Luise always considered herself a theatre actress and, indeed, she did appear on stage more times than in front of the camera. Her final dramatic performance on-stage was in her one-woman show, Enoch Arden, in 1983.
Enoch Arden is a poem by Alfred, Lord Tennyson, first published in 1864, and based on a story by Thomas Woolner. The eponymous hero is a fisherman turned merchant sailor who leaves his wife and three children to go to sea with his old captain. Recent events have seen him fall upon hard times and struggle to provide for his family and this offer is a lifeline, despite taking him away from them. During his voyage, however, he is shipwrecked and remains lost and missing for ten years. When he finally returns from the sea he discovers that his wife, who believed him dead, is married happily, with a child, to another man, his childhood friend Philip (Annie, his wife, has known both men since her childhood and there is a distinct rivalry). Enoch’s life remains unfulfilled, with one of his children now dead, and his wife and remaining children now being cared for by his onetime rival. The story has a tragic ending as Arden dies of a broken heart without ever revealing his true identity to his wife and children.
The story has been interpreted in many ways and in various media including numerous films which base their plots either outright or subliminally on the tale. In 1897 Richard Strauss composed music to accompany the poem for the actor Ernst von Possart and it has been performed many times since, most recently in 2007 with Patrick Stewart as narrator and Emanuel Ax at the piano.
Luise performed the piece as a dramatic one-woman show, memorising all 900 lines of the poem, first at the American Repertory Theater (A.R.T.), in Cambridge, Massachusetts as part of their Fall Festival Guest Series in September 1981. She also performed the piece as a benefit evening for the White Barn Theater in Westport, Connecticut at the Lucille Lortel Theatre in New York on 26th April 1982 and at various venues between 1981 and 1983; the Loeb Drama Center, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, UCLA’s Schoenberg Hall, Los Angeles, CA and the Library of Congress, Washington DC. These marked her first theatrical appearances in over 30 years.
The performances were billed as An Evening with Luise Rainer and met with a mixed reception. In his article Armageddon in Boston, A.R.T. founder Robert Brustein writes briefly of one particularly personal critical response by Kevin Kelly of the Boston Globe that was swiftly excised from Luise’s hand before she had the chance to read it. This, and the review below, are the only extant articles I have found relating to these performances, however, I have been contacted by Richard McLeod of Riverside, California, who saw Luise in Enoch Arden in 1983. It is rare to find someone who saw Luise perform on stage and I am extremely grateful to Richard for sharing his reminiscence with me. He writes:
“I was able to see one of the performances of “Enoch Arden” [Luise] gave at UCLA on October 14th . The recitation was given at Schoenberg Hall on the UCLA Campus. The performance was indeed an amazing evening for me. A grand piano on the Stage, and Miss Rainer wearing from what I remember to have been an orange colored long gown. A single spotlight was on her for the entire performance, with Gary Hammond at the Grand Piano in the darker background on the Stage. It was astounding that she was able to recite the entire performance without an error, or certainly not one that I could determine. A friend that attended with me was in tears at the end of the very moving performance given by Miss Rainer.”
This is a very evocative image of Luise’s performance and I would be glad to receive any further recollections from those who witnessed it, at any of the venues.
There’s also a quote from the original performance programme which relates Luise’s thoughts on the staging of this recital:
“A few years ago after reading Tennyson’s poem Enoch Arden and loving it as a theme and statement of ever-needed love and devotion, Miss Rainer decided with the never ending urge for activity and creativity to memorize the long poem. Later on hearing the piano accompaniment specially composed for it by Richard Strauss, she decided to “perform” it on the stage, which she did in Boston, the Library of Congress in Washington and New York.”
The following review, by Elliot Norton, appeared in the Boston Herald American in October 1981:
Luise Rainer, a Continental actress of distinction and beauty, who dazzled Hollywood and won two Academy Awards in the Thirties and later played on the stages of Boston and Broadway, has come out of a long retirement to read, or recite, Tennyson’s long narrative poem, “Enoch Arden” at the Loeb Drama Centre.
Accompanied by a pianist who plays Richard Strauss’ fragmentary musical commentary, her performance is partly successful, but, as it looked and sounded at Wednesday’s premiere, by no means a blazing success.
Some of the things that were wrong are elementary and reasonably easy to alter. For one thing, she was muttering or murmuring, or in any case, speaking confidentially especially during the first half of the evening. Since “Enoch Arden” is no longer as well known as it once was and since she, furthermore, has never got rid of her German accent, she was not always easy to understand or to follow. That’s basic, and grievous.
Also, she often seems awkward, as if she had not been directed; standing and sitting uncomfortably, wearing a gown that encases her from neck to toes, sitting at times on a brown divan that is just plain ugly. But she has moments of grace, and even of grandeur.
Although it is old-fashioned, “Enoch Arden” is a classic of its kind, a long poem of love so true it approaches nobility; love that is selfless and self-denying and, one hundred and seventeen years after Tennyson wrote about it, almost quaint. Almost, but not quite.
Enoch Arden, who was poor, and Philip Ray, whose family had lots of money, in Lord Tennyson’s story, grew up in the same small English town by the seas and both loved Annie Lee, who was sweet and pretty and loved them both but eventually married Enoch.
If Philip had existed anywhere outside of a Tennysonian poem, he would, of course, never have spoken to either Enoch or Annie, either. But Tennyson was a romantic, and Philip was faithful and kind and possibly the most generous human being since Francis of Assisi.
He waited, chaste and true, and when Enoch went off on a long sea voyage to make his and Annie’s fortune, he helped Annie raise her children and didn’t ask her to marry him until her husband, his friend, had been gone for ten years. And she, being just as good, just as loyal and just as heroic held him off for another year.
That Enoch had been shipwrecked and eventually came home to discover the truth and to die without ever revealing his identity is something you will by now have remembered. Everyone, after all, has read “Enoch Arden” at some time or other.
Quaint or not, it’s a lovely story, written in the long, easy flowing line which Tennyson at his best had mastered. But it is a narrative, and not essentially dramatic. Unlike the text which Julie Harris used to make Emily Dickinson live so vitally in “The Belle of Amherst,” it is something to be recited rather than performed. Which is what Miss Rainer does with it.
So her “Enoch Arden” is pretty much a recitation, of a kind that used to be much favoured, especially in Boston, in Tennyson’s own day and age and not often offered now. It depends for its effect on the voice, the presence and, in a theater like the Loeb as distinguished from a family living room, the ability to project.
In the beginning, Miss Rainer seemed to think she was in somebody’s parlour. She was so confidential she lost some of her audience and sent others scrambling for seats nearer the stage. But she is a very good actress and when she got her voice up (and kept her hands down) she was often rather wonderful.
When, for example, she spoke for the good Philip Ray, pleading fervently with Annie for her love ten long years after Enoch went away, she was dramatic and true, and she made a man of Philip. Similarly, when she described the shipwrecked Enoch and his long period of fear that gave way to ennui and then to despair, she seemed totally in tune with Tennyson and with some of the truths of human nature that all the great poets have ever been able to utter.
What she and this “Enoch Arden” need is a director with a touch of a poet, an eye for gowns and settings, and a will of steel.
You can read the full poem here.
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