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Do Something Addy Man: Herbert Marshall’s Black Alcestis

Michele Valerie Ronnick

In the fall of 1962 “Do Something Addy Man,”  a musical by author Jack Russell, Trinidadian composer George Browne and black choreographer Harold Holness, opened  at London’s Theatre Royal Stratford East. The musical marked the return of director Herbert Marshall (1906-1991) to the British stage after ten years spent  in India. Marshall who was Sergei Eisenstein’s first English student,  had co-founded the Unity Theater in 1931, which grew out of the street theatre performances  by the Workers Theatre Movement. The show described by Alex Matheson Cain  was a “version of the Alcestis with Addy Metus, Elsie Metus and the old school chum Herk.” With its 22 member cast  this “London Caribbean musical” was a contemporary adaptation of a West Indian family’s life in Camden Town.1 

There was, however, according to Cain little to recommend the show “either in the scene, the production , the acting or the singing.” The young Tom Stoppard  with wit not so witty  thought that  the chorus  of these “[s]pades in Hades” had “much more fun than its lugubriouse [sic] Greek counterpart,”  and that this “rival version of Euripides should no deter the hoi polloi.” 2 My paper will argue that this musical was more than that. Marshall  had become famous in the 1930s for his production of Clifford Odets’s “Waiting for Lefty” with Paul Robeson. After returning to England in 1961 he had organized the all-black theatre company, the Ira Aldridge Players.  The era of postcolonial Britain was in full swing,  and through the cast  and crew of “Do Something Addy Man,”  with roots reaching back to Jamaica, Trinidad and Nigeria  we hear not only  the voice of the colonized and classicized subaltern, but also the rhetoric of the downtrodden worker espousing Soviet socialism. 3 In the fall of 1962 Paul Robeson’s  wife Eslanda Cardozo Robeson, rose to the musical’s defense. Both she and her husband came from families belonging to the black elite whose education included classical languages for more than one generation.4  “Do Something Addy Man” was both a protest against caste and class as well as  a clear declaration for cultural  inclusion. As Tom Stoppard noted, “we even have a Zulu who plays the lute.”

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New Wine in Old Wineskins: Topicality in Modern Performance of Athenian Drama

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