DON JUAN ON HELL
No light, no space, no time,
just utter void, until with rhyme
I heavened hell, a Don,
no longer mere emoticon.
Inspired by Terry Teachout’s article “Tour of 'Hell' in Evening Dress: How Charles Laughton taught America to love Shaw,” WSJ, February 6, 2010):
Before there were regional theaters, there was Charles Laughton. Today most people remember him for having played Quasimodo in "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" and the snarling Captain Bligh in "Mutiny on the Bounty," but between 1949 and 1952 he spent much of his time not in Hollywood but on the road with Charles Boyer, Cedric Hardwicke and Agnes Moorehead. Billing themselves as the First Drama Quartette, these four middle-age stars barnstormed from coast to coast, performing George Bernard Shaw's "Don Juan in Hell" in sports arenas, banquet halls and civic auditoriums that had never before offered anything more daunting than fluffy farces like "Arsenic and Old Lace." In addition to playing the Devil, Laughton served as master of ceremonies and directed the show, which was seen by a half-million people and was recorded by Columbia Masterworks, a label better known for Bach, Beethoven and Brahms….
The Columbia recording of "Don Juan in Hell," made in 1952, is a breathtakingly vivid souvenir of the original production. Laughton sets the scene by reading Shaw's first stage direction out loud: "No light, no sound, no time nor space, utter void." All at once you're thrust into a darkness of the imagination lit only by the four sharply differentiated voices of the cast: Laughton is unflappably urbane, Boyer amused and seductive, Moorehead stingingly haughty, Hardwicke crisp as Melba toast. What they give us is not so much a play as a conversation piece—the after-dinner chat of four geniuses. Imagine the impact it must have had on audiences in a place like the 12,000-seat Memorial Coliseum in Lexington, Ky., where you could buy a ticket for as little as 20 cents!