An Actor Should Have Roots (1932)
An Actor Should Have Roots, a Native Land, Says Mr. Howard
“I don’t know whether an actor is an artist in any serious sense,” says Leslie Howard, who appears in “The Animal Kingdom” at the Empire Theater, “but granted that he is not, that he is no more than a human being (surely he is that, although some people have been known to deny it), then he should have roots. He should, if he is ever to live a satisfactory life, have a home, and a native land.”
The old idea of the traveling mummer, with all he owns in the world packed in a trunk, is no longer the current idea of an actor.
One writer in the theater, speaking of Leslie Howard, brought up the question of just where, geographically, in the history of the theater, which he so graciously adorns, Mr. Howard might belong. For, born in England, bred there, with a home in fair Surrey to which he hopes some day to retire, Leslie Howard is, nevertheless, seldom thought of here as an Englishman, and in England audiences very frequently speak of him as “that American actor.”
This is easily understood in the light of the facts of his career. He made his first American appearance in 1920, in “Just Suppose,” after only two and a half years on the stage in his native country. there followed an immediate and growing popularity with American audiences. He played in “The Wren,” “Danger,” “Outward Bound,” “The Truth About Blayds,” and “The Romantic Age,” became a matinee idol, much to his discomforture, in “Aren’t We All,” deftly lifted naughtiness to piquancy (a proceeding which he has matched in our theater) in “The Warewolf,” conquered the Arlenites in “The Green Hat,” left an audience hoarse with cheering his performance in “Her Cardboard Lover,” and scored personal triumphs in “Escape” and “Berkeley Square.”
His career, then, in America, has been long and auspicious. His reputation as an actor, one may venture to say, grew out of his work in America. But there are certain qualities in Leslie Howard, aside from the obvious and superficial one of his slightly British speech, which mark him as an Englishman. Not the least of them is the fact that, as one critic said, “He can play light comedy as if light comedy had been invented for no other purpose than to give him an opportunity to act.” The English, more than any other race, are said to be masters of that wit, sophistication, and good sound sense which make up the finest high comedy. There has been in London a succession of writers and players of polite comedy which no equal in any other country. Sir Charles Hawtrey, Sir Gerald Du Maurier, Lawrence Grossmith, Oscar Wilde, Frederick Lonsdale, A.A. Milne, Noel Coward, Ronald Jeans– There is no assemblage in America, certainly, to match it.
Talking of this eminence of England in light comedy, Leslie Howard said not long ago: “England will probably never have a Eugene O’Neill: we are not open to any great solemnity over the elemental things in life. The British audiences prefer cynicism. It is a king of sadness with them. I suppose, a feeling that they have seen the basic tragedy of life and prefer not to have it brought home to them too often. It is almost a kind of fatigue in them, I think.”
This mastery of polite sophistication is due, in part, he feels, to the type of person who has turned to acting in England. there it is the resort of persons of good education and breeding; the stage there carries none of the disgrace that for so many years has clung to it in other countries, and in America particularly. “Wit,” says Mr. Howard, “is unquestionably the result of that thing we call a ‘background’. Coalheavers have humor, without a doubt, but not wit. Their plays may be farce or slapstick or tragedy, but never parlor comedy. Wit is, whether we like the idea or not, in these proletarian days, definitely a social development, the product of education.”
Leslie Howard, master of the delicate, intelligent, lightly accented style of playing which is a necessary and inevitable concomitant of British comedy, is in that respect a British actor. He has the gentle cynicism, the sure grace and ease, of the finest English actors, but in addition, there is about his playing a firm bedrock of complete understanding, of certain almost forgotten beauties of form, inflection and counterpoint, which mark the artist of no particular nation or time, and which have helped to endear him to American audiences.
(Brooklyn Daily Eagle, April 10, 1932)