Theatre yesterday and today

 

 

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ON ALFRED LUNT

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 be