February 19, 2020: Theatre Yesterday and Today, by Ron Fassler
There are actresses and there are actresses… and then there was Zoe Caldwell, who died from complications of Parkinson’s disease February 16th at her home in Pound Ridge, New York at the age of eighty-six.
It’s difficult to write of her now in the past tense, as she had been such a vital part of the Broadway theatre community for more than fifty years — before I even became aware there was such a thing. I vividly recall back in 1968 when my 5th grade teacher Elizabeth Johnson came to class one morning, overflowing with praise, due to having seen The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie the previous evening. Mrs. Johnson was my kindred spirit; an adult who took in her confidence an eleven-year-old with a passion for all-things theatre. This was a year before I began attending Broadway shows on my own on a regular basis, so I missed out on Caldwell’s Jean Brodie, which sadly, she did not get to do on film (a role for which Maggie Smith won the Best Actress Oscar in 1969).
But oh, how lucky I was to have seen her onstage over the years, even though I was shocked to discover in going over her credits that it was in a total of five plays: as Euripedes’ Medea; as Eve in Arthur Miller’s The Creation of the World and Other Business; as Maria Callas in Terrence McNally’s Master Class; as Madame Armfelt in Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s A Little Night Music, and perhaps most memorably, as the greatest Mary Tyrone I have ever seen in Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night. A meager five… but a mighty quintet. Such was her power that it feels like I had seen her in twice as many.
She won the Tony Award every time she was nominated. And at four wins, she has the most given to any actress in dramatic plays other than Julie Harris, another true creature of the theatre. As for her lack of film and television appearances being somewhat paltry, this was by personal design. As she told the Boston Globe in a 1996 interview: “The business of acting is sharing an experience… television and movies tend to cut off the element of sharing. Images flicker across the screen. Everything is mechanical. Everything is dead. Actors on the stage are alive. The audience is alive.”
Her 2001 autobiography wonderfully titled I Will Be Cleopatra, is a short read, but packed with passion and requisite charm. Its subtitle: “An Actresses’ Journey” begged for a sequel that never came to be, in that it only brings her up to her first Broadway triumph (a short-lived Tennessee Williams pair of one-acts presented under the title Slapstick Tragedy). It ran one week, but long enough to allow Tony voters to attend and award her with that season’s Best Featured Actress in a Play. The journey Caldwell depicts included her life growing up in Depression-era Australia, the child of a plumber and a taxi dancer, and onto her early work in England at Stratford-on-Avon; beyond to the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis, where she was a founding member; and later triumphs at Canada’s Stratford Festival. All of this put her in good stead when she made her eventual Broadway debut in late 1965, replacing Anne Bancroft as a crippled nun in John Whiting’s The Devils.
She had a long, and from all reports, loving and solid forty-four-year marriage to the producer and director Robert Whitehead, seventeen years her senior, and with whom she collaborated on the majority of her hits. They were introduced to one another by their mutual friends Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy, bonding the first night they met while washing and drying dishes together in the kitchen. Whitehead passed away in 2002, also at the age of eighty-six.
Much has been written of her Jean Brodie, Medea and Maria Callas, so permit me to concentrate on one that few people saw. For a short run at the Kennedy Center in D.C., then for two weeks at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, she was Mary Tyrone to Jason Robards’ James Tyrone in Long Day’s Journey into Night. As a college student at Purchase in Westchester, I made it my business to get to Brooklyn in January 1976 to see it. I had to, that’s all there was to it. I’m pretty sure I corralled my friend Claudia (who had a car) into driving us down… and it left us both gobsmacked (ironically, Kevin Conway, who portrayed her son Jamie in this production, died two weeks ago today).
Effective throughout Mary’s harrowing “Long Day’s Journey,” Caldwell grew to new heights when at the play’s end she slowly entered in a morphine haze, carrying her disintegrating wedding gown. Softly incanting the closing monologue, I was transfixed. But it was with the devastation of the last line that chills ran up my spine: “Then in the spring something happened to me. Yes, I remember. I fell in love with James Tyrone and was so happy for a time.” It was the musicality of “for a time” that I will never forget. She went up the scale and the pitch of the word “time,” drawn out as if the final long note breathed into an oboe, sent me to tears.
That was an actress. That was Zoe Caldwell.
If you enjoy these columns, check out Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway, available at Amazon.com in hardcover, softcover and e-book. Also sign up to follow me here, and feel free to email me with comments or questions at Ron@ronfassler.org.