Book Reviews : Olivier: Dialogue With a Theater Titan

On Acting by Laurence Olivier (Simon & Schuster: $18.95 ).

"What I needed was an audience," Olivier admits in his introduction to this splendid account of his dazzling theatrical career, and so the book that began as an informal reminiscence spoken into an unresponsive tape recorder became this elegantly polished discourse on stagecraft, told to a privileged listener doubling as editor. The tone is intimate and candid; a private seminar with the man who is indisputably one of the greatest actors of the century. "Not a book for the gossips," the author says; "purely and simply about acting and about how I feel it has come about for me," but because Olivier's career has been inextricably bound up with the lives of other theatrical giants, there are marvelous anecdotes and revelations to astonish and entertain as well as instruct.

Professional Rivalry

The intense rivalry with the late Sir Ralph Richardson is here, culminating in the bizarre incident following the opening of Richard III in Paris, when Sir Ralph stalked into Olivier's hotel room, picked him up bodily and dangled him over the cobbled street 60 feet blow. "Ralph," Olivier said . . . "I think we'll both look very silly in the morning . . .In the silence I could feel him breathing. Another pause. Then slowly he brought me back in . . . I saw in his eyes that if I'd done anything other than I had, he'd have let me go. For a brief moment he'd wanted to kill me."

There is a frank appraisal of John Gielgud, edged with the faintest tinge of ambivalence, revealing not only the personalities of the two men but their contrasting approaches to acting. "I'm a peripheral player who goes out to the character, whereas he stays in the center, finds something in the part that will suit him, then pulls it in towards himself. I went for the physical, the heroics . . . John was always the poet, the ephemerist, head upturned towards the stars. John has a dignity, a majesty which suggests he was born with a crown on his head; my persona is that of a man who has plucked the crown and placed it upon himself."

With the exception of these inevitable and illuminating asides, the book sticks to its stated purpose--the long and arduous process by which the crown was won and held. Olivier is a thoughtful scholarly actor, knowledgeable not only about Shakespeare and his milieu but equally well versed in the general history of drama from its earliest beginnings. He invites you to speculate with him on the reason the ancient Greeks performed stark naked. "To create an illusion of fitness, of speed, to streamline themselves rather like an Olympic swimmer of today . . . the smooth head parting the water?--nothing to cover you but your imagination. Perhaps for absolute freedom to arrive at some essential truth hidden even by the sheer chiton?"

Participation Required

He creates a dialogue; requires our participation. Olivier muses about the origins of theater in simple imitation even before the full development of language; the mime as the precursor of the actor. We learn about Richard Burbage, David Garrick, Edmund Kean and Sir Henry Irving, each of whom interpreted Shakespeare according to the spirit of his time. Olivier has unearthed descriptions of these men written by their contemporaries, using critical notices written centuries ago to enrich his own portrayals.

Absolutely every impression is incorporated into his art and craft; the twitches, glances, tics and inflections of people in shops, subways and streets, all stored in "the magic box" until needed to define a character; the ugly and the beautiful equally treasured; the effect of adenoids, of ill-fitting teeth, "tight underpants that might raise vocal delivery towards the roof." Try traveling on the London Circle Underground, Olivier advises. The full round will provide mannerisms for an entire dramatic repertoire.

Less Familiar Territory

Although the sections describing the evolution of Olivier's Shakespearean roles are meticulously detailed, the chapter on his transformation from a classical actor in Archie Rice, the broken-down musical hall performer in "The Entertainer" explores rougher and less familiar territory. After John Osborn "had put the whole of contemporary England on stage with one amazing sweep of his brush," Olivier was obsessed with making sure no nuance was lost upon the public. "Here everything had to be slightly out of kilter, and yet the actor inside me still had to hold on to the audience." Where another or less cerebral man might have settled for the easy laughs and the obvious pathos, Olivier attempts and achieves nothing less than a metaphor encompassing the state of the Empire.

The last third of the book, concentrating upon the author's career in film as a director as well as an actor, is filled with extraordinary enthusiasm and respect for the medium, an endearing attitude not always found among the titans of the stage. Prodigiously gifted, articulate, and supremely confident, Olivier can afford to be generous. The coronet plucked four decades ago with the epochal Richard III remains firmly in place, the unnamed successor briskly cautioned. There's still a reigning monarch to contend with, "an old man barring the way" even as he graciously shows the heir through the corridors of the palace.

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