Extracting the Michael: An Object Lesson in the Limits of Biography

By Churchwell, Sarah | New Statesman (1996), December 7, 2012 | Go to article overview

Extracting the Michael: An Object Lesson in the Limits of Biography


Churchwell, Sarah, New Statesman (1996)


The Redgraves: a Family Epic

Donald Spoto

Robson Press, 384pp, [pounds sterling]25

Given how much our culture admires glamour, it is remarkable how little careful thought we give to it, especially in the form that is most devoted to glorifying it. Celebrity biographies are, by and large, the last place to seek enlightenment about the meaning of celebrities or glamour. Deriving etymologically from a Scottish word for witchcraft, glamour provides our secular world with a mode of worship, which is why its metaphors are religious, its stars called icons and idols: glamour offers us a more exalted vision of ourselves.

It is not an accident that we think of them as gods, as the remarkable Michael Redgrave seems to have understood. In addition to being one of the greatest actors of a magnificent acting generation, Redgrave was also erudite and highly intelligent; he wrote several books, including a novel, The Mountebank's Tale, which opens with an epigraph from Rilke that concludes: "In the life of the gods ... I understand nothing better than the moment they withdraw themselves; what would be a god without the protecting cloud, can you imagine a god worse for wear?"

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Compared with the legacies of Redgrave's male contemporaries on the London stage--Laurence Olivier, John Gielgud, Alec Guinness and Ralph Richardson--his achievements have been somewhat overshadowed since his death in 1985 at the age of 77, his star unaccountably allowed to dim. Happily, recent biographies are working to burnish it once more, arguing rightly for Redgrave's place at the centre of an epoch of remarkable theatrical accomplishment. Donald Spoto's The Redgraves: a Family Epic is the second biography of Redgrave to appear in eight years, and the first American biography of Redgrave and his dynasty (although Spoto ends his book quoting Vanessa Redgrave's resistance to the term "dynasty", it seems a fair characterisation of a family that has achieved fame and influence across three generations and counting). The first biography of Redgrave, Alan Strachan's Secret Dreams: a Biography of Michael Redgrave, itself long overdue, was published in 2004 and then only in the UK. This is lucky for Spoto, as Strachan's book is by far the superior: considerably more thorough and detailed, more thoughtful and much better written.

Over the course of his distinguished career, Redgrave acted in and occasionally directed more than 260 plays and films, along with countless television and radio appearances, as well as readings and recordings, and writing a small handful of books. It is hard to imagine the energy that enabled him, amid all this work, also to maintain, usually concurrently, longterm relationships with members of both sexes, a 50-year marriage and a family with three children (Vanessa, Corin, and Lynn), all of whom became notable actors themselves. That said, it is clear that his wife, the actress Rachel Kempson, did the lion's share of the work raising the children and holding the family together--while her husband appeared at times to be trying to pull it apart.

It seems clear that Redgrave was a genuinely doting father, although his peripatetic career and his habit of always keeping a male lover or two handily nearby meant that he was largely an absent one as well. Although Spoto claims that this will be a story of the entire Redgrave clan, his primary focus is on Michael and his "split" sexuality. For a writer who has published 26 celebrity biographies to date, most of them about actors (including Laurence Olivier, Marilyn Monroe, Ingrid Bergman, Elizabeth Taylor and James Dean), Spoto does not always seem very interested in the process of acting. Redgrave was a serious actor, devoted to his craft, but his charm and handsome good looks meant that when he was cast in his first film role, in Alfred Hitchcock's 1938 hit The Lady Vanishes, he became an instant celebrity on both sides of the Atlantic. …

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