Swans Commentary » swans.com April 24, 2006  



The Age Of Olivier


by Charles Marowitz


Book Review



Coleman, Terry; Olivier, Henry Holt & Co. Inc., November 2005 - ISBN 0-805-07536-4, 595 pages, $32.50 (hardcover)


(Swans - April 24, 2006)   To those of us who resided in England in the late 1950s and '60s, who had the legend of the wartime Old Vic years firmly planted in the back of our minds and the burgeoning National Theatre in the forefront, who had been captivated by the film version of Henry V and then, four years later, dazzled by Hamlet, this was unquestionably the Age of Olivier. Yes, Gielgud made beautiful music out of the verse and according to Ken Tynan was England's greatest actor "from the neck up," Ralph Richardson had created a rambunctious Falstaff and displayed a new versatility in Harold Pinter's No Man's Land and Guinness had a far more celebrated film career, but there was really only one Titan among the British knights of the theatre and it was Laurence Olivier, and no one knew that better than Olivier himself.

The story that most exemplifies Olivier's hubris has to do with the sword Edmund Kean wore during his legendary performance of Richard III in 1813. It was then passed by Kean to the actor William Chippendale, who in turn handed it on to Henry Irving after his performance of Richard III and the relic wound up in the family of Ellen Terry, where it was given to John Gielgud, who felt it would be "a nice thing to be handed on again to another young hopeful." After Olivier's triumphant portrayal of Richard III, Gielgud had the sword, inscribed to Olivier and ceremoniously awarded to the actor on the stage of the Old Vic. Although in the ensuing years brilliant young contenders such as Peter O'Toole, David Warner, Derek Jacoby, and Michael Gambon might well have qualified to receive it, the trophy remained in Olivier's tight-fisted grasp. Presumably, the succession of Greats had ended with "Sir" and all classical actors thereafter were simply also-rans.

Laurence Olivier was suffused with egotism the way a whale is suffused in sea water and, when not working, was subject to the same stasis that befalls the beached whale. The ether of the stage was the only element in which he could survive.

The vertiginous relationship between Olivier and Vivien Leigh reads like the fable of Tristan and Isolde or Abelard and Heloise; a passionate love story that peaks and eddies then ends in tragedy. A manic-depressive and allegedly a nymphomaniac as well, Leigh was childishly in love with Olivier and he with her throughout the whole of their ill-fated union. Both were married to other spouses when they first met and both had regular dalliances with members of the opposite sex; Leigh with Peter Finch, Peter Wyngarde, and John Osborne; Olivier with a bevy of young actresses and at least one male lover (Henry Ainley) winding up with a third and, in the main satisfying, marriage to Joan Plowright whom he met while working on The Entertainer. In a well-researched author's note at the close of the book, Coleman puts to rest the oddball speculation that Olivier had a homosexual affair with Danny Kaye; a union almost as mind-boggling as a sexual imbroglio between John Gielgud and Bette Midler. For Olivier the onrush of libido was something to be converted into creative performance energy. "Every member of the audience, both male and female," he instructed Michael Gambon, "should want to have sex with you." In Olivier's case, this was to a large extent an achieved aspiration.

Terry Coleman, one-time arts editor of The Guardian who segued into a top-flight historian and biographer, had exclusive access to much of the private papers and diaries and so this is about as "authorized" a biography as one is likely to get. He has followed every curve and curlicue of Olivier's personal and professional life. It is a gripping, uncosmeticized and meticulous account, which, because this is the greatest actor of our age, is mesmerizing even when it detours into mundane domestic banter and tedious details about his weakness for airplanes.

Coleman duly chronicles all the Olivier successes -- his brutish Titus Andronicus, his Victorian Shylock, his Negroid (as opposed to Moorish) Othello, his astonishing Archie Rice in The Entertainer, etc. -- but never provides a description of the acting chemistry that made those roles come about. It is, in the main, a topographical view of the career without those incisive, critical insights that reveal process and illuminate inner workings.

The biographer treats most of the people who impinged on Olivier's life with a fair-minded objectivity but comes down heavily against Kenneth Tynan, Olivier's Literary Manager at The National Theatre. Tynan is skewered because of his advocacy of Rolf Hochuth's docudrama Soldiers, which condemned Winston Churchill for his saturation bombing of Dresden and accused him of complicity in the assassination of the Polish leader Sikorski.

Coleman believes it was Tynan's proclivity for the controversial (the first man to say "fuck" on television; the instigator of the nudie revue O, Calcutta; champion of Lenny Bruce and the "angry young men") that motivated his passionate support for Soldiers, and he may have a point. Lord Chandos, the Chairman of the Board, was bitterly opposed to the libelous Hochuth play -- not only by temperament, but also because he had been a member of Churchill's wartime cabinet and hence a hero-worshipping Churchillian. But Tynan converted the play into an artistic credo: the right of the National Theatre to mount politically pertinent fare without censorship from the Board. Hochuth's The Deputy, his first play in London, condemned Pope Pius XII for not coming to the rescue of the Jews during the Holocaust. Hochuth was on weak ground here as Golda Meir, Albert Einstein, B'nai B'rith, and a bevy of European rabbis all agreed that the Pope had quietly interceded to save thousands of Jews from liquidation. Over the passage of time, the case against Pope Pius XII has been considerably weakened. But with Soldiers, Hochuth was on firmer ground as Churchill's saturation bombing of Dresden, which caused massive civilian casualties, had provoked a strong moral rebuke both in Europe and in the USA.

Tynan was an outspoken liberal-humanist and a Man of the Left, and, as a critic, had dramatically furthered the careers of left-inclined playwrights and thinkers. But, as a recently released document of his National Theatre repertory recommendations reveals, he was also a drum-beater for G. B. Shaw, Calderon, Tirso de Molina, Lope de Vega, Goldini, Hebbel, Sudermann, and William Shakespeare. (Significantly, neither Bertolt Brecht nor Durrenmatt are on his list.) Joan Plowright had persuaded Olivier to appoint him Literary Manager because he was widely identified with the postwar British generation that had brought writers such as John Osborne, Arnold Wesker and John Arden to the fore. Olivier was anxious to identify himself with the so-called New Wave to prove that he was "hip" rather than "square," and so it was the most logical thing in the world for him to stump for a play like Soldiers. He was both outvoted and outflanked by the largely Tory Board that ran the National Theatre, but to construe Tynan's advocacy of such a play as "sensationalism" or an attempt to subvert Olivier's leadership of the organization is unadulterated hogwash. One senses that Coleman simply doesn't approve of Tynan's style or his politics and so proceeds to paint him as the "Ethiopian" in the National Theatre's "fuel supply." But one has to remember that it was Tynan who was instrumental in bringing Tom Stoppard, Trevor Griffiths, and John Osborne into the repertory. Furthermore, it was his passionate advocacy for a national theatre during the somnolent 1950s (when the subject was rarely even brought up) that helped create the cultural climate to create one, and during his ten-year stint as Literary Manager, two-thirds of the theatre's successes were directly proposed by Tynan.

Olivier knew that in order to make a British National Theatre succeed, he needed to surround himself with talented contemporaries. In its first seasons, he blithely appropriated some of brightest lights of the Royal Court Theatre, the most dynamic theatrical organization of the period; directors like John Dexter and William Gaskill, and advisors such as George Devine. As a result of retooling himself for the present rather than resting on his laurels, Olivier, in what should have been the twilight of his career, shone more brightly than he had since the forties when he first made his mark with the Old Vic.

The string of cameos he made in negligible films towards the end of his life (The Betsy, The Boys From Brazil, Clash of the Titans, The Jigsaw Man, etc.) were done, as he admitted, only to shore up a legacy for his wife and family. Crummy as they undoubtedly were, there isn't a moment in which the stodge is not temporarily elevated when Olivier is on screen. Since acting is presence, the presence of a real actor is enough to momentarily illuminate even the murkiest, starless sky.

It was, by all accounts, a charmed life, driven by outrageous ego and sustained by an unquenchable creativity and Coleman's biography, prejudices notwithstanding, documents the rise and exaltation of an actor, the likes of which we may never see again.


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Coleman, Terry; Olivier, Henry Holt & Co. Inc., November 2005 - ISBN 0-805-07536-4, 595 pages, $32.50 (hardcover)

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Published April 24, 2006