Essays: Existentialist actor |
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Existentialist actor

IRIS MURDOCH and other professional students of the mighty French savant would no doubt decline to back me up, but speaking as a highly unqualified layman I feel bound to assert that Jean-Paul Sartre has only ever had one real idea in his life.

The idea is enshrined in his first little book on existentialism. It is the idea that our lives are something we can make and remake for ourselves from day to day. I have always had the impression that the idea came to him when he was sitting one evening — or afternoon or even morning, it would have made no difference — in the stygian depths of a Left Bank club. On a little stage, Juliette Greco was singing. At another table, Simone de Beauvoir was writing in a very large notebook. Sartre had one eye on each of them. Tiens, it was a long time ago.

Be that as it may, the idea, or notion, is surely the driving force of Sartre’s play Kean, which last weekend was given to us as the ‘Play of the Month’ on BBC1, in a translation by Frank Hauser. Slap-happily composed but full of interest, the piece came springing to life with a zest that made you wonder how a man capable of raising Kean from the dead should have been so concerned, at a later stage of his career, to bury Flaubert beyond hope of recovery. The answer, I think, is that Sartre, like Camus, simply admired and envied actors. Actors are, after all, the only true existentialists. Or so writers tend to believe.

As evoked by Sartre, Kean is an actor whose own life is his greatest role. Inspired by debt like Balzac, jumping in and out of fancy dressing-gowns like Wagner, Sartre’s Kean lives the life of an aristocrat at a time when actors are still not admitted into polite society or even into hallowed ground. The first exponent of Sartre’s title role was the great Pierre Brasseur, who can be seen playing a different, humbler version of the same sort of character in Les Enfants du Paradis. In this production the eponymous hero was Anthony Hopkins, who seized the opportunity with both hands, threw it across the room, picked it up again, throttled it, wrestled it to the floor and knelt panting on its chest.

Hopkins did a more than passable Great Actor number. Largely it consisted of saying some parts of a given sentenceveryquicklyand oth-ers ver-y slow-ly, while jazzing up the dynamics with the occasional RANDOM SHOUT. Meanwhile he was moving all over the split-level set in perpetual search of a resting place for his irrepressible spirit, etc. Bloodshot eyes and a bad shave completed the picture of boiling genius. Hopkins kept it up for two hours and obviously could have gone on for a week.

Robert Stephens impersonated the Prince of Wales. This gave him a chance to wear satin breeches and make with one of his specialities, the Big Laugh. The Big Laugh goes ‘Mwah-hah-hah-hargh!’ The Prince of Wales was fascinated with Kean. So was all society. Was he below them or above them? ‘He’s beginning to intrigue me, this seducer,’ said one. ‘Wha-ha-ha-hat no-ho-ho-honsense,’ said another, meaning, ‘What nonsense.’

All reacted severally when the footman announced Mr Kean. ‘Kean?’ ‘Kean?’ ‘KEAN?’ It was clumsy enough dramatically. But the sense of adventure was in it. The would-be brisk exchanges and the long-winded speeches were alike energised by the central boldness of the conception. The artist making his own way according to his own rules — years ago, when his imagination was young, Sartre lit up at that idea. It just goes to show that even genius can sometimes be touched by talent.

Edward and Mrs Simpson (Thames) would be unbelievable if it were not so believable, and vice versa. Edward Fox is too interesting to be credible as Edward VIII, who by all objective accounts was boring beyond description. Yet the series easily overcomes the handicap of this fundamental improbability. Simon Raven has given Warris Hussein the kind of script directors dream of. Mr Hussein, one hazards, is grateful, since in his time he has had to deal with the kind of script directors have nightmares about. Remember Chopin and George Sand? Mr Hussein could make little of their intelligence. Out of Edward VIII’s and Mrs Simpson’s consuming dumbness he is able to make much. The difference is in the writing.

It is still not certain whether the actress acting Mrs Simpson can actually act. But she can do a good imitation of that terrible sleepwalking look that you see on the faces of ladies bent on getting married to destiny. There is no doubt, of course, about which actress in the series best embodies the historical sensitivity of the whole enterprise. As Queen Mary, Dame Peggy Ashcroft is quietly giving everyone else on television a lesson in how to act for the camera. Since she so rarely acts for the camera, the secret of her astonishing command must lie not in a specialised training, but in a general ability to accept, employ and transcend any set of technical limitations imposed on her. Dame Peggy is a bit of all right.

Charlie’s Angels (ITV) spent the week at a health farm for women. The health farm was swarming with pretty bodies, but the Angels were prettier. The decor of the health farm was pink. Pink tracksuits, pink towels, pink everything — the whole layout was specifically designed to flood your picture with pink splodge. Chris (Cheryl Ladd) wore pink shorts, out of which the pert cheeks of her delectable bottom hung a precisely calculated half an inch.

As the atmosphere throbbed with libido, dykey female heavies closed in on the Angels. The lesbians were after Chris! Perspiring prettily in a sauna, Chris didn’t notice the hairy hand of the diesel masseuse as it locked the door and turned up the heat. Still firmly wrapped in her pink towel, Chris flaked. Finally the Sapphists stretched her out on a massage table and started steaming her to death with hot towels. The other two Angels burst in and removed every towel except the last. Sigh.

The Observer, 3rd December 1978

[ This piece also appears in The Crystal Bucket ]