Faced so consistently with actors maneuvered by auteur-directors who disdain them almost as much as they loathe the transparency of good playwriting, I’m prepared, at last, to confess that Donald Wolfit was one of the greatest actors I ever saw. By which I mean to indicate, quixotically perhaps, that great actors in the full sway of their passions, eccentricities and startling ideas, are likely to be more persuasive conduits to the interior of plays than postmodernist directors with their terrifying grip on arbitrary, decorative conception.
Confession is called for in Wolfit’s case because he would appear to be the worst argument on behalf of actors vs. directors. As a student in London, I joined my classmates at his performances in order to be astonished by an antediluvian display of actor-manager tricks; we knew him as the last survivor of a thoroughly discredited fashion—the actor as organizer of Great Moments featuring Himself. In Gielgud and Olivier, we recognized not rivals so much as complementary actor-visionaries in touch, albeit from different directions, with tradition and possibility, willing to serve the directorial quirks of Tyrone Guthrie and Peter Brook even as they were preserving the granitic truths embedded in their own talents. Wolfit, by contrast, was letting the century pass him by without giving a pass to what had been learned about acting. Not for him the reflective intelligence of Chekhov: more than pre-Freudian, his acting was positively biblical in its hortatory, insistent presence. The role may have been Lear, Oedipus or even Volpone, but Wolfit was always Job.
Surely that was what we thought we were seeing. How could we look ahead to a time when such gigantic individuality would be missed? Instead, our dismissive laughs helped us to overlook what was splendid amid the ruins. There he stood towards the end of a long evening as Oedipus in both parts of Sophocles’s tragedy, alone center stage on a raised platform, surrounded by a company that would have disgraced Crummles’s troupe in Nicholas Nickleby. Preparing himself for his final declamation by paying absolutely no attention to the buzz and bustle of this hapless colleagues, he was blind Oedipus in search of his follow spot. Meanwhile, he was also uncomfortable with his hat, pulling it forward, nudging it back or side-saddle, intent on making it sit squarely over his great white pudding face. And considering that it was more like a Dali-designed chapeau than a hat, a cross between a futuristic schooner and a hero sandwich, this was quite an achievement. When the fuss was over, his blind eyes silenced the others with a gaze so baleful that it might have burned through steel. The speech—and speech it was — could now begin.
But this too was excavation rather than acting—a voice heard unaccountably after the lava had frozen over the dead city. The first sound, a primordial wheeze, was the signal for experienced Wolfitians that the organist was merely pumping air into the pipes. This was baby-breath, the early tentative statement of a fugue that would soon gather a second, third and even fourth voice into its complex weave, striding finally into an outburst of sunshine on a storm-swept sea—Wolfit as reckless mixed metaphor, not likely to be ruled by manners or restraint. Had we known better about such distinctions almost 40 years ago, we should have seen not “ham,” but a porcine Olympian defying the other gods: I may be a falling star, he was saying, but don’t take any wagers on what the cosmos will be like without me.
That it hasn’t done so well isn’t exactly news, though truth to tell, a multitude of Wolfits would not have much effect on our sorry situation in all its particulars. Most American directors have long since turned from the pressure of the next and the presence of the actor to Smart Moments featuring Themselves. At the New York Shakespeare Festival recently, Anne Bogart’s version of Brecht’s In the Jungle of the Cities was obsessed by a private agenda involving faces made up in differing colors. (Greg Mehrten’s Worm, for example, was a sickly sea-green that did nothing to conceal his own discomfort as an actor required to stand ramrod-stiff while shouting his lines.) Brecht’s journey into blasted souls—Garga and Shlink, especially, on a strange slow-motion trajectory into each other’s sexuality—was nowhere in evidence, not out of prurient indifference, but simply because the actors were programmed to do something else, most of it having to do with postures, gestures and positionings. Two actors going literally nose-to-nose in an argument are not automatically a howl, at least to those of us who haven’t yet called a truce with canned laughter.
Similarly, the Festival’s Pericles under Michael Greif’s rambunctious commands, slips in and out of styles as strenuously as it moves from one century to another, much as JoAnne Akalaitis’s Henry IV did last year. I suspect these same directors are exhausted by rising expectations about their inventiveness, every production an apparent test of their capacity to float Big Ideas About Existence. Now that fashion tells us the universe is indifferent or that we’re mere pawns on a chessboard or fragmented chemical compounds, the directors are avoiding time displacements and the singular metaphor in favor of warps and woofs that cut through Concept altogether. Yet even as I muster a sneaking sympathy for their predicament, I grieve for actors treated (at best) as inconveniences not to be trusted with life independent of those Big Ideas.
Instructive to watch Campbell Scott as he takes Pericles on a tour all his own, despite the surrounding mix of vaudeville and cartoon. No barnstormer he, yet he is a throwback to simpler times when an actor was expected to carry the narrative on his back, listening well and talking even better while giving arc and architecture to the emotional pressure points that counts the most. Acting is a discretionary art in which the actor seizes rehearsal surprises for information no direction can ever give him. For Scott’s Pericles, this means holding on to his fundamental quietness even as he’s tempest-tossed: he must stay vocally on top of the real shower Greif pours down upon him, but he does so without losing his grip on stoic wonder, that firmly drawn outline of a man sustained by a life inside himself so pensive and confident that it never bends to passing defeats. His guard slips only once, when compelled by Greif to dance a tango at Simonides’s court in Pentapolis. As if saying, “Don’t cry for me, Pentapolis,” his astonishment sails right out of the play’s situation into Greif’s wrenching joke, and for one flashing moment he looks as if he’d rather be light years from that giddy stage. He’s too good to be anything but true.
Actors don’t always escape so gracefully from their directors’ whims. The cast of John Patrick Shanley’s Beggars in the House of Plenty at the Manhattan Theatre Club was directed by Shanley himself in what must qualify as the noisiest slam-bang shouting match of the season, all the more strange in a space small enough to pick up the sound of a sneezing mouse. Shanley can hardly be blamed for waiting theatre to make a more mythic statement than the movies he’s been writing, but hollering lungs and arms thrust out accusingly do not heroic tragedy make. It’s an odd reflection on Shanley’s misconstruction of his domestic fable that an actor such as Wolfit, when finally cast in a movie—A Room at the Top in 1958—is more plausible than Shanley’s stage actors without shedding a pound of his bulky extravagance for the camera. (“A sledgehammer performance,” wrote Kenneth Tynan.) Wolfit’s mythic force turns out to have been his naturalism; Shanley, on the other hand, denatures his actors.
If a finger must be pointed, it could aim not for the usual directorial suspects, but for Wolfit’s predecessor, Gordon Craig, inventing his dream of the actor as uber-marionette after a youth spent in ambivalent relationship to Henry Irving and his mother, Ellen Terry. (Imagine what it must be like to have actor-managers as your literal and spiritual parents!) By the time we were encountering Wolfit, the stage was indeed looking more magically beautiful under director-designers than it had ever looked under actor-managers. Yet, as usual with shifts in power, something’s been lost. “The director’s role,” says Ariane Mnouchkine, no slouch in the visionary sweepstakes, “is to liberate the space in front of the actor and to help him reach the level of metaphor, that is, not to be realist.” She looks to the East for inspiration: “For thousands of years they have understood that acting is a series of rituals. Even Brecht was looking for the same thing: for the actor to accede to the responsibility of the artist.”
But that can’t happen if, unlike Mnouchkine, you’re ripping metaphor from every source except the text and the actor. Too often, the images on stage reveal a director at work who has lost the memory of how an actor moves from one point in his discoveries to another. Just as instrumentalists such as Ashkenazy and Barenboim travel from solo performance to podium, actors might seize the day for themselves, not necessarily assuming they’re better than our best directors, only that—like their musical counterparts—they have vital messages to deliver about an ancient art. Let the auteur be the author, even when, in Shanley’s case, he stumbles over his own words. Better that miscalculation than the pretense that live theatre is about amplified voices, moving scenery and air-tight grouping of bloodless, semi-paralyzed actor-marionettes. “An actor,” says Mnouchkine, “is not paid to conceal but to show,” although you wouldn’t always recognize that truth when directors work so hard to conceal what actors can show.
Wolfit surely courted status as an endangered species, but he dominated the stage, as Tynan said, “by a mighty exercise of talent, thrust, and will,” qualities available to actors that needn’t be buried yet. It’s not the actor who’s endangered, anyway, it’s the audience. But I doubt if anything’s to be done except to revive our faith in the primeval ritual of the living performance.
Let a director have the last word. Mnouchkine again: “Each time, the path towards beauty in the theatre seems harder and the precipice steeper. I feel this fragility more and more. I think that theatre is eternal, although when I watch the television, I sometimes think that it might die. I’m afraid that soon we will no longer know what an actor is.”
Critic Gordon Rogoff writes this column regularly for American Theatre.
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