While far from being a dry historical document, Peter O’Toole’s second volume of memoirs, offering vivid accounts of his early education in the legendary “Old Vic” Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, will primarily interest readers who share his craft, those interested in classical dramatic training, and particularly those wanting an insider’s peek into London’s “Old Vic” in the 1950’s. Other readers will likely be less satisfied with O’Toole’s extremely stylized, extravagant narrative, which tries hard to be more than Polaroid snapshots of bygone years. Unfortunately, O’Toole simply does not quite meet the high mark he sets for himself.
Ironically, O’Toole’s surprising difficulty in reaching a wider audience has less to do with his well-established and acknowledged storytelling abilities than with the stories that he has to tell from this brief period of his life. Autobiographies are, almost by definition, more substance than style. Best-selling, tell-all Hollywood accounts of scandals, romances, and facile opinions concerning people and film projects are notorious for being framed in self-justification and self-aggrandizement. Such formulas are what O’Toole deliberately sets out to reverse, turning most well-trodden expectations about actors’ memoirs on their heads. Instead, the actor takes an original road with an elegant, if overdone, descriptive panorama of anecdotes, incidents, accidents, and asides told with a dry, rambling wit that promises more than it delivers.
For example, in one characteristic and offbeat passage, O’Toole recounts one incident in which he admits difficulty explaining his subject, so he instead tries to capture a moment of street-corner hawking in cryptic colors typical of his impressionistic style:
“The Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. You know, my associates Justice Wrottesley, Bob the Liar and the Flea were only the other day asking me what exactly it was that you studied there and by Jesus would you believe I scarce had the ghost of a notion what to tell them? These are Royal Academy balloons, are they? And the Dramatic Art lies in the selling of the little hoors, does it?”
“Pop. I’m skint. And I’m only trying to knock out a few shillings.”
“I’m fair flush, son.”
“Thanks, Daddy, but I don’t want to be always cadging.”
“No, you wouldn’t, Peter, you wouldn’t. Give us a kiss. Now. Shove over. Mark them up to a dollar the eight. Your last chance, ladies and gentlemen, to buy these red white blue and yellow Royal Academy balloons! We’re practically giving away these dramatic Royal Academy balloons at a mere dollar for eight. Don’t miss your Royal Academy balloons!”
“Royal Academy balloons!”
“Two for a florin or a dollar will give you eight. Dramatic balloons!”
This scene captures the essence of O’Toole’s use of language, flavorful and likely true to his memory, but his sketchiness obscures his subject matter. O’Toole’s wordplay forces readers—if they are so inclined—either to reread lengthy passages or to take each paragraph slowly, connecting the dots for themselves. Like the first volume in O’Toole’s series of memoirs, Loitering with Intent: The Child (1992), the emphasis on clever, imaginative style is clearly by design, stretching out material most writers would ordinarily confine to chapters rather than full-length books.
In this second volume, covering only the first year at the “Old Vic” academy, O’Toole does succeed in capturing the flavor of his times, writing with an urbane and literate voice. In this period of his life, he seemingly wants to...
(The entire section is 1559 words.)