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A tribute to Sam Wanamaker

BROADCAST: Dec. 1993 | DURATION: 00:37:13


Actor and director Sam Wanamaker died in December of 1993. In an interview in 1980, he discussed his love of Shakespeare's plays. Wanamaker's mission in life was to recreate, reconstruct and revive The Globe Theatre as it was in Shakespeare's days.


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Studs Terkel Sam Wanamaker, actor, director, American, who lived for many years in England after being blacklisted here during the McCarthy days and achieved quite a, a life there in the theater and Sam Wanamaker's one aim during the last years of his life, he died at the age of 74 about ten days ago. I've known him for about 55 years, and his one mission in life was to recreate, to rebuild the Globe Theatre as it was in Shakespeare's day along the Thames, and all sorts of controversy arose with it because this was an American actor living in London at the time. Nonetheless, it looks like his project may eventually succeed. I thought we'd hear the conversation that Sam had passing through Chicago one of the many times he did so about 13 years ago on this station concerning that subject. Here then, the late Sam Wanamaker some 13 years ago. [pause in recording] Sam Wanamaker is a distinguished actor and director. He's from Chicago originally, though most of his working life as an actor and director has been in England. And you've seen him of course in films and in the theater, and Sam has an idea about Shakespeare, more than that, about reconstructing, rebuilding, might say bring back to life the Globe Theatre. But of this, and, and its implications for now, the 20th, last part of the 20th century. And I thought, perhaps 1964, Sam returned to the Goodman Theatre as a guest artist. He had been a student at the Goodman and he did Shakespeare. He did Macbeth with a new kind of set. Suppose we hear Sam talking about the meaning of Shakespeare for us now.

Sam Wanamaker The thing that makes any play great, and particularly Shakespeare's plays great, is the fact that he expresses a truth about the human condition, about human nature, and about human beings in relation to other human beings. Because he reveals the truth about those elements in man that are universal, therefore the objective of anybody producing a great classic today has to say to himself, "How can I make that play and that, those characters in that play understandable in our terms, not in terms of Shakespeare's time and which society was different in many respects, but how can I reveal the values that are in that play in terms of today?" And therefore we have to use recognizable elements in our own life to communicate that play. And I believe that the, the things that I was striving for in this production were to do just that. Now, one--the criticism that comes, that is, the controversy that follows, is a result of a kind of conditioning which an audience has to seeing theater or opera or art or listening to music or ballet or what have you in terms of the conventions of the past. Now, if you continue to give people the things that they're used to, it's comforting to them, because they're familiar with it. If you're familiar with something, you're, you're at ease with it. If you suddenly come on something that is unfamiliar, you're a little afraid of it. You're disturbed by it. It, it shakes you up a little bit because it, it, it creates reactions in you which are new and disturbing. And that's exactly the thing that one wants to achieve in the theater, you want not to shock for the sake of shocking, but you want people to have a new experience, a fresh experience, to think of the play, to see the play in completely new terms, as a fresh first-time experience. Now, everybody who comes to the theater--

Studs Terkel That was 1964. Your thoughts changed since then?

Sam Wanamaker Not one iota. I was, this is all coming to me very freshly. And I'm saying, my goodness, how, how really right that is, that's absolutely on the nose, and I still feel that way. And in those intervening 16 years, I think all those expressions and thoughts and feelings have been further reinforced by my theater experience, not only in Shakespeare, but in other things that I've done. It's really quite extraordinary. I'm still involved in Shakespeare as you know, I'm still involved in, in something related to the theater connected with Shakespeare, which is a project to reconstruct Shakespeare's Globe Theatre on bankside on its original site. I suppose one could say, "Well, how does that relate to what you were saying 16 years ago where, where you want to reinterpret Shakespeare's plays in terms of today rather than in terms of something 400 hundred years ago. And isn't his theater, you, you know, anachronistic now? I mean, is it out of date?"

Studs Terkel It's a question you realize that you're anticipating this question, that the Globe Theatre, say, "Hey, Sam, isn't, isn't this going to be sort of a quaint project, something archaic?," the Globe Shakespeare did in the, in the latter part of the 17th century, well, it was the latter part of the 16th century. Well, you're saying something else,

Sam Wanamaker Yes, I am. And, and you see, one of the reasons that this project began, not by me, it wasn't anything that was initiated by me. For some, oh, over 100 years various groups, individuals, theater people from time to time have attempted to reconstruct the Globe Theatre in London on its original site, and they've never been able to succeed. There are a lot of reasons for that which I won't bore you with, and I merely have taken up the torch in this respect because the reality of life in London at the present time is such as to make this possible. I mean, the site of the original Globe is now a derelict area that had been bombed during the War, the, the kind of enterprises and commercial dock area that it was has now become redundant because of the change of the nature of moving transport, and the barges can't come up the river anymore anyway, and they carry huge containers and larger ships that can't get under the bridges, and so this area has been, has been lying there fallow, and the Greater London development plan has been produced about ten years ago to redevelop those derelict parts of London, so it is a practical possibility now which it never was up until the last few years. So I got involved with it because first of all, so many of my friends in the academic world who are in the field of, of Renaissance Studies, of English literature, of Shakespeare studies and so on, always dreamed about having that -- an authentically reconstructed, beautifully and finely and honestly researched and reconstructed theater on the grounds that Shakespeare was a theater person. He wrote his plays not as literature, he wrote his plays to be performed on the stage. He was a actor himself, owner, owner, a part owner of a company in which he participated. I mean, the interesting thing was they thought so little of his plays as literature that not one single original copy of his plays have existed, and they've searched and searched, and they said, "Well, why, why?" I mean, you know, there are other things have come down from the Renaissance period and that period in terms of literary form, but not one of Shakespeare's plays, mainly because they never thought of them as literature. They thought of them as theater pieces, and so scholars and theater people have always felt from the time of William Poel, almost 100, 75, 85 years ago, that the only way to really study and understand and enjoy and experience the full essence of Shakespeare's plays is to see them performed on the stage for which they were written. Okay, now you say, "Well, that's an old-fashioned stage and it didn't have any scenery and, and it had a couple of posts in the middle of the stage, and so on and so forth." And yes, one thinks, "Well, this is a quaint kind of Disneyland-ish idea, and really, what value does it have?" And only yesterday I was talking to a group of people about this project, and I explained that my genesis in all this started here in Chicago at the Century of Progress in 1933, where as one of the international exhibits representing Great Britain, the British constructed a mock Globe Theatre, like a piece of stage scenery, and B. Iden Payne, an English professor and director of the Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford who since has died just quite recently, became a professor in Austin, Texas, I believe at one of the major universities down there, he was the director of this group of actors. They cut down the plays of Shakespeare to about 45 minutes in length, and they performed them every hour on the hour. And it was probably the first time I'd ever seen Shakespeare in my life. I was a young--

Studs Terkel So when you were a kid visiting in 1934, '33, the Century of Progress, there was the Globe Theatre with Chub Sherman and Whitford Kane--

Sam Wanamaker Exactly.

Studs Terkel Forty-minute versions are--you said, that's where you saw your first Shakespeare.

Sam Wanamaker That's right, and I auditioned to be in that company, which then later played at the Great Lakes Fair in Cleveland, Ohio, and I had my first professional experience as an actor in that company. What was fascinating about it and different, of course, at that time it was rather unique because all the, the theater architecture I knew about and that we all knew about up until that time was the, what we call the "proscenium theater," where there was a kind of a picture-frame stage, where the audience sat on one side of the footlights and the actors on the other side and there was that separation and you were looking in at a picture frame come to life, really. And I believe, as I was talking yesterday about this, I realized that from that point in the mid-'30s when that Globe Theatre appeared in Chicago and then was again reconstructed in Cleveland and again reconstructed in San Diego and again reconstructed in Texas someplace, because each of these states had a World's Fair, it was very popular to have a World's Fair, and I believe it was because of those theaters and because theater people had gone to see those plays on that stage, that the whole concept of theater began to be re-examined. That, that is, theater architecture. And when they started reexamining the genesis of theater, theater historians began to realize, and theater directors who were very frustrated and unhappy with the artificial nature of the theater, which, which was, you know, picture-frame stages, you've got to face the audience in a certain way, and you were not related to that audience. The audience sat back, were not actively involved, whereas in Shakespeare's day the genesis of theater was that it took place, drama, it was a kind of religious experience. It was a, a pageant. It was an event. And it happened right in the middle of the public. The, all the mystery plays, the religious plays that took place happened in open squares, and people stood around them, either on the ground or there was a pageant wagon, and the plays were performed on top of the wagon with people standing all around. And this is how the first Shakespeare Theater building that is, Burbage's theater in -- of which Shakespeare was a member of the company, the very first theater built was built along those lines. That is a thrust stage, that the stage was in the same room, if you like, as the audience. The audience participated. It happened in daylight. There was no electricity so there was no artifice, no real makeup and covering up, you had to communicate ideas and characters and so on. And I honestly believe that as a result of the, those reconstructed Globes, the whole nature of our theater architecture has changed, so that most of the theater structures that have been put up, not only in the United States but in Europe and the rest of the world, have now been thrust stages with performances almost in the center. Not theater in the round so much, but theater in the three quarters, so to speak. And this has had an enormous effect on the nature of theater.

Studs Terkel Nature of plays too, perhaps, too, maybe.

Sam Wanamaker Oh, absolutely.

Studs Terkel Nature of playwriting, you think too?

Sam Wanamaker It's a different kind of playwriting, and therefore the reconstruction of the Globe Theatre and the restoration of that building is not only a, a missing monument that's necessary to have back up as a purely educational element that would be a teaching tool for students and scholars in connection with the drama, but it also falls right in line with the most modern concept of theater architecture, because it brings us back to the original form as to how theater

Studs Terkel Suppose I ask what might be called a devil's advocate kind of question. Why should not, this is not specifically a British project, because you're, you're looking for support here in the United States and other countries--

Sam Wanamaker Indeed.

Studs Terkel As well, so why not--it is the Globe Theatre near the Thames, on the rubble, the reconstruct of this idea, but why--what other societies, other countries. Why should they be

Sam Wanamaker Why should they be interested? I think it's a very good question, because I'm being asked that all the time. I mean, I think Americans, and all English-speaking peoples [match striking] have a heritage in the British language and English literature and the whole culture of Britain because it is our heritage, all our--well, the whole culture is based on the same sources. And I'm talking about our, our values culturally, our laws, our legal system, our parliamentary dem-democracy. Everything stems basically from that first great source of culture. And therefore I don't feel inhibited in any way at all with regard to believing that the English language or English culture and Shakespeare is part of my culture. Now, that's because I'm, I'm an English-speaking person, a citizen of the United States. I happen to live there, but the fact is that Shakespeare is part of the lives of 95 countries into which languages Shakespeare has been translated, and they consider Shakespeare part of their world heritage culturally.

Studs Terkel You know, I'm thinking of something, Sam, you spoke of audience participating in Shakespeare, I'm going to ask you about other playwrights as well, of other plays that will also be performed at the Globe. But the audience participating as though it were a sports event, as though there were a political event, as though there were everything, religious event, John Neville, whom you know, the great actor, organized a company, they went to West Africa, did Shakespeare in West Africa. And even though the language might not have been known to all the people in the audience, he says, "They reacted." He said, "It was so astonishing to the members of the company. They reacted, they cheered, or they were booing. They were reacting as though it was part of their lives."

Sam Wanamaker Yes, exactly.

Studs Terkel This

Sam Wanamaker Exactly. And I think theater is coming back to that, because that's what it was origina-originally, the, the active participation and involvement with the drama that was taking place, or the comedy for that matter. And if you go back to old English music hall, for example, [match striking] the audience involvement, talking back to the performers, the performers talk, you see, still see it, in, in, a comedian, a comedian working in a nightclub, it's that kind of active participation.

Studs Terkel Joining him in song.

Sam Wanamaker That's right.

Studs Terkel In popular song.

Sam Wanamaker And today it's very interesting that the National Theatre in, in London has one of its three theaters as a kind of rectangular room, and there are no seats, and the audience comes in and they simply wait for something to happen, and suddenly the play bursts forward in and amongst them, they push the audience out of the way to get through to the other side. They play a scene in the center of the audience. They go to one end of the room, the audience follows them around, they participate, they're part of a drama, part of the excitement and part of the enjoyment, so that the experience is a full, exciting one, not one where you sit comfortably back in a nice, soft chair and you look at a picture, a living picture. It is more-- drama is a much more active thing than that. And this is what I think theater is coming back to, not only in Britain and in Europe, but in the United States as well, because a great many of the university theaters throughout the country are beginning to work in this way as well, because they have theater buildings of this nature as well. I, I had the experience of going down to the new theater complex at Northwestern University, and two of their theaters are in this form, where they can move the seats around, they can move the stage around, they can put it at one end, they could put it in the middle, they could pile it up together, they could have it running all around the, the whole room, where the audience has to turn in one direction or the other. Sometimes they'll remove the seats and just have them standing, as they do at the National Theatre now in their experimental

Studs Terkel Well, would you have aside at the Globe Theatre once established, recreated, would you have other plays aside from Shakespeare?

Sam Wanamaker Oh, indeed. We, we, we will not only perform the plays of Shakespeare's contemporaries like Ben Jonson and Dekker and Massinger and, and so on, Marlowe, etc., but we will also perform modern plays that have some connection or context to the sources from which they

Studs Terkel Well how, could you do, say, O'Neill? Could you do Long Day's Journey Through the Night,

Sam Wanamaker Well, you could do them, but you wouldn't want to do them in that building, because that building would be related basically to a, a certain body of work. And I mean, you could do Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, for example, which is based--

Studs Terkel You could do Brecht there, couldn't you?

Sam Wanamaker Oh, indeed you

Studs Terkel could. You see, you could do

Sam Wanamaker Brecht Absolutely.

Studs Terkel You could not do a realistic play as such there.

Sam Wanamaker No, no, or, and you couldn't do an illusionistic play there which required a lot of lighting, which required--

Studs Terkel Pirandello wouldn't work there.

Sam Wanamaker Oh, no, no, no, no, no. Well, it might--that's right, you couldn't do Pirandello there, but we intend to use that theater, once it's reconstructed, mainly for educational purposes. Secondarily for scholars who want to come or students who want to come and see it, and then the general public who would be interested in, in, in this kind of building. So we would give, it's an open-air theater, we would give certain performances in midsummer when the weather was fine, people would be able to sit because there was sitting -- seating, they would also be standing the way they used to in Shakespeare's day. They'd stand in a pit.

Studs Terkel The question occurs to me, this is really--why this idea occur to you, the American actor, expatriate in England, the American, and not to, say, Olivier or Gielgud?

Sam Wanamaker Well, I think one of the reasons was that Olivier, for example, and Gielgud were preoccupied with getting a national theater built, and a national theater should have been built and finally has been built because it wanted to be a theater that represented world literature, both in terms of modern plays that are being written today, but also the classic, the classics from every source, and this kind of theater, the Globe, would not be capable of doing that. This is a very specialist kind of theater, it won't have lighting, it won't have air-conditioning, it won't have heating, it will be an outdoor museum. And so these people felt it was more important to concentrate their time and energies on a modern theater which they now have, and now many of these same, same people are getting on our bandwagon, finally supporting this project as well. So they're into this, too. They see its importance too, and most theater people throughout the world will recognize it and support it and are doing so right now.

Studs Terkel But this is your prime work right now.

Sam Wanamaker This is my prime extracurricular work apart from my professional life, of course, I'm still directing films and television and acting in theater and television and motion pictures and so on, and I enjoy moving around from one country to the other doing it.

Studs Terkel I mean before you have to take off, I was thinking, during that 1964 conversation, there was one in 1960 you were talking about doing Iago to Robeson's Othello

Sam Wanamaker Oh yes.

Studs Terkel You, you were the first American actor I think to play at--

Sam Wanamaker Yes, yes, he and I were--

Studs Terkel Stratford. But in '64 when you did Macbeth here--

Sam Wanamaker Yes.

Studs Terkel With a set that was wholly dif--wholly--a set that was very contemporary, 'cause you spoke of steel and rolls and a barbaric nature of bigness and destruction and construction. You also said -- spoke of the challenge of Shake -- the, the challenge is forever. The poetry that must not be lost, at the same time the character that reaches out immediately to the person, it's a doub--the double dimension there.

Sam Wanamaker It is, I think, still the most challenging kind of theater for a director or for an actor to have the privilege of doing, and it is for the very reasons that you're recalling these words of mine that remind me once again how exciting it is to work on a Shakespeare play, because it is like climbing the highest mountain. It is the most challenging and both in physical terms and in creative terms, because as you say quite rightly, you, you have to find the truth which is there, express that, and in a language of poetry and a form that no other writer has ever been able to match, mind you, the language is somewhat archaic and therefore you have a further challenge of communication. But to be able to speak Shakespeare with the music of the poetry without it sounding phony and untruthful and at the same time communicate a living human being to a modern audience and have the strength physically to carry through a three-hour production with all the energy that's required is a, is a hell of a challenge, I can tell

Studs Terkel You yourself, and again the 20 years ago you're talking about your first impressions, how you were the realistic actor. You know, you were in a sense, forgive my saying this, "Methodly-trained"--

Sam Wanamaker That's right.

Studs Terkel For a while, and you had to overcome that.

Sam Wanamaker Exactly. Exactly. Because you cannot read poetry the way Marlon Brando played Streetcar Named Desire, [laughing] I mean, that poetry, anyway.

Studs Terkel I mean, he could do a, a Mark

Sam Wanamaker And yet he was superb as Mark Antony in the film of Julius Caesar. So, I mean, that's only a great testimony [match striking] to Marlon Brando's brilliance as an actor, that he was able to overcome his original training as I was, indeed, in the "Method," which is what they used to call "the mumble school of acting." No, one has to be capable and trained both in that style of acting for those plays that require it, and also be trained to speak Shakespeare's poetry in a way that's credible and believable and makes poetry of the poetry that's there. I, I mean, I've heard actors destroy the poetry terribly and you just, it was painful, it was like a musician playing Bach the way he'd be playing a, a, you know, a jazz work. I mean, you know, perhaps the musician could play both, but it's two completely different styles.

Studs Terkel Sam, here's to your project. Any thoughts before you have to go now, any, any passing thought.

Sam Wanamaker Well, I think the only thought I have being sitting here with you in Chicago and, and thinking back over the many years that we've known each other and Chicago, I've noticed what a great cultural city Chicago has become, the great awareness there is I find among people here in the arts and in cultural activities, and I just think that's marvelous. And I think, if I may say so, Chicago owes a great debt to you for helping to stimulate that interest throughout the years.

Studs Terkel Oh, we're going to quit while we're ahead right now. [laughing] Sam Wanamaker, and your project, the best of luck and thank you for your contributions to theater. [pause in recording] This was our conversation, a brief one with Sam Wanamaker, who died about ten days ago at the age of 74, subject the Shakespeare Globe Theatre. And I thought in the time remaining after this break some Shakespeare song, a song from Shakespeare plays. [pause in recording] Sam Wanamaker, when reaching England, found himself accepted as by the establishment as well as by actors. And one day he's playing Iago to Paul Robeson's Othello, with Peggy Ashcroft as Desdemona, Margaret Webster the director. And I thought from Othello, one of the most familiar of all songs in Shakespearean plays is a folk song I imagine, what Shakespeare used as Desdemona sings it, one of those sweet lullaby children's song, wistful song, Desdemona is at the mirror and it's shortly before she's killed by Othello and she sings it, and the song itself was dated back 1583, but no one knows exactly, it was found at the Trinity library in, in College in Dublin. "Willow, Willow", and this is a guy named Tom Kind, this is Desdemona's song, we have a male singer doing it.

Tom Kind ["Willow,

Studs Terkel "Willow, Willow", a song sung by Desdemona in Othello, and there's the Agincourt song, "Henry V", I'm not sure if this is in the play or not, but there was an Agincourt song, celebrated of course, the victory that King Harry, there was a kid in London, was in the, in a working-class area, Cockney area of London, say about 1963, interviewed this waitress, Mary Parparis, very eloquent and very funny. She had about six kids around the house, flying around, and one was her oldest boy, he was about 10 or 11, of whom she's very proud, and he's going to recite the speech of oh, King Henry, of Henry as Olivier did it, you know, he's "Unto the breach, dear friends," in this piping voice about to change, "Under the breach for Harry, St. Joan." And he's doing this, and I'm saying, "You're a real Olivier," he says, "Not bloody likely." And this is the Agincourt song. It's in praise, of course, of the British victory, and it's "Our king went forth to Normandy with grace and the might of chivalry," etc. and we have, and "Deo gratias, Deo gratias," you know, and so "Thank God," etc. and this is a, a war song. And this, again Tom Kind's.

Tom Kind ["The Agincourt Song"]

Studs Terkel "The Agincourt Song", and then one more to finish this portion of the hour tribute remembering Sam Wanamaker and Shakespeare. And so when there was a tiny little boy, this is perhaps the most familiar of all of the songs, a tradit-traditional song that Shakespeare used. It's the epilogue of Twelfth Night and Feste the clown. It's all over, and that's the one "When that I was a tiny little boy, with a heigh-ho, the wind and the rain," and of course the idea is we're here to please you, everyone. In any event, this is Tom Kind's once more with, completing the hour, "When that I was a tiny little boy."

Tom Kind [When That I Was a Tiny Little Boy"]

Studs Terkel And so, that's it. Tribute to Sam Wanamaker.