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And That's Not All: The Memoirs of Joan Plowright
Joan Plowright
London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2001.
£20.00, 258 pages, ISBN 0297645943 (hardback).

London: Orion, 2002.
£8.99, 302 pages, ISBN 0752848402 (paperback).

David Sorfa
Liverpool John Moores University.

Although one is often admonished to never judge a book by its cover, perhaps this only applies to figurative cases and can, in fact, be applied to actual books and their covers. It is very tempting to do so in the case of Joan Plowright's expensively printed autobiography (hardback), which features a current black and white photograph of her face on the front cover, looking upwards and to the right with a faint, beatific smile, while the back cover is adorned with a painted portrait of Plowright as St. Joan in a 1963 National Theatre production of Shaw's play. That the story of her life is intended as a sort of sanctification (by her publisher's art department, at least) should come as no real surprise considering the hubris that must necessarily accompany the decision to lay one's life before public scrutiny. However, the analogy between Shaw's Joan of Arc and Joan Plowright is not particularly strong and perhaps this would have been a far more fascinating book if it had been. The Joan of this book seems to have neither sincere convictions, besides a strong commitment to equanimity, nor any hint of the exuberant or epiphanic. Her reserve and humility are maintained throughout and any hint of a life behind the smile is carefully omitted. It is in this that the title of her story, And That's Not All, seems to be the raison d'être of this text rather than an unfortunate limitation of representation.

Born in 1929 in Brigg in Lincolnshire, Plowright's first theatrical dabblings were in her mother's Amateur Player's group where she discovered that "[she] enjoyed acting and felt somehow freer and more confident when [she] was appearing as someone other than [herself]". The impression given, however, is not so much that the young Plowright was caught up in the private dramas of adolescent identity exploration ("On stage I could experiment with all those different 'Is' milling about inside me") but rather that there was no real crisis at all in her resolutely middle-class and provincial maturation and that the theatre afforded an opportunity to inhabit identities that were far more interesting than hers without having to undergo the discomfort of living those lives herself. Next came training at the Manchester-based Laban Art of Movement Studio where she was alarmed and intrigued by "all the free-love and wife-swapping". Characteristically nothing more is said of these peccadilloes nor of Plowright's involvement with them, which, one suspects, was minimal. It would have been fascinating to read a more personal recollection of these presumably heady times, but Plowright, ever the gentlewoman, discretely refuses to do anything but coyly hint at the outrageous behaviour of others and carefully elides herself from any recollections. She remembers, for instance, an acting exercise where students were asked to choose a zoo animal that they are to act out for their classmates. While she describes another hapless student's attempts to be a chicken, we never learn what particular animal Plowright chose to represent and certainly not whether this enactment was a success or otherwise. This rather distanced tone is exacerbated by constant and lengthy quotation from her own contemporary letters which, since they are often to her parents, are careful not to alarm and are only interesting in their consistent blandness.

As her acting life gathers momentum with an audition for Orson Welles that leads to her supporting role in his 1955 London production of Moby Dick, any coherent sense of chronology, or even geography, is lost as Plowright backtracks and flashes forward as if she were telling her story to a close family member who is already well aware of the details of her life. Thus we cut from an unsatisfactory non-description of a post-Moby Dick "cheese-and-wine party" to three years earlier when, in a suitably passive manner, Plowright "became a married woman" and went on a working honeymoon to South Africa with her husband, Roger Gage. Shortly afterwards we find Joan in Nottingham and then catch up with her again in London just prior to meeting Orson Welles. It is Plowright's refusal to describe the mundane details of her life, where she lived, what she ate, and how she paid for it all, that makes her tale unengaging. The tour of a Robert Morley comedy in France is quickly dispensed with in one sentence and there is no sense of what life might have been like for a travelling theatre group in the 1950s, or for that matter, of being a young actress in London at this time. It is in 1957 that the real concern of this book makes his appearance: Laurence Olivier, whom Plowright went on to marry after a protracted affair and his eventual divorce from the Hollywood actress, Vivien Leigh (whose supposed mental ill-health is alluded to throughout the book in a strangely elliptical manner). It is clear that Plowright finds Olivier far more interesting than herself and that the writing of this book seems to be a posthumous love letter to her second husband (Roger having been dispatched at some prior point). It is typical of Plowright's style that she does not personally recollect their first meeting but rather quotes from Olivier's own autobiography that in going to see The Country Wife he "was entranced by the Margery Pinchwife of Miss Joan Plowright, whose very name was enough to make me think thoughts of love". The young Plowright is understandably flattered by the attentions of this bastion of theatre and film (earlier she is shocked by one her teacher's criticism of Olivier's film Hamlet; shocked, it would seem by the very temerity to criticise at all) and although she, of course, initially resists his advances, she eventually and euphemistically admits, "We had fallen very much in love".

As the rest of the autobiography is far more concerned with Olivier's career than her own it is ironic that she writes, "My childhood dreams had never been about living my life though a man" and it is a pity that Plowright does not address this more clearly and openly in the book in terms of her relationship with Larry. However it must be noted that Plowright does often ponder the position of women in society and in the theatre. She worries that having children might also contribute to the destruction of creativity and is very impressed when she visits Margaret Drabble and Shena Mackay at their homes and supposes that "they somehow found time to write at night" and she is "full of admiration for their acceptance of the limits imposed on the nurturing of their talents" (143). Here we see very clearly Plowright's celebration of and respect for self-sacrifice in the face of family life. Perhaps this can also be glimpsed in her championing of Edith Cavell, the WWI nurse executed by the Nazis in Belgium for allegedly helping enemy soldiers to escape, as a "truly English heroine" (185) . Plowright portrayed Cavell in a play in 1982 and was later invited as guest of honour to the eighty-fifth anniversary of Cavell's death by the Imperial War Museum. Plowright quotes Cavell's credo approvingly: "Patriotism is not enough. I must have no hatred or bitterness towards anyone" (186). This, one can surmise, is the motto by which Plowright very obviously wishes to live, but it is one that makes for a less than scintillating autobiography. It is also instructive to consider Shaw's own pronouncement on Cavell in the introduction to St. Joan where his gloss on Cavell's doctrines stresses the first part rather than the second and explicitly links her to Joan of Arc. He writes:

The modern military Inquisition […] shot [Cavell] out of hand; and her countrymen, seeing in this a good opportunity for lecturing the enemy on his intolerance, put up a statue to her, but took particular care not to inscribe on the pedestal 'Patriotism is not enough', for which omission, and the lie it implies, they will need Edith's intercession when they are themselves brought to judgment, if any heavenly power thinks such moral cowards capable of pleading to an intelligible indictment.

It is no surprise that Plowright does not refer to this particular piece of political engineering or to Shaw's damning exposure of it, which probably smacks too strongly of bitterness and hate.

In terms of the history of the theatre in Britain, And That's Not All does provide a large amount of detail on the wranglings concerning the formation of the National Theatre in the 1960s and 1970s and this may be of interest to cultural historians. Much of this history, however, is again closely tied to Plowright's exaltation of Olivier and his involvement with the NT. More disappointing to this reviewer's professional interests is the lack of detail about Plowright's involvement with the cinema, which comprises mainly of one short chapter towards the end of the book called "Moving into Cinema" (9 pages long). While it is true that looking at a complete list of her films it is clear that Plowright was never one to associate herself with the most innovative of US cinema (Dennis the Menace (1993), 101 Dalmatians (1996), Back to the Secret Garden (2000)), she has acted in some interesting European productions, albeit of a uniformly civilised aspect (Enchanted April (1992), Jane Eyre (1996), Tea with Mussolini (1999)). As usual, very little sense of what it is like to work on any of these productions is sadly missing, and the discussions of her two most interesting films, Equus (1977) and Peter Greenaway's Drowning by Numbers (1988) are particularly banal. During Equus she learns "not to waste tears on the first master-shot" while her role in Drowning by Numbers is reduced to the observation that Greenaway allowed her to maintain decorum by opting out of a nude scene. This single paragraph on a film that takes as its fundamental theme the relationship of men to women and of both to power and death is a particularly lost opportunity for Plowright to explore these areas that seem so central to her life but which are constantly elided in her reporting of it. Plowright's relationship with the world of cinema is best summed up in her description of post-filming relaxation during the production of Tea with Mussolini: "we looked forward to a glass or two of Prosecco up on the roof, in the evening, and perhaps a game or two of Scrabble after dinner" (236).

Of the many famous personages who Plowright mentions throughout the book, not always on the right side of name-dropping, the two who stand out as beacons of impropriety are the critic and producer, Kenneth Tynan, and the filmmaker, Ingmar Bergman. Tynan is a name that constantly crops up during the book and his opinionated and florid style seems to both titillate Plowright's enjoyment of others' unseemliness and almost shock in its inappropriateness. Similarly, in her chapter on Bergman, probably the most exciting in the book (though only 5 pages long), she seems both puzzled and attracted by a director who is clearly a genius but who does not have any truck with the formalities of social convention. Bergman came to London in 1970 to direct a version of Hedda Gabler at the National Theatre and stayed with the Oliviers after an unsatisfactory encounter with English hotels. Plowright says of Bergman: "Nobody I have ever met has asked me such deeply personal questions after only ten minutes' acquaintance" (145) and later, when alone with Olivier and Plowright, Bergman "began asking us probing questions about our personal relationship, in work and in life; whether we were jealous of each other; whether we took holidays together or separately…Reticently English, we murmured and stammered and evaded, unused to such uninhibited soul-baring; we were also very tired" (146). If only Joan Plowright had decided to embark on such soul-baring in her present volume, it would have been a far more fascinating exercise.

One might expect an autobiography that deals with theatrical and film world personalities to be filled with titbits of gossip and at least some salacious details but Plowright refuses to have even the slightest negative opinion about anybody. She constantly avoids confrontations and is mainly concerned with portraying Laurence Olivier in the best possible light (her vehement denial of any hint of his putative homosexuality is perhaps the closest she comes to being outspoken) and as this is mainly achieved through extensive quotation of their love letters (or rather of his letters to her, as Larry had thrown all of hers to him away), perhaps Plowright's effort would have been more usefully directed into producing an unabridged collection of these letters which would be of more value to theatre aficionados. Although I am unconvinced that the world ever needs to know that one of Olivier's pet names for Plowright was "wumpy scrumpy".


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