Leslie Howard Gives Views On Actors and Other Things (1932)

Leslie Howard Gives Views On Actors and Other Things

Leslie Howard, who is appearing in “The Animal Kingdom” at the Empire Theater, counts among the perils of existence those ladies’ club luncheons to which actors are invited and asked to speak. There is always a chairwoman, who graciously informs the actor that the ladies of the club are all going, en masse, to the matinee that afternoon, to see him act.
Since Leslie Howard has very definite ideas on the position of the actor, his function and his art, these luncheons are something of a trial. For it is one of his convictions that the actor, so far as it is possible, should not exist off-stage.
“He should be able,” he says, “to wear such a complete make-up on the stage that he will never be recognized off it. I once told an assemblage of clubwomen who were going to see me act immediately after having talked with me at a luncheon, that they were making a great mistake. Actors ought not to be human beings; they should be part of the roles they play, and the audience should not be aware of them as personalities apart from those roles. It destroys that important element in the theater–illusion.”
Extensive publicity of the personal sort, said Mr. Howard, defeats its own end. The actor becomes too familiar to the public. That, he says, is the explanation for some of the remarkably short careers of movie stars. As soon as they become stars, they are subjected to so violent a glare of publicity, so many examinations into their personal lives, into what they eat, how they sleep, where they go in the Summer, what color ties they wear, what they think about babies, the international debt, cauliflower, and marriage, that they are soon destroyed by that dreadening thing–familiarity. Greta Garbo, he says, whatever her reasons for seclusion, is doing the soundest, wisest thing, from the standpoint of her art.
“Actors are human beings,” he says, “but their audiences should not be permitted to know it.”
Leslie Howard himself seldom can be induced to appear before an audience as Leslie Howard, to make an address or even to stand and be looked at, as so frequently happens at teas or luncheons. But he does appear in print from time to time. His short satirical essays on the theater and kindred subjects are well known to readers of the New Yorker, Vanity Fair and other publications. His outstanding characteristic as a writer is a kind of sound dry wit; his criticism of the foibles of the theater are keen and fearless.
He is also author of a play called “Murray Hill,” which was produced here some seasons ago, and has been played all over the country, from Canada to Baja, California, by repertory theaters and stock companies. In Boston it ran for ten weeks, and in Vancouver for eight. It was presented in London under the title, “Elizabeth Sleeps Out.”
In an interview two years ago, he asserted that 12 good plays were enough at one time to keep intelligent audiences in New York occupied and that more exceeded the saturation point. The films, he said, could take care of the rest of the theatergoers of the city.
“What I should say today is very much the same,” he said the other day. “I believe that 12 first-rate serious plays at one time would be a very high average even for the greatest theater city in the world. The movies have only ruined that portion of the theater that didn’t matter and nobody is going to cry over that.”
The legitimate theater, he continues, is becoming more and more specialized, requiring a higher and higher form of technique as it becomes more restricted in its field and appeal. Once it was merely a mechanical business of furnishing adequate entertainment to a large number of people every evening, but now that the great mass of its patrons who forced it to cleave to a lowest common denominator of artistry have been lured elsewhere, a really first-class institution can be evolved. As an institution the stage is constantly increasing both in quality and in significance, Mr. Howard says.

(Brooklyn Daily Eagle, June 5, 1932)