I paused over the neatly whited-out phrase. What is that? “fart arsed” Really? The liquid paper had begun to wear away and I could just see the print underneath. The book was “Blessings in Disguise”, actor Alec Guinness’ breezily indirect memoirs and I was reading a copy at my local public library. An earlier library patron had painstakingly censored the copy, and I allowed myself to be distracted by way of taking a break from my labors. I understood “arsed”, sort of, despite the mitigating idiomatic filter, but I was not convinced about “fart”. Yes, vulgar, but again, this was merely a phonetically modified form of “fat”, mean but not profane.
I had no right to judge my fellow library user – my hobby, library research, was as obsessive in its way, though it took Google to expose the essentially idle nature of the game. Poring over old books to follow a subject trail had a kind of scholarly scent to it, but then its poor relation arrived – netsurfing – and I realized just what kind of aimless noodling this really was.
But before Google, I could while away an afternoon carelessly chasing paper. My home town had a highly-regarded regional theater, and the main branch of the public library devoted lots of shelf space to theater biography, history, criticism, with an emphasis on Shakespeare. The period between the two world wars was well-covered, and the name of Ernest Milton frequently bobbed up out of the soup of long-forgotten thespians only to submerge after an intriguing scrap of anecdote or plaudit. And in Guinness’ book, too, he looms as a mad genius of the stage, brilliant and ridiculously egocentric. Through two volumes of published journals, Milton would continue to bless or haunt Guinness, a specter of the Shakespearean triumph Sir Alec could never quite achieve.
And Ernest was beloved – or at least esteemed – by critics and actors alike. Donald Wolfit admired his Lear, director Margaret Webster believed he was “capable of great brilliance”, John Gielgud, Alec Guinness and Peter O’Toole cited him as a major influence. Critics JC Trewin and Harold Hobson in England, and Alexander Woollcott in the US all raved about his performances, particularly his Hamlet, which became legendary.
And he was mad as well – Albert Finney, who had been one of his students, saw him running after a bus yelling “Stop! You are killing a genius”, an anecdote that made its way into Ronald Harwood’s play The Dresser. The bus stopped, as it happens. And the anecdotes are endless – when he learned that one of the actors in his company had been arrested, he responded “inform his captors he is to be released immediately!” More intriguing is the story of how, during “The Two Noble Kinsmen”, Milton gauged the response of the audience and completely flipped his performance from dead seriousness to farce, saving the evening.
A kind of curiosity began to well up in me as reviews and reminiscences tumbled over each other. I developed a hunger to find out what the big deal was, a hunger intensified by the awareness of how completely and irremediably forgotten this one-time shining star now was. Imagine the greatest Hamlet of all time! A Shakespearean actor of unmatched brilliance! No performer of his generation with his level of reputation has disappeared so completely from memory.
I found out that Ernest Milton was born in San Francisco in 1890. At some point, he travelled to the east coast and began appearing on stage. His first known credit was as Pietro Golfanti in The Climax at Newport News, Virginia in 1912*. The Climax was a four character adaptation of a novel about a young singer and her dreams of stardom. Her suitors are a young doctor, and a brilliant young musician, Pietro, who is the son of her singing teacher. The 22 year old Milton had played his first of many sensitive, artistic young men.
After touring with The Climax, Milton moved to Broadway in the biblical spectacle “Joseph and His Brethren”, the kind of singing, dancing vision of Ancient Egypt only 1913 could produce. The play has plenty of historical footnotage – Eugene O’Neill’s father starred in the dual role of Jacob and the Pharaoh of Egypt, while son James Jr. doubled Napthali, son of Bilhah and Ansu the chief magician. Half the Tyrone family at two roles each. And as a bonus, Franklyn Pangborn decades before cornering the market in comic umbrage.
But I’m not here to see them, I’m here to see Ernest. He doesn’t show up until Act 1, Scene 3. There’s a gigantic feast at Jacob’s camp, and the master of the revels has organized an entertainment. A group of camel drivers that has been milling around, suddenly pulls together in an artistic grouping and out leaps Ernest Milton, cracking his whip and stomping his feat (an image borrowed from a fellow actor who recalled the show years later). He begins to sing:
“Wide and waste is the wilderness…!”
and concluding with
“Under the palm trees, by the well, my love gazeth to greet me; she hearkeneth for the bells of my camels – ”
before stomping and cracking his way off stage.
After this, repertory work in New England until his fateful casting in January 1914 as Boris, the sensitive, artistically minded young bookkeeper to tailors Potash and Perlmutter in the dramatized version of humorist Montague Glass’s stories. Milton moved with the production to England, and then returned to England in 1916 in the sequel, “Potash and Perlmutter in Society”, where he stayed after the end of the run. A mere two years later, he joined the Old Vic for a season of lead roles, including his first Hamlet, thus beginning a reign of a little over a decade as a leading classical player, darling of critics and audiences, until he wasn’t. But that’s another story, and I’ll return to it later.
*Who Was Who in the Theatre for many of the dates in my timeline.