Saturday, January 05, 2008

`Shakespeare Can Take Care of Himself'

One expects actors, particularly those of the genus Movie Star, to be without eloquence, wit or literary gift. They are like the rest of us, only prettier, and the abundance or absence of acting ability has no bearing on their general lack of charm. Consider Marlon Brando and Sylvester Stallone, respectively. That the late Alec Guinness was thoughtful, courtly and bookish, an attentive reader of Montaigne and Shakespeare, a serious Roman Catholic, and author of three fine memoirs (as well as being my favorite actor) would surely surprise the average Star Wars fan. Of those films and his role as Obi-Wan Kenobe, Guinness writes in A Positively Final Appearance (1999):

“A refurbished Star Wars is on somewhere or everywhere. I have no intention of revisiting any galaxy. I shrivel inside each time it is mentioned.”

I pulled down A Positively Final Appearance (his other autobiographical volumes are Blessings in Disguise, 1985, and My Name Escapes Me, 1996) because I have been lingering with Hamlet, and I remembered that Guinness, at 22, had played the role of Osric in John Gielgud’s 1936 production. I wondered what the actor might contribute to my understanding and enjoyment. In 1938 he played the prince in an Old Vic production directed by Tyrone Guthrie. The actors performed in modern dress, smoked cigarettes and sipped cocktails -- an annoying gimmick of which Guinness partially approves:

“All these decades later I wish we had been much more daring. The most memorable visual effect in the production was the use of umbrellas in the graveyard scene, which caused adverse comment from those who had never experienced the melancholy of a damp funeral. Now I think that in a production presented in contemporary clothes there could be justification for the insertion of a line or two of current English when the need was felt.”

Guinness goes on to amend the “very like a whale” exchange between Hamlet and Polonius -- “Perchance it is a UFO.” “My Lord, it is a UFO.” -- and adds:

“The thing that worries me about cleverly fooling around with Shakespeare is the false impression likely to be made on the young seeing the plays for the first time….Shakespeare can take care of himself, however jaggedly spoken, but I have doubts about the lesser great.”

I’m reminded of Samuel Beckett’s insistence that his plays be produced without changes to text or staging. This has always seemed reasonable. I associate “modernizing” with vulgar hubris, actors and directors wishing to supplant the playwright’s genius with cheap novelty, thus drawing attention to themselves. Later in the memoir, Guinness remembers the first Hamlet he saw, in Haymarket in 1931, with Godfrey Tearle as the prince:

“His superb voice somehow reminded me of very dark Christmas pudding with a dollop of brandy butter….[The production] was a gloomy affair set in drab curtains and dressed stiffly in what were meant to be stylized tenth-century costumes. They say that the first Hamlet you see is the one that leaves the greatest impression and that you love it for the rest of your life. That wasn’t my experience with Godfrey’s.”

Guinness repeatedly surprises the reader with insights and enthusiasms. He casually mentions that a friend has given him RS. Thomas’ 1995 collection No Truce with the Furies. He copies out “Raptor” “with the intention of learning it. Small hope with my fading memory. Standing on the balcony in my nightshirt the opening lines did come back to me, however.

“`You have made God small,
Setting him astride
A pipette or a retort
Studying the bubbles,’

“then it all escaped me.”

Here’s the rest of the poem:

“absorbed in an experiment
that will come to nothing.

“I think of him rather
as an enormous owl
abroad in the shadows,
brushing me sometimes
with his wing so the blood
in my veins freezes, able

“to find his way from one
soul to another because
he can see in the dark.
I have heard him crooning
to himself, so that almost
I could believe in angels,

“those feathered overtones
in love’s rafters, I have heard
him scream, too, fastening
his talons in his great
adversary, or in some lesser
denizen, maybe, like you or me.”

In the same notebook in which he had copied Thomas’ poem, Guinness finds a favorite line from Sir Thomas Browne’s Religio Medici: “We behold him but asquint upon reflex or shadow.” How many professors of English can you name, let alone actors, who have read Thomas and Browne? And just to remind you that the man who played Henry Holland in The Lavender Hill Mob, Professor Marcus in The Ladykillers and everyone in Kind Hearts and Coronets, was supernally funny, I offer this:

“With the exception of The Way of All Flesh, which I could never get on with, I have had a lifelong fondness and admiration for Samuel Butler – or at any rate since The Notebooks and Erewhon came my way when I was about twenty. Who could not love and respect a man who could write: `The three most important things a man has are, briefly, his private parts, his money, and his religious opinions.’ (I am tempted to add, `The first two diminish with age and only the last is rigid.’)”


Anonymous said...

The average Star Wars fan (if there is such a thing) more likely overestimates the extent to which Mr. Guinness was slumming in George Lucas' movies, and assumes that Mr. Guinness not only is a thoughtful reader of Montaigne and Shakespeare but a polyglot familiar with Lao Tzu in the original.

It's a mistake to think that actors are less likely to be without eloquence than anybody else. After all, actors spend more time with the written word than profs, even. Have you read Antony Sher's Shakespeare diaries?


The Sanity Inspector said...

THE PROBLEM with most critics, from the viewpoint of those who want to use them as a guide to what to see and hear, is that they've seen and heard too much. There is a fine line between "experienced" and "jaded," and for all but the very best, by the time they have seen their twentieth Hamlet or their hundredth Swan Lake, they are more likely to be looking for novelty than for truth or beauty. And most directors, having seen at least as many performances as the critics, are happy to oblige. The mystery novelist Robert Barnard has one of his characters describe this syndrome:

"People do say he does interesting things," he amended.

"The sort of director who gets that said about him," said Gillian .... "is the kind to run a mile from. What does it usually mean? If the play cries out for a simple, direct approach, he decks it out with moving sets, Wurlitzer organs, and so many spots it looks like the Battle of Britain. And if the play is weak and needs a bit of gingering up, he puts the characters in body stockings and sets it in the Gobi Desert. That sort of director's motto is, 'Don't notice the play; notice me!'"