by Sarah Downs
Cecil Beaton, the great 20th century photographer, painter and designer, was a creature of artifice. The family oddity who feigned an airy indifference to insult, he learned early to hide his fears. Part Lord Peter Wimsey, part Peck’s Bad Boy he was a study in contrasts – the society dandy with a cruel streak. Determined to prove he was not ordinary, Beaton affected an extroverted flamboyance to veil his anger, built on a lifetime of resentment and social climbing.
In his one man show Cecil Beaton’s Diaries, Richard Stirling brings the complexity of Beaton’s persona to life. Drawing from the actual text of the diaries, Stirling has created a kind of narrative pastiche that opens a window on Beaton’s character. On a simple set of two chairs, surrounded by large vases of opulent blooms, evoking the gardens Beaton so loved, Stirling introduces us to the photographer via – what else – his camera. He flirts with us, the aging ‘bright young thing,’ prepared to indulge in reverie and more than a little snark. Stirling dexterously juggles the façade of the flamboyant eccentric and the truth of the man behind it, in languid, extravagant gesture and brief lightning flashes of anger.
Beaton was an artist to his toes, prodigiously talented, bursting with ideas and relentlessly ambitious. What started as a compulsion to take snapshots became a way of life, leading to iconic fashion and portrait photography as well as theater and costume design. But what of the man? In his diaries, Beaton bares his teeth more than his soul, spending much of his time belittling lesser mortals and excoriating in private those whom he had to endure in public. It’s as if he could not break character, even to himself.
As he ages, however, Beaton grows more philosophical, which is, frankly, more interesting than how so-and-so wronged him, or he was snubbed by the Oliviers, or adored Garbo. Beaton implies various love affairs but one feels a sadness, as if more of his love was unrequited. (Hence the flamboyant carapace. One has to protect one’s heart somehow.) His tone softens as he reveals more of himself, especially with respect to his family. “My heart cracks in two for love of them (his parents) and with shame at my snobbish uneasiness over their commendable goodness.”
I knew of Beaton’s fashion photography but I had no idea he was a war photographer as well. He traveled various theaters of battle throughout World War II, including England, India and Africa, documenting the devastation, both material and human. Images of his work projected upstage, of the destruction wrought by the Blitz, delicate portraits of the faces of war, of children in bandages or a handsome RAF pilot, are a revelation.
I would love to know a little more context. What prompted Beaton to pick up a camera in the first place? Did he plan the leap from taking photos to theatrical design, and how all that led him or prepared him for costume design. Clearly he had a gift for anything visual, so perhaps it is just a question of appetite — for a new adventure, for the challenge of doing something that frightened him a little.
Cecil Beaton was the bullied, misunderstood artsy boy, plunked down in a bourgeois British family, out of place like a peony in the desert, but he never gave up. Ambitious dreamer. Performative character. Extraordinary artist. Insufferable snob. Yes, a complicated man, and often unlikeable, but absolutely brilliant.
Cecil Beaton’s Diaries, adapted and performed by Richard Stirling, featuring video design by Gareth McLeod, décor and costume design by Max Tiarks, and sound design by Gareth McLeod. Presented by Evergreen Theatrical Productions Ltd., at 59E59’s Theater B (59 E 59th St, New York, NY 10022). Opens May 6 for a limited run through May 21, 2023. For tickets go to: www.59e59.org.