Donnelly’s Tales 4 – The Dionysiac Ecstasy

Posted by in Stories on Dec 8, 2011

I’ll tell you whose name cropped up in the Telegraph letters page the other day, old man (said Donnelly): Edwin Mitchell! He was complaining about Arts Council grants being slashed for promising young dramaturges. He would, the centipede! My God, we all heaved a sigh of relief when he handed in his red biro, I can tell you! Have you ever come across the concept of the heterosexual queer, old man? Camp as Fanny, but actually batting for our side? Mitchell was one of those. Downright perverse, in my opinion: neither one thing not the other. Ah well. Anyway. Mitchell came to teach Drama. You might have guessed it, mightn’t you. It seems to attract men of that stripe, drama.

He was very flash, you know, long scarves and hair over his collar. Edeltraut loved him. Well, she falls in love with all the new young male staff, until they turn out to have Feet of Clay, old man, such as not totally agreeing with something that old Jakob Schnellentaten once wrote in Trieste in 1934 to a convocation of midwives, or something. But at first, she and Mitchell got on like a house on fire. They’d compare their scarves for colour and filminess, and giggle in a corner. Larry Snudge wasn’t so struck. He’d regarded drama as his baby, you see, and when this chap arrived with his tales beginning: “Dear old Peter Brook once said to me…” and so forth, Larry started to sulk, and muttered darkly about constructive dismissal and so on, until Tom Hobbes slapped him on the back and told him to drink up and don’t be such a gynaecological item, if you see what I mean.

I must admit, Mitchell was a hit with the kids. I heard him once berating some young miscreant at the top of his voice: “DON’T YOU DARE SPEAK TO ME LIKE THAT!” There was one of those prickly silences, and then: “OR I’LL SCREAM THE HOUSE DOWN!” There’s a certain type of temperament or personality that loves the smack of firm government, and the more hysterical among our youth clustered round Mitchell like flies on poo. Some of them even started wearing the same sort of clothes as him, and of course, that wasn’t popular. Not too keen on the cult of personality at St. Geoffrey’s, old man.

But Mitchell did his job well enough, and even got his teenage chislers fired up enough to dedicate part of their summer hols to doing a show in the Edinburgh Festival Fringe; a musical based on Tam O’ Shanter. He roped in Bob Critchlow to do the music. You remember the sort of thing Critchlow came out with: all Schoenberg-in-the-machine-shop. Then, and here we descend into the tragic, he invited up from the south a fellow called Roger Bawtry to do the costumes and design.

This creature Bawtry arrived, old man, and greeted Mitchell with one of those male hugs that went on for a very long time. Larry Snudge started to time it after a bit, and said it lasted about three minutes, which is a long time old man, especially when you’re only saying hello. You just try timing it with a stopwatch. And there we were, all standing about, wine glass in one hand and a twiglet in the other, wondering what to do with our faces. This Bawtry fellow was one of those chaps that don’t seem to age between about forty and sixty; he had long greyish blond hair that spread over his shoulders in a sort of cape. He wore Indian sandals and bare feet of a deep gypsy brown. I think I caught the glint of an earring. Then Bawtry took Mitchell’s face between his hands and said softly, in a quiet bass like melted chocolate: “How have you been, Edwin?”

Mitchell replied in a whisper: “Fine. Fine.”

Bawtry closed his eyes and nodded slowly, and said: “Good.” It was like watching some sort of Primitive Rite, old man: some sort of Biblical epic. He then leaped up on to the sideboard and sat cross-legged, rolling a cigarette. Some female adjunct of Mitchell’s turned up during the evening, and fairly turned to jelly when she saw Bawtry.

“Oh! God! Roger! How absolutely wonderful!” was the gist of her vapourings, and Bawtry folded her in his arms and said “Darling girl!” in that Ovaltine voice, and smiled! It was the smile that did it, old man! It gave me quite a turn! His face completely vanished into thousands of wrinkles as he unleashed a set of white and highly serviceable teeth. He looked like a grinning scrotum, old man. Then it was gone, and he was back to Indian Chief mode, up on the sideboard next to the fruit bowl.

“Tell me about this play,” said Bawtry from his perch on the sideboard, and didn’t speak again for the remainder of the evening. He had things All Worked Out, you see, something of a mystic: the strong silent type.

I assumed that Mitchell would put him up, but he was no fool. Bawtry was farmed out to Daisy Barnet’s. He did the same smile trick for Daisy, apparently, when he was delivered there; he gave her the same marble-tombstones-and-corduroy-curtains grin. Laughter lines? Don’t be silly, Ignatius, Daisy told me: nothing’s that funny.

Well, I’ll say this for them; Tam O ‘Shanter was a huge success. Sold out for every show and lots of stars in the reviews, and all that sort of thing, which was tremendous cachet for St. Geoffrey’s, of course, and the pupil roll went up, and the drama students started putting on frightful side, and looking pityingly at the scientists and sporty types. Mitchell and Critchlow went everywhere together arm-in-arm, and usually accompanied by some of the more glamorous of the senior drama girls. Generally speaking, we were all agog for their next big show. St. Geoffrey’s was getting a Name, you know, old man, which the rest of us at the chalk face had to struggle to justify. It was really quite exhausting. Fairly put us through our paces.

The next year rolled around, and the show this time was going to be The Swan Knight, a verse drama in the style of Christopher Fry, based on Lohengrin, and full of esoteric content, old man; absolutely dripping with Meaning. Once again, Roger Bawtry was invited to lend his services. He arrived in full fig, on a motorbike with all his gear, bedroll and so forth, in a sidecar. Daisy point blank refused to take him on again. The thought of that terrible smile gave her nightmares. So Mitchell had to give him houseroom himself.

Straight away, Bawtry believed in the project. He told us so in hushed tones over a pint in Bennet’s Bar. It became an article of faith with him that this was the experience that was going to reveal Spiritual Truth to its audiences of the most profound and searching manner. There was a gleam in his eye that was worrying, and he no longer seemed to feel the cold. Summer in Edinburgh can be a chilly affair, as you know, and this was one of the cooler versions. But Bawtry worked with incredible speed in the open air, painting scenery in his sandals and a pink semmit. The whole thing was like a religious observance for him.

Came the First Night. The Fringe admin had given Mitchell a proper theatre on the basis of his success the previous year, and the cast, Mitchell and Critchlow were all warming up for the show, and the house was absolutely full! Mitchell was radiant in the wings, and the cast was ecstatic. Beware the dionysiac ecstasy, old man! It’s a heady mixture!

Well, as The Swan Knight lumbered on, it turned out to be only moderately well received. The audience had started coughing bronchitically and eating sweets with noisy wrappers about twenty minutes in, which is always a Bad Sign. During the interval a lot of the punters had had enough, and went off in search of more down-to-earth fare, and their seats banged as they filed out, with a sombre echo. Even the caryatids, you know, the plaster bosomy ladies holding up the box seats, had a look of solemn warning on their stucco faces.

In the end, those remaining gave it a polite smattering of applause, but it clearly hadn’t shifted the ground of being, or opened the portals of perception for them as a whole. Mitchell was now looking tense but dignified, and the cast were hiding how frantic they were feeling with varying degrees of hysteria. Muffled snuffles and sobs issued from the Ladies toilet near the dressing rooms. There was a great deal of communion of Kleenex, I gather.

Then came the bombshell. It turned out that Bawtry had given away every single ticket for the opening night. He had papered the house, old man, I mean from top to bottom! There wasn’t a penny in the box office! He believed so much in the piece, you see. Front of House was looking decidedly fierce and muttering darkly, fingering the edge of the prop swords, and so on. It was an ugly moment, old man, I can tell you. It could have turned into a blood bath. Mitchell just told them to wait for the five star reviews in the papers, and have faith. Then he scuttled off.

Mitchell started screaming at Bawtry once they reached the privacy of Mitchell’s second floor tenement flat, accusing Bawtry of everything and anything that crossed his mind. Bawtry was impervious to most of it, but then Mitchell said something about “caring about nothing but your own egomaniacal little guru power trip” and that seemed to touch a switch that fired a long-forgotten source of primitive action in Bawtry’s psyche. Something atavistic and huntery-gathery beat its stone-age drums in his bloodstream, and he responded to its deep-dark, belly-to-earth call, old man. He picked up the sofa and hefted it through the bay window. There was a power trip, if you like! It smashed the glass to smithereens and flew through the air, downwards all the way, hitting the pavement on its end, and bouncing into the road, straddling the southbound carriageway, and very nearly knocking Myrtle Hobbes off her bike as she cycled out to the hills with her paniers full of groceries. She wobbled and fell, but fortunately landed on the sofa. She had the presence of mind to stroll over to the phone box and called for P.C. Plod.

Well, a squad car turned up containing one male and one female officer of the law. They knocked politely on Mitchell’s door, and, raising their cheesecutters, asked whether they wouldn’t terribly much mind making a wee bit less noise, and by the way, was there any little thing they could help with while they were there? It was Bawtry who opened the door, stripped to the waist, hair wafting picturesquely around his shoulders. He was now calm. The moment had passed, and he was once more At Peace. He’d shot his bolt, he’d made his gesture, and harmony was restored, as far as he was concerned. The call to action had come, he had answered it, and all was serenity beneath the flowing grey-blond locks. Mitchell had paused to draw breath, and so was able to overhear Bawtry’s response to the constabulary.

“I’ve had a row with my lover!”

“Fair enough, sir. Mind how you go.”

The Old Bill politely saluted and left with a job-done smirk on their faces, but Mitchell’s emotion was so overpowering, his voice rose beyond a register audible to the human ear! Dogs all over the neighbourhood set up an agonized howling, and all the city’s bats rose from the various belfries as one bat, and threw themselves into the engines of an incoming jet in a desperate act of self-immolation. Chaos, old man! Utter chaos all round.

In the end, Mitchell decamped to Hampstead, and Bawtry now lives in a tepee in Wales. Critchlow remained with us in the Music Department for a while, quiet and humble. Then he got the call to live in a garret and hammer out his own compositions on an old NAAFI piano, waiting to be discovered by posterity. I don’t think posterity’s been searching for him with much enthusiasm. Anyway, Iain Donaldson came along, all common sense and Elgar, to replace him. But it just goes to show, old man; never tamper with the dionysiac ecstasy. It’s just too potent. No more for me, old man; I’ve got the Reliant Robin parked outside.