Stories acted out

Theatres are opening again in the UK. I have booked tickets to take our grandchildren to one as a pre-Christmas treat. We have got so out of the habit of making future plans that I don’t really believe it will happen, but it’s got me thinking about where my own love-affair with theatre began, when I was the age of the youngest of our grandchildren.

Among the few photographs that have travelled the world with me since that time there’s one where the bare boards of a school hall in small-town South Africa have become, for the moment, a village square in medieval England. My mother, looking furious, sits with her feet in the stocks alongside a man she clearly despises. Not in the photo, but vivid in my memory, the village children (my brother and I among them) danced around, mocking them. The play was called The Tail of Fire, set in 1456, when superstition was rife after the sighting of Halley’s comet. It’s a light farce but quite revealing about crowd behaviour and what people will believe in confusing times — even our current times, when science can explain not only a comet but a virus and a vaccine.  When the curtains go up there’s a young couple in the stocks, put there as a punishment for daring to want to marry against the wishes of their parents. Then the comet appears and everyone goes into a panic. Does it herald Doomsday? It must be a warning from God about sinful behaviour, but whose? A drunken woman seizes the moment to revenge herself for years of being looked-down-on by the self-righteous parents of the young people. She’s not the only one with a grievance against them so she spurs the villagers into releasing the young lovers and putting their arrogant parents into the stocks instead. The woman in the stocks, unable to believe her sudden impotence, demands that the village priest intervene: ‘Do something, man! What is the church for if not to be militant?’ But the sudden upturning of established rules goes to his head — instead of releasing her he takes the young pair off to be married.

My mother could not have been more different in real life from that woman left fuming in the stocks, but it didn’t bother me that she had to pretend to be this awful woman. It was a story, made exceptionally vivid by being acted out in front of us, by real people.

The magic caught me young, and has never deserted me. It is probably the reason why it came naturally to me to make up stories myself.  

*****

The Bloemfontein Reps was set up before my brothers and I were born. Our parents were founder members. When I looked back at the dates, I understood for the first time that they had done this in the wake of personal tragedy — the death of their first child at sixteen months, followed by a still birth. They never burdened us children by talking about what those years were like for them, but it’s clear to me now that they knew they had to find some positive creative outlet, and they found it in making theatre happen. Astonishing for such a small community, the Reps put on five plays a year for over 30 years, pausing only during the War. Throughout our growing-up years supper in our house was early because either Mom or Dad had to be off for a rehearsal. They took turns to be home in the evenings while the other was either acting or directing. Three evenings a week, for five weeks, then three nights of performances, and both of them had full-time day jobs as teachers.

Mom had a key role on the Play Reading Sub-committee — she was officially the chair but probably much of the time the only member. Among the pile of books she brought home from the library each fortnight there were always a few plays, recently performed on Broadway or the West End and now released for amateur productions. She must have read hundreds, and passed the ones she thought were worth something to those who were next in line to direct a play. Along with them came books on every aspect of stage-craft — lighting, costumes, set design, make-up. Everything had to be learnt, and then taught to the stream of newcomers who had never done anything like this before. The first play I took part in was Terence Rattigan’s Adventure Story, put on in the (once) Grand Theatre, with about ten exciting scene changes.  My mother was Queen Mother to King Darius of Persia, about to be defeated by the Greek Alexander. I, aged six, was a princess. We looked out past fraying velvet curtains to a vast auditorium. Backstage there were holes in the roof and pigeons roosted in the rafters, dropping little white piles onto the floorboards below, but none of that diminished the sense of drama. I see my mother still, regal and dignified, telling Alexander the Great that he was being Very Foolish.

Play scripts fascinated me, imagining the people in them becoming live, speaking these words. I liked the set descriptions, spelled out in those 1950s plays down to the last occasional table and lampshade. I watched — as if seeing it happen on stage — the plot unfold, tensions and arguments contained in the careful stages the playwright had thought out. Most of all I loved being backstage. At ten I was in my mother’s production of As You Like it, a page boy watching from the wings the extraordinary goings on of the adults. I don’t remember finding the language difficult, and the small dramas behind the drama were as interesting as what the audience finally saw. On the Saturday night after the last performance there was a party for everyone involved, always held in our house if Mom or Dad had been in the play. After I was sent off to bed I would lie awake listening to the sound of Mom playing the piano, while increasingly uninhibited voices sang ‘The Foggy Foggy Dew’. Bursts of laughter as people retold stories about things that had gone wrong, that frisson of near-disaster that is hilarious afterwards. 

Human dramas, packaged and labelled — but not always safely. In these acted-out stories of adult relationships I was being exposed to issues I would never have found in books thought suitable for children or young teenagers. I am remembering the terror of watching Siggy Tiger (in real life the friendliest of men), threatening a young girl with rape. The stage is the interior of an isolated farmstead, the girl a deaf-mute whose father and all the neighbours (my mother among them) dismiss as an idiot. A coarse neighbour catches the girl alone, and knows she can’t call out for help. Did I even understand what he was planning? I was a skinny 12 year old, still far from adolescence, but though I might have had no words or even concepts for lust or sexual dominance, I certainly understood the air of menace. It was visceral.

More than 60 years later I searched the internet for a copy of the play, and for one afternoon I sat in the British Library, experiencing it all over again. I saw now what passed me by, aged 12, that the play is less about the rape itself than about the power of malicious gossip. In that narrow-minded community, the blame was pinned on the local doctor, the girl’s only friend and protector. He alone had seen in her a full human being, trapped in silence. He had taught her to communicate by gesture, elicited her devotion, till caring turned to love. When she was discovered to be pregnant, he was the obvious suspect.

I emerged into the light, still lost in it.

****

As a young child I knew my mother was unusual. My father was a legend in our small-town community, selector of the South African cricket team, and a radio personality on a series of quiz shows. Mom was quieter, but I never had any doubt that she was his intellectual equal, and could do many things he could not. She could recognise any literary quotation. She could do fiendishly difficult crossword puzzles. She knew all the botanical names of plants. She could play on the piano any song anyone suggested, making up accompanying chords without written music. But what I realise now, belatedly, is that theatre was not just another thing she could do, it was her real creative vocation. She discovered in herself the talents of a serious actor, and reviewers would often refer back to parts she had made her own years earlier, still remembered. Even more, she was a director, drawing out of her inexperienced cast capacities they hadn’t known they had. As a child I had the smallest glimpses of this. I would watch her at home working out moves for a play she was about to direct. She set it all out on a chessboard, with a diagram of the stage and where all the furniture would be. The chess pieces were the characters. She arranged them where they needed to be for the point of greatest emotional tension, she said, then worked backwards.

She has been gone over thirty years, but her presence continues to grow. From my memory and other people’s, from programmes in the scrap books of friends passed on to their children, I have tracked down over 90 of the plays she herself was involved in. Most are forgotten now, but to my great good fortune the British Library has them. I have read them all, and through them I am getting a glimpse into the inner life that she carried, so quietly, so powerfully. 

=======================

Adapted from a chapter in my forthcoming book, Journeys Without a Map: A Writer’s Life, due out on 28th September, 2021. You can pre-order a copy – ordering through a local bookshop might also encourage them to stock it so others may find it!
UK : If you have an independent bookshop, do use them. Otherwise here’s the Waterstones link:
https://www.waterstones.com/book/journeys-without-a-map/marion-molteno/9781800463394
International:  Order through The Book Depository to get free delivery anywhere:
https://www.bookdepository.com/Journeys-Without-a-Map/9781800463394

The play with the deaf-mute girl is Johnny Belinda, by Elmer Blaney Harris (1940), based on a true story on Prince Edward Island. The Tail of Fire is a one-act play by Thomas Baden Morris (1951). Both were prolific playwrights, now largely forgotten.

37 thoughts on “Stories acted out

  1. I love this…it brings back so many memories. Your parents were such talented people and it’s thanks to them and people like them that people in that small town got to experience theatre. I remember that most of the productions truly were of professional standard

  2. Fascinating! The story of the early years of theatre in Bloemfontein – so entwined with your mother’s – is so interesting and I can’t wait to read more. I wasn’t aware of just how deeply involved your parents were in founding the repertory theatre . Ninety productions is amazing! I loved your description of being onstage at the old Grand theatre – I always wished I’d seen it as I only knew the Civic. Like you, I too was drawn to the theatre and the world of plays and drama and the thrill of being backstage! (My first experiences of being onstage, however, were in ballet scenes inserted into the yearly pantomime and I remember being so excited to have makeup, lol! )Your mother was a truly remarkable woman – holding down a demanding teaching post, raising four children and being so creatively involved in the theatre as both actor and director, educating the theatre-going public and bringing joy to so many people!

  3. This is fascinating, Marion. Having been involved for years in amateur drama I love your memory of your mother furious sitting in the stock and the memory of the power of the rape scene. Amazing the memories we hold even if we didn’t fully comprehend them at the time.

  4. Extremely interesting. Marvellous to have parents like you did. Your mother was certainly a really remarkable person. Thanks for sharing.

  5. How fascinating to be able to look back at village life near Bloemfontein. At the moment I am delving into the medieval history of Canterbury and the stained glass images of the murder of Thomas Becket and the architectural styles of Norman parish churches. Being retired AND locked down one can fantasise about anything.

  6. An absolutely fascinating read! Your recollections of your mother’s onstage presence and the impact it made on you, her intellect, creativity and her silent passion for theatre- one falls in love with the memory of your mother. Deeply touched ! Thanks for sharing!
    Nishat

  7. Thanks for this great insight into the world of theatre and its social significance. The power of gossip, such a strong social factor, the acting out of real life issues brought to light in a play. Such a strong meaning to a story.

  8. What an extraordinary background, Marion! I am thinking about your mother in relation to Jennie’s Mom in your book, ‘If you can walk you can dance’. That Mom is a very wise, talented and brilliantly drawn character.
    It is so interesting the way our view of our mothers change over the years and new realisations happen as we ourselves change with time.

  9. That theatre exists mainly in the memories of the practitioners and those that witness it, is borne out so strongly with this extract, Marion. We can never really know what sticks in the mind of any member of the audience and sometimes, as you so beautifully describe, it is atmospheres we recall not lines or even story. Strong memories come to me of seeing school productions that my sisters were in, long before I ever saw a play in the professional theatre. Amazing how much these early experiences stick to the memory. Looking forward to reading the rest of your book.

  10. What a heritage and what a childhood. How wonderful that you remember it so acutely. You were very fortunate to grow up in such an environment, so removed from the racism and prejudice of small-town Bloem. Thank you for writing about your parents with such tenderness and thank you for sending it to me.

    Tanya

  11. Oh Marion, it’s always such a joy to read your words! There’s always something so humane and human both in what you choose to write about and the wonderful way you express your thoughts. I look forward to reading more! Xx

  12. What a magical childhood you had Marion- a source of inspiration clearly. You remember so much – particularly liked the bit about your mother planning stage directions with chess pieces.

  13. Your story of the “Bloemfontein Reps” brought it all to life so beautifully and much of it could be applied to similar small town repertory societies. The magic in this story though is what your mother and father brought to this group and how they encouraged and helped everyone hone their newly discovered skills. My mum was an early member and in their later years both mum and dad were very involved and just loved all aspects of it.
    The friendships, the fun and excitement and above all, providing Bloemfontein with so much truly excellent theatre. Thanks to Davie and Kathleen!!

  14. You draw us into your storytelling with words of such emotive beauty. Thank you for lifting my spirits today with your memories.

  15. My parents, Den and Megan Schaffner, were enthusiastic members of the Bloemfontein Reps until they emigrated to Australia, where I was born and named for you! In fact the photo at the top of this post features my Dad, Den, as the priest I think, standing behind!
    What a great couple your parents were. I know how much that theatre group meant to both my parents. For Dad a safe place to meet others (particularly Mum, of course!), explore stories and emotions, and a love of theatre; and for Mum a place to foster her love of theatre plus develop her career in speech and drama! On my wall I have a painting, by Joan Crummock, of Alexander the Great. I understand that she also did the set design for the Bloem Reps production of Adventure Story (possibly others as well) and this painting was part of her preparation. I can’t post it here but have sent you a photo separately!

  16. Having just written a published memoir myself, I feel a fellowship with anyone revisiting their early years through the plays they saw and were sometimes in. Thank you Marion for conjuring up your own past in this way, though you will probably think when your book is out – as I have done – that there were dozens of other memories you should have included, plays you might have mentioned, magical moments you forgot to record!

  17. Thanks for sharing this. It made me think much deeper about my relationship with my mother, and the quiet power that she wielded in our family.

  18. I wonder what Bloemfontein looked like. MY picture of South Africa is either huge space and huge animals or frightening cities. The picture you draw is of tranquility and people being full of ideas and the freedom and resources to develop them -and a place of great fun to grow up in

  19. This is so lovely! I remembered my own amateur theatre days in Lahore Arts Council, meeting my husband to be, and the sheer joy of the chemistry with audiences. Theatre has been a life long love of mine too…sadly missed now in a Lahore, not so active as it once was …But then there are the memories of one’s own and yours!

  20. Marion, my dear wise friend, I have been meaning, throughout this pandemic, to contact you. I am living a free and normal life here in NZ because of our marvellous PM Jacinda. Finally I am in touch because of our connection through theatre, which we both love. Last time I saw you in London you were reading your way through those 90 plays that your mother was involved in. Just reading those plays alone is a huge tribute to her, let alone the beautiful words you have now written about her. I look forward to having your new book on the shelves of The Women’s Bookshop.

  21. Thank you for this moving and vivid account of your memories of your mother. I love the way you weave in your reflections about the development of your own ideas about the world. Look forward to the next instalment!

  22. So enjoyed reading how your mum did what she did. I love theatre and acted a lot in my schooldays, in Auckland House Shimla (school run by the British, founded in 1866). I was there in the 1960’s.Theatre and plays were an annual event and I began acting very early.Unfortunately I could not continue after school but empathised perfectly with your writing about your mum – brought back memories.

  23. Memory Lane – so exciting to have been part of it, and know and love your parents! Covid, vaccines, and flights allowing, maybe we can meet again?

  24. I recall the start of your quest to find all the many plays that your mother put on and your reflections on those choices, seemingly so different from life in the Bloemfontein Rep. These are magical memories and clearly influenced you enormously in your love of words and wonderful imagination. So clever bringing it all to life.

  25. Lovely to read this Marion… I recognised so much of what you have talked to me about on our regular suppers… those that we used to have! Your mother would no doubt be amazed at what you have done and are doing!

  26. As always, you write with such authority and clarity, I feel like I’m actually there experiencing what you were experiencing. A joy to read and I SO look forward to the whole book.

  27. Lovely to read all this. Growing up in that house, and of course aware of the Reps, I still had no idea what a huge part it played in their lives, even when we were there, let alone earlier. And 5 productions a year for 30 years, in the tiny English-speaking community of Bloemfontein is indeed amazing! Full marks to you for reading 90 plays, quite an achievement in itself.
    Sad that I was prevented by my stammer from embracing the Reps the way you others did, but I certainly remember the excitement, and I got various peripheral roles occasionally, like selecting the music (heavily criticized in the newspaper review the next day), and ushering the guests to their seats.
    And yes I remember Mom putting Alexander the Great in his place on the night before the great battle. And I remember the parties, or maybe just one of them? But still not grasping how unique a thing it was for Dad and Mom to be doing. Thanks so much for putting it all together so professionally.

  28. What a wonderful tribute to your mother Marion! I marvel at your amazing memory … your writing conjured up beautiful imagery and I felt I was right there in your village observing everything from afar. Such a full rich life, absolutely beautiful! I hope you and your grandchildren enjoy the play you will see together soon.

  29. Wonderful memories, beautifully written. Your children and grandchildren are so lucky to have an insight into your family history. I always enjoy reading what you write so much and you share it so generously.

  30. Thank you for this, I really enjoyed reading about your parents and am inspired to send the blog link to my friend who is now a theatre critic and whose mum was v involved in an amateur theatre company, here in England.

    I wondered what special qualities and experiences your parents had had that meant that they were so free and trusting that their passion for theatre would benefit the whole family. What a gift for their children!

  31. Theatre is life and an integral necessity for all, especially it should be accessible for children in its live form.
    Thank you Marion for this.

  32. What lovely memories of your hardworking, creative parents! I love how they had such passion and enthusiasm and encouraged so many in their community to participate and flourish and just simply have fun.
    It’s clear your parents were joy-givers with a generosity of spirit and heart. That is something reflected in your own work and stories, Marion. What a privilege to have had such parents, and I bet your own children and grandchildren feel the same about you.

  33. I’m loving your blog. You write so evocatively and with such heart. For me it’s interesting that both you and Robert had mothers who loved theatre. I wonder why Molly – Robert’s and my mother – gave up acting after coming to South Africa. Later in life she ran a play-reading group that met for some years in our home, and the national library from which she borrowed multiple copies of the plays that they read, was based in Bloemfontein. I remember collecting the books from the post office. I’m very much looking forward to your new book.

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