Swans Commentary » swans.com January 26, 2009  



Remembering Paul Scofield


by Charles Marowitz





(Swans - January 26, 2009)   It's been eleven months since Paul Scofield died of leukemia in the west of England. During that period, I have had a number of mental flashbacks of the actor whose every life experience seemed to have been etched on his gaunt and craggy face. Discussions about him invariably falter with murky recollections; people, even film buffs, find it hard to recall him or quickly retrieve his memory. I think Scofield would have enjoyed that fact. He was the quintessential "quiet man," retiring even as his peers lauded him as "the greatest British actor of his generation," a title that is too often trotted out for actors who bite the dust, but really belongs only to him. There have been numerous contemporary British actors who, over the years, have turned in memorable performances; artists such as Michael Gambon, David Warner, Daniel Day-Lewis, Jeremy Irons, Alan Rickman, etc., etc.; but I would wager all of them would unanimously confer that title on to Scofield alone. What set him apart from his contemporaries was a steely presence that was grounded in a complex, subterranean personality, which contained unfathomable depths. Scofield was like a blazing furnace with its grate firmly closed; one couldn't hear the crackle of the flames, but one unquestionably felt their heat. Fred Zinnemann perhaps put it best when he said Scofield's acting reminded him of "a Rolls Royce being started."

The actor won millions of British fans by disdaining the calls from Hollywood and tactfully refusing a knighthood with the words: "I have every respect for people who are offered a knighthood. It's just not an aspect of life I would want. If you want a title, what's wrong with Mr?"

I was fortunate in 1962, during my first months in England, to have been invited by Peter Brook to be Assistant Director on the Brook-Scofield King Lear at Stratford. I was barely out of drama school and this was my first real encounter with the world of professional British theatre. All the actors, being members of the Royal Shakespeare Company, were on friendly terms with one another; only Scofield was the newcomer and one could sense the respectful distance the other actors maintained in his presence. On the day of the first reading with all the members of the cast seated around a large, round table, I felt like an interloper taking part in a private ceremony at which I decidedly did not belong. Fortunately, I kept a written record of the entire rehearsal process and, to avoid fictionalizing feelings, which tend to transform with the passage of time, I will quote freely from the pages of that Log.

Before the Reading began, Brook delivered a short preamble. He spoke of the play as a mountain whose summit had never been reached. "On the way up one finds shattered bodies of other climbers strewn on every side. Olivier here, Laughton there, it's frightening!" Describing the enormity of the task before us, he gave one of the aptest definitions of the rehearsal process I have ever heard. "The work of rehearsals is looking for meaning and then making it meaningful."

Like all first readings, it started tentatively, actors not wanting to commit themselves to feelings they had not yet formulated. The verse-speaking was low-keyed, even cautious -- except for Scofield who had thrown himself into the script with a crackling vigor. Nothing tentative; nothing subdued. At times, he tested the rhythm of the verse -- going back on lines placing the stress where, on reflection, he felt it belonged. Gradually, the entire company, fired by Scofield's total commitment to the material, went at it hell-for-leather. The tentativeness of a cautious first reading gave way to a spirited rendition of Shakespeare's text as if the rehearsal process was finished and everyone was itching to get onto the stage and perform.

During a late-stage dress rehearsal, there was an electric moment of high drama that Shakespeare would have appreciated.

Brook had done away with the usual preview performance and so, apart from members of the technical staff, the auditorium was empty. But a photographer was shuttling from one side of the stalls to the other taking shots of the performance. In the Hunting Scene (Act l, Scene 4) where Lear becomes more and more riled by Goneril's discourtesies, Scofield seemed more agitated than usual. After overturning the table and ordering his knights to horse, Lear comes downstage and proceeds to intone one of those blood-curdling Shakespearean curses that freeze the blood and is supposed to rain retribution down on everyone's head. In the middle of the speech, Scofield crossed downstage to the apron and hurled his hunting cloak at the photographer whose camera had been clicking an accompaniment to Lear's speeches. "Please get that thing away from here!" he growled in the voice of the furious Lear, and then immediately continued to berate Goneril whose face was frozen in a real, not a theatrical, terror. One could almost hear every person in the auditorium catch their breath. Afterwards, the Company's press representative said: "I suddenly felt myself sweat. It was a horrifying sensation." It occurred to me afterwards that this was precisely what the production was lacking; moments so charged and taut that one's insides suddenly ground to a halt. One observer of the incident confided afterwards: "It was so exciting I felt like saying, keep it in!"

One has a galaxy of memories of Scofield's work in performances such as the "whiskey priest" in Graham Green's The Power and the Glory; Sir Thomas More in A Man For All Seasons both on the London stage and then in the Fred Zinnemann film for which Scofield won an Academy Award; but the one that sticks in my memory is a moment not from a play, but from a curtain-call after the play.

It came at the end of the National Theatre production of Carl Zuckmayer's Captain of Kopenick in which Scofield played the lead role. As the houselights came up and the applause started, the actor's gaunt, tousled head peered into the auditorium, clutching the hands of his fellow actors as if permitting the public to sop up his genius, untrammeled by art, undisguised by artifice. Then, stepping forward to the apron, he gave the kind of gracious nod that King George might have thrown to Handel when the monarch stood up in his box during the "Hallelujah Chorus" of The Messiah. Then, being waved forward by his colleagues for a solo call, the actor forged silent bonds of brotherhood with the audience, bowing to acknowledge -- and at the same time confirm -- the mastery of his craft and the perspicacity of our appreciation of it. Then he smiled wanly, as if to say: "Life is not all art and you would be wise to temper your enthusiasms with a certain amount of philosophic detachment." He held out both his hands again as if to invite his fellow players into a charmed circle, and they approached him tentatively, as if he were their Witch Doctor, too charged and holy to touch, but touching nevertheless; grasping their hands, right and left, and receiving the magic electricity that the house had authorized him to distribute evenly among his colleagues. Then, waving his hand wanly as one might to a departing train, he shuffled down to the privacy of his dressing room while our applause evaporated in the air like a kind of aimless obstreperousness which, having made its point, had outlived its usefulness.

I can't for the life of me remember anything about the play, but the curtain call is enshrined in my mental archives.

An actor like Scofield comes around only once in a generation. Before his arrival, the dynasty belonged to Laurence Olivier. After Scofield, we are still waiting for that "uneasy head" that will wear "the crown."


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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
URL for this work: http://www.swans.com/library/art15/cmarow128.html
Published January 26, 2009