Guys and Dolls is the quintessential musical, and it’s playing gloriously at the Bridge Theatre in London right now. As I left the theatre the other day, I found myself on the ticket website wondering about gambling on an immediate return visit. Are shows ever as good second time round, though? Can such a repeat ever bring new life? Or do repetitions fall flat, guilty of aesthetic anaesthetising?
These worries reminded me of Kierkegaard’s pseudonym Constantin Constantius, and his somewhat bewildering psychological venture Repetition (1843). In one scene, Constantius retraces his steps to a theatre where he remembers attending a farce that had him in raptures. The second time, however: not so much.
“I endured it for half an hour”,
“and then left the theatre, thinking: There is no repetition at all. This made a deep impression on me.”
But the psychological experiment does not end there. The clue is in his name – Constantin Constantius: constancy doubled, repeated. Repetition can bring new life, all things can be made new (as he implies), if repetition is coupled with constancy, with commitment. That commitment drives repetition forward, not back. “Repetition and recollection”, he claims, “are the same movement, except in opposite directions, for what is recollected has been, is repeated backwards, whereas genuine repetition is recollected forwards.”
What has all this to do with Guys and Dolls in London 2023? At one level, the show is a wonderful evocation of street-life in mid-Manhattan, of smart but skittish low-level criminality – the pulsating rush for the next illicit game of dice, betting on the horses, falling in and out with Dolls, and generally trying to evade the police. You sometimes think it’s the gamblers and the gambling which steals a Guys and Dolls show.
But the way this one plays at the Bridge Theatre, I was struck by such joy and exuberance and laughter, intermingled with a celebration of commitment. What does commitment have to do with gambling; what has commitment to do with joy?
One of the leads, Sky Masterson, is my way in. We meet him first as something of a cad, flying around, emptying fellow gamblers’ pockets, carousing in Havana, returning for another round of Craps. But he nevertheless turns out to be a man of his word; he literally belongs to his promise. With a flourish early on, he hands over a fateful piece of paper: his marker, an ‘I owe you’ note. It is a guarantee.
The beneficiary is the evangelising Sarah Brown from the Soul-Mission, who Sky at this stage is wooing merely to win yet another bet. The marker is not as frivolous as his affections appear to be. This IOU has a power to which Sky willingly binds himself. Its force, Sky says, can be attested by anyone else in town. Markers will appear again much later in the drama in the chaotic scenes which lead to Sky’s reappearance, as he desperately tries to discharge his obligation, and the magnificent Luck be a Lady Tonight, itself an appeal for ‘luck’ to prove constant, not to be ‘fly-by-night’. So there is an eager commitment – when it comes to gambling – to be ‘good for the money’, to be ‘a man of my word’.