Ronald Harwood Eric Shorter - Essay

Eric Shorter

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Sir Donald Wolfit] is a good book. It deserves to thrive. It is not a great book and considering that it describes the life of a great actor perhaps it ought to be. But great books about great actors are much rarer than great acting. Let us therefore be grateful that Mr. Harwood, who was himself once in Wolfit's company, has done such a good and sensitive job on an actor whose legendary egoism and megalomania obscured for many playgoers the true value of his art….

He was born, somewhat humbly in Nottinghamshire, after his time; and though the early part of Mr. Harwood's story is not any more engaging than the early parts of most biographies it illuminates occasionally the man to come, as in the account of Wolfit's schoolboy tendency to display exaggerated signs of exhaustion after sprinting 220 yards. (p. 73)

Wolfit's style and crusading spirit—the belief in the value of classic drama, the need to take it to all and sundry—marked him off as an outsider…. His failure to fit at the Old Vic must have surprised nobody, though his power there as an actor was plain.

To that power—especially the Wolfit voice, whose range was constantly surprising—Mr. Harwood pays full tribute. The Lear and the Tamburlaine are vividly recalled. So is the sheer amount of acting then required of a young player to win his spurs. (pp. 73-4)

We shall not look upon [Wolfit's] like again—though I could wish to look on better editing, fewer repetitions and more accurate spelling … than this generally very careful and perceptive study of the last great actor-manager offers.

And if that sounds solemn, let me remind the reader of those many green room anecdotes, based on the actor's pomposity, to which Mr. Harwood devotes a late endearing chapter, and the dependence during Lear on a supply in the wings of Guinness and grapes. (p. 74)

Eric Shorter, "Great and Unfashionable," in Drama, No. 103, Winter, 1971, pp. 73-4.