The poet and playwright Dannie Abse once wrote of drama and death: “Splendidly, … Shakespeare’s heroines, once the spotlight’s on / enact every night, with such grace, their verbose deaths.” The poet’s ruminations on the punctuation of mortality and the diction of passing capture something of this linguistically tart, wordy and humming exhumation of the life of the Maria Callas, who animated so many of Shakespeares heroines herself, before landing a fictive part in Terrence McNally’s Broadway hit. And just as Abse caught the paradox in drama when death is composed of action, McNally’s cryogenic vision keeps Maria, over continents and years, trapped in a kind of ghoulish coffee table afterlife, the myth of her genius enshrined in blunt witticisms and staccato froideur. And if with the above Abse is suggesting that drama gives the lie to life’s final curtain, then he need look no further than Master Class – a stickily neat ending if ever there was one.
This is nothing if not a verbose death. An endless stream of quips and monologues dominate this acidic hagiographic sculpting of the colossus Callas, who bestrode opera with her tabloid-elastic frame. The scene is her Juilliard lectures given in 1971, seventy five arias with detailed commentaries recordings of which have been secured for the public domain, an unparalleled spectacle of tuition that builds the operatic myth of art as superhuman discipline. In them you can make out the sycophantic murmuring of an awed audience as La Divina imparts her divinity, and it’s this dynamic that McNally sets out to animate with what amounts to an evening’s wallowing in the algid bitch-depths of genius.
In one of the few professional contexts where the notion of genius has any sort of coinage, we are invited in to enjoy the humiliation of various students. There is something luxuriant, in a thoroughly smug and ugly way, about the sugary imperiousness and cruelty that Maria dispenses. It is the same cloistered goading that fuels reality television, yet here dressed in pearls and bon mots it passes for an experience of art. Tyne Daly lends a superb bottom end, a shrapnel temper and incendiary eyes, which cuts to the quick (and maybe even the dead) carving up the stage with a single glance. It is testament to her artistry that she makes this tabloid Medea figure bearable for a second.
This problem called Maria is endlessly self-absorbed. When it’s someone else’s turn to shine the spot darkens around them and they’re trolleyed-off upstage, allowing the soprano to wander on into funky reveries about love and loss. She takes on dialogue between her and Aristotle Onassis. “”I give you my big thick uncircumcised Greek dick, and you give me class” she recounts, next to Stephen Wadsworth’s big thick Doric column that signifies her pantheonic recollections, before going on to declaim her betrayal above the ropey recordings of Callas’s voice funnelled through the creaky West End speakers. Perhaps she was betrayed, so perhaps was Margaret Thatcher, but it is a feature of modern life that staring-eyed power mad bitches do little to conjure sympathy.
Maria considers herself not just Shakespeare’s heroine once the spotlight’s on, but his peer, as she draws “lines through” herself, Verdi and the Bard. And yet this interesting notion of performative inheritance is given no credence by the script, and we simply must take Tyne Daly’s word for it, superbly expressed as it might be. Callas’ artistic philosophy comes in a lazy broth of Romantic truism and waspish bon mot. Apparently stemming from an impulse to make Leonard Bernstein forget about Leonard Bernstein, her “art is domination. It’s making people think that for that precise moment in time there is only one way, one voice. Yours.” Artaud, that exemplar of sociability, once called for a theatre strong enough to dominate the times, but Maria only wants to dominate you. Individual will is elevated to the supreme truth of talent, everyone else is a peon, and if you disagree we have a Mistress ubermensch with enough haughty to put Wagner off his chai latte to put you in your place.
It was said of Thatcher that her sexual popularity amongst her male ministers was down to the fact they all had stern matrons at private schools. That she trained her voice lower must have helped. “No one ever accused me or my voice of charm” says Maria at one point, and no one would accuse McNally’s play of the same. It is, in fact, mildly offensive in its crudeness. As Abse’s poem closes: “And how would I wish to go? / Not as in opera – that would offend.” You haven’t seen the half of it Dannie.