Thursday, September 6, 2012

Encore, encore (Books - A Positively Final Appearance by Alec Guinness)

Following my enjoyment of Alec Guinness's 1995-6 journal My Name Escapes Me I couldn't help launching directly into his journals covering 1996-8 A Positively Final Appearance.  Although roughly chronological the second volume is more organized by theme.  Being a little older, Guinness seems more focused on his declining physical powers and the death of friends.  He reflects more negatively on the state of the world and makes fewer excursions.  The consequence was fortunate for his reader as the book is peppered with sometimes hilarious, sometimes touching anecdotes of Marlene Dietrich, Michel St Denis, Humphrey Bogart, Edith Evans, Beatrice Lillie, and the like, that I could lap up with a spoon.  He also tucks away perceptive readings of verse, and observations on plays and acting offered, not instructively, but because it is his habit and his pleasure to think about them.  I'll offer you a few... 

For instance, in critiquing Trollope he not only shows how one might build character from behavioral details, but why this craft gave him so much satisfaction. his description of Father John Barham, a young, overenthusiastic, gentlemanly Catholic priest.  'He had thick dark brown hair, which was cut short... but which he so constantly ruffled by the actions of his hands, that, although short, it seemed to be wild and uncombed...  In discussions he would constantly push back his hair, and then sit with his hand fixed on the top of his head.'  I have seen many highly strung intellectuals do the same thing.  The pleasure lies in recognizing, today, habits which were to be found among us a hundred and twenty years ago however much the mores and manners have changed; and a hundred years before that, and before that as well.  The sense of continuity, going both backwards and forwards, I find endlessly rewarding.
A wonderful multi-page riff on the sound of bells, becomes the occasion to analyze Macbeth.
Macbeth says to a servant,

Go, bid thy mistress, when my drink is ready,
She strike upon the bell.  Get thee to bed.

It is a simple, practical instruction, as if he had said, 'Tell Mrs Macbeth I'd like a glass of hot milk and to give me a buzz when it's ready.'  Also, 'Get thee to bed', sounds like the kindly advice of a considerate master.  But, 'when my drink is ready', for all its ordinariness, carries a terrifying image - a chalice of the king's hot golden blood.  Then, a little later, Lady Macbeth quietly rings the bell; perhaps just a scarcely audible sound but enough to make us jump.  And Macbeth, after all his procrastination, hears it and obeys: 'I go, and it is done: the bell invites me.'
It is a wonderful deep analysis that makes a living being and richly painted background out of ink on the page, revealing something of Guinness's pleasure in animating text for himself.  It is a good example of something acting teachers try to pound into their students: that text is the actor's instruction, the starting point for an act of lived-in imagination, not the actor's end point to be explicated, polished, and rendered.

Guinness enjoys The Pickwick Papers, which he confesses to having never read all the way through before the ripe age of 83.  I was glad to hear it, having yet to make if through the opening chapters myself.  He relishes a paragraph in which Dickens describes Sam Weller writing a letter:
Then looking carefully at the pen to see that there were no hairs in it, and dusting down the table, so that there might be no crumbs of bread under the paper, Sam tucked up the cuffs of his coat, squared his elbows, and composed himself to write.  To ladies and gentlemen not in the habit of devoting themselves practically to the science of penmanship, writing a letter is no very easy task; it being always considered necessary in such cases for the writer to recline his head on his left arm, so as to place his eyes as nearly as possible on a level with the paper, while glancing sideways at the letters he is constructing, to form with his tongue imaginary characters to correspond.  These motions, although unquestionably of the greatest assistance to original composition, retard in some degree the progress of the writer.
The laboriousness of the narrative emphasizes the meaninglessness of the effort, a result of the plain inability to write.  It literally makes me guffaw but, truth be told, it's almost mean.  What I love is how this occasions for Guinness a memory of great acting:
Sam's letter-writing brings to mind Ruth Gordon as Mrs Margery Pinchwife in The Country Wife, which she acted at the Old Vic in 1936.  In writing the quite long letter towards the end of the play Miss Gordon went through every contortion known to man or woman, including, I seem to remember, climbing on to the table at which she was writing, or at any rate getting a leg over it.  She was hilarious and in that one scene almost challenged Bea Lillie as a clown.  Thinking about it today I wonder if Tony Guthrie, who directed the play, and who was deeply versed in Dickens, may have drawn her attention to Sam Weller's effort.
Despite a feeling of sadness that pervades this book, it is full of such riches -  a laugh-out-loud textual analysis of an excerpt from Tamburlaine, Marlene Dietrich's annual reconnaissance with aliens in the California desert, being balled out by The Prince of Wales for bringing him a scotch in the wrong glass - what you're left with in the end is that feeling that, it is a shame that this is the very last encore after such a rich and varied concert, but boy are you glad to have attended.

1 comment:

Sheila O'Malley said...

Wow! I loved My Name Escapes Me - I had no idea there was a second volume. Must read!