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Transformation: A Memory Of Helen Hayes

March 2023
3min read

It was the spring of 1966 when we first heard the rumor through the post grapevine. But we didn’t believe it. Helen Hayes? Coming here—to Korea? Impossible.

For the preceding six months, as program director of a U.S. service club at the base in Pusan, Korea, I had come to admire the indefatigable efforts of a people struggling to overcome postwar hardship and rebuild a nation. But cultural life at the base had been strictly starvation rations: an occasional showing of Beach Blanket Bingo or some Japanese science fiction flick.

But the rumor was true, and gradually, in bits and pieces, we learned more. Miss Hayes was to give a reading of selected scenes from Shakespearean plays at a university in Pusan. Our Special Services officer arranged for our attendance, and on a cold and raw April evening five GIs and I, feverish with anticipation, set off for the program.

The performance hall was bare concrete—a narrow, unheated cave. We could see our breath as we took our seats. In the front, on a small podium, were a lectern and a table. In orderly rows of battered straight-backed chairs hundreds of male Korean university students waited, respectful and silent. The GIs and I were embarrassed when an insistent official led us to seats—obviously reserved for us—at the front. Then we waited—for ten, fifteen minutes. The silence and our prominent position made us increasingly uncomfortable. Finally, a quiet murmur rippled through the room and all eyes turned as a door near the podium opened.

There was no applause at her entrance, just respectful stares. Dressed in a wool plum-colored suit with no makeup and her gray hair tied up in a bun, she looked like someone’s misplaced maiden aunt or a retired schoolteacher who had somehow gotten lost on an educational tour. Her nose was red, and, as she reached for her handkerchief, I remember thinking, What kind of people would force a sick old lady out on a night like this? She announced her program in a flat, croaking voice with several hesitations and repetitions. She was obviously ill at ease and that made me even more so. And then —she opened her script.

Suddenly her spine and shoulders straightened and her head went up. The voice took on a different timbre and a new strength; I could almost feel the power surging up through her body into her face and hands. I stared, fascinated, as a look of lovesick longing came into her eyes.

“Make me a willow cabin at your gate …”

As she launched into that famous speech of Viola’s from Twelfth Night , her body swayed gently with yearning and, somehow, mine did too.

“Holla your name to the reverberate hills, “And make the babbling gossip of the air “Cry out,‘Olivia’! …”

As her hand reached out toward her beloved, so did mine. We were, both of us, transformed, transported to another place, another time, filled with passion and lyricism. As the speech ended, I wanted to jump up and shout, but, controlling myself, I remained seated and applauded politely with the others.

After a brief pause, her small body became tense and regal and her eyes took on the despair and grief of a bereft queen.

As she read Queen Elizabeth’s lament for her murdered children from Richard III , I found myself stealing glances at the rows of expressionless faces behind me. Their rubber shoes rested carefully on the cement floor so as not to squeak, and their caps were placed respectfully in their laps. But—did they get it? The speech ended and there was another round of polite applause.

Then, with ribald glances and a roll-your-eyes directness, Miss Hayes launched into Kate’s final speech from The Taming of the Shrew . I became aware that, though the GIs and I were laughing uproariously with almost every line, the rest of the audience remained attentive, earnest, and silent. We exchanged uneasy glances, but after a few minutes of toning it down, we made a decision. This time, cultural sensitivity had to be put on the back burner. We were simply having too much fun. Besides, how often do you get to see a performance by the First Lady of the American Theater from less than six feet away?

Then, suddenly, it was over. As the GIs turned to leave and Miss Hayes, flanked by her Korean hosts, was poised to depart, I hesitated. Should I? Swallowing hard, I approached the podium and began to mumble some words of thanks.

“Miss Hayes, we’d like to …”

But I was cut off as she wheeled away from her hosts and, stretching her arms out toward us, cried out, “Oh, my dear, thank God you were here! I don’t know what I would have done. …” Her words trailed off as the six of us stood there, stunned, speechless. She was grateful to us?

She was very tired, and after a few more polite comments, excused herself and turned to go. A moment later, she was gone, leaving a tiny group of shocked and delighted Americans behind her.— Jill Johnson is now working in the Peace Corps in Morocco .

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