by Azary Messerer
GIFTS EXCHANGED WITH PAUL SCOFIELD
The lights are dimming, the curtain is about to rise, and few among the audience are paying any attention to the public announcement reminding them that audio and video taping of the performance is strictly forbidden. Yet for me this announcement evokes a vivid memory of my favorite actor Paul Scofield. I recall how he called “priceless” the gift that I gave him in Moscow. Did he know that he also gave me a priceless gift, not just of his time and his talent, but of his integrity, which possibly saved my career and maybe even my freedom?
Paul Scofield was the first eminent English actor to come on tour to the USSR. It was 1956, and I was 16. I was preparing to enter the Institute of Foreign Languages, was studying English enthusiastically, and for me the arrival of Shakespeare troupe, led by Peter Brooke, a young but already world-famous director, bringing his production of Hamlet, was a great event. I wasn’t able to get a ticket, but intended to buy one from a ‘scalper’. I heard that the performance would be in an “affiliated hall” of the theater, and so I arrived in advance at another address of the Bolshoi on Pushkin Street, which I frequented. No excessive crowding there; you could even buy tickets at the box office.
But going up to the window, I discovered that that night’s performance was not Hamlet, but an operetta, Sylvia. It turned out that Hamlet was playing at an affiliated hall of MKhAT (Moscow Art Theater) on Moskvin Street, about 15 minute walk away. I took off at great speed, but alas, MKhAT was a different story altogether: hordes of people were looking to buy an extra ticket, and only ten minutes left until the curtain rose. I didn’t get a ticket to the performance and was despondent.
The next day I found out that my famous cousin, prima ballerina Maya Plisetskaya, had a ticket. Luckily, she was performing that night and, after I described to her vividly what happened the day before, she gave me the ticket. I decided that fate was smiling on me; I experienced such unexpected manifestations of grace several times in connection with Paul Scofield.
All day before the performance I studied Hamlet in English, and read the soliloquies over and over again. But when I witnessed his acting for the first time, he astounded me by the fact that in his mouth, or so it seemed, familiar words sounded uncommonly; he put accents where I didn’t anticipate them; he spoke certain lines very quickly; occasionally his voice would almost die away on words which scaled into long pauses. What’s more, it seemed to me, that he didn’t speak, but sang. One could listen to his voice, divorced from the text, as if to music. It was mesmerizing. Maybe all English actors play Shakespeare this way, I thought. But no, his fellow actors were not capable of this.
Scofield possessed a unique voice in terms of its power, range and beauty of timbre and no metaphor can actually do it justice. The director Fred Zinnemann tried: “When he begins talking, it puts me in mind of a Rolls Royce being started.” The critic, J.C. Trewin, likened Scofield’s voice to “sunlight on a broken column.” Scofield’s face was strikingly expressive, with a Roman profile. At times it became frozen, at times aroused, like a dormant volcano erupting, the actor exploding in fury. Striking too were his majestic form (6 feet 2 inches tall), and his laugh, now tender, now diabolic, full of mockery and hate.
I had never before seen such great acting, and I left the performance as if in a trance. It was art at its best. His amazing performance was a breakthrough in the country’s cultural history during the Cold War isolation. Two years later they were writing about another breakthrough in connection with Van Cliburn’s triumph at the Tchaikovsky Piano Competition. But Scofield was the first Western artist who satisfied the hunger that the Moscow public felt for foreign art. He returned home a hero and was soon honoured as a Commander of the British Empire.
Having entered the Institute of Foreign Languages, I began to work with Radio Moscow, broadcasting to England. I wrote and voiced programs directed at young people. In the radio’s sound archives, I unexpectedly found a recording of that play, copied Scofield’s Hamlet’s soliloquies, and listened to them, entranced. I memorized them, and when the Institute announced a competition for the best reading of verse and prose in English, I volunteered. For two years in a row I won the First prize, reading the two Hamlet’s soliloquies. It’s unlikely the admission committee knew I was copying Scofield. I read with such feeling that the narration became mine. I knew that no one could truly imitate Scofield’s voice.
With these successes, it seemed that fate smiled on me again and I fancied myself an actor. I found out that the popular Moscow University Theater had announced an audition and I began to prepare for it. They required a prose selection and I chose Garshin’s tale, The Traveling Frog, which turned out somewhat prophetic for me since it was, after all, about emigration that I was to experience later. As for the required soliloquy, I had to, of course, read my favorite one from Hamlet: “What’s Hecuba to him, or he to Hecuba. . .?” which the Danish prince delivers after the performance of the traveling player who so impressed him.
I tried to read it in Russian, with the same intonations as Scofield, but nothing came of it. It sounded artificial. In my memory I heard the soliloquy only in English. I had given up completely when a friend came up with an idea, “Why don’t you read in English? They’ve heard it so many times at competitions they’re probably sick of it, but this will be something original.” At the audition I recited Garshin’s tale quite well, and then modestly requested the opportunity to read the soliloquy in English. The committee conferred and then gave me permission. I was in great shape and rendered the unhappy Hecuba with special flair, with dramatic pauses. The committee was quite impressed. I was accepted unanimously. What’s more, Vsevolod Shestakov, one of the leading actors of the theater, the husband of Iya Savina, at that time the star of the University Theater, offered me the main part in Leonid Zorin’s play Clear May, which he intended to stage.
I was to play the role of a young, talented writer, and the action began with my having to endlessly and passionately kiss my leading lady, played by a beautiful graduating student of the Economics Department, named Alla Demidova. Alas, at that time I was a shy lad and unable to kiss passionately. And besides, Alla, the future top star of the Russian theater was rather indifferent towards me. Between us, as they say, there was no chemistry. I was also discouraged by my friend Anatoly Makarov, who, after the next rehearsal said offhandedly, “You’re playing perhaps a future Russian Hemingway… you get it? But what kind of Hemingway are you?” Indeed, I didn’t measure up to a young Soviet Hemingway. Incidentally, Anatoly Makarov himself later became a writer and a famous journalist for Izvestia’s supplement The Week.
We worked for a long time and finally got to the final rehearsal, where the famous playwright himself showed up. He criticized the staging mercilessly, and the premiere didn’t take place. And with this, my brief acting career was over. I realized I’d never become a Scofield. To do so, one had to give the whole of one’s soul to the theater, all one’s thoughts and time and, naturally, one had to have a great talent. I didn’t want to be a second-rate actor.
It was during the Shakespeare Theater’s second visit in 1964, when they presented King Lear, directed by that very same Peter Brook, that I came to understand what separated a mediocre, or even a good actor, from Scofield. By then I had been working for two years broadcasting to England and was preparing carefully for the Theater’s arrival. With difficulty, I managed to persuade the authorities to give me an assignment to cover the tour, write reports, and conduct behind-the-scenes interviews. Having received permission for the trip, I traveled to Leningrad where the tour began. They had booked a room for me at the Astoria hotel, opposite St. Isaac’s Cathedral, where the English were staying. Even before the beginning of the tour I was able to interview no less than ten actors. They all spoke with a sigh whenever the conversation turned to Scofield, pointing upward, as if he hovered above them at some unreachable height, where truly great art resides. In the Hermitage I conversed with the brilliant Peter Brook, a man of irrepressible energy. He showed me a long list he had prepared in England of things he intended to accomplish on breaks between rehearsals and performances: seeing a Russian wedding in a church, viewing Levitan’s and Repin’s paintings, attending rehearsals in the theaters, including the theater of Satire, whose lead director, Pluchek, was his cousin (Brook’s father, a scholar, emigrated from Russia before the Revolution), meeting with actors playing Chekhov — he intended to stage The Cherry Orchard — and much more. Naturally, I asked him about his collaboration with Scofield, to which he responded paradoxically, “Paul would listen to you, let you explain with all your creative fervour something you think is absolutely right, then do the exact opposite and make you realize that this is what you meant. That’s creative collaboration.” Brook also recounted how Scofield worked painstakingly, even agonizingly, over every role. He struggled with Hamlet for a long time. This is how Brook described Scofield when he finally found his character. “The door opened and a small man entered. He was wearing a black suit, steel-rimmed glasses, and holding a suitcase. We wondered why this stranger was wandering on our stage. Then we realized it was Paul, transformed. His tall body had shrunk, his hair cut short, he had become insignificant.” Brook added that the role of King Lear was Scofield’s greatest achievement.
It’s hard to imagine his acting better than in that Hamlet of 1956. But in King Lear I saw a figure so distant from Hamlet that at first I couldn’t believe it was Scofield. I knew him only by his voice, so strong that it drowned all the other voices, but this time Scofield’s voice seemed sharp and unpleasant. One could even appreciate the two daughters’ malice toward the king, who was unhinged, demanding unquestioning submission, in a word, a tyrant. In the second act Scofield’s Lear begins to change and, transformed by ingratitude and cruelty he himself experiences, becomes human, now deserving of sympathy and compassion. In the last scene of madness, Scofield showed the tragedy of a powerful man, crushed by his folly. Forty years later the actors of the Shakespeare Theater dispensed justice in the so-called Hamburg calculation: by secret ballot they had to decide who played Shakespeare best of all. They gave Scofield the top prize for the role of King Lear, even though the great masters of English theater, Laurence Olivier and John Gielgud, were competing with him (both of whom, incidentally, I also had the good fortune to interview in Moscow). Explaining their decision, a theater representative said, “Compared to Scofield, Laurence Olivier was lacking in depth and soul, John Gielgud was deficient in physical energy and sense of danger.” Scofield agreed to grant me an interview the very next day after the premiere, so that I was able, before the start of the Moscow tour, to submit the material for the radio and for a long article to the newspaper Sovetskaya Kultura. I also was able to send to the newspaper by fast train, (the so-called The Red Arrow, running between Leningrad and Moscow) two photos which Scofield gave me as a present. On one photo he is as he was then — handsome, with thick chestnut hair as yet untouched by gray, and calm, knowing gaze. He had recently turned 40. On the other photo, a furrowed face, in his eyes the sorrow and despair of a Lear. Both these photos illustrated the article published on April 2, 1964.
At the start of the interview I reminded him of the critic Kenneth Tynan’s remark that Scofield had the ability to widen the scope of his role until it met his standards. Scofield replied, “I never ponder over whether a given role is right for me and whether I am right for a given role. For me the most important thing is to understand the character and make it so clear to the audience that the spectator suddenly feels: “I actually know this man.” The audience must forget it is separated from the Shakespearean hero by four centuries. Directors and actors are obliged to transmit Shakespeare’s thoughts and emotions in such a way as if they were the thoughts and emotions of our contemporaries.”
“Like every English actor, I was brought up on Shakespeare from childhood, knew King Lear by heart in grade school, saw many splendid actors playing the title role. That made it more difficult for me to forget everything I knew about Lear and read the Shakespearean tragedy anew, as if for the first time. This was essential, or else I could not make King Lear live.”
“Which was the first Shakespearean role you played on the stage?”
“Juliet. Yes, don’t be surprised. I was thirteen at the time. In certain English schools they kept the tradition of Shakespearean times — boys playing both male and female parts. I was very embarrassed when they dressed me in a woman’s wig with long, fair hair. But this first role decided my fate. I realized that more than anything I wanted to become an actor,” he said.
When I asked whether he intended to play Hamlet again, Scofield replied that he was already too old for the part. You have to play Hamlet before you’re 40. At the same time, he regretted that nothing remained of Brook’s superb production. That it hadn’t been filmed. Then I mentioned to him that there was, thank god, at least a fine audio tape, which I listened to often. Scofield was very surprised, and I realized that Hamlet was recorded in Moscow without the permission of the cast. One can even assume that since it was the first tour of a Western troupe, those who did the recording didn’t know they were breaking the rules. It was obvious he read my thoughts instantly and, smiling, remarked that such a tape would be a priceless gift for him. I asked for his autograph and he took out the two of his famous photos that I mentioned before, and signed them both. (To this day one of them hangs on the wall in my house.)
En route back to Moscow I became uneasy. How can I hand over the cassette to Scofield, would he tell about this recording to the press, and would this cause a scandal that would ruin my career and maybe my life? But I didn’t doubt Scofield’s integrity. I had to trust that he understood everything and would not want to ruin me. As for informing the press, I already had read a good deal about his shyness, his reluctance to give interviews, his indifference to fame and sensation. Not without reason, in almost every article about him, they called him a “private person.” Once he answered a journalist on the phone, “This is Scofield, a private person.” Unfortunately, the word ‘privacy’ has no adequate translation into Russian. How can one, for example, translate the common expression: “It violates my privacy?” It violates my right to a private life. No, it simply doesn’t translate well. Is it because the whole concept is so alien to the Russian psyche, bred under the collectivist mentality for so long? Scofield refused the title of ‘Sir’ bestowed on him by his knighthood because he rejected the caste system in the English theater. As he said, why should other actors be called simply “Mister” but the select few, such as him, Gielgud or Olivier, “Sir”? “If you want to have a title, what’s wrong with “Mr.”? If you have always been that, then why lose your title? I have the title which is the same I’ve ever had. But it’s not political. I have a CBE, which I accept very gratefully.”
I’ll never forget Scofield’s radiant smile when I gave him the tape in a bouquet of flowers. I found out four years later that he was pleased with the tape. As before, I came to interview him for the radio and Sovetskaya Kultura newspaper. This time there was no “privacy”. I was joined by a photographer and the editor of the theater section (I had to co-author the article with her, and it was published December 16, 1967). On the photo featured in the paper, Scofield was captured with a pipe in hand, gazing thoughtfully at a cloud of smoke. He had grown a tuft of beard, his face had wrinkled, and his temples were graying. There were noticeable bags under his eyes. “I am tired,” he said. “Before leaving for Moscow, Laurence Olivier advised me not to play Macbeth twice in one day, but I didn’t listen to him and played him three times in forty eight hours. I couldn’t refuse the Moscow public, which I love very much.”
It’s possible that Macbeth is a most difficult role, indeed. I found out that British actors have a superstitious fear of it. For example, one doesn’t utter lines from Macbeth backstage. They say it brings misfortune.
“Oh yes, in Macbeth there’s something incomprehensible. He is indeed truly terrifying. To play him honestly, you must not evoke sympathy for him. By no means, unless it is pity. Of the kind, ‘You poor thing, you made a mistake and I feel sorry for you. I wouldn’t want to be in your shoes.’ No one would dream of putting himself in his place. It’s impossible to conceive. It’s also true that in the second half of the play, the figure somehow loses intensity, because Macbeth loses his heart. And so the main difficulty is for the audience to see, feel and understand how a man loses his heart.”
Scofield came to Moscow in 1967 for the last time at the height of his fame not only in the theater, but also in film. Few before were honoured with the highest award in both genres. Scofield got one, a Tony, in 1965, for playing Sir Thomas Moore in Robert Bolt’s play A Man for all Seasons. A year later, when Zinnemanns’s film came out, based on the play, he received an Oscar for best actor. Scofield’s nobility was embodied in the figure of Moore, in whom, I think, he was really playing himself. Moore goes to his execution knowing that by refusing to bend to the will of the usurper-King Henry VIII, he has carried out his duty. He goes to his execution with an inner clarity, preserving to the end his dignity and honour.
“Thomas More,” said Scofield. “is one of my most beloved heroes. I admire his integrity, his strength of conviction, the beauty of his ethics. Moore’s thinking had an enormous influence on the history of England. Actually, I succeeded in this role because, side by side with Shakespearian roles, I acted in a lot of contemporary plays.”
In fact, Scofield created a whole gallery of contemporary and non-Shakespearian characters, both in the theater and in film, tragic, as well as highly comic. As regards to the latter, his favorite role was Gogol’s Khlestakov. “I took great pleasure in playing Khlestakov, an incredibly funny braggart. His dissembling is simply splendid. This is genuine comedy and I really love playing in comedies.”
In addition to Khlestakov, Scofield played in many other Russian roles. There was Chekhov’s Treplev in The Seagull, Vershinin in The Three Sisters, and Uncle Vanya. Also, Karenin in the televised film Anna Karenina, Alexander Shcherbatov in the film 1919, Sergei Diaghilev in the filmNijinsky — an unfinished project, and a Russian officer in the film Scorpio, where he starred with the great American actor Burt Lancaster. Such a diversity of roles, and also the mastery of a character actor, allowed Scofield to perform until ripe old age. True, he often no longer played leading roles, but rather supporting ones. For example, in the movie version of Hamlet by the Italian director Franco Zeffirelli, he appeared as an apparition, the ghost of Hamlet’s father, but acted so powerfully, that Hamlet, Mel Gibson, against this background, seemed almost inconsequential. Gibson himself said, “When I played with Scofield, I felt I was being thrown into the ring with Mike Tyson”. (This was in 1990, when Tyson was a world champion.) Scofield told me about his life outside the theater. He said proudly that Martin, his son, was more educated than he and knew Shakespeare better. At that time Martin had just graduated from Oxford, and went on to become a professor of philology. His daughter, Sara, road horseback better than he, he said, and they often set off riding on horseback around rural England. Scofield lived his whole life in Sussex and did not want to exchange his own domain for Hollywood, although this was offered to him time and again. He evidently was afraid of damaging his stable personal life — he had lived more than sixty years with the actress Joan Parker. Unfortunately, as a consequence, he often had to refuse excellent roles in the movies. In the theater he played the part of Salieri in Amadeus brilliantly, and of course was the first choice for this role in the film. But in the end, the role went to Murray Abraham, made him famous, and garnered an Oscar for him.
Paul Scofield died in 2008, at the age of 86. Great number of obituaries and remembrances appeared in the world press, which, by analogy with the film, were collected on the Internet under the heading “An Actor for all Seasons.” Richard Eyre, the director of the National Theater, was the most succinct, “He is not simply the best, but the best of all, who ever acted.” Others wrote of the influence the great actor had on them. I can add my modest voice to theirs because Paul Scofield for me was a personal ideal of an actor and a great human being.
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