by Joyce Marcel
American Reporter Correspondent
March 28, 2002
THE SCENT OF LILACS
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- Beatrice Arthur, Tallulah Bankhead, and the state of Vermont -- three names that made an unexpected connection andtaught me an unexpected lesson last week.
I went down to New York to see Arthur do her one-woman Broadwayshow, "Bea Arthur on Broadway: Just Between Friends." My interest in Arthur, a tall, deep-voiced actress with atrademarked sardonic delivery, goes back a long time.
In 1954, Arthur played Lucy Brown in the U.S. premiere of BertoltBrecht and Kurt Weill's "The Threepenny Opera." I was in high school at thetime, and I saw the play over and over again; its cheerfully cynical depiction of sex, whores, robbery, murder, betrayal and fantasy werethrilling, at least to this innocent little middle-class Jewish girl fromFar Rockaway.
Not to mention that the intense and dangerous Lotte Lenya, Weill'swife, sang the lead, Jenny Diver.
Arthur went on to originate the role of Yenta in "Fiddler on theRoof," a major reversion to sentimentality. But then she did Vera Charlesin "Mame" -- another dissolute character with glamour, sophistication,impeccable timing, caustic humor, and contempt for everything prudish. I was in love. By the time Arthur moved to television, where she first played Edith Bunker's liberal cousin on "All in the Family," then spun the seriesoff into "Maude," then did a long run in "Golden Girls," her material hadbecome more conventional, I had become less conventional, and she was less interesting.
Still, she had a delightful edge.
"After being in the business a long time, I've done everything butrodeo and porn," she said.
For me, one of the joys of the theater these days is the profusionof one-woman shows; I love being in the audience when gifted women whohave led fascinating lives talk frankly about them.
So when Arthur, who has been touring the country with her friendand accompanist, the composer Billy Goldenberg, brought her show toBroadway, I had to go. I wanted to pay my respects and learn somethingabout the woman who had given me early intimations of what an unusual life might look like. On stage, Arthur looked spectacular; she had a mane of white hair, a glittery jacket, and bare feet. Sad to say, though, for the most part,her show was lightweight, especially compared to the brilliant "Elaine Stritch at Liberty."
Arthur does not seem to be as quick or as intelligent as Stritch, and she wasted time with a recipe for leg of lamb, and some uninteresting songs. Also, Arthur is not self-revealing. Unlike Stritch, her emotions aren't stretched tightly onto the surface of her skin. Maybe they have been dulled -- 20 years on television and financial security can do that to an artist.
Things picked up, however, when Arthur started talking about homosexuality.
First, she told a story she had first told at the funeral of a dearfriend, at his request. It involved a mother who came to dinner and wanted to know if her son was gay, and if he was sleeping with his handsome roommate. The son denied it. A week later, the two roommates noticed thatan expensive soup ladle was missing. They wrote the mother asking if she had taken it. She replied that if the roommate had been sleeping in his own bed, he would know where the ladle was.
It's an old joke, really, but Arthur put it across.
Then, to my surprise, she mentioned Vermont and the audienceresponded with applause. Arthur thanked the state for its humane and justcivil unions law.
Isn't it interesting that I had to go to Broadway to learn just howimportant our civil unions law is to the rest of the country?
I was so proud of living in Vermont that I almost stood up and tooka bow. Arthur said that the actress Tallullah Bankhead had taught her how to put homosexuality into perspective.
"Beatrice," she told Arthur, "all of us have something of the homosexual in us. It's not in the (genitals). It's in the eyes, and sometimes in the scent of lilacs."
I'm sure what Bankhead said is true, and while I'm not quite surewhat the last part means -- about the scent of lilacs -- I think it'sbeautiful.
I also think that Vermont's civil unions law is precious and is indanger, and that we should be working to protect it.
Otherwise, our state will be redolent of a scent, and it won't beof lilacs.
Joyce Marcel is a freelance journalist who writes aboutculture, politics, economics and travel.