OF LOVE AND EXPLORATION - AN AUTOBIOGRAPHY© Christopher Earls Brennen
"Almost every man wastes part of his life in attempts to display qualities which he does not possess, to gain applause which he cannot keep."
From "The Rambler" by Samuel Johnson.
Acting and the theater were interests from my earliest years. Maybe that is part of my Irish genetic heritage but I doubt it. Rather, I believe it was a part of my cultural heritage for the theater was an integral and valued part of the Irish community in which I was raised. By the word theater, I do not mean only the polished form invented by the European upper classes but rather the raw, vernacular form practiced in the pubs and parlours of every traditional Irish community, the form so ably mirrored in the plays of John Millington Synge.
It was a tradition not based like the polished aristocratic version on the written word and its stylizations, but rather on the oral tradition that can, in Ireland, be traced back thousands of years. This vernacular form was everywhere in the community in which I grew up. Before television so insidiously began to change the culture, Irish parties, planned and impromptu, consisted of everyone doing a "turn". A turn could consist of a tune on the fiddle or flute, a poem, a jig, a song, a joke or a host of other performances. Children were often the first to be called upon to "give us a turn" and one had to be ready when that happened. Later, well fortified by drink, the adults would take over. The thought of having to perform in this way is somewhat frightening in the Anglo-American culture. But, somehow, in the Irish community it did not seem so intimidating; everyone knew you, most likely had seen your turn many times before, and cheered you without a hint of criticism. It was a special part of my upbringing and an experience that had great value for the rest of my life.
In trying to describe this difference between the Irish and Anglo-American cultures to friends in the US, I have found it valuable to describe the differences between a movie theater experience in most of the English speaking world and an experience at the "pictures" in a small Irish town like that in which I grew up. In the former, you are expected to sit as silently as possible (except when laughing at comedic scenes) in order not to spoil the experience for others in the audience. In fact the audience plays an exceedingly passive role in the event. On the other hand, the crowd at the pictures in Ireland was traditionally an active participant in the evenings entertainment. There would be a constant stream of remarks from the audience commenting on the scene, advising the characters and adding to the humor. Often this repartee would be more entertaining than the movie itself. And should there be some malfunction of the projector or other equipment, the audience would expand its activities to fill the void. Some of my most amusing moments in a movie theater, have occurred in such circumstances. I remember once going to see an Elvis Presley movie called "Blue Hawaii". It was the practice at the pictures to start the "film" before pulling back the curtains and then to retract them during the opening titles. On this particular occasion the curtains trembled but failed to move and the audience hooted and cat-called as the opening scene began, obscured by the folds in the curtain. After about a minute the projector was turned off, the film ground to a halt with sounds of tearing celluloid and the lights came up. The subsequent pause was filled with shouts of advice to the projectionist and to Elvis. Suddenly, an unseen pair of hands appeared to grab the curtains from behind and began tugging them laterally - to no avail. A second pair of hands joined in, accompanied by a crescendo of advice from the audience. Then things began to get out of hand. Someone in the audience threw a beer bottle at the curtains and it struck something solid in between one of the pairs of hands. There was an angry cry from behind the curtain and suddenly a man parted them and emerged on the stage, demanding to know who had thrown the beer bottle. Absolute pandemonium broke out at this point. At least 50 people willingly owned up to the beer bottle assault. Finally calmer heads behind the curtains prevailed and, armed with a tall ladder, the crew began tucking the curtains up into the overhead equipment on the stage. Unfortunately, this was a very incomplete solution for the curtains still drooped down in many places. Consequently, I only ever saw the bottom half of "Blue Hawaii". Somehow that never encouraged me to go back to see the upper half.
Though I stray far from my own story, there is one other detour I should describe before returning to the theater in Magherafelt, the Irish town in which I grew up. Before we moved to Magherafelt, my parents lived in the large Anglicized city of Belfast and it was there, at the age of four, that I made my first appearance on the stage. It is one of the few memories I have of my days in Belfast and it is not a pleasant one. It could even have marked me with a lifelong aversion for the stage. The time was Easter 1944 and somehow I was required to participate in a kindergarden performance in which we were dressed up as bunny rabbits and had to follow a congo line of other bunnies around the stage. I can remember being mortified at having to dress up as a bunny rabbit complete with ears. And to compound the mortification the congo line was "conducted" by a large battleaxe of a woman who took no prisoners. At one point as the congo line approached the front of the stage we were supposed to split, some going left, some going right. I was not paying sufficient attention and so I was suddenly and electrifyingly faced with this battleaxe gesturing frantically at me. Naturally I froze and the photograph that remains of that moment shows the stupefaction on my face. The entire congo line was interrupted, those ahead of me having now disappeared and the rest piled up impatiently behind me. I have no recollection of what followed. I must have run for cover. But that memory still haunts me.
The bunny performance The Prime Minister
Fortunately, my next stage appearance provided a satisfactory antidote. It was ten years later at the age of 13 when the local school in Magherafelt decided to feature a short operetta by the junior school prior to a more serious dramatic performance presented by the senior school. The staff had chosen a modest little operetta called ``The Idea'', written by Gustav Holtz. At that age I was still a small, shy boy who would not have been an obvious choice for such a production. Nevertheless, given the small size of the school almost everyone was pressed into some duty and I found myself with the minor part of the "Prime Minister". As far as I can remember, the entire part consisted of walking majestically onto the stage arm-in-arm with my wife, played by Lizzie Evans. I think I had one or two lines but certainly no songs. My mother helped me assemble quite an appropriate costume complete with waistcoat, watch-chain and top hat. With this outfit I began to warm to the task. Moreover, despite my small stature I had naturally come by a loud voice that I could project more effectively than my classmates. Thus it was that I surprised the staff with the strength and resonance of my lines. Then came opening night with most of the population of Magherafelt packed into the school hall. And something magical happened to me. First the audience cheered and hollered after each of my resonant lines. And then I had one of those inspirations which seem to visit me when confronted by a live audience. As I was booming my last line, I stuck my thumbs into my waistcoat armholes and bounced up and down on my toes, in a graphic representation of self-satisfaction reminiscent of Winston Churchill, then the prime minister of Great Britain. The crowd went beserk with laughter and cheering. And each time I bounced the cheering increased. And, as the next song began, I bounced again with the result that the cheering drowned out my classmates. It was a thrill that I could never, ever forget and I think I have strived to relive it every subsequent time that I have ventured on stage. The shy little boy shamelessly stole the show and I was hooked for life.
The cast of "The Idea": front row: Derrick Crothers, Jennifer Egan, CEB, Anne Farley, Robert White, Elizabeth Evans, Peter Burton and Ivan Martin; back row: Janet Willan, John Turner, Eileen McMaster, Elaine Hutchison, Eileen Berryman, Marion Leith, Jim Getty and Betty Ellis.
The cast of "The Pied Piper of Hamelin". Back Row from right: Ivan Martin, CEB (with headgear), ?, Derek Ferguson, Winston McCracken, ?, Robert Gordon, Brian Rainey, ... Front row from right: Frank Graham, Elizabeth Evans, ?, ?, Anne Farley, ...
For a time I had to be satisfied with junior school productions. The next year I was a barber in "The Asses Ears", an operetta by Hugo Cole and the following year I was the loud Town Clerk in "The Pied Piper of Hamelin" written by the school staff. Six months later I played my first serious role as a Russian peasant in a one-act play called "Michael". By this time I had become a proven performer and, half a year later, I earned my first lead in a major school production, playing Charles Surface in Richard Sheridan's "School for Scandal". I remember relishing the opportunity to play an inebriated Charles in a drinking scene that brought the house down. Indeed, it is probably not an exaggeration to claim that the school and the village now expected to enjoy my performances. I do not actually remember anyone giving me any theatrical instruction; rather I learned by experience and practice, recognizing the importance of skills like timing, stage presence and voice projection.
A Russian peasant in "Michael" As Charles Surface in "School for Scandal". From left: with Barbara McIvor (left). CEB, ? Crockett, Frank Johnston and Ian Gordon.
The cast of "Scrumdown". The rugby scrum: top: Eddie McClure, 5th row: Fergus Hartley, Michael Brennen, John Turner, CEB, 4th row: Mitchell Brown, Sean Walls, 3rd row: Ian McQuiston, Derrick Crothers, Leslie Gregg, 2nd row: Frank Johnston, Harry Dunlop, front row: James Forsyth, David McMaster, Robbie Gordon. The hockey team: top: Oonagh Redmond, 4th row: Audrey Weir, ?, 3rd row: Lizzie Evans, Lizzie Logan, ?, 2nd row: Jane Miller, ?, front row: Rosemary Mornin, ?, ?.
The next school production was a revue written by the school staff and featuring several skits written for me. The first was a simple lip-synched rendering of one of Eartha Kitt's sexiest numbers, "An old-fashioned girl". As the curtains parted I was lounging on the grand piano wearing a sleek satin dress, high-heels, beads, jewelry and a cigarette holder. The crowd gasped with amazement before breaking into uproarious laughter. The scene would be humdrum by modern standards but by the conservative standards of Magherafelt in the 1950s this was risque indeed. The key element was the surprise and shock of seeing this quiet young man in such an extra-ordinary scene. I had practiced the lip-syncing and the body gyrations so that the laughter continued throughout the number and the curtains closed to wild applause. Fortunately, there were some songs and other entertainments before the finale, a skit in which two burglars had broken into the operating theatre of the nearby Mid-Ulster hospital where, in real life, my father was the consultant surgeon. They proceeded to amuse themselves by dressing in surgeon's garb only to be surprised by the emergency entrance of a patient requiring immediate surgery. In the tradition of slapstick Irish theater, I then proceeded to "operate" with tools like garden shears and to remove a variety of strange objects (like a dead chicken) from the patient's abdomen. This skit, too, was a great success, the audience howling at every theatrical cliche. How it ended, I do not remember; perhaps it simply ended when the jokes ran out. But it was all great fun.
As Eartha Kitt As an inadvertent surgeon with Audrey Weir, Lizzie Evans, CEB, James Forsyth and patient Leslie Gregg.
As Koko in "The Mikado" with James As Fouquier-Tinville in "The Prosecutor" Forsyth (left) and Eddie McClure (right). with Derrick Crothers (right).
Encouraged by the success of "Scrumdown" the school decided on a more ambitious project for the following year. They would try a Gilbert and Sullivan production. The musical chosen was "The Mikado" and I was asked to carry the production in the lead role as Koko. While I struggled with some of the more demanding songs (my music talents were very limited), I relished the challenge of the comedic parts. I gave the part considerable physical vigor, falling down the stairs during my first entrance while singing "I have a little list ..." and running through the stage many times during a chase scene with Natasha after serenading her with "Tit Willow". The village audience loved the slapstick and the implied sexuality. I like to think that the success of that first Gilbert and Sullivan led to a long school tradition of an annual Gilbert and Sullivan production.
But my time was running out and six months later I appeared in a production of a rather grim tale set in the French revolution, a play called "The Public Prosecutor", written by Fritz Hochwalder and translated by Kitty Black. I played the lead role of Fouquier-Tinville, the prosecutor himself. The photograph shows me condemning to the guillotine a snivelling character played by Derrick Crothers, now Professor of Applied Mathematics at Queens University in Belfast. I was on stage virtually the entire time and with some long speeches, delivered with intensity and menace. I think I did a fairly good job with my first really demanding dramatic part. But the play was not a great one. The audience had come expecting to be entertained with fun and hijinks so I think they left disappointed. My next stop was Balliol College, Oxford University, and there I devoted alot of my spare time to theatrical activities. One of my first roles, and perhaps my all-time favorite for I repeated it several times in later years, was the role of Ben in Harold Pinter's one act play, "Dumb Waiter". That was a production of the Balliol Dramatic Society and many of the friends I made within that close sphere remained in contact throughout my life. That production of the "Dumb Waiter" was directed by Peter Snow who went on to some fame as a BBC news reader and political commentator. We were a talented but amateur group and I have very fond memories of the productions that we put together. I particularly remember a prodution of "The Tent", a play by John McGrath, which featured one of the best actors in our group, Michael Haines. Sometimes these College productions even made their way onto the storied boards of the Oxford Playhouse. In 1961, we produced "The Tinker" by Laurence Dobie and Robert Sloman in that famous venue.
As Seamus in "The Tinker" As Private Tugs in "The Tent"
But I also tried my hand in a larger arena and acted in a number of plays produced by the Experimental Theatre Group, a university wide club and the complement to the more traditional Oxford University Dramatic Society. With ETC I took parts in their productions of ``Saints Day'' by John Whiting, ``Pantagleize'' by Michel de Ghelderode and ``Easy Death'' by Carol Churchill. All those were performed in the Oxford Playhouse and featured people like Gordon Honeycombe who became a news reader for ITN (the British independent television news channel) and Sheridan Morley, son of the well known British actor, Robert Morley. While these productions were interesting and semi-professional, I enjoyed the camaraderie of the Balliol productions and remember them more fondly. As an undergraduate I even found time during the vacations to participate in theatrical activities and played a part in the Rainey Players production of ``The White Sheep of the Family'' by L. Du Garde Peach and Ian Hay in the Town Hall Summer Theatre in Portrush.
As Pat in "The Hostage" by Brendan Behan
Graduate school brought a temporary end to theatrics for it required a major commitment of time especially after my marriage and the birth of my first child. However, after my PhD and our move to London I was able to indulge myself again. I became noted for performances of various sketches from the revue "Beyond The Fringe", performing these in several local theatrical revues. I also played the part of Pat in the National Physical Laboratory Amateur Dramatic Circle production of ``The Hostage'' by Brendan Behan. I enjoyed that challenge of playing a much older man and of doing so with an Irish accent.
Left: As Lieutenant Branigan in "Guys and Dolls"; CEB is front row, third from right; Harry Gray is to my right. Right: As Mr. Lundie in "Brigadoon" (left).
Our emigration across the Atlantic did not lessen my interest in the theatre and, at the California Institute of Technology, I was soon involved with student productions. Back then the students produced a musical each year and it so happened that just after my arrival they needed to find someone to play the Irish policeman, Lieutenant Branigan, in the well known musical, ``Guys and Dolls''. That was particularly interesting, not so much for the theatrical challenge as for the opportunity it provided to get to know several of the other faculty members who had agreed to participate. Four faculty happened to have speaking roles and formed an eclectic group: Richard Feynman, the Nobel Prize winning physicist, Harry Gray, a noted chemist, and reknownwed teacher, Jenijoy La Belle, the first woman faculty member to have begun in the untenured ranks, and myself. Harry played the role of the gambler, Harry the Horse. Jenijoy was the exotic dancer in the Cuban night club scene. And Feynman played the bongo drums in the same scene and was a Brooklyn voice on the other end of a telephone conversation. For me, a young faculty member, it was a special treat to get to know all three of them while sitting around during rehearsals waiting to play our small parts. I retained those friendly connections in the many years that followed. Years later Harry spent a memorable sabbatical year at Balliol as the Eastman Fellow. Jenijoy and I both did our parts to try to improve the place of women at caltech, while at the same time enjoying a shared love of Shakespeare. Feyman was always ready to do what he could for the Caltech students and, when I was Dean of Students he was always responsive to my requests. His premature death from stomach cancer was a real loss to all of us.
That first musical adventure was followed by other productions and performances. I enjoyed being "Sir Dinadan" in Camelot and being the Master of Ceremonies in a number of Christmas shows put on by the Caltech staff and students (one of which was televised by NBC). But, as an incurable romantic, perhaps I most enjoyed my role as Mr Lundie in the mystical "Brigadoon". I like to remember that performance as the Scottish schoolteacher as an appropriate thespian swan song. I remember with particular affection the last scene when somehow, against all odds and all expectations, Mr. Lundie reunites two young lovers from different eras and different worlds. He(I) wanders though a curtain of fog, calling out and miraculously contacting the young hero, bringing him back to the love of his life. Little did I realize that many years later that miracle was, in some strange way, to be played out in theatre of my own reality.
I have no doubt that all of these theatrical experiences, however amateur, provided a major lever of success in my professional life. Not only did they teach me the basic mechanics of verbal presentation, stage presence, timing, voice projection and body language. More importantly, they lent me a special self-confidence for all of the public presentations I was called upon to make during my career. Thus I have come to realize the great gift that my Irish cultural heritage brought me - a major reason for the pride I feel in that inheritance.
Last updated 8/1/01.
Christopher E. Brennen