Swans Commentary » swans.com October 10, 2005  



The Enigmatic Sir Alec
Piers Paul Read's Alec Guinness: The Authorized Biography


by Charles Marowitz


Book Review



Read, Piers Paul: Alec Guinness: The Authorized Biography, Simon & Schuster, June 2005, ISBN 0-74324-498-2, 632 pages, $35.00 (hardcover)


(Swans - October 10, 2005)   Of all the knights of the British theatre, Alec Guinness was the most enigmatic. Those tightly-pursed lips, suppressing rather than revealing the smile twitching at their margins, those terrifying and terrified eyes which declare, "No one is allowed in here," that slightly imperious glance which conceals a devious lasciviousness, the earmark of the "closet queen" he was and wished so devoutly not to be -- all of these characteristics served Guinness well in a variety of roles where a mask could be fitted over the mask that was his face.

But if acting is predicated on revelation -- the imaginative creation of characters derived from a rich gene pool of personal characteristics then, by that definition, Guinness was no actor. "A man of many faces" must ultimately acknowledge his true face in order for us to gage the effectiveness of the diverse personae that he assumes. Olivier, for all his outrageous make-ups, was jubilantly himself -- a fully-realized human being and so, a highly-diversified actor; so was John Gielgud. Despite extreme differences of temperament between the two, Gielgud's patrician nature always nurtured his roles whether Richard of Bordeaux, Prospero or John Worthing. Every great actor is constantly nourished by the metabolic content of his own nature, and the richer that is, the richer the extrapolations that stem from it.

Guinness, despite the impishness he reveals in those early Ealing comedies (viz. Kind Hearts And Coronets, The Lavender Hill Mob, The Man In The White Suit, etc.) always suffered beneath his skin. Beginning as an atheist, he became an Anglican and then a devout, one might almost say obsessive, Catholic. His preoccupation with religion throughout most of his life stemmed from a need to embrace an institution that would allow him to repent his sins and regularly receive absolution -- although there is reason to believe that most of his sins fell into the realm of "temptation" rather than transgression.

No relationship with any of his close friends or collaborators was as close as that between himself and his God. He thought of himself as a sinner and spent a good part of his life metaphorically flagellating himself for trespasses, real or imaginary, which he felt he had committed.

Born out of wedlock and sprung from the womb of a wanton mother who, as he confessed to author John Le Carré "was a whore," he carried the shame of his alcoholic, thieving, and pathetic paternity with him through his earliest years and into his era of celebrity. Guinness alleged that his mother, Agnes Cuff "slept with the entire crew on Lord Moyne's Yacht at the Cowes Regatta and when she gave birth she called the bastard Guinness but my father was probably the bloody cook." Despite the aggravations and embarrassments, he maintained his mother to the end of her life. But ten days before her death, he wrote: "....awful at the thoughts I half-entertained; wishing she would die now or immediately after I return from New York. It will be very fussing if she goes while I am away or after I have started filming in late March. Very unfilial thoughts. I feel so sorry for her and the wretchedness and silliness of her wasted life but I don't see what I can do." The albatross hung around his neck for most of his life, a constant reminder that whatever social distinctions he achieved, his origins were sordid and impoverished.

There were a few outstanding stage successes such as Dylan (a play about T.E. Lawrence whose character in many ways was a shadow version of his own), T.S. Eliot's The Cocktail Party, Alan Bennett's Habeas Corpus, and John Mortimer's A Voyage Round My Father, but his "close to the chest" playing style worked best in the cinema. The withering irony is that the few days he put into his most lucrative film assignment playing Obi-Wan Kenobi in George Lucas's Star War epics may well outlast his more outstanding work in films such as Bridge On The River Kwai, Tunes of Glory, and The Horse's Mouth.

From the early sixties to the end of his life, film acting was largely a matter of short, lucrative stints in unmemorable movies made in order to offset his ruinous British tax situation and to maintain the lifestyle to which he had become accustomed.

As a suitor, Guinness was ardent and affectionate; as a husband, he was remote and dictatorial -- forcing his bride Merula to forsake the stage despite the fact that he knew she had a passionate attachment to it. As a father, he was remote and hypercritical of his son Matthew and undoubtedly contributed to the aimlessness and indecision from which the boy suffered once he matured. As a friend and companion, he was fond, supportive, charitable, peevish, uppity, easily offended and always "keeping a safe distance." When his closest friends fell seriously ill, he sometimes dropped them immediately -- as if life-threatening diseases were more a threat to him than they were to them. But he could also be charitable, anonymously providing needy friends with money and gifts, assisting fellow actors by finessing contracts that would enhance their careers or shore up their well being. But throughout, and with everyone except his wife Merula, he was distant, aloof, protective of his privacy and maddeningly inaccessible. The only other exception was the Benedictine nun Dame Felicitas Corrigan, with whom he corresponded regularly throughout most of his lifetime and who seemed to provide a direct link to that sense of mystical Catholicism that was more precious to him than almost anything else. For Guinness, religion was more than just a crutch, it was a walker and a wheelchair. He told God secrets that were never divulged to his private diaries or recorded in his autobiographical memoirs such as Blessings In Disguise and My Name Escapes Me. There he carefully glossed over some of the most painful and shameful truths about the wretched actor and malevolent human being he felt himself to be. Modesty was for him a kind of protective armor that discouraged violent attacks from the outside world and defended him against hurtful public assessments.

Like everything in his ordered life, Guinness carefully selected the writer who would be assigned to his authorized biography: Piers Paul Read (whose best known work is Alive: The Story of the Andes Survivors) and who, one senses, is a character that strongly resembles Guinness himself. Judging from his prose, Read, like Guinness, appears to be a thorough, scrupulous, and fastidious scribe who has probed every salient (and negligible) detail of Guinness's life. His thoroughness often leads him into meandering detours through Sir Alec's favorite restaurants, diverse holidays, forays through the English countryside and undigested research (mostly letters) about matters that appear to be both trivial and diversionary.

Read is as obsessed with his subject's inchoate homosexuality as he is with his perambulations through the brambles and underbrush of Catholicism. No doubt, the actor's wavering but essentially devout faith is a crucial factor in the story of Alec Guinness, but its circumlocutions become a little cloying as he seeks out chapels in which to say Mass and evaluates the respective qualities of one priest over another. One feels, at times, that the biographer is more obsessed with the subject than his biographee. Although Read furnishes ample evidence that Guinness was a repressed homosexual and irresistibly drawn to attractive youths, he refrains from concluding that he ever indulged in homosexual relations. It almost doesn't matter because the character depicted by the author is so intrinsically and guiltily "gay" that whether he ever actually "put it to" anyone or had it "put to him" becomes academic. What emerges is an upright-and-uptight person armored against the nature God gave him who spends many painful hours trying to come to terms with it. Like a Faustus who had entered into a pact with an impervious Mephistopheles, Guinness squirmed to find a loophole in the contract so that he might reclaim his soul -- but the bond was too ironclad and the worldly rewards too corrupting for him ever to consider violating the agreement.

I harp on this neurotically repressive side of Sir Alec's personality as I believe it was the factor that prevented him from becoming the self-actualized actor he might have been. If all the psychic energy employed in butching down his true instincts could have been channeled into his roles (e.g., Hamlet, Richard II, Macbeth, Shylock), it would have made him a peer of Olivier, Richardson, Scofield, and the other illustrious artists he so admired. But so long as he was tortured by demons and castigating himself for moral shortcomings, he remained a fractured human being -- as closeted an actor as he was a gay.

Let me not scant Piers Paul Read's 632-page treatise on both the actor and the man. He undertook a formidable task and, by and large, brings his subject pulsatingly alive. He lucidly demonstrates the paradoxes, anomalies and contradictions that made up Alec Guinness. My only cavil is that it being an "authorized" biography, there is a tendency for the author to extol when he should be reproving and to condone where he should be impugning.

My other cavil has less to do with Read's book than the tendency of all contemporary biography which, in remorselessly recreating the minutiae of a subject's life, turns what should be a free-styled portrait limned in bold strokes into an illuminated x-ray. My own feeling is that the essence of a life cannot be created by a proliferation of fastidiously documented details no matter how voluminous, but by a few, bold sweeps of the brush, the way a really gifted caricaturist can produce the essence of an individual without etching in every pore of his skin.


· · · · · ·
Read, Piers Paul: Alec Guinness: The Authorized Biography, Simon & Schuster, June 2005, ISBN 0-74324-498-2, 632 pages, $35.00 (hardcover)

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Published October 10, 2005