Frances Cuka discusses the play "A Taste of Honey" and her career ; part 1
BROADCAST: Mar. 8, 1962 | DURATION: 00:34:14
British actress Frances Cuka discusses the play "A Taste of Honey" and her career. Audio cuts off abruptly at the end of the interview.
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Studs Terkel As the curtain goes up on a play, "A Taste of Honey" at the Blackstone Theater. The audience is immediately involved. There's I suppose the word is vitality, the vitality of the two performers on the stage and of the writing and of the direction, the two performers, the two central figures, Frances Cuka a remarkable young actress as Jo the girl, the waif, and her mother, her [tarted?] mother played by Hermione Baddeley. Our guest this morning, Frances Cuka. The word "vitality," is that -- hit you as one of the right words to use for the
Frances Cuka -- Oh, certainly, yes, it's a very vital play, I mean it's -- it is crude and kind of noisy and at -- but it has tremendous love of life and the kind of enthusiasm about life that goes with it, although it is a sad play in lots of ways.
Studs Terkel This is a play, the role you play. Frances, we'll ask about you later on and your career in theater and the effect of Joan Littlewood on you as a director, and the Theatre Workshop of which you were
Frances Cuka Yes.
Frances Cuka You see, that [write often? right off in?] the reviews and things, they always say "her 18-year-old daughter." Now, what a lot of people haven't realized is that she is out with her sailor, and he says, "How old are you?" Now, she's still at school. Most girls of this age usually leaves -- this kind of class leave school at 15, get out of school immediately. And Jo says, naturally, she's out with her first young man, she's not going to say, tell him she's 15, she says, "Oh, I'm 18," and swanks about it, you see. But I think also we had to make it 18 because [it's?] the London censor. I think there was something about the age of consent. And so the girl had to say she was 18 even though she wasn't.
Frances Cuka -- Yes, but this is where the childishness comes in, that she begins as a as a child and ends up as a woman. At least that's what I think. She ends -- she begins as a kind of a mess, you know, trying desperately hard to gain her mother's affection by showing off and being noisy and trying to grab her mother's boyfriend who keeps coming around, and she does it very badly and without any kind of experience at all and just makes a fool of herself in the process of it. And as the play progresses, she learns how to love somebody who is the art student who looks after her in the second act. And it's a pity the relationship is kind of chopped at the end of the play, because I think they could probably have -- both parties having learned an awful lot from each other.
Studs Terkel This point you make, it's a pity the play is chopped off then because both parties, both parties I think we should describe the parties. There's you, little Jo, 15, and parading as 18, the mother of a child by this sailor and cared for by this young art student, this young homosexual art student. And here are two, aren't they then two people who are waifs.
Frances Cuka I mean, he is just a kind of lost lad, you know, and he does fall in love with the girl in the course of the play, and it's a pity that she's not attracted to him, because -- and in the end of course the love comes to nothing, they have to
Studs Terkel Now this is a very interesting point you make just now. I was -- no, I accepted the fact that the boy was a homosexual. [Unintelligible] here too is a waif, someone who is looked down upon by conventional society, as this little girl is too, the unwed mother.
Frances Cuka Well, he's kind of odd, you see. I mean, immediately everybody immediately looks at him and says, "Ah-hah." You know, and the mother instinctively takes a dislike to him, and so does her boyfriend. They both immediately hate Geoffrey on sight, it's a kind of animal thing that they just do. And -- who Geoffrey is kind of pushed around and he's really the nicest person in the play, and certainly in a lot of ways he is the kindest. He is the one most understanding, and he comes in and he takes the place of the girl's mother in a way that the mother never ever did.
Frances Cuka Oh no. That is the point of the -- that is I think the wonderful thing about the play is that the woman is never cruel. She's always -- the girl is just there and in the way, and she's -- she had to be shoved off from under her feet all the time. You know, go out and -- I mean, you can imagine this child at the age of about three, you know, saying, "Mommy, mommy," and putting her hand on the mother. As the girl said, "I used to try and hold her hand, and she always pushed her hand away," and I could imagine the child coming up and saying, "Mommy, mommy," "Oh, go out and play somewhere. Go on. Don't bother me." You know, the woman never has -- I mean, is not consciously cruel, but it is cruelty. And this is the thing that is very rampant in the world, that not a -- is not always sort of putting your arms around somebody and saying "I love you and all that," you know, and -- or saying "I hate you" that is just meaningful.
Frances Cuka Yes.
Frances Cuka This is why the girl goes to the sailor, because he's a, he's so warm and friendly and he listens to her. He thinks she's funny and he laughs at her and he sort of -- and they kind of play a little game together with a toy car on the street. You know, she finds a toy car in his pocket.
Frances Cuka Well, everybody's searching for love in the play. The mother is searching for love, too. And Jo always seems to choose the wrong man. She in a way isn't a sad person, and Geoffrey is also searching for love. Jo is definitely searching for it, and possibly at the end of the place she gets it from the baby.
Studs Terkel Here's Jo and there's something about Jo that -- there's so many things admirable about her. In the midst of all this adversity, left all alone with the baby, a Negro sailor's baby, a [pact?], another handicap, you see. But she -- you feel somehow that Jo will -- it's a play about survival, too.
Frances Cuka Oh certainly, yes. I mean, Jo, Jo is at the end of the play is definitely surviving, I mean Jo will go on and have the baby, you know. And you know, I mean you know that it's in that way that the life carries on. It is a slice of life, because it's so often [portrayed?].
Studs Terkel Well, I suppose a bit of the history of the play, the relationship of Littlewood to the play and of Shelagh Delaney. Here's Shelagh Delaney, it's her first play, she was an usherette. Now, what made her, what made her write this play?
Frances Cuka Well, she wrote a -- she saw a play at Manchester, where she was, and she thought it was terrible and she thought, "Well, I can go home and write something better," and she did. Well, she went home and wrote a play, and she sent it to Joan Littlewood, and Joan Littlewood was really the -- absolutely the right person to send it to, because I think quite a lot of other directors would either have looked at it and said, "Oh no, no, we can't take it, no." Or would have cleaned it up and [chopped? shopped?] it around. But Joan deliberately left in elements that were in the original that were -- that were flaws. This play is full of flaws, and it's intended. She said, "You have -- it is written by a young girl. It must have that young kind of first flash of life. The roughness must be there." I remember we had a notice by a very brilliant critic called Alan Briens [sic - Brien], in London, and he was comparing two plays. In one play he said, "Obviously this girl wrote down the first thing that came into her head, whereas in the other play the woman had obviously written in the last thing, because she repolished and repolished and repolished the play until there was nothing there." And in this play, it kind of -- is like a child's drawing can often be much more true and full of vitality than Primitive
Frances Cuka Oh, certainly. She left in some of the fun at this sort of madder lines that were kept in that were -- which actually is a typical thing of Lancashire people. They love the long-winded line occasionally. For instance, the man with the eyepatch says at one point "That is
Frances Cuka Yeah. "That is a subject about which I do not wish to make a public statement," and that is a very typical line of the North Country people, they occasionally get very involved and very kind of on a high horse
Frances Cuka Yes, it's more black and coaly, and people have really lived in the Depression and had a pretty awful time, and have developed this kind of hard shell, of -- they're not kind of sympathetic to each other. They're very warm people and anybody's in trouble they'll say, "Hey, you've made a right mess of that, haven't you? You've made it -- my word. Oh, you made a mess of your life." You know, but they'll go around. Everybody will gang together and help this person, you see, at the same time, and they're marvelous people. They're very kind of
Studs Terkel Something happened before the program, we were discussing a certain kind of routine, and you objected to it because you felt it was overly sentimental, and there's a quote here by Sheila Delaney, the author of your play. "I have strong ideas of what I want to see in the theater. We used to object to plays where factory workers come cap in hand and call the boss 'Sir.' The North Country people usually are not shown as they are." Lancashire North Country,
Frances Cuka Yes.
Frances Cuka Yes, she has a wonderful ear for dialogue because when we were in London a lovely North Country family came down and saw us backstage, and they said, "We've only got one thing to say, though. We loved the play, loved it." But they said, "Why did the people laugh?" We said, "What?" She said, "Well, why did they laugh at the things that we say in the play?" And I said, "What sort of things?" And they said, "Well, that line about when I'm talking to the organ grinder, I don't expect the monkey to answer." They said, "That's a very common expression. Everybody uses it. Why did they laugh?" And the play is full of this kind of cliche which is very, very funny cliched. You know. It is like Singh, who went round the Irish highways and byways and wrote down things into his plays that he heard the people say themselves.
Frances Cuka Yes.
Frances Cuka Yes.
Frances Cuka Yes.
Frances Cuka Well, Joan is a great admirer of all kinds of -- Brecht, she's a great admirer of, and Stanislavski, and, and she's -- she was rather tired of, for many years she had been tired of some of the things that had been going on in the theater, the kind of matinee idol and the light comedy that had been going on in London [certain?], and she wanted players about people. And so she used to make her actors improvise and do -- and she's a perfectionist. She will make -- she does a play that so that it is perfect in rehearsal, and then just two days before it goes on, she says, "Now, we'll mess it up a bit, make it more realistic in --" so the hopes the thing is kind of sandpapered before it goes on, because she likes that kind of rough quality about it. And she has, she always wears a little woolly hat and it's a terrible little thing in various colours with a hole in the middle. And when she pushes it very heavily over her forehead, it means, "Yes, it's very interesting, this scene, yes. Hmm, there's something coming, yes, but what is it, you see." Then she pushes it, she pushes it to the back of her head, it means, "Good grief, what is going on? I'll have to sack the actors, it's terrible. It's no good. I hope it's" -- and if she takes the hat off, throws it on the floor and jumps on it, you run out of the theatre.
Frances Cuka But she is absolutely wonderful. I mean, she, she -- to create a situa-- I mean, the stage is -- what goes on on that stage is the most important thing in her life, and she will break every rule to -- in theatre and all over the shop to maintain this. I remember once I had overheard her say, about one actor in the company: "He's not coming along very well. I tried everything. What if I just shout at him?" And she does this. I mean, I even hear that once she engineered a row between two people because she didn't think that they were fighting each other well enough on the stage. I don't know whether that's true or not. But certainly on the first night of "Things Ain't What They Used To Be", which opened in London, they had a marvelous opening, which is a rowdy street dance. They're all cheering that the hero has just come home from prison. This is, you know, "Welcome home, Fred, after five years in the nick," you see and Fred comes out and they shower him with confetti and kind of things and all the girls come out and kiss him and there's a little band and they start to dance. And it's a very noisy opening and then suddenly the music shuts off, and there's a little sticker comes across, "15 years roll by," and a very quiet number is done by a policeman and two policewomen, and on the opening night they had been playing it at her theatre for about five weeks. And I think Joan thought it needed a bit of a kick to open on the first night. On the first night everybody galloped onto the stage for the opening, and there was Joan in the middle of it all, wearing her red hat and doing a little dance, and they all, all the actors came off stage and asked, "What was Joan doing there? What was she doing on the stage?" But it really, the play got fabulous notices, and it really -- she said, "Well, I did it to sort of wake you up." You know.
Frances Cuka Yes.
Frances Cuka Yes.
Studs Terkel Behan's "Hostage", before the curtain went up, the cast backstage was -- we heard them, they were singing "Men of the West", they were singing, they were dancing, they were warming up but the audience heard them. And when the curtain went up, there they were in the middle of life.
Frances Cuka Yes.
Frances Cuka She once did "The Respectful Prostitute", which was wonderful, where they had the Negro hunt at the beginning. And she had the curtain went -- stayed down and you heard the song, "Black boy, Black boy, don't you lie to me." And then suddenly all the spotlights in the theater were being used in the boxes, and they flashed all over the theater, and the men with guns ran all the way around the theater, and finally ran up on the stage, and as they ran up to the stage, the curtain rose and they went [bangs left?] on the stage with their guns. It was very exciting.
Frances Cuka Her aim really she said is to make the audience sit there and emote and be terrified and frightened and laugh and jealous and everything and not just sit there and just watch it. Her idea is to really get the audience working with the play.
Studs Terkel Certainly in "A Taste of Honey" this seems to be -- have this effect, that the audience may not have shared the actual experiences of the people on the stage, but it is for those two hours definitely. I mean, there is this involvement. Involvement I suppose is the key to
Frances Cuka Well, no, you -- I was -- I went with them to Moscow with "Macbeth". And then after that, after I came back, we played it in London for a while and also at Oxford, and then I left the company. And six months later they called me back and said, "We have a play here. Are you free?" And I said, "Yes, and what is it?" And they said, "Well, it's about this 19-year-old girl," and there's only five in the cast, and I went and read it, and we worked like beavers on it for three weeks before it opened, and we were so -- the theatre was so broke at this time, we had to do all our own stage management. There was nobody to shriek at if the props weren't there. We had to set our own props, we had to come in about an hour or so before the show and set them all there, and there was one wardrobe mistress who made the clothes and did all the quick changes and sang children's songs offstage, and the show went on and it was an immediate success and everybody started coming down, and it really the theatre actually came back because it was really not getting good business at that time. And then there was a kind of pause while they fought over it, the management's in London, and in that interim Joan put on "The Hostage", which again brought the audiences way back into
Frances Cuka It's a rather nice neigh-- it's kind of rough, but there -- actually there's a market just below it, and it is really great fun, the area. I love the area because you walk back through the market, and they say, "Here! How's the show going? All right then? Hey?" You know, "Yeah, well, good luck!" Then you know, and in the pubs they're always asking about the theatre. And they're really very fond
Frances Cuka Well, they like it, the people in the market. But Joan has tried for a long time to get that area to come and see the plays and she succeeded with "Macbeth", which was a modern dress production, and all the young Teddy Boys and things came in and adored it, because it was done with guns and with them
Studs Terkel It's a double question, and you're touching on both. The one question, Joan Littlewood's idea of theater, she was hoping to involve an audience that had not been conditioned to theater, too, to see, come to
Frances Cuka It has in some ways I think. And I think there is a kind of evolution going on in that people are more theatre-minded and really because of the television which I think is now at a standstill because of this terrible act, this terrible strike that has been going on on the independent television, and but it used to -- I know that a lot of my relatives and things they said, "We looked at ballet on the television and we saw plays and things," and they'd started to go to the theatre themselves because of this. And I think Joan did have, has had quite a considerable impact on a lot of people who never went to the theatre around her area, but not enough. And the people that really have been most impressed by Joan have been the theatre-going public who have started charging down to Stratford and with "The Hostage" or things they want, used to be. And "A Taste of Honey," quite often you'd heard people say, "Have you seen 'Taste of Honey' or 'Hostage' or something," and they say, "Oh yes, but I saw it -- I saw it at Theatre Workshop before it came in."
Frances Cuka Yes.
Frances Cuka It was an unconventional production, it stretched from the First World War to the Second World War. And the costumes changed in "Macbeth", and Lady Macbeth got older during the course of the play, and I was young Duff wearing pajamas.
Frances Cuka Yes, I'm one of the witches, and it was done with Macbeth being shot by a firing squad at the end, and the end it was this last act was wonderful, with searchlights and Maroons and aero planes going over, and they did the wonderful thing where the army came down to the footlights and they stretched across the footlights, and the line is "Let every soldier hew and down a bow and bear it before him," and they did it like commandos, when they said [whispers - unintelligible]. This went along the footlights and they crept like commandos into the back area of the theatre, which was very dark and this very big deep backstage. And they picked up their bows and that they had things in their helmets, leaves and things, and Macbeth appeared on the top gallery, which was the castle, and said, and the man told him that towards Burnam the wood began to move, and this point the drum began at the back, and he said, "Fear not, Macbeth, 'til Burnham Wood to come to Dunsinane, and now" and this drum came bom, bom, "And now a wood comes towards Dunsinane," and as he said, under these very arches there came the soldiers with the trees as he said this, and then they -- they threw down their leaves and they piggybacked onto each other's backs and up the arches, you know, went along with guns and it was really very exciting.
Frances Cuka When I died, they shrieked. [Unintelligible] died, 'cause they, did it very -- we did with guns and the little boy was knifed, and the mother held the child, and the child was dead, and she stood up, and she looked at the two gunmen who were kind of rather gangster figures and she said, she started to scream and she ran, and she ran out, and they let her go and she ran down this passage in the back and he followed her, and as he followed he just took out a pistol, and as he got to the back, you heard the gun and her fall. He didn't bother, you know, it was -- you know he was a hired gunman and so he just
Frances Cuka Yes, I think -- well, no, I'm, I think really in some ways I like the traditional "Macbeth" if it's if it's done very realistically. But this was really just a, you know, a nice kick in the pants that happened.
Frances Cuka Yes.
Frances Cuka He has the Royal Court Theatre, which is the theatre which produced John Osborne and "Look Back in Anger", and he wanted to finance new playwrights and put them on. And he of course has done this with variant success. Occasionally he has had to put on stars and sort of star plays, for instance, "Look After Lulu" which was Noel Coward and with Vivien Leigh, this kind of thing. It's for box office reasons, but a lot of the time he does do very new plays, and they have a wonderful policy which is every Sunday or every other Sunday, they take a new playwright or -- they send, all new playwrights send their plays in, and they pick a play, and they rehearse it for two weeks. And the actors really get paid peanuts, it is admitted, but they play for one night, and all the critics in London, it's a kind of big thing now, that all the critics in London come and give it a very good criticism on it, and quite often these plays end up in the West End because they've been seen, and it is a showcase for them. It's a showcase for the actors as well.
Frances Cuka -- No, I don't think, not Pinter, but I think Wesker -- no. No, Wesker's play was -- which was "Chicken Soup with Barley" which was the first one, was tried out at Coventry Rep and they brought -- they liked it, then they brought it into the Royal Court Theatre with the repertory company in it, and it ran at the Royal Court for quite a while, and then Joan Plowright did "Roots" at the Royal Court, which again at Coventry, and she brought it into the Royal Court, and then brought it into London, and then they did the trilogy of the three plays and they ran them in sequence.
Studs Terkel Is this our imagination here, or -- we know there's a great complaint in America about a lack of Native American playwrights. The opposite seems to be the case now in England there, or is this just, are we romanticizing this here on this side of the ocean?
Frances Cuka Well, I think actually there is always kind of a dip and a surge, I mean in the last, you know, that you have had your Eugene O'Neills and you know Arthur Millers and Tennessee Williams who still have these, you know.
Frances Cuka No, but I mean that there was a great surge in American playwriting and maybe there is for the moment a lull, and I'm sure that it wouldn't last all that long. Whereas with England, there's been a kind of a lull which has now suddenly erupted into a kind of flowering of talent in the theater. And I hope it lasts for a long time.
Frances Cuka Although there have been also, there has been a break away from the -- from this kind of theater as well, so that there is now a widening of scope. We have the Pinters, which are a kind of strange and wonderful, and Simpson, who they've tried over here off Broadway, and he didn't go because he's very English indeed. But then you get Robert Bolt, who writes these beautiful, elegant
Frances Cuka "A Man for All Seasons", and the -- other, there's another -- and also the man John Whiting, who wrote "The Devils of Loudon", [sic - Whiting wrote the play "The Devils", based on Aldous Huxley's book "The Devils of Loudon"]
Studs Terkel Back to Frances Cuka, who, who's doing Jo. You did -- and it's obvious, I could see why you did Frankie Adams, the boy -- the little girl, the tomboy in Carson McCullers' "A Member of the Wedding".
Frances Cuka Well actually, I was very lucky, I read it, Frankie, in a dead cert if you take the trouble with it, because I read the play and Carson McCullers had written a book called "Member of the Wedding" and it really -- all does is go through the book of "Member" -- which is beautifully written. It starts off with scruffy old Frankie in the first part, "Oh, Frankie thought so and so, oh, Frankie thought that." The second part is where Frankie gets posh and calls herself F. Jasmine Adams, so it then it always talks about her as F. Jasmine Adams, and then finally in the last bit it is Frances Adams, said, you know and it's a wonderful book because it said, you know, it has all the lines from the play in it, and it's all the time what Frankie is thinking. Meanwhile, she was thinking -- so all I had to do was copy out things from the book into the play which I did, and worked it
Studs Terkel "A dead cert" meaning it's a cinch for a good actress. You have to be a good actress to do it, though. And obviously you are. I think anyone who sees you at the Blackstone Theater sees a remarkably vital actress, of course what you do, you have this capacity, with your gaiety and loss on that stage, you're just tearing people apart. I suppose this is the sign of the actress, to do this. Oh, I want to ask you about -- since you won't speak about yourself, I'll ask you about production.
Frances Cuka Yes.
Studs Terkel Joan Littlewood directed the original version, you worked with her, and now Tony Richardson and George Devine have directed this. Is there a great difference in the approach of the two sets?
Frances Cuka Well, the play itself is exactly the same, but there is a difference in approach, because -- well, I mean naturally two different directors, and Joan -- the production was kind of wild and wonderful and in London and very subtle and sort of toned with all kinds of symbolism and things in it which worked. She did -- she tried two diametrically-opposed styles. One, the talking to the audience and using a jazz band in a box in a Brechtian fashion; at the same time using complete naturalism, and over here I think they decided that -- well, I mean, [the use of?] pinching or something to have used exactly the same methods that Joan used, and it's a more -- they've used a more realistic approach to it, which in some ways I think falls down slightly because there is the talking to the audience which is written in the script now, you see.
Frances Cuka Yes. Oh, yes. Certainly. And the -- in London the blackouts, the changes of scene of time were more marked. They were done with kind of little dances and mimes and Jo, for instance, walked up and down, up and down to make the months appear of the pregnancy. And Geoffrey sat there and said, "Oh, Jo, oh, shut up, oh," you know, and it was all done to music, and the ja-- we had a little jazz band in a box. Here they have used beautiful jazz. We used terrible jazz in London, it was all sort of awful old hackneyed stuff, and the kids they were all under 17 or 18 and they sort of made terrible noises on the on the trumpet, and we used to say, "Ey, ey, you know, look at them," and here where they used beautiful jazz and there's an album out of the score of "A Taste of Honey", and they used an original score, and of course we have had to do certain things for the American public to change the play, for instance the dialect has been -- had to be toned down from the London production. Some of the pace has had to go because of making them understand it. And we've had to cut of course different words and things. We say "movies" for "pictures" and "post" -- mail, you know, just change a few
Studs Terkel Certain changes, aside from toning down the dialect and changing some of the colloquialisms, certain of the changes of production here [appear?] to be both, there are gains and losses both. There are losses, too, as you say it's -- you had an actual -- musicians were there and they were part of the changing of the scenes, weren't they?
Frances Cuka Yes.
Frances Cuka Well, it was, but the funny thing was that it was completely and at certain points Joan used completely artificial devices in the play, and yet so many people came 'round afterwards and said, "You know, we didn't know we'd been watching a play until the curtain dropped." Somehow it worked so beautifully that the audience it was so involved with the play that they took the complete switches without batting an eyelid, without even knowing they were doing it.
Frances Cuka Yes.
Frances Cuka Well, this was meant by Joan Littlewood because she said that she wanted this to be a kind of symbolic in the way the mother treated the daughter. The mother does a lot of the talking to the audience, and it is really the mother on a bus saying, "I can't do a thing with her, you know, she's a terrible child, you know," and the girl's cringing' saying' "Shut up, Mum, you know, don't," you know. And at certain points the mother is actually talking to the neighbours in a kind of context of actually -- although these people do this.