Losing the Laurel Players

I just can’t hold off any longer but am restraining myself to the beginning of the film and book. Apologies if you haven’t seen the film yet but go and judge for yourself how this ‘absence’ affects the story we receive.

The most glaring omission in the film is the play at the beginning. Every time I re-read Revolutionary Road I am struck anew by the brilliance, and in terms of the subsequent narrative, the importance of the writing in this chapter. Yates creates a marvellous piece of work here: it’s self-contained, would work as a short story and it informs us, quietly informs us, as to what he wants to say. The whole focus on theatricality is a prelude to his examination of social performance; the posing that he highlights with real humour but which he was, in all earnestness, keen to expose and hold up for a proper examination, is central to the narrative from the off. So, of course, the book is framed by two tragic performances from April (albeit two performances of a very different kind) and filled with so many performances from Frank and they begin, for us, that night as he arrives at the school hall/theatre ready to play his role as the husband of the beautiful, successful April Wheeler….only it doesn’t work out like that.

Missing out the play, as Mendes does, skews the story. We don’t get the nuances about ‘performance’ correctly, deeply….we only get suggestions and snippets….and it isn’t enough. Another thing that is missing is Yates’s brilliantly interwoven commentary on the individual versus the community. This was Eisenhower’s America and they were being fed a regular diet of ‘Let’s pull together now’ and Eisenhower’s own version of ‘Yes We Can’ (am I right?) so it is not incidental that Yates weaves in his own version of this. Look at the words of the director of the play – it’s all there: “Remember this. We’re not just putting on a play here. We’re establishing a community theater, and that’s a pretty important thing to be doing.” And then later we are given this: ‘The main thing, though, was not the play itself but the company – the brave idea of it, the healthy, hopeful sound of it: the birth of a really good community theater right here, among themselves.’ At this point, Yates seems to be drawing an ironic parallel with all that America wanted to be; the community theatre is America – just for a moment. It’s not heavy-handed or overworked but I think it’s there. So again, by removing the play, and all its permutations, you miss this.

In tandem with this emphasis on the hopefulness of community spirit and the stress on ‘it’ not being about individuals, you have a description of each of our protagonists which makes it clear that it is all about individuals: they can’t leave their egos behind/aside. Frank’s ego is writ large and so is the director’s. For a brief moment, at the dress-rehearsal, those poor players manage it. They experience a coming together, listening to each other, taking their cues, and they get it right. But Yates’s ironic description of how they felt so good afterwards warns us that this is somehow temporary and unsustainable: ‘”See you tomorrow!” they called, as happy as children, and riding home under the moon they found they could roll down their windows of their cars and let the air in, with its health-giving smells of loam and young flowers. It was the first time many of the Laurel Players had allowed themselves to acknowledge the coming of spring.’ It’s romantic; they are like children; its eager and that eagerness is somehow dangerous.

And then the director….the play falls apart because someone is ill and the director takes his part. The director, the one who stressed with such emphasis (wonderfully described by our Dick), is the one who lets them down. Why? Because he is too vain to go on stage without his glasses. So for all that talk about coming together and community it is this individual who creates the domino effect of collapse. He knocks the glass of water over and then all the timing goes. It is just so beautifully described. By taking that out we don’t pick up all Yates’s points about the struggle to be an individual and how to live in a [suburban] community.

The question is, could Mendes and Haythe have done it and not suffered for it? Monica (Yates) Shapiro was also sad about the absence of this iconic beginning. I interviewed her recently and, although she is very, very enthusiastic about the film, she acknowledged how she felt. (NB. these are her words; she is not quoting Sam Mendes and Scott Rudin):

Ohhh that’s such a sadness…. You know what they say about that, right? No,who? Scott and Mendes…about not having the play at the beginning? No. What do they say? They say that they had it, and they had it in there, but… that if you leave it there it makes it about a girl who wanted to be an actress and failed. If you put too much focus on something it takes the balance away from the forward direction of the story. Any reader is in love with that scene and would have loved to see it animated, up there. That’s the heartbreak because all the scenes you love don’t get to be animated but everyone that’s in there is basically animated just how you pictured it.

And this makes sense to me. However, I’ve been thinking about it a lot since and playing, ‘What if…’ with the whole thing. If Mendes had begun the film with play, maybe the end of the dress-rehearsal, including the director’s speech, then cut to the performance with emphasis on Frank’s face as it changes from pride and smugness to bewilderment and horror, then to the curtain call that we do see, the bit in the dressing room and them (so beautifully filmed), leaving the hall together but so apart and then, only then, roles the credits….then there is something self-contained and prologuish about this start. The film could, after the credits, begin in the present, weaving in the back story of their meeting later on, as a flashback. Admittedly, there would be ten minutes of film before the credits but that’s been done before hasn’t it?

I know it’s extraordinarily arrogant of me to suggest how Mendes might have done it better when I don’t know the first thing about film but, as you all know, I did dare to criticise his ending, to his face and he accepted that – I think!

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