Letter to the Web Site from Patrick Macnee

(Aug 4, 2001 – 4:50:09 pm)

My schedule did not allow me to go to Europe this summer. However I was reading up on the London theatres in the London Theatre Guide, and saw what a rich variety of plays there are in London’s West End, at the National Theatre and the so-called “Fringe” – not to speak of suburban Guildford, Woking, Dorking and Brighton. This is theatre that is, in my opinion, the best in the world.

When you imagine this one man Peter Hall, who, starting with Sir Laurence Olivier, conceived the feeling that there should be in England a National Theatre. There were national theatres in France, Italy, Germany and Spain, in Hungary and in Poland. In most countries there were and still are state theatres. In other words, putting on the best in drama, both modern and Shakespeare or Goethe, or whoever in each country might be the best playwright of the past – Ibsen, Strindberg, all these countries have one classical playwright. And in the United States, of course, Eugene O’Neill.

In England, the center really of theatre, there was no national theatre, so it revived my interest in the fact that there can either be theatre or no theatre, and there was no national theatre until the late ‘70’s. The reason I mention this is that when I started, in 1939 at drama school, there was no television. There were movies. And I did extra work in movies when I was in drama school at the Weber Douglas Academy of Dramatic Art. I only stayed there about nine months, because it’s amazing how little one learns at schools. Because you can’t teach acting. You can improve acting, you can make acting work. But if you’re not an actor, it’s rather like if you haven’t got a natural facility for repairing pipes… whatever you do, you can’t be a plumber. And a lot of people don’t realize this.

But to be an actor is the desire to get up on a stage or a platform in front of a curtain or in front of some people sitting ‘round a fire and give them a piece of creative drama or comedy, whatever. There’s always been the desire to get up… from way back to Aeschylus or Euripides all the way to Danny Kaye, there’s always been a desire to get up and make people laugh, cry, be moved or generally be held by… the magnetism. It’s the only word you can use… because it’s like the magnet of the people who stand up and entertain.

To be a actor… now an actor is either a celebrity or a nonentity, or he’s not anything, he’s part of the 80 percent of the Screen Actors’ Guild or British Actors’ Equity who are out of work… at all times. But it’s quite different from actually being an actor… on the stage.

People ask me quite often what’s the favorite bit of work I’ve ever done in my nearly sixty years of being an actor. And they expect me to say, obviously, ‘The Avengers.’ But no. It is not. I played in ‘Sleuth’ on the stage at the Music Box Theatre in New York from 1972 into 1973. Seventeen months in the brilliant play by Anthony Shaffer. And I’m extremely proud of this. I was in fact offered it… Sir Anthony Quayle played it in London in 1970 and asked me to follow him in it. I was in Australia and for one of my unbelievable reasons, turned it down. I didn’t even read the script. Because I was doing well with a light comedy, ‘Secretary Bird’ in Australia and Australia went to my head because I filled the theatres, but I would have been far better on the stage in ‘Sleuth’ in London.

Or perhaps I wouldn’t have been better because I practiced all around New Zealand and Australia and I finally became a strong enough actor to approach in ’72, an offer of the Broadway play. I was only the third replacement. Before me had been Sir Anthony Quayle and Paul Rodgers, a distinguished actor.

And I went into it and the first critic of the New York stage at that time said Macnee’s all right and he’s filling the theatres, but his is a lightweight performance compared to his predecessors. Well, that was a red rag at a bull, to me. And I then went at it with a single-mindedness… which I am inclined to do, and indeed did with ‘The Avengers,’ which is why I did eleven years of it, and everyone else did part of it. But I did all of it. And when I go into things I’m inclined to do all of it.

So ‘Sleuth’ to me, on the stage… because there are only two people in that play, so you have got to hold… you can’t just come on the stage and play that play. You’ve go to realize that the audience is there, hanging on every word. And that’s the joy of theatre. Again the use of the word magnetism. You’ve got to feel the audience… you can’t turn out to them and say, “Hey, listen to me!” But you’ve got to instinctively, and from inside yourself, project what you’re thinking, what you’re doing, what you’re going to do, how you want to make them laugh… how you want to chill them, what pauses you want to make… that’s all being an actor. Immediately you’re on that stage you have twelve hundred people, or however many it is… they’re hanging on your every word and nothing, nothing can equal that feeling. Of being in the theatre, where, indeed, one started.

A stage is a place, as Olivier once said: “You’ve got to have maximum energy and stamina, you’ve got to be at the peak of your physical condition,” as indeed he was.

Albert Finney played Christopher Marlow’s ‘Tamberlaine’ on the sidewalk outside the National Theatre because the stagehands wouldn’t let him play inside the theatre. That’s the complexity of life. Because Lady Thatcher didn’t particularly think that the Arts Council should give any more money to the National Theatre. Why do they need more money? Because it’s the National Theatre. And if something is National… and thank goodness in the years since what with the wonderful new plays and the wonderful new authors, Brenton and Pinter and Davis… every kind of actor and director you could think of … Richard Eyre… and so some of the best people, coming through the Royal Shakespeare through and on to Trevor Nunn … and so the productions coming from that incredible theatre on the south bank really transcend almost every other type of theatre… in the world now. It’s the best.

Michael Billington’s book on the early years of the National – the struggle years – has been a great source of information and inspiration.

My ex-leading lady Diana Rigg has in fact just opened in ‘The Humble Boy’ at the National Theatre.  This sensational new play has got wonderful reviews. “There’s no play quite like this one … Rigg moves through the play panther-like, cold but rapacious. This is a cutting edge performance of cool, controlled savagery” John Peter, The Sunday Times, August 12th, 2001 “A hive of activity The Observer, the Daily Mail”.

Talk about Magnetism!

The Humble Boy
Simon Russell Beale and Diana Rigg

Incidentally, A&E Network are releasing a complete Diana Rigg Boxed Set (32 episodes) on August 28th on Video and DVD.

Also, there is a special showing of “The Howling” at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood, California on August 25th.

With best wishes,
Patrick Macnee