They weren't household names, and only one of their faces might be widely recognizable, but the deaths in rapid succession of Myra Carter, Brian Bedford and Alan Rickman represent an incalculable loss of theatrical eloquence and éclat.
These were peerless character actors who would have scoffed at the idea of having no peers. Trained in the U.K. but at home on North American stages and screens (Bedford was a star of Canada's Stratford Festival), they possessed the sharp individuality that allowed them to color whatever role they might be playing with an unmistakable distinctiveness.
Of the three, Bedford, the preeminent English language interpreter of Molière (he directed and appeared in "The Molière Comedies" in 2002 at the Mark Taper Forum), was perhaps best able to lose himself in a role. But his diamond-hard intelligence was immediately identifiable even when he was playing a character as willfully obtuse as Orgon in Moliere's "Tartuffe," which he magisterially performed on Broadway in 2003.
FOR THE RECORD:
Theater production: An appreciation of Myra Carter, Brian Bedford and Alan Rickman in the Jan. 16 Calendar section included a photo caption that identified a production featuring Rickman and Helen Mirren in 1998 as "Anthony and Cleopatra." The title is "Antony and Cleopatra." —
It takes a special genius to be able to transmit the style of an author from another era, language and culture with the exactitude that Bedford, who died Wednesday from cancer at age 80, effortlessly displayed. To be block-headed and brilliantly funny in rhyming couplets requires both verbal and psychological acuity of a rare order.
But to unleash Lady Bracknell's patented quips in elaborate Victorian drag, as he did in the 2011 Broadway revival of Oscar Wilde's "The Importance of Being Earnest," and make each one seem newly minted points to a gift from the gods — as well as decades of steady stage practice. This veteran made the difficult look easy. No one could match him on this continent in farce, and he was an expert at Shakespeare and Chekhov too.
Bedford, Carter and Rickman carried with them the values of an older, less star-struck generation. Having cut their teeth on the world repertory, they had little interest in playing flattering versions of themselves. They were workers, diligent, disciplined and proud of their professionalism, even if Carter wore hers like a crusty pirate.
Carter, who died Jan. 9 from complications of pneumonia at age 86, is the least well known of this trio, but she has a credit to her name that should reserve her a place in theatrical posterity. She was the bedridden matriarch sifting through thorny memories in "Three Tall Women," Edward Albee's 1994 Pulitzer Prize winner and the play I consider to be his masterpiece.
Here's Albee's description of Carter's character, know only as A: "A very old woman; thin, autocratic, proud, as together as the ravages of time will allow. Nails scarlet, hair nicely done, wears makeup. Lovely nightgown and dressing gown." The only logical conclusion to draw after I saw Carter in the role was that she performed the part in Albee's imagination.
The sting and snap of Carter's delivery made her a natural for Albee's coruscating wit. She understood his language, reveling in his bitter truths and revealing the pain underlying the ferocity. These qualities, which she demonstrated in revivals of "All Over" and "A Delicate Balance," served her well when she was invited by Princeton's McCarter Theatre to perform in the work of the Irish playwright Marina Carr — another writer whose somber lyricism seemed written in Carter's mother tongue.
With a honey baritone that could seduce nuns and a purr that was indistinguishable from a growl, Rickman excelled at decadence, haughtiness, languor and malevolence. Deadpan became this actor, who died Thursday of cancer at 69. His last role on Broadway, the sinister writing teacher of Theresa Rebeck's "Seminar," helped elevate a boulevard play into something more artful. His performance was so lustily diabolical, an effete literary devil barely able to work up the energy to satisfy his latest sensual whims, that I had a difficult time adjusting to Jeff Goldblum's more straightforward take on the character when the play came to the Ahmanson Theatre in 2012.
Rickman could make even deathliness a turn-on, as he did when he played the title character in Ibsen's "John Gabriel Borkman" at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 2011. But it was in the superlative 2002 Broadway revival of Noël Coward's "Private Lives," in which he starred opposite Lindsay Duncan (his brilliant costar in "John Gabriel Borkman" and in the 1987 production that introduced them both to Broadway, the Royal Shakespeare Company's acclaimed "Les Liaisons Dangereuses") that I began to appreciate the full magnitude of Rickman's genius.
Coward's play is so often revived that I had stupidly assumed that there was nothing left to discover in the bright shallow banter. Rickman and Duncan showed me heartbreaking depths my own reading failed to uncover. Rickman's every utterance as Elyot Chase had what can only be described as a musical panache. Caressing his consonants and trumpeting his vowels, he handled the witty dialogue with astonishing aplomb. But more impressive than that, he endowed Elyot with a soul.
The younger generation may remember Rickman, whose movie résumé ranged from "Die Hard" and "Galaxy Quest" to "Truly, Madly, Deeply" and "Sense and Sensibility," as Professor Severus Snape from the "Harry Potter" franchise. But for me he will always be an Olympian winning the gold for his Coward.
Similarly, Bedford will remain permanently linked with Molière in English translation (his service in this area is worthy of an international set of medals of honor). And for having taught us how to pronounce Albee's stylized dialogue without sounding in the least artificial and for wringing tremendous comedy from tremendous sorrow without diminishing the seriousness of the work, Carter deserves to stand forever beside the American dramatist whose reputation she helped restore through her crafty acting.
There might not be much passing fame in such accomplishments, but there is something greater: artistic immortality.