From ‘Hamlet’ to Global Village
My studies in literature, particularly in drama, would lead to me becoming better versed in the ways of the world. They would transport me far beyond the cosy down-home world of familiar settings and nice normal characters, or at least beyond one in which a handful of fellow Caucasians sharing my protected background would cushion me from culture shock. Growing away, off the straight and narrow path to include the demi world, the jungle out there, not necessarily in a foreign clime, inhabited by a multitude of strangers whose skins we have to enter to understand. I could rattle off the list of usual suspects who through volition, coercion or neglect find themselves cast adrift in a messy, lawless world of uncertainty and disaffection, securing rungs on the lowest ranks of the social order. Hoi polloi, the great unwashed, underlings, knockabout characters rough around the edges who are not so nice, may exhibit extreme behaviour, unpleasantness and lack of refinement. Characters who may not be family oriented, ne’er –do-wells always strapped for cash, no visible means of support; flotsam and jetsam crowding hard-edged streets; troublemakers, losers, rejects, freeloaders, pariahs, fugitives, misfits disrespectful of authority, outspoken, restless and assertive, ‘undeserving’ of their station in life, obeying their own code of ethics, violent in their language and actions, shifty gadabouts drifting and grifting, no boundaries to keep them in check – all reflecting conditions other than those of the soporific village.
Such characters would abound in the pages of my set texts, in the reels of films I viewed, and in my life, revealing themselves as variations of types that recur through space and time. I would come to revere the Bard in particular for the wealth of characters he created to bring about the twists and turns and subtle nuances within his ageless dramas.
I would seek out and cultivate these who I considered living actors of the first magnitude. I would pay close attention to those I considered the most accomplished interpreters of the Bard, those who had the Midas touch at making Shakespeare accessible to an audience. They would be possessed of special qualities – a deep knowledge of language and dramatic conventions, an expressive voice, a vivid imagination and the emotional reach required to inhabit his characters and speak, as they would. These artists would be equally adept at wielding both iambic pentameter and a broadsword.
The Crowning Touch.
One of the most respected actors of the 20th Century and winner of a special Laurence Olivier Award for services to the theatre was John Gielgud. This lion of the stage contributed enormously to theatre for his extraordinary insight into the writings of Shakespeare. Acclaimed as the high-water mark of English Shakespearian acting, he moved it in the direction of naturalness. Gielgud revolutionized the role of Hamlet with the speed of his delivery. He also made his reputation as Romeo, Richard II, Shylock, Lear, Cassius and Prospero.
I saw him at one of his sell-out one-man performances in Sydney, delivering a collection of excerpts from Shakespeare’s plays. The colloquy of speeches shows the journey of life from birth to death.
I found his mandarin accented plummy voice, which Olivier called “The Voice that Wooed the World”, wonderfully expressive. ‘O, it came o’er my ear like the sweet sound that breathes upon a bank of violets.’ Demonstrating as no one else how Shakespeare should be spoken, he melded ‘the power to convey subtle movements of the spirit, delicate shades of thought, the inner workings of mind, with an ability to tear off a “passionate speech”.’ This gave a sense of his real quality, despite a somewhat inexpressive physique. His arm movements were inclined to be jerky. He added a suggestion of fluidity in his gestures by carrying on stage a big white silk handkerchief. With that inimitably erect posture of his, he held his head at a slight angle as if he were listening to an inner voice.
After the show I joined the group of well-wishers greeting him outside the stage door. He emerged to greet us, his coat draped over one shoulder and wearing a flower in his lapel. I could sense immediately what Olivier once said of his aristocratic mien, both on stage and off: “John has a dignity, a majesty which suggests that he was born with a crown on his head”. He bowed regally when a well-wisher presented him with a green umbrella. As he walked off, or more accurately tripped off, I saw how telling his childhood tendency to flat-footedness was. Cheated by dissembling nature, at school he proved rudely stamp’d, curtail’d of this fair proportion, nary shaped for sportive tricks. His drama teacher had observed that he walked like a cat with rickets. He counteracted this distemper by bending his knees slightly.
Then haply as chance would have it, I came upon him on his own, in a café near the theatre in the act of potation. He looked up from his crossword puzzle. Recognising me from just before, this intellectually elegant actor, putting on a mock double take, said ‘Don’t I know you from somewhere?” Then after a little reflection, he said: Ah you’re the young well-wisher from the stage door’.
‘I am, unless I have stolen the role.’
He invited me to join his distinguished company. ‘Take a pew,’ he said, eating a piece of cheesecake and washing it down with tea.
‘Don’t let me interrupt you, Sir John. If food be the music of love, prithee eat on’.
‘Not a problem. I don’t mind company. I’m used to talking while eating. Now what would you like for tuck?’
‘Well, like the tapeworm said to his host, I’ll have what you’re having.’
When the waiter fronted up to ask what I wanted, I replied, ‘I’ll have what the gentleman’s having,’ pointing towards Sir John’s fare. The waiter waggishly proceeded to slide Sir John’s cake towards me, slowly enough to evoke a laugh before sliding it back. He obviously had served the thirsty thespian before and knew him to be of playful jest, of most excellent fancy.
‘Marry, are you a comedian?’ he asked the waiter.
‘One in waiting, my profound friend. If I do not usurp myself, I am. The day I was born I took a bow. When the doctor slapped me I thought it was applause.’
‘You believe acting is your destiny.’
‘Truly. Like you I come from a long line of actors.’
‘Does it have a name, this line you speak of ?’
‘It has. The dole queue.’
Sir John then asked me, ‘How would you like your tea?’
‘Hot, strong and in a cup if you please.’
‘You must get up quite a thirst talking so hard, Sir John’, I said, seated facing what was perhaps the finest actor, from the neck up, in the world.
‘True, True, ’he replied, holding his tea cup a tad stiffly in his large bony hands, ‘and so long. I’m a trifle peaked. I’ve been performing this recital for the last eight years. All over the world.’
‘Doth thine ears quiver and thine head shaketh when thou speaketh?’ I said, bunging it on.
‘Only when there’s not enough bums on the seats’, he replied.
‘Thou dost protest too much, methinks. Gladly your repertoire extends far and wide,’ I commented.
‘And deep too. ’he replied in a grave demeanour. ‘Six feet to be precise. This year I played Sir Francis Hinsley, doyen of the colony of chooms in Hollywood,’ he said. ‘This part in ‘The Loved One’ gave me fine opportunities as a corpse. My instructions were somewhat different to the usual.’
“Give it a dead pan!” I put forward, quoting the movie gangster who doesn’t want the man on the other end of the phone line to inadvertently alert anyone else in the room as to the importance of what he’s about to be told.’
‘The Gay Bride’, said Sir John, recognising the movie. ‘No, I actually had to pull faces, at the touch of the embalmer’s fingers,’ he said, screwing up his face.
‘You co-directed with Noel Coward and starred in ‘Nude with Cello’.
‘No, ’he corrected me. That was ‘Nude with Violin’. You’re confusing it with the one appearing on ‘London Derriere’ The gimmick record cover features a nude being bowed.’
‘In faith you’re right. I was given one. The insert states “I bought this album for you as a gift. Sorry, I couldn’t afford the record! What kind of music do you think I didn’t get to hear?’
‘I’d say Bach’s ‘Air on a G-string’. That is in a full dress rehearsal.’
‘You appeared on the screen in ‘Saint Joan’ in 1957. As the Earl of Warwick.’
‘Alack, it was figuratively seared at the stake by critics and filmgoers alike, ’he judged, staring into his cup, a little mournfully. ‘My classical style of acting has somewhat gone out of fashion. That was a rough ride for me.’
‘A rooster one day and a feather duster the next. Did you ever think of retiring?’
‘You don’t retire in our business, you just notice the phone hasn’t rung for several years. One day you’re at the top. The next in the tip. You see I’m seen by many as an antique, something that belongs in Madam Tussaud’s. In the time of the Angry Young Men, I was neither young nor angry. The era of rebellion against the cultural Establishment was at hand. The kitchen-sink literary revolution spread to the theatre.’
‘Heralded no doubt by the Royal Court’s staging of John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger, ’ I suggested. What did all this betoken?’
‘My life upon it, it rendered old troupers like me passe. Unlike for Larry Olivier, who reinvented himself with his characterization of Archie Rice, it was a new world in which I was out of suits with. I could never play peasants or workmen or anything in dialect.’
‘So your roles dried up.’
Even in Shakespeare I could never play an earthy Falstaff or a martial Henry V. I was seen to be behind the times – caught in amber. In the last of the ages of man.’
‘You can’t mean the last one according to Shakespeare? ‘Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything. Or ‘’youth, middle age and “Gee, you look good.” Or the penultimate one of the seven ages: ‘spills, drills, thrills, bills, ills, pills and wills?’
‘No, the fourth in the abridged version: infancy, childhood, adolescence and obsolescence.’
‘To what quality of yours do they attribute this?
‘On the screen some have perceived me as being supercilious.’
‘Supercilious?’ I queried. ‘’wondering to myself if it meant ‘very silly’. ‘How now?’
‘Haughty, stuck up,’ he explained.
Sensing him, known fondly as ‘Johnny G. ’ to be anything but that, I offered him, camping it up a bit, one of my jokes, triggered by that word’s first part : ‘A policeman enters his station and greets one of his his colleagues, “Morning, ‘Super’, whereupon the superintendent replies, “And the top of the morning to you, ‘Wonderful’. Sir John snuffled, a great smile suffused over his dial and he tightened his cheeks. He still had a mouthful of tea. I was afraid for a second this this vocally melodious gob was going to spray it everywhere. After swallowing it, he whickered his amusement impishly before letting forth a burst of deep loud hearty laughter.
‘It behoved me to stick to what befits my composition, dear boy’, he continued after regaining his composure. ‘I took to the road and, abracadabra, here I am in Sydney with ‘The Ages Of Man.’
‘I’m glad I‘ve seen your performance other than in films. You’ve been in umpteen films, yet you’re not so well known for these. Your role as Cassius in Julius Caesar (1953) was a brilliant turn. Your cameo as Clarence in Olivier’s Richard III was a real gem. But it’s for the stage your genius is reserved.’
‘That’s very flattering of you. To a unique degree my proudest performances have coincided with the greatest plays. I’m an actor, not a star. Films pay the bills but they are not my passion. The work is too fragmented compared with the routine of the theatre. I don’t like the idea of how long it takes to reach the audience.’
‘That sounds like Burton talking’, I said. He doesn’t make a secret of his preference for playing on stage over the movies. He said, “In a film you’re a puppet, on a stage you’re the boss”.
‘What I really hated was the talkies’, he said, tilting his chair backwards, ‘having to lie supine and helpless in the make-up equivalent of a dentist’s chair while all these make-up people and attendants pawed and clawed at me, ’ he said, patting his shoulder, slapping his back and pretending to paint his face.
‘This must be very different to working on The Ages Of Man, ’I said, ‘this being a one man show’.
‘Tell me about it’. he replied. ‘Eight performances a week all by myself and sitting alone in a dressing-room between acts can be a very lonely business.’
‘Into each life some rain must fall.’
‘I’ve been in more hotel single rooms than Gideon’s Bible. I fear I will be out of practice when it came to acting again with other people.’
‘Touching the matter of Hamlet, you’ve played this role a lot, haven’t you? Even at the castle in Elsinore.’
‘I’ve played The Prince of Denmark more times than you’ve had hot dinners’, he said. ‘By the time I’d finished with it I had the dithering Dane coming out my ears. I did not want to read, write, or talk about it anymore with anyone else.’
I turned down an amateur dramatics society offer to play Hamlet,’ I said jokingly ‘To hell with them small towns, I’m off to Sydney’.
Would you believe I turned down an offer in the mid 30’s from Alexander Korda to film his superlative Hamlet.’
‘Then again you’ve always had other Shakespearean roles waiting in the wings, haven’t you’.
‘These have always been the first talking points with people I’ve met. Socialites, monarchs, presidents, even J. Edgar Hoover wanted to talk to me about it. ’
‘J. Edgar- in the flesh?’ I asked. ‘That must have been interesting. When was that?’
‘It was before the war when I was in Washington. I spent an afternoon talking about Shakespeare with him before he became head of the F.B.I’
‘I’d have guessed he too was interested in dramas of brutal murder and mistaken identity. But cross-dressing! I can just see this head of the G-men dressed as Elizabethan acting dictated- as a female, ’I said, ‘complete with G-string’.
‘Fa la la. You’d be surprised how strong the urge to dress up is. Even by this toughest of He- men.’
‘What is he really like?’
He’s extremely well read. Beside him I felt woefully ignorant.’
‘I’m sure you delighted the pants off him with your own special knowledge. It’s innocence when it charms, ignorance when it doesn’t.’
‘That’s kind of you to say.’
‘You could be seen as having helped make the careers of a new generation of actors, including Laurence Olivier before the war.
‘The Sweet Swan of Avon turned Olivier’s struggling career around in the mid-thirties. London was undergoing a Shakespeare revival.
‘A case of ‘Avon Calling! ‘’I said. ‘A mercurial actor with his matinee idol looks, to come to the fore and take the theatrical world by storm.’
‘That I encouraged him was only fair’, he continued. ‘I was lucky. The stork delivered me to a theatrical family, which gave me a head-start as far as my career was concerned. But I needed encouragement too. My first professional role was at the Old Vic as the English herald in ”Henry V” involved one line only, but that was enough to create a poor impression. I was advised by some to close up shop, It was Sybil Thorndike who got me to keep going.’
‘It’s often said that you and Olivier are rivals for the title of Greatest Shakespearean Actor of the 20th Century. One camp feels that in this nip and tuck, you have the poetic edge due to the beauty of your phrasing and more cerebral interpretation of the Bard.’
‘Larry’s more versatile than me, more electric, all action, but I’ve never thought of him as snapping at my heels. I’ve never had to feel jealous. I’ve always tried to be surrounded by talent greater than mine.’
‘Yet you’ve received many awards in your time.’
‘I don’t deserve these awards, but I’m pigeon toed and I don’t deserve that either. I don’t believe in prima donnas and grandstanding. I’ve never had aught but admiration for Larry. We alternated the parts of Romeo and Mercurio in Romeo and Juliet. As Romeo, he was able to conjure a magnificent physicality almost effortlessly, compared to my own painful contortions. We both appeared in the screen adaptation of Shakespeare’s Richard III.’
‘A role you made his own, ‘I said.
He was Malvolio in the ”Twelfth Night” I directed.’
I admire Olivier too. I think he’s arguably the First Player of our time. Present company excepted, of course’, I said with a grin.
‘You should let him know-and why. No matter how old we actors get, so long as the grass is green and the earth still spins on its axis, we need encouragement. He’ll try to reply to you. Larry is well penned and writes rattling good letters.’
At that moment the waiter came over to our table again. ‘Gentlemen, I hope you’ve been enjoying your repast. Sir John, excuse me for interrupting but do you see those two men dining over there in near the window. The one in the blue shirt is my fellow student from drama class, Peter. He’s with a theatrical agent who could land him his first big job. now you know more than anyone the importance of an actor getting that lucky break. Peter wonders if you could do him a favour and put on a little act. This agent would be greatly impressed if you stopped by their table before you leave and greeted Peter.’
I’ll see what I can do,’ replied Sir John,’ upon which the waiter withdrew.
‘Peter must know how you got one of our theatrical greats his lucky break, I said, ‘After World War II, ‘you proved a generous mentor to a young de-mobilized R. A. F. enlisted man, Richard Jenkins.
‘I predicted great things for that spoiled genius from the Welsh gutter, as he refers to himself. That thespian wastrel From Pontrhydyfen near Cwmavon.’
‘How can you say that?’
‘Just remember that in Welsh all the letters are pronounced.’
‘He had it all to start with, didn’t he.’
‘Taffy had a lot going for him: stage presence, startling rugged good looks, those eyes, a bottomless well of energy, and that fine commanding basso voice, suffused, as he put it, with ‘coal dust and rain’. In my production of The Lady’s Not for Burning he was launched as Richard Burton. No longer would he just add color or intensity to a scene here and a moment there; from then on, the weight of the narrative would rest on his muscled and toned shoulders. The critics stood agape in the lobbies. A born actor, called the natural successor to Olivier, he became a star overnight.’
‘He had a lot to overcome, didn’t he, this pock-marked, lugubrious Welshman from the Rhondda Valley.’
The very idea that this man all ‘pustular and acne’d and angry and madly in love with the earth and all of its riches’ -as ‘Rich’ once described himself- could be a movie star seems fanciful in the extreme.’
‘You’ve remained close, I believe.’
‘We’ve remained friends ever since. I was privileged to direct him last year in my Broadway production of Hamlet.’
‘His voice lent dignity to even the corniest dialogue. His reading of Under Milk Wood made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up! Thou wert with him on the screen last year in ‘Becket. ’’
‘Only a whit’, he said, ‘but very rewarding.
‘He’s making as many headlines as a man sleeping on a corduroy pillow. Sadly, he’s rarely out of the news- for the wrong reasons. ‘Rich’ shows signs of becoming dissolute, wild, prone to scandal.’
‘His decline has become a major spectator sport.’
‘He’s fighting a battle with the bottle.’
‘Alas, a losing one, I fear, ’sighed Sir John, ‘‘he certainly can put away the drink and consequently looks terribly coarse and heavy. That’s not to mention the potential to waste the towering gift placed in him by the gods. Poor notices speak of him as a flash in the pan, wasted on lame movies in roles that require less finesse than he’s capable of. This even happened in the debut show of a new theatrical season.’
‘Who are they to stone the first cast?’
‘Only the leading influential reviewers who can make or break a production.’
‘Some critics deserve nothing but our pity. To be so close to art and yet to contribute absolutely so little whatsoever towards it.’
‘It’s like being a eunuch at an orgy, ’said Sir John, ‘something for the pleasure of Caligula.’ Little did we know that one day he himself would end up in the same bind. He would be the only person fully dressed at the orgy put on by the cinematic Caligula.
‘How perturbed was Richard by this lack of approbation?’
‘He would cry in mock outrage, ‘Infamy! Infamy! They’ve all got it in for me!’ Actually, to him any such criticism was like water off a duck’s back. He wrote to one critic. ‘I am sitting in the little boys’ room, ‘I have your review in front of me. Soon it will be behind me.’
‘But there were some real turkeys, weren’t there.’
‘Some real stinkers. His Hollywood roles throughout the 1950s did not live up to the early promise of his debut. I do worry about him a lot. I’ve warned him of what was said about Hamlet, one of his most famous roles, ‘what a falling-off was there.’
‘What was he like in that role last year? Your production ran for a long time. He can’t have fallen short of the mark.’
‘This welsh rarebit’s Dane is everything Hamlet should be: virile, impassioned, needling, manic depressive, damaged. Pacing the stage, he growled, whimpered, played with his incomparable voice, it’s unexpected rhythms, the way a musician plays with an instrument while tuning it. He made great use of cynical little laughs, tone and emphasis and body language, and sometimes managed to cut up the audience with his creative interpretation rather than anything Shakespeare wrote. No-one has ever depicted the soul in torment like Rich. His mood swings need to be seen to be believed, and are fair convincing as they hammer at a central dramatic issue here — is Hamlet truly mad?’
‘What about his latest film, ‘The Spy Who came In From The Cold’. How does he look here as Alec Leamas?’
‘He looks terrible, but it’s in the service of an performance that sets him apart. Back to brooding, stripped of his ripe theatricality, booming voice and superstar glamour, he plays the role of the apparently burned out British spy superbly. He speaks in monosyllables dispensing with grand speeches or passionate explosions of emotion. His back is to the camera in most of the first scene.
‘So once again as in ‘Becket’, ‘The Night of the Iguana’, and ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’, I said, ‘he’s opted for a restrained approach, emphasizing the inner anguish of the character over emphatic external vocal and physical gestures.’
‘Rich lets us see the pain in Leamas’s dead eyes, the hopelessness in his mopey movements and facial expressions, and the emotional numbness in his guarded, muted reactions. His expressions of irony, pride, disdain, and fright do something rare in a spy movie: they give the film a complicated consciousness.’
‘In the role he gets to put away a good deal of whisky as well, I hear.’
‘’Rich’ knows that certain kinds of drunks enjoy playing rough and acting the alpha male, so it’s hard to know when Leamas is putting everyone on, or where the put-on ends and the real Leamas begins.’
‘I look forward to it’s coming release. What’s next in the pipeline for you, Sir John?’
‘I’m playing the part of Julian in Edward Albee’s willfully obscure Tiny Alice.’
‘That’s good hearing’, I said just as a storm started to brew outside . Don’t worry, Sir John. these torrential Sydney downpours don’t last long. It shouldn’t bother you.’
‘Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks!’, he intoned, Rage! blow!
You cataracts and hurricanes, spout.’
‘You’ve got your brolly to keep the water out. Say, what’s the significance of the green umbrella?’
‘In the theatre, it’s a talisman. It started when it was used by an actor as a prop, which helped him look and move like the character he was playing.’
‘I see. A personal object bringing luck for the bearer, though not always for those around. You can’t help notice it sometimes. I’ll tell you what always catches my eye-short people with umbrellas. Does carrying one work for you?’
‘Most assuredly. It frees up my mind for more important thoughts. Like many people, I’m always losing my brolly. Unlike most, I never have to waste time thinking about them and replacing them. Do you have any special way for bringing luck?’
I have a a way to prevent bad luck. To think positive thoughts I throw salt over my shoulder.’
‘I’m sure it gives you better luck than anybody who happens to be behind you. I must remove myself now.’
‘Odds bodkins, I must away now too,’ I said.
As I was leaving, he said: ‘Fare thee well, dear fellow and best wishes.’
I replied, ‘Prithee, Sir John, put your quill where your mouth is.’
To which he graciously accorded.
As he was leaving, I saw him pass by the corner table to greet the young actor.
‘Hello Peter,’ he said putting his hand on his shoulder.
‘Not now Johnny. Can’t you see I’m with someone.’
As Happy as Larry
“Most people put acting behind them when they reach puberty and very often long before. But some of us leap the barrier of self-consciousness and spend the rest of our lives acting out the dreams of others”.
One of the most eminent artists paying tribute to Chaplin on his death was Laurence Olivier. I would have liked the same mark of respect. My heart sank at first when I saw the first words Larry had written to me. “I can’t tell you how very touched I was by your kind letter …………”
Why couldn’t he? Was he indecisive, lost for words, this consummate actor who won an Academy Award for his performance in ‘Hamlet’? Did he have actors block or RSI? Was he troubled about something? Was he putting on an act? His wife had joked, ‘Oh, Larry’s acting all the time’. After all, it was he who had written in his introduction to On Acting, ‘Scratch an actor, and underneath you will find another actor’.
Or had Joan, aware how he’d get caught up with strangers, forbidden him to tell me?
Reading further I was relieved when he said how grateful he was for my thoughtfulness.
He was delighted that I enjoyed his work. I had voted him the highest honours.
‘Good show’ I told him, ‘I consider your film versions of Shakespeare’s Henry V, Hamlet and Richard III to be screen classics.’
Like many young people, I would have got my first glimpse of the histrionic malevolence of Richard III and the brooding intensity of Hamlet through his tireless devotion to getting the plays filmed and the vigour of his own performances.
I congratulated him for the fresh innovative insight he brought to the character of Hamlet, the role he was offered in 1937. Gielgud’s greatest acolyte had become fascinated with the idea of adapting Freudian psychology to his character. Doing away with the flowing phrasing and artificial pretences of previous Shakespearean performances, Olivier invented a new staccato rhythm to reflect the psychological torment of the character. Watching the film, I responded enthusiastically to his electrifying portrait of the doomed prince. The tragedy of a man who could not make up his mind.
He would bring this psychologically intensity to bear upon his performance in subsequent films.
I praised this acting animal, one of Cecil Beaton’s favourite subjects, for having taken on new roles. He drew the curtain on his romantic screen persona in in Osborne’s ‘The Entertainer’ and introduced Olivier the character actor in the role of Archie Rice, the seedy pathetic vaudevillian. Hats off to Larry.
‘The presumptive next Laurence Olivier’
I told Richard Burton the talent with which he was so abundantly blessed shone through in ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf’. I told him he had brought out the furtive canniness of George the professor, exposing the limits of others while not rising above his own.
Unfortunately the alcohol with which he was so abundantly pissed had gone through his system and couldn’t be shaken off.
As in ‘Who’s Afraid—-‘, alcohol was an ever-present theme in Richard’s life.
It’s consumed throughout in the play, and the narrative is often punctuated by the character’s glasses being refilled. They begin a little tipsy and keep drinking until dawn. Some seem to have real sobriety problems while others drink just to avoid the horrible tensions of the evening. Their lips are loosened as they drink more and more, until Honey is on the bathroom floor and George and Martha grow increasingly harsh towards one another and say ever crueller and more revealing things. Alcohol serves to strip away the false fronts that they might otherwise use to mask and hide their dysfunctions. Being drunk is just another illusion, another way to avoid the uncomfortable truths of their lives.
A cross between Dylan Thomas and an ancient warrior king, Richard’s personal boozing – which was on the heroic scale – appeared as something that the Fates compelled him to indulge in. It was simply part of his nature, the excess the Celts like to claim as uniquely theirs, releasing poetry and song, fortifying for battle, reminding you of the brevity of life, numbing you against its grief. Richard had started to drink beer by the time he was twelve, in imitation of his father and other miners. There were times when, under doctor’s orders or on some personal caprice, he stopped, but he disliked doctors and was helpless with addiction.
Then again, without the alcohol, would Richard have been able to bring so much pathos and weather-beaten intensity to his roles in films like The Night Of The Iguana , The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? Partially, because of that magnificent voice and partially because of his gravitas, he excelled at playing kings and generals on screen. All his experience starring in Shakespeare productions at the Old Vic obviously helped too.
Where he was at his very best as a screen actor, was as anti-heroes: defrocked priests, spies or unhappy husbands. He was at his best when playing defeated. He was peerless as priests going to seed in Graham Greene and Tennessee Williams adaptations. He brought an unlikely majesty and lyricism to characters who would have been simply seedy and pathetic if played by other actors.
The First Lady.
Forever associated with the role of St Joan is Sybil Thorndike, the most majestic of the English Actors. This august First Lady of the English theatre thanked me for my nice kind thoughts.
She paid personal attention to those who admired her work. She could reportedly sweep into a room and make everyone believe they were the one she’d come to see. I saw her successes as embracing virtually all the classical roles for women. Her name conjures up a wealth of wonderful images. She posed for a portrait for Vanity Fair by Cecil Beaton in 1934 and was sketched by Norman Hartnell with great verisimilitude. This old stager brought fresh life into ‘The Prince and the Showgirl” directed by Olivier in 1957 and starring Marilyn Monroe. She played the role of the Dowager Queen. She had worked earlier with Olivier in Shakespearean productions. George Bernard Shaw wrote ‘St Joan’ with her in mind. She concurred with his interpretation of the heroine. She saw Joan not as a sweet country girl, or as Sybil described her ‘a holy bob face’, but as a tough revolutionary. This representation was of greater appeal to the politically active Sybil.
The Little Tramp.
“Life is a tragedy when seen in close-up,
but a comedy in long-shot.”
Chaplin would have appreciated refuge from the mean streets of Victorian London. Homelessness was integral to his childhood. Before refining his instincts with the sharp intelligence of the artist, he spent time as a ragamuffin Cockney lad in London’s slums living and foraging on the street. He was familiar with the sight of families of tenants and squatters sitting on their belongings heaped in the morning drizzle on the pavement. People on their way to work gazing and buses slowing down to look at the grim sight. This left its mark on his character. He took the mighty down from their seats and sent the rich away.
He said that my kind thoughts for him made him very happy.
His own early life was unhappy. With an alcoholic father and psychotic mother, he knew what it was like to feel pain. He spent time in an institution for destitute children. His comment to me was very giving of him, coming from someone who had brought happiness even if only fleeting to so many millions in times of war and Depression. Such a nice jester.
I thanked him for conveying the spirit of the little man in his struggle against overwhelming odds.
As the Little Tramp, he needed no introduction, with his finely pruned toothbrush size moustache, a battered derby hat, a tiny pinched jacket. The bottom half in huge baggy pants shuffled in a manner that suggested he had never worn a pair of shoes his own size. He wore his size fourteen pair on the wrong feet to keep them from falling off.
The tight upper body was shabby but attempting to look acceptable and proper. This figure of poverty always wore gloves and carried a bamboo cane that seemed to reflect a spirit that bounces back from the most crushing defeats.
Small but pugnacious, he had both virtue and vice.
He could be seen scurrying on one leg around corners, clutching his hat to his head while being chased by Keystone Kops or angry, bewhiskered giants, someone who wouldn’t back down. A man who always got up after a knockdown, and usually gave more than he got; a man of indomitable spirit, but down on his luck.
In his first films, the Tramp is almost always drunk. That makes him amorous, leading him to make a fool of himself chasing ladies. It makes him aggressive towards other men, who are always his rivals. It makes him fall down a lot, always with his legs at full inversion; and it makes him resentful of authority, willing to buck it, without thinking of consequences. That makes him childlike, which blunts the edge of malice.
In many of his early silent films the last shot shows him waddling duck legged down life’s highway into the distance. The ‘little fellow’ was homeless and penniless again, but with hat tilted and rattan cane flourishing, he once more was game for whatever mischief lay around the corner.
Chaplin’s audience tended to project their love for the Tramp onto Chaplin himself and vice-versa, thereby blurring the line between reality and fiction and enhancing the mythical charisma of the Tramp.
There was Charlie and there was everyone else.
Like the rest of his audience, I saw myself in his hapless but always dignified alter-ego. I thanked the clown, as he saw himself, for tickling our funny bone: ‘No one can ever fill your shoes. They could never be sure of the size.’
I thanked him for his ability to encourage people to think critically.
What Are We Waiting For?
I was walking with David Evans through a park to swing by a student living in town when we saw two tatty tramps sitting on a bench, trembling, gesticulating and hee-hawing.
‘Shades of Beckett,”David exclaimed, ‘This pair look right out of’ Waiting For Godot”, his existential play . His fictional hapless hobos waiting for someone who consistently fails to turn up, are a variation of the one created by Chaplin, a man spoken about in the same breath as him.’
‘Who is Beckett? I asked.
‘He’s a very influential modernist writer.
He’s associated with the direction in dramatic literature referred to ‘as the theatre of the absurd’. It emerged in Paris during the late 1940s and early 1950s. The playwrights loosely grouped under this label endeavour to convey their sense of bewilderment, anxiety and wonder in the face of an inexplicable universe. In this schema it is the innermost states of mind- dreams, nightmares and fantasy- that the dramaturge aims to capture rather than the outward appearance of reality.
It sounds very minimalist, ’I commented, considering the scene in front of us. ’
‘It is that. There’s a scene in ‘Waiting For Godot’ consisting purely of a scrawny tree where two down-and-outs await the advent of the mysterious Godot who will somehow transform the future but who never comes. They and the odd bods they meet while waiting, are real people in real recognizable situations. Likewise, our two friends here are living out their own dreams, waiting for something to happen.’
‘The hair of the dog,’ I suggested, casting my mind back to the winos who tottered into our family store. ‘They’re waiting for the bottle shop to open, to bolt down some cheap red ned.’
‘The breakfast of champions. We can’t hear what they’re saying. What they’re saying is beyond our ken, but at the same time we can begin to understand their relationship. They know what they’re saying. They’re talking about things and feeling things. We’ve got to to work out what lies behind the words.’
I could manage to hear some of what was going down between them. One was feverishly cramming his face with grapes. His mate said ‘Jimmy, get a grip on yourself. You have to wait.’
Jimmie replied, shaking like a leaf: ‘I can’t wait. I’m tired and thirsty. I must have wine.’
His mate said, ‘I’m tired and thirsty, too. I must have diabetes.’
Jimmy said, ‘Time is a waste of life and life is a waste of time. Let me have the time of my life and get wasted all the time.’
‘Jimmy, do you know what’s going on?’
‘Not only do I not know what’s going on, I wouldn’t know what to do about it if I did.’
I did my best to work out what lay behind Beckett’s words, dissecting his play to the best of my ability, seeing it on different levels. In a personal panegyric to Sam, I told him he had done his job, creating a work that can be experienced at different levels. ’ He thanked me for my kind thoughts.
‘What were your comments about the nature of his play?’ asked David.
‘I told him it is on one level a deep exploration of human existence, on another a knockabout comedy, at times dark and mysterious, at others uproariously funny.’
‘How did you go reading it?’
‘It demands great concentration finding out who its characters are, what they want, why they’re there. Production wise, it’s not destined to be your obvious blockbuster. The first read-through I found it quite daunting, so huge, it simply encompasses all of human life no less. There’s more to it after you consider it. Some find its plotline deep and baffling, one of the most complex challenging plays in the English language with its rhythms, syntax and vocabulary. While for some it reveals much about the human condition itself, for others it is utterly impenetrable. It was virtually booed off the stage when first performed a decade ago. Compared to Beckett, Shakespeare’s a walk in the park.
‘There’s actually nothing in the play you can’t understand, ’I said. ‘The language is perfectly understandable. Sometimes people talk bilge. You’ve only got to listen carefully to yourself yabbering to know that that’s very human.’
‘Scoff away, me Hearties’
In the soap opera ‘Desperate Housewives’ the dentist Orson Hodge asks his wife Bree after a meal with his pesky mother (with full servings of caustic zingers and verbal sniping) “How many more Edward Albee dinners do you want to sit through”? Hodge was alluding to that found in Albee’s first three act play ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf’. This was a scalding razor sharp study of a marriage not so much frayed as eviscerated.
It presents an unforgettable, all-night drinking bout in which a burnt out, middle-aged college professor and his fat, foul mouthed, braying wife verbally lacerate each other, drawing a golden boy biologist and his ditzy, mousy spouse into their sexual parlour game. In this tightly wound, painful psychological duel, all their illusions are stripped away, leaving the viewer emotionally strung out.
Albee was one of the writers outside France who showed the influence of the theatre of the absurd. He hoped that I would keep on enjoying his work. I asked David if he would like to know what I had said to Edward. ‘Go ahead’, he replied.
‘I told him I find them amusing with their witty yet whiplash dialogue. I told him he had achieved a careful balancing of a comic style with a tragic undercurrent brilliantly.
Zoo Story is a short ominous two character play about how the failure of communication leads to violence. I would studiously avoid this when a momentous failure of this kind came to me.
The Meaning of Life.
I think I am, therefore, I am… I think.
Existentialist thinkers argue that humanity has to resign itself to recognizing that since a fully satisfying rational explanation of the universe is beyond our reach, the world must ultimately be seen as absurd. While I believe that the universe is a chance event, I believe that through science we are always approaching a more satisfying rational explanation for it – although it is an elusive quest, I believe existence is as meaningful as you make it.
The existentialist’s ability to portray the inner world should complement this knowledge rather than compete with it. Subjectively I feel very much like Beckett’s woman up to her neck in it, but objectively I know that death is a necessary event.
Long Live the King!
My extra-curricular pursuit was that of orchestral music and the musical ensembles that create it, introducing me to more families of instruments, strings and woodwind – and such members as the saxophone, to create a much richer sound. I was particularly interested in how the idiom of jazz had influenced such music.
Dropping by the band hall during my vacation I fielded questions from Iven Laing and John Hinton as to how my musical study was progressing.
“I’ve been getting good marks”, I reported. “‘Professor’ Goodman found my enthusiasm as wonderful as I found both his ‘hot low-down’ sound and his more serious efforts.”
Such as Bernstein’s Prelude, Fugue, and Riffs which he premiered. On hearing of this exchange, John, his faithful cornet at hand teased, ‘Sounds like a ‘Mutual Admiration Society’ and blowing, tootled out the opening lines of this popular tune.
“I told Benny his music was ‘a real belter’. Your lilting sound and its accompanying jitterbug with its fast, bouncy movements quickens my pulse as it did your’s and my father’s generation, ready to shrug off the Depression and dance. Congratulations for having hosted Jazz’s ‘coming out’ party. I hardly know how to thank you. You helped the Russians shake their blues away, unhappy news away.”
In 1962 his orchestra was the first jazz band to tour the Soviet Union since the 1920’s.
‘Benny appreciated my kindness and looks forward to visiting my ‘wonderful country’ and meeting me’.
‘What a buzz that would be,’ said John ‘What would you say and do in that eventuality?’
‘I’m your man. I’m taking you on a tour of the Opera House site’, I said without hesitation, having considered this the logical choice.
‘I’ve also received favourable notice from ‘The Dean’, Aaron Copland,’ I went on.
‘I thanked him for opening new musical horizons to me. I’m reading his introductory book ‘What to Listen for in Music’. I thanked this American composer, noted for his great rhythmic zip and zing, for his important contribution to music. He wrote in many styles and forms. Copland wrote a series of film scores.
‘I remember now’, said John. ‘“The Heiress”. He received an academy award for this.’
‘He wrote The ‘Clarinet Concerto’ for Benny Goodman’, I went on. He incorporated jazz rhythms into symphonic music. His Fanfare for the Common Man is one of the most recognizable pieces of 20th Century American classical music. This paean to Joe Blow has been used to open many Democratic National Conventions.’ Some years later I would imagine its strains filling the air at the 1968 convention in Chicago while the police were giving anti-war demonstrators in the streets outside a good going over, tear-gassing and pepper spraying delegates and passers-by into the bargain.
‘He incorporated folk music into his compositions, particularly folk songs of the American West. His ballet scores such as ‘Billy the Kid’, ‘Appalachian Spring’ and ‘Rodeo’, draw on this source.’
‘These’d go down a treat with the local hayseeds’, laughed John. I can just see some of our beefy cattlemen wincing at the idea of arty farty farmhands prancing and mincing in tutus and satin riding boots.’
‘I know what you mean John, but. it’s nothing like that. Set amongst simple pioneering people like ours who crossed the sprawling plains in wagons, these are rugged works, virile and muscular, rough, tough and full of action. Like Billy The Kid who terrorized the West for two decades after the Civil War. While Appalachian Spring is gentle and evocative ‘Rodeo’ is in parts very fast with dash, no holds barred, like roping and riding a bucking bronco. In it cowhands show off the skills of their trade, with vicious syncopations and whiplash percussion reflecting a rodeo’s violent thrills and spills. It provides a meeting place for prospective mates and unattached females. The cowboys and their girls pair off, shuffle and smooch. Hey diddle diddle. Leading on to the famous fiddle scratching, knee clapping, foot-stompin’ Hoe-Down.’
It’s red-bloodedness was not lost down in the stockyards. In the early and mid 1980s the Hoe Down from ‘Rodeo’ would be used by the U. S. National Cattlemen’s Association as background music for its advertising campaign: ‘Beef … it’s what for dinner’. I would imagine herds of cattle stampeding for cover upon hearing the strains of ‘Hoe Down’ from a human’s radio.
‘Any others in your high society?’, asked Iven.
‘The Maestro sent me his best wishes. I had told Bernstein he was a real lollapalooza. He was very skilled on his television programs at discussing music clearly and vividly so that he could be understood by people such as me with little musical knowledge. He could make the most rigorous elements of classical music an adventure in which I could take part.’
‘He’s very flamboyant, ’said Iven, ‘the perfect counterpoint to his quieter, more thoughtful friend, Copland. Yet they’ve collaborated a lot, I believe.’
‘They’re like peas in a pod’, I replied, covering my index finger with the middle one.
‘Indeed it was Copland’s cat from which he picked up his allergy. Not that this mattered. Love me, love my cat. Bernstein generously helped and secured his friend’s enormous and lasting popularity and influenced his composition greatly. Considered the best conductor of Copland’s works, his favourite is the Piano Variations. He plays it so often he’s come to regard it as his own trademark piece. Like Copland’s his music is infused with jazz and other popular idioms of America . Leonard looks on Copland as on his Biblical namesake, the seer Aaron, who communicates the nub of traditional culture to a new generation through contemporary language.’
How does he achieve this?’ asked Iven.
‘Through his-what some call- his ‘long hair’ compositions’, I answered. ‘such as ‘The Age of Anxiety’ for piano and orchestra. But above all through his popular musicals ‘On the Town’ and ‘Wonderful Town’. Of course, ‘West Side Story’ is the most compelling of all from a dramatic and musical point of view.
‘Does it justify all the plaudits?’ asked John.
I told him I was mesmerized- from the opening bars of the nervy Prologue to the close of his matchless innovative musical.
‘It has raised the standards by which musicals are judged. That good, it’s the most exciting around. Lenny’s range of musical styles adapts to each scene whether it’s the full rhythmic jazz of “Cool” , the jaunty “I Feel Pretty” or a sentimental ballad like “One Hand, One Heart”. Each song is really something and will stand the test of time. His sharp, edgy, flaring score captures what I imagine is the shrill beat of life in the streets as well as moments of tranquillity and rapture. Occasionally there’s a touch of sardonic humor. What makes it special is its marriage of the classical and the hip.’
’Your’s is yet another rave review,’ said John. ‘If my memory serves me well, he wrote the music for ‘On the Waterfront’’, added John.’
‘What do you think of Bernstein as a conductor?’, asked Iven as was expected.
‘He’s a real bottler. I told him that like so many others I’m dazzled by his exuberance and vitality. He bounces up and down, he grins, he grimaces, he thrusts and spasms. The emotional climaxes of the music are reflected on his face. He’s thrilled with excitement one moment, anguished the next. He nods and sways, he sweats, he mouths along with the music. Since he works without a score his inner concentration is unbroken. As conductor he’s a dynamic presence on the podiums of the world’s leading orchestras.
He compares conducting to the act of sex in which you and a body are breathing together, pulsing together, riding on something like waves which are dictated by the composer. Is this the kind of metaphor you’d use yourself?’
“The way the guys are playing at the moment, I would tend to describe it as ‘rough sex.’”
A Lincoln Portrait
Copland awakened a responsive chord in the conductor Andre Kostalanetz who asked him to write a musical portrait about a prominent American of stature. The piece Abraham Lincoln’s Tribute was based on speeches and writings of the legendary American president with quotes from his addresses to Congress and the Gettysburg Address. It expresses movingly Lincoln’s idea of democracy and the struggle for freedom. He spoke powerfully about how some toil and go without while others enjoy the fruits of this labour. He was referring to the institution of slavery and his abhorrence of it. “As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master. This expresses my idea of democracy.” Lincoln drew the important link between democracy and economic freedom. He saw democracy as government of the people, by the people.
Shortly after being elected in 1859 many southern states, fearing the loss of their slave owing privileges, seceded from the Union. Expressing his belief that a house divided against itself cannot stand, he raised an army marking the beginning of the Civil War. Four years of savage fraternal infighting later, the Union was restored. Nobody could any longer be bound in servitude as the property of a slaveholder. Nobody could still be sold on the open market.
The narrative in Lincoln’s Tribute is spoken against a background of majestic music that draws as Copland put it ‘a simple but impressive frame around the words of Lincoln’.
As well as for his contribution to music-his Carnival Of The Animals voiced by Noel Coward was one of my childhood favourites-I thanked Mr Kostalanetz for commissioning the creation of this evocative piece.
Written shortly after Pearl Harbour was blindsided, it helped boost public morale when the nation’s fortunes were at their nadir. It has been narrated by such luminaries as Paul Newman and James Earl Ray.
NYFD fireman Kevin Shea, recovering from a broken neck, gave an emotional narration in Carnegie Hall. He saw many of his comrades die in the 9/11 attack on New York.