In the Fall of 1929, Ernest Milton was the toast of Broadway, appearing in a successful thriller and receiving thunderous acclaim from critics and audiences. His wife, novelist Naomi Royde-Smith, even managed to create a book out of their New York journey. And yet, by 1933, according to Royde-Smith’s biographer Jill Benton, “his career was evaporating.” An explanation seems in order somehow. And an intriguing aspect of Milton’s life story is the sheer steepness of his descent, a sudden turnabout that left him toiling in bewildered desperation for much of his remaining life (he died in 1974, at the age of 84). The disappearance of critical acclaim looks almost, if you believe in such things, like the departure of a fickle or angry muse, deserting the artist without leaving a trace of explanation.
Milton cut short his American tour to return to England for surgery. After recuperating, he returned to business as usual, appearing in his standard, sinister/mystical roles – Pierrot in “Prunella” by Harley Granville-Barker, Laurence Houseman and Joseph Moorat to the accustomed raves; “Death Takes a Holiday” – in the title role, naturally.
And maybe this is it, if it can happen in a moment. Milton produced a season at the St. James Theatre , risking (and losing a fortune) and playing Shylock and Othello. The plays were poorly attended, perhaps due to a certain degree of market saturation. There was a lot of Shakespeare around back then. But something else happened, something new. James Agate’s review of Othello was harsh and damning and it was reported that “titters” erupted throughout the audience during his performance. Apparently, the beginning of the end.
Milton followed up this partial critical and total financial disaster with another gamble – returning to America, this time in a supporting role in “The Dark Tower.’ This must have seemed a sure fire hit, another thriller, this time co-written by Alexander Woollcott and George S. Kaufman, with a tailor-made part for Milton as the heroine’s evil, ill-fated husband who holds her in a Svengali-like hypnotic spell. American critics, who had been so lavish in their praise a mere four years earlier, now heaped contempt on Milton. Percy Hammond writing for the New York Herald Tribune neatly described the general feeling that the actor was a ham who quickly outstayed his welcome on stage and then wouldn’t go away. Vanity Fair went further, describing him as “the greatest over-actor in today’s English-speaking theater.”
When he was cast as Don Armado in Tyrone Guthrie’s legendary production of Love’s Labours Lost in 1936, it seemed as if he had made a final move into the inevitable territory of self-parody, strutting about the stage and spinning hyper-verbal webs of archaic language. In the ensuing decades, Milton would step in and out of critical approval and would inspire another generation of young actors as a teacher at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts. But success eluded him, to be replaced by stretches of desperate unemployment, poverty and the recurring theme among colleagues and audiences that he was a voice from the distant past. In Jill Benton’s grim phrasing, he died in 1974, “lonely and destitute.”
And where does that leave me? Reviewing the recorded legacy, searching for sparks of genius, for something left behind that I can retrieve and hold up to the light.