As if to act as an antidote to Emma’s disdain for the theatre, in Margaret Drabble’s The Garrick Year, I have just finished reading Laurence Olivier’s On Acting (1986), lent to me by my friend Andrea. Nobody could accuse Olivier of disdaining the theatre – indeed, his adulation for it far exceeds mine, and he has (of course) a much more experienced and wise eye to cast over it.
I was a little unsure about reading On Acting, because I’m not a huge fan of Olivier (he falls into the Kenneth Branagh category of just-too-actory for me) and thought it was his autobiography – but it turns out that he’d already published his autobiography, Confessions of an Actor, and this volume instead focused on the craft of the actor, particularly on playing Shakespeare on stage and screen. Perfect!
Olivier starts off with a brief history of great actors of the past – Burbage, Kean et al – which isn’t a very auspicious start to the book. As I discovered throughout the book, Olivier delivers anecdotes appallingly. In this section, he often suffixes them with the acknowledgement that they’re probably false – and somehow he mismanages each anecdote so that it falls oddly flat. I began to worry. But once Olivier started writing about the craftsmanship of acting, he got much, much better. The largest section of On Acting concerns various significant roles in Shakespeare, devoting a chapter to each. Olivier writes of Hamlet, Othello, Richard III and more, with firsthand insight into playing the roles, and explaining how he developed and discovered the characters. This stuff is like catnip to me. Olivier’s exploration of these characters is attached to specific performances and is very personal, it cannot and does not claim to be objective literary criticism, but it’s fascinating.
How I love to read actors’ theories about the theatre! Olivier does not skimp on this. Here’s an excerpt I loved:
To achieve true theatre, you can’t have one man up front and the acolytes with their backs to the audience feeding the great star with lines as dull as dishwater. What you must have is every character believing in himself and, therefore, contributing to the piece as a whole, placing and pushing the play in the right direction. The third spear carrier on the left should believe that the play is all about the third spear carrier on the left. I’ve always believed that. If the character is nameless, the actor should give himself a name. He should give himself a family, a background, a past. Where was he born, what did he have for breakfast? Perhaps he had troubles at home, perhaps his wife has left him, perhaps his wife has just presented him with a new baby, perhaps he is saving for something – and so on. If the actor brings on with him a true belief in himself, we should be able to look at him at any moment during the action and see a complete three-dimensional figure and not a cardboard cut-out. To transport an audience, they must see life and not paste.
It is, though, one of the few times that he acknowledges the need for a united company. One of the things that did irk me in On Acting is the isolation in which Olivier prepares his roles – there seemed no sense that other actors’ decision might affect his performances, or even that he was aware of them. He is also monumentally egotistical (he claims all actors must be) and often congratulates himself on brilliant work – which is perhaps the prerogative of the aging actor, looking back over a long and successful career. When writing about film, he is a little less self-confident, and I gained a lot of respect for Olivier when he acknowledged the failings of his version of Pride and Prejudice:
I was very unhappy with the picture. It was difficult to make Darcy into anything more than an unattractive-looking prig, and darling Greer seemed to me all wrong as Elizabeth. To me, Jane Austen had made Elizabeth different from her affected, idiotic sister; she was the only down-to-earth one, but Greer played her as the most affected and silly of the lot. I also thought that the best points in the book were missed, although apparently no one else did.
You’re not alone, Olivier! I didn’t think it worked at all…
This isn’t the place to come if you want gossip about Olivier’s life. Perhaps Confessions of an Actor has that, but I rather imagine it doesn’t. On Acting isn’t just for the aspiring actor, either – goodness knows I have no ambitions in that direction – but it is a fascinating look behind the red curtain, and an authoritative examination of the acting profession. Coming at it from another direction, it has unusual and interesting readings of Shakespeare’s plays. Olivier is not a very gifted writer, although a mostly competent one, but his acting talent and vast experience excuse his mediocrity in that regard – and make On Acting a very engaging read. It would seem an inexcusable boast from most actors, to cover so broad a topic as acting, but somehow Laurence Olivier seems (and certainly believes himself to be) the man allowed to do it.