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Humbert Hernandez newest book ‘A Time Remembered’

The biography of Cecil Gomez and that of his drama group.

BOOK REVIEW By Charles M Durante

It is difficult, not to say impossible, to do justice to a four-hundred page book, studded with multiple references to many plays, poetry recitals, and cultural events, spanning a period of over fifty years, in the narrow compass of a newspaper review. Humbert Hernandez’s very significant contribution to the history of drama in Gibraltar, combined with his personal tribute to his friend and collaborator, Cecil Gomez, deserves a fuller treatment than I am able to provide in this review. The text, rich in itself with many insightful comments on the many dramatic ventures undertaken by Humbert himself, Cecil and Leslie Zammitt, is sumptuously illustrated with literally hundreds of photographs, both in sober black and white and in colour, making the book a feast for the eyes.

A quick glance at the glossy pages with the measured, beautifully balanced prose, confirms our initial impression that we are about to read a book concerning the life and the career in drama of a thespian triumvirate: Cecil Gomez, Humbert Hernandez and Leslie Zammitt. But the text also does homage to the many people who made this flowering of dramatic life possible in Gibraltar.

The writing venture started with Humbert deciding to provide readers with an account of Cecil’s life and his deep involvement with the world of the stage. This entailed including a survey of the many drama groups created and fostered by our three protagonists.

The direction of one’s life can often be influenced by an inspirational teacher (and, I am glad to say, that our trio doubled up as a sterling educationalists), and this happened to Cecil when Brother Taylor, whose teaching method was unorthodox and ‘full of surprises’, spurred his interest in English literature. The commitment to drama was just a natural consequence of this initial love of words.

For a while Humbert was Cecil’s disciple, but he soon became his own man, branching out into acting and directing, inspired by Cecil, but following his own vision and vocation.

A severe critic might object that the biography veers towards panegyric, and there is a great deal of praise for Cecil’s gifts, but the author maintains a healthy balance, always looking for what is truly remarkable, without descending into hero-worship.

What is truly astonishing in this very wide-ranging account is the sheer scope of the productions the three men generated together. Polonius’ rant in Hamlet, Act 2, Scene 2, lines 405-11, about ‘tragedy, comedy, history, pastoral, pastoral-comical.......’ comes to mind. Our directors and actors were unfazed by the sometimes almost impossible demands made by some of the plays they so frequently and successfully put on the stage. We are left dumbfounded as they tackle the post-death-of-God, absurd world of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, and then turn their attention to the clash between Church and State in T. S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral (there is a superb photograph of Humbert playing Thomas á Becket, looking very ecclesiastical indeed). Together they produced most of the Lorca canon: Yerma, Bodas de Sangre and La Casa de Bernarda Alba (I was particularly gratified to see most of my English ‘A’ Level Class playing the roles of Bernarda’s daughters!).

Among the Spanish poets they chose to recite, they showed a predilection for those poets who supported the Republic and suffered as a result. A whole recital was dedicated to Miguel Hernández: Asesinato a Fuego Lento. I attended this recital and can still recall being moved by the powerful emotions unleashed by the expertly controlled rendering of poet’s incandescent lines.

There is a nagging preoccupation that actors are supreme egotists; they revel in impersonating a plethora of characters: Hamlet, Tiresias, the Marquis de Sade. Humbert, however, is at pains to emphasize drama is a collaborative effort. He gives due credit to all those who contributed, even in the most minimal way, to making a production a success. Clive Lavagna’s stunning posters are acknowledged; Mario Finlayson’s designs are praised; Olga Zammitt’s (née Pallas) faultless stage-managing of A Man Dies in St Michael’s cave is given prominence; and towards the end of the book, what we would call the backroom ‘boys’, the whizz kids, Stephen Cumming and Patrick Mifsud, are duly mentioned and given a photograph each.

But what truly saves drama from being self-indulgent and self-seeking is how it can be shaped into an effective pedagogical tool. Here, Leslie Zammitt was the undisputed master. He drew on the pupils of both comprehensive schools for his casts. Humbert devotes the whole of chapter 9 to an examination of Leslie’s total commitment to drama and the many plays he so successfully directed. Some pupils discovered their acting skills only because they were given an opportunity by Leslie to take part in one of his plays. I can only mention one: his version of A Man for all Seasons-a sombre play about the ineluctable dictates of a person’s private conscience and the bullying, hectoring bluster of a cruel tyrant-a topic which resonates with particular strength nowadays of political compromise and time-serving. We are told the production ‘went like a dream’. I can testify to the truth of this claim.

A review of Humbert’s book would be lopsided if it omitted to mention the drama groups created by our triumvirate. He traces the birth of Group ’56, with the involvement of Elio Cruz and has Cecil play the ghost in Hamlet with a sore throat and a microphone attached to his neck to distort his voice. The voice must have been disturbingly eerie and unearthly.

Humbert himself created the St. Joseph Drama Group and the friendship was further strengthened when both groups amalgamated and went on to produce Arthur Miller’s The Crucible-a resounding success if we judge by Cyril Prosser’s review in the Gibraltar Chronicle. Incidentally, Prosser seems to have been a professional drama critic as all his reviews are expertly written and very perceptive.

I could enumerate the many starring roles played by Cecil, but Humbert does this in loving detail in the biographical part of his book. I do, however, vividly recall his performance as the Marquis de Sade in the Marat/Sade play. This work teeters on the fine edge between sanity and madness and the howls of the inmates still echo in my inner ear after so many years. It was not a play for the faint-hearted and the audience were immersed in the frightening ambience of a lunatic asylum. It was no surprise the play received a well-deserved accolade in the local press.

Of course, it wasn’t all drama which, after all, is only a mimesis of an action. Life had to be lived and Humbert devotes time following Cecil’s career from civil servant to teacher, eventually becoming head teacher of St Anne’s school. He is described as being an exemplary leader in school-indefatigable, professional, and placing children at the centre of the learning process. He joined Cecil’s staff at St Anne’s and a friendship based on a shared obsession with drama now became a professional partnership, two teachers devoted to implementing learning schemes which would benefit their pupils in manifold ways.

We respond generously to a biography which is also, to a certain extent, an autobiography as Cecil is allowed to speak throughout the four hundred pages (after all, what does an actor have but words?). His words are often quoted, conveying his reactions to events as they happened. This strategy endows the narrative with an immediacy and vibrancy which would otherwise be missing.

We all have our quirks. We learn that Cecil is an arctophile-a collector and lover of teddy bears. I’ve seen the collection and it is most impressive. The masterful actor and director enjoys being surrounded by these warm, cuddly toys. He has retained an endearing attachment to his teddies and this may go some way to account for his childlike vision and innocent joy which have almost certainly contributed to his lifelong engagement with drama and his ability to empathize with a wide assortment of characters. The proximity of the teddy bears must provide relief and solace after the emotional turmoil of playing conflicted characters like Hamlet, Tiresias, and the Marquis de Sade.

I am conscious I have left out a great deal-for example, I have not mentioned the unique contribution Elio Cruz made to local drama. His ‘llanito’ plays are unforgettable and Humbert does full justice to their conception, evolution and the unalloyed pleasure they instilled in the many appreciative audiences who witnessed his plays.
‘A Time Remembered’ with its Proustian echo is a major contribution to the cultural life of Gibraltar. It is unrivalled as a historical survey of drama and poetry recitals. It will become an indispensable source book for anyone undertaking a study of the achievements of Group ’56, St Joseph Drama Group and Group 2000. It is also a warm tribute to an enduring friendship and collaboration.

When I closed the book and its elegiac cadences became more pronounced, a line from W B Yeats’s ‘Beautiful Lofty Things’ came unbidden to my mind: ‘All the Olympians, a thing never known again.’

Due to Covid-19 restrictions, the presentation of ‘A Time Remembered’ will take place on November 9 and 10 between 6.30 and 8.30 pm at the Fine Arts Gallery. Invitations will be issued accordingly.

After the presentation Humbert will also be at the Fine Arts Gallery during office hours until the November 16 for anyone wishing to obtain a copy of the book. The book will go on sale at the Heritage Trust Bookshop as from the November 16.

All proceeds from the sales will go to RICC and GibSams.

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