Olivier, by Philip Ziegler

While written by a distinguished biographer, this often inaccurate study of the enigmatic and elusive Laurence Olivier lacks real insight


To get a sense of the impact Laurence Olivier made at the height of his career, imagine a man who combined the acting skills of Daniel Day-Lewis with the fame of and adulation accorded to Brad Pitt.

An outstanding actor married, in Vivien Leigh, to one of the most famous and beautiful Hollywood stars, and something of a sex symbol himself, Olivier had the world at his feet. What makes him a fascinating figure of 20th-century British theatre is that he used that fame and his great organisational skills to create the conditions for the founding of the British National Theatre. He became its first director, heading one of the most brilliant repertory companies ever seen in London.

Armed with more than 50 hours of tapes Olivier recorded with Mark Amory of the Spectator for a putative memoir, Philip Ziegler’s new biography, published to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the National, attempts to provide a complete picture of this enigmatic and elusive subject. That he doesn’t fully succeed may be due to the nature of his quest rather than to a failure as a biographer.

The narrative rattles along and we get many descriptions – indeed a surfeit – of the roles Olivier played, the women he bedded, the parties he attended, the backstage jealousies and intrigues and the monumental clashes that attended the birth of the National Theatre. It was, as Lady Bracknell might remark, a life crowded with incident. Three marriages, all of which are marked with dramatic unhappiness, his eldest son practically excluded from his life and his other three children victims of benign neglect, he was clearly a man driven by his passion for his work and ready to sacrifice anything that distracted him from achieving the greatness that was his destiny.

For those familiar with the arc of Olivier’s career, from starring roles at school to the Birmingham Rep, to the first production of Coward’s Private Lives, to the Old Vic, the West End, Broadway, Hollywood and back to Chichester and the National Theatre, there is little new here, and Ziegler’s lack of theatrical background can be frustrating. There are many inaccuracies. Ziegler relies heavily on the printed critiques and on the notoriously faulty memories of colleagues, some of whom heartily disliked Olivier’s brusqueness.

Individual performances are routinely described as among the best he had ever given, but we rarely get any analysis of those performances or how they were achieved. Olivier was a master of disguises. That much is clear. He never met a false nose he couldn’t use or a wig that wouldn’t happily adorn his head. But behind that facade were a keen intelligence, an indefinable charisma and a dedication to detail in every performance. He dominated every play he was in, even when the role was tiny.

One of the most perceptive comments comes from Geraldine McEwan, who appeared with Olivier in a Feydeau farce at the Old Vic. “Well”, she said, “it used to be a play about a woman who thinks her husband is unfaithful to her; now it is about a butler who works for a woman who thinks her husband is unfaithful to her.”

Where Ziegler scores heavily and where the book justifies itself against many of its predecessors is its description of the drama surrounding the creation of the British National Theatre – a cherished dream since the time of George Bernard Shaw and Harley Granville-Barker. It took Olivier’s unparalleled skills and international acclaim to move the concept to reality.

First at the Old Vic, where he ran the company with Ralph Richardson and then at the Chichester Festival, which he led from its foundation, he spearheaded the movement for a theatre that would engage the finest actors in a wide repertory of work reflecting a sense of Britain’s place in the world.

Ziegler meticulously details the intrigues, the drama and the sheer doggedness of purpose that led to the creation of the three-theatre complex on the South Bank of the Thames that now defines much of British theatre for the world. One of Olivier’s most innovative decisions was the engagement of Kenneth Tynan as literary manager of the fledgling company. Tynan, the iconoclast of British critics, added an intellectual and political edge that was entirely lacking in Olivier’s make-up. Some of his proposals were maddeningly provocative and led eventually to his being sidelined, but his influence has rightly been described by Jonathan Miller as “distinct and crucial”.

This unlikely pair, one an old-fashioned actor-manager steeped in theatrical tradition and the other a highly opinionated, devious, Machiavellian intellectual, led the National Theatre brilliantly and set the course of its repertoire for many years.

Olivier’s departure from the National before Denys Lasdun’s new building opened was squalid and badly handled. Max Rayne, then chairman of the board, informed him that Peter Hall had been chosen to succeed him. Olivier felt, rightly, that he should have had some influence over the choice and was deeply slighted.

It is good, however, that Ziegler sets the record straight about Hall’s treatment of Olivier. It has long been implied that Hall was an intriguer who pushed the grand old man out prematurely and with little ceremony. The facts are that Olivier was the one who behaved petulantly and without grace and that Hall made every effort to pay due respect to a man he clearly revered.

It is difficult to imagine for whom this biography is intended. Olivier’s last stage performance was in 1974, his film work now seems stilted and dated, the scandals surrounding his marriage to and divorce from Vivien Leigh are tame compared with today’s star break-ups, and the National Theatre has become identified with a younger generation.

Although Ziegler is a distinguished biographer, with studies of Mountbatten and Harold Wilson to his credit, this work lacks real insight and is overly dependent on its subject’s uncensored reminiscences. Ultimately, the portrait of the man does him little credit. His vanity, his petty jealousies, his towering rages, his serial unfaithfulness and his lack of intellectual curiosity dominate the account of his life. It is also clear that he felt happiest when being someone other than himself.

Towards the end of his life, he made a devastating judgment that defines him. “The fact is that I don’t know who I am. I have played all these parts and I don’t know who I am. I am a hollow man.”

A sad epitaph indeed.

Joe Dowling is director of the Guthrie Theatre, Minneapolis, and founding director of the Gaiety School of Acting.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
Error Image
The account details entered are not currently associated with an Irish Times subscription. Please subscribe to sign in to comment.
Comment Sign In

Forgot password?
The Irish Times Logo
Thank you
You should receive instructions for resetting your password. When you have reset your password, you can Sign In.
The Irish Times Logo
Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.
Screen Name Selection


Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
Forgot Password
Please enter your email address so we can send you a link to reset your password.

Sign In

Your Comments
We reserve the right to remove any content at any time from this Community, including without limitation if it violates the Community Standards. We ask that you report content that you in good faith believe violates the above rules by clicking the Flag link next to the offending comment or by filling out this form. New comments are only accepted for 3 days from the date of publication.