Neal Ascherson

Neal Ascherson

Dear Lyceum;  

  No, don’t wake up. It’s not time yet. Anyway, I like watching you while you sleep. The safety curtain, your huge eyelid, is closed. It’s silent except for the rare murmur of a distant bus on Lothian Road,  and nothing moves in the darkened stalls and galleries in front of you.  Nothing?  Well, there’s that mouse watching from   under the third seat in , on Row G.  A mouse descended by many generations from the family of mice Big  May swore she’d see off sixty years ago, when she stood welcoming the highheid-yins out of the bar and into the stalls. 

‘Goodness, May, I had to take a skelp at the wee thing with my programme. You’d think they owned the place. Is there not a Lyceum cat?’  

  Sleep on and dream while you can. Most of us are dreaming in these days and weeks of lock-down, and some are dreaming that when the pandemic passes, everything could be different and better. What about you?  What do you dream about, when you are 137 years old? It could be a future with even more gadgets to tilt and spin the stage. It could be astounding new stage lighting – low-energy, of course - which at a touch turns ‘The First Morning of Creation’ into ‘The Great Day of His Wrath’, complete with jaggy lightning.  And, talking of lights, did I ever tell you that you remind me of a clam – a queenie-scallop? No offence, Lyceum. But when a living bivalve scallop opens its shell-jaws, there’s the great proscenium arch and stage scenery on one shell – and  all the soft wriggling audience on the other.  And best of all, the scallop’s eyes, glittering diamonds set around the rim of its shell: they are the footlights.  

   But perhaps you are dreaming about the past. In that case, you may be hearing laughter.  Back in the day, and especially in the years after the First World War, people came to you to be ‘taken out of themselves’ . Only a few went hoping to be ‘shaken to the core’  or to get a glimpse of ‘how the other half lives’.  Most  middle class and middle aged people came to the theatre to see some high jinks and have a laugh. And - to the frustration of  serious directors and dramaturges in our own day, who know what enormous transforming power you theatres have when you are allowed to use it - many still do. They laugh when they aren’t meant to. Clever writers, like Michael Frayn, know how to channel this: releasing the laughter early on with a few gags, so that the audience can relax and concentrate on what his play is trying to do.   

   I’ll tell you a story you’ll appreciate when you wake up.  Long ago when I was a student, I went to the old baroque theatre in Aix-en-Provence.  It was a silly play, a French equivalent of  ‘drawing-room comedy’, and the audience grew restive. The lead actor was just droning on about his visit to Scotland (‘beaucoup de brouillard, mais d’excellent whisky …’ ) when it happened.  From the top tier of boxes, there floated out an enormous, delicate, perfectly aerodynamic paper dart.  The audience, even the cast, fell silent as this creature made its way to the centre of the theatre, close to the ceiling, and then, softly turning and heading at a slight downwards angle, returned towards the boxes. We all watched hypnotised as the dart made its way to the second tier, where it touched gently down between the breasts of a beautiful young girl looking out over the stalls..  She seemed not at all astonished, but  cupped the visitor in her hands as the whole audience burst into applause.   

   So tell me, Lyceum, who was the actor there? Props can perform, can’t they? In the Brecht theatre in East Berlin, I watched an actor ( Ekkehard Schall, I think) tear off his hat and fling it on the ground. He stayed still as the hat took up the action, bouncing perkily, then growing morose and flapping its brim up and down, then  suddenly and shockingly dead.  One can talk about the inhuman  perfectionism of Berliner Ensemble productions, drilled by Brecht’s widow Helene Weigel.  But some things which happen in the theatre remain hard  to explain.  

   Coronavirus kills your sense of smell, they say. So when you wake up  and they turn on the lights and  the hoovers start to roar in the aisles, things will smell a bit different.  The damp scent of seats left unwarmed by Edinburgh backsides, or of plaster-dust from the decorations, accumulated in  crevices of the stage. Disinfectants,  not the old ratsniff mop-bucket stuff but new sprays supposed to evoke cedarwood or ‘chamomile maroc’.  And theatrical make-up. I had an aunt who was an actress (she didn’t care to be called an actor), and when she died she left a trunk full to the brim with make-up. You must  smile in  your dream when you remember  those aromas from scores of delicious pots and sticks and tubes, most of which (pre-Max Factor, often as old as Leichner) nobody uses now. 

    Bare shoulders, the anxious mirror-faces of women with a few seconds left to get that eyebrow right.  The whiff of ‘hotblack’, melted over a candle – remember that? From before false eyelashes? And that tiny dot of blue which had to go just above an eyelid – what was that about?  

   Now you are stirring in your sleep, Lyceum. Looking  at you, dark, huge and  empty, I  begin to feel  your  power – if you care to use it  - to turn up the lights in human minds, to declare new beginnings.  When you open that big single eyelid again, let your stage voices say to the audience: ‘ You out there, asleep for centuries! Wake up, take over your lives! There’s nothing you can’t change – and nobody you can’t be’.  

   Your friend, Neal Ascherson 

Tags: Letters