to the West End and its main action took place on the Portobello Road. Belle is set in Camden but the centre of the West End is lovingly itemised as a playground where toffs and poor theatricals can mingle. Jenny (Nicolette Roeg), a Vesta Tilley figure, Belle and the music-hall chorus take us round the West End of a poor actor's night out:
Mankowitz and Norman's provocation was deliberate and should be read in the context of the then anti-Establishment satire of Beyond the Fringe, which opened in London in the same month as Belle, The Goon Show and Private Eye (first issue end of October, 1961). The critics took up the challenge. Not all the notices were unfavourable. Fergus Cashin for the Daily Sketch considered it: "the most delightful, bawdy, wonderful, amoral, immoral, indecent, sweetest and naughtiest love story ever told" and the Times found gaiety, the burlesque and pathos skilfully intermingled. T. C. Worsley for the Financial Times, despite criticising the awkward mixture of moods, did register the audience's great enjoyment and praised the work's ingenuity and native spirit. R. B. Marriott for The Stage and Television Today admired the skill and pastiche of the book and lyrics and the Punch critic praised the performance of George Benson as Crippen and the ingenious set of Loudon Sainthill. Nathaniel Field for the Sunday Express used the poor critical reception of the musical to castigate the critics for advocating Wesker and Ionesco instead of rejoicing, like the opening-night audience for Belle, in a music-hall succession from sentimental tears to melodrama to slapstick.
But the majority of critics, led by Bernard Levin of the Daily Express and Robert Muller of the Daily Mail damned the musical for poor taste, uninspiring lyrics and uninspired music. Felix Barker for the Evening News summed up the poor taste case: "Quite simply murder is not funny and real people alive or dead (and remember Miss le Neve is said to be still living) should not be guyed on stage". Richard Findlater, a champion of Mankowitz from the start of his career, criticised the musical's "fundamental failure to mix the artificial and the real, the sweet and the sour" and the feebleness of the lyrics and the dialogue.
For the Observer's critic the musical was "aurally an embarrassment" although Sainthill's set was "the very ecstasy of Victoriana"; for J. C. Trewin, writing for Illustrated London News, the story was absurd, the comedy embarrassing and "as music-hall pastiche it is not noticeably expert". The headline to Robert Muller's review was 'A sick joke with music but dismally flat' and he went on to castigate the occasion as one where "Boisterous music-hall numbers were interspersed with naturalistic plot scenes played straight and falling dismally flat". Davy Kaye, as Mighty Mick, "revived our sagging spirits with a round dozen burlesqued appearances", but a final critique of the décor as "straightforward Music-Hall-Ugly" completed his demolition of the play. Bernard Levin also found the musical flat "with the sad flatness of flat champagne" and it "peters out in a penultimate scene of shattering vulgarity", a vulgarity maintained throughout by a chorus which "relentlessly shows so much thigh that I was eventually constrained to murmur "Thigh no more, ladies. ""
Mankowitz, always pugnacious, hit back. He addressed the audience from the stage after the show and after this critical onslaught. He encouraged them to ignore the critics and encourage their friends to attend. It was one of those periodic spats between writers and critics in the theatre. As audiences fell away he took the battle to the enemy camp. The Evening Standard for May 9 reported that earlier that day six girls in Belle costumes, escorted by Mankowitz, had carried a pinewood coffin down Fleet Street and into the lobby of the Daily Express building. Two notices were on top of the coffin. One read; "Dear Bernie. This is your size, not mine. Signed Wolfie". The other said: "To Bernard Levin. With best wishes from the Belle company". On the back was a label saying: "Please return the empties". Mankowitz in interview said: "This is the moment we have all been waiting for. To send a midget coffin for a midget critic". Levin, when informed of the coffin's delivery, remarked: "Send not to ask for whom the bell tolls". Despite these metropolitan theatrics Belle closed a month later, although it had a brief, truncated revival as a forty-five-minute production for ATV's 'Big Night Out' series on August 12 of the same year. Production was still an accursed activity for Mankowitz.
The last of Mankowitz's musicals in this period, Passion Flower Hotel, created no critical furore. With music by John Barry and lyrics by Trevor Peacock this adaptation for the stage of the 1962 novel of the same name by Rosalind Erskine (a pseudonym for Roger Longrigg) did decent enough business at the Prince of Wales. Neither audience nor critics were shocked by this group of five virginal fifth-formers at a posh girls' boarding-school who form a syndicate to sell their sexual services to the nearest boys' school some twelve miles away. When push comes to shove, everyone is ignorant and embarrassed and the nearest they get to sex is a kiss under the gym-stage, which the girls have rigged up with cushions and shaded lights to resemble their idea of a brothel.
Some critics complained such innocence was as outdated as the public-school slang of "gosh" and "rotter". But 1965 was still pre-Pill and boarding-schools were still fortresses of Spartan self-control in the more remote areas of Britain. Sarah Callender (Karin Fernald), the leader of the Syndicate, puts the business on a contractual basis by drawing up a "Document" which prices the services offered into such categories as "Seeing" or "Touching" which are subdivided into "Above Waist Only" "Below Waist Only" "Entire Operative" "Nothing Barred Short of La Penetration" and "Nothing Barred". The libidinous male was certainly circumscribed within such ferocious cartographies of the female body in the late 1950s.
The other four girls of the Syndicate were played by actresses at the start of distinguished careers: Francesca Annis, Jean Muir, Pauline Collins and Jane Birkin. Among the boys was Bill Kenwright as Craddock. Mankowitz's adaptation of the novel, a first-person narrative by Sarah, could not catch her Gwendolen Fairfax-like tone of icy self-appraisal - "I will keep [this poem] and improve it suddenly when I am 20" - but he must have been attracted by its application of business principles to sex. He makes two significant additions. The girls meet the boys in a café, which Mankowitz rewrites as 'The Ton Up', where the boys finish up fighting and defeating a gang of Rockers. The meeting is to discuss the terms and conditions of the Syndicate's services. Before Sarah produces the Document, there is a discussion about costs. Colin, the boys' leader, asks why money need be involved: "Isn't the educational object sufficient in itself?" His aggressive lieutenant Ellis then adds:
Any comments on or reminiscences about Wolf Mankowitz and the material dealt with above will be gratefully received by Anthony Dunn at email@example.com
Current Lecture Programme
Lecture Reports Archive
15th December 2008
Oscar Lewenstein, Kicking Against the Pricks, Nick Hern Books, London, 1994, p.93
ibid., pp93, 91
cited subsequently as the Archive Interview, by permission of the WM Archive, Cassette 1, side 1
ibid., Cassette 5, side 10
Encore, vol.13, no.5, June-July, 1957, pp13-35
Wolf Mankowitz, Introduction to A Treasury of Yiddish Stories, I. Howe and E. Greenberg (eds.), Deutsch, London, 1955
Lewenstein, op. cit., p.22
It was Blitzstein's translation that was used in the off-Broadway production of the play at the Theatre de Lys in Greenwich Village, which ran, with an intermission of a year and half, from March 10, 1954, to December 17, 1961
Lewenstein, op. cit., p. 98
Archive Interview, Tape 3, Side 6
Times, June 17, 1955; Illustrated London News, July 2, 1955
Archive Interview, Cassette 4, side 8
see Orson Welles and Peter Bogdanovitch, This Is Orson Welles, Da Capo Press, 2nd ed., USA, 1998, p.416
ibid., Cassette 1, Side 2
Yuri Slezkine, The Jewish Century, Princeton U. Press, Princeton and Oxford, pbk. ed., 2006, p.9
Wolf Mankowitz, The Plays, Preface by Anthony Dunn, Oberon Books, London, 2006, pp132, 135, 138, 140-1
Manchester Evening News, June 30, 1953; Tribune, July 10, 1953
Truth, January 22, 1954
New Statesman, January 27, 1954
Keir Elam, The Semiotics of Theatre and Drama, New Accents series, Methuen, London and New York, 1980, p.113
see Bryan Cheyette's authoritative survey of this issue in his editorial introduction to Contemporary Jewish Writing in Britain and Ireland: An Anthology, Peter Halban, London, 1998, ppxiii-lxxi
The Boychick, Act II, Scene II, p.24. All subsequent citations from this unpublished script, held in the WM Archives.
Ibid., Act I, Scene I, p.5
Cheyette, op. cit., p.xxxii
The Boychick, op. cit., Act II, Scene I, p. 2
ibid., Act II, Scene I, pp3, 4, 5
ibid., Act II, Scene II, p. 39
Archive Interview, Cassette 3, Side 6
This, and all subsequent quotations are from the short story 'Expresso Bongo' in Expresso Bongo: A Wolf Mankowitz Reader, Thomas Yosellof, New York and London, 1961.
Expresso Bongo: A Musical Play, Evans Plays, London, 1960, pp16 & 53
New Statesman, May 3, 1958; Guardian, April 24, 1958; Spectator, May 2, 1958
Make Me an Offer, stage-musical version, script WM Archive, Act II, Scene V, p.32
ibid., Act I, Scene I, p.24
ibid., Act II, Scene I, p.3
ibid., Act II, Scene VI, p.40
Robert Leach, Theatre Workshop: Joan Littlewood and the Making of Modern British Theatre, University of Exeter Press, Exeter, 2006, p. 141
ibid., p. 143
Make Me an Offer, op. cit., Act I, Scene I, pp31-2
ibid., Act I, Scene I, pp34-5
Pickwick Script from WM Archive, Act I, Scene II, pp7-9
Free Trade Review, September, 1963
Seventy Not Out, William Hall, London, 2003, pp117 & 125
Michael Freadland, Michael Caine, Orion. London, 2000, p.116
'When George Harrison came to supper', The Observer, December 7, 2003, p.35
Philip Roberts, The Royal Court Theatre and the Modern Stage, CUP, Cambridge, 1999, p.78
Evening Standard, October 14, 1960
Terry W. Browne, Playwrights' Theatre; The English Stage Company at the Royal Court, Pitman Publishing, London, 1975, p.116
W. Mankowitz, Belle, British Library, Lord Chamberlain's file, Ref.: LCP 1961/28, p.6
Daily Sketch, May 5, 1961; Times, May 5, 1961; Financial Times, May 5, 1961; Stage and TV Today, May 11, 1961; Punch May 10, 1961; Sunday Express, May 7, 1961
Evening News, May 5, 1961; Time and Tide, May 11, 1961; Observer, May 7 1961; Illustrated London News, May 20, 1961; Daily Mail, May 5, 1961; Daily Express, May 5, 1961
Script of Passion Flower Hotel, DM Archives, Act I, Scene 9, p.44
Rosalind Erskine, Passion Flower Hotel, Jonathan Cape, London, 1962, p.17
Script of Passion, op. cit., Act I, Scene 9, p.42