(Helen Mirren, Ben Travers, Joan Plowright, 1975. Photo by Zoe Dominic)By Ben Travers (1975)
First performance: Lyric Theatre, London, 9 December 1975
The other play in the Lyric Theatre repertory in 1975-6 was a country mile away from Chekhov’s pre-Revolutionary Russia. Its author had no time for the melancholy satire of provincial dreamers sunk in passivity:
I know I am a pitiable, unashamed Philistine, worthy to be lynched and to have my remnants thrown into the Thames or Volga, but I simply cannot abide the plays of Anton Chekhov… Many of the characters spend their times sitting with their chins in their waistcoats, deliberating at great length whether or not they will commit suicide. Anyone can tell them the right answer, but they ought to have arrived at it themselves before they came on.
(Travers, A-sitting on a Gate, p150)
Ben Travers (1886-1980) had enjoyed great success in the 1920s and ’30s as the author of ‘Aldwych farces’ but had fallen on hard times after the War as the Angry Young Men of British theatre swept all before them. In the 1970s he made an extraordinary comeback. One of his early successes, A Cuckoo in the Nest, was revived to acclaim at the Royal Court Theatre. Emboldened, the octogenarian playwright turned out an entirely new play, taking advantage of the freedoms allowed him now that his old adversary, the Lord Chamberlain, no longer exercised the right to blue-pencil anything remotely ‘off-colour’ in his scripts. He approached the relaxation of censorship cautiously, as he told The Times: ‘Don’t get the idea that I suddenly said: “Hey, let’s write a load of dirt!” It was nothing like that. But it does give me the chance to write about people speaking as they really do speak.’ The new play was set in 1930, the era of Travers’s greatest successes, the era of his youth, and its dialogue perfectly captures the period (albeit fruitier than we’re used to in Noël Coward). But the plot would never have passed muster in 1930:
I hit on the idea of a woman of young middle-age and ample means, who had been brought up in the aftermath of the Victorian age, uninitiated in the secrets of sinful sex. In this state of ignorance she was to fall victim to a rotter (period term) outraged and agonised on her bridal night (exit the rotter) and thereafter avoiding and abhorring the very thought of sexual intercourse until she becomes lured into giving it one further try-out many years later; when, discovering and revelling in the delights of the orgasm, she is driven to the verge of nymphomania.The lead role of Alma was a gift for the accomplished comedienne in Joan Plowright, and so The Bed Before Yesterday joined The Seagull in repertory. Irving Wardle hailed the new arrival as ‘an extremely funny play written in deadly earnest. One cannot help contrasting the vigour and emotional generosity of this piece with the cold premature senility of authors half his age. It treats with kindness a figure who is usually the target of derisive sniggers.’ For Harold Hobson, The Bed Before Yesterday called ‘not so much for a review as for a cry of ecstasy. Rabelais would have revelled in it. Wycherley would have been green with envy.’
It wasn’t obvious territory for Lindsay Anderson as director, but, as Travers recalled, they ‘got on splendidly from the first’. Anderson respected a well-made play when he found one, and Travers delighted in the way the director’s ‘assertiveness’ and ‘remorseless candour’ in the rehearsal room would suddenly give way to a ‘Puckish sense of humour’. Anderson’s supreme talent lay in ‘his appreciation or rather judgement, of values – the value of an inflection, of a pause, of the movement or reaction of the character at the right moment’.
Helen Mirren played Ella, a penniless movie ‘extra’ and a typical ‘fast girl’ of the era. She saw Anderson’s admiration for the old-school Travers as another example of the ‘flip side of Lindsay the rebel’, and threw herself into the part. ‘Mirren is stirringly voluptuous as the Harlowesque good-time girl,’ Michael Billington enthused. Her insistence on wearing a platinum wig for the role rather disappointed the elderly playwright, who would have preferred to see her in her own hair. In his memoirs, Travers paints an intriguing portrait of how the then 30-year-old Mirren came across to a thespian of a much earlier generation:
She had just reached the stage of having become a notoriety, welcome to the theatre-gossip columns, which, while acknowledging her acting abilities, presented her as a good-time girl with a special and rather unpredictable good-time nature of her own. Where they went wrong was in presuming that the good time came first; she is above all a gifted and versatile and conscientious actress. I don’t know much about her private affairs (well, I do know a bit because she and I used to exchange confidences sometimes during rehearsals) but it is her stage job that comes first with her and although her performances are liable to vary she is always the first to say so and to repent a lapse.For his eighty-ninth birthday Mirren gave him what he describes as ‘a bright red pullover with green sleeves and a picture of a beatnik couple in a tango attitude on the chest’. He wore it to every subsequent rehearsal, under his dinner-suit shirt on first night and, well displayed, in an appearance on the Parkinson show. He delighted in the fact that no one on the production treated him as ‘a venerable old has-been to be polite to’. It’s one of the therapeutic virtues of the arts that old age can be perpetually reinvigorated by youth. In a sense, that is the theme of his play, which Travers himself was acting out in the Indian summer of his career. In The Bed Before Yesterday, it is the young Ella who first plants in middle-aged Alma’s mind the determination to make up for lost time:
ELLA: There are heaps of other girls like me, you know.Needless to say, when Alma impulsively takes a foreign trip between scenes in Act Two, it is to Bordighera that she bends her steps.
ALMA: I do not know and I don’t want to.
ELLA: I think most unmarried girls will soon be doing it as a matter of course, like men do.
ALMA: I keep telling you I’m not interested. (She sits on the sofa)
ELLA: (sincerely baffled) Honestly, you’re awfully different from everybody else about it. (Sitting on the sofa) I mean, for instance, look at my grandmother.
ALMA: Why should I look at your grandmother?
ELLA: She had a boyfriend in Bordighera, an Italian boy, a gigolo. She used to spend every winter out there with him in Bordighera. Right up to the time she was seventy.
ALMA: (incredulously) Seventy?
ELLA: Over seventy.
ALMA: Poor thing. She must have had a particularly nauseating type of aberration.
ELLA: I don’t think she was a poor thing at all. I think she got the best out of life. I only hope I live to be seventy.
If things had turned out differently, this production (which, alas, I didn’t see) or something close to it might have been preserved on film. In 1976 Joan Plowright’s husband, Laurence Olivier, finally overcoming his aversion to the small screen, began Olivier Presents on TV. At the launch press conference it was announced that both The Seagull and The Bed Before Yesterday would be televised as part of this series. It wasn’t to be, although Mirren appeared (with Olivier) in a play that did make it into the series, Pinter’s The Collection. According to Ivan Waterman, The Bed had other, perhaps less happy, consequences for the arts. When Tinto Brass was in London setting up the infamous Caligula project, Malcolm McDowell took him to see Mirren in the Travers farce. ‘Brass was enthralled. They chatted backstage, by which time Brass was in a trance.’ He had found his Caesonia.*
* I am uncertain how much credence to give to anything in Waterman’s biography. He gives no sources for anything, other than his own interviewees, and the one paragraph he devotes to describing The Bed Before Yesterday (p62) is spectacularly wrong.
Michael Billington, review, Guardian, 10 December 1975
Harold Hobson, review, Sunday Times, 14 December 1975
Ben Travers, A-sitting on a Gate: Autobiography (1978)
Ben Travers, Five Plays (1977)
Irving Wardle, review, The Times, 10 December 1975
Ivan Waterman, Helen Mirren: The Biography (2003)
‘Diary: Ben Travers liberated at 89’, The Times, 12 November 1975
‘Lord Olivier takes on TV roles’, The Times, 21 May 1976