Michael Redgrave and <i>The Mountebank’s Tale</i>
in British cinema of the 1950s

In 1958 Michael Redgrave was appearing for the third and last time at Stratford-upon-Avon. The parts he played that year were Hamlet and Benedick in Much Ado about Nothing. The Mountebank's Tale was published by Heinemann, but is now a rarity, a collector's item. It is a tale of two actors, or rather an actor and his double. Joseph Charles is a supremely gifted, cultivated, classical actor in the Austrian theatre. Joseph Charles is preparing a light comedy whose plot relies on the presence of a pair of identical twins. This chapter focuses on three best films of 1950s: The Dam Busters, The Quiet American and The Browning Version. The film The Dam Busters was directed by Michael Anderson. The film The Quiet American was directed by Joseph Mankiewicz.

IN 1958 MICHAEL REDGRAVE was appearing for the third and last time at Stratford-upon-Avon. The parts he played that year were Hamlet and Benedick in Much Ado about Nothing. Hamlet was a brave choice. My father was by then 50. In an age less fearful than ours of growing old, great actors like Sir John Martin Harvey had been able to make a lifetime’s work out of a part like Sidney Carton in A Tale of Two Cities. Sir John performed it 4,004 times and gave his farewell performance in the role at 74 and audiences hardly seemed to mind. But by 1958, to play Hamlet at 50 was a risky thing to do and on the whole I think that Michael managed it with great skill. No, I’ll go further: I think it was the best Hamlet he ever gave.

Stratford then, as I think it still does, had a summer festival to which scholars, historians and artists came from all over the world. My father was invited, as he had been twice before, to give a lecture. He was a good lecturer. He had given four Rockefeller lectures at Bristol University in 1953, which then became one of the most suggestive, illuminating books about acting, The Actor’s Ways and Means (1953). Other lectures were brought together in a book called Mask or Face (1958).

But on this occasion he must have felt that he had said all he wanted to say about acting in lecture form and he chose instead to write a long short story or novella, The Mountebank’s Tale (1959). I think that this was a shrewd choice. In fiction he was able to say more about himself, his acting, more about his understanding of theatre than he had yet been able to say in the more conventional form of lecture or essay.

The Mountebank’s Tale was published by Heinemann, but is now a rarity, a collector’s item. It is a tale of two actors, or rather an actor and his double. Joseph Charles is a supremely gifted, cultivated, classical actor in the Austrian theatre. His double, Paul Hammer, is a young man ten or fifteen years his junior but otherwise identical to himself in every outward respect. Charles has taught his young double to speak elegant German. He has also taught him how to act. He discovers that his pupil has a natural gift almost the equal of his own.

Joseph Charles is preparing a light comedy whose plot relies on the presence of a pair of identical twins. The play was written for himself, as virtuoso, to double both parts, but for a joke he allows his protégé one evening to play the other twin, without announcing the substitution in the programme. The audience is completely taken in. The performance is a success. Charles decides to continue with the experiment.

At first the younger man is quite content to play the second twin without acknowledgement. He is head-over-heels stage-struck, and it is enough for him to be acting before a large audience, sharing the stage with the greatest actor of the day. But after a while he starts to pine for more independence and the chance to make a reputation for himself out of the shadows of his great master. And seeing this, Charles decides on an even more daring substitution. There is a one-act comedy about an old man and his servant and the young man plays the older man, the part normally played by Charles himself, while Charles plays the servant.

Again the audience is not informed in advance and is completely unaware of the substitution. It is delighted with the performance and Paul, the young actor, becomes more and more confident as he hears the response to his daring moments of improvisation, his unexpected gags. Emboldened by the applause, he invents more and more. The performance is undoubtedly the most successful of that light comedy ever given on the Viennese stage. And then suddenly in mid-performance Joseph Charles does something that he has never done: he forgets his lines. He ‘dries’.

My father was a friend and a disciple of the Danish writer and novelist Isak Dinesen. Today more people know her as Karen Blixen because a film, Out of Africa, was made about her. My father borrowed from Isak Dinesen a very gothic method of story-telling with much deflection and sleight of hand to build up suspense and atmosphere. All these are in evidence in The Mountebank’s Tale.

At first one thinks it is obvious that the narrator, a successful man of the theatre approaching middle age must be my father. We find him in his club in Covent Garden, which is unmistakably modelled on the Garrick Club. He is given a photograph of two men, one of whom he recognises as his late friend, a historian called St John Fielding. The two men are pictured in front of a seventeenth-century Cotswold stone farmhouse, although the presence of a giant eucalyptus tree in the background suggests California rather than the Cotswolds.

The narrator is curious to know who the other figure in the photograph might be. He finds amongst his late friend’s scrapbooks and letters a typescript. It tells the story of Fielding’s encounter in Santa Barbara with the legendary Viennese actor Joseph Charles. As the story progresses one realises that each new person we are introduced to bears some resemblance to my father, but is in fact only a decoy. The actor has discarded each disguise, as if flinging off pieces of costume as he runs from the stage to his dressing room. We follow the trail – cloak, jacket, vest – but when we reach the dressing room, the actor is not there.

Through this story my father tells more about the art of acting than I think one can learn from him anywhere else. As I read The Mountebank’s Tale I can see my father signalling to me, beckoning me on, saying, ‘This is who I am, this is why I act.’ Why, for example, did Joseph Charles forget his lines? Because he was astonished and somewhat shocked to find that the audience was applauding his young double for doing things that he would never had dreamed of doing.

My father had a very strict contract with himself as a performer and he kept to its terms all his life. He suffered under it, somewhat. By comparison with his great contemporary Laurence Olivier, who was the consummate showman, my father very rarely allowed that necessary side of an actor’s personality to dominate his work. Joseph Charles forgets his lines because he is appalled to see that the audience prefers his young double’s decoration of the part to the more chaste, pure, classical performance which he is accustomed to giving.

There are other things in this novella that are very reminiscent of my father. In particular, the description of a hellish dress rehearsal in which the slightest unexpected event, such as an actor wearing a different costume or wearing it in a different way, would cause Charles to forget his lines. As a boy of 13 I saw my father in such a dress rehearsal, of Antony and Cleopatra at Stratford, stop over and over again to ask for a prompt. He was wearing his costume, of course, wig, beard, make-up and so on, and yet he hardly seemed to be there.

And then there is his nightmare. My father had a recurring nightmare, in which he found himself looking at his reflection in a mirror in his dressing room having applied a rather heavy make-up. He was a great specialist in make-up, something which we actors today have almost lost the art of. In fact we hardly make up for the stage at all. In his nightmare he looks at first approvingly in the mirror at this make-up. And then the make-up begins to slip down his face and the entire face which he has adopted slides down on to his chest, so that what is left behind is not his real face but a blank.

Finally, Joseph Charles decides that he has had enough. He says goodbye to acting and in mid-production he asks his young double into his dressing room and he says, ‘I am never going to appear in this part again or in any other. Will you please now take over all my parts?’ The young double does so. And thus it turns out that the man whom Fielding meets in Hollywood is not the legendary Joseph Charles after all but his double, Paul Hammer, who has assumed his personality, his name and his career. Charles himself has disappeared.

My father disappeared, too. He suffered from Parkinson’s Disease, one of the worst afflictions that can befall a performer because it robs him of all those things which he most relies upon: his voice, which becomes feeble; his plasticity of movement. Worst of all, it robs him of his facial expression – the characteristic symptom of Parkinsonism is what is called the mask, a rigidity of expression that begins to overtake a person’s face.

I am very aware of this in what I think of as his farewell to the cinema, The Go-Between (1971), directed by Joseph Losey. I can’t watch it because I find it unbearably poignant. His face has already, to a small extent, surrendered to the mask of Parkinsonism. Diagnostic techniques have improved since those days, I expect. My father’s illness was not diagnosed until 1972. But I can see it quite clearly with the help of hindsight, in The Go-Between, shot in 1970.

And yet, for every physical loss we can, given a fair wind, compensate, and my father compensated astonishingly. His eyes in this film are more eloquent than I have ever seen them in any other performance, and though his face hardly moves you can see his eyes signalling his emotions. Harold Pinter wrote the screenplay, in which there are comparatively few words. Pinter was a great admirer of my father; he described something I had never quite been able to place before, what he called my father’s ‘gawky grace’, and I think that when you watch his body language in films you will agree that is very apt. We get to know actors if we see them often enough on the screen by their body language, by their walk. If you think, for example, of Henry Fonda you think of a characteristic set of the shoulders, a way of walking towards you or across the screen that is both modest and yet determined; it appears in all his roles. My father’s body language is composed of this ‘gawky grace’, in which sometimes the gawkiness is predominant, sometimes the grace, throughout all his film appearances. Pinter wrote the screenplay knowing that it might be my father’s farewell to the cinema. Not literally his farewell, by the way. For archival reference there are two later ones: Connecting Rooms (1971) with a great friend of his, Bette Davis and The Last Target (1972). But I don’t think they stand comparison with The Go-Between and I don’t think Michael would have considered them as anything other than the sort of encore which sometimes we are obliged to give after a farewell performance.

Pinter also directed his final appearance on the London stage which was in a play by Simon Gray, Close of Play in 1979, when, of course, he couldn’t remember any lines at all and so Simon wrote for him and Pinter directed for him a part in which he would be on stage throughout, but silently because the character had been afflicted by a stroke. And so he had to watch the proceedings through this mask, but with these extraordinarily expressive eyes. Finally, he had to say, if I remember, one line at the end of the performance: ‘The door … is open.’

He left a legacy of fifty performances in full-length feature films – I am not counting narrations and there are some famous ones such as A Diary for Timothy – which, in a span of work from 1938 to 1972 or 1973, is a remarkable achievement, especially when you consider that he was also a leading actor in the theatre throughout that period. It amounts to two feature films a year, though naturally it wasn’t quite spread out in that way.

A few years ago I made a documentary film for the BBC Omnibus series. It was directed by Roger Michell and was based on a book which I wrote, Michael Redgrave: My Father. Preparing for that film we had to watch a very large number of Michael’s films, many of which I had never seen before. His film career for me was to a large extent his biography. I watched his entire life unfolding through his film performances and I think therefore that I am a rather partial and maybe awkward critic of his work.

I tend to think that every great actor and every great dramatist is writing his or her autobiography. Even Shakespeare. No, especially Shakespeare, supposedly the most ‘impersonal’ of dramatists. I think it is certainly true of my father. The question that you always have to ask yourself about acting, particularly about acting in the cinema, is to what extent does the actor move towards the character that he or she is portraying, and to what extent do they take that character and adapt it to themselves?

Most of my father’s favourite actors took the latter course: Spencer Tracy, for example, who over and over again takes a part and superbly moulds it around his own personality; Robert Ryan; Arthur Kennedy; Van Heflin – all Americans. You will see all of these had this great ability, an ability I think is superbly exemplified today in Tom Hanks, to mould a part around themselves and yet to contain within themselves so much that it does not seem that the part is thereby impoverished. That dialectic – how much of themselves? how much of the author’s original intention? – is one of the most exciting problems of acting and it is one which I think my father’s career probably addresses and answers in a number of very interesting ways.

When I was writing my book Michael Redgrave: My Father I looked through his diaries and I found in 1939 an entry which was clearly troubled because his writing, which was normally a neat and rather pleasing script, was awkward and jagged. He may have been drunk or distressed, probably both. He said:

The artist as a man of character. It has been said that the two are incompatible. This agrees with the theory of artistic temperament as a disease. Particularly it is true of actors whose nature demands that they should lose themselves, or rather find themselves in other characters. The extent to which characterization alters my private life is frightening and at times ridiculous. To live happily it would seem that I must concentrate on the portrayal of romantic upright simple men, which anyway next to the childishness of Baron Tusenbach [in Chekhov’s Three Sisters] or Sir Andrew Aguecheek is what I do best.

His first four films present us precisely with this romantic upright simple man, though sometimes with a touch of the childishness of Tusenbach or Sir Andrew.The first was The Lady Vanishes, directed by Hitchcock, in which he has to appear with the almost obligatory Ronald Colman moustache. He also has to do something which is a nightmare for an actor coming from the theatre to the cinema. In his first scene with Margaret Lockwood he has to perform about seventeen different physical actions: he has to come into her bedroom; stand in the door; greet her (she, of course, is upset, offended at finding this young man bursting into her bedroom); he then has to take off his coat and his knapsack and deposit them, along with a walking stick, in different parts of the room. He then has to come over; confidently sit on her bed and unpack a suitcase; and finally exit from the room, tipping his hat as he does so, saying, ‘Confidentially I think you’re a bit of a stinker.’ And all in one camera set-up.

It looks a wonderful first take, but it is a nightmare for an actor, even if you’re experienced. If you’re inexperienced it is a triple nightmare. Film is an extraordinarily technical medium for an actor compared to theatre. Occasionally in the theatre, when working with great theatre magicians like Robert Wilson, we will be asked to hit a mark very precisely, and to raise a hand on a particular word, and the lighting will be organized in such a way that we must do so. But that degree of precision is rarely needed in the theatre. Cinema, however, is a very precise medium and so to do all that in his first shot (although the film was not shot in chronological story sequence, that was in fact the first scene he shot) was quite an achievement. It is delightfully brash and has all the arrogance of youth. It is something he probably couldn’t have done three films later when he had started to take stock of the difficulties.

That simple upright romantic young man continues somewhat into the next film. It is called Stolen Life (1939), with the great Elizabeth Bergner. The third is a very good light comedy called Climbing High (1939) with Jessie Matthews, a very popular actress then. (This was the first of three films my father made which were directed by Carol Reed.) Again he displays an extraordinarily assured touch for a daft, light, romantic comedy of the kind we associate with the name of Cary Grant.

In the fourth film also the same upright, simple romantic young man appears; I think this is one of his finest performances . The Stars Look Down (1940), from a story by A. J. Cronin, again directed by Carol Reed, is not a light comedy; it’s a serious film about a mining disaster. Michael plays a young miner, David Fenwick. He hadn’t played many working-class men before so he wore his film clothes every day in the street, to see whether people behaved differently towards him when he was dressed in a cloth cap and heavy boots – a workman’s clothes – and of course he found that they did.

He found, as Oscar Wilde said, that the poor are wiser, more charitable, kinder, more generous than we are, and he used some of that in his performance. It wouldn’t stand the test now in terms of the authenticity of his accent. Funnily enough actors were not particularly bothered about that kind of authenticity then, and didn’t have the help of experts such as Joan Washington, experts who have made a study of phonetics, like Professor Higgins in Shaw’s Pygmalion, and in the sociology of accent. But in all other respects, it’s a very authentic performance of a young working-class hero.

As I go on through his film biography I see that that upright simple young man gives way, as he grows older, to a much more troubled person in which the warning he gave himself in that 1939 diary extract about the possibility that the part can take you over is brilliantly and unexpectedly illuminated. Cavalcanti’s Dead of Night (1945) is, I think, a remarkable film. Cavalcanti didn’t make many films in this country. (He directed Went the Day Well? for Ealing Studios.) Dead of Night is a sextet of ghost stories and in the last of them my father plays Maxwell Frere, a ventriloquist who becomes possessed by his dummy. It is an extraordinary performance. The dummy, by the way, was Archie Andrews, used by Peter Brough for his radio show Educating Archie. (It never ceases to amaze me that in post-war Britain the star of one of the most popular radio shows was a ventriloquist.)

My own personal selection of my father’s three best performances are from the 1950s. One is The Dam Busters (1955), very well directed by Michael Anderson. There are some excellent scenes on a beach where men from the ministry in black coats and homburg hats arrive to watch the success or failure of Barnes Wallis’s attempts to build the dam buster bomb. It was made in 1955. You are astounded by how nice everyone is to everyone else, how polite everyone is, how utterly deferential and how orders are given without a flicker of doubt that they will be obeyed instantly, admired, liked and thoroughly agreed with because an order from a superior, like the umpire’s decision, was final. This is interesting sociologically because you’re clearly moving into a time when precisely those assumptions about class and about rank and about people keeping in their place were being challenged in society. It seems that our films at that time were trying to reassert modes of behaviour which had more or less disappeared. Michael’s performance as Barnes Wallis is very fine. It was based on very close observation of Wallis himself, with whom Michael spent several days. They agreed from the outset that he would not try to impersonate Wallis. Physically they were very dissimilar. But I know, because Wallis told me so himself, that he thought my father’s performance ‘disturbingly’ accurate. That’s my third favourite.

My second choice of best performance is The Quiet American (1958). It was directed by Joseph Mankiewicz, from the Graham Greene novel, but because it was made in 1957 when the cinema was still haunted, even after the death of the senator from Wisconsin, by McCarthyism, Mankiewicz did an unforgivable thing. Much to Graham Greene’s dismay, he altered the story. Instead of the young, eponymous, quiet American being the man who, out of the very superfluity of decency and naivety, qualities which Greene records so well and detests so much, actually sends people to their deaths, it becomes the desperate, weary, cynical figure of Fowler who does so.

My father had reason himself to be afraid of McCarthyism. He’d been banned from broadcasting on the BBC during the war because of his sympathies with the Communist Party. He was, I think, mistakenly led by his fear to support Mankiewicz in making his decision. I believe that if he’d stuck out and insisted that Graham Greene’s story be followed he might have succeeded. However that may be, the performance of Fowler is very fine. It makes me think that Michael should have acted in The Heart of the Matter or A Burnt-Out Case.

My first choice of best performance is when my father played Andrew Crocker-Harris in The Browning Version (1951). In the climactic scene my father is really crying. That’s not such a difficult thing as it may sound – it’s not really difficult to cry on stage – but to cry again and again, and to be so clearly distraught, I mean really physically distraught as this long film scene required him to be, called for real artistry. I remember my father coming back that afternoon from the studio and I said, ‘How are you?’ He said ‘I’ve got a headache,’ and I said ‘Why?’, and he said, ‘I had to cry so much.’ I didn’t think anything more about it.

This essay began began life as a lecture at the British Library ‘British Cinema of the 1950s’ study day in 1998. After it there were questions. Some of these, along with Corin Redgrave’s answers, follow.

What part would you say best characterised Michael Redgrave? That is, the one closest to the father you knew?

That’s very difficult because, you see, probably the one that was closest to the father that I knew for a long period of time was a film called Thunder Rock (1943). It’s from a play by an American writer, Robert Ardrey, and it has a very interesting subject. The young James Mason appears briefly in it and very well. It’s an enormously veiled performance by my father: very dark, very brooding, very hollow-cheeked, rather remote and inaccessible, entirely suitable to the character, who is a lighthouse keeper who has decided to cut himself off from the rest of society, and that was the father that for long periods of time I knew. However, that does not give a fair portrait of him as a man because there were many other sides to him, even if in life one only glimpsed them rarely. In the film called The Happy Road (1957), directed by Gene Kelly in the mid–1950s, he performs a kind of daft, idiotic, British general at NATO headquarters in Paris. It is very funny and there is a sense of play, in the double meaning of the word, which I do associate with him. There is another performance, a lesser-known film of Orson Welles, Confidential Report (1955) (in America it is known as Mr. Arkardin). This is the only time he appeared as a gay character. He played an antique dealer. He allows himself to do all kinds of things which his film parts would not often allow him to do. But I think my first answer is probably true: the father who I knew for most of my life was the Charleston of Thunder Rock.

You mentioned two out of the three favourite performances of your father’s were in films you described as seriously flawed. Was it the case that for most of his career he was doing good work with mediocre or lesser material that was not really worthy of him?

I don’t think so. As a matter of fact, I think that if you take his work as a whole he was unusually fortunate in working with a number of great directors and scriptwriters. There is undoubtedly a leavening of film that is neither memorable nor something of which he would be particularly proud. But in a career spanning thirty-five years and fifty feature films, that is hardly surprising. My father didn’t often have to do that kind of work. I do remember that he returned from Stratford in 1953 nearly bankrupt. Stratford at that time wasn’t subsidised and hardly paid actors a living wage. And also he had been particularly imprudent about his financial affairs. He woke up to the fact that he owed an enormous sum of money and he had to make six films, more or less back-to-back. The Green Scarf was one and The Sea Shall Not Have Them (1954), which is perhaps the most unmemorable film of them all, is another. Then there was a film by a fine director, Michael Powell, but it’s not one of Powell’s best efforts, called Oh, Rosalinda! (1955), which is a version of Die Fledermaus; there is The Night My Number Came Up (1954) – not memorable; and The Dam Busters which is a well-directed film.

   Hollywood burned up some of the greatest talents. When you see Fritz Lang’s Secret Beyond the Door, made in Hollywood in 1948, you see the work of a great director whose talent is being forced through the mincer of Hollywood’s machine and doesn’t happily survive, but there is still enough in that film, including my father’s performance, to make it of more than just academic interest, I think.

I remember your father giving poetry recitals for the Apollo Society, in the mid-fifties. Gielgud was always praised for verse speaking, but I think your father was remarkable in that way as well.

He was a very all-round artist, or rounded artist. He was a fine pianist, a very fine singer, he spoke perfect French and German, he was a good writer – though he only wrote one novel, The Mountebank’s Tale. (I have a theory, by the way, about single novels written by artists who excel in other dimensions, that they are often very valuable as a key to the artist’s work; read Arthur Miller’s novel, Focus, and you will see what I mean.) He had a very good ear for cadence, for rhythm, and his verse speaking was, I agree, incomparable. You don’t see much of that, naturally, on film. He wrote a very good scenario screenplay for Antony and Cleopatra. The Italian producer, Fillipo del Giudice, who produced Hamlet for Olivier and Henry V, was bringing Antony and Cleopatra to the screen. It proved to be just one bridge to0 far for del Giudice and he just couldn’t accomplish it, so it remained sadly a project which never came before the camera. You might guess something of my father’s verse speaking from The Importance of Being Earnest (1952) because Wilde’s prose is very musical, very precise.

   You don’t see, naturally, much of it in the cinema but certainly it’s there. I think it’s there in the rhythm of his delivery in The Browning Version. It is very interesting indeed to note the pacing of that scene, and to observe how much of that scene he wanted to be shot on his back. He actually wanted the whole scene to be shot on his back. But in the final cut the early part is and then he has to turn around and take the medicine facing the camera. He didn’t want to do any of that. He felt that at moments of great emotion one’s shoulders are more expressive than any other part of one’s body, and I think he was absolutely right. Certainly people who know about massage would tell you that that is true, that this is where the greatest tension is stressed. Alfred Lunt, the great American actor, was famous for being able to convey volumes by turning his back on the audience. I think unfortunately that you would have to have seen my father in the theatre or in recital to have the full measure of his verse speaking. Even a recording can’t quite give you that.

Corin Redgrave is an actor, director and author. Since his debut in 1962 his work has been divided almost evenly between theatre, film and television. He is the author of Michael Redgrave: My Father (RCB, Fourth Estate, 1995) and Julius Caesar and the English Revolution (Faber & Faber, 2002). As a playwright he has written Roy and Daisy (1998), Fool for the Rest of his Life (2000), Blunt Speaking (2001) and Not Half the Man I Used to Be (2002?), all plays commissioned for BBC radio. He has been the editor of The Marxist, a bi-monthly journal, since 1987, and is an occasional freelance journalist.

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