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Everybody's a Critic!

Truman Capote had lots to say about many matters theatrical, as Filichia learns from reading a new collection of his letters. logo
I got a hold of Too Brief a Treat: The Letters of Truman Capote (Random House, $27.95; 468 pp.). Editor Gerald Clarke has compiled the correspondence written and sent by the famed author of both light fiction (Breakfast at Tiffany's) and heavier fare (In Cold Blood). The letters start in autumn 1936, after Capote had been adopted by his mother's second husband. Thus, in the first letter, he writes to his biological father, Arch Persons: "I would appreciate it if, in the future, you would address me as Truman Capote." The letters end on February 25, 1982 with a simple note to his longtime lover, Jack Dunphy: "Miss you need you."

The collection covers the 1960s, so I licked my lips in anticipation of reading Capote's reactions to the notorious Broadway musicalization of his Breakfast at Tiffany's that Abe Burrows and Bob Merrill (and even Edward Albee!) created in 1966. For that matter, what would he say about Claibe Richardson and Kenward Elmslie's musical version of his Grass Harp, which first surfaced that same year? Alas, not a word. Whatever letters Capote might -- or must -- have written on that topic, they're not included here. He doesn't even say much about his own straight play adaptation of The Grass Harp (1952) or about House of Flowers, the unsuccessful musical that he wrote with Harold Arlen in 1954. The only intriguing piece of information about those shows is that producer Saint Subber wanted Peter Brook to direct the former; Brook was too busy, but not too busy two years later to direct the latter, which turned out to be a failure. (House of Flowers ran 154 performances to The Grass Harp's 36.)

There are plenty of theatrical nuggets about other people in these letters. For example, in August 1946, Capote wrote to a pal that Carson McCullers "has been in Nantucket adapting [her novella] The Member [of the Wedding] into a play with Tennessee Williams." I'd never heard that she and Williams ever worked together on this. Of course, Capote could have been in error, but his statement is intriguing. He casually mentioned in a 1953 letter that Dunphy wasn't too happy that his ex-wife, Broadway performer Joan McCracken, was remarrying. Capote noted that she'd chosen "a dancer called Bob Foss." (Yes, "Foss" is what he wrote, not "Fosse." This suggests how unknown the legend-to-be was at that time.) In May, 1950, he wrote: "I must say I don't see Thornton Wilder's play as a musical." Alas, he doesn't say which play it was, though if he was referring to Our Town or The Skin of Our Teeth, he would seem to have been right, for Grover's Corners and Over and Over never made it to town. But if he'd been referring to The Matchmaker, he was wrong, as any fan of Hello, Dolly! will tell you.

Then there's the letter that Capote sent to Random House editor Bennett Cerf on December 5, 1950 -- 11 days after a smash hit had opened on Broadway: "I understand," he wrote, "that in the new musical Guys and Dolls, there is a song called 'A Bushel and a Peck' -- 'I love you a bushel and a peck and a hug around the neck.' On page 161 of [my] Other Voices, Other Rooms, you will find this: 'I love you, Joel. I love you a bushel and a peck and a hug around the neck.' And though Oscar Wilde may have gone into the public domain, I've not. In other words, depending somewhat on your view, I intend to bring suit." Editor Clarke writes in a footnote, "The matter was dropped when Capote's mother called Cerf to tell him that 'a bushel and a peck' was an old Southern rhyme and she distinctly remembered singing it to him when he was a baby."

Capote wrote quite a few letters to Donald Windham, who, with Tennessee Williams, co-authored the play You Touched Me (which Capote liked to call, rather inelegantly, You Goosed Me). In one of the letters, he complained about a Hirschfeld sketch that included both of them. "You don't look remotely like yourself, dear," he wrote to Windham, "while I'm depicted as a hideous dwarf."

But caricature criticism wasn't the only censuring Capote did in his letters. Let's see what he had to say about the theatrical attractions of his day. Graham Greene's The Living Room was "a very bad and spurious play." Time Remembered: "Susan Strasberg and Miss Helen Hayes irritated me so much I could not sit through it." Noël Coward's Nude With Violin "really laid a bomb." Saratoga: "Dreadful." The Vamp: "Dreadful, including Carol Channing." The Oliviers were described as "hideous" in a play called The Confidential Clerk; "Confidential Jerk is a better title for a very dreary item indeed," Capote wrote. Granted, all of these shows were failures, but Capote also felt that Beyond the Fringe -- a long-running and well-received revue of the early '60s -- was "rather dreary."

He did offer some mixed and some positive reviews. For New Girl in Town: "The first act is excellent; there isn't a second, none at all." On a Clear Day You Can See Forever: "The first act has some charm and two good songs, and Barbara Harris is fine (italics his). Hot September, the musical version of Picnic that closed in Boston, "I kind of liked." Capote rated The Little Hut "amusing" and The Boy Friend "really charming." And he did have something nice to say about Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman: "The only tragedy involved is that, good in some ways as his play is, we should be in a position where there is nothing very much better to applaud."

But Capote wasn't the only one in his crowd who panned what he encountered. He wrote a friend that "[Producer] Irene Selznick seems all set to go ahead with the play [The Chalk Garden]. Peter Brook read the new version and told her it was one of the worst plays he'd ever read and she was insane to put it on." And while Capote said that he "loved" The Lady's Not for Burning, he notes, "but such diverse folk as [W.H.] Auden and [Cecil] Beaton tell me I was wrong to."

All these opinions bring me to a Fact of Life that I learned long ago: People who work in the theater are often critical of the critics, but if they were reviewing, they'd be far more caustic. I can't tell you how many times I've heard writers, actors, directors, choreographers, and other creative types describe shows they've recently seen -- and their pans have been far more biting than the reviews that even the most brutal critics wrote. They've often panned what most everyone else has loved. What's more, I've seen many of these artistic types give dismissive waves while they talked or laugh uproariously while delivering their acerbic opinions. I rarely have heard creative people use words such as "alas," "unfortunately," or "sad to say" when they're excoriating other people's work. (The ultimate nadir: A two-time Tony winning director once said to me about another two-time Tony winner, who was staging a play from long ago, "That guy thinks a period piece is a tampon.") I swear, creative people are better off taking their chances with us journalists than they would be if they were reviewed by their peers.


[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at [email protected]]

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