What ever happened to elegance?

Broadway's celebrated Tonys don't usually go to critics. But Elliot Norton has one, among other awards, for his decades of serving the theatergoing public with ''astuteness, intuitiveness, and always constructive criticism.'' Though Mr. Norton retired from daily reviewing last year, he is there on the aisle at Boston first nights as always. The other night we asked what reflections he might have on the current theater from his long perspective. Something was missing, he said . . .m

When she left the theater after a long lifetime of success - most of it achieved in a happy partnership with Alfred Lunt, her husband - Lynn Fontanne left behind a legacy of elegance. There isn't much of that on the American stage today. Except for Jessica Tandy, none of our present stars possesses it in any marked degree, and it is likely that some of the younger ones want no part of it; it is not much in fashion at this time.

Off the stage, and backstage, too, elegance is sometimes associated with pomposity, which is a grave mistake. There is nothing stiff or pompous about true elegance, which is rather grand but never puffed up, never haughty. It is a quality of the mind and spirit, expressed in style, in bearing and in manners. Although it may appear early on, it is most often noted in the years of maturity.

Garbo had it. So, in plays like ''The Barretts of Wimpole Street'' and ''Candida,'' did Katharine Cornell. Although she might have grimaced at the word , Tallulah Bankhead demonstrated an icy elegance as Regina Giddens in Lillian Hellman's ''The Little Foxes''; offstage, elegance eluded Tallulah.

Lynn Fontanne seems to have had it from the first, or at least when she first came to America from England as a protege of Laurette Taylor and Laurette's husband, the playwright J. Hartley Manners. That was in 1916, six years before she met and married Alfred Lunt, who would become her co-star in 26 subsequent shows up to and including their last, ''The Visit.''

Some of the women she represented were not in themselves elegant: Katherina, for instance, in ''The Taming of the Shrew'' and ''Irene,'' who, in ''Idiot's Delight,'' was not the sophisticated European she professed to be; Miss Fontanne gave each of them a measure of her own elegance which survived the humiliation of the first and the exposure of the other. As Gilda in ''Design for Living'' she lifted Noel Coward's worldly design up a level from rather low to reasonably high comedy by adding a touch of elegance.

Miss Fontanne was coolly elegant as the stately Alkmena of ''Amphitryon 38,'' who may or may not have recognized her overnight guest as Jupiter; elegant in the youthful years and in the later ones, too, as Emily Chanler in ''I Know My Love''; quietly, simply dignified as the herioc housewife of Robert E. Sherwood's ''There Shall Be No Night''; elegant and, at the same time, pertly funny as the vaudeville ''mind-reader'' of ''The Great Sebastians.''

She was naughtily elegant in one of her earliest shows with Lunt, as The Actress in ''The Guardsman''; and theatrically elegant as the self-dramatizing Irina Arkadina in the 1938 production of Chekhov's ''The Sea Gull.''

There wasn't much opportunity to endow Nina Leeds with even a measure of elegance in Eugene O'Neill's ''Strange Interlude''; the playwright had made that impossible; that was true, too, of Linda Valaine in Noel Coward's ''Point Valaine.'' But she fooled the author of ''The Visit,'' which she and Alfred Lunt presented as the final play of their career, beginning in '58 and continuing for the next two years between England the United States.

Claire Zachanassian, the principal character of that grim drama by the Swiss playwright Friedrich Durrenmatt, is an old lady, vicious and vindictive, who returns to the little town where as a girl she was seduced and launched on a life of prostitution; she is determined to destroy in a grim act of revenge the man who had led her astray.

In European productions of the play, Claire was presented as an ugly old hag, and the producers wanted Lynn to play her that way. They persuaded Alfred Lunt, who had a fondness for elegance, too, and more than a fair share of it, to play the role of the old man she comes to destroy as a disheveled down-and-outer, coatless, collarless, and disreputable.

Alfred wasn't happy about his appearance but felt the role and the play made it worthwhile to abandon any hint of elegance. Not Lynn.

The lady is very old, she said, and wicked. Well, not all that old! And not so wicked as she seems; after all, she has some reason for resorting to evil in order to punish evil! In any case, said Lynn Fontanne, she is very rich. Rich should be elegant! And so indeed she was in that production, stylish and elegant and not ugly, but as beautiful as Lynn Fontanne.

In an actress, or in any woman, beauty is a part of elegance, though it need not be beauty of face and figure. Lynn Fontanne was physically lovely, knew it, and took pains to preserve her beauty.

Nature gave her lovely dark eyes, faultless features, a long and perfect neck and shoulders. Early in her career, she learned how to stand, sit, walk, or even run, without ever slumping into awkwardness.

She cultivated her natural endowments; she developed and perfected her professional skills unceasingly, from one performance to the next. She was a perfectionist to whom acting was an art. The elegance with which she endowed the characters she played owed something to these gifts and skills, but it was more than a combination of all of them; it was something intangible, rooted deep in her personality.

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