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Sir Donald Wolfit - His Life and Work in the Unfashionable Theatre

Ronald Harwood Price: $22.95

"Sir Donald Wolfit, C.B.E - that was how he liked to think of himself, the actor-manager, the Victorian, distinguished, honoured, respected; it was, undoubtedly, the greatest handicap to his career

Wolfit, the manager, served Wolfit, the actor, ill, yet those ambitions, which took him nearly forty years to achieve, produced in him the very qualities that made him individual and unique, as if he encouraged his personality to attain a stature commensurate with his public image: pompous, grandiose, egocentric

But, between the prefix and the suffix, existed the man - the gentle, sometimes sweet individual, the boy from New Balderton endowed with loyalty, ingenuousness, gaiety and an unquenchable enthusiasm for life and for the theatre

It was Wolfit's misfortune that his career coincided with the falling into disfavour of the virtuoso performer. The democratising process was an historical and universal one, not peculiar to the theatre. Wolfit, as an actors was described as everything from 'great' to 'ham'. His detractors enjoyed thinking of him as a barnstormer, roaring and ranting his way through Shakespeare in Wigan or Southend. Certainly, at his worst, he fitted that description; at his best, he generated passion and power that was magnificent and overwhelming

Even his direst critics were unable, at one time or another, to resist his gifts and, as Miss Caryl Brahms observed, 'He was never a favourite of the critics, which makes their praise of him the more impressive'

And to those who will never be convinced of his genius, let Edmund Kean's words stand: 'A man may act better or worse on a particular night, from particular circumstances, but although the execution may not be so brilliant, the conception is the same'

Only the truly great actor can be ridiculous on one night, and sublime on another

The word 'unfashionable' in the sub-title of this work is not intended as the antonym of 'High Society'. On the contrary, social distinctions do not enter into it; nor does the degree of popularity. Rather, it pertains to the 'acceptability' of personalities to their own times and, because the actor's art is ephemeral, the reputations gained in life live on long after death. Writers are sometimes reclaimed; actors, never

'The Unfashionable Theatre', for the purposes of this book, is that section of the theatrical profession, actors in particular, who are regarded by their fellow men with a mixture of grudging admiration, disdain, and often amusement

For this, there can be many reasons. An actor, by virtue of his style, personality or behaviour, may appear to have been born out of his time, not necessarily too late; perhaps too soon. It does not mean that he himself is altogether blameless for being labelled an outsider; it may well be that his preference lies in that direction. But ultimately the judgement is made by others and, where the actor is concerned, mainly by three bodies of opinion: first, by the publicly acknowledged leaders of the profession-actors dramatists, directors, managers; secondly, by journalists-gossipwriters, columnists; thirdly, by the 'intellectuals' or cognoscenti among the theatre-going public

All these, in turn, help to mould, in varying degrees, public success, to which they then toady, abandoning their standards of critical judgement. I deliberately exclude critics from the list of opinion-makers, for paradoxically the most influential and knowledgeable of them at any given time have actually championed unfashionable causes though, more often than not, with little effect" ~ Ronald Harwood

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