Would I Sing for I Never Sang?
Filichia visits a new production of I Never Sang for My Father a quarter century after the play's Broadway opening.
When I heard there was an Off-Off-Broadway production of I Never Sang for My Father playing, you couldn't have kept me away if you'd put a Sherman tank in front of me. Because I'd never seen the play? No, I saw the original 1968 production twice. Because of the performers involved this time around? No, I have no idea who Charles D. Cissel, James Stevenson, Jacqueline Brookes, or Jill Van Note are. But back in the late '60s, when I was 19, I started investing in shows. You could do that then with investments of only a couple of hundred bucks. My first two did pretty well: Sweet Charity and Cabaret. But then came Hallelujah, Baby, which won a Tony but lost all its money; Fragments, a couple of one-acters that starred two unknowns named Gene Hackman and James Coco and lost all its money; and then, Robert Anderson's I Never Sang for My Father.
I still remember how excited I was, a 21-year-old Boston kid, when I got in the mail the script of the newest work by the man who had written the seminal '50s hit Tea and Sympathy. He'd also had a smash the season before with a quartet of one-acters called You Know I Can't Hear You When the Water's Running which had been directed by Alan Schneider, who had staged the original Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Schneider was going to do I Never Sang, too, for producer Gilbert Cates, who'd co-produced YKICHYWTWR (as the one-acters had come to be known). And the cast of I Never Sang sounded pretty good: Hal Holbrook as Gene, Alan Webb as father Tom, Lillian (Anya) Gish as mother Margaret, and Teresa Wright (Mrs. Robert Anderson) as sister Alice.
None of these credentials would mean much, though, if the play wasn't good. But once I started reading, I was gripped. The play opened with Gene Garrison, a middle-aged man, taking the audience into his confidence, saying "Death ends a life but not a relationship" before telling the story of how much he loved his mother but never found a way to love his father. The problem is, his aging, beloved mother dies, and he's left to try to love his father. He cannot, because Tom Garrison is a pretty cantankerous and self-serving braggart. The play ends with Gene telling us: "What did it matter if I never loved him or if he never loved me? But when I hear the word 'father,' it matters."
Well, my father was someone who would have much rather had his son play third base than know what was Broadway's third-longest running show. I had hundreds of cast albums right at arm's length; he had two tattoos on his right arm. Even as I left my teen years, he and I still had, as they say, "issues," and there was no reason to believe that we'd ever resolve them. So I related to this play.
I went to New York on October 23, 1967 to give my check to Cates. I vividly remember the day--not only because I looked lustfully at the Palace, where Henry Sweet Henry was about to enjoy a sold-out opening night without me, but also because, the day after I returned home, my father died. Thus, when I attended opening night of the pre-Broadway tryout of I Never Sang for My Father at the Colonial Theatre in Boston on January 2, 1968, the play and its messages held extra resonance.
The review that meant the most in Boston was Elliott Norton's, for he was often called "the dean of American drama critics." And when I opened the Boston Record-American the following day, I read: "At last, after months of waiting, the American theater has a drama of real distinction." (I no longer have a copy of the review, but I can assure you that that's precisely how it began. You don't forget such things.) The other reviews were almost-but-not-quite as enthusiastic, certainly good enough for the play to do excellent business. I spent the next three weeks beaming with confidence.
On Thursday, January 25, I flew to New York for opening night at the Longacre. I was even more moved, for the play was essentially an intimate one and it played better in a theater approximately half the size of the musical-friendly Colonial. And yet...despite tumultuous opening night applause, the celebration afterwards at Sardi's wasn't as joyous as I would have assumed. I'd only understand why some hours later when I picked up the New York Times at the newsstand that used to be at the northwest corner of 7th Avenue and 42nd Street. I felt both the chill of fear and the heat of anger when I read Clive Barnes' opening line: "A soap opera is a soap opera, no matter how you slice the soap."
The following afternoon, I went by the box-office and saw one person buying tickets. After 124 performances, I Never Sang for My Father closed at a loss of almost its entire investment. Only Alan Webb received a Tony nomination. Two years later, Hollywood filmed the property, and Melvyn Douglas as Tom and Gene Hackman as Gene respectively received Oscar nominations as Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor. While the film wasn't nominated for Best Picture, at least Robert Anderson was nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay. But nobody associated with the property ever won a thing.
Since I saw the film in 1970, I've never revisited I Never Sang for My Father; but now, at modest little Theatre 22, I would get the chance. [Ed. Note: the production's limited run ended on Sunday, January 13.] As the play unfolded, so much came back to me. Tom argues with Gene over how many pieces of luggage they brought back from Florida, Tom insisting that one suitcase is missing while Gene knows this isn't the case. Then they argue over which roads to take on the drive home. Then Tom says, "We got your four letters," implying there should have been more. When they go to dinner, Gene wants to pick up the check but Tom says he will because Gene shouldn't "on what you make" (he's a teacher). And when Margaret has the attack that will soon kill her, Tom is soon talking about himself rather than worrying about his wife; he even does a little flirting with her nurse. Once Margaret dies, Alice comes home for the first time in years (Tom had banished her when she married a Jew).
Sounds terrible, doesn't it? I sat there thinking, "a soap opera is a soap opera, no matter how you slice the soap." I was aghast that Gene--a widower who's been seriously considering remarrying--doesn't even call his new love to tell her his mother died. Alice tells him to call, but Gene says he doesn't want to. Why? How much of a relationship can he have with her if he won't call her? (To be fair to myself, I have to say that, when I read the script before I invested, this woman was a character in the play.)
But that wasn't all that drove me to distraction. When Tom said that his wife should see "Mayberry in the morning," it took me a second to realize he didn't mean Andy Taylor's hometown but was instead referring to the family physician, Dr. Mayberry. Tom is set up as a powerful person, but only with about five minutes left in the play do we learn that he was once mayor of his town. Why did Anderson wait so long to tell us when there are plenty of other characters who'd interacted with him and could have said, "Hello, Mr. Mayor?" But most of all, what I saw at Theatre 22 that I don't remember any critic ever mentioning back in 1968 is that the play is amazingly close in structure and theme to a much better one that preceded it: The Glass Menagerie. Narrator Gene tells us about his unhappy home life, as Tom Wingfield does, and eventually leaves. The only real difference is that a man is warring with his father instead of his mother.
A third-of-a-century ago, I wouldn't have believed that I would ever feel this way. When the play ended, all I could think of was the many young theatergoers I meet who tell me that what they saw last night was the greatest, absolutely most magnificent show with positively brilliant performances, and that's all there is to it, and I'm not to say anything different. Given my current feelings about my once-beloved I Never Sang for My Father, I wonder if they'll hold onto those opinions as the years go by.