Loitering with Intent: The Apprentice

by Peter O’Toole
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Loitering with Intent

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1559

While far from being a dry historical document, Peter O’Toole’s second volume of memoirs, offering vivid accounts of his early education in the legendary “Old Vic” Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, will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.

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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!”

“Academic balloons!”

“Artistic balloons!”

“Royal 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 distance himself from his back-street, impoverished background in the industrial town of Leeds, where he was an altar boy, an athlete, a carouser, and ultimately a member of the Royal Navy.

In his memoirs published to date, O’Toole verbosely shows off how far he has come since his early interest in a career in journalism. Here, his tone is lighthearted, impressionistic, and knowledgeable, as he describes a colorful canvas of classrooms for fencing, stage technique, voice projection, and bone-crushing ballet lessons that helped shape his professional career. Also revealing are his personal, internal responses to his eccentric teachers (notably John Gabriel, Robert Atkins, and Ernest Milton). Colleagues and cronies in their collective life behind the curtains are also drawn in incomplete portraits. Throughout this memoir, no figures are ever developed into fully fleshed-out characters other than the narrator himself, a casualty to be expected in ego-driven romances of one’s past. Some individuals, such as the Americans “The Cisco Kid” and “Pocahontas,” are anonymous figures for whom O’Toole clearly feels affection, but it is never clear why he holds them in such regard.

Theater devotees will likely find interesting perspectives in O’Toole’s insights and analysis of plays being rehearsed at the academy, especially Sir Arthur Pinero’s Trelawny of the Wells (1898), William Shakespeare’s As You Like It (1599/1600) and King John (1596/1597), and George Bernard Shaw’s You Never Can Tell (1898). (In the case of the latter play, O’Toole delightfully captures one pivotal moment when his skillful teacher puts a yellow rose in his hand to prevent him from making unconscious arm movements). Were there more of such material in The Apprentice, this volume’s significance might rise to the lofty goals O’Toole set for it, as it is clear that his eye for stagecraft is one of his strongest suits. When he is focused on the stage itself, he is illuminating, perceptive, and particularly qualified to share his specialist’s knowledge of the world he knows best.

In these sections, style and substance appropriately merge, providing vitality and spirit to what might be only dry criticism in another writer’s hands. Clearly influenced by the stylistic panache of his oft-praised literary mentor, Shaw, O’Toole jumps from tense to tense and from real-life to on- stage lines. In these passages, O’Toole successfully shows how actors must blur the distinctions between off- and on-stage roles. In these passages, perhaps, readers learn the most about the personality of the writer as he demonstrates, in perfectly overdrawn style and substance, his penchant for dramatic romanticism and his distaste for low-key realism.

Admittedly, O’Toole skillfully captures the spirit of excitement and wonder in a young actor’s mind, particularly one accepted into a privileged, elite academy. He evokes the passion and energy of an apprentice’s awe, bewilderment, and curiosity about his eccentric surroundings as well as his feelings about joining a long historical train of thespians. He makes the latter point often by repeatedly comparing himself with the nineteenth century Shakespearean tragedian Edmund Kean and by including long lists of actors and plays seemingly unrelated to the point he is trying to make in a particular passage—unless, of course, the point is simple showboating. After all, showboating is the point and theme of this entire volume, and readers should expect theatricality on every level on every page of the second volume of Loitering with Intent.

Still, readers expecting the humorous anecdotes that O’Toole and fellow Irish actor-storyteller Richard Harris have made their stock in trade on late-night television talk shows will find few memorable punch lines. Readers seeking reasons for the lengthy descriptions of boardinghouse pranks, parties, and street-corner ogling will also find few moments to remember. Instead, O’Toole begins with images of backstage furnishings and creates a backdrop of Irish and English theater history flavored with impersonal asides regarding the joys of sex and drinking. Then, after this intriguing and promising introduction, O’Toole’s biography is told indirectly, through allusions to his roles from Lawrence of Arabia to Pizza Hut commercials, from green novice to learned survivor. Breezy anecdotes of his early education reveal his adoration for actors Richard Burton and Claire Bloom and his early friendship with fellow film-star-in-waiting Albert Finney. O’Toole also includes a puzzling recap of World War II. Only those who have read his first volume will understand that this reflects his obsession with Adolf Hitler. In the interim, glimpses are given into other important influences on his career, such as details about how dramatic English poetry, particularly that of Shakespeare and Dylan Thomas, helped shape O’Toole’s artistic taste and sensibilities. Undeniably, there are interesting revelations in this book, but there are perhaps too many home movies, told painstakingly frame by frame, to sustain reader interest in every facet of the life of Peter O’Toole.

These vivid if disconnected descriptions may best be read as they were likely written—in short, open-ended intervals when the reader, like the author, is in the mood to loiter. Loitering with Intent: The Apprentice is ultimately a slow-paced read with few page-turners. Many readers will enjoy the colorful atmosphere and creative wordcraft, but this actor’s most engaging literary work is likely to come when he covers the film roles that make his career worth reading about in the first place.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist. XCIII, December 1, 1996, p. 619.

Boston Globe. February 7, 1997, p. D12.

Chicago Tribune. February 16, 1997, XIV, p. 8.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. February 16, 1997, p. 14.

The New York Times Book Review. CII, February 23, 1997, p. 26.

People. XLVII, February 24, 1997, p. 31.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLIII, December 9, 1996, p. 53.

Sight and Sound. VI, November, 1996, p. 35.

The Spectator. CCLXXVII, July 6, 1996, p. 37.

The Times Literary Supplement. July 12, 1996, p. 13.

Vanity Fair. February, 1997, p. 80.

The Washington Post Book World. XXVII, February 2, 1997, p. 3.

Loitering with Intent

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 374

The bare facts of Peter O’Toole’s existence are reasonably well known and quite unexceptional. Born in England in the depths of the Depression, he passed from infancy to youth amid the turmoil and moral certainty of World War II. Then came an occasional career in journalism, obligatory national service (in his case the navy), and, finally, a turn at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. Although successful on the stage, he is best known for memorable film characterizations in LAWRENCE OF ARABIA, THE NIGHT OF THE GENERALS, THE LION IN WINTER, and MY FAVORITE YEAR. In short, O’Toole is of a piece with that host of young men who swarmed out of the genteel poverty, political and economic, which was postwar England and laid claim to a new trans-Atlantic empire in literature and art.

Although, as a group, they exemplified the English upper class to countless audiences, few of them could lay legitimate claim to that status. O’Toole, for example, was the loving and loved child of an itinerant gambler and bookie, Patrick O’Toole, and the orphaned Constance Jane Eliot Ferguson, who gravitated into nursing. Patrick O’Toole was constantly in search of the pot of rainbow gold, while his patient wife gradually accustomed herself to the recognition that she would never have the comfortable life she sought in her youth.

But for all of that, it is obvious from LOITERING WITH INTENT, that O’Toole appreciated his parents to the fullest, and would not have had it any other way. It is impossible to conceive that anyone but the happiest and most secure of children could produce such an explosion of a book. O’Toole does not steal quietly into the reader’s mind, he wrenches the brain out of the cranium and pummels it madly.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist. XCIII, December 1, 1996, p. 619.

Boston Globe. February 7, 1997, p. D12.

Chicago Tribune. February 16, 1997, XIV, p. 8.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. February 16, 1997, p. 14.

The New York Times Book Review. CII, February 23, 1997, p. 26.

People. XLVII, February 24, 1997, p. 31.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLIII, December 9, 1996, p. 53.

Sight and Sound. VI, November, 1996, p. 35.

The Spectator. CCLXXVII, July 6, 1996, p. 37.

The Times Literary Supplement. July 12, 1996, p. 13.

Vanity Fair. February, 1997, p. 80.

The Washington Post Book World. XXVII, February 2, 1997, p. 3.

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