Gyles Brandreth has long been a contributor to the gaiety of nations, but with this monumental collection — 774 pages of it — he has put the theatrical profession and theatergoers everywhere heavily in his debt. Gathering together anecdotes from the 16th century to nearly the present day, he has provided an alternative and very human history of the theater.
Largely the British theater, it has to be said, with an occasional nod to the American and French professions, and — with very occasional exceptions — distinctly short on ethnic diversity. However, it is by no means a celebration of the establishment. For the most part it glories in roguishness and vagabondage, constantly paying tribute to the unaccountable surges of magic and mystery — to say nothing of unbridled laughter — that the theater at its best generates.
It is not, I hope, a reckless generalization to say that almost all the stories are tinged with nostalgia for a halcyon time when the relationship between audience and actors was simpler and more primitive, and the frailties of performance — being drunk, for example, or not being able to remember a word of the script — were simply part and parcel of the rough and tumble of the job.
Here we have William Macready, pre-eminent early 19th-century Shakespearean, rushing into the wings as Macbeth to cover his hands in blood, and, finding that the stage blood has not been set, punching an innocent bystander hard on the nose, scooping up the blood and rushing back on, dripping. Violence and passion abound.
The stories are tinged with nostalgia for a halcyon time when … the frailties of performance — being drunk, for example, or not being able to remember a word of the script — were simply part and parcel of the rough and tumble of the job.
At the other end of the spectrum of theater, a century later the great comedian Frank Randle, ailing, locks himself into his dressing room to say his prayers. The call boy knocks on the door: “Two minutes, Mr Randle.” Amid the coughing and the spluttering he answers, “F*** off, I’m praying.” Then there is Donald Wolfit, feeling great personal proximity to the author of Twelfth Night, refusing to play the Sir Topas scene, in which Malvolio is cruelly guyed. “I can’t learn it. And if I can’t learn it, Will Shakespeare never wrote it.”
Then there is often this nagging feeling (not shared by Wolfit) of having got away with it — only just. Henry Irving, the first actor to receive a knighthood, the undisputed leader of his profession, once remarked to his leading lady Ellen Terry: “For an actor who can’t walk, can’t talk and has no face to speak of, I’ve done pretty well.” Wilfred Hyde-White told his surprised chum Moray Watson that he had been to drama school: “I learnt two things: one that I couldn’t act and two — that it didn’t matter!”
The Theater’s Grandes Dames
There are delectable stories here about the cunning ploys of stars to ensure they receive the undivided attention of the audience at all times; Dame Marie Tempest takes the biscuit — dog biscuit, in this instance — by having her dresser release her darling little pooch onto the stage and into her arms just when the curtain call seems to be coming to an end, thus ensuring at least two more solo bows for herself.
They were formidable, these grandes dames of the stage. At rehearsal once Dame Madge Kendal (1849-1935) asked a stage manager to bring a kitchen chair and place it in the middle of the stage. The company was summoned to gather round while she knelt down and said: “Oh Lord, we pray Thee out of Thy infinite mercy that Thou will cause some notion of the rudiments of acting to be vouchsafed to this company for Jesus Christ’s sake, Amen.” “Well now,” she snapped. “We’ll see what that will do!”
Very touching is the account of the night Vanessa Redgrave was born. At the curtain call Laurence Olivier, playing Hamlet, announced: “Tonight a great actress has been born. Laertes [Michael Redgrave] has a daughter.” The gallery roared their approval, and from the wings student actors wheeled on a barrow of flowers with the message: To Rachel and Michael — Love’s Labour’s Not Lost.
Elsewhere Judi Dench, as ever, celebrates the sheer joy of acting: “When I was young, my eldest brother, Peter, was in a school production of Macbeth. He played Duncan, so his first line was ‘What bloody man is that?’ And I thought, ‘Christ —this is for me! Not only Shakespeare but swearing!’”
Very touching is the account of the night Vanessa Redgrave was born. At the curtain call Laurence Olivier, playing Hamlet, announced: “Tonight a great actress has been born. Laertes [Michael Redgrave] has a daughter.”
A lot of the book is very funny; some of it is sublime. Brandreth quotes at length from Harold Pinter’s superlative monograph Mac, about the legendary actor-manager Anew McMaster, and at even greater length from Edward Gordon Craig’s biography of his idol Henry Irving in his greatest triumph, as Matthias in The Bells. If one ever wanted to convey the potent conjunction of acting and stagecraft at its most jaw-dropping, this is a very good place to start.
Patrick Garland quotes Rex Harrison on the subject of light comedy, which, the actor says, quite unexpectedly, requires the skill of the great bullfighter Manolete: “Everything he does is imbued with a kind of silence, and choreography and a sense of grace. The true comedian, like the true bullfighter, should affect to do nothing.” And David Garrick notes that when his old friend, mentor and fellow Lichfielder, Dr Johnson, writes tragedy, “declamation roars and passion sleeps”. When Shakespeare wrote, he magnificently observes, “he dipped his pen in his own heart.”
It is impossible to do justice here to the fullness of Brandreth’s bran tub. It’s a hamper of a book, overflowing with delights and the odd occasion for serious reflection. Of course, any actor, anybody working in the theater, will be dismayed that this or that story has been left out. And I personally marvel that the greatest (and properly authenticated) of all inappropriate paraphrasing stories was not included, evoking as it does, a moment of sublime spontaneous surrealism; I offer it up here as a small present to readers.
Here goes: the distinguished actress Gladys Cooper was struggling a little with the text of Noël Coward’s new play, Relative Values. Having more or less successfully negotiated her opening scene, she left the stage, but instead of saying, as scripted, “I’m just going to slip into the study,” she asserted, in ringing tones: “I’m just going to slip into the understudy.”
Perhaps it’ll make it into the second edition.
Simon Callow is an actor and director, and the author of several books, including an acclaimed three-volume biography of Orson Welles