Sages have observed that while the public scene is afflicted with countless personalities who are false tinsel, only in Hollywood are people genuine tinsel. Falseness is not a universal trait of actors, although Samuel Goldwyn did say that in Hollywood an oral contract is not worth the paper it is written on. For various reasons, and irreasons, actors everywhere have been scorned as much as they have been adulated. Alfred Hitchcock told a reporter: “I deny that I ever said that actors are cattle. What I said was, ‘Actors should be treated like cattle.’”
The stage has been the scene of coincidences too dramatic for any playwright trying for realism. Think of Moliere dying on stage in 1673 at the Academie Francaise in the title role of his own “La Malade Imaginaire.” That was an instance of the actor being too sincere for the part. And while thousands took to the road in reaction to the verisimilitude of Orson Welles’s radio broadcast on October 30, 1938, the murder of seventy Mormons in Missouri caused a flight of 15,000 of their coreligionists toward Illinois on October 30, 1838.
The Italian actress Eleanora Duse, born in 1859, returned to the stage after a twelve-year hiatus, which began in 1909, and died in Pittsburgh while on tour in 1924 on the same day that Mary Mackay (“Marie Corelli”), who had been born four years before Duse, died in Stratford-on-Avon. Errol Flynn was born in the first year of Duse’s hiatus and died on the centenary of her birth. This heartthrob who played Fletcher Christian in “Mutiny on the Bounty” was descended on his mother’s side from Midshipman Young, who had served on the actual ship.
Captain William Bligh was the object of Mr. Christian’s mutinous regard precisely ten years before the birth of Alexander Sergeyevich Pushkin, whose Boris Godunovprovided the book for Mussorgsky’s opera. Pushkin’s great-grandmother had a child by the Ethiopian ambassador to St. Petersburg. In an uncanny parallelism, the modern author and actor Peter Ustinov, of a Russian family, had an Ethiopian grandmother. A decade apart, like the mutiny on the Bounty and the birth of Pushkin, are the birthdays of the great English actress Margaret Rutherford, in 1892, and the Russian novelist Mikhail Alexandrovich Sholokhov, in 1902. Although Dame Margaret is remembered for her understated drollness, she was afflicted with painful depressions that were complicated when her adopted son, who was black, had a sex change operation and became a Methodist.
Laurence Olivier, born five years after Sholokhov, made his debut when he was nine in an amateur performance of Julius Caesar attended by Ellen Terry. That legendary figure of the London stage had made her own debut, also at the age of nine, in the presence of Queen Victoria. On Victoria’s wedding day, February 10, 1840, the Duke of Cambridge, Prince George, met Louise Fairbrother, the daughter of a London printer, who had become an actress in the Drury Lane Theatre ten years earlier, also the same span of years separating the Bounty mutiny and the birth of Pushkin; they would marry not without controversy. Parenthetically, the wedding of the Duke of Kent and Katherine Worsley in 1961 was also the occasion of the second meeting of the Count of Barcelona and Princess Sofia of Greece, who now reign in Spain.
In the year of Grover Cleveland’s reelection, 1892, when Margaret Rutherford made her debut in the world, Prince Albert of Monaco, having received an annulment of his marriage to Lady Mary Douglas Hamilton, married the widow of the Duc de Richelieu, the former Alice Heine, making her the first American wife of a reigning European prince. Alice was an amateur actress and patron of the arts. In the year of the reelection of Dwight Eisenhower, 1956, Prince Rainier of Monaco married the American actress Grace Kelly.
Several years ago I met a college student who had never heard of Edith Piaf. Lacunae like that explain much of the collapse of the grand tradition of the stage. In one of those coincidences that theatrically stretch the credibility of the theater to the point of melodrama, Piaf and Jean Cocteau died of natural causes on the same triste eleventh of October in 1963. She was 47 and he was 74. Not to be too gaudy about the coincidence, Cocteau was born on the centenary of the mutiny on the HMS Bounty.