Wednesday, 9 March 2011

Quaint Irene

The post title is one for all you Mapp and Lucia lovers, but the book in question is nothing to do with Benson - rather it is To Tell My Story (1948), the autobiography of Dame Irene Vanbrugh. (I'm assuming that her name should be pronounced Eye-reen-ee? Much prettier than Eye-reen, to my mind.) You might not think you've heard of her - except from the mentions made of her on my blog, when I've noted what I'm currently reading - but she has a certain amount of significance. Once one of the nation's favourite stage actresses, and one of the first to enter the profession from an upper(ish)-middle-class background, she was Gwendoline in the first The Importance of Being Earnest; co-founded R.A.D.A.; married Dion Boucicault Jr. (son of the playwright); and appeared in the first British colour film. That's quite a curriculum vitae, isn't it? And yet what made me seek out Irene's autobiography was seeing her name in the dramatis personae (gosh, two Latin expressions in one paragraph) in many of AA Milne's collections of plays. Indeed, this is what she has to say about Milne:
He was a fair-haired, gentle, rather shy personality with a certain detachment of outlook. In his plays and verses he creates a world of his own, peopled with real flesh and blood seen behind a gauze of true fantasy, without being whimsical. The nurseries are warm and cosy, the living rooms comfortable and welcoming, the gardens gay with flowers. You can't think of them otherwise yet you know if the gauze was rudely pulled asunder and the people were caught up in cold realities they would be true to nature and rise to what might be asked of them.

At first I found him difficult to talk to as he resented my wholehearted devotion to the technique of the older playwrights, which he was inclined to belittle. But it was a joy to me to learn to appreciate his method, and during the years he worked with us we became firm friends.

My curiosity, although piqued by Vanbrugh's friendship with Milne, certainly went beyond that. As I've mentioned recently, I find theatrical history fascinating, especially from the perspective of someone with long and distinguished a stage career as Dame Irene. It was interesting to compare Vanbrugh's autobiography with that other Dame and doyenne of the stage - Judi Dench. A lot has changed (Vanbrugh addresses, for instance, whether or not it is proper for a girl to become an actress, and there seems to be a far more rigidly observed hierarchy from leading lady down) but a lot is the same. There is a continuing love of fellow actors, and of acting, that shines from the page.

Unlike Dench's book And Furthermore, this isn't simply a string of interesting anecdotes. Although Vanbrugh rarely delves into her private life too deeply, she does talk about becoming a widow. Much of To Tell My Story moves away from tales of specific performances to more general, and very fascinating, ruminations upon all manner of aspects of acting - from etiquette to creating a part to being in a revival, etc. etc.

It must be confessed that Vanbrugh was probably a more natural actress than she was a writer. Most of the time her prose is serviceable, with occasional shimmer or glisten. It certainly isn't clunky, and when she turns to describing characters or plays she is very insightful and doesn't waste a word. But I'm not sure she could turn her hand to fiction (although at least she wouldn't colour her prose purple). It came as something of a surprise, then, when her writing developed in leaps and bounds for chapter 2. It told of her first meeting with J.M. Barrie. Suddenly there was wit in her phrasing, piquancy in her portraits, and more than a pinch or two of irony....

...all of which was explained when I got to the end of that chapter, and she confessed that it was, in fact, Barrie himself who had penned it. It is a neat trick, and you realise why the portrait of him had been somewhat more amusing and less charitable than most of her other character descriptions. It does, however, throw doubt upon the following paragraph, at the beginning of that chapter:
Up to now I had never "created" a part. I had been various young ladies but the characters had all passed through other hands before I had the fingering of them. What was expected of me was to reproduce the style of my predecessors, to be so like them in my voice, manner, elegancies, deficiencies, dimples and the way I clicked my teeth, that if their parents were in front they could still think they were gazing on their child. It is a commonplace that nothing of the actor survives his passing from the scene but I wish to stab this statement with a hairpin. If he created a part we go on reproducing him in it so carefully that it is still him you see in it rather than us. We are dressed up in him as in old garments. I wanted not to copy a picture but to paint one, to put something of myself into a part to present my own deficiencies if I had nothing else. I longed to click my own teeth in my own way.

Did Barrie write this, or Vanbrugh? Is it something Vanbrugh believed? I knew it was a convention of 16th and 17th century drama, but had assumed it had died out by the 20th... any theatre historians able to tell me?

I must confess one of the reasons I loved reading To Tell My Story - and I definitely loved reading it - is that it is unusual. You know me - I do enjoy reading things a bit out of the ordinary, which you wouldn't find on the 3 for 2 table at Waterstones. Most of you are the same, I think. It's a lovely feeling, to rescue a book like this from forgotten corners of dusty bookshops and neglected shelves - and to find much to love.

I want to leave you with two excerpts from To Tell My Story, showing that Vanbrugh's writing - although not always perfect - definitely has its moments. The first, from a toast she gave at an event to celebrate Shakespeare's birth, is funny; the second is moving and sad. I do recommend that you hunt this book out, if you have any interest in the theatre of days gone by. It's a wonderful resource, as well as a captivating life.
During the twenty-six years of happy married life with Dion Boucicault I always stated my occupation as 'married', but now I shall boldly describe my occupation as 'actress' and if it is questioned I shall say that it was openly acknowledged in public on Shakespeare's birthday at Stratford-on-Avon, if necessary mentioning it was some years after his death to prevent any further confusion occurring as to my possible age.

* * *
During the fourteen months of the run in town (an immense run in those days) [of His House in Order by Pinero] a poignant incident stands out to me. Bella Pateman, who played the part of Lady Ridgeley, came to my dressing-room one evening and said, "I went to see my doctor today; he tells me I must have an operation for cancer. Isn't it bad luck?" The remembrance of the way she she those last four words have always remained with me. It showed how in real life the deepest tragedies are often taken so simply and with such few words so unlike the way one might imagine anybody would receive their death sentence, which indeed it was.


  1. *You* might think that Irene pronounced I-reen-ee is prettier but my Mum would beg to disagree :)

  2. Alison - have you asked her?! ;) I think everyone now presumes that's how Irene is pronounced, so people probably don't have much of a choice. I'm just an old romantic at heart, and like those romantic Greek-sounding names...


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