"Conversation at Midnight"
Reflections on the Production of Edna St. Vincent
"Conversation at Midnight"
at The Actors Studio New
St. Vincent Millay | "Conversation
At Midnight" is a play in blank verse by the renowned American poet Edna St.Vincent Millay.
She wrote (at seventeen) an eloquent long poem, "Renascence", a portion of which a famous
NBC-TV Host always quoted at the end of every broadcast: "The world stands out on either
side, no wider than the heart is wide, above the earth is stretched the sky, no higher than the
soul is high. But East and West will pinch the heart that can not keep them pushed apart; and
he whose soul is flat - the sky will cave in on him by and by." She had been one of the free-spirited feminist
voices of the 30’s. Oddly, however, nobody seemed to know, let alone had read "Conversation",
despite the fact she’d written a rather famous play for children. I, however, was a fan
and as such had read everything of hers. I would (did) perform "Renascence" at the drop of the proverbial hat.
Or even without it! I would begin: "All I could see from where I stood were three
long mountains and a wood. Over these things I could not see. These were the things that bounded
me." (I still can’t resist.)
Well, as a quite young and busy actress
I started writing and directing at The Actors Studio. I was fortunate to have my work gain the attention and support of Cheryl Crawford, the Broadway producer, who began her career with the Group Theater and who was the Studio’s prime fund-raiser. To
adapt "Conversation" and develop it as a project became a consuming passion and an adventure
with consequences I could never have imagined. Revising it from an all male cast of nine down
to seven without loss, adding a piano and song, exploring with the actors and director every
facet of the characters, the beauty and purpose of the language, the intricate, layered relationships,
was a journey for all of us. Here was ensemble work at its finest with a brilliant cast, a fine director
and the priceless freedom to create - to do and undo and redo for over six months without interference.
The result was an exceptional piece of theater, unforgettable by anyone who saw it.
As it happened, Ms.Crawford, Lee Strasberg, Molly Kazan and Elia Kazan had
for a time been considering the possibility of "opening-up" the work at the Studio (which at the time
had a reputation both sacrosanct and much maligned) by showcasing an "in-house" production.
This was not a subject without controversy. However, it was decided that "Conversation At
Midnight" was the right project for such a purpose. (At this point I want to say that this
is a much longer, deeper, more complicated and far-reaching story than can be told here. And
I am telling it in a book-in-progress about my adventures in theater, television and movies. But to round out it’s
purpose in this time and place, I need to tell what took place after the first performance.
Present at that
remarkable, history making opening night, along with Norma Millay (sister to "Vincent" as she was known)
and her husband the artist Charles Ellis, were two gentlemen who were not only "fictionally represented"
by two of the play’s characters, but who had in the intervening years become icons in American
literature. They were Archibald MacLeish, a Poet Laureate of the United
States and Thornton Wilder, one of the giants of modern playwriting.They had
been invited by Cheryl Crawford to travel to NYC for the purpose of seeing the never-before- performed play by their late,
great poet friend. She had a dream to take the show to Broadway and hoped their responses would
persuade Norma Millay (who controlled the rights) to give permission.
was proposed that the director and I join them all in Mr.Wilder’s hotel room for our own "conversation
at midnight." Their praise for everyone was abundant, sincere, generous, celebratory as well
as personally and deeply felt. It was an unforgettable experience. The results, as the saying
goes, will be revealed in the full account, doing justice I hope, to one of my professional life’s
greatest gifts: "CONVERSATION AT MIDNIGHT".
.....and so it is to that memory and to everyone
connected to it that I dedicate this page. Here’s
looking forward to some good conversation!
"My candle burns at both ends It will not last the night But, ah, my foes, And oh, my friends, It gives a lovely light."
Edna St. Vincent Millay