The Stage asked me, along with quite a few others, to nominate my Ten Greatest Actors. Actually I thought they meant the ten greatest Shakespeare actors, but as someone (can you remind me who?) once said something to the effect that ‘he is greatest who is great in the highest reaches of his art’, it comes very much to the same thing. There is of course a basic difference between actors one has seen and those one hasn’t, and for some actors of the past there’s little to go on. I became well aware of this some years ago, when I compiled my anthology Shakespeare in the Theatre. Richard Burbage, who created many of Shakespeare’s greatest roles, must surely have been wonderful, but there’s very little evidence to back this up, and we – or at least I – don’t know all that much about the leading actor of the Restoration period, Thomas Betterton, though the mere fact that he went on playing Hamlet till he was about seventy is remarkable in itself. How many modern actors would have the courage to do that? The first actor about whom we have much real evidence is David Garrick, who from the time he made his debut as Richard III, in 1741, till his retirement thirty years later was unquestionably the greatest star of the British stage. We have many wonderful accounts of his acting, not least those written by the German traveller Georg von Lichtenberg, whose account of Garrick’s Hamlet is one of the finest descriptions of acting ever written.
With the rise during the Romantic period of newspaper criticism from great essayists such as William Hazlitt and Leigh Hunt, it becomes easier to gain an impression of what it was like to experience actors such as John Philip Kemble, Sarah Siddons, and Edmund Kean, and I had no hesitation in including the last two in my list – I’m not so sure about Kemble, who seems to have been a bit stiff. After that I don’t think there are any really strong contenders till towards the end of the century, though I should like to have seen, especially, Macready and the Italian Tommaso Salvini. I have no doubt about Henry Irving (in spite of Shaw’s strictures) or the obviously enchanting Ellen Terry: luckily her writings, especially her autobiography The Story of My Life and her letters, give vivid impressions of her personality and her talent. Sarah Bernhardt would I’m sure have been well worth seeing, in spite of what Max Beerbohm wrote about her as Hamlet (‘Her friends ought to have restrained her. The native critics ought not to have encouraged her. The custom-house officials at Charing Cross ought to have confiscated her sable doublet and hose …’) .
As the twentieth century wears on, we come to actors I – born quite a while ago – have actually seen. I didn’t see Edith Evans in many Shakespeare roles, but she was consummate in what I did see. John Gielgud must be on the list, in spite of his Othello – his Benedick and Leontes were great but sadly I missed his Hamlet, Lear, and Richard II. I was lucky enough to see Olivier many times, starting with his brilliant Richard III, and for me he is the greatest. Scofield, Richardson, Ashcroft were great and even the sometimes hammy Wolfit had his moments. And there are those who happily are still with us, such as Judi Dench (regular readers of my blogs will be well aware of my admiration for her), Ian McKellen, Derek Jacobi, Antony Sher, Simon Russell Beale, Kenneth Branagh … well, fill the rest in yourself.
My final list? Garrick, Siddons, Kean, Irving, Terry, Edith Evans, Gielgud, Olivier, Dench, and little known Victorian burlesque actor called Frederick Robson (just showing off).
You’ll need to buy The Stage to see who wins!