Dear National Diary

Richard Eyre, who led the Royal National Theater in London to success during 10 seasons, has documented his anxieties in his recently published diary

Diaries always make fascinating reading material. Many of them pretend to be texts that were written in total privacy and were intended for the writers' deepest secrets, but in everything written there - and almost in the very act of writing - there is always the flicker of the intention that one day, the diary will be made public.

In the British theater world Sir Peter Hall set a precedent: The diaries he wrote during the period in which he directed the Royal National Theater (from 1973 to 1988) were published while he was still on the job and revealed not only his soul-searchings as a creative artist, but also a plethora of gossip from the daily life of the theater and an overabundant ego. After Hall's precedent, every director of a major theater in England has been asked whether he keeps a diary. Richard Eyre, who replaced Hall and ran the Royal National Theater for 10 particularly successful seasons, admitted to me in an interview that he indeed kept a diary. However, unlike Hall, he has only now published what he experienced during his years of "National Service" (this is the title of the book, published by Bloomsbury), after his successor in the role, Trevor Nunn, retired at the end of a five-year tenure.

Nausea and vomiting

Eyre, a graduate of Cambridge (an incubator for theater people, mainly because it has always had a vibrant student theater), was a failed actor for a number of years and later managed theaters in Nottingham and Edinburgh. In 1983, when he was in his forties, Hall invited him to be an associate director at the National Theater. At that time Eyre directed a stunning and successful production there of "Guys and Dolls." At the beginning of 1987, there was a public announcement of his expected appointment as director of the theater, and Eyre relates in his diary how when he went home, he suffered an attack of nausea and vomiting. But he went on TV and was intervied on his plans. In the diary he wrote, sardonically: "I like a feeling of having a gun pointed at my head: dance, perform, live a bit."

In the English theater it is customary for the director-designate to take up his position some time before his predecessor retires, and Eyre had a year in which to learn about the theater from the inside. Before his first day on the job, on January 3, 1988, he wrote: "I'm not steeped in theater lore and I'm not sure I like theater enough to act, as it's propagandist and evangelist. I don't love it. It can be inert and dispiriting, and clubby, self-regarding, tacky and embarrassing. You can sometimes be ashamed of being in the audience on those occasions, let alone in the same profession as the people on the stage, let alone part of the human race. But when it's good? Oh well, then it makes its own argument."

Eyre's aim was to make a national theater without the capital "N" in the "national," and to implement the artistic policy formulated by George Devine (the founder of the Royal Court Theater): "The policy is the people you work with." Elsewhere, he writes: "If you run a theater, there are only four decisions worth making: 1. What play? 2. Who will direct it? 3. Who should be in it? 4. Who should design it? In that order. And than the question: Will anyone come and see it? To ignore that is to court disaster."

Eyre did not forget for a moment his professional intentions of making the best theater ("We've got to be seen to exist to do the kind of work that, in content and execution, can't be done in the commercial sector; it should be an aesthetic choice to work in the subsidized theater"). But he also did not for a moment ignore the fact that the theater he was running had three halls with about 2,250 empty seats for sale every evening and that he had to sell at least 1,700 tickets to survive. Toward the end of every year he noted the fear that there would be a deficit.

In addition to the constant, grueling, administrative work, Eyre hardly ever left the rehearsal room: There were more than 20 productions in about 10 years, one opera, re-stagings of the theater's successes in other venues, with other actors in New York, as well as two films and the publication of the book "Utopia and Other Places," which he wrote during a six-month leave. He produced four Shakespearean plays: "Hamlet" with Daniel Day-Lewis, who quit because of the strain and was replaced by Ian Charleson, who was dying of AIDS, and "Macbeth" with Alan Howard - two failures that Eyre admits and of which he is very aware; "Richard II" with Ian McKellen; and "King Lear" with Ian Holm. He also directed one Ibsen play ("John Gabriel Borkman," with Paul Scofield and Vanessa Redgrave), two plays by Tennessee Williams, two by Eduardo di Filippo, five plays by David Hare, and one each by Ben Jonson, Middleton, Henry Greville-Barker, Victor Hugo and Tom Stoppard. And that is not all.

For Eyre, too, art is not everything. There were productions that were aimed at filling the house and the coffers. At the end of 1993 he was slated to begin directing Ben Hecht's "Johnny on the Spot," an American comedy, for the large Olivier hall. In January, 1994, he got up early in the morning and wrote: "I'm full of panic about doing `Johnny.' I know it's the wrong thing to be doing. Nothing about it feels right - wrong play, wrong theater, wrong actors - I predict disaster, but it's too late to cancel, and I don't know how to minimize the damage." The day after he went into the rehearsing room. "Johnny on the spot failed, as expected, both with the critics and at the box office.

At the same time, Eyre's father - with whom he had a complex relationship and who never came to the theater to see his son's successes, being rather scornful of his choice of career - had a stroke and died. His mother, who had advanced Alzheimer's, passed away. Eyre documented everything, frankly and from a distance. In his diary, he wrote: "Where is the `I' in directing? Nothing on the stage is visible as the authorial self - not the actors, not the sets, the lighting or the writing. At least a conductor is there waving his arms about, even if there is more show than is necessary. Of course I'm exaggerating, but don't trust myself in any situation. I keep dreaming of dying."

The following day he reports that he had started to take Prozac. "I feel as if my brain has a number of compartments, like dog traps, out of which wild things emerge - insects, spiders, frogs, snakes and wolves, surrendered by a gnawing cold damp wind that permeates everything. The drug has closed these traps, and I feel that sand, or snow, is piling outside them. I don't feel quite clear-headed. I'm not happy, just not in pain."

And in the middle of this, according to the diary, he continues to follow his daily routine: He begins every morning with a talk with theater board chair Mary Soames, one of Winston Churchill's daughters (who, at the first board meeting over which she presided, passed him a note saying: "Who is Ian McKellen?"), has working meetings with people in various departments (planning, repertoire, budget, brochures) and has bitter arguments with the architects renovating the building. At 10 A.M. he is in the rehearsal room. At 1 P.M., lunch and meetings with directors and playwrights. From 2 to 5 P.M. more rehearsals, then two hours of correspondence and faxes and then - to the theater: to a play in one of the three auditoriums, or at another theater in London. In addition to all this he also reads a lot, among other things, Peter Hall's diaries. Eyre writes that he understands his predecessor and mainly admires his determination and persistence, despite everything.

A sane ego

Eyre was appointed to his position as director toward the end of Margaret Thatcher's era, and had to appear a lot in public and talk about budgets for theater and for the theater he was running in particular. A short time before he took up the job, he completed a television film about the Falklands War, which revealed his political leanings. John Major was a frequent visitor to the National Theater, although he did not go to see "Lear," but rather the revival of "Guys and Dolls." Eyre was involved in the New Labor election campaign, with Tony Blair, although several times he left meetings that dealt with politics together with director Stephen Daldry, and one of them would say to the other, "Maybe we should vote for the Tories."

Toward the end of his tenure, he was awarded the title of CBE and debated over whether to accept it. Finally he decided that he would become a "Sir," even though at the beginning of his job as director, he was convinced that if he were offered the title, he would refuse it.

And in the midst of all this, with the depressions and the anxieties, the successes and the failures (the newspapers wrote that only one out of 10 plays at the National was worth seeing; "That is unfair, no more than one of six," responded Eyre's daughter; he hardly writes anything about his wife Sue, but he mentiones his daughter a lot, and with unconcealed love), a sane ego that knows its dimensions, is anxious about its limitations and does not hesitate to relate its weaknesses, comes through in the diary.

Once, for example, he went in to congratulate an actor for a successful performance and related that he was hurt by the fact that the actor did not understand that he, too, as the director, also deserved compliments.

He put Tom Stoppard's play "Arcadia" into the hands of Trevor Nunn, but admitted that he regretted giving up the droit de seigneur of the director of the theater. He often cites other people's comments about the fragility of this business called theater (from The Observer: "Q: Why do people hate Andrew Lloyd Webber the first time they see him? A: It saves time"). He had to fire friends, quarrel with John Osborne, who was angry about the casting for his play, answer the constant and often conflicting charges of critics and serve as the theater's "statesman."

In the seventh year of his tenure, Eyre decided that he would retire after 10 years. This left the board enough time to appoint his successor. After his retirement was announced, he was asked why he was not continuing. He thought to himself, for just a fleeting moment, "Why not, indeed?" In the preface to the published diary, he writes that "for all my complaints, my doubts and my occasional despair, I had the time of my life."

At one point in the diary, he quotes: "What is the difference between `committed' and `involved'? In a ham omelet, the pig is committed, the chicken is involved." Eyre was an involved director, and even a committed one, but without losing his sanity or himself for a moment. Therefore he survived, and in quite an unusual way for this profession, it seems that he did not acquire too many enemies, and did find that there is life after management (among other things in a television series on the history of theater). He left the National Theater building when the clock struck midnight, on October 1, 1997. Curtain.