During the four decades that I was working as an actor, I had a tendency to immerse myself in research, of which only the tiniest touch would be timely and valuable to playing my character.
In 1969, I was cast as Merlin in the Lerner and Lowe musical Camelot at my high school. In school and university, I was often cast as older characters because I had the talent to pull it off, and well, I have always looked older than my years. I am now old, and I could easily pass for death.
Being cast as Merlin, the wizard guide of King Arthur, in Camelot sent me on a journey through the books of the T.H White (1906 – 1964) Arthurian world: The Once And Future King (1958), The Sword And The Stone (1938), The Queen Of Air And Darkness (1939), The Ill-Made Knight (1940), Candle In The Wind (1958), and The Book Of Merlin (1978). A few years later, I played King Arthur’s bastard son, Mordred, a rare age appropriate role, and by then I was fairly well-versed in the legends surrounding Arthur, Lancelot, Guinevere and the Knights Of The Round Table.
The series of novels are based on Sir Thomas Malory‘s 15th Century romantic Le Mortte D’Arthur,reinterpreting of the ancient legend of King Arthur. Much of our modern historical knowledge of King Arthur is owed to White’s research and work.
In 1959, Alan Jay Lerner and Moss Hart decided to adapt The Once And Future King as their next project. Lerner’s writing partner, composer Frederick Loewe, who initially had no interest in the project, agreed to write music with the understanding that if things went badly, it would be his last score. After their tremendous success of My Fair Lady (1956) expectations were high for a new Lerner and Loewe musical.
However, the production of Camelot seemed cursed. Lerner’s wife left him, causing him to have a breakdown, delaying the production. When Camelot finally began rehearsals, it still needed a lot of work. The cast was terrific: Julie Andrews, Richard Burton, Roddy McDowall, and Robert Goulet in his first Broadway role.
The show premiered in Toronto on October 1, 1960. It ran four and a half hours. The curtain came down at 12:40am. Noël Coward quipped:
That the show was longer than the Götterdämmerung … and not nearly as funny!
Lerner was hospitalized for three weeks with a bleeding ulcer. Director Moss Hart had heart attack. Camelot moved to Boston, edited, but still running long. Lerner and Loewe disagreed on how to proceed with the show. Loewe did not want to make any major changes without Hart’s guidance. Lerner wrote:
God knows what would have happened had it not been for Richard Burton. Accepting cuts and changes, he radiated a ‘faith and geniality’ and calmed the fears of the cast.
Guinevere’s song Before I Gaze At You Again was given to Andrews just hours before the first Broadway preview. Andrews famously tossed off:
Of course, darling, but do try to get it to me the night before.
After the show opened on Broadway, Hart was released from the hospital, and he and Lerner began cutting the play. Two songs were cut two months into the run.
The reviews were not kind. Fortunately for the production, Ed Sullivan approached Lerner and Loewe to create a segment for his Sunday night television program, celebrating the fifth anniversary of My Fair Lady on Broadway. They decided to do very little from their winner and instead to perform four scenes from Camelot. After the broadcast, Camelot gained an unprecedented advance sale of three and a half million dollars. Goulet received the most attention with his show-stopping ballad If Ever I Would Leave You, which became his signature song.
The show’s original Broadway cast recording was a top favorite of President John F. Kennedy who was Lerner’s classmate at Harvard (they share a birthday today). Thanks to comments from his widow after his death, the association between JFK and the Lerner and Loewe musical gave rise to the Camelot mystique of the Kennedy Administration: like Camelot, the Kennedy White House was reputed to be a “fleeting wisp of glory”. Kennedy’s favorite lines were in the final number in which Arthur knights a young boy and tells him to pass the story of Camelot on to future generations:
Don’t let it be forgot
That once there was a spot,
For one brief, shining moment
That was known as Camelot.
Now, Camelot is associated with the Kennedy Administration, often referred to as “The Camelot Era”. Unfortunately, our current administration will not be known as the “Hamilton Era”. POTUS probably has never been to the theatre, but maybe we can call his hopefully brief time in the White House, “The Urinetown Years”.
Back to the man who started it all. White was a closeted gay man. He was a sorrowful, solitary, sorry man who turning first to psychotherapy and then alcohol to deal with his perceived problem with male desire.
He eventually retired to one of the isolated Channel Islands. Julie Andrews and her husband, set designer Tony Walton, were two of the few who visited him there. Andrews:
I believe Tim to have been an unfulfilled homosexual, and he suffered a lot because of it.
White was once a teacher. He was prone to passionate enthusiasms: falconry, snakes, plans. He wrote a memoir about his experience training a hawk. Besides his boundless excitement about certain things, the few people that knew White noted his humor and kindness. Yet, more than anything, his was a life of loneliness. White had no known relationships with men or women. He seemed to be basically afraid of humanity.
He did love dogs, especially his Irish Setter, Brownie. White’s love of animals was a love he could not express in other parts of his life. When Brownie unexpectedly died, he wrote the following heartbreaking letter. Read it only if you are feeling emotionally tough:
Brownie died today. In all her 14 years of life I have only been away from her at night for three times, once to visit England for five days, once to have my appendix out and once for tonsils (two days), but I did go in to Dublin about twice a year to buy books (nine hours away) and I thought she understood about this. Today I went at 10, but the bloody devils had managed to kill her somehow when I got back at 7. She was in perfect health. I left her in my bed this morning, as it was an early start. Now I am writing with her dead head in my lap. I will sit up with her tonight, but tomorrow I must bury her. I don’t know what to do after that. I am only sitting up because of that thing about perhaps consciousness persisting a bit. She has been to me more perfect than anything else in all my life, and I have failed her at the end. If it had been any other day I might have known that I had done my best. These fools here did not poison her, I will not believe that. But I could have done more. They kept rubbing her, they say. She looks quite alive. She was wife, mother, mistress and child. Please forgive me for writing this distressing stuff, but it is helping me. Her little tired face cannot be helped. Please do not write to me at all about her for a very long time but tell me if I ought to buy another dog or not, as I do not know what to think about anything. I am certain I am not going to kill myself about it, as I thought I might once. However, you will find this all very hysterical, so I may as well stop. I still expect to wake up and find it wasn’t. She was all I had.
White died alone at 57-years-old, in 1964, when his heart gave out while on a ship in Greece.
J.K. Rowling has said that White’s writing strongly influenced the Harry Potter books; several critics have compared Rowling’s gay character Albus Dumbledore to White’s absent-minded mentor Merlin, and Rowling herself has described White’s young Arthur as “Harry’s spiritual ancestor”.