In an American culture that celebrates youth and chooses its stars from movies and rock music, the tradition of the mature stage star is a rare holdover from less media-cluttered days. Rarer still is the celebrated acting couple—rare, but not non-existent. Consider Tandy and Cronyn.
For the quality and quantity of their performances spanning well over half a century—not to mention their versatility and the longevity of their legendary theatrical marriage—Jessica Tandy and Hume Cronyn, though both foreign born, have assumed the mantle of a kind of American stage royalty.
It’s a far different brand of royalty from that once embodied by the couple to whom they are most often compared, Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne. Tandy and Cronyn have, indeed, shone brightly on Broadway-but they’ve also regularly exercised their craft in nonprofit theatres across the continent, and taken care to spice their distinguished careers in the classics and films with some of the most adventurous new theatre (from Beckett to Peter Brook) of the past two decades. Today they’re so busy working that they cannot find time to move into the house they recently bought in Connecticut.
To illustrate: Last winter Tandy went right into rehearsals for the Broadway production of The Glass Menagerie after completing her role in the Merchant-Ivory film The Bostonians. During the same period, Cronyn was simultaneously rehearsing a new Marsha Norman play in Boston and writing a play of his own with Susan Cooper, his collaborator on both the homespun Appalachian drama Foxfire and a teleplay with a similar setting, The Dollmaker, written for Jane Fonda. When the latter was aired in May, it won favorable reviews, and the Cronyn-Cooper script is up for an Emmy Award. Meantime, Cronyn has performed in the film Brewster’s Millions, and both Cronyn and Tandy in August began shooting on location in West Florida for another film—only the fourth they have appeared in together, as opposed to a score of theatre projects—a science fantasy called Cocoon.
“I’ll be acting as long as I can stand up.”
Interviewed in her cheery yellow living room in New York City, Tandy is candid about the lessons she has learned from a lifetime in the theatre. Told that her husband has said that his working method is “from the outside to inside” and hers is the opposite, she acknowledges: “I suppose it’s true. He will start with a lot of notes and things down on paper, and then he will fit himself into that. I will start with nothing and try to let it grow.
“Hume used tell a story with great glee that we would be rehearsing and he would be so worried about me, so terribly worried—that I was lagging way, way behind, was I ever going to catch up? And then suddenly one day he’d wake up, like the hare with the tortoise, and see that I was way ahead and more secure than he was. This was a joke—with some truth to it. I think sometimes he finds himself locked into patterns that he thought were wonderful ideas to begin with, but he hasn’t been able to let go and simplify. I, on the other hand, find it hard to be as daring as he is, which might lead to something else.”
Cronyn’s daring was exemplifed last winter in the premiere of Marsha Norman’s Traveler in the Dark at American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge. He refused a lucrative film offer to appear in the play, as did co-star Sam Waterston, and his expenses on the project, he recounts, exceeded his income.
“The play interests me, the play is worth doing, the play is about something.” Cronyn declared in a conversation in Boston. “It’s a conflict of ideals, a conflict between a mystic and a man who refuses to accept or believe in anything which is not provable, which he can’t see, feel or touch.
“Jessie was playing in Menagerie at the time, and I picked up and left for three months! That’s the first time in many months I’d worked without her, and I missed her. I missed leaning on her, complaining to her. But I’m glad I did it.”
Tandy speaks in her turn of why The Glass Menagerie was so necessary to her. “Williams is a very important writer. It’s on the page—it’s right there. I remember the original vividly. It made a great impression on me. The play is well worth reviving.” At the same time, Tandy has reservations about the production, in which she was Amanda Wingfield to Amanda Plummer’s Laura. “Our director, John Dexter, was so determined to do exactly what Tennessee wanted that I think sometimes he went off the track,” Tandy reasons. “He tried going back to Tennessee’s original version of the script, and sometimes there were holes.”
Tandy, at 75, and Cronyn, two years younger, have been performing for most of their lives, and professionally for 57 and 53 years, respectively. She got the jump on him in launching her career, partly because young Cronyn—short and a natural victim of bullies at boarding school in his native Ontario—initially concentrated on mastering boxing instead of acting. Cronyn began fostering his histrionic skills by collaborating with cousin Robert Whitehead on shows to delight the neighborhood, while Tandy and her brothers put on Christmas shows for the family when she was a tot in London.
Tandy’s early career saw her shuttling back and forth between England’s non-commercial and West End theatres. “At Birmingham Repertory they got me to do the role of a child who was actually the devil, in Richard Hughes’ A Comedy of Good and Evil—which was extraordinary, because I had done practically nothing,” she recalls. Her West End debut was in 1927 in The Manderson Girls, and she first appeared on Broadway in The Matriarch while still in her teens. In 1934 she played both the lead—a lesbian role—in the notorious Girls in Uniform at the Duchess and Ophelia in John Geilgud’s Hamlet at the New Theatre. In 1936, Tandy takes up the tale: “I left a very, very successful play at the Criterion in order to go to the Old Vic. Everyone thought I was crazy. And financially I was. But I’m awfully glad I did. Some of my fellow actors reacted with, you know, ‘Why would you want to bother doing that old classical stuff?'”
The “stuff’ Tandy performed at the Old Vic for more than half a decade included King Lear and The Tempest with Gielgud, and Henry V and Twelfth Night with Laurence Olivier. Cronyn expresses envy at such a diet for a young performer. During the same period, 1932 to 1934, he was attending the American Academy of Dramatic Arts and working in the Barter Theatre’s second season. “Jess had the Old Vic,” Cronyn notes, “but I didn’t have those opportunities. I had to wait until I was in my 40s for that.
“I did have Robert Porterfield’s Barter Theatre, a stock company in which, in the summer of 1933, I was ostensibly his partner. Actually, I was co-producer by virtue of raising $2,000 from three fellow students at the Academy. With the money we bought an essential piece of equipment, a truck, which we drove down to Abingdon, Va. Admission to the theatre was 35 cents or the equivalent in barter—people brought the whole range of vegetables, fruit, quite often hams, sometimes live piglets. Remember, this was the Depression.”
At the same time, Cronyn shared a small acting class, under Benno Schneider of the Moscow Art Theatre, with such disparate personalities as Burgess Meredith, Peggy Ashcroft, Vincent Price, Jose Ferrer and Arlene Frances. With some of these cohorts, he alternated between Broadway—appearing in the comedies Three Men on a Horse and Room Service—and the Lakewood Theatre in Skowhegan, Me.
In their own ways, the stock companies had as formative an influence on Cronyn as did the Old Vic on his wife. “Lakewood was the summer theatre at the time. I invested in Life with Father because it was first done at Skowhegan. I wasn’t in that production, but I played plummy parts, one right after the other. That was a wonderful experience, but dangerous, because when you have only a week you begin to rely on facility. It was Clifford Odets who took me apart about that.
“In the company that season was Fay Wray. Remember King Kong? Clifford Odets was interested in Fay Wray, so he came up to Skowhegan to be close to her. He was at the peak of his career, and I did so want him to notice me. He just didn’t give me the time of day until one evening we were in a booth, and Clifford suddenly said to me: ‘You know every trick in the book don’t you? I’ve watched you for the last three weeks play three different roles. You’ve got a closet full of characters, with suitable wardrobes. You get the scripts and you say, ‘Ah, yes, this is number 23, and you look in the closet and pull out that suit, and there it is.’ That was devastating. You don’t know how well that criticism served me later in television and films.
“Odets, Tyrone Guthrie and John Gielgud, those three, have harpooned me and given me invaluable lessons. Their essence is—don’t make up your mind too soon or be rigid or fall in love with an idea. Odets was the first one to really catch me right between the eyes.”
Tandy and Cronyn, though both foreign born, have assumed the mantle of a kind of American stage royalty.
Cronyn’s and Tandy’s careers converged while he was becoming a sought-after character actor in Hollywood. Both had been married before—indeed she was still married and he was engaged again—when he connived to meet her backstage in 1940 at the Biltmore Theatre in New York, where she was appearing in Jupiter Laughs. “He asked me out to lunch and then he asked me out to tea and then he asked me out to supper,” Tandy recalls. The pursuit paid off, and they married in Beverly Hills in 1942 while he was making his first film.
A string of films followed (Shadow of a Doubt, Phantom of the Opera, The Cross of Lorraine, Lifeboat) and Cronyn also wrote two screen adaptations for Alfred Hitchcock (Rope and Under Capricorn). When Tandy made her film debut, it was in The Seventh Cross, playing Cronyn’s wife. In 1946 she played his daughter in The Green Years. It took till 1981 to pair them in a third film, John Schlesinger’s ill-fated Honky Tonk Freeway.
Cronyn has continued to make many movies through the years—ranging from The Postman Always Rings Twice to Sunrise at Campobello to Cleopatra to the more recent The Parallax View and Conrack—but he prefers, not surprisingly, to work in the theatre. “The end result is mine,” he says simply. “I have far more to contribute to the theatre than I’m allowed to in film. And that’s never going to change.”
Tandy harbors the same bias, but for a different reason. “In film there’s no long process of discovering a part, discovering the relationship to other people, learning how to make it truer and simpler. I never play parts that have great responsibility all through the picture, anyway, so there’s no growth in the characters I play. It’s interesting to do, because it’s a different way of working. But I don’t find it as satisfying.”
Their theatre collaborations were another matter. Cronyn performed an invaluable service for Tandy in 1946 when he directed her as Miss Collins in Tennessee Williams’ Portrait of a Madonna. This production at the Las Palmas Theatre in Los Angeles marked Cronyn’s professional debut as a director, and brought widespread attention to Tandy as the embodiment of a certain kind of Williams heroine. That identification led directly to her winning the part of Blanche Dubois opposite Marlon Brando on Broadway in 1947.
Her Tony-winning triumph was followed by lots and lots of theatre, much of it together with Cronyn. Their first joint Broadway venture, The Fourposter (1951), came at about the time they began dreaming of repertory. In New York and on tour over the years they shared the stage in such vehicles as Noel Coward in Two Keys, Edward Albee’s A Delicate Balance, Duerrenmatt’s The Physicists, D.L. Coburn’s two-character The Gin Game (which began at Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven in 1977) and Foxfire (which was developed at the Stratford Festival in Ontario and the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis before it became a Broadway production). In between these projects and the seasons they spent at Stratford and the Guthrie, Cronyn directed, produced, and won a Tony of his own for his Polonius to Richard Burton’s Hamlet (in 1964); he and Tandy also won Obies for their performances in plays by Samuel Beckett, directed by Alan Schneider.
Of the latter experience, Tandy recalls, “I was delighted to do them—but glad it was a limited run, because Beckett can be pretty depressing. Happy Days really focuses the audience’s attention—and Not I even more so, on just the lips. That was a tremendous challenge. I have letters from people saying they would never forget Not I, that they couldn’t move in their seats after seeing it because it had such an enormous emotional impact on them. Other people watched the same thing thinking, ‘What’s all this? It’s nothing to me!’”
Both Tandy and Cronyn have balanced appearances in the commercial and regional theatre, the former providing them with the income to afford the latter. Tandy remembers her two seasons at the Guthrie and her Stratford Festival experiences with great affection. “You’re able to do plays not likely to be revived on Broadway,” she says, citing her 1963 Minneapolis season in the inaugural Guthrie company: Olga in The Three Sisters, Linda Loman in Death of a Salesman and Gertrude in Hamlet. Of the Guthrie’s beginnings, she particularly relished “the great groundswell of enthusiasm from the city itself. They had put forth an enormous effort to have the theatre. I went back to the Guthrie in 1965 because that’s where the directors were.
“Stratford was equally exciting,” she continues with animation. “The whole machinery of the place works superbly-==nothing compares to their costume and prop shops. The last thing I did there was Long Day’s Journey into Night, and my costumes were made as if they came from Paris, and so was my underwear. I was dressed from the skin out. That’s not absolutely essential, but it sure Is wonderful.”
Cronyn shares his wife’s enthusiasm. “At Stratford I had opportunities to play things which, if I lived to be 120 and was up for every play, I’d still miss. In the Guthrie’s first and third seasons, I did The Miser, Richard III, Death of a Salesman, Three Sisters and The Cherry Orchard. What about that for riches!”
Cronyn praises the regional theatres for the longer rehearsal periods and better facilities—but he has reservations about the proportions of funding which the theatres tend to expend on edifices as opposed to, say, Oedipuses—or the performers who create that and other such roles. “You can have a bloody barn or a basement; the thing is the quality of the company,” he declares. “Yet the hardest thing to raise money for is the intangible, evanescent work done together by a company. They always build a house first—and then you get Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont, and it sits dark.”
Neither Tandy nor Cronyn, though, would abandon Broadway. “You should expose vourself to the rigors of Broadway,” she insists. “You rehearse for four weeks, have previews or tryouts somewhere, open, and you can be closed on Saturday. There’s no security at all, and very often more is expected of you. You’re not allowed to fail, whereas in the regional theatre it’s not the end of the world if you play a part in which you’re not really at your best. Broadway helps you press against your limitations.”
“What you get on Broadway,” adds Cronyn, “is the pick of the crop for every single job. You can’t compete with that in rep, where you’re doing 6, 8, 10 different plays. The designer who’s under contract may be a brilliant choice for play A but not for play C!”
Asked what roles he still wants to play, Cronyn snorts, refuses to reply, and then does so anyhow. “I don’t want to answer that question because I’ll be offered those roles, and then I’lI have to do them! I’m tired, and I don’t want to work as hard as I used to. I have been offered Lear. I would love to do Prospero. I’d love to have done Malvolio, but I think I’m too old. I’d love to do Willy Loman again. But I don’t want to do those any more unless there’s a director out there in whom I’m prepared to place complete faith, and unless there are people with me whom I consider my peers. I’m not going to go out and do experimental productions of Lear! Life—my life at least—is too short now.
“I have done such things,” he concedes. “I played Hamlet with eight days of rehearsal in 1948 or 1949—it was produced by the Barter Theatre and ANTA, and either Rosencrantz or Guildenstern was played by Ernest Borgnine. But no more.”
Tandy longs for a bit of free time, but goes on to identify work she’d still like to do. “My options for parts because of my age are getting fewer and fewer. I’ve wanted to play Volumnia (in Coriolanus] for some time, but I’m really too old for it—it’s a woman in her prime. I always wanted to play Juliet, but I never did. I’ve really been very fortunate in the wide variety of roles I’ve had.
“A play I’d like to do again, because it speaks to us today and because I think we did it very badly, is Duerrenmatt’s The Physicists. Peter Brook directed us on Broadway after he’d done Marat/Sade, and he brought all kinds of elements of that into it which are not in the play at all. The stage was carefully described by Duerrenmatt as a room in a very elegant house which was now being used as an insane asylum. Instead of the original set, a round room with trees outside the windows, Brook used a great square cell block of white tile with three padded doors. So immediately you go to the end of the play right at the beginning. It was very strange.”
The Cronyns’ careers have not, of course, been the breeze that an admiring public might suppose. There have been bad reviews (such as Life magazine’s dismissal of Crony’s Richard III at the Guthrie as Groucho III), and Tandy had to balance her career with raising three children, daughter Susan (by the late Jack Hawkins) as well as Tandy and Christopher. The couple’s enforced companionship sometimes grew tiresome, particularly when career jealousies flared (as occurred when Tandy basked in the success of A Streetcar Named Desire while Cronyn was out of work). In 1969 Cronyn’s left eye had to be removed; the then 58-year-old went on immediately to play the title role in Stratford’s Hadrian VII.
Tandy and Cronyn are, indeed, made of most resilient stuff. Says Tandy, “I’ll be acting as long as I can stand up.”
She continues with evident pleasure, “If you had said to me when I was starting out, ‘When you are 75, you will still be working, you will still be on Broadway, you will still be playing leading parts, you will be a respected actress,’ I would have thought, ‘Wow, how terrific!’ “
She still does.
Tish Dace is the New York theatre critic for London’s 12 Plays and Players magazine.
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