19 March, a date etched forever in the history of the UK because — YES, THAT’S RIGHT — in 1968, it was the first time an audience at the Old Vic saw a 12-foot golden penis being wheeled onstage.
Today, you see, is the 54th anniversary of the opening night of the (based in those days at the Old Vic) National Theatre production of Oedipus with John Gielgud in the title role.
Laurence Olivier, who was running the theatre, apparently hated director Peter Brook’s experimental staging, so there are hardly any photos of it — and I couldn’t find any of the big gold willy (this is Princess X by Constantin Brancusi).
Yes, I fudged the phallus. (You would be right in thinking that I should be ashamed of that sentence. You would be wrong to think that I am.)
Gielgud must have had doubts, too. One day, weeks into rehearsal
to evoke the play’s incestuous, patricidal horrors, Brook arranged the actors in a circle on the floor … and invited them to utter their most obscene or terrifying thought
Cue a lot of actors standing in the middle shouting “Wank!”, “Shit!” or “Cunt!” while Gielgud stood apart and aloof. Brook finally coaxed his 64-year-old lead actor into the circle to say something disturbing. Gielgud:
We open on the 19th of March.
The penis was going to be inflatable, but it malfunctioned in rehearsal. The solid one, which came on at the end with a New Orleans jazz band, prompted letters, one of which began
I have never before experienced the shock of gratuitous obscenity…
To be fair, the relevance of a large gold cock to a tragedy in which a man unwittingly murders his father, sleeps with his mother and pokes his own eyes out while she (in this production) impales herself on a spike isn’t entirely clear.
But the actress Coral Browne was in the first night audience, and in the deathly silence which greeted the huge phallus, endeared herself to theatrical historians everywhere by saying loudly to her companion:
Anyone we know, dear?
As with all theatrical anecdotes, of course, there are many versions… according to John Gielgud: The Authorized Biography by Sheridan Morley:
Tartuffe had a very rocky first night …but it was nothing compared with the Peter Brook Oedipus… Brook was no longer the amenable ally of their previous relationship … His world-class theatrical guru status meant that he allowed very little interference in his working methods, which included three whole weeks of body movement and vocal exercise before starting on the text. This method had never been John’s favorite, and some of the improvizations were going on right up to the week of previews. One morning, around this time, Brook asked each member of his cast to come downstage in turn and state the most frightening thing they could possibly imagine; when it came to Gielgud’s turn, he simply murmured, “We open on Thursday.” Nor was he much helped by a set dominated by a vast golden phallus, which was greeted from the stalls on the first night by a piercing whisper from Coral Browne: “Nobody we know, ducky.”
And finally, a footnote: after the last night, on 27 July, there were drinks in the basement bar, during which festivities Gielgud, apparently, due at a royal reception the next day, said he planned to “take the phallus to the palace”. One imagines Princess Margaret would have been more amused than her sister if he’d actually done it.