Theater: Review About Death Penalty
"Hang Down Your Head and Die" at Mayfair
by Howard Taubman
The New York Times - October 19, 1964

HANG DOWN YOUR HEAD AND DIE, a musical entertainment, devised
by David Wright. Staged and choreographed by Braham Murray; presented by
Marion Javits by arrangement with Michael Codron, supervised by Stevens
Productions, Inc.; production designed by Fred Voelpel; assistant to the designer,
James Taylor; musical direction by Jonathan Anderson; production stage manager,
Iris Merlis. At the Mayfair Theater, 235 West 46th Street.

PRINCIPALS: Michael Berkson, Ben Bryant, Jordan Charney, David Garfield,
Charles Gray, Robert Jackson, George Marcy, Paul Michael, James Rado,
Gerome Ragni, Remak Ramsay, Virginia Mason, Jenn O'Hara, Jill O'Hara,
Teri phillips, Ria Tawney, and Nancy Tribush.

Death by hanging is swift, but "Hang Down Your Head and Die" makes a long evening of it.

This "Musical entertainment" which opened last night at the Mayfair Theater, was devised by David Wright and staged and choreographed by Braham Murray.  Both are Oxonians, and their handiwork was first displayed at Oxford University, then moved to a theater in the West End.  Both have supervised this presentation by a company largely American.

Mr. Wright and Mr. Murray are evidently young men with strong convictions, and "Hang Down Your Head and Die" is almost furiously single-minded in its detestation of capital punishment.  Executions by gas, the electric chair and the firing squad are as odious to this "entertainment" as hanging.  But the noose is England's lethal weapon and, like good Englishmen, Mr. Wright and Mr. Murray devote most of their attention to the English way.

There can be no denying or dismissing the moral fervor of "Hang Down Your Head and Die" It scores devastating points against the cant and hypocrisy used to justify capital punishment, especially hanging.  Covering a wide range of English history it quotes extensively from the words of learned men and simple folk on the humanity, speed, decency and expediency of doing in a convicted man by hanging.

Occasionally it makes a valid point with a sardonically amusing flair.  It recalls the comment of a prison official that Englishmen are much better at taking their punishment than foreigners.  Then James Rado and Remak Ramsay sing "The English Way To Die" written by David Wood with a deadpan drollery that is reminiscent of Gilbert and Sullivan.

Later on Paul Michael and David Garfield, supported by the six pretty girls in the troupe, do another sardonic number by Mr. Wood.  This one, called "The Magic Number," examines the scientific problem of how to arrive at the length of the rope by considering such factors as the weight of the body and the distance of the fall.

But "Hang Down Your Head and Die" rarely relaxes.  Its manner is that of an angry man in the pulpit.  It is entirely justified in pointing out that for many years heedless societies sent men to death for petty crimes.  It may even be right in its ironic insistence that capital punishment does not deter crime.

However, unremitting repetition of the same points, even if made by telling of different victims and quoting a host of notables, makes for a tiresome evening.  Indeed, there are times when one is pounded as if one were in a torture chamber.  Two of the performers go up and down on a seesaw, making a fearful clamor and shouting their bloodthirsty justifications of capital punishment.  After a while, one feels as if one were being bludgeoned.

The manner of this review resembles that of "Oh, What A Lovely War."  The atmosphere is of the circus and the music hall.  The men are ringmasters, clowns, a toreador and a nightclub entertainer.  The girls are in tutus like ballerinas or in the costumes of equestriennes.  At the rear of the stage on two platforms are the bandsmen, got up like circus musicians.

A screen at rear center flashes grim and sardonic lines from the proceedings of a recent Royal commission on capital punishment.  Occasionally off-stage voices, representing men and women of high and low estate, speak their uncompromising opinions, such as "an eye for an eye."  And like "Oh What A Lovely War" songs, dances and stage business are often cheerful, childlike and clownish to provide a somber contrast to the endless story of capital punishment.

There are attractive and imaginative bits of staging and performance.  A song like the traditional "Geordie", done appealingly by Jill O'Hara and Ben Bryant, is lovely and moving.

But the "entertainment" is not aware when it is not entertaining.  The determination to get the audience to join in the chorus of one number becomes almost hysterical.  Is it possible that "Hang Down Your Head And Die" could learn something from the clean, swift English way?

Copyright The New York Times Company.  All rights reserved.

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