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My mother the actress


The Miracle – a play by Max Reinhardt
John Julius Norwich Writer
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The story is of a Gothic abbey which is actually a convent in the Middle Ages and there is this beautiful, beautiful young girl who's just come in and taken her vows and the monastery, or the convent rather, has this miraculous statue of the Virgin and Child which achieves extraordinary cures and there are piles of unused crutches and trusses and things all around the bottom, and pilgrims come from far and wide like Lourdes. But the life is a pretty good nightmare for this young girl and eventually she can't bear it anymore and one night, after all the nuns had gone to bed, she goes and prays to the miraculous statue of the Virgin and says, 'Dear Mother of God, I can't face this: 60 more years of these dreadful old hags. It's more than I can face. Please get me out of here', at which the Virgin slowly comes down from her niche, puts on the nun's habit and becomes the nun, leaving the nun... leaving the niche empty, but leaving the nun to go off into the great big wide world, which she does.

And it's a total, total disaster, it gives Reinhardt marvellous opportunity for great sort of orgiastic courts and all sorts of marvellous things. Anyway, the nun, she's betrayed. Everything gets... she goes from what only be described as bad to worse and after two years, despairing, ill, with a sick baby, completely disillusioned she drags herself back to the convent and rings the bell. And the door opened to her and all the nuns are there in a group and suddenly, as she comes in, one nun rises miraculously up to the middle of the group and comes down to her and takes off her habit and puts it on the nun and takes the nun's baby, which is now dead, and returns to the niche.

So, I mean, in the hands of a great producer, you can imagine it's quite something. There was no... there was no speech. The whole thing was done in mime and with wonderful music by the first Engelbert Humperdinck. And it was an enormous success. After it finished in New York, it toured all over America, going not to small theatres but to places like Madison Square Gardens and the places where they did rodeos and that sort of thing. And then they came back and then there was a pause and then a year later they went all over central Europe, Prague – because language, you see, had no... didn't matter – Prague, Budapest, Vienna and then they ended up in England where I saw a little bit of it. This is what I remember, this is my first memory.

John Julius Norwich (1929-2018) was an English popular historian, travel writer and television personality. He was educated at Upper Canada College, Toronto, at Eton, at the University of Strasbourg and on the lower deck of the Royal Navy before taking a degree in French and Russian at New College, Oxford. He then spent twelve years in H.M. Foreign Service, with posts at the Embassies in Belgrade and Beirut and at the Disarmament Conference in Geneva. In 1964 he resigned to become a writer. He is the author of histories of Norman Sicily, the Republic of Venice, the Byzantine Empire and, most recently, 'The Popes: A History'. He also wrote on architecture, music and the history plays of Shakespeare, and presented some thirty historical documentaries on BBC Television.

Listeners: Christopher Sykes

Christopher Sykes is an independent documentary producer who has made a number of films about science and scientists for BBC TV, Channel Four, and PBS.

Tags: Engelbert Humperdinck, Max Reinhardt

Duration: 3 minutes, 10 seconds

Date story recorded: 2017

Date story went live: 03 October 2018