Hanover, N.H. — The man whom the Royal Shakespeare Company's board chairman, Fordham Flower, once called ''robust and Elizabethan'' is peering at a chafing dish of tortellini.
''What is that?'' comes the querulous inquiry in a distinct British accent. It is the same tone of voice he will later use to ask why there is no national theater in America, decry the decline of classical acting, and insist that a tolerance for inarticulateness is growing in both America and Britain.
He is Anthony Quayle, one of England's grand old men of the theater. And if you didn't know better, you might assume him to be a bluff grandfather who becomes miffed when his lunch is unrecognizable. As it turns out, the tall man with grizzled hair and gold-buttoned blue blazer is one of the most celebrated actor-directors working in the English language.
Probably best known to American audiences for his roles in such films as ''Anne of the Thousand Days'' and ''Lawrence of Arabia,'' and on Broadway as the star of ''Sleuth,'' Quayle is considered in his native England to be one of the most distinguished classical actors - in the same league with John Gielgud, Laurence Olivier, and the late Ralph Richardson.
But it is for his tenure at what has become the Royal Shakespeare Company that Quayle achieved his eminence. His 10-year RSC directorship during the 1950s catapulted the then second-rate Stratford-based company to national prominence.
''Yes, there is no question about it,'' says Quayle, working his way around a plate of salads, ''when I was at the RSC, it was the premier theater in the country. But I had a very good basis handed down to me.''
The combination of frankness and generosity of spirit is characteristic of this man, who after half a century of work in some of the finest theaters in the world is not hesitating to start all over again. Quayle was recently in residence at Dartmouth College as a Montgomery Fellow, and his latest project is his own newly formed theater company called Compass. His troupe is set to open on a regional tour in Britain this spring with an 18th-century comedy, ''The Clandestine Marriage.''
Does Quayle carry a torch for classical drama? ''Yes, yes, I do. But then it is difficult for me to get hold of a modern play that hasn't been snatched up by the big subsidized theaters,'' he says. ''But what I love is acting, good acting , good actors. If we can get a good modern play, so much the better. But that is secondary to the acting.''
It is this theme - the rigors and virtues of classical drama - that Quayle will return to again and again during his lunch and later in a discussion on stage for students and faculty in Dartmouth's Hopkins Center.
''Where does acting come from? What is this skill that we admire, that we pretend to be other people?'' Quayle muses openly. ''It has rather religious origins, the spectacle of sacrifice,'' he determines quickly. ''But where are we today? We have the sacred origins mixed up with a sort of profane showbiz. And it's that show biz that is strangling the other.''
Quayle admits that inflated production costs are largely at fault, but the trend is such that today ''only Broadway and the commercial theaters in England can take care of themselves.''
Quayle is not hesitant to call for a national theater in the United States, an American counterpart to the Royal Shakespeare. ''No one would eat better, there would be no more jobs, but it should be a matter of national pride. If you're trying to preserve a literary heritage, if you're trying to keep the language of Shakespeare and Sophocles and Euripides alive, you've got to support the actors who can act it.
''It sounds so boring to keep saying 'classical theater,' but with the advent of the movie industry, all the great (theatrical) rewards went to California. When I first appeared in New York in 1936, it was fashionable to play Broadway, but after the war, this evaporated. There was a dwindling of that narrow path that we in England still consider the most prestigious - that of the classical actor. It's pretty narrow and flinty and not a lot of money in it, but it's still our goal and target.
''Over here, if you're a young actor, there ain't no path, or hardly any. So you hope you get into 'Dallas' or 'Dynasty' and say to yourself, 'When I get famous, maybe then I'll have some influence.' But it doesn't work out that way, because usually by then you've woven such a barbed-wire dollar cocoon that you can't get out.''
In actors and directors such as Meryl Streep, Joseph Papp, and Al Pacino, Quayle finds indications of a small renaissance for serious American theater.
''Americans want to be entertained,'' he says. ''It's the same thing in England, but we wish to be entertained a little more thoughtfully.'' Nevertheless, Quayle says that ''an old puritanical streak exists in both countries that says that the theater is heretical or frivolous or should look after itself. But it can't now, and a nation needs a national theater as much as it needs a national art museum. My golly, it should.''
There is an emphatic burst of applause from the student and faculty audience gathered in the auditorium to hear this impassioned, impromptu speech. Immediately, there are more questions for this versatile actor who, though occasionally groping for an elusive play title, nevertheless speaks as ''a man of acumen, panache, and vision,'' as Royal Shakespeare historian Sally Beauman described him.
For Quayle, his continuing urgency about theater's cultural imperativeness comes down to an encroaching inarticulateness that he contrasts sharply to Shakespeare's linguistic facility.
''Better language has never been written,'' says Quayle bluntly. ''His scale, size, and poignancy are extraordinary, immensely rewarding to an audience, and pleasing to an actor. It's easily digestible language, but the words are important; they are the carrier of ideas. Emotions and sympathies are easily evoked by visual images, but words evoke ideas.
''Yet look at the way we talk now, in our novels and in our plays and our letters to each other. Even my own children speak in a sort of shorthand of noises. I can't understand them. We're reducing language almost to 'uh-huh' that doesn't convey any subtlety of meaning.''
After years of work in the theater, Quayle maintains that a verbal literary tradition is best preserved by ensuring that there are those actors able to perform the ancient texts and perform them well.
While lauding American acting traditions as producing a ''truth that is violent, strong, and often inarticulate,'' Quayle says it is likely to fall short when ''they have to step on stage and say, 'It is the east, and Juliet is the sun. . . .' ''
That ability to act the classics in the way the texts require, Quayle says, is not only a difficult skill, but one that often requires the benefit of years.
''In many of his tragedies and political plays Shakespeare is writing about mature, powerful people,'' he says. ''And it requires a certain weight of character that you simply don't have when you're young. The acquisition of hope, despair, wisdom, all these come slowly. But they are all qualities inherent in Shakespeare's characters, which is why he is such a great dramatist.
''It's not until you reach a maturity of mind and have the technical equipment that you don't have to push on stage. Youth has its own enchanting qualities: good looks, energy, enthusiasm. But when television and film is all the time creaming off the best young actors and turning them into millionaires, that they are lost to the greater side of their art.''