Don Juan in the Hot Seat
Veteran actor Fritz Weaver insists he has never given any thought to the special demands placed on him as a participant in a staged reading as opposed to a full-fledged performance. Indeed, he hesitates before responding, suggesting a little discomfort in the face of the question, even as he acknowledges its relevance.
After all, Weaver is currently playing the title role in, yes, a dramatic reading of George Bernard Shaw's "Don Juan In Hell," that bowed Off-Broadway at the Irish Repertory Theatre, Aug. 22.
"Sitting is a restraint," Weaver begins reluctantly, "but it's also freeing. It frees you from the requirements of realism—costumes, props, stage business. It even frees you from making eye contact with the other actors." But, paradoxically, that's precisely the challenge, continues the 70-ish Pittsburgh native during a phone interview.
"You are wedded to the page, yet you want to maintain contact with your fellow players and, at the same time," he chortles, "not lose your place in the text. The challenge is to keep the ball in the air, even though there's something static about a reading. But at the end of the evening, I'm exhausted, so I can't say doing a staged reading is any easier than a performance."
Nevertheless, Shaw's plays lend themselves to readings, since many of the characters are spokespersons for different viewpoints. Weaver stresses that "Shaw writes for the listener, not the viewer. He glories in language—language that is loaded with ideas."
And "Don Juan in Hell," which is a third act dream sequence—or what Weaver calls "the centerpiece"—of Shaw's larger play, "Man and Superman" (1903), is a prime example. Interestingly, "Don Juan" is traditionally performed as a dramatic reading.
As everyone knows, its characters are based on those that appeared in Tirso de Molina's 17th-century drama, but are most recognized as the principals in Mozart's 18th-century opera. Set in hell, the notorious lothario Don Juan meets up with Ana, the woman he seduced (Celeste Holm); her father, whom he killed (James A. Stephens); and the devil (Donal Donnelly). What then transpires is a heated debate, led by Don Juan, on what's wrong with the world—from its hypocritical institutions to its oppression of the oppressed to, most central, the social order's deadening effect on the life force. No doubt about it, Weaver is an impassioned Don Juan.
"I have to make Don Juan so real that his ideas are coming from a place of passion," asserts Weaver. "In death, Don Juan has changed profoundly. He is no longer Don Juan the scoundrel. Instead he's Don Juan, the philosopher. He is not susceptible to women and sex anymore. Still, it's the life force [his much-maligned sexuality] that has given him his conscience. He believes that the life force should not be frittered away, and that restrictions should not be imposed on it. That doesn't mean he wants to be its slave. Now, he is determined to be its master."
A 1970 Tony Award-winner for his performance in "Child's Play," Weaver has been featured and/or starred in numerous Broadway and Off-Broadway productions. He is a well-respected Shakespearean actor—having appeared in Stratford, Ontario and at The Folger in Washington, D.C.—and boasts an array of movie and television credits.
Weaver is no stranger to dramatic readings, either. Consider his performances in the two A.R. Gurney pieces, "Ancestral Voices" and "Love Letters," and his readings of short stories at Manhattan's Upper West Side Symphony Space, a venue he appears in frequently.
"Reading short stories may be one of the most demanding acting forms there is because the actor is playing many distinct characters in addition to the narrator," he notes.
An Actor at Home with Philosophizing
Weaver is one of the fortunate few. By his own admission, he has worked fairly steadily throughout his career. He is a consummate theatre man, speculating that, if he weren't an actor, he might have been a playwright, an early love.
Yet he has other interests as well. He is a regular reader of the Natural History magazine, citing the writings of evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould. ("Shaw is a strong believer in will—the will to live, the will to survive. Gould says there's no such thing. I don't know. Will has meaning for us.")
Weaver also lets it be known that he is a Quaker. During World War II, he was a conscientious objector and did not serve. "I don't have any regrets about my position, but I now believe if ever there was a just war, that was it. At the time we just didn't know what was happening [he is talking about the Holocaust]." He admits that, since he is married to a Jewish woman, actress Rochelle Oliver, the topic now has added resonance for him.
Philosophical discussions are not alien to Weaver. Check out the conundrums he grapples with in playing Don Juan. "I have trouble with the idea that hell is the home of 'honor, justice, and duty and all the other seven deadly virtues,' and that much of the world's wickedness is done in their name. I think those words [honor, justice, and duty] are positive. It's hard for me to put a negative spin on them, although I understand that Shaw is saying that when people use those words, they are often lying."
Equally problematic, Weaver wonders if Don Juan has ironically become exactly what he is arguing against—a philosopher who is, by definition, the antithesis of a life force.
And finally, the most pressing concern: are Shaw's ideas simply dated—from his Socialist leanings to his vision of male-female romantic relations? On the former, Weaver says no, but without conviction. "Shaw's socialism comes from his sense of humanity and so I don't think it's dated." On the latter, he also wavers, suggesting that Shaw's views on male-female love are at once modern ("very unromantic") and, perhaps, anti-feminist. "He saw women as the pursuers and men as the prey. He believed women use their wiles to get men to do what they want. You could say he was very threatened by women, or very susceptible to them. But that doesn't necessarily make him a misogynist."
A Broad Range of Interests
The son of a social worker-cum-amateur economist (with left-leaning politics), Weaver's early ambition was to be a political science writer. Later, he toyed with the idea of playwriting.
At the University of Chicago, however, his goals took yet another (albeit a related) turn. "At the time, the school's aim was to make each student a well-rounded person. It was the era of the Great Books [assigning major works from the canon of western literature, before the ideas of multi-culturalism took hold in universities].
"You were expected to immerse yourself in precisely those subjects that you were neither good in nor had any particular interest in," recalls Weaver. "Since I liked the humanities, I was thrown into math and science. And to this day, the science section is the first thing I turn to in the paper." (As noted, he is also a subscriber to the Natural History magazine). "I was enrolled in the university's two year program, culminating in a course called 'Observation and Integration.' "
The university also served as Weaver's introduction to acting. It was there that he began performing in plays alongside such fellow-thespians as Mike Nichols, Elaine May, and the soon-to-become well-known writer, Susan Sontag. The last, surprisingly enough, was an especially good actress, he says, remembering her performance in both "Antigone" and "Murder In The Cathedral," two plays in which he also appeared.
Following graduation, Weaver came to New York, endured the standard auditioning merry-go-round, spent two years at the Barter Theatre in Abingdon, Va., returned to New York, and joined the Phoenix Repertory Company.
His formal acting training was limited to classes taught by the legendary acting teacher Uta Hagen, with whom he studied periodically over a number of years. The experience was useful, he notes; yet he remains unsure that "there is such a thing as real training," short of getting up on stage and acting.
Looking back, he says the most challenging role he played was King Lear "because it's so wild and scattered a part. There are those wonderful highs and lows. There's that heath scene with the raging storm in the background where Lear goes berserk, but in the end his sanity is restored. Lear starts out as a tyrant, but ends up a true king."
Still, Shakespeare poses different levels of difficulty, Weaver insists. " 'Hamlet' is much easier than 'Lear.' He's a young man with all the feelings of young men. An actor almost can't miss, if he has any aptitude."
Weaver, who has worked with dozens of directors over the decades, has very strong feelings (and they're not positive) about the "visionary" director, the kind who comes on board with an idea of what he wants, and then "imposes his interpretation on everyone, before he or she sees what the actors can do. The good director shapes his interpretation on the basis of what the actors bring to the roles."
Charlotte Moore (Weaver's current director) is the classic example of a good director, he emphasizes, in part because she has refrained from inflicting her conceits on anyone else, and, as a Shaw scholar, she was surely in a position to do so. Weaver asserts, "She wrote her master's thesis on 'Man and Superman.' "
Curiously, Weaver wishes there had been more time to rehearse all of "Man and Superman," not simply the "Don Juan in Hell" section. Would the actual performances on stage have been any different? He won't go so far as to say so. Yet, he maintains, the extended rehearsal would have placed the performance in a more meaningful context.
In fact, Weaver contends that the play might have more impact on theatregoers if they were familiar with it in its entirety. "The best comment came from one woman, who left the theatre stating, 'I'm going straight to the nearest bookstore to buy the play.' " He pauses to comment, "I'd like audiences to see Don Juan as, if not the most moral one up there, then maybe the most intelligent. He is in the grip of great ideas. He is the one who is concerned with the fate of man."
Does the theatre of ideas—as staged reading or performance—have a future? Weaver thinks so. "It's not in fashion, but Shaw will come back. The brilliance and fun will always be there!"