Monday, April 16, 2012

David Belasco in the Pacific Northwest

Puccini first encounted the character of Butterfly when he went to a performance of the play by David Belasco (left), Madame Butterfly (they changed the name to “Madama” for the opera because it’s more singable) in London in 1900, starring Evelyn Millard. Following the performance, the composer reputedly charged backstage to demand that Belasco let him make the play into an opera; as the playwright recalled in his memoirs, “I told him he could do anything he liked with the play and make any sort of contract he liked--because it is not possible to discuss business arrangements with an impulsive Italian who has tears in his eyes and both his arms around your neck.”

The name of David Belasco, a hugely important figure in the theater world a hundred years ago, survives today in three different contexts: buildings, operas by Puccini, and the early history of the cinema. You can still go to the Belasco Theater on Broadway which, as of this writing, is showing a play about Judy Garland, End of the Rainbow. And there are theaters named after Belasco in other cities, too. As for Puccini, of course we’re gearing up now for Madama Butterfly, but eight years ago at Seattle Opera we were fortunate enough to hear a terrific production of Puccini’s La fanciulla del West, based on Belasco’s hit play The Girl of the Golden West—the first western, and the first great opera Puccini wrote which doesn’t end with the soprano’s death! And if you like silent films, it’s uncanny how many of the movers and shakers in the first generation of the movies—D. W. Griffith, Cecil B. DeMille, Mary Pickford, the Barrymores—worked with and learned from Belasco. When you actually read Belasco’s plays, which are way too dated to perform nowadays without Puccini’s music to make them palatable, the exhaustively comprehensive stage directions indicate that he was the “control-freak” type of director who didn’t want to leave any room for actors, stage managers, or even props personnel ever to question his intentions—the play was to be performed exactly this way, every time. He’d have had an easier time making movies.

The 34 year-old Belasco, left, with fellow playwright Clay M. Greene, photographed in 1887

Belasco’s most significant contribution to the history of theater is actually in lighting design. A generation before Belasco, Richard Wagner was the first theater artist to insist on a darkened auditorium for his shows (so the audience wouldn’t be distracted by what everyone was wearing, or who was talking to who. “Eyes up here, on my stage!” said RW). But Wagner’s lighting tools were crude at best, and often malfunctioned. Belasco pioneered the use of more sophisticated electric lighting equipment, which became a tremendous art form of its own during the twentieth century. In fact, in his original Madame Butterfly play, there was a fifteen-minute-long scene with no dialogue, during which the sun set, the stars came out, then faded, and the sun rose again—an abbreviated version of the night Cho-Cho-San and Trouble spend waiting for Pinkerton to arrive. Apparently, the lighting effect was so spectacular it floored audiences completely, a hundred years ago. (Another reason why this play will never be performed today! Luckily, in the opera, that scene is half as long—plus Puccini wrote the beautiful “Humming Chorus,” followed by an incandescently beautiful orchestral sequence, for that scene.)

Publicity photo of the final scene from Belasco's Madame Butterfly, with Blanche Bates as Cho-Cho-San, Frank Worthing as Pinkerton, and an unidentified child as Trouble. Puccini and his librettists changed the child's name to "Dolore" (Sorrow).

I’ve always been intrigued by Belasco, and I was thrilled to find a delightful Life of David Belasco biography (written by the playwright’s friend William Winter in 1915) when I was rooting through boxes of completely random, ultra-cheap books at last year’s “Friends of the Seattle Public Library Book Sale at Magnuson Park.” (This spring’s sale is in two weeks). I knew Belasco was born in San Francisco in 1853—in fact, most of the characters and events in The Girl of the Golden West are based on his experiences growing up among the ‘49ers—but I had no idea that he also spent some of his youth up here in the Pacific Northwest, chiefly in Victoria. Two episodes of Belasco’s eventful boyhood in British Columbia are simply too bizarre and fascinating not to share with you here, so let me quote from the biography by Mr. Winter, first the tale of Belasco's early schooling:

"He was early sent to a school called the Colonial, in Victoria, conducted by an Irishman named Burr, remembered as a person whose temper was violent and whose discipline was harsh. Later, he attended a school called the Collegiate, conducted by T. C. Woods, a clergyman. When about seven years old he attracted the attention of a kindly Roman Catholic priest, Father --- McGuire, then aged eighty-six, who perceived in him uncommon intelligence and precocious talent, and who presently proposed to his parents that the boy should dwell under his care in a monastery and be educated. Strenuous objection to that arrangement was at first made by David's father, sturdily Jewish and strictly orthodox in his religious views; but the mother, more liberal in opinion and more sagaciously provident of the future, assented, and her persuasions, coincident with the wish of the lad himself, eventually prevailed against the paternal scruples..."

As an adult, Belasco's habitual clerical dress earned him the moniker "The Bishop of Broadway"

But by the time he was ten, young Belasco was done with the monastery. Mr. Winter continues the tale:

"He had inherited a gypsy temperment and a roving propensity, he became discontented with seclusion, and suddenly, without special cause and without explanation, he fled from the monastery and joined a wandering circus, with which he travelled. In that association he was taught to ride horses "bareback" and to perform as a miniature clown. A serious illness presently befell him and, being disabled, he was left in a country town, where he would have died but for the benevolent care of a clown, Walter Kingsley by name, who remained with him,--obtaining a scanty subsistence by clowning and singing in the streets for whatever charity might bestow,--and nursed him through a malignant fever, only himself to be stricken with it, and to die, just as the boy became convalescent. Meantime Humphrey Belasco, having contrived to trace his fugitive son, came to his rescue and carried him back to Victoria, to a loving mother's care..."

Belasco's early career as an actor had him performing roles large and small, classical and contemporary, including King Louis XI of France, a popular villain in nineteenth-century melodrama

For any writer, the most important rule is “Write what you know,” and little wonder that successful writers like Belasco, who created over a hundred plays and crafted the structures behind two extraordinary operas, led wild lives. The more a writer has experienced, the richer his or her writing.

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