What is it about writers and boxing? Lord Byron, Albert Camus, Norman Mailer, Ernest Hemingway, Rod Serling and Joyce Carol Oates are just a handful of the scribes who have been obsessed with “the sweet science.” But ancient authors such as the unknown writer of the Sumerian “Epic of Gilgamesh” and Homer loved boxing, too.
“I think writers get why boxing is the royal sport,” says veteran actor, director and fight choreographer Nick Sandys, who is directing the world premiere of “Shaw vs. Tunney,” produced by Grippo Stage Company. “They get that it’s the human body reduced to its core. There’s a lovely speech in the play where Gene [Tunney] says that ‘You walk into the ring and you’re naked apart from your gloves, your shorts and your shoes.’ And you’re surrounded by human beings baying for blood. And that’s been gladiatorial combat for millennia. And that’s what it still is. It’s just you and another man. In a ring. And that’s it.
“There is a feeling of people in the crowd, there’s a visceral quality. Look at March Madness, which is basically boxing with a ball. I want theater to be as exciting as March Madness, for people to be viscerally engaged in something that is happening right in front of them. Why can’t it be? It used to be. Theater used to have that response. But now, it’s directed toward sports. I think that’s because people want that emotional element and there’s nothing more emotional than watching two men beat each other to a pulp in a ring. It’s kind of horrifying, yet exciting. You don’t know whether they’re going to survive. There’s so many things at risk while it happens. In theater, we’re looking for emotional risk.”
Sandys is, by any definition, a man of letters. “In my other life, I have four English literature degrees,” he says. “As a kid I was bullied a lot so I was always into these sports where I could legitimately hit others really hard and get my hombre on the rugby field. I was captain of the team when I was ten or eleven and the teacher would always say, ‘Somebody hurt Nick,’ because I was a nice kid: I didn’t want to hurt people until they hurt me and then I just wanted to take them down. Rugby enabled that and I became one of the fiercest tackles on the field. It didn’t matter how big the guy was. And that’s why I played for the schools I attended because nobody was getting by me.”
That was in Sandys’ native England where he played rugby at Yorkshire and later at Cambridge in college. He also played cricket and contemplated playing it professionally.
“When I trained to become an actor, I realized I couldn’t play cricket or rugby because you really can’t miss Saturday and Sunday matinees for a game,” says Sandys. “You end up with black eyes or stitches in your forehead. I realized when I got to drama school in England that if I’m going to do this professionally, I’m going to channel all that athleticism into this. I was the guy in a play in college who would say, ‘Yeah, you can throw me over a table. That’s great.’ Or if somebody wanted to do sword fights, ‘I’ll learn.’ This is how I get to be athletic on stage. I turned my body into how I tell a story.”
By the time Sandys arrived in New York as a young actor, “I met up with fight guys and became assistants because they could throw anything at me and I could do it for them. So, I ended up getting my Equity card in New York for not only being able to do five European accents and be a villain in a Sherlock Holmes piece, but I could also do kickboxing and sword cane fighting and do all this other stuff.”
When Sandys came across “Shaw vs. Tunney,” it was as if the show had his name on it.
“There are so many things in this play that are up my alley,” Sandys admits. “In the first place, it being [George Bernard] Shaw. Obviously, I know a lot about Shaw and his life and the work he did. And the fact that he was a boxing fan. I’ve read ‘Cashel Byron’s Profession,’ Shaw’s early novel about a prizefighter, because here’s a weird thing that nobody knows. I was almost in a production of it in 1994. The famous Charles Marowitz was asked to start a theater company in Fort Worth, Texas. I auditioned for him and ended up as one of the company members. ‘Cashell Byron’s Profession’ or ‘The Admirable Bashville,’ which is the title of Shaw’s verse adaptation that he himself did of it. There had been two or three American pirate versions, so Shaw wrote his own version so he could copyright it. And he wrote it in couplets, of all things. I was supposed to be Bashville but it was delayed and I couldn’t be in it because I got a teaching job up here. Marowitz delayed it three months and I was like, ‘I can’t do that. I can’t change the schedule.’
“Years later, I commissioned Doug Post to do the ‘Howard’s End’ that we did together for Remy Bumppo. And Doug said, ‘I’ve got this other play,’ which he had been commissioned by Jay Tunney—Gene Tunney’s son and a Chicagoan—to write. Jay’s book, ‘The Prizefighter and the Playwright,’ is fabulous. It’s a lovely book. It’s well-written. Jay is a very erudite person. His wife was with the Associated Press in Asia for a long time and Jay was an entrepreneur there. Very smart guy. And Jay was on the board at Niagara Falls’ Shaw Festival for a while, he was on the board at Shaw Chicago, he’s been involved with Shaw for a long time. Obviously, it’s an affectionate love letter to Jay’s parents as well. And the story of his Dad Gene, which is fabulous. And we have this wonderful Chicago element, not just because Gene was Irish American and the huge number of Irish immigrants who came to Chicago, but because of the famous ‘Long Count’ Tunney vs. Dempsey fight happening in Chicago at Soldier Field. Gene stayed friends with the Crown family and a lot of Chicago dignitaries because of that famous event. So there are a lot of Chicago connections. Ironically, we’re now doing ‘Shaw vs. Tunney’ in the same space that Doug and I did ‘Howard’s End.’”
For Jay Tunney, who looks and sounds like an older version of his father Gene Tunney, a professional boxer from 1915 to 1928 who held the world heavyweight championship title from 1926 to 1928 before retiring undefeated, he and his siblings grew up not realizing that their father was an iconic figure.
“I had two older brothers and a younger sister,” Jay recalls. “We were raised back in the hills of North Stamford, Connecticut at that time. Dad wanted to take us as far away into the woods as he possibly could. Of course, we didn’t get to know our neighbors at all. We were very secluded. Dad was determined, as was my mother, that their children were not going to have careers in the movies or onstage or in the ring after what they had been through with the paparazzi in America. It was a bit the same kind of experience that the Lindberghs had been through at the time of the kidnapping. They were scared to death of one of us being kidnapped as had happened with the Lindberghs. So they bought police dogs, we went to private schools.
“I must have been eight or nine, my brothers were a little older. It was 1944 and Dad was back from the Pacific, he was a commander in the Navy. The whole family was invited to a rodeo at Madison Square Garden with Roy Rogers. I was so excited! Roy was my idol and he rode in, and I was dazzled.” Then a funny thing happened. A spotlight came on the family and Roy Rogers introduced Gene Tunney to the crowd and the place went into pandemonium. “Mother put her head down but Dad stood up, took a bow and waved. The grace that Dad showed around that huge crowd scared the hell out of me and my brothers. It was unbelievable. He was a totally different human being. And I suddenly realized that Dad was this thing called ‘famous.’ Then Roy came to us after the show and just couldn’t get enough of Gene Tunney, but I couldn’t get enough of Roy. I wanted Roy to hug me, give me his pistols to squeeze, but he was all over Dad.
“I saw Dad very differently after that but didn’t see him for long because he went off to the war again and came back after the war was over, about a year later. Then we picked up again.”
What kind of a father was Gene Tunney?
“He was always somebody that knew everything,” says Jay. “He was that kind of a guy. He always knew more than you knew. He was very hard to argue with. It was almost like he was some kind of a professor in college or something. Here’s a guy who left school at fifteen years of age. It was the same with Shaw, incidentally, he also stopped going to school at fifteen. They were both autodidacts, self-educated guys. When you’re self-educated like that, boy, you really read a book. You just crunch it up and memorize long passages especially if you like the book and like the author. Shaw was a little bit more difficult for Dad to memorize. Shakespeare was easier for him.
“And he had a grace about him, a graciousness that people adored about him. And his ability with literature and everything that people also adored about him and couldn’t believe about him because he had been a prizefighter. He had that, but he also had this stubbornness. That came out in conversation. He wouldn’t let things go. And people would argue with him and some people didn’t want to back down. It could get pretty ugly, especially when he had an extra martini.”
Did that ever become physical or having been a prizefighter and a world heavyweight champion, was that not an option?
“He did get physical,” Jay recalls. “Not with us, but with people that got disorderly. When people got rude to him, he could hit you. And he did. He hit I’d say half a dozen people in the civilized last half of his life. Once in the Pan Am Building—it now belongs to an insurance company—right in the middle of Park Avenue. He had an office there and they had an elevator taking people up and down. One night, he let somebody have it that was rudely out of order. But those things happened. I’m not going to give you the details. He did do that and it surprised people that he would have done that because he was really such a well-mannered human being. In his manner, he was no Ernest Hemingway, for example. Hemingway could be very rude with people, especially when he had a couple of brews. And maybe a few more than a couple. But Dad was not that way. And Shaw was not that way. Shaw himself was a non-drinker. All his life. His father had been a drunk and he decided he wasn’t going to have anything to do with that. He never did drink. But it did allow him many more hours of productivity to become England’s greatest orator probably except for maybe Winston Churchill. But very close to it. He was a fabulous orator. And probably the greatest playwright they had since William Shakespeare.”
Was Gene Tunney a strict disciplinarian? “I wouldn’t say so,” says Jay. “I mean, up to a point he was. But I’ve seen other fathers quite a bit worse than he. He was away so much traveling on business and that kind of thing that we just didn’t get to that point, that many times of argumentativeness that would have propelled him into getting really mad at us and dragging us out and teaching us a lesson with a stick or with a whip. He had used that a few times when we were younger, when we were being brought up by governesses and things like that. If we had been rude, the governesses would obligingly report it to Dad and wait for him to come home from work then he’d come in and let us have it for a while.”
There is a moment that Jay describes in “The Prizefighter and the Playwright” in Tunney’s upbringing with his own father growing up early last century in Greenwich Village, when physical discipline stopped happening because the father started to feel threatened by the son. Did such a moment ever happen in the next Tunney generation? “Never. Never,” says Jay. “Not even close. He was a tough hombre. He won all arguments and that was it. He won everything. He was that way. My mother was ten years younger and she sometimes held her own with Dad. But most of the time, she did what he wanted.” He was the boss of the house. “He truly was. You bet. And very stubborn and that was the way it was going to be. That was it. We didn’t mess around in that department at all.”
Was there that typical family moment when Dad taught Jay and his siblings how to defend themselves? “Yeah, a bit, a touch of that. He did teach us how to defend ourselves. He was very happy to do that. But we came to him. It was usually at the dinner table that those kind of things were brought up. He was more interested in what we were learning in school, what we were reading, that kind of thing. He didn’t usually talk about boxing, but he did occasionally.”
When boxing historians and commentators talk about Tunney, he is universally admired, but with the caveat that he was not exciting to watch. Much of the public of his day thought he was dull, that there wasn’t enough blood. Sandys laughs at the characterization. “He is boring to watch because he doesn’t get hit.”
“It was a science for him,” observes Sandys. “He was good at it, which helps. When you think about the timetable he was fighting, a fight every month, twelve or thirteen bouts a year. That’s what they did in those times. It’s astonishing when you think about now. They were very fit. It was a different world. We think of him as big because he was a heavyweight. He was six foot, six-foot-one. Heavyweights were 185 to 210 pounds at the most and now that would be dwarfed by what these people weigh today. They boxed with lower guards and with their faces open. The great thing about Tunney and why he is the only white boxer that [Muhammad] Ali actually mentioned in a good way was because he had the scientific style. He and Ali fought very similarly. They were both about the science of avoiding being hit. Not taking a punch, though they had to learn how to take one. And Tunney did. He built up his neck muscles and his shoulder muscles so he could take a punch. But he avoided it. And the way you could roll with a punch and avoid getting really tagged. Which is why the only time he was ever knocked down was by Jack Dempsey in ‘The Long Count.’ At Soldier Field in Chicago. And he came back and won that fight.”
“They tell me that Soldier Field audience participation was cut in half after the renovation,” says Jay. “I took one look in there and just couldn’t believe it. They tell me it can only hold 60.000 people now, maximum. In Dad’s day when he was there with Dempsey in 1927, it held 140,000. It was a 120,000 gate that night but if you add on all the ushers and people that worked there it would be about 140,000. That’s almost a century ago and that night is still being talked about.”
“In the play,” says Sandys, “the Long Count is reenacted and analyzed by Shaw and Tunney. Shaw gets to imitate Tunney and Shaw makes Tunney play Dempsey. And then you get Tunney doing Dempsey style, which is a very specific style with a very low stance and a sweeping head. And Dempsey uses his head as a weapon, he constantly headbutts. So did [Henry] Greb, the only opponent Tunney ever lost to. [Though Tunney would avenge that loss on three subsequent occasions and one draw.] Greb didn’t care what his head hit. He opened up a cut on Tunney’s head with his forehead. He was warned three times about using his head to hit him in the face. There’s so much of this stuff that you can’t actually stage. But it’s great, because we really get to look at the movement styles in the play. That’s what Shaw did in the day, that was just becoming possible with motion pictures of big fights. And he really watched them. That’s also what Tunney did. He would analyze them repeatedly from film footage. The footage was available in the period. He could watch these people fight, he could listen to commentary analyze the way they fought, he could go to the matches and watch them himself. It’s the beginning of what we see now of how people study their opponents in baseball and many sports.”
“There were those who thought Dad didn’t even like the sport and was doing it just to make money,” says Jay. “But that was not the case. He was in there to make money, no question about that. But he was very fond of what he found himself into and that was the science of boxing. That’s different from being in there and slugging a guy into the second row like a Jack Dempsey. Control your passions and make it all mental. Basically, it was a mental exercise for Dad. Hell, it won him seventy-nine fights, one loss, one draw. Nobody’s been better than that. And he retired undefeated.”
Did Tunney continue to box at all privately after he retired, or did he fully hang up his gloves? Did he use boxing to keep fit in his later years?
“He worked out every day with dumbbells,” says Jay, “he jogged a little bit and then the punching bag—not the speed-bag but the big bag—hung in the garage. Do you know what else hung in the garage which he would see as he brought his headlights into the garage to park after driving back from New York at the end of the day? The first thing he would look at was not the punching bag, but what was up on the wall as you would come in right there ahead of you was a big beautiful picture, an enlarged photograph of a million-dollar check that he had won in Chicago against Jack Dempsey for thirty minutes of fighting in that wonderful Long Count fight. Every time he drove home from work, that’s what he would see.”
Since Jay was born in 1936, he was not around for his Dad’s time as a prizefighter nor the beginnings of his friendship with George Bernard Shaw. Gene Tunney passed in 1978 at the age of eighty-one but Tunney’s wife of fifty years, philanthropist, socialite and heiress Polly Lauder Tunney, died in 2008 at the age of one-hundred.
“Mother was extremely shy and distant about other human beings,” Jay recalls. “She was brought up in a very nice way in Greenwich, Connecticut so she could get away with being that way. She came from a colossal place in Greenwich. In those early days, the high society types and people like that really thought publicity was evil. They didn’t accept it. They hated publicity. I’m talking Rockefellers and those types. It took her time to accept that I was doing this book and that she would be in it. But she did end up helping immensely in the long run. The book was published in 2010 in New York after she had passed.”
The Tunneys and the Shaws regularly vacationed together all over the world and Polly was part of that foursome. She is a central character in the play.
“We’re telling three stories inside of each other,” says Sandys. “The first one is the story of this marriage between a Catholic and a Protestant. (Polly was Protestant.) She’s also Greenwich, Connecticut meets Greenwich Village, New York—where Gene was from—which at the time, was where all the longshoremen lived. So, it’s a class difference. Gene has worked himself up and become a sports star because that gets him out of this thing. It wasn’t because he was educated, it was because sports got him there. And then Shaw and Tunney: They find common ground. Both being Irish in roots. (As Tunney says, he’s Irish American, not Irish). They both self-educate as young men. They both read everything they possibly can. This is one of the things that brings their friendship together, that curiosity and wanting to learn. That hungriness for knowledge and wanting to change their backgrounds. They both marry heiresses.”
“Shaw was much more than a boxing fan,” says Jay. “He was a real devotee. He really was into it and admired my father because he reminded him so much of the classic boxing hero that he wrote a novel about called ‘Cashel Byron’s Profession.’ Dad turned out to be so much like Cashel Byron—Shaw at least thought that—that they became very good friends, really good friends. It’s not just because Dad was a boxer, but Dad was a very unique guy who loved literature and Shaw saw that immediately and treated him just like a son.”
“If we’re thinking about the three people in the ring,” says Sandys, “Polly is the referee between these two guys. She’s a wonderful hostess which is why in the play, Doug has made her the narrator. She’s the only person who talks to us directly. Our relationship is with Polly. We have the feeling of the threesome and it’s her illness that causes the dark night of the soul for the two men, which bonds them forever.
“I always tell my students that as theater artists, we are always gathering knowledge. Our greatest gift is curiosity. You have to be curious for your whole life. That’s the way to go through life. I love it. To be able to learn about Henry Greb, to study Jack Dempsey.
“As a director, that’s a fabulous thing just to be able to enter into the world of a play and enter into people’s lives that deeply. And Jay’s book is a fabulous gateway into these people. There’s so much to dig into. He is such a resource because he can talk about all the things he left out of the book as well. And the fact that his mother is this fascinating character and we get to talk to Jay’s wife Kelly about Polly and her view of her as a mother-in-law. All this stuff is the grist of the mill in the world we’re creating for these actors. To watch the actors’ faces when we talk about this at rehearsal and you can just see them thinking, ‘Oh, my goodness. I have all this stuff to build on.’
“The point of friction, the point of drama in the show is Polly Tunney’s sickness and this ‘miracle’ that happened out of the blue that these two doctors turn up on the remote island where they’re staying. It’s the focus of the piece. But it brings up that Tunney was a Catholic and was always given flack for it. We were just talking about the fact that the press and commentators would laugh at him because he would kneel and pray in the corner. Or he would go to church before a fight. They would laugh at him when he said he was a religious man and grew up Catholic.
“Nowadays, as I said to Jay: look at March Madness. The basketball team gets on the court and they kneel and pray before they play. And kneel and pray in the court afterwards. And nobody laughs at them. Everyone takes it deadly serious. Black athletes have changed that attitude toward religion and faith in sports completely. But Tunney was ridiculed for it. He was ridiculed for being someone who could speak in full sentences and read a book. He was ridiculed for having a religious basis.
“It becomes a point of friction for him and Shaw because Shaw questions it as a thinking man. ‘How can you believe in these myths?’ And this is one of the central debates. That’s the question they have to get through between them. The thing that is the sore spot for Tunney is when Shaw kind of smirks or laughs at his religious belief, it’s a nerve for Tunney because other people have done this and he doesn’t want his hero to do the same thing. And it’s the fact that Shaw’s ‘Saint Joan’ on Broadway was what Tunney saw and made him realize that Shaw was a great man. And it made him question his own beliefs and readjust his own Catholicism through that play.”
“Brioni [an Adriatic resort] is important,” says Jay, “because the near-death of my mother changed Shaw tremendously. Dad prayed for the life of his wife who was really close to dying. Shaw was edgy and knifey and cynical. But because Dad was who he was, he was Cashel Byron, this lovely boxing hero that Shaw made, Shaw fell for Dad, heavily. And the fact that Shaw caught Dad at the most inopportune, most vulnerable time of Dad’s life where his brand-new beautiful love and wife was about to die meant that he saw Dad pray for her coming back for her deliverance.
“And Shaw the atheist had an amazingly interesting time observing this whole thing in this church, this little chapel that they had in Brioni—they still have it there—where these people hid themselves from the bubonic plague in 1504. Here this church was and Dad used it as a vehicle for his prayers. Shaw saw what happened.
“The very next morning, here come two German doctors onto the island for a vacation. And they come on about eight o’clock in the morning, Dad and Shaw are just leaving the church having been there all night, and they get raced to the villa where mother and Dad are staying. One of the doctors was a surgeon for appendicitis and was able to save my mother at the last minute. This is very important. And Shaw shed off his cynicism and his hard skin after these experiences he had with Gene Tunney. And some people said it helped put the soul back into the author. It had been said he had hid his humanity behind a screen of words his whole professional life. in his plays and everything else.
“This was what was so engaging about this story. That Gene Tunney, a person from a totally different life could have had this effect on the second-greatest playwright of the English language, the most famous man in the world at that time. Shaw believed in ‘The Miracle’ that he had seen in the church. That’s the key. And he became, let’s say, less of an atheist. Let’s put it that way.
“That’s why I say it’s a play about faith in all of its forms,” says Sandys. “Faith is what friendship is based on, I have faith in another person. Marriage is faith in another person. And faith in God or another power or whatever it is in the way the world works. It’s a play about faith for me. Doug’s done a great job with that and takes us on a journey with these people. An important one. It’s like a Shaw play. It’s an argument play.”
“Shaw vs. Tunney” has its world premiere at 7pm, May 30 at Theater Wit, 1229 West Belmont; previews begin May 23, through July 8, theaterwit.org.