(Swans - September 6, 2010) Despite the presence of performers such as Michael Gambon, Ian McKellan, Kenneth Branagh, Alan Rickman, Ralph Fiennes, Patrick Stewart, Derek Jacobi, Mark Rylance, etc., there is a whacking great hole in the center of the British theatre and it's been there for over twenty years; in fact, since the demise of Laurence Olivier. No one has as yet come forward to assume the mantle that Olivier shed.
No matter how much we expected it, no matter how much we knew he had been living on borrowed time, he seemed miraculously to elude the scythe of the Grim Reaper until July 11, 1989, when, at the age of 82, he checked out. For all of us who were there at the time, it felt like the fall of a titan and the reverberations still persist three decades afterward.
It was not only because Olivier was the most resourceful and protean actor of the 20th century. It was also because, behind his gargantuan talent, there was a bedrock of accessible humanity that made him the best-liked actor of his generation -- and the natural leader of Britain's National Theatre when it came into being in l963.
Not that everyone believed he was the man for the job. It was a role for which he had to audition by first taking over the directorship of the Chichester Festival Theatre and demonstrating that, in addition to performing the great roles in the classical repertoire, he could also balance the books, manage personnel, and direct his colleagues towards the same exacting standards he set for himself.
When most of his contemporaries were resting comfortably on laurels won in the 1940s and '50s, Olivier, aware of the changes transforming the British stage, commissioned John Osborne to write him a new work. That turned out to be The Entertainer and it gave him a good swift kick into the burgeoning new age of the British Theatre. It also, incidentally, introduced him to his third wife, Joan Plowright, who was instrumental in coupling him with Kenneth Tynan.
The union of Olivier and Tynan was the catalytic factor in the creation of the National -- not as a storehouse for treasured relics but as a dynamic contemporary institution encouraging the work of playwrights such as Trevor Griffiths, Tom Stoppard, and Peter Shaffer and directors such as William Gaskill, John Dexter, and Lindsay Anderson. With that unfailing sixth sense that made him such an extraordinary actor, Olivier knew he had to grit his teeth and make a conscious leap into the 1960s and '70s or he would fossilize in the memory of his earlier films and stage triumphs.
Starting as an actor on the West End stage, he had been an irrepressible giggler who not only broke himself up but carried the rest of the company with him. It was while being directed by Noel Coward that the habit was finally extinguished, but it was that sense of the absurd behind the weightiest projects and most formidable undertakings that sustained him throughout his life. Although a great artist, he was constantly aware of the lunacy behind all "great art" and the presumption of offering it to the world as a treasure trove. That's what made him as brilliant a comedian as he was a tragedian. His Mr. Puff in George de Villier's The Rehearsal or his performance in The Recruiting Officer stand on a par with his greatest Shakespearean achievements.
Olivier cast a gigantic shadow over plays such as Richard III, Hamlet, Othello, Titus Andronicus, and King Lear. Today an actor cannot begin to approach these roles without looking over his shoulder to see what Olivier made of them. An Olivier opening in London was like the arrival of a crowned head from Europe. We waited breathlessly to see what new dimension would be added to roles that we had seen too routinely performed. - He never let us down.
I was at the opening of his Othello at the Old Vic and, like so many in that audience, gasped audibly at his first entrance: the clergyman's son magically transformed into a swarthy, undulating, bass-voiced black general the likes of which we simply could not reconcile with the actor we all knew.
When the National started, I was serving as a play-reader for the company and so experienced first hand the warmth and amity that existed in that nascent organization because "Sir" was at its helm. In the 1960s, interviewing him for a profile for The New York Times, I remember vividly his talking about a dissipated film career and being "chucked out" by the very studios whose fame he helped to establish. It was astonishing to hear the leading actor of his generation talk about Hollywood as if it had dealt him a miserable defeat. In common with his colleague Peter Brook, Olivier would have preferred wholesale immersion in films. Had that come to pass, it is hard to calculate how much the stage would have lost.
Occasionally the vicar's son reared his holy head. Olivier was genuinely outraged by Peter Brook's production of Seneca's Oedipus at The National (then the Old Vic) and could not abide the 30-foot phallus that loomed up ominously in the last moments of the performance. As much as he tried to wean himself into modernity, he carried an unshiftable moral legacy from his clerical father and his upbringing that would remain forever Tory and respectable. His tenacious refusal to discuss the miseries of his break-up with Vivian Leigh was another of those stiff-upper-lip resolutions which tidily reconciled with his personal philosophy. "It's nobody's goddamn business but my own," he said on that occasion. In this, as in so many things, Olivier was refreshingly British -- that's to say, elegant, discreet, and utterly principled in his dealings with the outside world.
He had little of the preciousness that distinguished John Gielgud; small measure of the gregarious humor of Ralph Richardson; no trace of the glacial remoteness that enveloped Paul Scofield. With those baleful eyes constantly issuing silent lamentations, Olivier was always an actor who spoke directly to everything human, vulnerable and penitent in our natures. Even his Hotspur had a touch of the forlorn. So did his Hamlet.
When his cancer was first diagnosed and the board of the National Theatre began to make preliminary moves to replace him, one could sense his feeling of being spurned -- yet again. As with his film career, he was being eased out by the very people who, only months before, had been lauding his achievements. His abrupt removal from the National and Peter Hall's stealthy replacement will always remain one of the tawdriest chapters in the annals of the British theatre.
What do we most remember about Laurence Olivier? Apart from the great performances and the managerial achievements, it was because he was a great man who never lost that most easily dispensed trait of great men: the common touch. A man who approached each role as if it were an assault on the north face of the Eiger and who instilled in actors, writers, and designers throughout England the conviction that theatre was a holy calling that demanded fierce piety as well as unstinting physical commitment.
He dignified the profession by simply being part of it.
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