Gentle Julie and her hard-bitten Romeo
Julie Harris is 34, shy in private and magnificent onstage. Bruno Gerussi is 32, tough in private and just as tough ontstagd But this odd pair will play the star-cross’d lovers in an audacious attempt to lure more customers to Stratford this summer
LACH SEASON the Stratford Shakespearean Festival Foundation tries to manage an extra piquancy or two for the paying customers — a sort of theatrical conversation piece. Sometimes it’s an eccentric reading of one of the plays, like The Shrew in modern dress; sometimes it’s an unexpected bit of casting, like Torne Greene, as a Madison Avenue Brutus. Most often it's an international headliner — an Alec Guinness or an Irene Worth.
This year, apparently, the best teasers have been reserved for a single production, Romeo and Juliet, which opens on June 29. This is the one they’re counting on to intrigue the jaded and lure the knowledgeable.
It’s the main vehicle for their international headliner, and the headliner herself has absolutely first-class credentials. She is Julie Harris and she graduated as a star in 1952 when, with ritual Broadway solemnity, her name was mounted in lights above the title of her current play, I Am a Camera. At about the same time, Kenneth Tynan, Britain’s Angry Young Drama Critic wrote, “Already she has the orphaned look of greatness." Detroit-born Miss Harris is also the current trustee of Sarah Bernhardt’s hanky, passed on by Helen Hayes who got it from Julia Marlowe, signifying that* she is considered in the legitimate succession to Miss Bernhardt’s talent. Probably only Guinness among the earlier Stratford imports has equaled her prestige. Miss Harris is to play Juliet.
Canadian-born Bruno Gerussi is to play Romeo. It is. in the view of some, casting so offbeat as to be outrageous, since the traditional Romeo is a beautiful moon-struck youth and Gerussi is a sort of Dead End Kid in tights. Gerussi himself, when he first got the invitation, gaped, “Me? As Romeo?” When Jean Gascon, co-founder of Montreal’s Théâtre du Nouveau Monde and a director of last year’s festival, first heard the news he uttered a simple, incredulous “No!” At least one entertainment critic, Gordon Sinclair, echoed in print, “Gerussi as Romeo? How could they?”
As for the play itself, it has seduced audiences all over the world. For years the famous balcony scene was a class act on burlesque bills. The play has been produced in most languages including Japanese and Yiddish. The Russians, after making Marxian “corrections” have staged it in Moscow. A rich nineteenth-century dilettante from Antigua named Robert Coates wanted to play the lead so badly that he bought a Romeo costume, trimmed it with real diamonds, went to London and financed himself in a season of Romeo. He always spread a white silk kerchief on the stage before he died and would graciously consent to several encores of the death scene if the audience egged him on. They did. They called him “Romeo” Coates and laughed themselves sick. Other Romeos have ranged from Edwin Booth to Basil Rathbone, and the Juliets from Duse and Ellen Terry to Norma Shearer.
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Yet. though Romeo and Juliet has been acted more often than anything else by Shakespeare except Hamlet, it's a thespian booby trap. It's said of both Romeo and Juliet that no one can play either properly until he's too old to look the part. When the great nineteenth-century English actor. Henry Irving, attempted Romeo at the height of his career, his unsympathetic wife noted in her diary. “First night of Romeo and Juliet at Lyceum — jolly failure — Irving awfully funny.” Barry Morse, of Toronto, professional actor and amateur of theatrical history, reports. “All the best actors have failed worst in Romeo.” He adds, “The smart ones soon switch to Mercutio.” Mercutio. a lovely piece of downright cursing flesh, has several sure - fire speeches in the play, dies in a third-act duel and usually gets good notices; he will be played at Stratford by Canadianborn Christopher Plummer.
The Juliets have fared little better than the Romeos. When George Bernard Shaw saw his friend. Mrs. Pat Campbell, in the part he commented dryly, of her acting. that he liked her dancing.
Yi hy tragedy easily fails
The trick is to make the lovers seem tragic. If teenagers play the leads the audience is inclined to classify their romance either as calf-love or as juvenile delinquency. If the actors are ripe enough to suggest a serious passion they immediately seem a pair of gumps for crumpling so limply under a bit of bullying. a banishment of less than thirty miles, the threat of a bigamous marriage and a foul-up in the mails.
Miss Harris and Mr. Gerussi will be supplying the Stratford season's piquancy by tackling this problem.
Both hope to look young enough for the parts. Signora Juliet Capulet, the sheltered only child of an aging Veronese nobleman and his young wife, is not quite fourteen. Miss Harris is thirty-four. She is also a wife (to Manning Gurian, a theatrical producer) and the mother of a four-year-old boy, Peter. But she looks like a little matchgirl, wdth a wishbone body, a white, anxious face and a curtain of pale orange hair. She has freckles which in Llollywood. when she goes out to make a film, are referred to as "discrepancies” and covered with make-up. And she can look half her age so convincingly that when she was twenty-four, she made her first big hit on Broadway as a twelve-year-old tomboy in Member of the Wedding. At twenty-nine — she played nineteen-year-old Joan of Lorraine in The Lark.
Gerussi. who has been married for nine years and has two children, is thirtytwo. As Signor Romeo Montague, son of a rival house, he is not assigned an age in the script but is probably in his late adolescence. Except for the lead in Peer Gynt with the Canadian Players, three years ago, Gerussi has played mostly
character parts that called for an older make-up, but offstage he somehow looks both cocky and vulnerable, a young rogue-male with a restless prowl, quick shoe-button eyes, a mat of black curls and a brooding mouth. He has a scar on his jaw; it should be the memento of a duel, but actually it's from an abscessed tooth.
In any case, he is obviously of a more suitable age and mien than at least one nineteenth-century English Romeo who was aging, fat and bald. He was able to disguise one of these defects with a wig.
but in the middle of Act III a sporting gentleman in one of the boxes reached down with a riding crop and hooked it right off the actor's head. It was handed all round the dress circle amid roars of laughter and, when the crowd wouldn't give it back, the management had to ring down the curtain, re-costume Mercutio, who had died in an earlier scene, and send him on as Romeo to finish the play.
Miss Harris and Gerussi also seem more suitable sweethearts than the various father-daughter and mother-son teams who have essayed the tragedy. And they
are certainly more efficiently typecast than the assorted boy actors who originally played Juliet and the women who have tried their hand at Romeo.
If they look passably young and fair, both Gerussi and Miss Harris also hope they're good enough actors by now to get away with such difficulties as simulating a deathless passion at first sight — carried out with a deal of poetic talk but only three prescribed kisses.
Miss Harris, two months before rehearsals began, was saying frankly, "I'm scared." A Method actress, who looks like one of Shakespeare’s frailer heroines, she had ventured Shakespeare only once, twelve years ago, as a witch in Macbeth, and she calls herself “untrained.”
“I wanted a volatile Romeo who would be changed by Juliet’s simple beauty,” their director says
In fact, when the festival’s artistic director, Michael Langham, first invited her to Stratford two years ago she told him in her hoarse double-toned alto, “No. I really can’t do it. It’s too late for me to start.” She was finally lured by her love for the theatre, by the idea of working with a more or less permanent repertory company, and by Langham's assurances. He said last month, “I think she is potentially the ideal Juliet.”
On the other hand Gerussi, who looks like a Method actor, got his most significant theatrical schooling with the Stratford company and with its offshoot, the Canadian Players. In 1952, when Julie Harris was being ratified as a star on Broadway, he was still in Vancouver playing leads in local productions, but he was recruited for the second Stratford season, in 1954. Since then he has played second gentlemen and character parts every season except the last one, when he decided to appear at the Vancouver Festival as Sir Edward Mortimer in Maria Stuart, to give himself a change of pace.
Romeo is Gerussi’s first starring role at the festival. Langham said recently, "Romeo is very frequently cast as an esthetic dreamer ... I feel it would be dull and unbalanced casting to confront a Harris Juliet with such an actor. Consequently I have chosen a young actor who is both lusty and volatile; one who would be brought up short in his tracks by the simple beauty and fragile glitter of this Juliet, so he may be changed by her . . .”
There are other differences besides training between the two leads. Offstage, Miss Harris is so reserved and unobtrusive that a writer in Vogue magazine once commented, “She can leave a room without being missed for an hour.” She has the politeness of a well-bred child, and she once remarked that seeing her name in lights “rather embarrass-
ed” her. She is so reticent that her friends only learned of the breakup of her first marriage—to lawyer-producer Jay Julien —and her remarriage to Manning Gurian through newspaper reports. She doesn’t own a mink coat, scarcely drinks or smokes and habitually travels by bus or subway at home in New York.
Onstage, a white radiance swells and steadies in this wan filament, and she may leave her audience shaken and in tears. She may also turn a cartwheel, throw a knife or pick her toenails—onstage.
Gerussi, offstage, is colorful, voluble and profane. His street dress is apt to be a hoodlum black shirt with a bandanna knotted round his neck, and when he itches he scratches. He has worked in brickyards, at sawmills and on the docks and his speech thuds with the sodden dentals and palatals of immigrant work gangs. He calls himself “a tough little Wop.”
He is, on the other hand, a painter of talent, a poet and a lay philosopher who once set himself to understand what had driven his father to take his own life. Gerussi succeeded to the extent that he can now say, "Pop was a wonderful man. I owe him a lot.”
This is the actor who must meet his Juliet in the hot darkness of a Veronese Sunday night in mid-July, marry her on Monday and die on Thursday. “They start running too fast,” says Gerussi. "Peasants know how to wait and survive. But Romeo and Juliet aren’t peasants; they’re aristocrats.”
Gerussi, whose parents were peasants from northern Italy, was born in Medicine Hat and grew up, with his two younger brothers, in New Westminster. B.C. It was depression time and his father worked as a bricklayer and stonemason. But the senior Gerussi was really an artist—a musician, a writer, a drawer of sketches—and a free spirit. He rode to work in Vancouver on a racing bicycle with his tools on one shoulder and a guitar on the other. Or, if he went by streetcar, he sat in the vestibule practising on his violin. “He was built like a bull,” recalls Gerussi, “And I’ve seen him tear the hinge off a door when he was angry. But he never in his life laid a hand on anyone.’’
Young Gerussi’s mother was a silent, strong woman. "If I was out too late fooling around,” Gerussi grins, "she'd walk miles to find me. First I'd know she’d say ‘Come on home, you,’ with her fist in my face." The family lived in poverty, in an industrial slum that produced many delinquents. But little Bruno stayed out of trouble, and sang in the church choir.
He remembers himself as a solemn, sensitive child; when he had his first crush on a girl he couldn't bring himself even to speak to her. But he learned to be more aggressive with the outbreak of World War II. Because he was Italian, kids in the neighborhood used to chalk swastikas on the>r hands and slap him to transfer the sign to his jacket; it was his only jacket, homemade by his mother, so he fought them.
By the time Gerussi reached high school his father had suffered a nervous breakdown. Deeply influenced by this, Gerussi decided to become a psychiatrist. Then, at seventeen, he won the lead in a high-school play.
Almost at once he began collecting acting awards and scholarships. One of them was for the Seattle Repertory Play House and for three years he played and studied there. When his father had the final breakdown that ended in suicide, Gerussi returned to New Westminster, intending to give up the theatre, and took a job in a sawmill. But friends lured him into local Vancouver repertory and soon he was supporting himself, his pretty young wife, Ida, and his first child on the proceeds of stage, radio and TV. Then, in 1954. he got his first invitation to Stratford and came east, a lusty, confident young man with, it may be, enough insight to play the part of a man who prefers to take his own life rather than bow to compromise.
Julia Ann Harris comes to Stratford by a far different route. She was born in Grosse Pointe, an exclusive Detroit suburb, and her parents were rich—her father was an investment banker. At the Grosse Pointe Country Day School she was co-captain of the girls' field-hockey team. She liked to climb trees; she loved to go to movies. In one month, in 1942, she saw fifty-two films, and when Gone With the Wind came to town she sat through it thirteen times. Her favorite stars were Vivien Leigh and Bette Davis. She says, recalling her girlhood, “I was unpretty, and I had bands on my teeth.” Later, at finishing school in New England, she accidentally glimpsed part of her roommate's letter home describing her as "a bore.”
But she had already discovered that by stepping onstage she could become someone else entirely. At eleven she had told the family cook, “I'm going to be an actress—or bust.” At sixteen she talked her parents into letting her spend her summers at an acting camp in Colorado. At eighteen she persuaded them to transfer her from the boarding school in Providence to a school in Manhattan that had drama courses on the curriculum. She enrolled next in the Yale School of Drama and finally joined the Actors Studio.
Not long ago Elia Kazan, one of the founders of the studio, recalled, "She started out sitting in the back and slowly worked her way to the front. I took this as some kind of subtle flattery—it was almost like coaxing out an animal.”
Miss Harris was already being offered small parts on Broadway and in just two years ran her reviews up from “pleasant”
through “particularly good” to “extraordinary.” Then she was cast as Frankie in Member of the Wedding and Richard Watts, a New York drama critic, wrote, "She is destined to be one of the important emotional actresses of her time." Only a year later, when she starred in I Am a Camera, Watts and his colleagues decided that this destiny had caught up with her.
Now she says, "The flame inside your head diminishes and flares up again. It never does quite what you want it to. I remember how it hurt, as a child, when
people told you you couldn't have the highs all the time.”
She says. "You know, people say ‘The honeymoon's over.’ I remember my father saying “It doesn't last.' and I cried, But it does. It does.' If only it could."
And she says, "That's what Romeo and Juliet’s about, isn’t it? The grownups—cynical, realistic, wanting to take the easy way out. And then the young people, with their purity and vigor, still believing the world isn't like that.”
When Miss Harris and Gerussi were cast as Romeo and Juliet last winter
neither had ever seen the other onstage. They met for the first time early this year, when Michael Langham introduced them in Miss Harris' New York home.
“That’s what Romeo must be,” cried Miss Harris. "Full of swagger and youth and then to be turned gentle by love.” And Gerussi? “I knew at first glance this was okay. She has such a stillness about her, and such a strength.”
They had. for this very tightrope of a play, passed their first tests on the spot. The final test comes on June 29. on the stage at Stratford. ★