Kicking up 'some serious stuff'
Actor Simon Bradbury goes out on a limb, MICHAEL POSNER writes, with a one-man show exploring Charlie Chaplin's obsession with Hitler
By MICHAEL POSNER
August 19, 2002
TORONTO -- Charles Spencer
Chaplin, arguably the 20th century's greatest comedian, was
born April 16, 1889. That was just four days before the arrival of Adolf Hitler,
uber-criminal of the 20th and perhaps of any century.
"Providence was clearly in a pretty ironic mood," suggests actor Simon
Bradbury, veteran of 14 seasons at the Shaw Festival, happens to know
something about the subject. After years of research, writing, editing and
workshopping, his one-man show, Chaplin (The
Trial of Charles Spencer Chaplin, Esq.),
opened on Saturday night at the Shaw. It's set in 1940, with
Chaplin embroiled in the making of his anti-Hitler satire,
The Great Dictator -- his first talkie and the last appearance of his
cane-carrying Little Tramp.
Among other things, the play explores Chaplin's
obsession with Hitler -- born, Bradbury contends, out of personality
characteristics that they shared.
Like Hitler, the actor noted in a recent interview,
Chaplin had a well-developed fascist streak, adored
Napoleon, and was "a complete and utter dictator of his own world.
Chaplin understood Hitler because he was in many ways just
He was certainly fixated. Long before the world knew the evils of Nazi
concentration camps or the Final Solution, Chaplin
was locking himself away for hours watching Hitler newsreels. "The play is a
battle between the two sides of Chaplin's ego --
the Little Tramp, archetypal underdog beloved by millions, and the genius
autocrat," reviled in America for his left-leaning politics and his relentless
skirt-chasing, particularly of underage females.
The Tramp himself, argues Bradbury, is a creation rooted in violence and
anarchy. " Chaplin knew the criminal side of his
own nature and how close we all are to chaos and conflagration. You can't emerge
from the Victorian horror show of his childhood" --
Chaplin was raised in abject poverty, abandoned by his
father, lived in an orphanage, and later had to commit his mother to an insane
asylum -- "without carrying scars deeply etched. As an artist, he was prepared
to dig out the dirt of his own life. He understood that criminals and artists
are psychologically akin because both harbour a deep sense of unlawfulness."
For Chaplin, Bradbury is convinced, it was a
battle between these two sides -- the pure, savage instinct for self-survival
and the more generous artistic temperament. In The Great Dictator, this
split personality is reflected in the two central characters played by
Chaplin, the dictator Adenoid Hynkel, a parody of Hitler,
and his gentle look-alike, a Jewish barber.
Only Chaplin, among Hollywood's establishment,
had the will or the power to tackle Hitler, Bradbury says. The studios' largely
Jewish owners, sensitive to pro-Nazi sentiment percolating in late-1930s
America, would not touch the subject. And eastern bankers and industrialists,
including the grandfather of George W. Bush, were actively underwriting German
economic and military development. Chaplin could
not be cowed.
Even though Bradbury appears as the Tramp during the play's filmed sequences,
he's convinced that "you can't really mimic
Chaplin. He was a genius. He was on stage from the age of
5. He studied yoga and ballet. The dancer Vaslav Nijinksy came to the set and
after watching Chaplin, told him: 'You are a
dancer.' " Some of this artistry was never fully appreciated because
Chaplin's silent films were shot at 16 frames per second.
Slowed down to the contemporary standard, says Bradbury, "you see the grace and
Bradbury's own fascination with Chaplin dates
back more than a decade, when a friend suggested he audition for Sir Richard
Attenborough's film biopic, Chaplin.
"I never had a real shot at getting the part [it subsequently went to Robert
Downey Jr.], but I rented all these Chaplin films
and read dozens of books and ended up with all this information and enthusiasm
and nowhere to put it."
It sat inside him until 1999, when he gathered up all his source notes and
wrote a first draft of the play. He staged a workshop performance for a group of
fellow actors and directors at the Shaw the following summer and, on the
strength of it, was booked into the current season.
"I have no idea how it will be received," says Bradbury, now in his early
40s. "It's an experiment. It might be an interesting failure, but it's
provocative and I've tried to go into areas that people will find
Born in Manchester to working-class parents, Bradbury spent just one year at
London's Drama Centre before emigrating to Canada with his first wife. Almost
immediately, he landed work at the Stratford Festival, where he spent the next
four seasons under the late John Hirsch.
"I loved him, but he scared me to death for the first two years," Bradbury
recalls. "He could be hard on actors, but he had a mind and a passion for the
theatre. The atmosphere was almost monastic. This was the early 1980s and we did
a lot of partying, and Hirsch was always checking the pubs to see who was in
Bradbury spent the next four years in Toronto, learning how tough the theatre
life can be. Driving cab and waiting tables, he and two actor friends launched
Ziggurat Theatre Co., writing and directing their own work. "We found out that
none of us really wanted to run a theatre company, but it did help kick-start
Invited to Shaw in 1989, he's been comfortably ensconced there ever since,
and regards his roles as Charteris in The Philanderer,Captain Bluntschli
in Arms and the Man,and Thomas Mendip in The Lady's Not for Burning
among his favourites. Bradbury lives in Niagara Falls with his second wife
and two sons, 8 and 10.
If all goes well, he'd like to take Chaplin
on the road. "It's a plug-in-and-play show," he says, alluding to the
multimedia sequences. "You can throw it in a U-Haul and drag it around."
Just days before his first preview performance, Bradbury confessed to a sense
of mounting curiosity about the play's reception. "Although I've written before,
I don't really consider myself a writer, so I'm treading into territory without
the best qualifications. It's sheer passion and willpower and determination that
have gotten me through this. But I've always felt I was onto something, and
we've taken some risks in the writing. I don't think anyone will come away and
say it was bland. When you put Adolf Hitler and Charlie
Chaplin in the same ring, you're going to kick up some
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Chaplin runs at the Shaw
Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont., through Sept. 22. For more information