A Dramatic Debut Worth Noting
I'LL come clean: my name is not Olivier, or Gielgud, or Richardson. I've never won an Oscar. I've never turned down a script. No one has ghosted my autobiography at the triumphant close of my notable career: My career has not been notable (and I can't be sure it's at its close yet, anyway). I do not appear on chat shows discussing the finer points of Othello. In short, my name does not feature noticeably in "The Great Stage Stars" by Sheridan Morley. There are, presumably, reasons. But one of them - looking back, though by no means in anger - has definitely not been a lack of enthusiasm. I was, as my memoirs would doubtless start by mentioning, stage-struck from a surprisingly early age. Not just stage-struck; stage-bombed.Skip to next paragraph
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Initially, it may have been my elder brother's doing. One afternoon he decided to paint me red from head to foot - I agreed it was a marvellous project - and then he marched me into the room where my parents were, announcing "The Entry of Mephistopheles."
It was my first taste, I think, of dramatic effect, and, of course, coincidentally, of the power of makeup to transform and impress. When said parental persons finally recognized me, I was peremptorily dispatched bathward for a general cleansing job. I believe, however, that the sheer horror my appearance produced may have inscribed itself in my mental notebook as a Thing Worth Doing.
At the age of four or five, of course, I certainly didn't fully appreciate the symbolism involved in this incident. According to German legend, Mephistopheles was not a nice chap - an evil spirit, indeed - to whom Faust sold his soul. Mephistopheles followed up by having a characteristic ball with the soul in question. What, conversely, my brother may have done with the paint - diabolically redecorating my undoubtedly angelic physique - was to offer up my "soul" (well, not really) to the "evil spirit" ( kind of) known as The Stage. From that fateful moment on, I imagine, my future as an actor was determined. All my future lack of promise was foretold by the entry of Mephistopheles.
I can't remember whether it was Pooh or Stephanie who came next in the historionic order of things. Stephanie, I think. Stephanie fascinated me. She was an instance of something we didn't have in any shape or form at home: a girl. She lived down the road and had a pigtail. Anyway, she was good for ordering about (or at least that's the way I remember it) and she had to play all the parts in my plays that I decided she had to play. We had a window seat which was perfect, with curtains that could be drawn . The parental bunch were told to sit in a row and, since Stephanie and I, in spite of endless preparatory discussions, had never actually decided what the play-for-today was about, we improvised intensely, with many sotto voce stage prompts en route.
Parents, come to think about it, can be frightfully misguided at times. What they should have done was nip in the bud this early chaotic leaning toward theatrical performance. Instead, they pretended to enjoy it. It was my first delectable taste of favorable audience response. Things were going from bad to worse.
Then - before or after Pooh? - came "Hiawatha's Wedding Feast." Every summer, the family went to the seaside resort of Scarborough, and there I was introduced to "real theater," in a manner of speaking. This real theater came in two manifestations. First, there were the Fol-de-Rols. They were the tail end of the Victorian music hall tradition, and were probably frightful. To me they were wonderful.