Top 10 Theatrical Moments I Wish I Could Have Seen

1. Laurette Taylor as Amanda Wingfield in Glass Menagerie – the production in Chicago. BEFORE it came to New York.

2. Marlon Brando in the premiere of Streetcar Named Desire on Broadway.

3. Eleanora Duse doing anything.

4. One of Meyerhold’s legendary productions in Russia

5. Sarah Siddons as Lady Macbeth. She did that role in 1785, but its reputation among theatrefolk lives on. It is said that her interpretation of that role is, to this day, “unequaled”. A fellow actor in the production with her said that in preparation for her “out damn’d spot” scene, she would go out behind the theatre and chop wood. To get herself into the proper state of mind. This is long before “method”, or anything like that. It was her instinct, her genius, that led her to that choice. She must have been extraordinary. The performance was seen as so authoritative that a century later Ellen Terry was intimidated by approaching the role.

6. Any of the plays of the ancient Greeks – comedy or tragedy – it doesn’t matter. I so would love to see how those plays were really done, way back when in antiquity.

7. Peter Brook’s legendary Midsummer Night’s Dream, produced at the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1970. Actors on trapezes, surrounded by white walls. People who saw it still talk about it and it was 30 years ago.

8. I would have loved to be in the audience to see Clifford Odets’ masterful piece of Communist agitprop: Waiting for Lefty. It wasn’t even in a real theatre, not the first production of it anyway. It was in a community center way downtown. The audience not only erupted into a frenzy at the end when it is revealed “Lefty” was killed, the audience started rioting immediately – and Elia Kazan (who played the lead role of Agate) stood down center and started shouting the last lines: “STRIKE! STRIKE! STRIKE!” The audience picked up the call, started shouting “STRIKE, STRIKE, STRIKE …”, stamping their feet, and then they literally stormed the stage to embrace the actors … there was no fourth wall. The Group Theatre, an organization completely of its time, had broken down the barrier between actor and audience.

9. I would have loved to be at the Actors Studio on the day that Marilyn Monroe did a scene from Eugene O’Neill’s Anna Christie. The place was apparently packed with onlookers, hanging off the balcony, peering down. I’ve been to the Actors Studio many times. It’s in an old church on 44th Street. There’s a balcony, a working-space (not really a stage) with an exposed brick back wall. Actors go to the Actors Studio like a class. You work on scenes for the moderator of the week (moderators have been Harvey Keitel, Ellen Burstyn, Lee Grant, Estelle Parsons, Arthur Penn etc.). And Marilyn, trembling like a leaf, signed up to do a scene. She was a massive movie star at the time, but she wanted to work on her craft and be a serious actress. Apparently, her work was tremendous that day. You could have heard a pin drop in that space. I know this not only from Shelley Winters’ biography, but also from one of my teachers who was there that day. Such a risk for her to take – and I would have loved to have seen it.

10. I would love to have been in the audience during the premiere of John Synge’s Playboy of the Western World, at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin. Just to witness the riots. To feel the chaos building. To see Yeats take the stage and try to make a speech, calming everyone down … only to be heckled by the audience. To see Yeats be heckled!! To see the actors in the play try to go on, even though the noise in the audience was deafening. What an experience!!

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17 Responses to Top 10 Theatrical Moments I Wish I Could Have Seen

  1. Stevie says:

    This is my kinda list!! Brava, Red! Sarah Siddins chopping wood backstage – isn’t that just remarkable. Here’s a couple more theatrical moments, not necessarily great performances, but fascinating to see:

    The night Shirley MacLaine went on for Carol Haney in the Pajama Game.

    The night Porgy and Bess premiered at La Scala, with a cast that included Leontyne Price and Maya Angelou.

    The premiere of the musical Coco starring Katherine Hepburn as Chanel.

    The performance of Daughter of the Regiment performed in Bejing for Richard and Pat Nixon. (Just an amazing cultural moment, I think)

    The night Rose Louise Hovick (aka Gypsy Rose Lee) went onstage at a burlesque house and stripped for the first time, with her mother calling out directions to her from backstage.

  2. red says:

    Oh man, Stevie … these are all so incredible! I would so have loved to see Shirley Maclaine go on for Carol Haney – wow.

    Another thing that just came to mind (your comment about the performance in Beijing reminded me of it) … the production in the 1980s of Death of a Salesman in China, which knocked everyone who saw it on its ass. It spoke to 1980s China the way it spoke to 1940s America. Grown men weeping in the audience, etc. etc. It must have been amazing.

  3. Stevie says:

    Oh yes, Red! I had forgotten about Death of a Salesman. How incredible for Willie Loman’s plight to be applicable to 80’s China. Awesome.

  4. Kate F says:

    Opening night of Death of a Salesman–I love his description of it in Timebends.

    I agree about Laurette Taylor and Duse–I would give anything to have seen them just reading the phone book!

    First performance of 12th Night. Best play. Seriously.

  5. red says:

    Kate – I actually would have liked to have been in the audience at the premiere of Death in the Family at Shattered Globe. That must have been something.

    “We are talking now …”

  6. red says:

    Just thought of another one: Judy Garland at Carnegie Hall.

  7. Lisa says:


    While reading your list, I didn’t see my breathtaking performance as Earnestine Money in the Marion High School performance of Hello, Dolly!. Surely I overlooked it, as my rendition of “Sweet Rosie O’Grady” brought down the house!


  8. red says:

    HAHAHA Add yet another one to the list!!

  9. dad says:

    Dearest: I too would have liked to have seen the original Waiting for Lefty. There is still something in it that would speak to entire nations of the downtrodden [how about Dafur?]where the state does not protect and nurture its own people. Great list of events you have chosen to see. I’ll buy the tickets. love, dad

  10. red says:

    Dad … there’s a blow-by-blow description of that performance in Waiting for Lefty in a book I have about the Group Theatre, and it never fails to give me chills. When I applied to the Actors Studio, I wrote about my response to that story in my application. It is so meaningful, and it changed everything … that play, and the firestorm it generated, single-handedly paved the way for Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams. Up until that moment, Broadway was mainly great plays by people like Philip Barry – no shame in that – but it was all upper-class social comedies. Odets wrote about the concerns of the people in the actual audience and it was exhilarating.

    I remember being at some function at the Actors Studio and Shelley Winters – who was in the audience at that performance of Lefty – she was something like 9 years old, a kid – and she got all choked up as she described us. I mean, this was over 50 years later. Must have been an absolutely amazing theatrical event.

    Wish I coulda been there.

    And I agree with Odets’ essential message, written from out of the heart of the Great Depression – which is that man has dignity. The individual has dignity. Man does not have to tolerate being chewed up and spit out. He can stand up and shout “STRIKE”. I think the actual lines are – hang on, let me get my script:

    Agate: And when we die they’ll know what we did to make a new world! Christ, cut us up to little pieces. We’ll die for what is right! put fruit trees where our ashes are! (To audience) Well, what’s the answer?

    All: STRIKE!

    Agate: LOUDER!

    All: STRIKE!

    Agate and others on stage: AGAIN!



    The crowd went nuts, and joined in screaming STRIKE. Gives me shivers just thinking about it.

  11. Kate F says:

    My dad was one of those lucky ones who did see Judy at Carnegie Hall. His father took him when he was at Yale. He came into the city to see her because his father thought it was an important event.

    thought of another one: opening of West Side Story.

    also: Judi Dench played Viola. Would have loved to see that. You can see a bit of it on the John Barton Playing Shakespeare tapes with the RSC. The little that is there is great.

    also: Vanessa Redgrave as Rosalind. People all over the world fell in love with that character all over again because of her.

    also: Peggy Ashcroft as Juliet. My God, she played Juliet until she was like 60.

  12. Barry says:

    Man, I wish I was a better student of theatre history to recognize a lot of these references. Red, do you think living in New York has given you better insight into the History of Theatre, or would you know as much about it and appreciate it as much if you lived in, say, Phoeniz AZ?

    I want to learn more and experience more and DO more in theatre, but living in Tennessee with a young family, it just ain’t ever going to happen…

  13. red says:

    Barry –
    I don’t think proximity to NYC has anything to do with it. I’m an actress, and have always wanted to be one. This is my field. Would be pretty sad if I didn’t know the history of my own field.

    Here are some really excellent books to start with if you’re interested in learning more:

    — Shelley winter’s autobiography. She was pretty much THERE at some of the most important moments in 20th century american theatre.

    — Real Life Drama: The Group Theatre and America, 1931-1940, by Wendy Smith — essential reading.

    — Tom, by Lyle Leverich – this is the first part of a biography of Tennessee Williams. Sadly, Leverich died before he could complete the second volume. This book is what really told me the true impact of Laurette Taylor’s performance in Glass Menagerie

    — Timebends, by Arthur Miller. His autobiography. Again; more essential reading. He was criticized for not giving more juice on Marilyn Monroe. Ridiculous. This book is a wealth of informaiton on the theatre scene throughout the 20th century

    — The Time is Ripe – Clifford Odets’ 1940 journal. A classic in terms of this genre. His day to day journal for one year out of his life – the year the Group Theatre folded. An unbelievable look into his mind, his process …

    — Actors on Acting. This is a huge encyclopedia, basically – a compilation of what actors have had to say about their own craft since the time of the Greeks. There are actually audience descriptions of some of the performances of Greek plays handed down to us through the ages … My copy of it goes up through Geraldine Page.

    The Fervent Years – by Harold Clurman. One of the founding members of the Group Theatre – and later to be one of the greatest American theatre critics we’ve ever had. The Fervent Years is his telling of the Group Theatre story. Great GREAT book.

    A Dream of Passion – by Lee Strasberg. Another founding member of the Group. He went on to found the Actors Studio with Kazan – and he later just became the guru of the Method. His book is not a great book, a lot of it is about how he came up with the Method … BUT: his observations about acting are so spot-on. His book is how I was introduced to Eleanora Duse – he writes a whole section on her blush (he saw her do it in person) and he had an A-ha moment. As in: Okay, she is a genius and this comes naturally to her. But woudl it be possible to train actors to be as real as she is? Hence: the Method.

  14. red says:

    One trivia moment: the title of Strasberg’s book comes from Hamlet – the great speech where Hamlet talks about acting – the one that begins: “O what a rogue and peasant slave am I …”

    In it, he wonders about an actor who actually cried real tears on stage. How do these tears come? Where do these tears come from? He asks himself: What’s Hecuba to him, or he to Hecuba That he should weep for her?

    Strasberg sees that as THE question to ask. Not just one of the questions, but the ONLY question.

    Eleanora Duse ALWAYS had those questions answered herself – she knew “who Hecuba was to her” deep in her soul, therefore she was able to be real on stage.

    In another part of the speech, earlier, Hamlet says:

    Is it not monstrous that this player here,
    But in a fiction, in a dream of passion,
    Could force his soul so to his own conceit
    That from her working all his visage wann’d,
    Tears in his eyes, distraction in’s aspect,
    A broken voice, and his whole function suiting
    With forms to his conceit? and all for nothing!
    For Hecuba!
    What’s Hecuba to him or he to Hecuba
    That he should weep for her?

    Amazing. How many times have we all felt that, watching some actor have a real experience, and think: “Wow. He actually got pale – his ‘visage wann’d’ – and his emotions were REAL … but the circumstance is fake … How does he do that??”

    In order to “get there”, an actor must fling himself into the “fiction, the dream of passion”.

    I can’t say it better than Strasberg did … his whole section on Hamlet in his book, and that particular speech, is amazing.

  15. Barry says:

    I definitely have to check that out. I took a few acting classes in college, not many, and we were always speculating on the best way to bring across emotional reactions on stage.

    There was always the proverbial “death of your puppy” mental image to bring about tears…

  16. Ceci says:

    Great post, Sheila!
    I know next to nothing about theater, so my opinions on this subject are not informed at all, but before reading your selections, I thought: “I would with all my heart have LOVED to see Brando’s debut and Marilyn’s scene from Anna Christie at the Actors Studio”. And there you go and list BOTH! You made my day!

  17. mitchell says:

    Barbra on opening night at the Winter Garden in Funny Girl
    Merman on the opening night of Gypsy
    Angela Lansbury in Mame

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