Arthurians may be sobered by the thought that, for several decades, the most current version of the Arthurian legends among many Americans must have been A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court. Even if they'd never read Mark Twain's book, treating of the impact of late nineteenth century technology and American attitudes on an unmeritocratic and socially stratified Arthurian Britain, the image of the ordinary New Englander stranded in the distant past of Old England was widely diffused. As well as at least three adaptations for the silver screen, a version of the story arrived on Broadway twice, first in 1927 and again in 1943. It was this latter version that arrived in Oxford in the week beginning Monday, September 27.
The 1943 production was actually a rewrite of the 1927 musical by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart. Audiences who saw the show at the Playhouse thus found themselves watching a show pitched at an America at war. Hank Morgan, factory foreman in Twain's book, is replaced by US Navy hero Martin Barrett, who, after being hit on the head by his irate fiance Fay Merrill on his stag night, finds himself in Arthur's Court.
The show uses the Wizard of Oz cliche that the fantastic world of Arthurian Britain is "all a dream" and the figures that the hero encounters are larger than life versions of those he already knows. So Martin's fiance has become Morgan le Fay, her uncle, Morgan's ally Merlin, and so on.
Characterization takes second place to keeping the song-and-dance routines moving in these things. So we are told that Martin loves his Tennyson, but his attitude to Arthur's realm is hardly that of the romantic. On the other hand, when it comes to extremes, there's nothing musicals love like excess. Morgan le Fay, for example, is a combination of faded Hollywood diva and thigh-booted dominatrix. She also has the best song in the show, `To Keep My Love Alive', as in a series of terrible puns Morgan recounts the fate of her successive husbands and lovers. The rhymes of `fratricide', `patricide' and `mattress-side' should give you the idea.
As can be expected, the ambiguity of Mark Twain's book is glossed over. A few doubts may linger over Martin's behaviour in sixth-century Britain, but these are put to one side by the knowledge that Martin is the hero and will get the girl, even if she has set up a women's liberation movement in Camelot. Many of the familiar trappings of Arthurian legend remain. For example, when Arthur - transformed from a feeble King relying on the advice of the fraudster Merlin into a smoking-jacket clad Noel Coward figure spouting gangster-era dialogue - asks to telephone his wife, the operator puts him through to Sir Lancelot's suite. Incidentally, Lancelot is played with an outrageous French accent straight out of 'Allo 'Allo. Arthur remains a well- meaning old man whose trust in those around him is betrayed, although it is above this show's dramatic level for us to see the outcome, as after a proto-Thunderbirds air chase, Merlin shoots down Martin's plane and he awakes in the arms of his real beloved, Alice.
Appreciation of this piece really depends on your tolerance of the old-fashioned Broadway musical. If you don't like the genre, you probably wouldn't enjoy this. If you can adjust to it, then this sort of show is worth seeing as an example of one era's use of the tales of King Arthur. We're sure that the Arthurian Society can find homes for all those costumes when the tour is over!