Room to Move About

DAVID MARKHAM is an actor who, tired at being type-cast, became a farmer, though he can still be seen fairly frequently on television and heard in radio plays. He is a member of the Committee of 100.

Submitted by Reddebrek on September 5, 2016

I THINK I SHOULD DEFINE ACTING as an imaginative exercise in emotion. Of course, many emotions and characters don't need any imagination; all one does is learn one's lines and deliver them, but I'm thinking of characters with a life you can imagine going on after the curtain falls — Trigorin or Trofimov.

A great deal of acting today is mere drum beating. Don't blame the actor, it's seldom he can afford to choose his material and when at last he can, he's too long in the tooth and short in the wind. That's why most actors over forty are peculiarly modest — or if they're not, should be.

When I started acting in the early 1930's I soon got typed in teen-age parts, thanks to a baby-face and an earnest air. I was soon — too soon — in the West End; and I got married and set up house on a single Long Run. When the war came, I was in a revival of Miles Malleson's anti-war play The Fanatics. I played the son. I think that play is now due for another revival (the father is quite a good part).

After various theatrical curiosities, I joined the Old Vic in a tour of Lancashire cotton and mining towns — giving Ibsen, Sheridan and Tchekov. I had earlier registered as a CO. and was beginning to be harried by various Labour Exchanges. In 1942 they caught up with me. It's twenty years ago, and I can still remember the smell when we emptied our pots in the morning. (But it was much less unpleasant than my first year at a public school).

It was Queen Mary who was finally responsible for rehabilitating me officially as an actor — she had publicly expressed delight at a play I was acting in (Pick-Up Girl), and that carried more weight with the Tribunal than anything I could say. That shows you!

Later on, I became more interested in farming than acting and I shall never again insist on acting as a self-evident right. I cannot comment on the present state of the British theatre, because I rarely go. Still, I suspect the drawing-room and the boarding-house comedy are still the backbone of the London stage.

The best performance I have seen for many years was at Graz last summer. It was a German translation of Calderon's La Vida es Sueño. Part of the reason was that I could not fully understand the language, so that I could only grasp at the meaning of what the actor was saying by what he was also feeling and seeking to convey, beyond the words. Words, sometimes, get terribly in an actor's way. I'm not sure that the emotions, perceptions, intuitions, visions that cannot be conveyed are the only things worth trying to convey. Certainly an actor should be able to express at least two emotions simultaneously. Unfortunately, he seldom gets the opportunity of expressing truly even one.

In a properly organised world, actors would only act for, say, six months: for the rest of the year they would attempt to live at first hand — travelling abroad, working on the land, even doing social work.

A man who is exclusively an actor can be neither an actor nor a man. He feeds on himself, grows flabby; then, when he's out of work, he feels unclean. Or so one told me.

I don't particularly want to act again — certainly not in the theatre. TV has great possibilities — variety of parts, absence of distraction (the audience), the possibility of making a point without cumbrous preparation and "projection". Even a certain subtlety is sometimes possible. Creativity, spontaneity, are stifled by the demands of the programme planners, backed by the advertisers, backed by the greatest philistine of them all, the British Middle-class family.

An actor, or at any rate, an actor like myself, requires of his author a part in which there is room to move around, to muse a little, (as Tchekov says somewhere), yet he also requires ruthless elimination of the cliche and the derivative.

I doubt if a National Theatre would solve very much, even if the Government of the day should divert a few shillings from its 'Defence' programme. I fear it would soon freeze and atrophy as soon as it had become established.

What is there left?

Stanislavsky talked once of the methods by which an actor's imagination could be kindled and excited.. "How can it be done?" he asked. "By relating the subject of the play and its separate moments to real life as it unfolds today before our eyes. Learn to see and hear. Love life, Learn to bring it into art." The advice applies not only to actors, but to playwrights, and audiences: and teachers not least.

—KENNETH TYNAN in Artist Critic & Teacher.