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I Can Hear Their Voices ...

By John BeaufortThe author has written for The Monitor for 60 years. / February 7, 1991



`SPEAK the speech, I pray you, as I pronounc'd it to you, trippingly on the tongue....'' So begins Hamlet's advice to the players. Having been an actor himself, Shakespeare knew how much the player relies on his speech - and his voice - to create a character, communicate a mood, animate a scene, and enhance the progress of a play. A lifelong theatergoer acquires a memory bank of speeches and voices - echoes that can occur spontaneously or be prompted by some unexpected cue. Such a recollected pleasure is cued for me on passing my color reproduction of Eugene Speicher's lovely portrait of Katharine Cornell in the flowing red dress she wore as Shaw's Candida. I can hear Candida, with gently humorous practicality, asking the smitten poet Marchbanks (a very young Marlon Brando) to ``make a little poem out of the two sentences I am going to say to you.... When I am 30, she will be 45. When I am 60, she will be 75.''

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``In a hundred years, we shall be the same age,'' replies Marchbanks, adding, ``But I have a better secret than that in my heart.'' A secret, Shaw adds in his final stage direction, known neither to Candida nor her pastor husband James.

Such playbacks can start a train of voice-over memories. I can hear Walter Huston's voice - tender, husky, wistful - as he sang ``September Song'' in ``Knickerbocker Holiday.'' Decades later, Rex Harrison made a similar venture into musical comedy and similarly moved audiences when his Professor Higgins confessed, ``I've grown accustomed to her face.'' Harrison described the vocal technique he employed for the sings as ``Sprechgesang,'' inspired, he said, by British music-hall performers.

Sometimes the memory bank echoes with a truly spectacular vocal performance. In 1946, New York audiences were treated to a phenomenal double bill when Laurence Olivier combined Sophocles's ``Oedipus'' and Sheridan's ``The Critic.'' Needless to say, Olivier's Mr. Puff was a comic puff ball. But it was as Oedipus that he uttered the cry heard round the theatrical world - a cry of mingled amazement and horror that cleft the air as the king discovers the nature of his unwitting crimes.

The great British star recalls the Puff-Oedipus combo with appropriate relish in his ``Confessions of an Actor: An Autobiography.''

``Then came my `biggie,''' he writes. ``The combination of Oedipus and Mr. Puff was such a palpable tour de force, such a shrill claim on versatility that I wonder whether Ty [director Tyrone Guthrie] was not right - perhaps it was a bit vulgar.... I see; it was vulgar, was it? All right then, in that case I'm sorry, very sorry. No - no, I'm not.''

Which can be read with an invisible exclamation point. Can't you almost hear him? Spoken like a real trouper.

Occasionally, a single word can leave an indelible impression. Dame Edith Evans achieved such a feat in ``The Importance of Being Earnest.'' The rising portamento with which she registered Lady Bracknell's stunned reaction to Jack Worthing's confession that, as a baby, he had been found in a handbag in Victoria Station punctuated the interview in mid-passage.

``A ha-a-a-and ba-a-a-ag!?'' exclaimed Dame Edith. It became a patented reading and a definition of incredulity.

Another memorable one-liner was delivered by Lynn Fontanne in ``Idiot's Delight.'' The fakey Russian accent Miss Fontanne's fake Russian countess bestowed on - an ultrasyllabic ``O-ma-ha'' - gave the topography of Nebraska a new dimension.

Not all such replays are happy remembrances of things past. They can be poignant and even tragic. In 1940, John Barrymore returned to Broadway (after a long Hollywood absence) in a silly trifle called ``My Dear Children.'' Barrymore played a former matinee idol attempting to straighten out the love lives of his three daughters.