Rice also gave a more prosaic example than Shakespeare of how a staged play can be more powerful than just reading. He tells of how as a youth he saw Sherlock Holmes. Professor Moriarty is about to trap Holmes in a room, when Holmes douses the light. Moriarty tells his henchmen to follow the lit cigar Holmes has been smoking. When the lights are switched back on, Holmes has escaped. He had put the cigar on the sill of one window and escaped out the other. “It may all sound rather ridiculous, but it would be impossible to exaggerate the effect it had upon the audience. Shivers and exclamations of apprehension were followed by relief that expressed itself in delighted laughter and sustained applause. I saw the play [decades ago], . . . but I shall never forget . . . the excitement of that scene.”
I, too, remember a collection of moments that can only occur in the theater. As with Rice, they have occurred in plays both sublime and the humble, and one was also in Macbeth. Patrick Stewart was starring, and even though I have read and seen the play several times, Stewart’s portrayal made me emit a stunned gasp when Macbeth first sees Banquo’s ghost. The theater had taken my breath away. (Patrick Stewart, as well as Ben Kingsley, were in Peter Brook’s A Midsummer Night Dream that so affected me half a lifetime ago, but I remember neither from that production.)
One memorable moment was in a play in a small theater with a small audience. I remember nothing about the play other than a few moments by an actor whose name I no longer know, but he once did the Dunkin’ Donuts ads where he was obsessed with getting up early to make fresh doughnuts. In this play he did a monolog on hammer toes that was funny and mournful and touching not only through his voice but also through his face and shoulders and belly.
I remember Scapino with Jim Dale. (Carol Channing was in the audience, and she sat, as Carol Channing ought, with wide eyes and her mouth open during the entire performance—that was at the uptown Circle in the Square Theater where audience members can see each other—with a bevy of good looking men around her.) A running gag throughout the play was that any character exiting the stage would say “Ciao!” Then everyone on stage, seriatim, would say “Ciao!” As intended, this chorus started to get laughs, even though I doubted it would have seemed funny on the printed page. The magical moment came after this was done for the dozenth time. After the litany of “Ciao”, the sweetest “Ciao” you ever heard came from the front row of the audience. It was from the sweetest-looking six-year-old, beaming boy you ever saw (this was a matinee). The cast could not help themselves; they struggled not to, but they broke up in laughter, and we in the audience broke up, too, laughing a prolonged and uproarious thank-you to the entire enterprise knowing that we had seen something unique.
There have been many more special moments since I started going to plays, and there have been many special productions. I now go to the theater a couple dozen times a year, and something important or magical or special does not always happen, but it happens often enough that I continue going. And for this I thank Alan Downer’s course and Peter Brook’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Without both of those experience, I might never have gone to the theater as much as I have. I would have missed much.