Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

A gift of friendship

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The death of Paul Scofield last week ends the life and career of one of the true giants of the English theatre. His passing, even at the age of 86, will be mourned by those familiar with his professional achievements -- ones marked by countless outstanding performances and numerous forms of recognition, including an Oscar, two BAFTAs (Oscar's British equivalent), an Emmy and a Tony, among others.

But there was something else as well: as Richard Eyre, former artistic directors of Britain's National Theatre, has commented, "It is hard not to be Polyanna-ish about Paul because he is such a manifestly good man, so humane and decent, and curiously void of ego. All the pride he has is channelled through the thing that he does brilliantly."

And I, having known something of the man, must bear witness to that, too.

Like many North Americans, I was first aware of Paul Scofield through his performance in the film version of Robert Bolt's play, A Man For All Seasons. The film's overall excellence, much applauded and honoured on both sides of the Atlantic for its intelligent treatment of a classic contest between power and principle, impressed me profoundly. Yet, nothing impressed me more than Scofield's portrayal of Thomas More, the 16th century English statesman. Scofield so thoroughly became More (a role he first created on stage in both London and New York) that he made intelligible, to a largely secular 20th century audience, the notion of dying for a religious principle and over the taking of an oath. Moreover, his More was so real and compelling a figure that it seemed unimaginable that anyone else could possibly recreate the role. A later, made-for-television, version of the play served only to reinforce that conviction. Gary O'Connor, in a 2002 biography of Scofield, posed the question: "Was Paul merely the greatest Hamlet of his generation, or was he the timeless Hamlet, the true Hamlet for all generations?" Many of Scofield's roles -- King Lear, Thomas More, Salieri, (in the original Amadeus) invite the same question.

In later years I saw most of the all-too-few films he had made (including a stunning King Lear) and discovered his numerous recorded performances and readings ranging from Shakespeare, Cervantes and Dryden to Dickens, Conrad and Poe. Nonetheless, I came to understand that his great love -- and his greatest claim to fame -- lay in the theatre. There he scaled heights comparable to or beyond the achievements of that generation of great actors which immediately preceded him, including Olivier, Gielgud and Ralph Richardson. Indeed, Richard Burton, himself once regarded as the natural heir to these actors, awarded that place to Scofield, saying that "Of the 10 greatest moments in the theatre, eight are Scofield's." A 2004 poll of members of the Royal Shakespeare Company selected Scofield's 1962 performance as King Lear as the greatest Shakespearian performance in the company's history. And Eyre, who directed Scofield in Ibsen's John Gabriel Borkman declared Scofield "not just the best there is, but the best there has ever been."

In 1989, chancing to read somewhere that Scofield was opening in a new play in London, I rather impulsively wrote to him at the theatre, expressing my admiration for his work and of A Man For All Seasons particularly. I did not really expect a reply but some months later one came. In it he explained that the new play had been a "flop" and that, with its early closure, my letter had taken some time to catch up to him. That the word "flop" could appear in the same breath as "Paul Scofield" struck me as somehow contrary to nature, but his letter was so warm and engaging that it prompted some further brief correspondence. A decade later, however, the correspondence was resumed and thereafter, typically, we exchanged letters several times a year.

For me, it was -- to use an appropriate but grossly overworked word -- awesome to find myself in an ongoing corresponding with the greatest actor in the English-speaking world. And yet the correspondence was so relaxed as to seem both normal and natural: this had everything to do with him. Benedict Nightingale, writing in The Times last week said, "It was the art, not the fame, that mattered to him. He was an extraordinary actor content to be an ordinary man." His letters, indeed, were those of an "ordinary" man, a man utterly without pretension or side: modest, kind, gentle; a man who seemed genuinely grateful that others appreciated his work. We spoke with pride of our children and of the joys of doting on grandchildren (and, in his case, great-grandchildren wherein, he observed, "the degrees of dotage are complex and eternal"); we noted an odd symmetry in our lives: he, an actor, had a son and daughter-in-law who were university teachers; I, a university teacher, had a daughter and son-in-law who were actors.

I became aware of a shared taste for dark chocolate ("as dark as possible" was his preference) out of which I sent him some of a Winnipeg chocolatier's finest (which Paul judged "glorious goodies" and "an excessive gesture of generosity in which I am ravenously indulging"). And we shared our enthusiasms for some of the actors with whom he had performed: Margaret Rutherford approached "comic genius" and acting with her "a dream of delight;" and William Hutt, with whom he had played at Canada's Stratford was "a generous and unselfish actor" whose performance was "very witty and rather movingly self-effacing."

Quite beyond his letters, Paul was a fine writer as I learned from essays and introductions to plays he had written over the years. I encouraged him to collect what he had written and to write more; and he encouraged me to continue encouraging him, though whether to any effect I cannot say.

In quite unexpected ways he widened my horizons and enriched my life. At one level, he transformed an interest in theatre into a fascination with the art and alchemy that make for great theatre. At another, it was salutary to observe how this artist of unsurpassed brilliance and achievement was so appealingly grounded in his leading an "ordinary" life. It was a gift to feel the warmth of his friendship.


Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 28, 2008

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