It’s public knowledge, apparently, that Caius Marcius is a mama’s boy with an implacable hatred for the “common man” that counters the value of his public service and makes him potentially unfit for office. It takes only a few moments, in the very first scene of Coriolanus, for a random group of citizens to discuss exactly those points, and another three hours to fully play those flaws out to their tragic conclusion. We see Marcius in the heat of battle, fearless and wild with fury, earning fame and the appellation “Coriolanus”. Then we watch him eradicate all the resulting good will by facing the citizens of Rome with open contempt and allowing its tribunes to handily provoke him into losing his temper publicly. He is driven from Rome, attaches himself to his former enemy, Tullus Aufidius, the leader of the Volscians, and prepares to attack his homeland.
More than most of Shakespeare’s plays, a lot depends on a single performer, the actor playing the title role. It’s amazing how little interest the other characters elicit – Aufidius is pure nemesis, Volumnia the embodiment of matronly blunt force, Menenius a nebula of well-meaning ineffectuality, and the two tribunes seedy little vultures. Who cares. It is Coriolanus himself in all his conflicted glory who carries all the interest, even after the author has spelled out his internal conflict as a matter of public gossip.
And there is surprising variety in the ways that this relatively simple dynamic can be played out. In the 1962 Caedmon Recording [which seems intriguingly to have been recorded during the filming of Cleopatra – all cast members were in the film except for Jessica Tandy who was married to one of the film’s featured actors], Richard Burton’s hauteur has, at its center a white-hot self-loathing which gives his scenes a thrillingly dynamic character. More recently, Ralph Fiennes creates a fascinating tension between the fiery warrior’s actions and the weakness of his resolve. Best of all was Alan Howard for the BBC Shakespeare series, capturing brilliantly a state beyond hatred. Howard’s Coriolanus was simply incapable of perceiving the public he is pledging to serve as composed of human beings like himself. He addresses and responds to them as if they are insects, aliens…other. His contempt lacks anger – it is the cold disdain of a man who has disconnected himself from all outside his class.
The Argo Shakespeare’s Coriolanus is Anthony White (1930-1976), a theatrical figure of some legend in decades past. He cut a brilliant figure at Cambridge, where he was noted especially for his fine amateur performances in Cyrano de Bergerac and many other plays. He and his fellow players brought Romeo and Juliet to New York in 1952, where his brooding, Hamlet-like Romeo was praised. After graduating, he joined the Old Vic and began the process of working his way up the ranks. Thus, in the 1954-1955 season he played Longaville, a severely cut Aumerle, Lord Mortimer and Oliver in As You Like It. By the following season, his stock had risen and he was Diomedes in Tyrone Guthrie’s celebrated Troilus and Cressida, Montjoy in Henry V and Cassio in Othello. When John Neville, who was playing Chorus in Henry V bowed out early in the run White took his place. This was White’s first big chance, but his contribution was overshadowed by the larger spectacle of the rivalry between John Neville and Richard Burton, intended to echo that between Olivier and Gielgud a generation earlier. For Othello, Burton and Neville alternated Iago and the title role for successive performances, and newspaper coverage was devoted to comparing their relative merits in each role. Still, Diomedes had been warmly received and White’s Chorus showed great promise according to the Old Vic Yearbook for that period.
When White received his contract to perform in the US with the Old Vic touring company including Troilus and Cressida and Richard II, he tore it up and quit the professional stage. His reasons are unknown – perhaps progress was too slow, perhaps something about the theatre world was distasteful. Or perhaps an overriding counter impulse toward obscurity had driven him away from the need for applause.
In any case, the remainder of his life was a blur of odd jobs, brushes with greatness and simmering near-legend. Of the odd jobs, his first upon retirement was at a gas station, where he was spotted by no less than Laurence Olivier, who cheerfully “outed” him as a fellow thespian to the owner (according to poet and admirer Richard Murphy), causing the disgusted White to harden his resolve to remove himself from show business. Construction work, bartending, clerical work for an expatriate European statesman and…lobster fishing on the island of Inishbofin off the West Coast of Ireland.
It was here that White met Murphy who had settled on the island (apparently attractive to writers, includng Theodore Roethke, Sylvia Plath and Seamus Heaney) for inspiration. Murphy recalls White in a number of poems, as he built his spare cabin and devoted himself to a life unburdened by possessions.
White interrupted his retirement in Ireland with lengthy periods in England (I’m not sure of the timeline here). He had been close friends with the poet Thom Gunn while at Cambridge, and Gunn wrote the beautifully haunting “Talbot Road” in memory of his friend who was living in London for a time busily translating French literature, including Colette and Simenon. Another friend, Marcia Tanner, has written a fine reminiscence of this period, with photographs, for this website.
Also in London, White made a final appearance on stage as Edmund in Jonathan Miller’s 1969 production of King Lear starring Michael Hordern. The Observer noted “Tony White…dominates every scene he’s in by sheer presence and perfect grasp of the verse.”
White died in 1976 after a strange football-related accident, complications from a broken leg. He was buried on Inishbofin.
While this short summary doesn’t do justice to this unusual character, I have to return to my subject. When I first heard this recording of Coriolanus years ago, I missed Richard Burton’s engaging theatricality. Burton’s withering delivery of the recurring phrase “your voices” in Act II Scene 3 is unforgettable. And White doesn’t do this at all – it occurred to me that he somehow didn’t get it. Surely the text is begging for that emphasis. But this time I’m not so sure. White glides over the passage with dry distaste, refusing the impulse to harangue, and maybe this is perfectly legitimate restraint. As I am beginning to discover, I am an imperfect judge.
Coriolanus with Anthony White, Irene Worth, Tony Church, John Barton.