The Magic of Theater

An interview with Irish actor Donal Donnelly

Actor Donal Donnelly values ``Prefaces by Bernard Shaw'' as much as any book he owns. ``It certainly enlarges your vision of life, being exposed to him and to his prefaces,'' says Donnelly with a lovely Irish brogue. It's not a surprising choice, since over the past 18 years Donnelly has been playing George Bernard Shaw in the one-man show ``My Astonishing Self.'' That is, when he hasn't been involved in countless other stage and film roles.

Donnelly began his acting career at the age of 18 at the Gate Theater in Dublin. After performing in London, he came to Broadway in 1966 in the lead of ``Philadelphia Here I Come.'' He and his family have resided in the United States since 1979. His acting credits include John Houston's film version of ``The Dead'' and Brian Friel's Tony Award-winning ``Dancing at Lughnasa.''

I finally caught up with Donnelly this summer when I interviewed him by phone at his home in Westport, Conn.

David Andrews: When I attended ``My Astonishing Self,'' I was expecting a much more arrogant, much less likable Shaw than the one you presented.

Donal Donnelly: There's almost a cliche now about Shaw's crusty, crotchety, curmudgeon image, which of course he had a lot to do with creating in his later life. He enjoyed the image.

But when you read his biographers, his contemporaries, people who were deeply involved with him, you discover he was the most compassionate, kindest man. Yet he hated being referred to that way. I think that's why he developed a curmudgeonly persona. The truth is long overdue.

I've played this [role] in so many places all around the world, and it has been very warmly received. Some critics have said to the effect, ``Oh, Shaw was never this kind, this compassionate, this understanding,'' which simply isn't true on the evidence. I'm rather pleased when that happens, because if I have sinned on the side of Shaw's kindness, it is so, so long overdue. I do it with confidence because those who knew him well have testified to it at length.

What has made Shaw so popular over the years?

Even when Shaw was more serious, he would always lace it with that Shavian humor, which was his way of holding an audience. He does that all the time in his plays. He was such a revolutionary and a rebel in terms of the establishment in London that he had many enemies. But even his enemies kept coming, hoping to see him defeated.

Joe Flaherty - he's dead now - was a New York journalist. He had a great interest in sports but was a great literary man, too.

I remember him saying that Muhammad Ali was the George Bernard Shaw of boxing: So many people came to see him [get] knocked on his bum. Which he wasn't going to be, but he kept them coming with his antics, his humor, and more seriously, because he was arguably one of the greatest boxers of his time.

I was very interested when I suddenly saw Joe Flaherty making this comparison.

You've acted in many of Brian Friel's plays over the years. And you'll be appearing in a production of his play ``Translations'' on Broadway next year. Why are you so drawn to his work?

Brian is one of those Irish writers who never left the shore, who insisted on staying at home. He is one of those writers whose canvas, paints, brushes, easel, [and] subjects are absolutely indigenous to the land he has decided to reside in.

Because he goes for a terrific truth within his indigenous self and an area, people recognize it all over the world.

Most of his plays are set in Ballybeg, which means Baile Beag in Gaelic, which means small town. Small town means everything in every state in America, in every country in South America, in every country in Europe.

The people who are not the movers and shakers in the capital cities of the world know what Ballybeg means. Out of the small town he is giving the life of people - people who emigrate, people who try, people who love, people who search.

That's universality.

If you could do anything to change the way theater is practiced in the United States, what would you change?

Let me respond to that question with a story that a friend of mine, who is now in heaven, swore was true.

Arturo Toscanini came to America to conduct his first opera at the old Met. He was introduced to the principals of the chorus and the musicians. And that was great. But he asked, ``Where's the prima donna?'' They said, ``Oh, she won't be here for two weeks. She's sung this part many times.'' He thought, ``When in America, do as the Americans do.'' So he set to work.

By the time the two weeks were over, everyone from the youngest recruit to the entire fiddle section was in artistic heaven. The chorus and the principals were energized beyond belief.

Came the Monday, and the prima donna swept in with her lover, her poodle, her agent, her publicity man. The press was there. She did her thing.

And at last, Toscanini was going to start with her. First aria. She went a few bars, and he tapped his baton. He said, ``We start again, we start again.'' So she went a few more bars. ``No, no, no, no. We start again.'' And this went on. He said, ``No, no, no, no. We relax, too much excitement. We relax. We start again.''

By this time, the rest of the cast are looking at each other and whispering to each other.

She starts again. And he stops her again. He says, ``Madame, Madame, we relax. We don't take a liberties with the score. We relax.'' And she says, ``Maestro Toscanini, I am the star of the Metropolitan. You don't correct me in front of the cast.''

Toscanini replies, ``Oh Madame, the stars are in the heavens. You and I are mere artists, and at the moment you are an inaccurate one.''

I think if actors and actresses were made to swear on that story as a doctor has to take a Hippocratic oath, we would have a very different theater.

I can't remember the prima donna's name, but apparently she became wonderful with him. So that's the good end of the story.

What makes the difference between a good actor and a great actor?

Actors can be great in one role, good in another, and failed in yet another. I saw a tape of Laurence Olivier's much-acclaimed ``Othello,'' and I thought it was the nearest thing to Al Jolson [famous for his black-face roles] I'd ever seen in my life.

And yet look how phenomenal Olivier could be. He had such natural or God-given gifts. He had such a reservoir from which to draw. But the qualities that nature or God gave him did not protect him from being very wrong at times. And I think that goes for anyone.

It makes it all terribly interesting, the way actors can be so right and the way they can be so wrong. But they're entitled to that, you know.

One of the actors that fascinates me most, although I haven't seen him for years, is Paul Scofield [who won an Oscar in 1966 for ``A Man for All Seasons'']. I go to Scofield and I see the most thinking, listening actor. I hear him listening to the other people. And that's why nothing false can come back at them, because he's absorbing what they're saying.

I place him higher than Olivier. Olivier can be dynamite, as you know, but he's not necessarily listening to the intricacies of what's being said to him. Instead, he has something mapped out on a larger scale. But Scofield fascinates me as a great listening actor.

What do you want from a director?

For him to study this play beyond measure. If he hasn't done that, he can never be of the assistance that's needed. And they differ so greatly. You get directors who have a star mania and they want to be noticed as a director.

The proof of a great director is when you come out of a play having been transported, and elevated, and involved to such a degree that afterward in the lobby you say to your companion, ``Who directed that?''

But if you're sitting there during the play saying, ``There's a brilliant bit of direction,'' then the director is not serving the playwright. A good director is so important but so unobtrusive to your involvement.

What do you want from actors with whom you work?

Preparation and understanding of the text. Serving the play. Serving the playwright. That demands an understanding of, not a glimpse through, not a quick idea.

When you get a team of actors who really love the work, that's the magic. You can get an actor sometimes with a star over the head. You can get ones who can spoil the atmosphere because they're really there as a project for themselves.

But if the majority of the actors have commitment and devotion to the work at hand, that's when performances and relationships on stage grow and evolve. That doesn't always happen.

But when it does, it's the magic time.

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