2001 April: Wednesday
Next morning, I left Charleston and flew on to Charlotte NC, before boarding another flight to Richmond in Virginia. Up until this point, the American shows had been relatively leisurely, each one defined by distance and character. From now on, though, the pace became relentless; city followed city, show followed show, and promoter followed promoter without a break. It reminded me of Dylan Thomas’s glorious essay ‘A Visit to America’ in which he describes a typical lecturer as starting his tour diary by pontificating in detail on every aspect of his surroundings but ending it with single entries such as ‘Pittsburg!!!’
Richmond had been one of the last stops on Wilde’s tour and he had been desperate to escape the heat of the Southern summer. He sent a letter to Julia Ward Howe:
‘My present plan is to arrive in New York from Richmond on Wednesday evening. I write to you from the beautiful, passionate, ruined South….living chiefly on credit, and on the memory of some crushing defeats’.
My arrival in the city was, yet again, fraught. The new promoter, an Englishman resident in Richmond named Tony, had bad news. Whereas I’d set off for Charleston with the problem that the promoter was dead, I arrived in Richmond to the news that tonight’s intended venue had gone bankrupt. They had recently put on a production of ‘Carousel’ and now owed an unexpected $14,000 to the Rogers and Hammerstein estate. Tony assured me that alternative arrangements had been made:
“The Colonial Dames of America can accommodate us tomorrow night.”
It was refreshing to meet Tony – at last a fellow Brit with whom it was possible to exchange views on the host country without ruffling patriotic feathers. He was a sharp, trim man, probably aged about seventy but didn’t look it. We drove off through the drizzling afternoon on a tour of downtown Richmond.
The State Capitol area was impressive but there seemed to be an air of dereliction around the centre. Although historically it had been burned down twice (once by the British in 1781, and once by the retreating Confederate Army in 1865), its current malaise, according to Tony, was due partly to the racial divide. The whites had fled to the suburbs, the main shopping malls had moved outside the centre, and the black city government had been unduly obstructive. In thirty years, the white population had decreased from 60% to 40%, and the black population had risen to over 50%. The murder rate was frightening – an average sixty killings per 100,000 people made Richmond the ninth most dangerous city in the USA.
The lack of pedestrians on the streets added to the feeling of lurking menace. Tony:
“If you tried walking round here you would be an object of suspicion. You’d be stopped and questioned by the cops.”
Racial tension became literally set in stone as we turned into Monument Avenue, a wide street dominated by statues of the Confederate heroes – Stonewall Jackson, Robert E Lee, Jefferson Davies, etc. In 1996, in the teeth of furious white resistance, the black authorities had insisted on erecting a new statue on the Avenue in memory of the black tennis star Arthur Ashe. Although facing in the opposite direction, he now vied with the Southern icons; but where they brandished swords, Arthur Ashe was wielding a tennis racket.
We stopped for a drink at what was probably the most famous institution in Richmond – the Jefferson Hotel. It had been built in 1895 and Tony reeled off a list of surprising details about its history. Over the years, its guests had ranged from Theodore Roosevelt to Dolly Parton, and reputedly the tap dancer ‘Mr Bojangles’ Robinson had been the hotel bell hop. At one stage, a small pool in the hotel lobby had been inhabited by live alligators. These had understandably provided something of a conversational ice breaker.
Another feature of the lobby was the Grand Staircase. Margaret Mitchell had been a guest at the Jefferson while writing ‘Gone With the Wind’ and allegedly this had provided the inspiration for her description of Scarlett O’Hara’s staircase – and later a memorable setting in the film.
The next stop was at Libby Hill, which provided a splendid view of eastern Richmond and the James River, and was in turn the reason why Richmond had been named Richmond. Back in the 1730s, an early settler had spotted that this view was almost exactly similar to that seen from the hill in Richmond, Surrey. So he named the place after the original English town.
We drove out through the suburbs to Tony’s house where I was introduced to his American wife Ginger. She had trained as a priest but now worked selling vestments for an Episcopalian church.
“There’s a lot of money in it but the styles are awful.” I liked Ginger immediately.
She said that she was busy arranging a ‘Feet-Washing Day’ for Easter’ but was not sure that the wealthy churchgoers of Richmond would be interested. I told her that I’d read that the washing of lepers had become a very popular activity amongst the New Age followers in India.
“But the lepers are getting a bit fed up about it.”
Over dinner, Tony told me some of the details of his extraordinary career. He had been a real ‘Sir Humphrey Appleby’ – a top civil servant in London during the 1980s, acting as Under Secretary to various Whitehall departments, and getting to know many of the leading political figures of the time. He had liked some ministers such as Nicholas Ridley and Chris Patten but had found Margaret Thatcher to be ‘loathsome’.
Tony also had been sent on foreign assignments, once on official business to the Rio de Janeiro Festival. While there he received a message that a crowd of British business delegates had ‘got loose among the samba dancers’ and could he sort it out? When he arrived he found that not just the British but the whole international delegation had ‘got loose’. When he demanded an explanation from the British businessmen, he received the shame-faced reply that: “It was the Japanese who started it.”
Perhaps his most interesting work had been in London itself. At one point, he had been appointed honorary Lieutenant-General with the specific job of becoming ‘Dictator of London’ in the event of nuclear war. The bad news was that he would have had to remain above ground during the attack, so his dictatorship would have lasted just over four minutes.
At 9pm I was shown up to my bedroom. It would give some idea of the size of the place to say that, in addition to the enormous bed and two chesterfield sofas, there was a grand piano in the corner.
2001 April: Thursday
I spent most of the day performing line rehearsals and going for a walk round the immediate neighbourhood. I was stopped and questioned twice in the space of fifteen minutes by private security guards. It seemed that pedestrians really did provoke paranoia.
At 6pm Tony drove me to the evening show. We passed mile after mile of ‘box store’ supermarkets lining the road and thereby emptying the city. We also spotted a billboard advertising a forthcoming speech in Richmond by Tony’s old enemy Margaret Thatcher herself. As my own views on the woman were unprintable, we enjoyed a five minute diatribe on the subject.
Tony: “And there’s another thing! This alleged ‘hard-working’ ethos! If you’re a humble clerk, yes, you work all hours God sends. But if you’re in the higher echelons it’s a very different matter. You try phoning a senior official in Washington later than Friday lunchtime! They’ve all cleared off home! And not just Fridays”
A few minutes later, we passed a minor traffic accident that was little more than a fender bender scrape. I counted seven police in varying uniforms standing around the offending cars. This set Tony off again.
“This is the most over-regulated country I’ve ever been in, including Soviet Russia. There are endless restrictions and petty rules. And there are far too many police around with too little to do. Don’t ever go anywhere near them – they’re bastards!” Surprising stuff coming from Sir Humphrey.
The new venue was Wilton House, a museum run by the Colonial Dames of America. This was an organisation open only to women descended from people who had held an official position under the British authorities prior to the Revolutionary War of 1776. Before arriving in the USA I had heard of the notoriously far right Daughters of the American Revolution. In Charleston I’d encountered the even further right-wing Daughters of the Confederacy. Now I was to meet a group who evidently considered even the War of American Independence to be dangerously radical.
Wilton House turned out to be a gem – a real 18th century mansion set on the north bank of the James River, and formerly the heart of a tobacco plantation. To one side stood the ‘Dependency cottage’, a smaller building that previously had housed the estate kitchens. Its separation from the main house had been a precaution to lessen the possibility of fire. Tonight, this was to be my venue.
Tony and I stood outside the locked gates awaiting the arrival of the custodian. An audience member also arrived early and we chatted for a while. He was an American who had lived for a time in England. In what was presumably meant as a pleasant compliment to Britain and to us as its representatives, he announced:
“I hope I’m not treading on anybody’s toes but I think it would have been marvellous to have your Maggie Thatcher as our President.”
He seemed genuinely taken aback by the crackle of venom that greeted his innocent remark. Through gritted canines, I growled back:
“You are very, very, welcome to her!”
I donned the costume and applied the make up in a tiny kitchen in the Dependency cottage. Oscar Wilde had not had a good show in Richmond – less than 200 people showed up and they assumed that his long hair was a wig from the theatre prop department. I had an odd premonition that this performance would not go well for me either. It was a hot and sticky evening and there was a sullenness in the air.
My attempt to create the illusion of a Paris café was not helped by the two 6ft high flag poles on stage each bearing the brocaded standards of the Colonial Dames. About sixty Dames and their consorts sat in front fanning themselves against the heat. After another droning introduction I launched into the show.
At first it went passably well with even a few minor laughs. However, when I reached the section containing Wilde’s comments on religion, the atmosphere changed. Wilde:
‘As for religion generally, it is as well to remember that a thing is not necessarily true simply because a man dies for it.’
There was a rustle of unrest out front. I continued with:
‘Religions themselves die when they are proved to be true. Science is the record of dead religions.’
A few gasps and a subdued mutter. I finished with:
‘I sometimes feel that God, in creating Man, somewhat overestimated his ability.’
From then on I’d lost them. A stony silence greeted every jest. When I tried to raise sympathy for Oscar’s travails in prison, it felt like they were surprised he had not been lynched as well. With the dearth of empathy I started fluffing lines. It was a shambles. This was possibly the least friendly audience I’d had in decades.
Reaching the end, I bowed off to a trickle of meagre applause. I could not understand it. Although below standard, the performance had not been all that bad. Had the quip about religion really hit a nerve?
I had to emerge to face them again over the post-show drinks. There were none of the usual congratulations, even fake ones. One man eventually piped up by way of conversation:
“We had an awful show here last year about Byron. He was nothing like him. So we have avoided impersonators generally”.
A woman added by way of consolation:
“Yes, that was kinda interesting. I must go back and watch that video of Stephen Fry’s Oscar Wilde. Don’t you think he was wonderful?”
On the journey home even Tony and Ginger were muted. Ginger’s only words where to the effect that she had been able to hear me well from the back row. What the hell had gone wrong? It couldn’t just have been religion? Had I had a mental blackout and inserted a harangue on behalf of Josef Stalin into the script? Had I kicked the house cat to death during the show? With no trusted adviser closer than London, there was no way I could find out.
Back at the house I had a smoke out on the terrace, then said goodnight – still no comment from my hosts or even thanks. Feeling depressed, I retired to the bedroom and brooded. After the highs of Sierra City and Charleston, this was a real kick in the teeth – ‘The Night They Drove Old Oscar Down’.
2001 April: Friday
The silence about the show continued next morning – as if it had been some awful social gaffe that everyone had chosen to put behind them. Instead, Tony dedicated his day to giving me a tour of Richmond’s historical heritage. In American terms, it was a truly impressive one.
We visited the church where Patrick Henry delivered his ‘Give me liberty or give me death’ speech, thus igniting the Revolution; followed by a quick trip to the home (now museum) of the writer Edgar Allen Poe.
Then on to the heart of the Confederate military arsenal, the Tredegar Iron Foundry Museum; and later to the Chimborazo Hospital, once a vast sea of tents housing the Southern wounded. Such were the horrendous casualty rates that the stretch of the James beside the hospital became known as ‘the river of blood’.
Driving east into the Peninsula we arrived at the site of the 1862 civil war Battle of Malvern Hill. The battlefield had been kept in an immaculate fashion. The land had been cleared of trees so that all the original features could be clearly seen, while a line of cannon and a sound recording of gunfire coming from a memorial pavilion recreated the atmosphere. It was a real contrast to the nonchalant disregard with which the British treat their ancient battlefields. “The Battle of Naseby, mate? Search me. It might be somewhere around that potato field next to the motorway? But I wouldn’t bet on it”.
Malvern Hill provided a genuine connection to Wilde. In 1882, he had been introduced to General George McClellan at a party in Washington. McClellan had been the general in charge of the Union army here.
Although he had been the victor on this occasion, McClellan had been something of a military embarrassment and a byword for hesitation. During 1862 he stood ready to capture the Confederate capital with an overwhelmingly superior force and end the war. He just waited and did nothing.
The Confederates defending Richmond managed to bamboozle him with such stratagems as installing fake cannon made out of logs, and marching the same regiment round and round the top of a hill to give the impression of numbers, but even they were perplexed by his inaction. One Southern general stated:
“We’re trapped, outnumbered, and outgunned. Why in the name of God does the man not attack?”
After weeks of conscientious data analysis McClellan had concluded that Richmond possessed a garrison of over 300,000 men. The true number was 50,000. The war was to continue for another three disastrous years.
Friday ended with a trip to see a local production of ‘The Taming of the Shrew’ at the Barksdale Theatre. The theatre was interesting in itself, as during the 1960s it had been the first theatre venue in Virginia to insist on performing to an integrated white and black audience. When they hit on the idea of serving meals to encourage extra audiences, they created the first ‘dinner theatre’ in America.
The show itself bounced with life, ripping along at breakneck pace, with large chunks of Shakespeare’s text discarded, and the lead role of Kate interpreted as a Yankee spoiled brat, Petruchio as a Dixie hunk, with a gloriously camp Tranio, and a blonde bombshell of a Bianca whose sexual writhing bordered on the pornographic. It was very enjoyable.
As I emerged into the foyer an usher asked me what I thought of the show. Without thinking I blurted out:
“It was really good once you got used to the foreign accents performing Shakespeare.”
“Whaddya mean? Foreign accents?”
2001 April: Saturday
As Tony drove me to the airport, we passed one of the most evocative statues I’d seen. It was of a bronze horse standing alone on a plinth. It was saddled but rider-less, its gaunt ribs projecting from its starved body, its head drooping with exhaustion. It seemed like a heartfelt tribute to the end of Confederate Richmond and the pity of war.
End of the Civil War statue, Richmond
Next week on Tuesday May 29 – The Lord arrives in South Carolina.