Last night I went to a preview of the revival of the famed John Van Druten romantic comedy Bell, Book and Candle at the luxurious Colony Theatre in downtown Burbank (555 N. Third St., Burbank, (818) 558-7000), which will be playing there through late November. Van Druten is the witty, urbane British-born playwright who once had five plays on Broadway at one time, a record. (They were The Voice of the Turtle, later filmed with Ronald Reagan, I Remember Mama, later filmed with Irene Dunn, I Am A Camera, which formed the basis for the musical Caberet, and BELL, BOOK & CANDLE, which was filmed with Jimmy Stewart and Kim Novak.)
In the spirit of full disclosure, I am involved in preparing a film remake of the latter work, and viewing the play merely reinforced why I have been attracted to this tale for the past dozen years. You may recall that it is the story of a beautiful witch named Gillian, living with aunt Queenie in a Greenwich Village townhouse, who is intrigued with and attracted to a new man, Shep, who moves into the house. With the aid of her familiar, a cat named Pyewacket, she casts a spell on him to woo him away from her college rival he is engaged to marry. In an interview Van Druten gave, he said:
Originally Bell, Book and Candle was a rather more serious play, but then I asked myself what constitutes witchcraft... and I felt the answer lies in the fact that witches primarily seem to exist for their own self-gratification. However, one has to stop living in terms of 'self' if aspects of love are ever to be realized.
Which sets up the conflict of the play: could she have won Shep on her own without casting a spell on him? In the end, of course, love triumphs and all ends happily. While parallels with the TV show, Bewitched (which came later) are unavoidable, Van Druten had more up his sleeve (and in his heart) than just a frothy romp. Ultimately, Bell, Book and Candle is a celebration of being human in all its messiness and disarray.
The play was written in the fifties, a time in America when conformity was cherished and 'otherness' was considered a dangerous prospect, something very much reflected in today's unsettled atmosphere. Gillian is a woman who reflects this otherness. As a witch, she has absolute power over her own world, and can fashion it to her specifications. However, the element which she can't control is that sense of otherness, and it is her need to join the outside world of humans that gives such powerful life to the story.
For Gillian, the idea of loving another person, of truly being in the world, is not a foregone conclusion. And that is the beauty of her journey, for she is confronted by a choice - she can continue living in her safe world of total control and order, or she can join the world of humanity in all its uncontrolled chaos. In this charming, moving play, John Van Druten has set a few ground rules abut witchcraft - witches can't blush, witches can't cry, witches can't feel pain, and witches can't love. These are all attributes of being human. In some ways, they are the flip side of the same coin. We can't love without pain. We can't invest in the world without sometimes blushing and shedding tears. Is this a world which Gillian wants to join? And, by extension, is this a world that we want to join?
In a discussion with the play's director, Richard Israel, he laid it out for me....At the heart of Bell, Book and Candle is the question: Do we want to be in the world, wholly and completely and without reservation, or do we want to live in a protected world of separateness? If we want to be a member of the human race, we need to embrace the messiness of other people. There will be tears, and there will be shame, and there will be pain. But without loving and being loved, who are we?
And that's why I so want to film this story. Go to see the play in Burbank, it's wonderful.
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