"Imagine me playing Shakespeare at the Old Vic!”...
... That’s what Jacqueline Ellis says about her big chance. Follow this Canadian girl in the path of Sybil Thorndike and Michael Redgrave and see what makes this theatre the goal of every brightening star
A young actress trying to work up a small twinkle in her remote corner of the theatrical firmament answered the telephone in her London apartment one day last winter, with the hope—common to all striving actresses—that it might presage a summons to a new, inspiring and lucrative role. It was her theatrical agent on the phone.
“How would you like me to put you up for the Old Vic?” he asked.
“Ha!” the actress replied.
“Well, you never know ...” ventured the agent.
“Okay, buster, go ahead,” said the actress in a burlesque of the Canadian accent she had been striving for three years to eliminate. Quite apart from the shortcomings of inexperience, the accent, she felt, would certainly kill her chances with the Old Vic, cynosure of Shakespearean playhouses, home of some of the most distinguished performers in the English language and the hope of every beginner on the London stage.
The agent laughed briefly and hung up. He had more important clients to attend to than Jacqueline Ellis, an Ottawa girl of twenty-one with little behind her but one good part (as the ingénue in Joseph Hayes’ melodrama, The Desperate Hours) and a remote, elfin beauty that invariably compelled talent scouts to look again. Whether these qualifications would recommend her to the Old Vic was a question the agent could not answer.
The Old Vic maintains two companies. The touring company, composed mainly of artists who have appeared on the Old Vic stage for at least one season, is now in Canada for the first time with a repertory program of Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet and Richard II, starring John Neville, Claire Bloom, Paul Rogers and Coral Browne. The London company, numbering forty, always includes about a dozen newcomers selected from literally hundreds of applicants, most of whom don’t get as far as an audition. Jacqueline Ellis was justified in being dubious about her agent’s suggestion that she try for this company. As she says now, “The idea of me playing Shakespeare at the Old Vic never once entered my head. It just seemed impossible.”
Several days after her agent had phoned, Jackie (the abbreviation she usually gets) received a letter instructing her to report on a Sunday morning to the venerable theatre described in a recent Arts Council report as “meanly sighted, obsolete and inconvenient” and properly named The Royal Victoria Hall. The Old Vic, isolated from other London theatres on the grimy south bank of the Thames, stands severely above its seedy surroundings somewhat in the manner of Emma Cons, an upright, stiffly bonneted Victorian lady who redeemed it from the vulgarities of vaudeville in 1879.
On the way to her audition Jackie picked her way through the Saturday-night debris in front of the pubs between the Waterloo station and the stage door. She was early and was therefore first on. The Old Vic stage is small, but to Jackie, as she spoke her test lines by Shakespeare and Christopher Fry, it seemed bigger and lonelier than the Sahara. Michael Benthall, the Vic’s artistic director, sitting in the darkened auditorium, took note of the girl’s enormous grey eyes outlined in black on a small white face topped by a mop of garish yellow hair that looked as though it had been bitten, not cut. He also noted the pretty figure wrapped primly in a pink-and-black tweed dress.
“Do you know any more?” Benthall asked when she had finished. Jackie froze. She had been told to prepare two speeches and she had followed instructions exactly. She began to stumble through a part she was rehearsing for a production in Oxford but Benthall stopped her.
“Suppose you do the first two again,” he suggested kindly. Jackie did and when she finished Benthall waved his cigarette in dismissal. "Thank you,” he said. “You’ll be hearing from us." She did not believe him and was therefore surprised a few days later by a second letter instructing her to prepare three long speeches: one from Romeo and Juliet, one from The Merchant of Venice and one from Cvmbcline. The letter said to report back to Old Vic in one week.
This time, again in her pink-and-black dress, Jackie walked on the Vic's stage and, blushing with shame, confessed that she didn’t know her lines. She was playing in repertory in Oxford, she explained, learning a new part every two weeks and it had been impossible to master so much more so quickly.
"That’s all right,” Benthall said. “We have a prompter here.” Jackie stumbled once through the three long speeches. “Again," said Benthall. When she had finished them a second time he said, “Try again please.” At the end he waved his hand. “All right, that's enough. I want to have a serious talk w'ith you.” He invited Jackie to sit down and olfered her a cigarette. “Do you want to be a Shakespearean actress?” he began.
"Yes,” Jackie replied. (“Frankly, it had never occurred to me,” she says.)
"Wouldn’t you rather be a film actress?” Benthall asked.
“No,” Jackie replied. “I’d like to act in films but I prefer the stage.” Benthall looked ruefully at her head.
“What about that hair?” he asked. Jackie explained she’d had it bleached for the part of a Swedish girl in a play at Oxford. "Well, you’ll have to do something about that,” he said. “And now about your voice. You realize you’ll have to work on that. It may be all right for the commercial stage but for Shakespearean verse it needs more training!”
She would be a star — for two weeks. Her silence nettled the director. “I was numb,” says Jackie
Benthall looked at her. "Are you sure?” he asked. Jackie nodded.
"Well, if you’re sure, we’ll be seeing you next week,” Benthall said.
The next week Jackie signed a twoyear contract which the Old Vic can break at the end of the 1956-57 season if she doesn't measure up to expectations. So far as the management can remember, only two Canadians have been in the company since the war: John Colicos of Toronto and Douglas Rain who was a student at the Old Vic school. Neither stayed longer than a year, l ike Jackie, they earned beginners’ salaries of about forty-five dollars a week.
“This is a theatre of small salaries and large opportunities,” says Alfred Francis, the administrative director. Great stars, like Sybil Thorndike, Edith Evans, John Gielgud, Ralph Richardson. Michael Redgrave, Alec Guinness and Diana Wynyard once began there as humbly as Jackie and on even smaller salaries. All of them are content to return (Ralph Richardson heads the 195657 company) for a top salary of about one hundred and twenty dollars a week.
When she had signed her name Jackie listened to Benthall saying that for two weeks in July he wanted her to take ovei Claire Bloom’s leading part as the queen in Richard II. Claire Bloom had to do a film before she traveled with the touring company to Canada and the U. S.. Benthall explained. (“I was numb with shock.” Jackie recalls.)
"Well!” exclaimed Benthall, slightly nettled by her wooden response. “Aren't you pleased?”
"Yes. thank you very much, 1 am." Jackie stammered.
For three weeks she rehearsed with the star. John Neville, and the rest of the company. On July 3 she made her first appearance on the historic stage. Her notices were mixed, but then so were everyone else’s. “Jacqueline Ellis made her debut as the queen in Richard li and although not a sensation she shows a quiet competence and comprehension that bodes well for her future,” said one critic. According to another she “did her best with the sorrowful queen” but “Richard II is not a woman’s tragedy.” A third described her as "gentle and touching” and a fourth said she “did well with little enough to do.” One disposed of her abruptly and angrily: “The lady playing the queen is to be replaced when the company goes to America by Miss Claire Bloom. 1 could not care if she were replaced by Miss Sophie Tucker, provided only that the replacement occurs soon.”
“If the youngsters here aren’t determined and if their hides aren't thick enough, they might as well go out and sell insurance.” says Francis. “The critics arc harder on us than anybody.”
All classes of Englishmen know their Shakespeare and on the stage of the Old Vic they will not tolerate it if it’s bad. Critics who dismiss a bad modern play in two lines take a column to castigate a bad production at Old Vic.
“You don’t know what to think,” says Jackie. ‘Tm not going to think about notices. I’m just going to work.”
At the Old Vic everyone works twice as hard as in any other London theatre. Last season John Neville played seven leading parts, including lago and Othello, which he alternated with Richard Burton, better known to Canadians as star of the recent motion picture spectacle. Alexander The Great. Jackie is no stranger to hard work. For six months before she joined the Old Vic she played with the Oxford repertory company. During one week of rehearsals in Oxford she also played in Windsor.
“I got up every morning at six and took the eight-o’clock train to Oxford, arriving at eleven. I rehearsed until fourthirty, took the train to Windsor for a seven-thirty curtain, finished at eleven and went home to London to sleep. Thank goodness it lasted only a week.”
For an Old Vic season of forty weeks that began in August, Jackie will rehearse every day and play every night, probably three or four different parts in a week. At the end of the season she will tour the main provincial cities for seven weeks.
“In the commercial theatre they rehearse a play then play it.” says director Alfred Francis. “Here it's a complete slog. The players have to love it so much they begrudge every minute outside the theatre.”
But this slogging seems to have a stronger lure than Hollywood. Burton took leave of absence from his work in films to play at the Old Vic. Neville and Paul Rogers have both turned down long contracts. Last year Katharine Hepburn forsook California to tour Australia with the Old Vic. Moira Shearer, invited to write her own ticket in films when she renounced ballet two years ago, chose instead to retire to Bristol and learn to be a classical actress with the Old Vic’s scrub team.
It is by way of the Bristol Old Vic that Jackie may rise to stardom if she chooses to do so and if she is good enough. After three years with the Bristol Old Vic John Neville, a handsome, fragile-featured young man of thirty, came to London in 1953 and by the next season was playing leads. By last season he was the Old Vic’s pin-up boy. Crowds mob him at the stage door and when he t ikes his curtain calls hysterical girls in the gallery shriek with delight, embarrassing the management by a show of emotion out of keeping with the ascetic character of the theatre.
At this early stage of her career, Jackie doesn’t think about autograph hounds and shrieking fans. She is anxious to learn. All her instructors, including the Vic’s artistic director, Michael Bcnthall, have remarked on her determination, a quality evident in the life story of every actress who ever raised her name to the top of a marquee.
Jackie’s theatrical ambitions go a long way back—-to the time when, as a child of eleven, she did her first fumbling bit at Strathcona l odge, a girls’ boarding school in Victoria. Her father, M. H. Ellis, is a captain in the Royal Canadian Navy and for years he moved his family from coast to coast in Canada. At every stop—Ottawa. Halifax, Kingston—Jackie found her way into theatrical groups. By the time she had taken a secretarial course and found an office job in Ottawa in the summer of 1952 her family had begun to suspect—somewhat uncomfortably—that she was not exactly dedicated to an office, but rather to the stage. Secretly, she had been exchanging letters with her godfather in London about drama schools there.
Il was Captain Ellis, however, who introduced the subject after he and Mrs. Ellis had watched their daughter play Isabelle in Christopher Ery’s adaptation of the Jean Anouilh play, Ring Round the Moon.
"I expect now you've made up your mind what you want to be,” said Captain Ellis when the family reached home after the performance. “If it’s what I'm afraid it is, what drama school do you want to go to?”
From her handbag Jackie removed her godfather’s letters and a prospectus of the Central School of Speech and Drama, considered by many to be the finest school of its kind in England. "This one,” she said, passing the prospectus to her father. "That is, if you think we can afford it.” For a three-year course the fees are about eight hundred dollars, in addition to traveling and living expenses.
"Of course we can afford it,” said Captain Ellis promptly, adding in a tone of mild regret. “1 realize now it’s the only thing that will ever make you happy.” Jackie was then eighteen.
A month later she was en route to London, her nose buried in a copy of Romeo and Juliet. Her entrance examination consisted of a set speech of Juliet's, an interview with the registrar (she was asked to explain why she wanted to be an actress), unprepared readings of prose and poetry and improvised acting. Jackie was one of thirty-two students selected out of more than two hundred applicants.
J'he Central School of Speech and Drama, founded in 1906. is a pioneer of modern speech therapy as well as of dramatic art. To learn to speak Shakespearean verse, Jackie’s Canadian accent was treated like a speech defect. She worked overtime to get rid of it and is still working. "Everybody laughed the first time 1 played Shakespeare,” she says. "When I got a job at the Old Vic my former classmates said, ‘What, you?’ ” In addition to voice training and diction she studied stage movement (by learning ballet and fencing), stagecraft, make-up, mime, acting, broadcasting and television.
The school principal Gwynneth Thurburn’s estimate of her is guarded but encouraging. “There’s no doubt she's got talent. It just depends on how it develops.”
Theatrical agents, on the hunt for new talent, usually watch the practice plays of senior students in drama schools. Just before Christmas 1954 two agents tried to sign Jackie after watching her in a school play. Because he asked first, she chose Philip Pearman, husband of Coral Browne, now playing Lady Macbeth with the Old Vic in Canada.
“Jackie was the kind of student everyone noticed,” says Miss Thurburn. "A stranger would come in. look around, pause and say at once, ‘Who is that girl?’ ”
Pearman got Jackie a television play in the Christmas holidays and just before the end of her last term he suggested that she audition for the part of Cindy, the ingénue lead in The Desperate Hours, then casting for its London production.
“There’s probably not much point in it,” she said, “but you ought to see what an audition is like.”
Jackie found herself one of three hundred girls trying for the part of Cindy. She had no hope at all. "All of them were prettier and more actressy looking than me,” she says. When her turn came she read a scene, the producer from New York said, "I'hank you very much. Miss Ellis” and she replied, "Thank you very much,” and wrote the audition off to experience. A week later she was asked to come again to read for the producer. This time she read, was told to wait and sat for over an hour in the wings, nervously biting her cuticle. "When he asked me to read again, gave me some direction and again told me to wait. I nearly went mad,” she says. When they told her she had the part she was stunned.
“Jackie’s an odd girl,” commented Miss Thurburn. “The nicest possible thing can happen to her and she doesn’t show any excitement.”
Miss Thurburn would have thought differently had she seen Jackie the day she got her first West End part. She walked out the stage door of Her Majesty’s Theatre up to the Haymarket. Then she released a tiny squeal, hiked her dress up around her knees and broke into a full gallop. She sped five blocks up the Haymarket, through the lethal three-way traffic of Piccadilly Circus and up Shaftesbury Avenue -to burst breathless and disheveled into her agent’s office. "I’ve got it.” she gulped.
"Now calm down,” said Pearman. while he lifted his telephone to make sure she was right.
Jackie left school one term short of graduation to play for six months in The Desperate Hours. This play was less successful in London than it had been in New York and some of the critics didn't even notice Jackie. But those who did agreed that she was good. One said. “Jacqueline Ellis, a girl new to me, gives a talented performance. I intend to keep my eye on her and 1 expect to see more of her.”
"1 had never thought about the West End,” Jackie says. "Until then 1 would have been happy to play in repertory forever.”
In England repertory experience and training in the classics is considered essential to excellence. And of all repertory theatres the classical Old Vic is the leader. "Classical theatre is the only background,” the Vic’s administrator, Alfred Francis, says dogmatically.
As Jackie Ellis is discovering, the Old Vic is much more than a great tradition, great names and great triumphs. It is also a monument to a dumpy, tyrannical genius of a woman named Lilian Bayiis. who was probably the greatest figure in English entertainment. For thirty-nine years until her death in 1937 she managed the Old Vic with a pious and heavy hand, dictating to artists, producers, technicians, backers, governments and even, on occasion, to God.
Her achievement could hardly have been more splendid or more unlikely. She began by filling the leisure of the unemployed and the ill-educated on the south bank of the Thames. She ended by giving the people of London not only opera but the best ballet and Shakespeare in the world. Ill-educated herself, she knew nothing about Shakespeare, had never read one of his plays and never once watched an entire performance. She discovered his mighty verse strictly by accident. “1 was losing so much money that in desperation I turned to Shakespeare,” she said. She never looked back. On an outside wall of the theatre she emblazoned a legend in large yellow letters—“The Home of Shakespeare”—and in defiance of Stratford-on-Avon she made the legend a fact.
This was one reason Jackie Ellis hardly dared aspire to the Old Vic and why, when the door was opened to her, she could scarcely believe it.
The theatre’s background is even richer than its standing with present-day actors and actresses. Before Lilian Baylis brought culture to the Old Vic its reputation was as unsavory as its surroundings. It opened in 1818 as The Royal Coburg and when Edmund Kean played there he said he had never played “to such a set of ignorant, unmitigated brutes.” Later, as the century grew rich and proper, the theatre grew more disreputable, purveying to the most vulgar tastes as The Royal Victoria Music Hall. In 1879, a righteously horrified social worker named Emma Cons put a stop to this. She leased the theatre, registered it as a public charity, persuaded some philanthropists to back her, inserted the word “coffee” between Royal Victoria and Music and offered “purified entertainments with no intoxicating drinks” to the roughs, toughs and fallen women of Waterloo Road. In 1897 she invited her niece, Lilian Baylis, to help her and after Emma Cons died in 1912 the niece remained.
The Old Vic, which receives an annual subsidy from the Arts Council of twenty thousand pounds, is still the cheapest theatre in London. One third of its seats cost thirty-five cents each and the highest admission is one dollar and fifty cents. But admission used to be tuppence for the gallery and two shillings for the stalls (five cents to forty cents) and the entertainments were terrible. To lure audiences Lilian Baylis obtained a license to present opera. In 1914, to alternate with the opera, she hired Matheson Lang to produce a season of Shakespeare. The following season Lang was succeeded by Ben Greet, who remained until 1919.
“There’s a strange woman running a theatre in the Waterloo Road,” Greet wrote to an actress friend, inviting her to join the company. “You will find her exciting. I’m doing shows for her. She has ideals.”
Lilian Baylis once swarmed up a ladder during a production of Faust to tackle a drunken fireman. She forced him down the ladder, praying to God to give her strength to hold him if he lost his footing. “He was blaspheming against God, my dear, during that lovely quiet bit,” she said.
Once the late Beatrice Wilson answered a frantic summons to replace a suddenly stricken leading lady. “Thank you for coming,” said Lilian Baylis. “1 asked God to send you and He never lets the Old Vic down.” In matters relating to the Old Vic she tended to dictate to God and even on occasion to complain about Him. “You got me into this, now get me out.” was her most frequent prayer and once, in a financial crisis, she said petulantly, “1 ask God to send me money and all He sends is penny collections.”
One night she told author Hugh Walpole that she was tired and as soon as he left her she intended to pray “for a bit more physique.”
'Do you think you will get it?” asked Walpole.
"Oh yes. of course, if it’s right for me to have it. And it is because I have a terrible lot to do.”
"That’s rather dictating to God, isn’t it?” suggested Walpole. “He might see through you.”
"Oh, He understands me, dear,” she said. “And so long as He helps the Old Vic, dear, He can see through me as much as He likes.”
God was helping the Old Vic when He sent Robert Atkins, now seventy and producer of the Open Air Theatre in Rejent’s Park. Atkins came in 1920 and stayed for five years. Under him the theatre began to draw top-hatted crowds from the other bank of the Thames, in spite of the fact that Lilian Baylis was too stingy to hire a publicist or buy advertising space. She proclaimed the wonders of her theatre on both sides of a cheap green leaflet. This she handed by the bundle to tradesmen and asked them to scatter it on their routes. She often cooked her meals on a gas ring in the prompt corner and the smell of frying chops sometimes perfumed the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet. “Described in a work of fiction nobody would believe it,” says Atkins.
Vet by 1923 the Old Vic had become so dear to London that when a carpenten’ strike threatened to hold up the opening because part of the roof was off the unions called a meeting and decided to classify it wfith hospitals and finish the job.
In 1924 Lilian Baylis became the only woman, except the late Queen Mary, to whom Oxford University ever gave an honorary Master of Arts and at first nights she often swished proudly about in her cap and gown. Aware of the difficulties of housing Shakespeare and opera in the same theatre. Lilian Baylis began in the Twenties to work for the reopening of the old Sadler’s Wells theatre for opera. One day she introduced to one of her Shakespearean actors a shy young girl. “This is Ninette de Valois,” she said. “She's going to start a ballet company for us. When the Wells opens it wi.l be full time.” Shortly after that the Wells reopened and opera is still produced there. But the Sadler’s Wells Ballet, still managed by Ninette de Valois, has had to move out. Only the enormous opera house in Covcnt Garden is big enough to accommodate all its fans.
In 1929 “for conspicuous service of national importance” King George V made Lilian Baylis a Companion of Honor, superior to the accolade of knighthood. She was proud of the award but not impressed by royalty. Once, when Queen Mary came to the Old Vic, Miss Baylis greeted her in the lobby, then decorated with a small picture of the king beside a large picture of Emma Cons. “Your dear husband’s picture is not as big as Aunt Emma’s,” she said to the Queen. “But then he hasn't done as much for the Old Vic.”
The person who did most for the Old Vic, except possibly Robert Atkins and Lilian Baylis herself, was Tyrone Guthrie, who produced the first season of Shakespeare at Stratford, Ont., in 1953. Guthrie came to the Old Vic for a year in 1933-34. He returned for the 1936-37 season which is now memorable chiefly because Lilian Baylis died.
Guthrie succeeded her as administrator and under him the Old Vic surpassed its already great reputation. In 1940 the government closed it because of the danger of bombing. But in 1941 Olivier was asked to resign his commission in the fleet air arm and. with Guthrie and Sir Ralph Richardson, this season’s star, to form a new' company to play in the West End. The Old Vic was considered essential to the nation's morale.
In 1950, when bomb damage had been repaired, the Old Vic reopened under Hugh Hunt. Benthall became artistic director in 1953. Guthrie, no longer administrator, still produces. His Troilus and Cressida is part of the touring company’s repertory this year. It is being shown only in New York.
Not long ago Olivier addressed a group of drama students on the Old Vic’s stage. They were about to leave for Bristol to study classical drama in the Old Vic school. "The growth of your career should be like that of a tree, a simple, steady, all-round growth,” he advised.
Jackie Ellis is in no danger of growing too tall in her first part at the Old Vic. As one of the players in the masque in Timon of Athens, starring Ralph Richardson. she speaks twelve words in two sentences. "It's the smallest part Shakespeare ever wrote,” she says.
But the size of the part is no measure of her employers’ regard for Jackie. “None of us knows yet what she can do," says Alfred Francis, the Vic’s administrator. “She has already made a favorable impression and she’s obviously got talent. She'll get somewhere.”
Jackie herself is happy just acting.
"I've been lucky,” she says. ‘‘I've been out of work for only two weeks. My ambition is very simple: I want to act regularly and eat regularly. If l can achieve that ambition maybe someday 1 might be good. If 1 happen to be a big star too, well dandy.” if