Design for Living
Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne
A Review by Alan Gomberg
By the time Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne got married in 1922, they were both established actors on the verge of major stardom. When they first starred together on Broadway, in Molnar's romantic comedy The Guardsman in 1924, they became a sensation. And they remained a sensation for the next 35 years. To this day, they are widely regarded as the greatest acting team in the history of the English-speaking theatre.
A new biography of the couple, Margot Peters's Design for Living: Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne (Knopf; $30), was recently published. As I've long been fascinated by what I've read (and the little I've seen on film and video) of the pair, I approached this book with high hopes, which were only partially satisfied.
Beginning with what is good, Peters has done a tremendous amount of research, and it shows. Though she draws heavily on the two previously published biographies of the Lunts, Maurice Zolotow's Stagestruck and Jared Brown's The Fabulous Lunts (both out-of-print), Peters has done a great deal of additional research and conducted new interviews with people who knew the Lunts.
Zolotow's Stagestruck is less a true biography than it is the Lunts' reminiscences, along with comments by their friends, arranged into something resembling a narrative. According to Peters, the couple wasn't happy with the result, and it is a rather dull read. Thus, it is Brown's book that provides the main point of comparison with Design for Living. In terms of thoroughness, Brown has a big advantage: The Fabulous Lunts is 523 pages, including the index, whereas Design for Living is 384. Further reducing the amount of actual text in the new book is the use of a larger typeface and the inclusion of photos in the body of the text.
Peters starts with a chapter summarizing Lynn's early years, followed by one on Alfred's. We read of how Lynn was mentored by Ellen Terry and Laurette Taylor, and the death of her fiancé in the First World War. Alfred's early years were shadowed by illness and death. When he was 2, his father died. At 12, he almost died, being saved by an operation performed on the kitchen table of the family home, in which his appendix and one of his kidneys were removed. His stepfather died a few years later. By the age of 24, though, he was on his way as an actor, touring in vaudeville with the aging Lillie Langtry.
Peters discusses their acclaimed technique of overlapping each other's lines to give the impression of spontaneous conversation. When scripts called for it, they could portray sexual attraction to each other with a physicality that sometimes shocked audiences. They not only worked relentlessly at rehearsals, but all the time and everywhere - at home, during meals, even in cabs. For several seasons, they had their own touring repertory company.
We see the pair start to gravitate toward star vehicles rather than plays of quality. Although they retain their popularity with audiences, critics increasingly feel that they're squandering their talents on unworthy plays. Then they decide to play Friedrich Dürenmatt's startling The Visit, a dark tragicomedy that by implication attacks the values of their audiences. After a rocky tryout period, The Visit is ecstatically received by critics and audiences in New York and London, but they never act onstage again.
Peters relies heavily on quotes and paraphrases, not all of which are sourced in the extensive endnotes. Sometimes the notes that are there give insufficient information. Also, some of the information in the notes probably should have been included in the text proper.
As you might expect, many people whose names are unlikely to be known to many readers make appearances (including in the notes). Too many of them are not identified, while some are not identified until several pages after their first appearance. I suspect that a decision was made to keep the page count relatively low. This would account for some of the book's peculiarities and omissions.
Peters sometimes resorts to a kind of shorthand in her writing. This is usually easy enough to understand if a bit strange to read, but there are times when she becomes virtually incomprehensible.
There are other stylistic problems, including many sentences that are unnecessarily convoluted in structure, and jarring shifts from a fairly straightforward tone to a chatty, conversational one. Peters often fails to present necessary expository information when telling a story. And for all her research, there are some factual errors, as well as times when her incomplete presentation of facts leads to misleading impressions.
While many things that are confusing here, glossed over quickly, or omitted altogether are well presented in The Fabulous Lunts, Brown pretty much shies away from discussing the Lunts' sexuality, which Peters addresses as best she can given that virtually no real information on the subject seems to exist. Despite the lower page count, Peters manages to go into greater detail than Brown on some subjects, including: Alfred's relationship with his family; some of their productions; and Ten Chimneys, their estate in Wisconsin, where Alfred enjoyed cooking and gardening, while Lynn got pleasure from shocking new members of the household staff by walking around naked.
Perhaps one day there will be a biography of the Lunts that will combine the strengths of both Brown's and Peters's books. While we wait for it, Design for Living will serve reasonably well.
Other Recent Publications:
JERRY HERMAN THE LYRICS: A CELEBRATION
A one-page greeting from Angela Lansbury lauches this anthology which celebrates the work of composer/lyricist Jerry Herman. Each of Herman's most popular shows receives a chapter treatment, with an additional chapter for Off Broadway and one for Miscellaneous. The feature of each chapter is a collection of lyrics for songs whose tunes and/or lyrics were provided by Herman - from his own shows and revues to contributions he made to other productions.
Co-author Ken Bloom (The Broadway Encyclopedia) provides an excellent introduction for each chapter which provides a nice setting from which to view the lyrics in context. The tibits and trivia in these introductions, plus the personal annecdotes and comments interspersed throughout the book by Herman himself, and the abundant supply of rare photographs make this an important book for all fans and students of American musical theatre history - even if you don't think you need a full collection of Herman lyrics. -- A.M.
Enter the Players is a theatre resource that has no parallel. With a very straightfoward layout and an informative preface, the book provides New York stage credits for nearly 1,000 actors (from Lina Abarbanell to Vera Zorina, in case you were wondering).
The stated purpose of the book is to provide a look at the careers of actors who were active in the 20th century. "Familiar names are included, of course, but also listed are lesser known actors who had long and distinguished careers, leading players popular in their day but now forgotten, and beloved character actors who were familiar faces to generations of theatregoers."
The information included cannot be found in any other single volume, so well organized for easily retrieval. Actors are listed alphabetically. Following each actor's name is his/her birthdate, a short bio, then a chronological list of New York theatre credits (when regional and replacement credits are included, they are noted as such). -- A.M.
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