A slightly modified column based on one written three years ago today.
Laurence Olivier once said, “Everything I know about acting I learned from Alfred Lunt.” And if Olivier’s name isn’t quite the be all and end all it once was when the names of great actors are summoned, then the name of Lunt is even far less so. This is mainly due to the fact that (as opposed to Olivier) close to all of Lunt’s triumphs were on the stage. Considering that 1958 was the last time he was in a play, there is practically no one under the age of sixty who could have conceivably seen his work live. The same goes for his wife, Lynn Fontanne, with whom he acted almost exclusively. With but one film they made together (The Guardsman in 1931) and appearances in three television plays, theatre was where they lived and breathed (and prospered and triumphed). Be it Broadway, the West End, or on tour across the states, the Lunts inhaled theatre dust as easily as we take in air.
Alfred Lunt, 1932 (photo by Carl Van Vechten).
Born on this date, August 12, 1892 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Lunt’s father died when he was two-years-old. It was a blessing that his theater-loving mother took him to see shows whenever they came to town, providing Lunt with an ambition he could hardly tamp down. After briefly attending Carroll College in nearby Waukesha, it became immediately apparent that no school could contain his desire to act professionally. By age nineteen, he was being cast regularly in touring productions and it didn’t take long before he was on Broadway. His first play, Romance and Arabella closed quickly within in a month, but his second, the title of role in Booth Tarkington’s Clarence, was a smash hit that brought the twenty-seven-year-old actor widespread praise. The Variety critic wrote that Lunt “rose to stardom in one bound. His personality is unique and thoroughly captivating … [his] methods are quite indescribable. In effect he is thoroughly charming, deft in comedy, and so genuinely convincing that one’s admiration goes out to him.” (Don’t you love the high-brow manner in which critics penned superlatives in those days?)
Lunt as Harry Van in the Pulitzer Prize winning Idiot’s Delight by Robert Sherwood (1936).
Photo by Florence Vandamm
It was also during the run of this production that Lunt met his future wife, the British actress Lynn Fontanne, who was herself playing the title role in a hit play, Dulcy, just two blocks away. Within a few years they married, then began acting together in plays. They not only found it enormous fun, but necessary, as neither felt as free, comfortable or as good an actor without the other. With their ever-increasing stardom as a team continuing to grow, so did their clout. Their desire to appear solely in the same productions left producers powerless to separate them. But Lunt and Fontanne were fiercely committed and wouldn’t hear of being split up in order to bring in two plays a season instead of one. This caused them to eventually sign a less-than- lucrative contract with the Theatre Guild in order to secure this unique guarantee. There was no more mighty a producing entity at the time than the Theatre Guild, which had, since its inception in 1919 (the same year as Lunt’s Broadway debut), produced in its first ten years alone, two Pulitzer Prize winners (They Knew What They Wanted and Strange Interlude) as well as the plays Liliom, Porgy and Green Grow the Lilacs, which would respectively be adapted into the musicals Carousel, Porgy and Bess and Oklahoma!—also produced by the Guild.
Astonishingly, the final tally of Lunt’s Broadway appearances came to thirty-six plays over the course of thirty-nine years, including directing a few in which he didn’t star (though sometimes he directed his wife and himself, just to keep things interesting). It has been written extensively about the modern techniques the Lunts brought to some not-terribly-modern plays of the 1930s and ’40s. Their idea, to overlap their dialogue in the belief it would create realism, was something no one had ever come up with before. The ease with which they played opposite one another went beyond the familiar. Many attest to the intimacy they conveyed, touching one another in sexual ways that gave audiences a true rise.
The Lunts with their friend Noël Coward in Design for Living,
a play he wrote for the three of them to perform (1932). Photo by Florence Vandamm
After years of triumphs, failures and everything in between, it was announced in 1958 that the Lunts were returning to Broadway to star in Swiss author and dramatist Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s The Visit. Collective eyebrows lifted as it was also announced its director would be Peter Brook. At the time, Brook was creating a sensation at the Royal Shakespeare Company in England with innovative and controversial productions. The Lunts had been playing it safe for a while in recent vehicles that were often beneath their talents like The Sebastians and Quadrille (though this minor Noël Coward play would win Lunt his sole Tony Award as Best Actor).
On The Visit’s opening night, May 5, 1958, the former Globe Theatre on West 46th Street, after a massive renovation, was christened once and forever the Lunt-Fontanne in honor of the acting couple. No one knew that this would be the last show they would ever perform on stage together (or apart). A few years later, they officially retired to their farm in Genesee, Wisconsin (Twelve Chimneys, now a museum http://www.tenchimneys.org). It was heaven sent that the production, though not a financial success, was a critically praised one, particularly for Lunt’s performance as Anton Schill. A very dark play, Lunt was said to have sent shivers up the audience’s spine, by virtue of his chilling portrayal of a man destroyed by the avarice of people he once thought his friends. This is not to diminish Lynn Fontanne’s contribution to the production, but it was always thought (though not often written), that Lunt was the more clever actor, with deeper reserves of emotion than his wife.
Lunt and Fontanne in The Visit (1958). Photo by Florence Vandamm
I have always been fascinated by The Visit, not only because it is such a good play, but because this production has gone down—with no hyperbole—as a legendary one. When in fun I am asked what I would see if offered the chance to go back in time, The Visit is high atop my list. Subsequently, I’ve asked anyone of a certain age who attended the theatre back in the late 50’s if they saw it, and if they did, their eyes light up and I know that I’m in for some wonderful stories. The best one was actually from an actor, Robert Donley, who told a first-person account one evening when he was invited to address my fellow acting students at SUNY Purchase, the college I attended some forty-five years ago. Donley was an original cast member in The Visit and with the memory still burning bright, he confessed to us his committing the unforgivable sin of missing an entrance—in a performance with the Lunts, no less! Duly reprimanded afterwards, he was overwhelmed with shame and guilt standing in the wings the following night waiting for that same entrance. As he crossed the stage he passed Lunt, who remained in character and called out to Donley a line not in the script: “Good to see you this evening!”
The delightful Alfred Lunt (1892–1977).
If you enjoy these columns, check out Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway, available at Amazon.com in hardcover, softcover and e-book. Also sign up to follow me here, and feel free to email me with comments or questions, at Ron@ronfassler.org.