Call "A Meeting by the River" an exercise in transcendental obfuscation. Out of the dried pages of his 1967 novel of the same name, Christopher Isherwood, in collaboration with Don Bachardy, has constructed a three-act play whose words settled like withered leaves over last night's audience at the Palace. Smoke, too, for waves of it remained hovering in the air after a religious ceremony had taken place.
Oliver, or Ollie, one of two sons of an English country gentlewoman named Margaret, has opted for a life of self-sacrifice and is a Hindu monk shortly to be ordained as a swami in a monastery on the banks of the Ganges. Patrick, Ollie's older brother, has been increasing the family fortune by combining book publishing with moviemaking as the two pursuits have become increasingly inseparable. On location in Singapore, he decides to pay Ollie a visit and, for no good reason I could ascertain other than simple malice or perhaps the pure fun of the game, to undermine Ollie's faith and get him to turn in the monastic life for a post at the UN.
That's really all there is to this static work which has the actors standing about reading letters sent from halfway around the world when they aren't posturing and uttering sentences that sound civilized at first until doubtful aphorisms ("It takes an awful lot of sanity to bear the company of happy people" and, about saints, "Isn't it a word we use for anyone who makes us feel acutely uncomfortable?") begin to cloud the air.
And when Ollie and Simon aren't standing about ruminating or slogging through metaphysical exchanges, we get glimpses of Margaret back home at her country house, and of Patrick's wife Penelope who, along with their two children, is staying with Margaret for the nonce, their real home being in Los Angeles. Margaret and Penelope talk at each other a bit, but mostly read letters. As played by Siobhan McKenna (Margaret) and Meg Wynn-Owen (Penelope), they're fair enough letter readers, though McKenna has a decided edge over her companion. Over everybody else, too, I'd say, including the entire monastic clan, since she is the only one able to get a few laughs out of this very literary material.
Then, to juice up Act Two, a spirited youth named Tom phones his love from Singapore, only to get Ollie on the phone instead of the true object of his desire, Patrick. Nothing much comes of this, though. Patrick, it seems, just happens to be your normal, lusty, bisexual English public-school product. He even won Penelope away from Ollie, though she seems to still love Ollie. From a distance. One up for Ollie, I'd say.
In Act Three, Ollie gets ordained in that smoky ceremony with all the other swamis silently watching in rows that recede, first into dummies and then into painted figures on the backcloth of Robert Mitchell's moody set. Patrick, like Parsifal gaping at the Grail ceremony, stands watching from the dim fringe of the scene. You can't win 'em all.
Simon Ward who hasn't been around since Simon Gray's interesting one-night flop "Wise Child," plays Ollie devoutly and, while being ordained, nakedly. He's a good actor and so is Keith Baxter, who plays Patrick, but they can do little here but attitudinize.
Sam Jaffe, who looks as if he'd wandered in from a fuzzy print of "Lost Horizon," shows up briefly as a cigaret fiend of a guru, who got Ollie started on his new course back in Geneva. Jaffe smokes his last cigaret, though, expiring very quickly. Ronald Bishop plays the genial, well-fed head swami, Keith McDermott is ardent Tom, and Paul Collins plays a pushy photographer.
Albert Marre has staged this stately, discursive nonsense with as much care and respect as if he were directing a revival of "The King and I" with Richard Rodgers looking over his shoulder. A few tunes would have helped. Not much, but some.
East meets West and the result is a head-on collision between the twain. You might take that to be the effect of Christopher Isherwood's play A Meeting by the River, which opened at the Palace Theater last night.
In fairness however, this is not simply a muddy, unlikely confluence between the Ganges and the Thames, but far more the rape of a rather important novel. The novel, by the way, was written by Isherwood himself.
It was one of Isherwood's sensitive, and often underestimated, novels of feeling. First published in 1967 - three years after A Single Man - the two novels together established the author's post-war sensibility.
He was still, in a way, the camera-eyed observer of the Berlin stories that first made his name, but now there was a new awareness, a new involvement.
The play is almost a travesty of the novel. The story is much the same. Two brothers love and hate one another, both grudgingly adoring the other's opposite polarity. One, Patrick, is a married, bisexual publisher turned Hollywood film producer. The other, Oliver, is a former banker, Quaker, Red Cross worker, about to turn Buddhist monk.
Oliver writes to Patrick telling him of his intention. Patrick comes to India to see what it is all about. It is a theme of worldliness and sanctity, of compromise and salvation. The novel starts with two letters from Oliver - then its structure is simply letters from Patrick to their Mother, his wife Penelope, who Oliver apparently once loved, and Patrick's new Los Angeles lover, Tom, together with lengthy diary entries written by Oliver.
This very personal, epistolary form, a fugue for two voices, is scarcely dramatic. Yet Isherwood has often been attracted to the theater. In the '30s he collaborated with W.H. Auden in a series of odd poetic dramas, of which The Ascent of Fo is worth a toehold, if not a footnote in English dramatic literature.
Here Isherwood has collaborated with Don Bachardy, who seems to be best known as a portrait artist. The seriousness of the novel has gone, even though many scenes, more incidents, and often lines, have been retained intact. Yet the total effect - odd additions to the role of the mother and her cats for example - is to trivialize the entire work.
The original form stubbornly resists dramatization and some of the writing, especially when signed by a master of prose as Isherwood, is embarrassing. He shouldn't worry. Henry James was never able to write a play, and he even tried harder.
Whether Isherwood or his co-author, Bachardy, is the more to blame is a question safely to be left to the energies of biographers and future writers of graduate theses. What is certain is that the director, Albert Marre, and the most distinguished cast did their level best to keep the sinking ship on an even keel.
When the play is against you, only surrender is viable. Unless one chooses, early on, to be a non-combatant. Nevertheless Marre tried to give the sluggish, literary pace a semblance of dramatic movement, Robert Mitchell's scenery, including a triumphant trompe l'oeil depiction of Buddhist monks in the final ritual initiation ceremony of sannyasing.
The acting is impeccable and exemplary. How well the British behave under fire. Keith Baxter as the dilettante, dallying publisher awakened into love and awareness of his brother is marvelous, as is Simon Ward as the apprentice monk, bringing off perfectly the difficult task of making Godliness appealing.
The great Siobhan McKenna fulfilled an impossible task impossibly well as the impossible mother, and veteran Sam Jaffe had a brief dignity as the guru, Tarun Maharaj.
The theme was appealing, the motives admirable, but Isherwood and his co-scriptwriter do not bring it off. I still revere the novel.
When Western philosophers began to climb out of the Middle Ages and head in the direction of the 20th century, one question that worried them no little was the nature, mechanics and location of whatever it was that connected the soul to the body.
It is a problem that afflicts "A Meeting by the River," an exercise in High Twaddle by Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy, which opened last night at the Palace Theater. A genteel and overripe English sensibility, so dated as to seem almost Edwardian, is attempting to encompass Oriental mysticism; and the result is something that Virginia Woolf might have written home rudely about.
The play suggests the spiritual transformation of an entire prosperous British family - everyone in the play is rich, brilliant, saintly or all three - when one of them throws up a career as a future Governor of the Bank of England, goes to India by way of some refugee work in the Congo, and decides to become a swami.
The play has two fundamental defects. One is that a lot of talk about spiritual transformation - including a long and elaborate ritual scene - is presented at one level, while the characters churn around at another level, trying to catch it; yet the two never connect. Transformation comes suddenly; in the intermission between the second and third acts, to be precise; and we never see how.
Except that suddenly the sensual, cynical brother, Patrick, who has gone East to rescue the saintly brother, Oliver, from the monastery, decides to give up his young male lover and return to his family. Oliver himself, who has been crotchety and jealous, suddenly becomes serene. Patrick's unselfish and represented wife, Penelope, finds salvation in a garlic-salami sandwich that she buys and eats all by herself without offering any to anyone. And Patrick and Oliver's crabby mother goes down to the cellar and liberates herself with two bottles of old wine.
The tradition that Grace can operate in foolish ways is a respectable one. But Mr. Isherwood and his associate make their characters even more foolish than their Grace. Aside from a resident swami who laughs a lot and says very little, they are petulant, uninteresting and long-winded.
If the play fails because its central action - conversion - is invisible; it becomes a tedious failure because its personages have no believable character but only a series of ascribed emotions and beliefs, conveyed in speeches that can hardly get through an actor's mouth.
"Meeting" begins with an exchange of letters between Oliver and Patrick, and between Patrick and their mother. The letter device, which requires the recipient to stare at a sheet of paper while the writer delivers the speech, is used over and over again.
Patrick, debonair, self-indulgent and - according to the script - charming, flies out to the monastery to dissuade Oliver from making his final swami vows. He employs a familiar mockery to rile the irascible Oliver and to convince him that his saintliness is very thin if it can be so easily disarrayed. When this seems insufficient he adds the promise of a powerful job. It seems he has run into Henry Maddox, who used to go to school with them.
"Piggy Maddox?" Oliver asks, astonished.
"Lord Maddox, now Special Assistant to the Secretary General at the United Nations," Patrick responds, more or less in those words. Maddox will be able to get Oliver an important job, and Oliver is clearly tempted. As the second act ends he squats, eyes cast upwards, seeking guidance from his late guru. "Maharashi," he says, "I am praying to you as I never prayed before."
It is a sample of the kind of clangers that pass for speeches. Even if the characters were more palatable; if Patrick were more than a langorous cynic, if Oliver were more than plaintive and tremulous, if a visiting journalist were more than a sneer on two whisky legs, the play would be sunk by its speeches which are, almost literally, unspeakable.
Certainly they play havoc with a cast that includes some accomplished actors. Simon Ward as Oliver, Keith Baxter as Patrick, Siobhan McKenna as the mother, and Meg Wynn-Owen as Penelope play with such eye-rolling and tremulous falsity that the suspicion grows, some two thirds the way along, that they have yielded to actors' despair and are guying their parts. Ronald Bishop as the Head Swami, and Sam Jaffe as Oliver's guru are better off; the former because he needs mainly to smile, the latter because he soon dies.
Robert Mitchell has constructed a decaying temple with a suggestion of mouldering leaves, and Clarke W. Thornton's yellow lighting is effective. Albert Marre has directed in what seems to be a state of desperation.