Magazine article The Spectator

Rogues' Gallery

Magazine article The Spectator

Rogues' Gallery

Article excerpt

The Actors

by Brian Masters

The Garrick Club, £20, pp. 319,

ISBN 9780956743602

Available from the Garrick Club, 15 Garrick Street, London WC2 9AY,

tel: 0207 379 6478

The distinguished writer Brian Masters in his handsomely produced book on the actors of the Garrick Club has set himself a formidable task. Not only, until he reaches the mid-20th century, does he have to assess the art of long-dead actors from contemporary accounts; he is also writing a history of the theatrical profession from the time when actors were actually designated, in an 1822 Act of Parliament, 'Rogues and Vagabonds', until their gradual edging into respectability. This was symbolised by two events: the founding of the Garrick Club in 1831 and Henry Irving's knighthood in 1895. Later, Masters enumerates 20thcentury Garrick actors, many of whom he has known, and finally addresses club members' influence over the theatre for more than a century and a half.

He has carried out his daunting task very well. The book is informative, thorough and enjoyable. The first Garrick actor to feature is the great Macready who despised the low status of actors but was as obsessed with his craft and the search for emotional truth as any latterday Stanislavskian. He was prickly, vain and jealous - not someone with whom one would care to have lunch. He invited his great rival, the saintly Phelps, to join his company in order to cast him in inferior roles. Yet, a mass of contradictions, Macready generously helped Phelps when the latter was on the verge of bankruptcy.

Phelps had a great success with his company at the Sadler's Wells theatre - previously a very seedy venue. He pioneered the playing of Shakespeare's plays as written, discarding ludicrous 'improvements' such Phelps was the idol of the young Henry Irving who, after years of toiling in the provinces, became at the Lyceum the doyen of British theatre. Irving, awkward in movement, with a notably ugly voice and peculiar pronunciations - sight as 'seyt', hand as 'hond' or 'hend' - had an extraordinarily compelling presence. Actors physically and vocally ill-favoured can still be magnetic, like the more recent Nichol Williamson.

Among several other actor-managers Beerbohm Tree stands out for his sheer relish for life and art and wild sense of humour. The half-brother of Max Beerbohm, he added Tree to his surname, I have always understood, because when audiences called for him after the final curtain 'Tree' was much easier to call out than 'Beerbohm'. His speciality at His Majesty's Theatre was spectacle. When he leased it out for the long-running Chu Chin Chow he described the costumes as 'more navel than millinery'.

'Gentlemanly' actors like George Alexander also held sway. Later the beautifully crafted natural acting of George Du Maurier had a lasting influence. …

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