Sunday, November 18, 2012

One Brief Shining Moment

November always makes me think of Camelot.

In November of my sophomore year in high school, two good friends--Karen and Doug--invited me to see Camelot at the Taft Theater in Cincinnati. For me, it was a taste of enchantment. The first professional musical I had seen. Alan Jay Lerner’s witty, wonderful lyrics and Frederick Loewe’s lively music. And knights and chivalry and romance and magic and sin and redemption.  And two mythopathic friends to share in it all.

Richard Burton and Julie Andrews,
Arthur and Guenevere
Perhaps the best part came after the show, when the three of us drove away from the theater in perfect silence. No one felt the need to talk—each of us lost in our own thoughts and yet, somehow, communing in the afterglow of the story. It’s rare for two people to share such a poignant silence—and even more so, three.

The musical, an adaptation of E. B. White’s The Once and Future King, was so seamless and perfect. It surprised me years later to read that the production had been beset with problems from the beginning.  Lerner’s wife left him while he was writing the script. Apparently the original off-broadway showing was rather awkward and way too long. Then Lerner was hospitalized for a bleeding ulcer and director Moss Hart had a heart attack. Lerner made some quick adjustments to the script to fix a bad ending. And somehow it all came together and worked.

Robert Coote, Pellinore
The story: Arthur, King of Camelot, with Queen Guenevere at his side, establishes the Knights of the Round Table, a select circle based on nobility, chivalry, and “might for right.” With dashing and bravado, Lancelot, an arrogant young Frenchman, comes to Camelot to join the Round Table. Guenevere takes an instant disliking to him and even bribes three knights to do their best to humiliate Lancelot in the Tournament. 

       Gwen: “You’ll thrust right through him?”

       Knight: “I’ll barbecue him!”

But Arthur loves Lancelot, and they become best friends.

Richard Burton and Roddy McDowell,
Arthur and Mordred
Time passes, and things change. Guenevere and Lancelot fall in love, but for Arthur’s sake, they try to stay apart. Arthur's illegitimate son Mordred arrives in Camelot, hell-bent on seeking revenge on a father who abandoned him. Then one night, thanks to Mordred, Arthur is trapped in the forest until daybreak. Lancelot goes to Guenevere in her chamber, where Mordred discovers the unhappy  lovers. Guenevere is sentenced to be burned at the stake for infidelity.

Original Cast: Julie Andrews, Robert Goulet,
(Front) Richard Burton
Lancelot rescues Guenevere and they escape to France, but now, for the sake of honor, Arthur must meet Lancelot in battle. Before it's over, half the Knights of the Round Table lie dead on the battlefield. Lancelot and Guenevere offer to stand trial for their wrongdoing, but mercy triumphs over judgment. Arthur forgives them and sends them on their separate ways.

At the end, Arthur meets young Tom, who has come to join the Knights of the Round Table. His idealism reminds Arthur of his own youthful hopes and dreams when he became king. He knights Tom and sends him back to England to carry the memory and the ideals of Camelot:

       Don't let it be forgot
       That once there was a spot,
       For one brief, shining moment
       That was known as Camelot.

Perhaps Arthur was speaking to us, to me and my two friends.

Just three weeks after we saw Camelot, I was sitting in biology class when an announcement came over the loud speaker that the President had been shot in Dallas. The “American Camelot” came to an end, on November 22nd, with the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Jacquie Kennedy coined this term to describe what she considered to be the idyllic years of her husband’s presidency. Kennedy loved listening to the music of Camelot, and he was particularly fond of the closing scene.

We three friends, driving home from the musical, had no way of knowing the future--that we would all wind up in separate cities, that Doug would publish a fantasy book but die not long after, that some day Karen's daughter would marry my son. All we had was that "one brief, shining moment" that would be a memory forever.

And now, November always makes me think of Camelot.

1 comment:

  1. Ah, love is in the air! :)
    I read a poem once about romance and love; easy to confess it in the spring, but tell it to your lover in cold dreary November, and it would be real. . . or something along those lines. Loved remembering (or trying to!) since.