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THE DAZZLER: LAURENCE OLIVIER

With the month of May in the rearview mirror (and not a minute too soon), I’ve taken the last few days to look further backward to May of 1946. This was when London’s Old Vic Theatre came to New York to present a series of classic plays in six weeks of repertory: Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2, Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya and, on a double bill, Sophocles’ Oedipus and Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s The Critic, (he of such witty Restoration comedies as The Rivals and The School for Scandal). The company had already played the West End, Paris, Hamburg, and even a British military post at the remains of the concentration camp at Belsen, but Broadway still beckoned. It had only been less than a year after the end of World War II, and a celebration of a return to normalcy was not only welcome, but necessary. It’s important to note that the Old Vic structure itself had been bombed to near ruin in 1942, so the comeback didn’t take place at its historic home, as it was still undergoing repairs. What the Old Vic provided at the time was an emotional healing for not only the theatre community, but for the country as a whole.

Sounding familiar?

In New York, the plays were booked into the large (1,700 seats) and now demolished New Century Theatre, which was located at 7th Avenue and 58th Street. At this time the Old Vic was being led by a triumvirate that included the actor Ralph Richardson and the stage director John Burrell. But its spiritual soul lived within Laurence Olivier, recently knighted by the King at thirty-nine years-old — the youngest member of the acting profession to ever receive that honor. Later, in 1970, he was elevated to the peerage by Queen Elizabeth II and dubbed Baron Olivier of Brighton, which allowed him to sit in the House of Lords. Very heady stuff for a minister’s son from Dorking, Surrey.

Laurence Olivier, circa the 1940s.

To essay his remarkable life in less than 1,200 words is a foolish task. Instead, I would like to concentrate on just one particular triumph (in two different roles) that stand out among his long and brave stage career. His attempt (by all accounts successful) of portraying the title characters in Oedipus and The Critic; plays so diverse in tone and style, left critics on both sides of the Atlantic inventing new adjectives to praise Olivier’s audaciousness.

Anyone possessing even a small amount of knowledge of 5th century-era Greek tragedies is aware of the tale of Oedipus; a man prophesied to kill his father and marry his mother. Finally confronted with the horror, and in an ending never to be forgotten, he gouges out his eyes. Though a far lesser known work, Sheridan’s 1779 satirical comedy The Critic, is centered on the ridiculous Mr. Puff, a playwright, gossip columnist and press agent rolled into one, who drives the engine of this satire, based on an earlier Restoration play, George Villiers’ The Rehearsal. An actor with the sheer size and boldness of an Olivier knew how effective he could be as Oedipus, stunned and bleeding at its conclusion, then show off in stark contrast the comedic ramblings of Mr. Puff, who, at the finish, ascends to the rafters on a cloud.

Olivier in Oedipus (1946). Before…

… and after.

Olivier as Mr. Puff in The Critic (1946).

This was a particularly adventurous time in Olivier’s career. Only a year earlier in 1945, he had premiered his Henry V, which was the first film in which he starred and directed. In 1948, his Hamlet, which he also directed and starred in, would win him the Academy Award as Best Actor. The Old Vic plays in rep marked Olivier’s return to Broadway for the first time in six years, since he played opposite his then-wife Vivien Leigh in Romeo and Juliet. For that production, in a less-than-subtle fashion, the credits listed Olivier as star, director, producer, co-composer of its music, as well as a credit for “production designer,” even though separate people were cited for actually designing the sets, lighting and costumes.

Being one not to shun the spotlight, he co-starred in every one of the plays alongside his co-artistic director and friend Ralph Richardson. To this day considered one of the greatest actors to portray Falstaff, Richardson won the hearts of the critics on both sides of the Atlantic when he appeared in Henry IV, Part One (Olivier played the juicy role of Hotspur). In Part Two, Richardson merrily continued on as Falstaff, and Olivier (to reiterate, not one to shun the spotlight), took on the role of the ancient Justice Shallow, in a scene-stealing turn (almost unrecognizable in the photo below). For Uncle Vanya, they played opposite one another with Richardson in the title role and Olivier as Astrov, the conflicted country doctor (Olivier would again play the part years later opposite Michael Redgrave in Chichester, England, later filmed and released in 1963).

Ralph Richardson as Falstaff in Henry IV, Parts One and Two (1946).

Olivier (under a putty nose and crepe hair) as Justice Robert Shallow in Henry IV, Part Two (1946).

In Oedipus and The Critic, Richardson took on secondary roles leaving Olivier to carry the evening as the tour de force it was designed to be. Interesting to look at the entire cast from seventy-four years ago, and discover future Academy Award nominee Joyce Redman, and two two-time Tony Award winners, Margaret Leighton and George Rose among them. But you have to read the Playbill very carefully to look among the crowd, hired as supernumeraries, to find the name Julie Harris, who was just beginning the long career that awarded her six Tonys by the time of her death in 2013.

Oedipus was staged by Michel St. Denis and The Critic by Miles Malleson (who also took on a role in the show), but there was no question the evening belonged to Olivier. “Those who were there when the scream was sounded offstage said they could still hear it decades later,” wrote Ben Brantley in a piece he wrote for the New York Times in 2001, referring to what audiences heard prior to Oedipus entering with his eyes ripped from their sockets. Olivier’s blood-curdling cry has gone down as a moment (like so many in the theatre) that you had to have been present for in order to comprehend its chilling power and effectiveness. “Mr. Olivier’s Oedipus is one of those performances in which blood and electricity are somehow mixed. It pulls lightning down from the sky…” wrote the American critic John Mason Brown.

Of course, it wasn’t only Olivier and Richardson at the Old Vic who could entertain you for a top price of $6. For added measure, if you were around in May of 1946, you could also grab tickets to the original productions of Oklahoma! and Carousel, Ethel Merman in Annie Get Your Gun, Laurette Taylor in The Glass Menagerie, Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne in Terrence Rattigan’s O Mistress Mine, a revival of Show Boat at the old Ziegfeld Theatre (where it had originally opened in 1927), Pearl Bailey in Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer’s St. Louis Woman, Judy Holliday in Born Yesterday, Gertrude Lawrence in Pygmalion, Frank Fay in Harvey, Billion Dollar Baby, directed by George Abbott with choreography by Jerome Robbins, and Ray Bolger in the musical revue Three to Make Ready.

And that’s only half of what was playing.

So, if you were offered a trip in the proverbial Time Machine, but were told you only had a few hours to see one show, would you pick Olivier and Company? Or one of the above?

Tough choice, right?

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.

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