Letter from America: The Apocalypse and the Actor
By David Fedo
The word "apocalyptic" is on the lips of many Americans these days. As everyone knows, there have been numerous murders and brutal assassinations throughout the country – from California to Minnesota and from Louisiana to Florida. Race seems to be a factor in at least some of these horrific incidents. African-Americans have been killed by guns wielded by allegedly reckless police officers; and police officers have been gunned down in apparent retribution.
Making matters more terrifying are the savage and now almost common acts of terrorism that have taken many lives, stimulating fear among citizens of the United States and elsewhere in Europe. The self-proclaimed caliphate ISIS has taken credit for inspiring some of these atrocities. These bloody acts, to some Americans, make the old US-Russian Cold War with its threat of nuclear destruction seem almost like child's play.
What can be done?
Donald Trump, the Republican Party's brash "law and order" candidate for the US presidency, is decidedly not the answer, despite his daily self-glorification. In an op-ed piece published in the Minneapolis Star Tribune (July 23, 2016), entitled "Beware the Dark Thoughts of an Authoritarian Strongman", Jennifer Rubin puts forth the anti-Trump rationale best:
The one specific Trump has offered is to build a wall between the US and Mexico to keep illegals out – and then somehow coercing Mexico to pay for it. What nonsense!
On the other side, the Democratic Party has chosen Hillary Clinton to face Trump in the November election. Clinton, the wife of former President Bill Clinton, is a solid choice, with vast experience as the former Secretary of State under President Obama. Still, challenged by Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders in the primaries, Hillary does have some vulnerabilities – or, as they are called by the pollsters, "unfavorables". These include the storming of the American Embassy in Libya during her tenure as Secretary of State, and the unwise use of her own email server during the same period.
As of this writing, the election is too close to call. The candidates will be working furiously over the coming months to win the trust of the voters. Meantime, this morning's news brings the report of another terrorist act, this one in northern France. This time, an elderly priest is the murder victim. Yes, these days do feel apocalyptic.
A modest confession: I buy books in part because I simply love to possess them. Some may not get read for weeks, months or even years. But they bring me comfort on the shelves, nonetheless, read or not.
A recent case in point is a Penguin volume published in 1996 and written by that brilliant and multitalented 20th-century British actor, Alec Guinness. It's a diary kept by Guinness from January 1995 through June 1996. (Guinness was 82 when he wrote it; he died in the year 2000.) I purchased the book, according to my annotation, in 1998, but for whatever reason I did not read it until this current month. (I am writing this in July.) It accompanied me on a flight from Boston to Duluth, Minnesota, where I had travelled to attend a high school reunion. The reunion, my 55th, was very fun; so was the Guinness diary.
Of course, many readers of a certain age will remember the Alec Guinness who performed so compellingly in the theatre on both sides of the Atlantic and beyond for decades, and whose work in films and television elevated those screenings to a superior level of excellence. Guinness, alongside other great actors of his generation including John Gielgud, Laurence Olivier, Ralph Richardson, Anthony Quayle and Peggy Ashcroft, were rare artists who mostly withstood becoming public celebrities. Their art was all.
Starting his lengthy stage career when he was only 20 years old, Guinness played major roles in Shakespeare and other great classical characters for decades, winning accolades for his versatility. He was also one of the original actors in the company of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, which was launched in Ontario, Canada, in 1953 by Tyrone Guthrie. For his characterisation of the Welsh poet, Dylan Thomas, in the New York production of the play Dylan, he deservedly won America's Tony Award. On top of other honours, Queen Elizabeth knighted him in 1959.
Although Guinness' early work in movies – The Bridge on the River Kwai, among others – won him widespread recognition, he is best known to recent audiences for his surprising performance as Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars; he later called the experience of making the film "a vivid experience". In television appearances, he will long be remembered for playing the role of Cold War inspector George Smiley based on adaptations from the novels of John le Carré.
So to the diary, which Guinness (whose modesty seems part of his very soul) called My Name Escapes Me: The Diary of a Retiring Actor. He himself calls the book quirky and haphazard, and regrets that it is "unavoidably self-revealing; which is something I hadn't bargained for." He continues:
These emerging enthusiasms show a vast curiosity about the world in general and in specific: about the life of the theatre, which continues to engage him as a spectator, and of an array of paintings in museums (the National Gallery, the National Portrait Gallery, the Tate and the British Museum). Velazquez is a favourite. No detail escapes his pen. He loves going up for lunches with old friends in London, and lets us know what he eats and drinks; he worries about old friends who may be ill; he takes loving care of his household's dogs and cat, and especially of his wife Merula (a former actress who has been injured in a fall); he reads widely and is, like TV's Inspector Morse, always listening to recordings of classical music; he watches the weather (especially the clouds); and he fusses over a new hearing aid.
Guinness lets us know that he is both "fearfully old" and "fogeyish"; a part-time "curmudgeon" may also be an apt description. Le Carré follows up on this point in his preface to the diary:
So even as an old man full in his living, taking his pleasures and absorbing the pain, Guinness is mindful of the dark cloud of death. The entry of Friday, January 13, 1995, begins with the following wry observations:
I have always admired Guinness as an actor; but My Name Escapes Me: The Diary of a Retiring Actor, in its intimacy, humour and humanity, gives great pleasure. It's a worthy book.QLRS Vol. 15 No. 3 Jul 2016