On July 20, 1971, Laurence Olivier made his maiden speech in the House of Lords. The first actor ever appointed to a life peerage told their lordships: ''I believe in the theater; . . . I believe that in a great city, or even in a small city or a village, a great theater is the outward and visible sign of an inward and probable culture. . . ''
''Confessions of an Actor,'' Lord Olivier's autobiography, documents how this vision gradually transformed a dynamic star into a major moving force in the British theater from the 1940s onward. Olivier's multiple contributions to the revived Old Vic and later the Chichester Festival prepared him to become the first head of the British National Theater. He held the post from 1962 until his resignation in 1973.
The cavalier behavior of the National Theater Board on that occasion is merely one of a series of incidents illustrating the degree of resilience and fortitude required for survival by even the most successful members of an uncertain profession. Lord Olivier remembers not only the great triumphs - Hamlet, Othello, Richard III, Oedipus, Archie Rice, etc. He recalls also a cruel debacle like the 1940 New York failure of ''Romeo and Juliet,'' which cost him and his then-bride, Vivien Leigh, $96,000 - ''all our savings out of GWTW (''Gone With the Wind''), 'Wuthering Heights,' 'Rebecca,' and 'Pride and Prejudice.' ''
Yet within the next few years came the triumph of Olivier's filmed ''Henry V, '' plus the extraordinary Old Vic London seasons and tours. The productions included ''Peer Gynt,'' ''Richard III,'' the two parts of ''Henry IV,'' ''Oedipus Rex,'' ''The Critic,'' and ''King Lear.'' Olivier writes: ''The 1945- 46 season was, I am sure, the one that made our names and the one to which, years later, people still referred.'' He received his knighthood in 1947.
Paralleling George Bernard Shaw's endorsement of the artist's need for selfishness, Lord Olivier writes that private matters, ''no matter how precious, '' must always give way to business matters. He deals candidly but tactfully with familial matters, including his three marriages: to Jill Esmond, to Miss Leigh (a relationship unendurably strained by her physical and mental illness and eventual infidelity), and his rewardingly happy union with the splendid actress Joan Plowright.
''Confessions of an Actor'' reflects Olivier's respect and affection for his peers - such friends and colleagues as Ralph Richardson, John Gielgud, and Noel Coward. He also responds to many younger talents, including his critical friend-and-foe, the late Kenneth Tynan, the National Theater's first literary manager.
Along the way, there is illuminating advice to and from the players. Olivier's own ''richest pearl of advice'' came from director Tyrone Guthrie when the actor was struggling with a role for which he had nothing but scorn, Sergius in Shaw's ''Arms and the Man.'' Said Guthrie, ''Well, of course, if you can't love him you'll never be any good in him, will you?'' For Olivier, the import of the question ''changed the course of my actor's thinking for the rest of my life.''
''Confessions of an Actor'' is more than the recollections of a prescient but penurious parson's son who became the British equivalent of what the French call homme du theatre. It provides an illuminating backward look at how the inheritors of a great tradition have honored their calling. Because Olivier presents himself ''warts and all'' (he dotes on makeup), this is also an appealing and sometimes moving life story. While the text is illustrated, it lacks an index - a serious omission from an indispensable source book.