PETER CRAVEN ON A GIANT OF ACTING
PAUL Scofield, who died last month aged 86, was the greatest English actor of his generation and one of the greatest actors of all time.
He had a long, sculpted face, a face that Richard Burton said it took years for anyone to learn how to photograph. And he had a voice that provoked Kenneth Tynan to quote T. S. Eliot and say it came from empty cisterns and deserted wells.
The eyes, so black and wondering, roam like the memory of what civilisation had lost in Scofield’s performance as the art- loving Nazi officer in one of his few Hollywood films, John Frankenheimer’s The Train . The voice, that was able to range from clawing rage to the depths of sadness and sweetness, can be heard on his recordings.
Unlike Peter O’Toole or Laurence Olivier and like John Gielgud, Scofield gave himself almost entirely to the classical stage.
Peter Brook knew he had found an actor with a genius parallel to his own. In the early 1950s they did a Hamlet in which some people ( the Australian poet Peter Porter among them) thought he failed to project any coherent characterisation. But his Caedmon recording of Hamlet , done in the early ’ 60s, tallies instead with the anonymous Time reviewer who said it lingered less long on the ear than Burton’s but longer on the heart.
At the end of the ’ 70s, Scofield played Othello with a deep and staggered nobility. The literary critic John Bayley thought he was too likable ( judge for yourself from the old BBC recording with Nicol Williamson as Iago). He played Macbeth in the late ’ 60s, with the then Mrs Pinter, Vivien Merchant, as his Lady Macbeth. He did Don Quixote in a production that used the early 1600s English translation by Shelton; Scofield made it, through his witchcraft, sound like Shakespeare.
His Don Armado in Love’s Labour’s Lost — there is a ’ 70s BBC recording — has the depth of poignancy, the height of ridiculousness that he could get from his grand piano of a voice when he used it in comedy to sketch that preposterous Spanish gentleman who can only express himself in overblown language.
Scofield did everything. In 1996 Ibsen’s John Gabriel Borkman was one of his great late performances. Twenty years earlier he was full of silk and menace and ethereal in Ben Jonson’s Volpone .
Recently, I heard Scofield in Ibsen’s When We Dead Awaken , and his voice had all that ethereal, visceral quality for which he is famous.
When I was at school, in the late ’ 60s, I once chanced on a BBC radio production of Chekhov’s Three Sisters . I will never forget the scene between Scofield as the army officer Vershinin and Vanessa Redgrave as Masha, the girl who would like to run away with him. Never in the history of the world did the cracked pennies of everyday prose sound like such gold or yield such caverns of sorrow and yearning.
Scofield’s most famous Shakespearean role was his Lear for Brook in 1962, and for many it is the greatest ever. He was a Lear who brought it on himself with a power that took away the breath.
Brook filmed this King Lear and had it shot with great austerity and beauty by Ingmar Bergman’s cinematographer, Sven Nykvist. And Scofield’s mid-’ 60s uncut spoken word Lear from Caedmon is the greatest illumination of the text we have. Listen to his encounter with blind Gloucester (‘‘ I remember thine eyes well enough. Dost thou squinny at me? No, do thy worst, blind Cupid’’), or the unearthly sadness of his ‘‘ wheel of fire’’ speech.
Scofield got all the Beckettian savagery and madness in Lear , but he also got the absolute pang of a father’s love for a daughter that issues into that ‘‘ Howl’’.
It’s there, like a revelation, in his recording of Pericles , with Judi Dench as his daughter, Marina. ‘‘ My wife was like this maid.’’
Twenty- five or more years ago Michael Heyward — now the publisher of Text — and I used to listen over and over to these recordings of Scofield the way some people listen to Alfred Brendel doing Mozart or Fischer- Dieskau singing Schubert: as if the world had no greater revelation of what had been composed.
Scofield rarely made films; he not only left a record of his Lear, but won the Oscar for his performance as Thomas More in A Man for All Seasons . It was one of his two most famous performances in modern roles ( the other was when he created the role of Salieri in Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus ).
As Robert Bolt’s More in Fred Zinneman’s 1966 film of A Man for All Seasons , Scofield has an extraordinary combination of mildness and humour, a kind of quizzical restraint, in combination with a heroic quality which is not at all beglamoured.
Tynan said of the young Scofield that he could have trouble with verse, but he could turn prose into the most startling poetry. In the ’ 50s Scofield played ( for Brook) the whisky priest in Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory and, in a way that awed Greene and everyone who saw it, turned this ruined being into a thing of wonder.
He may have been a character actor, except that he made his characters, his flat- vowelled hobgoblins, look like heroes on wheels of fire, or his madman into lords of chivalry who could joust with the most spectral windmills in the world.
Scofield refused a knighthood. He said he thought Burton would get the Oscar for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and did not attend the Academy Awards ceremony when he won it.
He acts Daniel Day- Lewis off the screen in the film of The Crucible ( perhaps wrongly). But there are no prizes for working out why Mel Gibson said that acting with Scofield was like going into the ring with Mike Tyson.
Olivier feared him and would not give him parts at the National Theatre, while Ian McKellen told me that when he did Amadeus he had to make a conscious effort not to channel Scofield’s performance.
We should keep this man’s memory alive if we want our children to remember what classical acting can achieve.