Closeup/Theatre

The first family

What Cronyn and Tandy see in each other

Martin Knelman February 6 1978
Closeup/Theatre

The first family

What Cronyn and Tandy see in each other

Martin Knelman February 6 1978

The first family

Closeup/Theatre

What Cronyn and Tandy see in each other

By Martin Knelman

Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy were sitting at a cozy corner table of the Oyster Bar in the Plaza Hotel, a spot favored by them for after-the-show supper, and not only because it happens to be across the street from the hotel suite which serves as their second home while they’re playing eight performances a week of The Gin Game in New York. He was nibbling on cherrystone clams. She ate mussels in curry sauce. It was all very refined and elegant in an understated way, until suddenly, in response to a question I had asked about their association with the Stratford Festival, they began to improvise what could have been a lightly comic sketch about a long-married couple.

“Í remember before the first Stratford season,” Hume Cronyn was fondly reminiscing. “Tom Patterson came to see us, and I think we were the first to give $500. We were living at the Algonquin at the time ...”

“Hume,” asked Jessica Tandy in a gently corrective tone, “weren’t we in Montreal or Toronto on tour? I remember the hotel room distinctly, and it wasn’t the Algonquin ...”

Cronyn continued, only slightly disconcerted: “Of course it was out of the question for us to act at Stratford the first year. We were doing a tour of The Fourposter. But we visited. I remember Alec Guinness riding around on a bicycle. We went up for the ground-breaking ceremony ...”

“Darling,” interrupted Tandy, “I hate to correct you, but it really wasn’t a groundbreaking. It was that business about the cornerstone ...”

This time her husband took the bait. “Come on, now,” Cronyn retorted in a voice uncertainly perched between mock annoyance and real annoyance, “that is really nitpicking ...”

Then, as a gesture of conciliation, he added: “Jessie is the one who knew Tony Guthrie. In our family, my wife has all the important theatre connections ...”

“What do you mean / have all the important connections?” she asked with playful indignation, in that ringing voice which threatens crystal, as if suspecting that the flattery might be an underhanded form of accusation.

If Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy (at age 66 and 68, respectively) execute this Ping-Pong dialogue with the sort of perfect timing and absolute finesse that raise gamesmanship to an art form, maybe the fact that they’ve had 35 years of practice, both on and off the stage, has something to do with it. They met backstage at the Bilt-

more Theatre in New York after a performance of Jupiter Laughs, an otherwise forgettable flop, and were married in 1942.

“It has never been a condition laid down by either of us that we have to work together.” Cronyn explains carefully, and in fact they have acted separately far more often than together. But because they have had some spectacular successes as a team, the Cronyns have established themselves

in the imagination of the audience as a legendary theatrical couple—as the natural heirs of the Lunts.

With the Cronyns, it is not only the plays they have done together that have established their mystique but also what they represent. They have stayed loyal to the theatre, despite temporary flirtations with the movies. They have taken on the challenging roles at Stratford, and they helped

establish the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis. They were pioneer members of the Phoenix Theatre 25 years ago. They have gone to regional theatres in such places as Seattle, they’ve been involved with experimental theatres.

At this stage of their careers, the Cronyns have become a symbol of the literate tradition of acting—a tradition in which the players, liberated from expensive productions and big theatre companies—have a direct relationship with their audience because they can select their own material and control the way in which it’s presented. It’s this tradition that is celebrated in The Many Faces Of Love, a series of scenes, sketches and readings on the subject of relations between the sexes. The project was initiated by the Cronyns and they selected the material, which included excerpts from such plays as The Four-poster, A Streetcar Named Desire, and A Delicate Balance, and selections of readings from the work of authors as diverse as Dostoyevsky, Thomas Wolfe, James Thurber, Bertrand Russell and Ogden Nash. Intimate theatrical evenings often go dead when they’re transferred to television, so it’s something of a miracle that the special charm of this show comes through in CBC television’s 90minute adaptation of The Many Faces Of Love, on February 15. It’s that rv rarity— an evening’s delight for civilized people.

Hume Cronyn’s great-grandfather on his mother’s side was John Kinder Labatt, who founded the Labatt’s beer empire, and his great-grandfather on his father’s side was an Anglican priest from Ireland who arrived by oxcart and was one of the first white men to settle in London. Ont.— at a time when it was still known as The Forks. Cronyn was the youngest of five children, and so much younger than the others (13 years) that he was considered the indulged baby of the family.

Cronyn’s father was a Victorian patriarch—president of the Huron and Erie Mortgage Corp., Canada Trust and Mutual Life. He was also a Member ot Parliament who was offered cabinet posts at least twice. The family was more than comfortable, but frivolous displays of wealth were considered vulgar. From the age of 10, Cronyn was sent to boarding school at Ridley, where he endured a curriculum in which cricket was a compulsory sport and any artisitc aspirations were generally frowned on. He went on to McGill University, where he was supposed to be preparing for a career in business and the law. But after landing a summer job with a stock company in Washington, he announced to his startled family that he had decided on an acting career. His mother said, “Go back to McGill for a year. If you still feel this way, I will see to it that you attend either the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London or the American Academy of Dramatic Art in New York.”

Which was how Cronyn landed in New York to go to acting school in 1932, financed by an allowance from home of $173 a month. His big break came when he tried out for understudy in the national touring company of Three Men On A Horse, and landed the leading role.

It was Alfred Hitchcock who brought Cronyn to Hollywood in 1942—for a part in Shadow Of A Doubt.

Cronyn became one of the staple character actors of 1940s movies (a familiar face whose name you couldn’t remember), playing such roles as the cunning lawyer in that great trash classic The Postman A ¡ways Rings Twice and the cranky landlord whom Fanny Brice tries to trick out of a winning sweepstake ticket in Ziegfeld Follies. The first time the Cronyns acted together was in Fred Zinnemann’s film The Seventh Cross, starring Spencer Tracy, for which Cronyn was nominated for an Oscar. He specialized in portraying shady little creeps in the movies. But in the theatre he could land the big parts in such plays as Death Of A Salesman (which he did at Minneapolis). His acting style seemed too theatrical for the cameras; on stage he was where he belonged. In 1964 Cronyn won a Tony for his Polonius in the Richard Burton Hamlet. In 1970 he lost an eye to cancer—and after the operation plunged into the greatest solo triumph of his life, Hadrian The Seventh.

Jessica Tandy was already well established when she met Hume Cronyn. She

grew up in the northeast part of London— and her voice has a trace still of her British breeding. Her mother was a teacher and her father was in the rope business. Her acting career started with the Birmingham Repertory Company. By 1934 she was playing Ophelia to John Gielgud’s Hamlet at the New Theatre in London. Her first husband was Jack Hawkins, the actor, by whom she had a daughter. (The Cronyns also have a son and another daughter.)

Tandy went to Hollywood with Cronyn, and appeared in several films, but she felt her career had stopped; her main activity was raising three children. “In Hollywood,” she recalls with a trace of anger, “nobody could see any potential in me. I began to feel I must have made the whole thing up, about playing opposite Gielgud and Larry Olivier and all the rest. I thought it must have been a whimsical dream.”

Cronyn, whose family background may have given him entrepreneurial instincts.

had bought the rights to several one-act plays by Tennessee Williams, and he proposed doing a stage production in Hollywood of Portrait Of A Madonna, with Tandy starring and Cronyn directing. At the time she was under contract to Twentieth Century-Fox and was not supposed to perform elsewhere, but she got away with it, and. her success led to the greatest role of her career—Blanche Dubois in Elia Kazan’s original Broadway production of Williams’ masterpiece, A Streetcar Named Desire. Playing Stanley Kowalski to her Blanche was an erratic young prodigy named Marlon Brando, who rarely gave the same performance two nights running. Tandy won a Tony, but for the movie her role went to Vivien Leigh. Incredibly, her coup didn’t change anything in Hollywood. When she got back, the casting director of Fox called and said :

“Congratulations. How tall are you?” She replied: “Five-foot-four.” That was the last she heard from him.

It took so long for the Cronyns to make their debuts on the thrust stage of Stratford, just down the road from Cronyn’s hometown, that the whole matter became an embarrassment for everyone. Finally they made it together in 1976. He played Shylock in The Merchant Of Venice, she played Lady Wishfort in The Way Of The World, and they appeared together in Robin Phillips’s version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In Eve, Tandy had a chance to shape a contemporary character, and the battles during rehearsals of this show became a hot gossip item. A few months ago, Cronyn accepted a different connection with Stratford; he became the first actor ever named to the board of directors.

Playing Eve, Tandy refused to say “shit” because it wasn’t in keeping with the dig-

nity of a great lady, but in The Gin Game, she finally uses a four-letter word. Fonsia Dorsey, the character she plays, is a rigid woman who drives people away. Weller Martin, played by Cronyn, is a refugee from Bel Air who has a terrible temper and an addiction to gin rummy. When he teaches her how to play gin and she keeps beating him (13 games out of 14 in the play), he reacts by railing at her, telling her what’s wrong with her, and swearing at her. He obviously wants to kill her. She threatens to report him to the nurses if he doesn’t stop being abusive and using offensive language. But eventually he gets her angry, too, and in the middle of a game, in a fury she sputters the ultimate four-letter word. The Gin Game was written by a previously unknown playwright named D. L. Coburn, a 38-year-old Texan, and whatever else there is to be said for the play it provides a vehicle for the finest acting to be seen on Broadway this season. Set

in a depressing old folks’ home, the land of stewed tomatoes and joyless songfests, it manages to be both improbably funny and memorably sad.

Cronyn happened upon the material while he was visiting regional theatres across the United States for a report to the National Endowment for the Arts, and he was told about it by the director of a theatre in Louisville, where a production was on the schedule. Cronyn and Tandy read it, and Cronyn called Coburn to say: “We’d like to do your play.” Then they approached Mike Nichols, who directed them in a production in the spring of 1977 at the Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven.

As if recalling the pain and the ecstasy of childbirth, Jessica Tandy describes the process by which Nichols coaxed the two performances into a state of precision. She remembers especially the trial of finding the right note for the ending, when he expresses his murderous impulse by smashing a table and then storms off, and she, realizing that she has done once more what she has been doing all her life, sits in a chair and says quietly, “Oh, no,” just before the curtain falls. Tandy observes: “The split concentration it takes to keep your mind on the gin games and your lines is very difficult. There’s a point in rehearsal when you know what you want but it ain’t cornin’

. . . and you think you will never do it. But Mike had faith in the script, and he’s very patient.”

The route to the stage door of the John Golden Theatre these nights has turned into Celebrity Alley, as such people as Joel Grey, Henry Winkler and Katharine Hepburn trot back to pay tribute to these two actors’ actors. I was greeted in the dressing room not by that squabbling couple we’d been watching for the previous two hours but by a pair not so terribly unlike the couple from Ohio who might have sat behind you at the play. His courtly animation set off a lightweight jacket-and-slacks outfit that didn’t quite go with each other, and her silvery fur coat brought a touch of regal sparkle to her undisguised seniority.

There is a side to them that is sheer Ma and Pa Kettle Conquer Broadway, and self-mockingly they apologize in advance for being dull, as if this is the terrible secret that interviewers uncover. When asked what it’s like working together and living together, Cronyn observes: “The ordinary housewife or woman with a job and a husband who does something else don’t understand that commitment of starting from the same bed each morning, sharing the same breakfast table, the same rehearsal hall, the same performance and the same supper table. It takes a certain tolerance.”

“Maybe,” interjects Jessica Tandy helpfully, “we should get together a whole thing about drunken parties and extracurricular sex.”

“Actually,” says Hume Cronyn, as if facing up to the awful truth, “it’s all so regimented and dull.” Tf