THE KNIGHT I MISSED
July 9, 2017: Theatre Yesterday and Today, by Ron Fassler
If I were forced to name the actor I would most liked to have seen live — in anything — my mind would begin racing with the better known royalty of Broadway and the West End during the mid-to-late twentieth century: Alfred Lunt, Laurence Olivier, Kim Stanley … all of whom made their exits off the stage before 1969 when I began going to the theatre regularly as a teenager. But if pressed hard, I think the one who might have spoken to me most dynamically (and poetically) would have been Paul Scofield.
Scofield, born in Birmingham, England in 1922, only made it to Broadway once in a stage career that spanned six decades. That was to reprise his award winning London performance as Sir Thomas More in Robert Bolt’s A Man For All Seasons. Too young to have seen him play it on the stage in 1961, I vividly recall the film version released in 1966, in which he reprised his performance (thankfully). Rewatching it last night for the umpteenth time, I was taken with certain images that I recall from that first viewing as a nine-year-old as if it were yesterday. I don’t know how I wandered into the theatre at such a young age, as it certainly wasn’t a film for kids, but I have to admit that its power over me was immense. Besides To Kill a Mockingbird, I’m not sure of another film that depicts a person’s thorough goodness so completely without becoming mawkish. An actor can’t play “humanity,” a quality that can neither be conjured or faked. It just is — and that is what Scofield possessed. The ability to let us in on his “is.” It’s hard to describe it any other way. You get it in nearly every one of his thirty film or TV credits. At six feet tall, with a lean frame, a lined face and a thick shock of wavy hair, he was never an ingenue, though it should not go unmentioned that his acting debut at the age of thirteen in a school production of Romeo and Juliet was a personal triumph.
“The Romeo was not very good, but my Juliet was a sensation,” Scofield recalled. “It’s the only part I’ve ever played of which I can remember every word. It’s just stayed.”
Is it any wonder that I yearn to have seen what this actor was capable of on the stage? Scofield spent his entire lifetime performing in England, not only in London’s West End but throughout its environs, acting in original plays (even a musical or two) and especially in the classics, where it has been said that no other actor came near to so complete success in the playing of the four great tragic Shakespearean roles: Hamlet, Macbeth, Othello and King Lear. First taking on the aged king under the guidance of Peter Brook at Stratford-upon-Avon in 1962, with the action set against a huge, empty white stage, a film version upon which they collaborated, was released in 1971 in all its unrelenting bleakness. Yet as good as it is, I prefer a radio performance of the play, readily available on CD, which includes such British stalwarts as Kenneth Branagh, Harriet Walter and the late Alec McCowen (who played Scofield’s Fool both on stage and on screen). Listening to the recording, with nothing but Scofield’s voice speaking the verse allows for no visual distractions, as close to perfection as an aural performance can get. Forty when he first played it on stage, and eighty when he stood in front of a microphone for this recording, it’s something that needs to be heard to be believed.
And about that voice. Simon Callow, Scofield’s co-star in the original National Theatre production of Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus, described it as “an instrument like none other, an organ with limitless stops, from the mightiest of bass rumbles to falsetto pipings.” But perhaps my favorite metaphor came from the director responsible for Scofield’s Oscar winning performance in the film of A Man For All Seasons, director Fred Zinnemann, who called it “a Rolls Royce being started up.”
The clip below of Scofield performing a monologue from Amadeus might be all there is of this performance. If it doesn’t send you, as if it does me, then maybe his style of acting isn’t your cup of tea. But I love the mixture of theatricality and genuine feeling, along with the unique sound of his speaking voice, perfectly matched to what he is talking about: how the majesty of music can lift you as nothing else can.
And what of this exquisitely written scene from Paul Attanasio’s Quiz Show (directed by Robert Redford)? Not only does it have two great actors in Ralph Fiennes and Scofield, but it’s also a sibling/parent scene, which makes me both a sucker and a goner when it comes to how it delivers. Watch the gentleness in Scofield’s work; those deep brown eyes feel like you could fall and swim in them for want of their acceptance and approval. As the actress Irene Worth, who played Goneril to his Lear, said: “His eyes always spoke more than his words.”
A quiet and reclusive man, Scofield never lived in London. He preferred the company of his wife, the actress Joy Parker, with whom he lived for sixty-five years until his death in 2008, and to raising his children in the countryside. He was forever commuting to the West End by train when he appeared in plays, and relished the solitariness of being alone on the rides to and fro. He never once submitted to a television interview on any of the British “chat shows,” as they are called there. “It is a snare and a delusion to become too well known,” he once said.
Four years prior to his death, Scofield received the singular (and unique honor) of being voted by his colleagues at the Royal Shakespeare Company as having given the greatest performance of all time in a Shakespeare play (his King Lear). Upon hearing this, he was quoted as being “overwhelmed, astonished and delighted” by their judgment. It certainly meant more to him than a knighthood, which due to his unwillingness to take part in something that demanded he accept a title, he turned down on three separate occasions.
With or without a “Sir” affixed to his name, Scofield will forever be mentioned in the same hallowed company as that of his compatriots from that era, all of whom accepted their titles: Alec Guinness, Michael Redgrave, John Gielgud, Ralph Richardson and, of course, Olivier. As Richard Burton once said, “Of the ten greatest moments in the theatre, eight are Scofield’s.”
Ron Fassler’s Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway, is now available at Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Up-Cheap-Seats-HistoricalBroadway/dp/0998168629/ref=sr_1_4ie=UTF8&qid=1494611605&sr=8-4&keywords=up+in+the+cheap+seats+book