Wednesday 16 February 2011
Swedenborg Hall, Bloomsbury, London
THIS EVENT HAS TAKEN PLACE
Presented by DR FRANCES GRAY
When I was researching my book I invented a game; it was designed to deal with that ritual that always seems like a blow to your own self-esteem as well as to your subject's - "What are you working on?" "I'm doing a biography of Meggie Albanesi" " Who?" The game was called the Meggie Test. I'd show them a production photograph and ask who they thought was the most interesting-looking actor, the one they might choose to write about. Oddly enough, they always picked the figure standing quietly, relaxed yet observant, somehow much more in the situation than those around her busily 'registering' emotions.
It was that stillness made me want to write about Meggie Albanesi before I had read more than a potted account of her career. That sense of repose and depth was recognised in her own era as something special. A poem published in the Daily Graphic in 1921 uses phrases that are peppered in more sober tones throughout most of her reviews.
Silence louder than tumult, strength subdued,
Dim tones that blaze like sunshine...
But quiet and expectant. Who shall paint
The baffling colour of your twilight mood.
Shall guess the secret of your vast restraint?
The 1920s was the start of an era that became known as a golden generation: the age of Gielgud and Olivier, Richardson and Redgrave, Guinness and Laughton, Evans and Ashcroft. Some of them were to have sixty or even seventy years in which to develop their talent and a whole range of choices about how to do so - new kinds of company, new writers, new media. And because they had those years we also have very comprehensive records of them.
Meggie Albanesi didn't have that. But she is arguably the first of that generation, certainly in the vanguard of it. She was born in 1899, like Noel Coward, which made her a few years older than Olivier and Gielgud.
In 1921 she was already being spoken of as the actress of her generation - a star who could generate the kind of box office that kept a fledgling company afloat. That year Richardson was still working on the amateur stage, Olivier was in the school play and Gielgud had a single line at the Old Vic, "Here is the number of the slaughtered French".
She died just after her 24th birthday. She didn't live to see any of the new generation perform or to work with them as they began to win their own fame in their mid 20s. She didn't even outlive the figures of the older generation to whom she was compared, Ellen Terry and Duse. Yet the obituaries are full of phrases like 'the genius of her age and time.'
She was a clear role model for that new generation. Gielgud and Richardson used to go and watch her and the young Gielgud used to annotate his programmes with her praises; it's evident she was someone with whom they wanted to work. Those odd scraps of her conversation and writing that are left suggest that they would also have had a kind of shared language in which to talk about acting, or at least the tools to invent it. But she also had a very different career path and if they had worked together, she would have brought something very novel to the table.
When talking about her, for instance, I find that I generally don't make much use of the words "Shakespeare", 'Old Vic' or 'rep company' - she's the only one of that generation for whom that's true. By comparison with most of them she had a very public learning curve; between 1920 and 1923 she was barely out of the West End. She never had the kind of safe space to learn and make mistakes provided the rep - J.B. Fagan at Oxford or Barry Jackson at Birmingham - the kind of place where a great performance would be noted but where you could also be like Tyrone Guthrie and literally fall flat on your face.
This was potentially crippling, but in fact it was the reverse. Rather, everybody in the theatre seemed to be watching from the word go and willing her forward. T.P. O'Connor, the radical journalist wrote 'She had a singular power of attracting the affection of her own profession. Nobody grudged her success, everybody wanted to help her.' The eulogies at her memorial bear it out - not just praising, but taking a real pleasure in memories of giving her help with everything from blank verse to making up as Chinese to electric treatments for the throat; there is a clear sense that she seemed to represent something for the profession - something in which they had a huge emotional and intellectual investment.
The director with whom she did most of her best work, Basil Dean, makes it clear that this sense of helping and mentoring flowed both ways. She was one of the driving forces of his own company, not just because productions were planned around her as a star but as a power who held it together - indeed it didn't last long after her death. In the article he wrote about her for the company newssheet he pays an extraordinary tribute. 'Meggie was the light and inspiration of our enterprise in its first days ... She was the acknowledged leader.' From one of the most difficult and prickly directors of his day this is powerful stuff.
Similarly, the critics don't just talk about performances but track her progress; the Daily Sketch used its discussion of the play The Charm School (not that anyone would want to discuss The Charm School for very long) to point out that even a silly play is good for Meggie Albanesi because she should have a break from the long run of Galsworthy's The Skin Game and it is our duty to 'take care' of her.
The effect of this kind of watchfulness underlies an obituary in the Weekly Westminster: 'In any play all her previous roles marched behind the current character to round out her conception. ' This isn't a remark about characterisation: the roles she played were not similar. It is a remark about a relationship with the audience that was continuously growing and developing, They expected something from her and trusted she would give it to round out their own experience of her as well as the play.
What she gave them - uniquely at that particular time - was modernity. The Daily News contrasted her explicitly with Sybil Thorndike and Edith Evans as exponents of an older tradition, that of the 'Grand Manner.' What Meggie offered, it sugested, was an extreme naturalism and simplicity and what this enabled writers and directors to do was to trust her with narratives and situations that an earlier generation would not ask a young girl to do.
It's always tricky to talk about naturalistic acting or naturalistic plays because naturalism is always a relative term. Something that's been applied to Olivier and Brando. Something often presented as one side of a stylistic dichotomy - Kean versus Kemble - or as a generation gap - Osborne versus Rattigan. Here is Somerset Maugham in the 1920s on naturalistic dialogue: 'It was inevitable that some dramatist should eventually write dialogue that exactly copied the average talk, with its hesitations, mumblings and repetitions, and broken sentences, of average people. I do not suppose that anyone can ever do this with more brilliant accuracy than Mr Noel Coward.'
What Coward had to offer in the naturalism stakes was something that resonated with a specific audience - the young post-war generation, the people who read Virginia Woolf and Wilfred Owen, the people who expected votes and the right to get a divorce, the people who recognised words like 'shell shock' and 'subconscious'. And this is I think what Meggie also had to offer as an actress. Coward was a great friend; at one point, if a list of forthcoming attractions from Basil Dean is to be believed, they almost did get to work together on one of his plays, The Rat Trap - a tantalising prospect, given the different kinds of chemistry Coward could achieve on stage with his other close friends Gertrude Lawrence and the Lunts.
Meggie however beat Coward to the position of first voice of the post-war young; and she managed to make it apparent not only in plays that consciously articulated modernity but also in plays like The Charm School that appeared to have nothing to say on that subject or indeed any other.
She was the first of the golden generation to emerge from drama school. She went to RADA when it was still only ADA, Beerbohm Tree's Academy. It had only existed for twelve years and when she left with the Bancroft Gold Medal she was described as the most brilliant student so far. Although it may not have been apparent at the time, drama school training was a watershed; it made a huge difference to that whole generation, not by making them into actors but by deciding what sort of actors they would be.
Drama schools offered two great benefits at this point. The first was a training in voice that equipped actors for larger theatres; in the vibrant London in which Meggie moved new and extensive theatres and indeed all sorts of other new buildings were springing up all the time. The other was a training in physical disciplines, including fencing and dance and the work of Francois Delsarte. What Delsarte gave the actor was a body that was at once relaxed and capable of taking on all kinds of physical and emotional states. Women students in particular benefited because it allowed them a physicality that hadn't been permitted to an earlier generation - you couldn't do the DA class in corsets - and a consequent expansion of their range.
This was even more true of Meggie's particula intake because the war meant that it was an all female one. That meant that women got to try out roles they'd never be considered for in the normal way of things - Meggie played Duvallet in Fanny's First Play, with a long and fizzily topical speech about the emancipation of women, Given Shaw's habit of turning up at ADA when one of his plays was in rehearsal, he may have seen her do it.
What ADA didn't offer was a sort of sustained theoretical approach to a role that Stanislavski would provide when his work hit the UK a few years later. Peggy Ashcroft, who went in 1924, recalled falling on the English translation of My Life in Art with a kind of palpable relief. One of Meggie's contemporaries, Eva Le Gallienne, talked about getting the role of Juliet at ADA and tearing herself to emotional shreds at the audition but having no way to repeat what she'd done, and having the same response to Stanislavsky a few years later.
If the theory wasn't there, there was certainly this felt need. The ambition to use such a discipline existed. Meggie later talked about something like the idea of emotion memory that she had evolved for herself, although it wasn't grounded in the personal experience. Stanislavski seems to assume. When I cry on stage, she said, it's real, because I am re-living something of my first emotional response to playing the role itself. Her best roles, like those that Galsworthy and Clemence Dane made with her in mind, did offer something that felt instantly true to her generation and drew that response without difficulty. In those that didn't she seemed to generate her own ability to find it.
Meggie launched her real London career in the first year of peace. What really gave her the equivalent of the rep training that Richardson and Olivier and Gielgud had was the stage societies. The real vitality of British theatre at this point depended on the stage societies to show new and not necessarily commercial work. Mostly the societies had no settled home, but subscriptions would pay for Sunday performances three or four times a year. Edith Craig's society the Pioneer Players had grown out of the Actresses' Franchise League; they had a policy to show stuff ' which may be outside the province of the commercial theatre, as at present constituted.' They were politically very aware - not only in doing explicitly feminist plays but passionately internationalist at the height of the war despite considerable hostility at home.
Because Pioneer productions were limited to one or two performances, they broke down distinctions between the experienced and the learner. Leading performers worked with them because the welcomed the refreshment during long West End runs; Although they were not a company as such, Craig's partners, the painter Clare Atwood and the writer Christopher St John, and the support of the membership, developed a kind of company spirit. Craig was a charismatic director - Sybil Thorndike compared her to Granville Barker. 'Putting me in a place', she said, ' where I was able to grasp and convey the meaning myself.' Miss La Trobe in Virginia Woolf's Between the Acts is a thinly disguised portrait of Craig - her distinctive power lies in her instinct for unearthing talents and energies her actors don't know they possess, what Woolf calls 'the roots beneath the water.'
In Meggie Craig discerned the power to carry the movement of a complex play on her shoulders. The Rising Sun is a socialist-realist drama by the Dutch writer Herman Heijermans. It deals with the impact of a big store, the 'Sun', on a small shopkeeper's family. There is explicit political confrontation, but also a personal tragedy - the daughter, Sonia, drops a lamp and starts a fire for the sake of the insurance, unaware that there is a child asleep in the upstairs flat.
Christopher St John discussed her brilliant translation of the play without using the term 'subtext' because it wasn't yet available to her, but she made it clear that the play was grounded in what she called 'shorthand, ' a text full of apparently trivial remarks masking a groundswell of emotion. Sonia carries the most overtly political scene in the play; she is alone when Jensen, the owner of the Sun, turns up. He's not a stage villain but very downbeat and polite - as he says, he can afford to be. ' It's merely a question of power.' While his calm sets the overall tone, it's Sonia who controls the scene; she is the one who has to conceal her emotions and this is what sustains the tension of the verbal duel between them. Throughout, Sonia is performing domestic tasks - waiting on her complaining mother in the next room, cooking for her father; she is also furtively ringing the bell to the shop to give the impression that they still have customers, and keeping an eye on Jensen who is looking for an opportunity to peek at the books. It's a silent language through which Sonia needs to make clear her concern for the family, her defiance - and her fear - of Jensen, and the sometimes comical immaturity of her tactics; only at the end is she allowed an overt outburst of rage. Just after he's gone, we see her making the decision to set a fire - with no words to help her; it's purely down to the actress to show the internal struggle.
The response was all Craig could wish for. Meggie received nine curtain calls and Craig presented her to her mother Ellen Terry, a rite of passage for young and talented performers. The reviews were full of words like 'passion' and 'beauty'. Christopher St John's description is illuminating. "She expressed herself in primary colours, with a frankness and cleanness that made every character she impersonated seem amazingly simple." By simple, I don't think she means that the characters aren't complex - Sonia's one of the most complex parts available to an English actress since Ibsen's Nora - but that she let the character unfold moment by moment, with absolute attention to what was happening as it happened. The concentration that always seems to surround her in photos suggests this.
For the whole of that year she worked for the stage societies alongside some short West End runs. They gave her a chance to work with actresses like Sybil Thorndike, with directors like Lillah McCarthy - Granville Barker's Helena in his groundbreaking Dream and Shaw's inspiration for Ann Whitfield in Man and Superman - and also with the Russian Musical Dramatic Art Society in Tolstoy's Reparation - perhaps the most interesting in that it put her in touch with one of its guiding lights, Komisarjevsky. It would have meant that she would almost certainly have been playing both Shakespeare and Chekhov within a few more years as Komisarjevsky. established himself as a leading director of both.
Alongside the serious plays, you find critics responding to her in total pap - here's WJ Darlington of the Telegraph.
"She did hardly more than flash into view and be gone, but there was in that fleeting glimpse something that set me groping and peering in the darkness to find her name in the programme.' - this in a play called Mr Tod's Experiment which is superlatively silly play about gipsy curses, But, as an actress who has built up a career for herself after being ditched by her immature lover, she managed to give it a kind of contemporary edge it didn't really deserve. Photographs show her and her leading man Owen Nares in a sort of self-created circle of concentration that looks quite different from anything anyone is doing elsewhere in the play. Nare's wife, for instance, playing another of his lost loves, languishes - there is no other word for it - on a sofa while he adopts the conventional lover's stance, upstage foot on sofa, leaning over her at a diagonal, and it leaves the characters stuck firmly in the nineteenth century. Meggie and Nares don't seem bothered about showing how in love they are. They just look at each other and let the situation speak for them.
It's while she was in this period that she got her third invitation to join Basil Dean. (They had had two very testy meetings, unable to take each other quite seriously.) What was special about this one was that he had a very specific aim in views. A prototype National Theatre - and Dean felt that a National Theatre belonged not south of the river but in Drury Lane. He wanted to bring to the West End the values of the successful reps and the theatre societies: a commitment to new writing; plays chosen for quality rather than for commercial potential; a semi-permanent company to develop and grow from working together; a coherent approach to design.
Dean had been to Berlin to study Max Reinhardt; he was particularly attracted to the way Reinhardt used electric lighting but he also absorbed Reinhardt's understanding of total theatre. And he also had a stroke of luck in meeting Alec Rea, a coal merchant who had known him in his rep days and was happy to bankroll the enterprise, which they called ReandeaN. Rea signed the lease to the St. Martin's Theatre, which gave them a permanent base: at last, a playhouse in the West End had a declared policy, rather as the Old Vic had. But this was a policy of new work, in a new playhouse, only completed in 1916; the St Martin's was ready to have an identity imprinted on it.
When Meggie joined ReandeaN everything suddenly came together. Dean had a contract for a new play by Galsworthy, who was sympathetic to his politics and his aims. The Skin Game was written at speed in the summer of 1919. It was a major success, on the strength of its topicality and passion and on the way that Meggie seemed to make those things incarnate. As Jill Hillcrist she had the most developed role among the younger characters, and the young are the conscience of the play. Jill's language is slangy, fragmented, and full of direct challenges. Her honesty is ferocious. 'I only want to be friendly', says the son of her father's worst enemy. Jill answers, 'Better be real first'. The moral authority Meggie brought to Sonia was now allied to a specifically contemporary character; this was one of the first attempts to capture the style as well as the situation of post-war youth, the new ways of speaking and moving and behaving, as well as their sense of betrayal. And a year later it was followed by the role that was to bring her a fan base among her own generation, Sydney Fairfield in Clemence Dane's A Bill of Divorcement.
This was even more topical than The Skin Game. The Royal Commission on Divorce and Matrimonial Causes began in 1909. After eleven years it produced a list of suggested reforms that caused huge controversy: it would be possible to obtain a divorce after five years on the grounds of incurable insanity; by 1923 it would no longer be necessary for wives to prove cruelty as well as adultery Dane set her play in the future, with the law already established, so the dilemmas depicted were moral rather than legal. A couple are about to get married; the woman's former husband has been shell-shocked in the war and has a genetic propensity for insanity; she has divorced him, only to find that he has recovered and wants her back. It's the self-sacrifice of her daughter Sydney that allows the marriage to go forward as she gives up her own lover and promises to devote her life to her father, knowing that one day she will herself have his illness.
Dane said that she had envisaged Meggie Albanesi ' 'and no other' for the part of Sydney from the outset; she also said that what drew her to Meggie was her performance as a silly flapper in a comedy, George and the Dragons, that ran only a few weeks. This is partly because there are only short moments when we see Sydney as a normal teenager full of energy and excitement, acting as 'bridesmaid and best man and family lawyer and Juliet's Nurse all rolled into one.' The role demands the style Coward had begun to develop in his first success, I'll Leave It To You, self-consciously witty, hard almost to callousness; rather than being full of lazy epigrams like pre-war comedy it bubbles with energy. But it also reveals the emotional strain that goes into preserving this kind of front.
Sydney refers to herself as 'twentieth century' and to her mother and Gray as 'nineteenth century'. This is the key conflict of the play. It describes attitudes to marriage and divorce; but it also describes performance styles. In the production stills Lilian Braithwaite adopts a fixed expression throughout, her eyes staring into a tragic future; she's either ramrod straight, or leaning on the furniture, as if to dramatise her resistance to the situation. C. Aubrey Smith is always bolt upright, both feet braced solidly apart - a proper soldier, the polar opposite of the poor shell shocked father. Smith and Braithwaite are playing, quite properly, along the grain of the text. Their lines always say exactly what they are thinking and their body language supports it.
Sydney is the only role which expresses itself almost entirely through subtext. She is articulate about her opinions, but there are always pressures on her to control or cover up her feelings. When she overhears the big scene where her mother tries to send her new lover away, she has no lines; she stands on the stairs and listens, and it is for the performer to establish how Sydney feels, how she reaches the decision to let her mother go. Dane records that Meggie, standing in the shadows on the staircase holding her mother's fur coat, took a single step down.
The fascinating thing about the play is that it is an impossible object, like Escher's picture of two hands drawing each other. The dislocated timeframe makes the central couple father and daughter, with different responsibilities, but Hilary's shellshock means that in his mind he is a young man, still in living in the 1920s with the horror of the war uppermost in his thoughts. Sydney is not a vision of the thirties but a real girl from the 20s, a part of that group who were in their early teens when slightly older friends went off to war and never came back. Meggie was one herself; her brother-in-law had been gassed and returned addicted to the morphine that was the only way to deal with it. This was the generation of The Vortex, where one of Coward's characters comments that they are unlike their parents in that they want to keep young, not grow up, because they can see what's coming. In performance Meggie and Malcolm Keen stressed their status as counterparts, near-contemporaries (they'd been the young lovers in The Skin Game) It's the wife who seems old - Braithwaite looks middle-aged despite references to how young she married - precisely because she prattles on about having been young and silly and unaware in a way that the real young of the twenties could barely imagine, or perhaps forgive.
Bill ran for over a year. People chanted Meggie's name at the curtain call. She was seen as a new kind of tragic heroine with a new kind of power in performance, one that lay in silence and simplicity, but also as a representative of her generation - rather as Noel Coward was shortly to be, except that Coward's fans wanted to become Noel Coward. But Meggie's seemed to feel that they already were her.
It is a measure of her impact that critics were already attempting to define the nature of her acting style. The Bookman usefully contrasted her with Athene Seyler, who was carving out a career in the high comic style on which she would eventually write a book. Seyler it considered a 'creative' actress, Meggie an 'interpretative' one. 'She seems to have no existence outside the part she is assuming ... it overmasters her.' 'Creative' here seems to mean 'inventiveness.' Working from the outside to the inside. Olivier wrote about approaching a role - 'External characteristics to me are a shelter - a refuge from having nothing to feel, from finding yourself standing on the stage with just lines to say.' Meggie never seemed to bother about externals; she didn't try to make herself a different face; she was a musician and a dancer, if the play called for it, but she didn't do limps and twitches. She was one of those performers who liked rehearsal better than performance. She did not want shelter on the stage, rather to strip away anything between her and the role, It's a process the mystics call kenosis, emptying out the personal self so that she was free to beckon her audience into the emotion of the character's situation. If Olivier feared having nothing to express, Meggie feared being unable to express what she knew she had no choice but to express. This almost religious quality had been celebrated in actors before, most recently in Duse. It had not been previously linked to the post-war young and to the kind of character that might express herself in slang or by doing the shimmy.
To his credit, Basil Dean didn't try to reproduce the effect of Bill. The parts that Meggie received in long runs weren't just Sydney repeated. Her next major role was Daisy, the mixed race wife in Somerset Maugham's East of Suez where critics were evenly divided over whether she had succeeded or not. The 'no' camp accused her of not being the seductive vamp that they felt the character ought to be. The problem here lies with the fact that the play is charged with unconscious racism; when Daisy finally betrays not only her husband but the code of the Englishman abroad the stage directions say 'she becomes in a moment entirely Chinese.' While this wasn't necessarily something Meggie would articulate to herself, she seems to have resisted the stereotyping inherent in the part. Rather as Rudolf Valentino was complaining in Hollywood at the same juncture that he was sick of being the all purpose exotic actor doing 'eye-rolling'. The half-Italian Meggie wasn't keen to be in that kind of trap either.
The 'yes' camp felt that she had brought sympathy and truth to a girl effectively sold to a series of men, who can't ultimately settle for a nice English dimwit. The production photos tend to support their view: while Meggie never looks like a vamp or a seducer, she always looks watchful, someone in a situation not of their own making and trying to make sense of a heritage that is not English or Chinese, not part of a colonial in-group or at home with the mother who has relentlessly pimped to the highest bidder.
Her final long run was in The Lilies of the Field. She played a silly young flapper who sets out to catch her man by pretending that she wants to return to Victorian values right down to the crinoline. It was a chance to be silly - and to be the dancer that she always was off stage - but one feature of every review of the play is a sense of a moment where her character realises that she's stuck in a mask. The reviews tended to see this in technical terms - one of them says ' she manages to create a tense atmosphere with one of her supremely beautiful hand gestures. ' But gestures don't work unless there is a meaning, And what she had found was that although her character is an airhead, she has something to lose. As much as any character in Chekhov, she has a super-objective, a man she loves, and something to put at risk, her whole happiness. This underlies an interesting statement by the playwright Charles McEvoy - that stuff like Lilies was precisely what she, and the company. should be doing, rather than what he called 'getting every ounce of stage jam out of Lady Teazle'. It achieved fort McEvoy what he called 'intimate entertainment' of a kind that older actors had never been asked to show, because it depicted someone on an emotional journey; an interesting, remark given that McEvoy was a socialist realist; this silly play about a well-to-do flapper getting her man could have been beneath his interest; but he recognised a story about a girl deciding who she wanted to be in a world where Victorian values no longer seemed to make for happiness, just as Dane's Sydney Fairfield and Noel Coward's Nicky Lancaster have to do.
Meanwhile, the long runs were all counterpointed with a Dean experiment. ReandeaN mounted a series of one-off subscription matinees, as if they were a stage society. They called them the Playbox. The first was Galsworthy's play The First and the Last: the setting is naturalistic, but it constantly seems to be pushing towards expressionism. It's about a drunken loser who takes up with a Polish refugee, Wanda and who kills her pimp. A tramp is accused by mistake and tried for the pimp's murder. When the tramp is found guilty Larry and Wanda commit suicide, leaving a note by the gas fire to exonerate him. In a bitter coda, Larry's brother, a respected QC discovers the bodies and burns the note to save his own reputation.
In 1921 this was risky material. Even in 1937, when Dean filmed it with Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh, it was forbidden to include the suicide or the miscarriage of British justice. They were terrible in it - partly because of this but also because the film ignores the play's stylised ritual element. In their last moments in the firelight, they recite poetry as they drink their poisoned wine; the model, as Galsworthy's friend Schalit hinted, was Antony and Cleopatra. Cecil Chesterton's recollection of Meggie's performance suggests that she achieved this. ' There was that atmosphere of an emotional force which at any moment may become dynamic. The tense, quiet face, the haunted eyes, the tragic immobility of the husky voice, showed a sensibility which should have ripened into great art.' Galsworthy was delighted. 'You go right to the heart', he wrote to her afterwards. The reviews didn't simply praise her to the skies, but proclaimed a triumph for Owen Nares; they'd worked together twice in the romantic slush for which he was famous, where he was only a love object - she and Dean revealed the actor under the matinee idol.
Dean promptly launched a series of Playbox matinees in house, with special prices and a special newssheet for patrons, and post-show debates - practices associated with subsidised theatres now, and with the likes of the stage societies and the Old Vic at the time, but novel in the West End. The first in-house play, John Masefield's Melloney Holtspur, was a revival, but its contrast between modern youth and a previous generation who were victims of old feuds that made it a post-war story. Meggie's role, like Perdita in The Winter's Tale is less personality than symbolic function. At the climax she is surrounded by spirits, a lightning rod for the forces at work in the play. The play was primarily an excuse for Dean to play with his new advanced lighting system - as many critics pointed out. But they responded to Meggie; they admired her willingness not to obtrude with 'characterisation,' to 'that queer, still power of emotional intensity of hers which makes all her work seem so clean-cut and effortless and devoid of fuss.' The Playbox organised a debate where someone accused them of putting on the most boring ghost play ever, 'Except one' chimed in Earl Russell from prop sofa, " It's not as boring as Hamlet.'
The Playbox meant that ReandeaN had a real company identity and it was one that assumed, if not the 'right to fail' as George Devine demanded for the Royal Court in the 1950s, at least the right to do stuff that made demands on the audience; to do stuff that kept the actors in long runs fresh and experimenting and constantly debating what theatre was about.
It was exactly the set-up to benefit someone of Meggie's intelligence and commitment. However, Meggie was increasingly ill. She didn't just act the stresses that the new generation lived through, she also lived them out, both the professional and the sexual ones, and the strain was beginning to tell.
Her last projected performance was one that would perhaps have borne out the assertion that all her other work 'marched behind' a new role. A Magdalen's Husband was about a young country girl married to a brute whose violence is all the more frightening for taking place off stage. A young man in love with her kills the husband and at the end of the play he is hanged, while she sits quietly in her room at the farm reading the bible to his simpleminded brother. If this sounds like Cold Comfort Farm, it is certainly taking that risk. What saves it is that it was fiercely topical. This was the year of the Thompson-Bywaters murder; Edith Thompson's lover had killed her husband in response to what were clearly flippant remarks, not a real request to do so; but she was hanged, despite unprecedented levels of public petitions to save her. It was a case that went on haunting England for years. Joan in the play is a very different character, with a strong religious faith, but the sense of "How might it feel to carry that burden?" How might anyone behave in her situation?" is there. Accounts of the last runthrough are extraordinary. Everybody stayed to watch the last scene where she read John's gospel as the clock was striking eight and several of them wrote about it afterwards. Here is Basil Dean's version.
Gradually the quiet, slightly hoarse voice began to pour its emotion over us, as the pupils of her eyes dilated, making them seem twice their normal size, and the whole personality became charged with explosive force. The effect was shattering. There was silence for a full minute after the curtain fell, and then spontaneous applause burst from the little knot of actors. Then they filed quietly out of the theatre.
Days later, she collapsed on her way to take a short holiday and died.
The reaction of the theatre world and beyond was extraordinary - partly because of her talent, partly because of the affection she commanded, but also because this was a death that seemed to partake of all the waste and injustice that everyone assumed the war had brought to an end - more than one person talked about Rupert Brooke.
The struggle to define her legacy was through what the poet WT Titterton called ' a song unsung, a script unread.' There was a play Clemence Dane had written specifically for her, The Way Things Happen, a kind of feminist revisioning of Measure for Measure; without a star to carry the political weight it was dismissed as of interest only to women. (sic). Noel Coward was due to work on The Rat Trap with ReandeaN, a project that never materialised, but the casting seems obviou in the light of the fact he dedicated the published version to her. J.M. Barrie had told her that he had something in mind to write for her, and told her mother that now the play never would be written.
Looking back, Basil Dean saw her impact as formative, remarking that until they worked together he 'held no particular views on the problems of either acting or production. It was only after the loss of Meggie that I began consciously to direct my thought towards developing the technique of the ensemble.' Where he turned was to Moscow, where he met Stanislavsky and Meyerhold (and narrowly missed meeting Trotsky who was already on the run from Stalin.)
Meggie's own last statement on performance came in a letter she wrote only days before her death to the Illustrated London News. Throughout the autumn the exuberant J.T.Grein's theatre column had been preoccupied with the state of English acting. He thought standards were rising, much as Charles McEvoy did. ' We demand of our actors nowadays' he said, "that they should not only impersonate, but penetrate, their parts.'" On November 3 Grein launched a debate to push the analysis of acting beyond the standard British text on the psychology of performance, Archer's Masks or Faces? He asked for views on the old question: how far an actor can think of something quite different while performing an emotional scene? Matheson Lang responded the following week with nostalgia for the ' old Bohemian actor.' He made a sort of analogy between naturalism and mere respectability; he thought actors were too special to mix in society rather than remaining apart - the cost, Lang thought, would be the sacrifice of physical expressiveness in order to fit in. Meggie weighed in the following week.
In my opinion, it is not possible sincerely to convey to the audience any emotion which one does not feel, to some extent, within oneself. The power of feeling is a gift. The actor is lucky who possesses it and can use it with restraint and judgement.
Feeling is a gift. For her, an actor was not distinguished by the way he or she expressed onstage emotions that are common to everyone. Rather, an actor's feelings had a quality unique to performers; the awareness as they happened that they were in themselves a gift, for technique to direct. This was the nearest she came to articulating that modernity her generation found in her. If Meggie had gone on to work with her near contemporaries in that golden generation, it was that clean cut simplicity, and that application of it to new work, that would have contributed something unique. She had already talked about tackling Ibsen and Chekhov, and playing Juliet; but the figure who looked at her own time and gave it life, who was already the leader of a company and who was needed to shape that company spirit, was already a part of the golden generation and I think she would have made it more golden.
Frances Gray is a former Reader in Drama at the University of Sheffield. She has published books on Noel Coward, John Arden, comedy and crime writing, and writes for the stage and radio. Her biography of Meggie Albanesi was published by the Society for Theatre Research in 2010.
|<< previous lecture||next lecture >>|
Related STR Pages
Current Lecture Programme
Meggie Albanesi: a life in the theatre
28th February 2010