I Can Hear Their Voices ...
`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.''
``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.
The ``Great Profile'' had by then become a travesty of himself, exploiting his weaknesses for public entertainment. But there were moments, even on this rueful occasion, when we first-nighters could hear the echoes of the beautiful speech that had helped make him, as a young Hamlet, hailed as the finest actor of his day. He even spoke a few lines of ``To be, or not to be...'' with exquisite diction. At one point in the evening, a haggard young man bounded onstage to announce that he was Hamlet's ghost.
``You must have had a tough season,'' quipped Barrymore, never at a loss for an ad lib.
What we witnessed that night, however, was not Hamlet's ghost or the ghost of Hamlet's father, but the ghost of Barrymore's Hamlet.
An even more poignant memory of a voice that became hoarse and coarsened concerns Tallulah Bankhead. In her later years, the offstage star who distinguished herself onstage in ``The Little Foxes'' and ``The Skin of Our Teeth,'' became the self-parodied ``Tallu.'' Her huskiness was like a cracked record. Yet under these adverse circumstances, she undertook the challenging role of Blanche DuBois in a revival of Tennessee Williams's ``A Streetcar Named Desire.'' Disregarding the state of her voice, Miss Bankhead gave a true and touching performance. But the forces against her were too great. They included an effete claque who giggled and snickered at her every line.
After the performance, in her dressing room, the star retained her composure. Later, at home with friends, she broke down.
Fortunately, happy memories outweigh the sad ones. The vocal archives are like an echo chamber filled with snatches of dialogue and song. I can hear Howard Lindsay's explosive expletives as that autocrat of the breakfast table damned everything in sight in ``Life With Father.'' Or Alec Guinness bursting into unexpected song with ``One-Eyed Riley'' in ``The Cocktail Party.'' Or the inimitable Mildred Natwick as the ineffable Madame Arcati of ``Blithe Spirit'' announcing, ``I've leant my bike up against that little bush; it will be perfectly all right if no one touches it.'' Or Ethel Merman belting out the defiance of ``Some People'' and the bitter heartbreak of ``Rose's Turn'' in ``Gypsy.''
These and so many more. My catalog, like Nanki-Poo's, ``is long, through every passion ranging.'' It extends over the many years of a playgoing career. Mildred Dunnock as Willy Loman's defensively loyal wife Linda exclaiming, ``Attention, attention must finally be paid to such a person.'' Martita Hunt, the fantastic Countess Aurelia, alias ``The Madwoman of Chaillot,'' putting things in perspective after putting things right with: ``Four o'clock. My poor cats must be starved. What a bore for them if humanity had to be saved every afternoon.'' Gertrude Lawrence enchanting Anna Leonowens's royal Siamese charges - and the audience - with ``Getting to Know You'' in ``The King and I.'' Yul Brynner reflecting the King's ``Puzzlement'' in the same musical.
There was Judy Holliday's exquisite put-down of roughneck Harry Brock with ``You're just not couth!'' in ``Born Yesterday.'' Carol Channing inimitably extolling the friendship of diamonds in ``Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.'' Roy Dotrice's treble John Aubrey in ``Brief Lives'' and Maurice Evans's very cockney Malvolio in ``Twelfth Night.'' To name a few.
For those of us who share the experience, audience appreciation doesn't end with the curtain calls that climax a performance. Appreciation continues whenever we turn on the playback to recall the pleasures given by an innumerable company of players. I know this to be true.
I can hear their voices.