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TOPSY ON THE BOARDWALK
TALLMER ON THE TOWN
by Jerry Tallmer
Gordon Craig, who outlived her by nearly 40 years, never forgot the first moment he ever set eyes on Isadora Duncan.
Glen Z. Gress and Adrienne Wehr as Gordon Craig and Topsy
"I saw her come on to an empty platform to dance," he would one day declare. "It was Berlin, the year 1904, the month December . . ."
She came through some small curtains . . . and walked down to where a musician, his back to us, was seated at a grand piano; he had just finished playing a short prelude by Chopin when in she came, and in some five or six steps was standing by the piano, quite still and, as it were, listening to the hum of the last notes.
Quite still. You might have counted five, or even eight, and then there sounded the voice of Chopin again . . . it was played through, gently, and came to an end, and she had not moved at all. Then one step back or sideways, and the music began again and she went moving on before or after it. Only just moving, not pirouetting or doing any of those things we expect to see . . .
She was speaking in her own language . . . not echoing any ballet master, and so she came to move as no one had ever seen anyone move before. The dance ended, and again she stood quite still. No bowing, no smiling, nothing at all . . . yet no one present had a moment's doubt . . . and I, I sat still and speechless.They would be lovers, very passionate lovers, for some five years, Gordon Craig, the spoiled, ill-adjusted pathbreaker of modern stage design and lighting, Isadora the selfİindulgent, free-spirited creative flame of modern dance.
"You send me poems that are caresses and words that are like kisses or a flock of little soft birds that fly down and nestle in and all about me and take away my senses," she would cry.
"Our bed," he would remember of their first night on the floor of his studio, "was two carpets on which [was thrown] a fur cloak (hers) with my overcoat as pillow and two blankets and a sheet as covering. We do not sleep much all night. It is lovely to have her here."
This love story of two tempestuous artists, and its inevitable end -- inevitable for a million reasons, not least that old devil, money -- is retold in their own words in a show called "Topsy on the Boardwall" at La MaMa E.T.C. "You know," says Glen Z. Gress, "the behavior of artists of this caliber on a personal level can be difficult." Gress is the Gordon Craig of the performance, Adrienne Wehr is the Topsy -- the name by which Isadora often signed her letters to Craig. The script of "Topsy on the Boardwalk" has been devised by Edward Kinchley Evans -- who also directs the piece -- from those Craig-Duncan love letters and other sources.
Pretty soon in one of them Craig is bitching for an answer to his request (demand?) for 6000 marks. "Or is the ship to go down once more? . . . You don't seem to realize how serious this whole thing is."
Shortly thereafter, in a huff, he to her: "Write no more to me. Think about me no more. I no longer exist for you, since that for which I live is less than nothing to you . . . "
Craig, says the man who plays him, was "pretty arrogant, and pretty much a male chauvinist of his time. Quite a cad. He had nine children we know about, by various ladies, and God knows how many others we don't know about."
"Despite the creative artist, pretty much a dependent woman. Her family lived off her, as did Gordon Craig. He and she would play games with one another. She, the helpless female, begging him to come hold her. He: 'Where's the money? -- if you send the money, I'll come and see you.' "
Gress does think "theirs was one of the truly passionate great love affairs -- two people who were artistic and sexual soulmates, but could never stay in the same room together very long."
It was also of course also a love affair stamped by tragedy. In 1913, in an accident spookily prefiguring Isadora's own death 14 years later, an auto slid into the Seine, drowning two of her allŞtooİmuchİneglected children and their governess. The children were 3-year-old Patrick, Isadora's son by Singer Sewing Machine heir Paris Singer, and 7-year-old Deidre, her daughter by Gordon Craig.
Edward Gordon Craig was himself the illegitimate son of actress Ellen Terry and architect and producer Edward Godwin. What's interesting is that Ellen Terry was to have her own now famous romantic correspondence with George Bernard Shaw -- "what would be phone sex today, I guess," says Glen Gress dryly.
What's further interesting is the following appraisal of Craig by a contemporary:
If ever was a spoilt child in artistic Europe, that child was Teddy [i.e., Gordon] Craig. The doors of the theater were wider open to him than anyone else. He had only to come in as others did, and do his job, and know his place, and accept the theater with all its desperate vicissitudes and inadequacies and impossibilities, as the rest of us did, and the way would have been clear for all the talent he possessed.
Glen Z. (for Zaccashen, a made-up name) Gress has a past in theater that goes back to the old Circle in the Square and the Barr/Albee Playwrights' Unit on Vandam Street, a present in films that includes roles in "Lorenzo's Oil," "Ragtime," and three Woody Allen movies.
Born in Saltillo, Pa. -- "Fourteen houses, six churches, a couple of thousand cows, cats, and dogs" -- he came out of Juniata College to New York City in 1950, and drifted into costume design when all he wanted was to be hired as an actor. At one time he had three design schools running in this town -- "and a wonderful reputation for bringing in a show [costume-wise] under budget and on time."
In 1969 he moved back to paint and read and think in Pennsylvania, where he lives to this day, with playwright/director Evans, in a big house on a hill, "the old Crawford mansion," that, as Gress only learned after moving in, had been where Sunny Crawford von Bulow grew up -- some few years before topsy got turvy. [Tallmer]
(TOPSY ON THE BOARDWALK played March 25 to April 11 At La MaMa E.T.C., 74 A East 4th St.)
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