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His Life & Career - Reginald Perrin - Rising Damp

The Life & Career of Leonard Rossiter

The Frontiers of Farce: The Purging; The Singer


The Purging

Written by Georges Feydeau

The Singer

Written by Frank Wedekind

Both plays Adapted and Directed by Peter Barnes

First Performances:
Old Vic. Theatre, London - Monday 11th October, 1976
Criterion Theatre, London - Tuesday 8th February, 1977

farce, n. 1. a) a coarsely comic dramatic work based on ludicrously improbable events.
b) this branch of drama.    2.  absurdly futile proceedings; pretence, mockery.

   By 1976, Leonard Rossiter had become a household name with television viewers, thanks to his unforgettable portrayal of the lecherous landlord Rigsby in YTV's Rising Damp. He was about to add another character to television legend, too - Reginald Perrin. Despite this, Leonard's roots always belonged in the theatre, and 1976 saw him return to the stage in two one-act plays by two of the world's greatest farceurs. As with many of Leonard's roles, the characters he played seemed to have been "made for him"; he delighted theatre-goers with his performance in the shows during 1976 and 1977, and Leonard once again amazed his co-stars and directors by having memorized both plays after just three days of a planned four-week rehearsal.
    By its very nature, farce commands an intense outpouring of energy, impeccable timing and a total immersion of the actor into his role - something Leonard had been doing for twenty years or more. Originally to be found in aspects of theatre including clowning, acrobatics and indecency, farce soon grew into a style of dramatic comedy all its own, and the two playwrights whose works were performed by Leonard were instrumental in its increased popularity. With the advent of cinema in the early twentieth century, farce was one its most popular genres, with Charlie Chaplin, the Keystone Kops and the Marx Brothers helping to bring it off the stage and onto the silver screen.
    Indeed, when the French film director Jean Renoir (son of the great painter Auguste) decided to experiment with cinematography, he chose one of the two plays described here - The Purging, releasing it in 1931 under its original French title On Purge Bebe. Written in 1910, one of four one-act pieces, The Purging is second only to A Flea In Her Ear as Feydeau's most-performed play. The story, set in Paris in 1904, concerned an inventor, Follovoine, who had developed what he believed to be an indestructable chamber pot, a desired - or so he thought - requirement for the French Army, to whom he promptly tried to sell them. It was written during Feydeau's separation from his wife in 1909, and just before their divorce shortly afterwards. As director Peter Barnes described it, the play was "a farcical illustration of the bleak dictum that husbands and wives are separated by nothing but marriage". Born in Paris on December 8th 1862, Georges Leon Jules Marie Feydeau was the son of a famous novelist (Ernest Feydeau, author of Fanny 1858). He wrote more than sixty farces, none of which achieved great acclaim during his lifetime - only since the mid twentieth century has his work been seen as classic satire and as a cornerstone of modern farce. His plays often took on the subjects of sexual immorality (for example unfaithful spouses, amorous escapades) as well as foreigners, the aged and the poor. They were also notable for their elaborate stage settings and improbable plots, often involving mistaken identity. (This was not Leonard's first performance of a work by Feydeau. He had a bit-part in the 1966 film Hotel Paradiso, adapted from Feydeau's play Hotel du Libre Echange). Georges Feydeau died in Paris on June 5th 1921.

    The second play, The Singer, was set in a Berlin hotel in 1898. Originally titled The Court Singer (as translated from the German Der Kammersanger), the play followed Dhuring, a mad composer, who had written an opera for a popular tenor and was determined to make him hear it and perform it. Written in 1899 at the height of Wagner-mania in Europe, the play aims to expose the reality behind the pretensions of 'high culture'. Its author, Benjamin Franklin Wedekind was a major forerunner of the Theatre of The Absurd (under whose umbrella come such great playwrights as Samuel Beckett and Harold Pinter); his dramas employed episodic scenes, fragmented dialogue and caricature. A central theme in many of Wedekind's plays is the publicizing of society's antagonism toward the power of sex, a theme that led to him being called "the prophet of sexuality in modern drama". Wedekind's life was rich and varied. Born on July 24th 1864 in Hanover to a German-American father and Swiss opera singer mother, he wrote plays in his spare time, while being variously employed as a journalist, an advertising manager, a cabaret performer and even a secretary for a circus! When a success as a dramatist he acted in and produced many of them himself. Some of his works - notably those concerning puberty and sexual awakening, such as The Awakening of Spring in 1891 and Pandora's Box, 1904 - caused a public scandal at the time, but are now the foundations of expressionism in the theatre. Frank Wedekind died in Munich on March 9th, 1918.

Leonard's Role Remembered:
"In The Purging, there was the sheer joy of listening to Leonard describing Follovoine's chamber pot as if it were an objet d'art...Follovoine, demonstrating the indestructibility of his chamber pot, broke it. He then went on to break - as only Leonard could break - one after another, fourteen pots in all...Leonard and Feydeau were hilarious." - Robert Tanitch.
"Leonard Rossiter was the best farceur of his generation, because the most serious. On stage he combined incredible speed with absolute physical and verbal precision. I once asked him to slow down during rehearsals so we could concentrate on certain details. But he said that he was only able to think comedically at high speed... He was disturbingly word-perfect in two large parts after just three days of a planned four-week rehearsal... His energy and concentration were prodigious. He always had to change shirts at least once during rehearsals."   "In the role of the mad composer... he wore a hideous set of protruding false teeth. In the middle of a preview performance they shot out of his mouth and into a wastepaper basket. Still in character and mouthing dialogue, though now apparently toothless, he retrieved the teeth, turned to the audience, shrugged and said: 'What do you expect? This is a preview!'." - Peter Barnes, director.
"...But it was in the black farce by Wedekind, The Singer, that Len gave one of the finest comic performances I have ever seen... He didn't ask for a laugh. Never conspired with the audience. The laughs came, thick and fast, because he was totally inside the character, driven by his enormous energy, usually wanted something bigger and better than mere laughs. He was a great comic actor."   "Len had evolved for himself an extraordinary get-up. A long, yellow oilskin garment down to the floor, a black felt hat, enormous false teeth, pince-nez... Yet Len never went over the top because he gave these things life. His commitment to the idea was total." - John Phillips, co-star, The Singer.
"...I loved his performance so much I used to step down-stage, back to the audience, and just enjoy it." - John Stride, co-star, The Singer.

Critical Reviews:
"The lunatic frenzy sustained by Mr. Rossiter in his scene - some twenty minutes with hardly a breath drawn - is a delight and a wonder to behold, but the nervous energy in it is alarming; I hardly dare to wish the enterprise well, for with seven such performances a week Mr. Rossiter will be dead before Christmas." - Bernard Levin, Sunday Times.

Picture: A cartoon by John Jenson which appeared in Punch. The left half portrays Leonard, sweating profusely, as Follovoine in The Purging, with John Phillips. The right half shows John Stride with Leonard as the mad composer Dhuring in The Singer.

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Text (c) Paul Fisher
Pictures (c) their respective owners