BELL, BOOK AND CANDLE (Phoenix)
USTRE is lacking in my approach to literary wit c h e s. Their drinking habits are nasty.
In prose fiction they ride on broomsticks, a draughty and comfortless pastime at best; they wear tall steeple hats that only a fool would affect. The things they eat are gross, grisly, quaint, and hewn from creatures most eccentric. They are not gourmets. They are excessively ugly. Witches in plays talk nonsense. Such rigmaroles. And such prancings. An English Archbishop, it is said, as he lay dying, confided that the Devil is a jackass. The incantations of stage witches, the hags in "Macbeth," for example, imply that His Grace, if indulging in literary criticism, was speaking ex cathedra.
I am not sure that witches in real life are so negligible. On a dank December evening some years ago my dear friend the late Gerald Brosnan, a man from the County Clare, chilled my more Northern Celtic
blood over a basin of beer in the Punch in Fleet Street when he told of the performances of the possessed in his native parts.
Another Irish playwright, Mr. Paul Vincent Carroll once, at a cocktail party, so vividly described devil-worship in my home town, Glasgow, that I nearly rushed from the room to dip myself in holy water, Mr. Carroll, should he ever write a play about witchcraft, will make English expeditions into the drama of the other world seem as cosy as Walt Disney pantomimes. And no actor will reshape his work into a pleasant fol-de-rol of after-dinner amusement as Mr. Rex Harrison does with Mr. John Van Druten's cery anecdote at the Pheenix.
LET me say that I enjoyed Mr. Harrison's elegant mugging. The play it was that distracted me, I thought Miss Lilli Palmer more believable a witch than the scythebeaked crones who zoom through most witch plays. Miss Palmer could bewitch any man under 90 who retained his sight.
Miss Athene Seyler, who plays a witch-aunt, and whom I have loved, man and boy, I always considered a kelpie; but one of the good Lord's. As an emissary of Satan, Miss Scyler is, as a certain Prime Minister said of a large segment of our otherwise glorious democracy, not quite employable. With s i m pie goodness, she enchants.
I have no grouse against these engaging mimes, nor against Mr. David Evans. the third witch on Mr. Van Druten's b 1 a s t e d heath, a nice Turkish carpet, by the way.
Not even Mr. Wilfred Lawson's act perturbed me, that asthmatic splutter he used in Strindberg, as a demented officer, in a recent Ameri can play, as a demented Texan of some 80 or 90 summers, with winters thrown in, and in the current charade, as a demented author who writes of witches and eventually believes in them. I enjoyed Mr. Lawson admittedly—one must he honest —in a saturnine way.
NOW I would like to see Mr. Van Druten's play. It is about a pretty little witch who owns a house in Knightsbridge. Her name is Gill and she is a malicious pixie who covets a young publisher. one of her tenants. When she hears he is the betrothed of a girl she knew at school. a girl wicked in a human way. she casts a spell upon him. The publisher, enraptured by his Circe, turns into something of a swine. But who could imagine Mr. Harrison as anything other than the perfect gent? The ugly side of the play is slickly glossed, as some magic oil might he applied to the coat of a moulting goat to make it smooth and shining. The charm of charming performers is lavishly used to subdue serious undertones.
For example, the significance of the title escaped the director, Mr. Harrison. It is ironic; for Gill, the witch herself, ends bewitched, but by love,
When her publisher leaves her, horrified, in truth, not. as Mr. Harrison cleverly transforms hint, into a tasty, funny character from a Wodehouse farce, she finds her witchcraft gone with him. For her lost love she weeps. and love possesses her. She is a witch no longer, but a girl bereft.
I find something of a parable here. This is a good play, if slight. I'd like to see it played.
In the meantime. there are attractive performances at the Phcenix. Mr. Harrison ' is a very good comedian; his wife, Miss Palmer, is a lovely entertainer. And Miss Seler*.' Ah, Miss Seyi-si