How do you interview a legend? This was the question I pondered on the way to the Lansburgh Theatre to interview Ted van Griethuysen, one of the finest actors of his generation.
Shakespearean par excellence, he was given a special tribute at the 2017 ceremony. He won his seventh Helen Hayes Award in 2018 for his extraordinary portrait of André in the Florian Zeller play The Father, at Studio Theatre. Van Griethuysen is theatre royalty, but utterly without the arrogance that often accompanies such gifts. In fact, he is just as delightful in person as he is to watch on stage. He’s now appearing as Egeon in The Comedy of Errors at the Shakespeare Theatre Company, an acclaimed production directed by Alan Paul.
“I’ve just finished a book,” he announces as we sit down in the lobby. “It’s called What is Shakespeare? I’m just collecting compliments, I haven’t even looked for a publisher.”
One of D.C.’s most beloved performers, van Griethuysen brings a rare sense of continuity and history to his work.
Sophia Howes: I’d love to hear all about your new book.
Ted van Griethuysen: The book is called What is Shakespeare? It begins with a very simple idea but it took me years to find it and it contains sixty years of information.
The simplest thing in the world is the answer to the question, what is Shakespeare?. It’s not the plots in the plays. He got them from somebody else except Love’s Labour’s Lost. It’s not the characters. Shakespeare is what he says and how he says it. It’s auditory. A good director has sufficient knowledge, information, taste, and discretion to decide: what, apart from good actors, do I need to tell this story?
Sometimes the simplest thing is the best.
Here is a sample from the book: “On the one hand, Shakespeare is poetic drama, which has its own form and rules; on the other, never has it been more important or necessary for actors to be convincingly, unquestionably, realistic in performance. How do you reconcile them? The answer, which came to me one evening as I was preparing for Manchester, was this: the only possible resolution is that the two, seemingly very different, are, in reality, the same thing.” That is what this book is about.
Tell us about your early career.
I grew up in Ponca City, Oklahoma, where the idea of a career in theatre was ludicrous. I’d seen Olivier’s Henry V and liked it, being especially impressed by the opening, which transitions from the Elizabethan stage to the fields of France. I had just seen the Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry (a classic of French Gothic manuscript illumination, which inspired some of the backdrops) so the visual reference was right there for me. My best friend and I went to Tulsa, where his paternal grandmother lived, for two or three weeks. She was a remarkable woman who drank, smoked and let us do anything we wanted provided we came home at night. That’s when I bought my first Shakespeare, the Rockwell Kent edition.
Later, I started the Gloriana stage company. I invented all the people who were in it. I gave myself all the good parts. I favored kings and cardinals.
[When I lived] In Houston, there were actual acting classes. I got my mother to write a check for $25 and I got in… I needn’t have worried, the acting teacher, Eugene Van Grona, had only 2 students. He had been a dancer. He and his wife and his mother-in-law started a company, the Four Arts theater company. There were actual Equity actors there, and I thought they were the most glamorous people I had ever met. Meanwhile, I had also seen the Olivier Hamlet which I didn’t care for very much. Later in one of his biographies, he was quoted as saying “I’m not Hamlet” and I thought, “You’ve proved that!”
What happened next?
I got a Fulbright and went to LAMDA (famed London drama school: Benedict Cumberbatch is the new President) in London for a year. We couldn’t get into our flat for a week so one of my roommates and I went to Stratford to see that season’s plays. I am also a costume designer, a union costume designer, actually. Though of course, I’m really an actor! But then, I went into the costume shop. American students could get away with murder there. We were very much admired and loved. Cyril Keegan Smith, head of wardrobe for the RSC, had us out to his little house.
“Would you like to meet Peter Brook?” he said to me. I said, “That would be nice.” Brook liked to engage American students because you don’t have to pay them. I worked with Peter all that time and went to classes… then Brook asked me to come to Stratford. Of course I said yes! I was his liaison.
And I got to watch Sir John [Gielgud].
You are one of a select few.
I already had a great deal of respect for him. It grew exponentially as I watched him. Already I preferred him to Olivier. In Titus Andronicus, Olivier was impressive, dazzling, but I was never moved by him. Later he played Archie Rice in The Entertainer by John Osborne. I thought, well, I guess I should go, it’s right down the street. It’s a remarkable performance. It’s not a very good play, but it demands the immediacy of an audience. That was the only time he ever moved me. I saw it later, in the biographies…sometimes things he said and sometimes things friends said about him. That’s who he thought he was. Cold, selfish, not a very good actor, not very good with women.
I got to know Sir John [Gielgud] somewhat. He would be very surprised to hear me say it, but he was enormously proud to be an actor.
Actors doing Shakespeare usually think they have to become somebody else. Here I am going around with a basket of emotions nobody cares about. How can I do Hamlet, or Beatrice and Benedick? That’s why some actors—especially men– talk with a big voice. I think that dogged Olivier. He was a nose, a wig, a face.
When Sir John was tired he sang. He did that better than anybody else.
I saw Sir John play Prospero at the National Theatre. It was the third time he had played it. He got to the farewell speech (he was 51 at the time) and he just stepped forward and gave it. It wasn’t grand. He just stepped forward and said it. I thought, “That’s it. That’s Shakespeare.” I didn’t want to copy him. I was even arrogant enough to question some of his choices. But as Benedict Nightingale wrote in The New York Times,
“First, that precise, delicate voice was always more a strength than a limitation. ..in an era where classical actors have become vocally more slovenly, often wallowing in barely comprehensible emotion, he never forgot, in particular, that Shakespeare was the most adroit and exacting of poets.”
You meet all kinds of vicissitudes in a career, and I had my share. I had a dream I was knighted by Sir John. I knelt. Sir John had the sword and touched my shoulders and knighted me. That was to give me confidence. The actor I respected most had given me his confidence.
A very moving thing happened that summer of 1956. Sir John was usually very discreet. But this was three years after he was arrested for cruising in a public lavatory. (Sex between men was illegal in Britain until the 1960s.) There was a pub called The Black Swan. The actors all went there, and they called it The Dirty Duck. After the scandal, they took his picture down. Then Edith Evans called and said, take my picture down. All the other actors followed suit. The owner had to sell out. A few years later Gielgud got a call. “Your picture is back again.” (The pub is now actually called The Dirty Duck.)
Gielgud could say rude things without meaning to, but he was very gentle.
You mentioned that your first great teacher was B. Iden Payne, head of the drama department at the University of Texas. He was an internationally respected director and an advocate of modified Elizabethan staging. What was it like working with him?
He directed me in my first Hamlet. By the time I graduated from college I had done 12 full productions of Shakespeare. I played Romeo to Payne’s Friar Lawrence. Someone asked him, “How was Ted as Romeo?” and he said, “Well, he was playing Hamlet but he was very good in his scenes with me.”
The greatest Romeos and Juliets, of course, were all in their 30s or their 40s. A 14-year-old girl at that time was an adult, about to be married. Young men who were 13 and 14 who led armies and were kings. The love story is for adults. Two incipient adults. To make them into teens in love is all wrong. The story he is telling about what love is amazing that it could ever have been written. There is a process of discovering themselves and life and the meaning of love itself.
I know Aesthetic Realism was an important influence for you and the second of your great teachers. From what I can tell, one aspect of the philosophy suggests that once you see opposites as one, you experience a kind of inner freedom.
I studied Aesthetic Realism with Eli Siegel, the founder of the philosophy, in New York. He taught me about the meaning of opposites in the arts, and in reality itself…He taught me about the nature of the self. There were things I got to, and parts I had never been right for that I understood because of him. He showed me things I didn’t know about Shakespeare. You could say that Aesthetic Realism was my second great teacher.
Does it apply in The Comedy of Errors?
Well, it’s a study for Twelfth Night. For Alan Paul, The Comedy of Errors is only the second Shakespeare he has directed. I felt he was reaching for something in this play…funny and also serious. The end is quite moving. The truth is, we are double. We are this and we are that. We usually don’t understand what to do with it. We’re a heap of contradictions that make no sense at all.
When you see opposites as one, even if it’s not a very important incident, it will give you hope about life itself. Anguish and joy, hiddenness and openness; all these different aspects of the self will make sense.
Example: The melancholy courtier Jaques in As You Like It. He’s a little like Hamlet. He’s a really nice guy, fed up with humanity as we all get sometimes…so he goes back to the self.
But the next time you see him he’s bursting with joy. And he says, “I met a fool in the forest.” When I was working on this book, I realized that at this time, city and country were classical opposites. A court jester would belong in the town, as Jaques does.
But Jaques has been enjoying himself, telling jokes at ease in the forest. These two quite contradictory things make sense. His “all the world’s a stage” speech is sometimes played as a dreary, cynical story. But it isn’t! Here is what happens to Jaques…he’s set into motion by this other thing. How do you make sense of this life… in the end you can’t see… taste… hear… but he sees from a distance that life has a form to it. Each instant is very neatly done. It is quite well chosen. It is amusing but has compassion to it, that was put into motion by his seeing contradictory things as the same thing. It’s not a sad speech!
One day, I was at the National Gallery. A family came through in shorts, flip-flops, cameras around their necks. The mother and two kiddies left, but the dad stayed there, staring at a painting. And I thought, something has happened to that man. He saw something of the unity of openness and closure. It meant something to him personally, but it had wider meanings than that. He needed to see that.
Most people don’t actually like Shakespeare. They like what they can do with it. That’s a different thing altogether. That’s why Michael Kahn has had such a great career. You have to do a great deal of it before you know how to do it. I don’t think we have come close to how to do these plays. It depends very much on what you hear.
There’s a study that says Shakespeare makes you smarter. Instead of predictable sentences, Shakespeare shifts the grammatical function of words, nouns into verbs, an adjective into a verb, for example. We are also hard-wired to respond to poetry, a need deep in the human spirit. It goes back 4,000 years, to oral traditions.
There is no end to how far you can go with Shakespeare. In any great poetry. Duke Ellington said, “There are simply two kinds of music, good music and the other kind.” There’s also good poetry and bad poetry. If you hear the poetry that is real, you are fortunate.
I studied poetry with Eli Siegel for 17 years. One class every week was devoted to poetry. Most actors are not very comfortable with poetry. Acting by its very nature is outward. The greatest test is Hamlet. He has to convey active thought. He spends five acts thinking. Most times you have an angry Hamlet and it’s the actor who’s angry because he doesn’t get it.
There will never be as great a playwright as Shakespeare. New worlds being discovered…
And new words coming into the language…
How did you end up in Washington, DC?
My wife, the actress Rebecca Thompson, and I had a theatre company in New York. I did A Man for All Seasons with Paul Giovanni. He wanted me to come here and do Love’s Labour’s Lost. He said come and play Holofernes. I wanted to play Don Armado. Floyd King [one of D.C.’s favorite actors, most recently King Pellinore in the smash hit Camelot] was going to be it. I thought he was going to hate me. But we became great friends. He’s probably my closest friend here. I had heard of Michael Kahn. He wanted me to be here. We have a company at STC, which is now so rare in this country. Floyd said, “I was a little scared of you but then I saw you could be silly and it was fine.”
I was ready to do the things I could do. I couldn’t have done all of them in New York. I’ve been fully employed here for nearly 30 years. I am the only actor who has been part of every season of Michael’s tenure here. I’m extremely grateful.
You have played such a variety of characters at Shakespeare Theatre Company. What is it like working with Shakespeare Theatre Company founder Michael Kahn as a director?
Michael [Kahn] cannot give you a character. He expects you to come in with a lot of ideas. I think his idea is, you know I like you I hired you. There were things I was ready to do, and I got to do them…
Michael is a complicated person. Henry IV, the first one, was one of his best productions. I played Henry, who I had no interest in playing. Everyone forgets who plays Henry. They only remember Falstaff and Hal.
One acting element involves looking at sameness and difference when you are approaching a character. Sameness and difference with Henry was very difficult. The last night before the invited dress Michael’s assistant came to me and said, “Michael wants to see you in the lobby,” which was ominous. And Michael said, “It’s scary. I’ve lost everything. If I don’t have a Henry I don’t have a play.” For some reason, I was feeling unusually confident that day, and I said “Don’t be scared. This is all new territory for me and it will be fine.” He looked at me for a moment, and then said “Oh, OK.”
It’s amazing. When you just come out with it sometimes people just accept it!
I would trust him with my life on the stage.
Sometimes I look back. When you are passing through these stages in your life, you don’t realize. People helped me along. Made sure I got to England, came back. Got an agent. It’s been a remarkable experience, my life. People must have seen something in me. There was Michael who knew me and liked my work and saw I had possibilities and gave me the chance.
It was clearly meant to be. Is there anything in common with the parts you have enjoyed the most?
I’ve never cared if the audience liked the people I played. I just wanted you to be interested in them. One I didn’t like at first, but then became fascinated with, was Shylock [in The Merchant of Venice]. I’ve never gotten to play it fully. I have played Shylock twice. Once in New York, I was about to teach a class. I thought it was virtually impossible to do after WWII and the Holocaust, because he is portrayed as a villain. After the horrors of WWII and the concentration camps, he would have to be played as Moses! I did it once in Vermont. A summer program out of Middlebury college. We did a Free for All in the park.
The Merchant of Venice that Michael Kahn directed at the Carter Barron Amphitheatre was praised as a great one, and your performance as Shylock was lauded by Washington Post critic Lloyd Rose as “A Shylock Not to Be Pitied.” What was that Shylock like?
Shylock is a shrewd businessman. Quite hidden. His whole life is about money. He is quite a cool person. Antonio comes and asks for money. Shylock has no idea he will actually be required to collect a pound of flesh from him. It’s simply a kind of crude joke to humiliate him. Shylock changes when his daughter elopes with a Christian, taking with her his ring from her mother Leah and trading it for a monkey. A good part of his wealth, indeed his whole life, has been based on what he possessed and owned. This is his first exposure to public scorn. In the famous “Hath not a Jew eyes” speech, he opens up. He has never shown this side of himself in public. He totters on the edge of madness. I’m not sure he gets there. “Shall we not revenge?” is his justification for revenge. At that moment, he steps into the perilous territory of taking another man’s life. Using what he has endured as a Jew to commit homicide and that is wrong.
Shakespeare had no political or religious agenda. His agenda was the human experience. In the trial scene. I wanted to try this: He goes back to his home. Pulls out his richest robe, five gold chains, he brings all his power into the court. Even rouge on his face. If you are crazy at home no one notices. In public people do notice, and there are obstacles. For the course of the trial scene he begins to regain his consciousness. Portia is the big obstacle. The last thing he says is “I’m not well.” People play him as this beaten-down Jewish person. The last act turns into La Dolce Vita, everyone dancing on Shylock’s grave.
I’ve gotten to know [Supreme Court] Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. She is a big supporter of the theater. She sent me a note two or three years ago. She was invited to go to Venice. It was the 500th anniversary of the ghetto and the 400th of Shakespeare’s birth, or something. They were going to do a production of Merchant and then have a mock trial to appeal his sentence. She wanted ideas for the trial. I gave her a very condensed version of what I told you. It worked! He got his sentence nullified.
One of the things that crushes Shylock is the double binds he must deal with as a Jew. I believe they became moneylenders because that’s all they were allowed to do.
Usury is contrary to Judaism. I think that in Shylock you have a chance to watch Shakespeare’s mind in motion. This is the first time anybody has presented a Jewish figure like this. You’re prepared for him to be a villain. It’s not an entirely successful unity. It’s hard to make sense of. Apparently, in the 17th century, the play was reduced in size: Shylock was played as a “stupid Jew” with a large nose and a red wig. The actor Charles Macklin shocked the 18th century as Shylock. He evoked sympathy. Macklin lived almost the entire century. Others did it but they were never as good as he was. For me, Shylock was a canny businessman, smart as a whip. Intelligent but capable of being tricked.
That fits in with what you said about opposites in the Comedy of Errors Prosecast. Stacy Keach as Falstaff in STC’s Henry IV is the smartest person in the room, but he does get fooled.
The level of emotion in Shakespeare is there in every person. It is hidden in the least known part of ourselves; it’s hard to live there and get to an ordinary day’s work.
If our minds and hearts were more open to it, and our vocabulary was advanced enough, we’d all be talking like Shakespeare. He says the things we need to hear. He describes the world we want to live in. It takes a lifetime to know how to give the lines so that the audience hears what they are meant to hear.
Shakespeare is conversational. That’s what I saw in Gielgud. When he read them, like when he read any poetry, he’s speaking it as he hears it. It’s like somebody thinking and you can hear it. You never get to the end of it.
Even writing this book; I think Oh, I missed that. You cannot get to the end of it. Just like someone trying to get to know you would never get to the end of you.
There’s no doubt.
Did you ever know Lloyd Rose?
We’re great friends now. She was the Washington Post theater critic before Peter Marks took over. I don’t think you should be friends with critics. It impinges on their job. I always think I learned something from her reviews. I can count on the fingers of one hand the times I learned something from a review. But sometimes I did. And I would think, Oh, is that what I’m doing? Or, I better stop doing that! You expect critics to be part of the process.
In high school, I used to read George Bernard Shaw and Max Beerbohm’s reviews. And when Shaw described an actress, you could really see her performance. When he said, her future business as an artist will be this or that, you believed him.
The big thing my wife and I did with our theater company was Hedda Gabler. This was almost 50 years ago. It set New York on its ear. It was a considerable departure. Except Elizabeth Robins tried it when she brought the play here in 1891. Our production was reviewed by Time magazine. They loved it, and we had people calling from all over the world. London…Athens. So we moved to the Actors Playhouse. And Rebecca said, no New York Times. They will kill us. But they came. And they did. Clive Barnes and Walter Kerr killed it.
Tom Story [the actor] was saying this to me the other day and it’s true. We need a theater as a training ground for directors and actors to send them out with knowledge. We now have people here who have never directed Shakespeare. Thirty years ago you would never have seen that. When we only had the Ashland Oregon Shakespeare Festival, the San Diego Shakespeare Festival at the Old Globe Theatre, people were better trained. Stacy Keach went to Ashland, he went to LAMDA. We now have 245 Shakespeare theatres or festivals.
I see so many young actors. They have the capability. But you have to do half the canon. You have to do a second Twelfth Night. How are we going to have that? We need a small theatre where you could do some play of Marlowe’s that two weeks worth of people want to see…
Shakespeare is the biggest victim of the director’s concept around.
When the director says, we are going to look at the dark side of the play, I am thinking, get me out of here! I have worked with some really good ones, of course.
Yes, you have you have worked with some of the greats.
Without Payne, I would not have had the basics I had. He drilled us. The sense of iambic pentameter has to be practically unconscious.
It sounds like your wife Rebecca was also a strong influence.
I would be unkind to her memory if I didn’t continue to enjoy life. I don’t really feel alone. She is always with me. We were still part of each other’s lives. She died in 1999. But even in the last year, when she was very ill, she would say “You don’t know me at all.” And I would say, “We’ve been married for 30 years, I think I must know something!”
She was dazzling.
The Comedy of Errors plays through November 4 at the Shakespeare Theatre Company, performing at the Lansburgh Theater – 450 7th Street, NW, Washington, DC. For tickets, call (202) 547-1122 or go online.