Laurence Olivier, Greatest Actor of Our Age, Was a Man of Many Parts
NEW YORK — FOR those of us who witnessed the progress of his career from our privileged press seats, the late Laurence Olivier did more than scale the heights and explore the boundaries of the player's art. He fulfilled the meaning of the French accolade, ``homme du th'e^atre'' -- man of the theater. Man of many parts, many stages, and unique achievements, Olivier ``touched nothing that he did not adorn.'' He made motion-picture history with the landmark filming of ``Henry V,'' followed later by ``Hamlet'' and ``Richard III,'' In the 1940s (with Ralph Richardson and John Burrell), he led the glorious renaissance of London's Old Vic Theatre Company. He guided the Chichester Festival in its opening years and, in 1962, was appointed first director of Britain's National Theatre, a post he held for the next decade.
As a member of a notoriously uncertain profession, Olivier experienced disasters and disappointments as well as successes. But the totality of his career was a triumph. The Olivier achievements earned rewards that were both fitting and extraordinary. In 1947, he became the youngest actor ever to receive a knighthood, and in 1970, the first member of his profession ever to be elevated to the peerage. The French made him an Officer of the L'egion d'Honneur.
These were typical of the recognitions accorded the parson's son who could not have been more astonished when his father decreed that Larry should become an actor.That the Rev. Olivier had been impressed by Larry's schoolboy performances was not mere paternal pride. In one such production, the lad did so well, that Ellen Terry (who happened to be in the audience) wrote in her diary: ``The small boy who played Brutus is already a great actor.''
The great actor-to-be would eventually make his name not only in the big Shakespearean roles but in many a smaller part. I recall, for instance, his irresistable Juctice Shallow in ``Henry IV, Part II,'' and how he doubled as energetic, anonymous groom in the film ``Henry V,'' of which he was producer, director, and star.
Olivier's Old Vic Richard III marked the actor's total acceptance by critics and public. His favorite roles, however, presented an odd assortment, impressing us admiring reviewers with his extraordinary versatility. Among them, I recall in particular his Macbeth and Titus Andronicus, his nasal seedy Archie Rice in ``The Entertainer,'' and his Doctor Astrov in ``Uncle Vanya.'' Notwithstanding his success in tragedy, his preference was for comedy. Sybil Thorndike agreed with James Agate's assessment of Olivier as ``a comedian by instinct and a tragedian by art.'' Down-at-heel, music-hall entertainer Archie undoubtedly appealed to Olivier's indulgent affection for the more raffish side of his profession. He once called it ``the most wonderful part I've ever played.''
Olivier's Macbeth was one of the jewels of the triumphant 1954/55 season at Stratford-upon-Avon. In ``The Ages of Gielgud'' (Proscenium Publications), my esteemed friend and colleague, British critic emeritus Sir Harold Hobson, digresses from his principal subject for a side glance at the Olivier Macbeth, noting particularly his delivery of the ``Tomorrow and tomorrow ...'' soliloquy.
``Olivier's voice,'' writes Sir Harold, ``when he reached the phrase `troops of friends,' suddenly soared, as if in incredulous astonishment that in the course of mortal existence a man should be the cause of friendship. Olivier gave us in those lines a poignant realization of what it means to have lived a long life, and to have inspired no love in any human creature.''
Such was the revelatory nature of Olivier's acting, with its vocal resonances, originality, and deep insights. Sometimes the effects were more spectacular. I can still hear the ear-shattering howl with which his Oedipus reacted to the king's discovery of his unwitting crime. It was a cry of anguished horror heard round the theatrical world.
While Olivier considered himself first and foremost a stage actor, he was a man for all media. The photographs included in the Olivier biographies and in his own ``Confessions of an Actor'' provides vivid glimpses of the actor at work. The montage pictures Olivier with Edith Evans and John Gielgud in ``Romeo and Juliet''; with Merle Oberon in ``Wuthering Heights''; with Vivien Leigh in ``Hamlet,'' with Maggie Smith in ``Othello''; with Joan Plowright in ``The Entertainer`` and ``The Master Builder''; with Michael Caine in ``Sleuth''; with Katharine Hepburn in ``Love Among the Ruins''; and with Jeremy Irons and Anthony Andrews in ``Brideshead Revisited.'' And this is the merest sampling.
Like many of his colleagues, Olivier could explain the techniques of acting but found it difficult, or impossible, to analyze exactly how an actor achieved his effects. In 1955, at the final session of the Shakespeare Memorial Theater summer school, he discussed extensively the role of Malvolio (which he had been playing) and then added:
``I have always tried to believe that my job was to make the audience believe in the story -- believe that it was really going on. I have always thought that was the point of it.''
On July 20, 1971, the newly created peer delivered this testament to the institution he had served for a lifetime:
``I believe in theater; I believe in it as the first glamourizer of thought. It restores dramatic dynamics and their relationships to life size. 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.... I believe in anything that will keep our domains, not wider still and wider, but higher still and higher in the expectancy and hope of quality and probity.''