Read Maggie Smith: A Biography Online
Authors: Michael Coveney
That screenplay alliance between Zeffirelli and Mortimer was immediately trumped by John Banville adapting a beautiful 1929 novel by Elizabeth Bowen,
The Last September
, about the last days of the Anglo-Irish gentry, the Protestant Ascendancy, in County Cork in 1920. This was a tense time, between the Easter Rising and the civil war, and Maggie presided over the proceedings in a large country house, Danielstown, as the scheming Lady Myra Naylor, impervious to change and to the tensions, trimming her roses in a wide-brimmed hat and a high-class accent, as if life were going to continue as one long garden fête through an unending summer. Hers is in some ways a glittering Restoration comedy performance, busying herself with the marital arrangements or prospects of anyone who crosses her bows, family or friends; in others, a satirical last hurrah for one kind of socialite dowager before she regressed historically into the source material, the unflinching Edwardian corsetry of Lady Violet in
Bowen’s novel, her second and her own personal favourite, was in part a memory of her own childhood in Cork, and the mansion of Lord and Lady Naylor (Michael Gambon is the bluffly accommodating milord) a direct equivalent of her family home, Bowen’s Court, in the north-east of the county. Banville’s adaptation catches exactly that restlessness in the area, as trouble – and the Troubles – brew between the British soldiers, known as the Black and Tans, who are house guests of the Naylors at social functions, joining their visiting friends the Montmorencys (played by the classically handsome Lambert Wilson – formerly in love with Lois’s mother – and the deliciously flaky Jane Birkin) and the local revolutionaries who will one day set fire to the large properties, symbols of oppression. This sense of life going on, but hanging by a thread, is beautifully suggested in what was, incredibly, theatre director Deborah Warner’s début movie (and she hasn’t made another one since). She and Banville made one major character innovation, supplying the heroine, Lois Farquar (Lady Hester’s orphaned niece, tremulously played by a doe-eyed Keeley Hawes), with a romantic alternative to her dalliance with a British subaltern from Surrey, Gerald Lesworth (David Tennant); this new character, Peter Connolly, a smouldering, resentful terrorist in the performance of Gary Lydon, lurks in a dilapidated mill on the Danielstown estate when he’s not causing havoc elsewhere, luring Lois to a dangerous sexual initiation and creating a conflict in her political and carnal allegiances.
When the film, produced by Neil Jordan and others, came out, Hermione Lee, the eminent scholar and Elizabeth Bowen biographer, challenged some of the decisions made by Banville and Warner, including this creation of the IRA gunman named Connolly. ‘He’s what’s out there in the landscape,’ said Warner (in a piece Lee wrote for the
), ‘you’ve got to make it more tangible if you’re making a film; you’ve got to make passion visible.’ Banville, terrified that the film might have come across (heaven forbid!) as a Merchant Ivory costume drama, wanted the violence, deeply buried in the novel, to be hardened up. The ending departs radically from Bowen, too: the Naylors remain in the house, which doesn’t burn. Warner and Banville told Lee that the burning of the house might have been a cinematic cliché, like the conflagration of Manderley at the end of Daphne du Maurier’s
. ‘As it is,’ said Warner, ‘the film leaves us with the right level of ambivalence. We feel compassion for these people and we also see their absurdity and their displacement by a more democratic future. They are victims of history; there’s no revolution without casualties.’
Warner rehearsed for a week, before filming started, in an old house in County Meath, to reinforce this tribal bonding, and the four main female actors in particular – Maggie, Keeley Hawes, Jane Birkin and Fiona Shaw (who, with Gambon and Maggie, was a future cast member of the Harry Potter series) – struck up a good understanding and interplay. There was even talk, much later on, that the director might one day produce a
Waiting for Godot
with Fiona and Maggie as the tramps, an idea that, had it come to anything, might have displeased the notoriously pernickety Beckett Estate almost as much as Warner’s collaboration with Shaw in the Beckett monologue of
, which ignored all the stage directions and liberated the actress from a minimal pedestrian plank to an exploratory ambulation around the entire interior of the theatre. Still, Maggie Smith in Beckett might have spiced up the West End box office returns for a few months.
A few years later, and again with Richard Loncraine as director, Maggie made
My House in Umbria
as an HBO made-for-television movie, though it has the scale and ‘feel’ of a proper cinematic adventure, and takes place in the aftermath of a terrorist bomb on the railway track between the Italian countryside and Milan in the summer of 1987. Although a bomb on a train between Florence and Rome had killed 16 people (and wounded 200) in 1984, the Irish novelist William Trevor always insisted that his story was not triggered by that event, or any other (‘It’s all from the head, I’m afraid,’ he told the
New York Times
). This was Maggie’s second brush with one of her favourite writers (the first was on the televised version of his short story, ‘Mrs Silly’), who had published this novella together with another,
, under the generic title of
in 1991. Maggie’s role, that of Emily Delahunty, a romance novelist with a history of romantic misfortune despite being a woman of the world (‘I will not deny that men have offered me gifts, probably all of which I have accepted’), was one of the best of her career: we come to learn that Emily was the unloved child of travelling entertainers who had no use for a child, and a retired prostitute and madam complete with the alcoholic tendencies that had marked Judith Hearne and Susan in
Bed Among the Lentils
Emily was on the fateful train on a shopping expedition and, in an act of instinctive, redemptive charity, and after a short stay in hospital, she invites a few of her surviving fellow-travellers back to her idyllic villa for a period of recuperation. She is the controlling narrator of the story, confessing that ‘I was the only one not to have lost a loved one, having had no one to lose’. She and her attentive, kind-hearted Irish gardener/chauffeur (a lovely, understated performance by Timothy Spall, who is keen on relaying bits of the house’s architectural history to the visitors) gradually embrace other lifestyles and stories within their own. The three new residents are Werner, a young German photographer who, it transpires, may have been involved in planning the attack; a retired British army veteran and widower, the General (touchingly played by the comedian Ronnie Barker, who had been at the Oxford Playhouse with Maggie in the mid-1950s, and at architectural college with her brothers), who has lost his daughter in the explosion; and a young American girl, Aimee, who has lost both parents and is now traumatised and mute. Emily’s writer’s block – she has decided to make her visitors’ lives the subject of her writing – has resulted in a second explosion, that of her own walled-up interior life and, in the retelling of it, she says, she sort of dreams what happened.
This heart-breaking performance deservedly won Maggie an Emmy in the American television awards, although you can’t help feeling that Hugh Whitemore’s otherwise exemplary adaptation collapses in a soft belly-flop of a climax as the credits roll on a light-footed, white-garbed Maggie cavorting radiantly in her garden with her adoptive daughter and the genial old gardener, who’s also decided to stay on.
Stage appearances over the past twenty years since
The Importance of Being Earnest
have become scarcer, perhaps more precious, as the two major franchises of the Harry Potter films (2001–11) and
(since 2010, sixth and final series in the can for release in the autumn of 2015) invaded Maggie’s life and saved her from the retirement home. Still, the catalogue of theatre work in this period contains some of her most enthralling performances: three definitive, high-wire interpretations of
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
author Edward Albee (having played Virginia Woolf herself on the stage, Maggie presumably felt no urge to answer the question by playing Martha); a reunion with Alan Bennett not only on the 1996 stage version of
Bed Among the Lentils
but also as filthy old Miss Shepherd in
The Lady in the Van
in 1999; and then, three years later, her first stage appearance with Judi Dench since their Old Vic days in David Hare’s
Breath of Life
at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket, jewel of the West End.
All three of her Albee performances have been directed in London by Anthony Page, a notable artistic director of the Royal Court in the mid-1960s who embarked on a series of American drama productions (Tennessee Williams and Eugene O’Neill as well as Albee) with the British première of Albee’s
Three Tall Women
in November 1994. Albee’s reputation and critical standing had been in decline on both sides of the Atlantic until the first New York production of this play at the off-Broadway Promenade Theatre (where I saw it in July 1994), though this had never dented his own confidence or self-esteem.
Maggie’s participation in his ‘come-back’ play cannot be underestimated as part of a great upswing in his critical fortunes. As someone who had a difficult relationship with her own mother, she was surely responsive to Albee’s lacerating portrait of his own adoptive mother in
Three Tall Women
– a senile, wealthy bigot who threw him out when he was eighteen and parlays, in the play at least, a healthy youthful interest in erections of the male member into a pronounced reluctance and distaste for fellating her own husband. Maggie’s quite a stickler for propriety on the stage, but she wouldn’t have blanched too much at these outpourings after some of the confessional demands already made on her by Alan Bennett. Bennett had a curious, but not unusual, relationship with his own ‘Mam’, of course, conjuring her spirit, with a lovely affection only slightly tainted by sarcasm, in several of his later plays, not least
The Lady in the Van
, where, having turned foul-mouthed and incontinent in a nursing home, she becomes a parallel, complementary object of his disaffection and guilt while dealing with the long-term tramp-like squatter parked in the van in his own front garden.
The social mix in Albee and Bennett are worlds apart. Albee’s privileged advantages didn’t make his life any easier, though; as in Bennett’s conflicted background of respectable lower-middle-class expectations and Oxford opportunities for a clever boy, Albee’s rebellion against what was foisted on him as a child of luxury was the making of him as a writer. The gay outsiderism, more marked in Albee than in Bennett, was an extra ingredient: he was armed for conflict on two fronts. At the end of his adoptive mother’s life, Albee discovered that his natural father had abandoned his natural mother; he was born Edward Harvey and adopted, in upstate New York, by a childless couple, Reed and Frances Albee (this all-around barrenness – the lack of a child, the missing child, the dead child – is a tragic theme in his plays). Reed owned a chain of vaudeville theatres, while Frances (one foot taller and twenty-three years younger than her husband) was a well-heeled product of the White Anglo-Saxon Protestant hegemony – the WASP factory, racist and snobbish. They lived in the suburb of Larchmont, twenty miles from New York, where little Ed enjoyed (or endured) a pampered childhood of electric train sets, private schools, nannies and tennis lessons with national hero and Grand Slam legend Donald Budge.
Three Tall Women
is a moving and funny resolution of his own domestic statelessness, and a scathing character study – as a dramatic diptych – of Frances. In the first act she’s in bed, attended by a lawyer and a nurse. In the second, those two have been translated into younger versions of herself in middle age and youth.
There’s a way in which you can view Albee as the Big Daddy of the modern dysfunctional family play – what other plays are there, you often feel these days? – and this disfigurement of the American Dream dates from Eugene O’Neill, running right through Arthur Miller and Albee to Sam Shepard. Sounds grim, but from the minute he saw the play in New York, Anthony Page thought of it as a Restoration comedy about death. ‘A good cry lets it all out,’ says the nurse. ‘And what does a bad one do?’ asks the old lady with a reflex lash of the tongue. As Paul Taylor said of Maggie’s performance in his
review, this was a stunning portrayal of querulous, hapless senility refusing to go gentle into that good night: ‘Making expert use of those pained, lightly poached eyes, a chin that can rebuff from any angle, and a voice that can swoop from an imperious neigh to a hard-bitten, undeceived bass, she miraculously never turns the role into a caricature.’ She also, noted Taylor, brilliantly hinted at the younger selves who appear in person after the interval, ‘like layers in a shifting palimpsest’.
The characters in the play are simply named A, B and C (yes, that is slightly off-putting). B and C were Frances de la Tour and Anastasia Hille and, a year later, in the same play, and at the same theatre, Maggie returned with Sara Kestelman and Samantha Bond (John Ireland was still the mute boy) in support. It was, says Anthony Page, a new production:
Maggie really felt she hadn’t got to the bottom of it. She wanted to change a few things, including her position on the stage in the second half. She felt that sitting on the right of the stage didn’t help her, I don’t know why. So we put the chair on the left, and she said yes, that made things a lot easier. She was still working on the part right through to the end of the second run.
The casting of Kestelman and Bond as, respectively, the caustically cynical mid-lifer and the hopeful, idealistic twenty-six-year-old who still sees herself as an ingénue, made the work feel, opined Paul Taylor, ‘both tighter and more humanely balanced than it did previously’. And the
’s Jack Tinker, who had previously thought of the play as a two-act trick for a one-woman bravura turn, now hailed ‘a searing search into the process of ageing … an achingly splendid account of how a long life and all its attendant trials and chances can shipwreck even the strongest of wills’.
Looking back on both New York and London productions, it’s the audacious formal structure as well as the actual performance I remember as much as anything. The nonagenarian termagant of the first act lies dead (after a stroke) on her bed in the second while her divided selves recapitulate, at different stages of her life, in reverse conditions of resignation, fancy and hope. This is something worked out, in a different style, by Stephen Sondheim in his equally ambitious, part autobiographical 1981 musical,
Merrily We Roll Along
, and, for me, the piece exudes a similar poignancy, stripped of its sentiment, to that of Thornton Wilder’s photo-shutter study of a small community in
. But whereas both those seminal American works started outwards then worked inwards to the human story, Albee goes the other way around. This is a study of extreme old age, more worldly than in Beckett, and how we (or she) got there. With a light, dramatic irony, said Michael Billington, Albee shows how the blind optimism of youth gives way to the shrugging resignation of old age. Although in a way it was a revenge play, Albee always denied this. He realised that he and his adoptive mother had made each other very unhappy over the years but he tried, and I think succeeded, to write an objective play about a fictional character ‘who resembled, in every way, and in every event, someone I had known very, very well’.
interview with Matt Wolf, Page was asked about working with Maggie on this play, and on their subsequent Albee collaboration on a 1997 Theatre Royal, Haymarket, revival of
A Delicate Balance
, in which she played Claire, an alcoholic, don’t-give-a-damn live-in sister of Agnes, played by Eileen Atkins, in a Connecticut country house: ‘She’s like a blowtorch; her mind, in trying to get to the reality of something, how to give it comic edge and energy. She’s just got an amazing theatrical imagination. I don’t think she’s interested in mannerism at all. She wants to be totally convincing.’ This is interesting, as if the director is getting his defence in first, perhaps because of what Frank Rich had said about Maggie: that, while her screen career was one of paring down to the truth and the bone, the acting on stage retained its exterior, almost baroque, efflorescence, its gestural beauty and extravagance. There’s something in this: Maggie’s old-fashioned enough to still believe you have to ‘give’ something to the audience on stage that you don’t on film. It’s a bigger, more exposing, medium in that respect, and I think she’s right.
A Delicate Balance
is a sort of long night’s journey into day of recrimination, booze, terror and vindictive occupation and displacement. A couple of neighbours seek sanctuary and stake out the room of Agnes’s thrice-married daughter, Julia. The latter returns home, all guns blazing, after a fourth relationship débâcle, to reclaim her territory. The play was critically overshadowed on Broadway in 1966, ironically, by a triple-headed British threat of Harold Pinter’s
(arguably his best play), Frank Marcus’s
The Killing of Sister George
(fun, games and crypto-lesbianism at the BBC) and Peter Shaffer’s riotously funny
, in which Maggie had first appeared at the National. But it did win Albee his first Pulitzer Prize, and shared with
an atmosphere of unnamed, unnerving terror; it ends with Agnes resuming a conversation that was interrupted as the play began.
Albee said that the play was about people turning their backs on each other. With Maggie, Atkins and Sian Thomas as Julia firing on all cylinders, it struck me more as a magnificent piece of theatrical hokum about the magnet of the drinks cabinet, the need to fuel small talk with large measures and the collapse of civilised pretence in domestic matters. And why all that bitterness about the child who died, Julia’s brother? All those refreshingly long words and finely formed sentences had made a Gothic, rarefied impression on a very young me at the Royal Shakespeare Company’s monumental British première at the Aldwych, where it had been directed with tragic, hieratic overtones by Peter Hall and featured three great actresses – Peggy Ashcroft as Agnes, Elizabeth Spriggs as Claire and Sheila Hancock as Julia. Maggie and Eileen Atkins somehow humanised the domestic catastrophe, while retaining its significant outline. And Maggie did what she does best, while reaching for an accordion to dampen everyone’s spirits: she sniped venomously and triumphantly from the sidelines. Her empty glass dangled like an inquisitive appendage from an expressive left wrist as she claimed small victories in each exchange she entered.
I questioned Albee about this deliberate conflict in his plays between naturalism and style; he is much nearer to Tennessee Williams as a poetic writer than he is to either Arthur Miller or David Mamet, in that he doesn’t necessarily want his characters to sound like ‘real’ people. ‘There is no such thing as naturalism in the theatre,’ he said emphatically, ‘merely degrees of stylisation. The wonderful thing about theatre is the total suspension of disbelief. Are we supposed to think that the actors are the people they say they are, or that all that papier mâché is
?’ Apparently not. It’s all smoke and mirrors, all theatre. And what an intelligent actor like Maggie Smith does is investigate that discrepancy between real and pretend, between feeling and gesture, and give it the full attention of a theatrically convincing truth. Out of this, in some magical way, emerges the truth itself. Or so we kid ourselves.
Critical writing about Maggie was affected by these performances in Albee, so that when she returned to Alan Bennett, in between the two, with a stage performance of
Bed Among the Lentils
, one of the six
studies for BBC TV, at the Chichester Festival Theatre’s Minerva studio in 1996 (transferring for a season to the Comedy, now the Harold Pinter, in town), she was praised for both her tragic intensity and her technical skill; there had always been a tendency to separate these virtues out. Alastair Macaulay, a dance critic who was for a time the
theatre critic, praised her exceptional economy of expression as Susan on the stage and opined that she was the ideal Alan Bennett actor because she combined his charity and malice. Her skill, he said, was that of a surgeon laying bare the crucial details of a character’s mental anatomy; Judi Dench and Vanessa Redgrave, he added, were not Bennett ‘types’ because their shared largeness of soul and vitality of temper were alien to his spirit, meaning, I think, that spirit’s appetite for detail, sarcasm, inflection and nuance.
Bennett’s six studies of resilient victims on the suburban margins had won the artistic right of reply after life had treated them badly. There had been many revivals in the theatre of these television pieces, but not of Maggie’s monodrama, as if in deference to her supremacy as Susan. Even she wavered, but now took the plunge into these five mordant, plangent, elegiac riffs, with a skill and virtuosity unequalled in our theatre. You could see more clearly how Bennett compressed the present tense of confession into the catch-up info of parish life among the vicar’s (Susan’s husband’s) ‘fan club’, as viewed in a vivid critical aspic: those furtive visits to the off-licence; the escape to Leeds for sex in the afternoon with twenty-six-year-old Mr Ramesh, the grocer betrothed to a fourteen-year-old girl, who finally crosses the Pennines to set up a business in Preston; and the living hell of Alcoholics Anonymous. On television, Maggie’s Susan seemed dowdier and sadder. On stage, with the warmth of an audience, she crumbled with both joy and grief at the character, presenting a more mythical figure, partly because we knew what we were expecting. In addition, there was a ‘warm-up’ or curtain-raiser in the form of Margaret Tyzack, Maggie’s cohort in
Lettice and Lovage
– the Stephanie Cole role in the original
– the tale of a middle-class, well-connected widow in decline, with glimpses of a wastrel son and mentally ill daughter who was sexually abused by her father, a pillar of society once ‘second-in-command of meals-on-wheels for the whole of Sudbury’.