Pioneering producer honored Innovator: 'Galileo' will be dedicated to T. Edward Hambleton, who, with Charles Laughton, is responsible for its first American production, in 1947.

September 29, 1996|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

Audiences at Center Stage's production of Bertolt Brecht's "Galileo" will find something different in the program. For the first time, the theater is dedicating a production to an individual.

That individual is Baltimorean T. Edward Hambleton, who produced the first American production of "Galileo" in 1947. The production starred Charles Laughton, who was also responsible for the English language version -- the one Center Stage is using.

"I don't think people have any idea of how large his career has been in the American theater," Center Stage artistic director Irene Lewis says of Hambleton, 85, who is regarded as a pioneer of off-Broadway theater.

Hambleton's chief pioneering effort was co-founding New York's Phoenix Theatre, one of the first off-Broadway venues, as well as one of the first nonprofit theaters. The Phoenix, which closed its doors in 1982 after three decades, figures prominently in the biographies of such stage luminaries as Helen Hayes, Rosemary Harris, Meryl Streep, Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy.

Though Hambleton's production of "Galileo" predated the Phoenix, it is typical of the insight this unassuming theatrical giant has had, even early in his career. "Nobody seemed to want to touch Brecht, in spite of Laughton, and Laughton was a big name," Hambleton, an emeritus trustee of Center Stage, recalled at the theater before a recent board meeting. "There was nobody in the theater who was really taking chances on anything, and I was able to step up to the plate at the time."

"Galileo" was suggested to him by Joseph Losey, who was to direct it, and the famed agent Audrey Wood. Hambleton expressed interest, and that night, Laughton read the play to him and his first wife, Caroline, in a room at New York's Gotham Hotel. By that time, the actor had been working on the script with Brecht for several years in California.

"I was certainly hooked, sold and everything by the time Laughton finished the reading, and I really wasn't aware of much of Brecht's theory of drama -- taking the emotion out of it," Hambleton says. "It just seemed to me a wonderfully good story of a man who was attempting to get the word out to the world and fighting against the Catholic Church."

Minimal budget

Hambleton, a descendant of a Baltimore banking family, who had been producing plays since 1937, invested $25,000 -- as did Laughton -- to finance the American debut of "Galileo" in Los Angeles.

It was a minimal budget, the producer says, despite a cast of 50 (more than twice the size of Center Stage's cast).

Hambleton played an active role during rehearsals, which he remembers well and discussed with Lewis, who is directing the Center Stage production. Among the helpful items he lent the theater -- some of which are displayed in the lobby -- are a #F published production history with scene-by-scene photos and a

typed script, which includes lines not in the published version. Lewis has added some of these lines to her production.

Although Brecht was "a rather slight little man," Hambleton says, he was a large presence during rehearsals. "He could be very disrupting. At the same time, he was generally right with his disruption, and he certainly drove Joe Losey crazy at times."

The German playwright also exerted his influence when it came to negotiating the rights to "Galileo." Hambleton's lawyers drew up a standard contract assigning the international production rights to the producer. But, he says, Brecht "explained to me that he was an international playwright and that it would be unsuitable that he should give to me, as producer of the American production, any control or share in the international rights. Then he added that Hitler had tried to manipulate him, and surely I wasn't going to be able to manipulate him. That rather amused me because I'd never been likened to Hitler in all my born days." Hambleton settled for the United States rights.

Laughton's nervousness

Unlike Brecht, Laughton -- though already a star -- was "amazingly unsure of himself. His family had run a hotel in the north of England, and he had a tendency to feel that he just wasn't on the level [socially] with a lot of other people," Hambleton says.

He also recalls Laughton being "terribly nervous" about returning to the stage after an absence of 15 years, during which he'd built xTC his reputation in the movies. The actor's apprehension may be partly responsible for Hambleton's conclusion that "He had all the qualities there for Galileo, but that he never really dominated it as he should."

The 1947 production sold out, both in Los Angeles and subsequently on Broadway, even though reviews were disappointing.

And, despite his reservations about Laughton's performance, Hambleton says, "He was certainly not wrong about the play."

Still a favorite

To this day, "Galileo" remains one of Hambleton's proudest accomplishments and favorite plays. Its appeal, he explains, is that, like all great theater, it shows "what the human animal is really like." And, while the play hardly paints a flattering picture of the great astronomer, Hambleton admires its depiction of Galileo's determination to continue his work, even if he has to do it in secret.

"Underneath, it seems to me, the thing that makes us all run is: 'By God, I'm going to do it,' " he says of Galileo. It's a statement that also applies to T. Edward Hambleton.

Pub Date: 9/29/96

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