Shakespeare Unlimited: Episode 99
- Meredith Dallas’s son, Tony Dallas, an Ohio theater director
- Arthur Lithgow’s daughter, Robin Lithgow, recently retired as the Coordinator for K-12 Arts Programs in the Los Angeles public schools
- Arthur Lithgow’s son, John Lithgow, the Emmy, Grammy, and Tony Award-winning actor, who recently finished a Broadway run of a one-man show called Stories by Heart, largely about his father
[CLIP from radio broadcast, 1953, Antioch College:]
ANNOUNCER: This is Jerry Files, speaking to you by tape recording from the Antioch campus in Yellow Springs, Ohio.
MICHAEL WITMORE: It was 1953. The summer. And one of the most remarkable achievements in the history of Shakespeare in America was going on about 70 miles north of Cincinnati.
[CLIP from Antioch production of Coriolanus:]
But since he hath
Served well for Rome—
What prate you of service?
I talk of that that know it.
Is this the promise that you made your mother?
Know, I pray you—
I'll know no further.
Let them pronounce the steep Tarpeian death,
WITMORE: From the Folger Shakespeare Library, this is Shakespeare Unlimited. I’m Michael Witmore, the Folger’s director.
The summer before, in 1952, 36-year-old Arthur Lithgow, an Antioch associate professor of English, had decided to try something audacious. He and a troupe of actors he’d gathered would perform every single one of Shakespeare's plays, in rep, over the course of three summers.
[CLIP from radio broadcast (continued):]
ANNOUNCER: This 1953 summer festival represents the first occasion in modern times when Shakespeare’s seven Greek and Roman plays have been presented in repertory. In fact, four of them, Troilus and Cressida, Pericles, Timon of Athens, and Titus Andronicus, have never before been produced professionally in this country.
Smoke and lukewarm water
Is your perfection. This is Timon's last,
Who, stuck and spangled you with flatteries,
Now washes it off and sprinkles in your faces.
WITMORE: The festival, which Lithgow co-created with another young Antioch professor, Meredith Dallas, worked with Antioch students, local amateurs, and young professionals who came in on the train from New York, including Nancy Marchand, Earle Hyman, Laurence Luckinbill, Ellis Rabb, and Kelton Garwood.
[CLIP from Antioch production of Julius Caesar:]
Within my tent tonight his bones shall lie,
Most like a soldier, ordered honorably.
So call the field to rest, and let’s away
To part the glories of this happy day.
WITMORE: Sixty years on from those first performances, we’ve gathered together the children of the festival’s founders to talk about their fathers’ work and its legacy. Meredith Dallas’s son, Tony Dallas, an Ohio theater director, and two of Arthur Lithgow’s children, Robin Lithgow, recently retired as the coordinator for K-12 arts programs in the Los Angeles public schools, and her younger brother, the Emmy, Grammy, and Tony Award-winning actor John Lithgow, who, at the time we were recording this, had just finished a run of a one-man show, largely about his father, called Stories by Heart, on Broadway.
We call this podcast "I Live To Speak My Father’s Words." John, Robin, and Tony are interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.
BARBARA BOGAEV: Robin, I know that some of your earliest memories of this time are from when you were only about four years old, so I’d love it if you could start us off by telling us what you remember from that time, and especially that time that you went to the refrigerator to get a snack, and what you saw.
ROBIN LITHGOW: Oh, okay. I think it was the summer I turned four, and I opened the refrigerator, and my Dad’s head was lying in a big bed of lettuce. [LAUGHS] And it was covered with blood, and he has this horrifying expression on his face, and I was just frozen, and my mother ran over and said “Oh, it's just a prop, honey. It’s a prop.” But I didn’t know what a prop was. [LAUGHS]
BOGAEV: So what, this was from Macbeth?
ROBIN: It was Macbeth. He was playing Macbeth, and it was the head that Macduff brings on stage at the end to prove that he has in fact...
JOHN LITHGOW: Terrorized…
JOHN: Traumatized his daughter. [LAUGHS]
BOGAEV: It must have been an awfully good prop, because it fooled you.
ROBIN: Yeah, the reason it was in the refrigerator, they used to make it… I'm not sure what they used.
JOHN: It was latex, some kind of rubbery thing.
ROBIN: Latex. Yeah.
BOGAEV: I was picturing Jell-o. Jell-o parfait.
JOHN: Well, that was just for Thanksgiving. [LAUGHS]
BOGAEV: You theater family!
ROBIN: It was some kind of latex that would melt in the heat, so…
BOGAEV: Oh, that is just so wonderful. Tony, I don’t want to leave you out. You’re the baby of this podcast, so I don’t think your first memories are of Antioch, but as Mike just said in his introduction, one of the groundbreaking aspects about this festival is how they mounted these plays, and I know your father, as a director, must have talked to you about this. So it was in repertory, and you had actors playing multiple roles and multiple plays, but also perhaps multiple roles sometimes in the same play. And I understand they performed seven plays in nine weeks?
ROBIN: Well, the first year they did eight.
BOGAEV: Eight? Eight in nine weeks, that is just backbreaking. What did your father tell you about how the preparation and the rehearsals were?
TONY DALLAS: Well, they opened the first show, and then the second week, they opened the second show halfway through the second week, they were running the two shows in repertory. And then the third week, they opened the third show. Halfway through the third week, they’re running three shows in repertory.
BOGAEV: They must have had to block just a whole play in one rehearsal, right?
TONY: Essentially I think that’s just—John, you might know better than me, or Robin—but essentially they were very good at blocking the whole thing out and could essentially, I believe, sort of block a play in one day.
JOHN: Well, all the plays were done on a unit stage, very symmetrical, with two staircases going up to a kind of high platform that could serve as a balcony, or a throne room, or whatever. So there were never any set changes. It was always on an empty stage. So therefore they could play seven plays in repertory, because there were no set pieces. Sometimes a table might be brought on. It was all about the words, and they left it to the audience's imagination. And the audience themselves eventually participated, into the kind of house style in which they performed the plays.
BOGAEV: And this is a long English tradition, in terms of repertory.
TONY: Oh, it is, yeah.
BOGAEV: Putting on seven plays in five weeks, I think, is the tradition.
JOHN: Yeah, and the Globe theater was an empty stage.
BOGAEV: Right, and Tony, I know your father told you some story about actors getting confused about what play they were performing and Titus Andronicus was coming up next; it wasn’t the play they were doing. What happened there?
TONY: No, it wasn’t. It was a scene in Titus Andronicus, a big vat of blood inside the main building. There was a corridor, a hallway, but my father saw a couple of actors rushing towards the vat of blood, about to sort of submerge themselves in it, and he said “No, no, we’ve already done that scene.” [LAUGHS]
BOGAEV: That would have been very confusing, if they came out blood-soaked… Well, let's back up just for a moment, and I’m curious, Robin, I'm going to treat you as our historian. I understand all of you are historians.
ROBIN: Okay, I was the oldest.
BOGAEV: That’s right, as the oldest. What was the original idea for the Antioch Festival?
ROBIN: Well, the way Dad has said, as I recall, he thought an audience willing to sit through 25 hours of Shakespearean history should have that opportunity, so he did it.
BOGAEV: Right, just the history plays.
JOHN: As I recall, it was the first season, was the history cycle. They were struggling a bit getting audiences. Olivier’s movie Henry V came out around the time they came to the last plays, which were Henry V, Henry VIII. And suddenly, everything exploded, and that was the first season. The second season, I think, was the Greco-Roman plays, but by that time they were well on their way to being sort of institutionalized. Word spread.
ROBIN: They broke even the first year, which never happens anymore.
JOHN: But because things just exploded in the last month of the season, when all the plays were in repertory.
BOGAEV: Right, and, you know, we’ve established what this repertory style is, but I think I saw somewhere… So they’d rehearse the plays for five days each, and I guess it was in your memoir, John, that you wrote that before you had ever heard a recording of the plays, you wondered, what did that do to the quality?
JOHN: Yeah, I don’t know. I grew up, became an adult, became an actor, and a rather pretentious actor at that, having gone to England and studied at a drama school in London. I began to doubt that these were any good. You know, how good could they possibly be? And then one of the actors, Kelton Garwood, he had passed away, but his son was a prop master in the movie industry, and he sent me a cassette recording of Merry Wives of Windsor with my Dad playing Doctor Caius.
BOGAEV: And we have that recording.
JOHN: Oh, my God.
BOGAEV: And I’d love to play it.
JOHN: Play it, because…
BOGAEV: Nick is our engineer. Nick, can we roll that?
[CLIP from Antioch production of The Merry Wives of Windsor:]
ARTHUR LITHGOW as DOCTOR CAIUS:
O diable, diable! Vat is in my closet? Villainy! Larron! Rugby, my rapier!
Good master, be content.
Wherefore shall I be content-a?
The young man is an honest man.
What shall de honest man do in my closet? Dere is no honest man dat shall come in my closet.
I beseech you, be not so phlegmatic. Hear the truth of it. He came of an errand to me from Parson Hugh.
Ay, forsooth. To desire her to—
Peace, I pray you.
Peace-a your tongue.—Speak-a your tale.
To desire this honest gentlewoman, your maid, to speak a good word to Mistress Anne Page for my master in the way of marriage.
This is all, indeed, la! But I'll ne'er put my finger in the fire, and need not.
Sir Hugh send-a you?—Rugby, baille me some paper.—Tarry you a little-a while.
BOGAEV: And that's your father.
JOHN: That’s our Dad and his crazy French accent.
BOGAEV: It was kind of hard to hear, but yeah, that was a goofy French accent.
JOHN: But the most vivid sound there is the sound of the audience roaring with laughter.
BOGAEV: They are so into it.
JOHN: Such high energy, and I realized these guys were good.
ROBIN: They were very, very good.
ROBIN: And you know, I didn’t have a very critical eye, but I do now, and these were really good shows, and the audiences just kept coming and coming and coming, and you still meet people...
JOHN: And what you hear there is the incredible high energy, because, remember, there was no amplification. Outdoors, a unit set, and no amplification, so you had to yell your lines and you had to yell them at lightning speed and with perfect diction. You don’t see that much these days. It's quite extraordinary.
BOGAEV: Well, it is funny, because listening to that tape, it almost has the speed of a radio play from that era or of a TV sitcom. It reminds me of the sitcoms I grew up on.
JOHN: Absolutely breathless. In fact there's the famous story, which is not apocryphal, that when Dad was rehearsing Taming of the Shrew, he set a kitchen timer on the set for a given scene, and the actors were told they had to be done by the time that timer went off and you could...
BOGAEV: Or get off the stage.
JOHN: Or get off the stage. And you can hear it. I mean they go at breakneck speed, including my Dad as Petruchio.
BOGAEV: Well, that’s what I wanted to ask you. and maybe Robin, I’ll ask you. Is that the Dad that you remember?
ROBIN: Oh yeah.
BOGAEV: In what way? Doing goofy voices? Being that energetic?
ROBIN: Well, on stage he had tremendous energy. He only... As a director, too. I only remember one time him getting mad at actors, and it was a line I've never forgotten, and I've thought of it so often.
BOGAEV: And what's that?
ROBIN: He was sitting in the back and they were... It was a run-through, and he was being very quiet and just taking notes, and suddenly you hear this voice and it’s saying "[BEEP], damn it, stop acting and say your lines." [LAUGHS]
JOHN: Yeah. Yeah.
BOGAEV: That’s probably the cry of every director.
JOHN: God, I remember watching him rehearse. It was a tech dress rehearsal of Romeo and Juliet and the Romeo was coming up really short, he just was.
BOGAEV: He didn't bring it.
JOHN: And it was the balcony scene. It was supposed to be a run-through, and Dad came down from the back of the house to just talk to Romeo and Juliet. And he began very calmly, but he spoke for about 10 minutes, and by the end of those 10 minutes, he was roaring, and he was passionate, and he was just absolutely laying out this actor. I've never seen anything quite like it. I presume there was some improvement. [LAUGHS]
BOGAEV: Now Tony, again, I don’t want to leave you hanging here. We also have a clip of your father and let's play this. I'm not even going to introduce it, because we’re all going to recognize it. Nick, can you please line up our second clip?
[CLIP from Antioch production of Julius Caesar:]
MEREDITH DALLAS as ANTONY:
... lend me your ears.
I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.
The evil that men do lives after them;
The good is oft interrèd with their bones.
So let it be with Caesar. The noble Brutus
Hath told you Caesar was ambitious.
If it were so, it was a grievous fault,
And grievously hath Caesar answered it.
Here, under leave of Brutus and the rest
(For Brutus, as you know, is an honorable man;
So are they all, all honorable men),
Come I to speak in Caesar's funeral.
He was my friend, faithful and just to me,
But Brutus says he was ambitious,
And Brutus is an honorable man.
He hath brought many captives home to Rome,
Whose ransoms did the general coffers fill.
Did this in Caesar seem ambitious?
When that the poor have cried, Caesar hath wept;
Ambition should be made of sterner stuff.
Yet Brutus says he was ambitious,
And Brutus is an honorable man.
You all did see that on the Lupercal
I thrice presented him a kingly crown,
Which he did thrice refuse. Was this ambition?
Yet Brutus says he was ambitious,
And sure he is an honorable man.
BOGAEV: Meredith Dallas, Tony’s Dad, as Marc Antony.
JOHN: Dal, as we knew him.
BOGAEV: Do you remember that, Tony, because you were pretty little?
TONY: Well, I don’t remember that, but I've heard him do—he used to do it at high schools and different places, come in and read Shakespeare to people. So I've, you know, I've heard him do that, but it was very disconcerting when I heard, when Richard sent me the recording...
BOGAEV: And Richard is our producer. We sent you that clip to listen to. Yeah, that was my question, if that's the Dad you remember? The actor Dad, do you remember?
TONY: Yes and no. Similar to you, John and Robin, the speed was one of the things that sort of… was one of the first things that struck me, but also sort of the rolling of the R’s, and all that kind of stuff.
BOGAEV: I noticed that. Yeah, that’s an old-school style.
TONY: Yeah. Yeah.
JOHN: But you know, any time you hear Shakespeare from another era, it's... I mean, if you hear Barrymore doing Hamlet, it's closer to opera than theater.
BOGAEV: Tony, it sounds like there are plenty of people in these audiences, but I gather from watching an interview with your father that the festival ran out of money at this time, at the beginning of this?
TONY: They ran out of money halfway through the first season, and because of the Red Scare that was going on at Antioch, and Antioch at that point was getting a lot of bad publicity because of the Red Scare, but the Shakespeare festival was starting to get enough energy and publicity that putting money into the season became sort of an economic thing.
BOGAEV: Oh, so it helped Antioch overcome its bad press as kind of a nest of Communists.
TONY: Exactly. Exactly.
JOHN: And in some quarters, that was good press.
ROBIN: Shakespeare conquers McCarthy.
BOGAEV: And apparently the festival was a big draw for actors, too, right? New York actors would come, who would come out for the summer to the festival. I saw an article from the, I think, the Cincinnati Inquirer from 1953, that talked about how the festival had held extensive auditions in New York and had the support of the theater in New York.
JOHN: There was a wonderful moment when Clarence Derwent came out to play Shylock. Clarence Derwent, he’s well known for an award in New York theater for a newcomer actor, the Clarence Derwent Award. In those days I’d never heard of Clarence Derwent, but it was like the equivalent of having George C. Scott come out, so, I mean, that was the status of the festival.
ROBIN: And of course, Earle Hyman had a great reputation, he'd done Othello.
BOGAEV: And Earle Hyman… Yeah, I want to talk about Earle Hyman. Earle Hyman did Othello, just scores of times, he became known as the actor who does Othello. He also played Cliff Huxtable’s father in The Cosby Show, that’s how the rest of us... and also Nancy Marchand.
JOHN: Yeah, she was a great Kate.
BOGAEV: Right, and we’re going to play that clip, but let's just remind everyone who she is. She became known as Tony Soprano’s mother, just stole the show every time, she stole the scene every scene she was in on The Sopranos, but she was also the Katherine Graham character, Lou Grant’s boss, right? On Lou Grant, the TV show.
JOHN: Big Emmy winner.
BOGAEV: Right, and before all of that, she was Kate in Taming of the Shrew with Robin and John’s father as Petruchio. Let’s roll that clip.
[CLIP of the Antioch production of The Taming of the Shrew:]
ARTHUR LITHGOW as PETRUCHIO:
O slow-winged turtle, shall a buzzard take thee?
NANCY MARCHAND as KATHERINE:
Ay, for a turtle, as he takes a buzzard.
Come, come, you wasp! I' faith, you are too angry.
If I be waspish, best beware my sting.
My remedy then is to pluck it out.
Ay, if the fool could find it where it lies.
Who knows not where a wasp does wear his sting? In his tail.
In his tongue.
Yours, if you talk of tales, and so farewell.
What, with my tongue in your tail?
Nay, come again, good Kate. I am a gentleman—
That I'll try. (She strikes him.)
I swear I'll cuff you if you strike again.
So may you lose you arms.
You are no gentleman, if you strike me,
And if no gentleman, why then no arms.
A herald, Kate? O, put me in thy books.
What is your crest? A coxcomb?
A combless cock, so Kate shall be my hen.
No cock of mine. You crow too like a craven.
Nay, come, Kate, come. You must not look so sour.
It is my fashion when I see a crab.
Why, here's no crab, and therefore look not sour.
There is, there is.
Then show it me.
Had I a glass, I would.
What, you mean my face?
Well aimed for such a young one.
Now, by Saint George, I am too young for you.
Yet you are withered.
'Tis with cares.
I care not.
Nay, hear you, Kate—in sooth, you 'scape not so.
I chafe you if I tarry. Let me go.
No, not a whit. I find you passing gentle.
'Twas told me you were rough, and coy, and sullen,
And now I find report a very liar.
For thou art pleasant, gamesome, passing courteous,
But slow in speech, yet sweet as springtime flowers.
Thou canst not frown, thou canst not look askance,
Nor bite the lip as angry wenches will,
Nor hast thou pleasure to be cross in talk.
But thou with mildness entertain'st thy wooers,
With gentle conference, soft, and affable.
JOHN: Oh boy. [LAUGHS]
ROBIN: I remember everything in that scene. It's like, I mean, it's like...
JOHN: Oh, everything, everything.
BOGAEV: Like what?
JOHN: I remember watching rehearsals for that scene.
ROBIN: Yeah, me too.
JOHN: And do you know, when I was in high school, I was the president of the Drama Club, and I invited first David Hooks, and then my Dad, to literally perform and do a Q&A with the kids, and he did the wooing scene from Taming of the Shrew, playing both Petruchio and Katherine.
ROBIN: Both of them.
JOHN: He did that very scene.
BOGAEV: [LAUGHS] That’s hilarious.
JOHN: God. That was about 25 years later.
BOGAEV: But it's so interesting to hear that… First of all it sounded, like, I wish I could see it. Such antics on stage and such energy, so physical, right. I think we heard someone run into something there. But it's interesting because Taming of the Shrew, it’s a problematic play now. You don’t actually see it performed, especially in this era of #MeToo.
ROBIN: Well, the clip that solves the problem, I’m performing it today, in the scene where they’re traveling back to Padua, and she...
JOHN: It's the scene with Vincentio.
ROBIN: Yes, Vincentio.
JOHN: He makes her playact.
ROBIN: Yeah, he makes her playact. She says, “That’s not the sun," or "That’s not the moon, that’s the sun,” and he says, “If I say it's the moon, it's the moon.”
[CLIP from the Antioch production of The Taming of the Shrew:]
MARCHAND as KATHERINE:
Forward, I pray, since we have come so far,
And be it sun, or moon, or what you please.
And if you please to call it a rush candle,
Henceforth I vow it shall be so for me.
ARTHUR LITHGOW as PETRUCHIO:
I say it is the moon.
I know it is the moon.
Nay, then you lie. It is the blesséd sun.
Then God be blest, it is the blesséd sun.
But sun it is not, when you say it is not,
And the moon changes even as your mind.
ROBIN: So in that moment, she takes over. She realizes that it's really fun to be with this half lunatic, "we can play all those idiots in Padua."
JOHN: And ultimately, Petruchio is a much, much more charismatic, sexy catch than Lucentio, who married Bianca.
BOGAEV: And that’s a take that could play.
JOHN: It’s Tracy and Hepburn. It's a combative couple.
ROBIN: This old man walks onstage, and he says, "You know, Kate, look at this lovely young woman." And she immediately goes into role.
[CLIP from the Antioch production of The Taming of the Shrew:]
[Aside] He will make the man mad, to make a woman of him.
MARCHAND as KATHERINE:
Young budding virgin, fair and fresh and sweet,
Whither away, or where is thy abode?
Happy the parents of so fair a child!
Happier the man whom favorable stars
Have allotted thee for his lovely bedfellow.
ARTHUR LITHGOW as PETRUCHIO:
Why, how now, Kate? I hope thou art not mad!
This is a man—old, wrinkled, faded, withered—
And not a maiden, as thou sayst he is.
Pardon, dear father, my mistaking eyes
That have been so bedazzled with the sun
That everything I look on...
JOHN: I’m going to have fun. And I'm going to have fun in this marriage.
ROBIN: "This is going to be fun, I'm going to have fun as an actress," yeah. So when she does, “I place my hands"... What's the?
JOHN: "Beneath your foot."
ROBIN: She says "foot" [rhyming with "boot"] to make it rhyme, and it's her, totally tongue and cheek.
JOHN: Yeah, it's time for you to direct this play again.
BOGAEV: Tony, maybe you know this story, because we’re talking about some of the famous actors who came out of the Antioch Festival, but it was a real mixed bag, I imagine, too. And I read somewhere a story about actors setting off, I think it was two Roman candles, right?
TONY: Yeah, like John was saying earlier, the intention was only to do the history plays first, but they were so successful, that they decided to do everything else after that, but my father directed Henry VIII, which was the last play. To sort of close this celebratory thing, he thought it would be wonderful to send off a couple of Roman candles, because there’s this christening scene, I guess, with Queen Elizabeth, but the first firework went off, and it went across the stage. All of the actors at this point are assembled on the stage, so luckily it missed the actors, and got enough altitude to go over the audience, and my father is sitting there, with Nick Dewey as Queen Elizabeth in his arms, you know, hoping that they’re not going to send off the second firework. But, sure enough…
BOGAEV: That they're not going to kill someone next.
TONY: Well, it goes whistling across the stage and ends up in a woman’s lap.
BOGAEV: It was pretty serious, right? Burned her skirt?
TONY: It was, it sort of burned off her dress, I guess, and, you know, some serious burns. My father sort of spent, you know, the rest of the night in the college infirmary, sort of trying to soothe her and hoping she wouldn’t sue.
JOHN: And, by the way, Tony mentioned Nick Dewey, who was a little boy. We all performed, too. Robin and I acted together in the plays.
BOGAEV: Right, well, you say that one of your most disappointing memories is of this time, right?
JOHN: Yeah, she and David got to play the princes in Richard III and had an entire scene with lines.
ROBIN: Oh, you were way too young. You were way too young.
JOHN: I was about six years old, but I was old enough to be very jealous.
BOGAEV: Oh, you must have been so mad.
JOHN: But a few years later, Robin and I played Mustardseed and Moth in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
ROBIN: We were, we really stole the show.
JOHN: We were very good. [LAUGHS]
BOGAEV: And you had a very famous costume designer in that production.
JOHN: Yes, Ann Roth, Oscar-winning costume… Yeah.
BOGAEV: Ann Roth, legendary.
JOHN: Next time she designed for me was World According to Garp.
BOGAEV: Robin, do you still remember your lines?
ROBIN: Well, I remember a few of them.
JOHN: "[Peaseblossom:] Ready? [Cobweb:] And I. [Moth:] And I. [Mustardseed:] And I."
ROBIN: Oh, for Moth? Oh yeah, Moth, oh yes.
ROBIN: "Where shall we go?" [LAUGHS]
JOHN: "Where shall we go?"
BOGAEV: Well, John, let me ask you this, how did the Antioch Festival, it all started with your father, but how did your father start with Shakespeare?
JOHN: He just grew up loving Shakespeare. He describes himself curled up in an attic room in his high-school years, reading the entire Folio from start to finish, all the plays.
ROBIN: And the poems.
JOHN: And the poems.
BOGAEV: And he had a tough childhood. His father died of the Spanish flu, your grandfather, in 1918.
JOHN: At age four, when he was age four, so he was…
BOGAEV: He was kind of the man of the house.
JOHN: He was the oldest boy. He had two older sisters. Yeah, it was not an easy childhood. They were…
BOGAEV: Your mother started a kind of private nursing home in the house.
JOHN: My grandmother, his mother, yeah. Yeah, and the kids had to help out, taking care of old people in the home, just to get by.
ROBIN: Changing bedpans and washing things…
BOGAEV: Well, who was the storyteller? I mean what's the connection?
ROBIN: My grandmother, she was the storyteller.
JOHN: Oh, phenomenal.
ROBIN: She was amazing.
JOHN: She would recite long Wordsworth, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow poems, I mean. A great sort of storytelling and poetry learning tradition that’s long gone.
BOGAEV: So that is the thread, it sounds like, to your father responding to Shakespeare, happening to have the Complete Works.
JOHN: I think so. He certainly had, I think, from his mother, he got this sort of literary outlook.
ROBIN: He would hide in the attic to avoid work. [LAUGHS]
BOGAEV: Oh, many an artist has begun that way, I think.
JOHN: Also, I do remember him talking about the imagination, that an actor does not need anything, he can take a shingle and turn it into a sword. He was a great believer in the empty stage, great writing, and spoken words. That’s why we can listen to these archival recordings from 60 years ago, and it fires our imagination, we can see it. He sort of knew that, but he so loved Shakespeare’s philosophical passages. "The lunatic, the lover, and the poet / Are of imagination all compact." He loved that passage, because I think it summed up the way he thought about theater.
ROBIN: "Brings to airy nothingness…"
ROBIN and JOHN: "A local habitation and a name," yeah.
TONY: "And a name."
JOHN: That’s our brother and sister act. [LAUGHS]
ROBIN: We can do Dan and Kate, too.
JOHN: I’m so sorry, Tony. Sorry that we’ve left Tony out. But Tony...
BOGAEV: They’ll be here all week, ladies and gentlemen.
JOHN: But Tony was also a member of a four-sibling family, Barri, Wendy, and Patti.
BOGAEV: Well, yes, Tony. And Tony, your father’s journey to the stage is just really remarkable. We were looking and researching for this podcast, when we found the article from the front page of The New York Times, when your father was arrested, along with a group of other seminary students, for evading the draft in 1940. So take us back, if you would. How did he go from being this seminary student to playing Malvolio in Twelfth Night?
TONY: That’s a long trip.
BOGAEV: Start at the beginning
TONY: He was a pacifist. He went off to Union Seminary, and while he was there, he joined up with Dave Dellinger, who became famous for the Chicago Seven, but there were eight seminarians that refused to register for the draft. My father had sort of cultivated a voice, a quality of voice, from doing a lot of sermons.
And they ended up being in prison for about three years altogether, and by the end of it, he just had this deep sense of wanting to join humanity again, to not be part of some sort of protest, and then this is where my father got paroled. And my father got involved in the theater here, and it was that involvement in the theater here that had this deep sense of purpose. He spoke of theater as his ministry; this was an extension of that spirit towards transformation, theater as a way of speaking to the issues of the day.
BOGAEV: Such a fascinating path. I also read that he performed opera at some point in prison.
TONY: While they were in prison in Danbury, Connecticut, they were going to put on this FCI Utopia, Federal Corrections Institute Utopia, taken from Gilbert and Sullivan. And the warden and everybody thought this would be a wonderful thing for the inmates to do, until they finally saw it.
BOGAEV: So making fun of life in prison?
TONY: Everybody who was involved in that thing ended up in solitary, [LAUGHS] which was not the first time…
ROBIN: Yeah, I never heard this story, Tony.
JOHN: Extraordinary, I didn’t know this about Dal.
ROBIN: I mean, we’re so not curious when we’re kids. I mean we’re curious, totally curious, but not about adults, when we're children.
BOGAEV: And your father also did Twelfth Night for Joe Papp in Central Park, later.
TONY: He did, yeah, and that was in '58.
JOHN: But what you say about your father and about Anti. I mean, I don’t think it's a coincidence that the Shakespeare festival took place at Antioch.
JOHN: I mean, this was an extraordinary liberal arts college, innovative in all sorts of ways. Our babysitter was Coretta Scott, before she became Coretta Scott King, and she was a part of...
ROBIN: And she was my music teacher in first grade. We were called "pinko Commie brats," that was the name, "pinko Commie brats."
TONY: That persisted for a long time.
BOGAEV: Well, Tony, just to follow the thread of your father, and also this relationship between these two men, both of your fathers, I get the impression from things that you’ve said and written, and from videos I’ve seen of your father, that he was kind of a calm guy, a pretty calm guy.
TONY: He was, very calm.
BOGAEV: And Arthur, on the other hand, and you've spoken about this. He seemed a little bit, at least on stage or as a director, like a powder keg, so...
TONY: I don’t think so.
BOGAEV: Oh no, I got that all wrong?
JOHN: Oh, he was very low key, and I mean...
BOGAEV: Oh, so what was their relationship like, Tony?
JOHN: Between the two of them?
TONY: My father had tremendous admiration for Arthur.
BOGAEV: What happened in the end, though, because I know that Arthur Lithgow fired Dal, fired Meredith Dallas?
ROBIN: I know it was painful, I don’t know the details. I don’t know if you know?
TONY: Yeah, I don’t.
ROBIN: I know it had something to do with the division of the two... At one point, the festival got so big, they split into two companies, and they had the Toledo company and the Yellow Springs company, and they would switch mid-summer. And I don’t know what happened, but I know that Dad took it to his grave, so I think it was very painful for him, and I think it was painful all around. It was certainly painful for me.
JOHN: Oh God, our lives became crazy after Dad left Antioch, and I remember...
BOGAEV: Well, he just kept on moving, and moving, and moving, it sounds like.
JOHN: Yeah, we became a sort of gypsy family for the next 10 years. I remember asking him about it in his older years, and he answered quite elliptically. He said, “I just reached a point where the festival was going to go one of two ways, expand as a professional operation, or it was going to contract,” and he quit.
TONY: The other thing is, when my father was towards the end of his life, and he was sort of in failing memory, and all that sort of stuff, in the nursing home, I delivered him the message that Arthur had died. It's one of the few times I’d seen him cry.
ROBIN: Oh God. I mean, I think my Dad loved Dal very, very much, too, otherwise there wouldn’t have been that much pain in the separation. And you know, you think in terms of human relations, it's marriages that go bad, these are terribly painful things.
BOGAEV: And also this connection to such an intense time in your life, I mean it's so intense. It's your childhood, but...
ROBIN: They were like brothers.
BOGAEV: Yes, and everybody, it sounds as if everybody was camping out at Anti. You know, the actors and the directors. I mean, it became one big family, I would imagine, after every season.
ROBIN: Yeah, I remember Dal reading us bedtime stories.
TONY: Yeah, his sonorous voice. It was wonderful to put your head on his chest to feel his words, formulating in the basement.
BOGAEV: Well, I could keep you here all day, but maybe, just stepping back for a moment to the big picture of this Shakespeare festival at Antioch, I really didn’t realize until I started prepping this interview that this was something that had never really been really done before in America. I think I read somewhere, in an introduction to some Signet edition of Two Noble Kinsman, that it says your father’s production was only the second one in the world that was ever done between the 1600s and the 20th century, so in 400 years nobody had done this play, maybe for good reason, but… [LAUGHS]
ROBIN: I thought it was great. I loved it.
BOGAEV: Well, yeah, and then Timon of Athens, and Antioch’s production was the first one ever done in the US, and it goes on and on. The Pericles, Titus Andronicus, that is, there are just a lot of firsts here.
ROBIN: I don’t know for sure, but I believe that it's the only time all the plays have been done in five years.
JOHN: I'm sure that’s true. I mean, it was a period when there was the Ashland Shakespeare Festival, the Antioch Shakespeare Festival, Stratford, Connecticut, and Stratford, Ontario. All of them were part of this Shakespeare movement in the 1950s.
BOGAEV: And Antioch kind of at the...
JOHN: And Antioch was very much at the forefront of all that.
BOGAEV: Right, so what do you think the legacy is?
ROBIN: Well, I think...
JOHN: Well, here we are, we’re talking about it. All these years…
ROBIN: John is, certainly... Like, I have to say, you know, when you were talking about theater with a purpose, my daughter is a director. She has a small company in Boulder, Colorado, and they’re doing, they’re right in the middle of a play right now, it's about the Syrian refugee crisis. Last year, they did one on teenage rape, the year before that, they did one on biracial marriage in a political setting. Every play she chooses… she only does plays that have a reason, you know, a cause, something, I didn’t even think about it until...
JOHN: They're all brand new.
ROBIN: They’re all brand-new plays, but it's that feeling that theater needs to have a pulpit, like Dal said.
TONY: Theater takes an idea and goes to the gut.
JOHN: Yeah, I mean this has been an extraordinary couple of months for me doing this solo show. I’ve been doing it for years, but I finally did it on Broadway, and it’s very much about him. It’s almost a tribute to him and bringing back the Shakespeare days and so many people have shown up, who were either students back in those days and saw the plays, a few of the actors themselves have shown up, in their 80s.
And it's... I don’t know, for me it's been a kind of rumination on impermanence, the fact that theater is incredibly exciting and urgent and important and essential when it's happening, and then... but it's impossible to hold onto, except in memory. And yet it has its legacy. People do experience Shakespeare and spend the rest of their lives as Shakespeare fans, and I think that’s what they did.
BOGAEV: It has been so fun to talk to all three of you, I really appreciate you taking the time.
JOHN: I only wish Tony had been here.
ROBIN: I know. Tony, thank you for telling that story about your Dad.
TONY: I wish I could join you for lunch.
ROBIN: We’ll send some shrimp with the runner. [LAUGHS]
BOGAEV: I wish you all the best and thank you again.
JOHN: It was really great, Barbara. Thank you.
ROBIN: Thank you. Thank you, Barbara.
WITMORE: Tony Dallas is the son of Meredith Dallas. Robin Lithgow and John Lithgow are the children of Arthur Lithgow. Lithgow and Dallas were the founders of the Shakespeare Under the Stars Festival at Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio. Between 1953 [that is, 1952] and 1957, the festival produced the entire Shakespeare canon. Tony, Robin, and John were interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.
"I Live to Speak My Father’s Words" was produced by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster and Esther Ferington. Esther French is the web producer.
We had lots of help in the production of this episode. The recordings of Coriolanus,
Julius Caesar, and Timon of Athens were provided by the Antioch College archivist, Scott Sanders. The recording of The Merry Wives of Windsor came from Kelton Garwood’s son, Doug Garwood. Robin Lithgow gave us the recording of The Taming of the Shrew. We had technical help from Juliet Fromholt and Peter Hayes at WYSO public radio in Yellow Springs, Ohio, and Lauren Cascio, Nick Bozzone, and Mike Lerma at the Formosa Group's recording studio in Santa Monica, California. We’d also like to extend special thanks to Neenah Ellis, the general manager at WYSO, who first told us about Shakespeare Under the Stars and suggested we highlight it.
We hope you’re enjoying Shakespeare Unlimited. And if you are, we hope you’ll do us a favor. Please consider reviewing the podcasts on whatever platform you get the podcast from. When you do that, it helps us get the word out to people who haven’t heard it yet. We'd really appreciate your help in increasing people's access to these remarkable interviews. Thank you.
Shakespeare Unlimited comes to you from the Folger Shakespeare Library. Home to the world’s largest Shakespeare collection, the Folger is dedicated to advancing knowledge and the arts. You can find more about the Folger at our website, folger.edu. For the Folger Shakespeare Library, I’m Folger Director Michael Witmore.