- Olivier by Anthony Holden
Weidenfeld, 504 pp, £16.00, May 1988, ISBN 0 297 79089 7
Anthony Holden’s is the 16th book about Laurence Olivier, and his foreword tells of two more biographers, John Cottrell and Garry O’Connor, too intent on their own deadlines to discuss their common quarry with him. All this activity may puzzle the lay person. Holden’s final pages report Olivier alive, as well as can be expected at 81, residing tranquilly in the Sussex countryside, still swimming occasional lengths of his pool in the altogether and attending the first nights of the three children who have followed Joan Plowright and himself into the theatre. Anyone likely to be interested in this book or its successors must remember that the actor published his own autobiography only six years ago, and a complementary professional memoir in 1986. In such situations, biographers usually hold their fire, waiting for time to unlock more secrets, death more tongues. Instead, Olivier’s are behaving as if a landslide of new evidence, too hot to hold there, had fallen into their laps. What is going on?
The occasion of the scramble is indeed a windfall of new evidence, but Mr Holden is too courtly (his previous subjects include Prince Charles and the Queen Mum) to name it. He merely says demurely that he persuaded Olivier’s friend, their shared publisher Lord Weidenfeld, that – how does he put it? – ‘between them [Olivier’s] two books did not add up to a comprehensive, let alone objective, account of one of the most extraordinary lives, in any profession, of this century.’ Holden has a nice line in dry understatement, and knows this is the understatement of the decade. What he means is that he and his fellow-toilers in the biographical olive grove have been racing to make sense of the great heap of myth, obfuscation, blarney and coded revelation dumped on them in Olivier’s Confessions of an Actor. Far from settling questions about himself, it raised them like flies. Perhaps it meant to. Had Olivier wished biographers to mushroom at his feet he could not have followed more closely the rules of mushroom cultivation: keep them in the dark and shovel manure on them.
The first question it raised was ‘What sort of man would write a book like that?’ The answer is: an actor. Olivier’s Confessions are neither confession nor chronicle, but a performance, designed to amuse, impress shock, wring and harrow. Reality figures in it, but only as actors evoke reality: by selection and amplification, blowing up details which in life would be too tiny for significance until the surface of everyday behaviour seems swollen with meaning. It is a technique which enabled Olivier, as so often on the stage, to hide in the spotlight. Promising a self-portrait, he painted across his own features a Kathakali mask of violent emotions, the grinning red, black and silver face of a tormented demon. This, his text declared with great cries of guilt, was the real Olivier: but what readers took in primarily was the enormous theatrical energy and gusto of the breast-beating. It was as if A. A. Milne’s Tigger, for some fancy-dress occasion, had tried to pass himself off as the doleful, droop-eared Eeyore, but been betrayed by his invincible bounciness. According to Holden, Olivier’s son Tarquin told friends privately when the book appeared that ‘it says absolutely nothing and gives everything away.’
This is the reason for the rush to print of Holden and his rivals. The race is to deconstruct and translate Olivier’s gestic text into terms accessible to those who deal in history, not drama – to reconcile it as far as possible with fact. Here Holden comes well-equipped. He has assembled all the facts available from previous biographies, as well as scores of entertaining new ones from his own researches and interviews with Olivier’s friends and co-workers. It is the largest compilation between covers of what is known about the actor, and that is its value, a real one. As a reconciliation with reality of Olivier’s mythic dance of himself, it is less successful. Holden never really gives the impression of seeing a subject’s view of himself as one of the facts a biographer must deal with. Rather, he treats it as something the biographer must get out of his way. It is as if Herbert Spencer or John Stuart Mill, not Mrs Gaskell, herself a novelist, had descended on Haworth parsonage to decipher the lives of the makers of Gondal.
Holden is too new to the world of theatre talk to have got all his details right, let alone arrange them into the figure in Olivier’s carpet. At the first dress rehearsal of The Merchant of Venice in 1970, he says, Olivier turned up with a hook nose and goatee modelled on George Arliss’s Disraeli and had to be persuaded by his director, Jonathan Miller, to evolve in the succeeding weeks a characterisation based on his own face. No one seems to have told Holden that dress rehearsals normally complete, not commence, the rehearsal process. He will surprise many who worked with Tyrone Guthrie by describing him as a ‘highly cerebral’ director, and amuse showbiz New York mightily with the statement that, after their star-crossed Romeo and Juliet on Broadway in 1940, Olivier and Vivien Leigh went to lick their wounds for a month in Vermont with ‘the Alexander Woollcotts’. The English period equivalent would be a month in the country with the Beverley Nicholses.
Holden is sometimes forgetful, evacuating the wartime Old Vic in one chapter to Burnley, in the next to Barnsley, and poor at sums. He gives the age of Olivier, born in 1907, as 39 when he achieved his triumph as Richard III in 1944. Tarquin Olivier, born in 1936, is credited with a visit at the age of seven to Notley Abbey, bought by his father in 1945. Nor has Holden checked all the stories he takes over from previous biographers. Like most of them, he tells how Olivier telephoned Ralph Richardson in the United States in August 1936 to ask if he should accept Guthrie’s offer of a Hamlet at the Vic. The transatlantic operator must have had difficulty connecting them: on 6 August, Richardson began a year’s run at the Haymarket in a thriller called The Amazing Dr Clitterhouse. Still, for such a bale of facts the level of error is not disgraceful. The most damaging result of Holden’s unfamiliarity with the territory he has strayed into is his acceptance of one of the theatre’s hoariest clichés: that the actor with a thousand faces has no personality of his own.
The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.