Well before British actor Simon Callow decided to become an actor, he determined he wanted to be a writer. Now that he's excelled at the two callings for several productive decades, he's combined both talents to write a truly outstanding book about the theater he amusingly calls My Life in Pieces: An Alternative Autobiography (Nick Hern Books, $40).
A must-read recommended to -- no, enthusiastically pressed on -- anyone for whom the subject is a passion, the volume was awarded the prestigious Sheridan Morley Prize for Theatre Biography this past February at London's Garrick Club (it was published on Callow's home turf in 2010), and there's simply no arguing with the decision -- even keeping in mind that Stephen Sondheim's superb Finishing the Hat was on the short list.
Not incidentally, the word "pieces" in the title is a pun. Callow's obsession with theater and his total immersion in it since he was 18 (he was born in 1949) has made him what can be called the go-to guy for reviews, essays and reminiscences. At least, that's how editors from a wide spectrum of publications in a few countries have considered him, and it's a regard for which readers can now be grateful.
Actor-writer (also director of both theater and opera) Callow has been preparing his "alternative autobiography" for some time. In it he collects myriad articles he's previously published on Theater A-Z and inserts among them the details of his life. Curiously, he runs his own story in italics, which has the effect of suggesting that the Callow tale -- when juxtaposed with the concrete appearance of the unitalicized contents -- strikes its teller as secondarily important, ephemeral.
As an enthralled reader proceeds through the 436-page book -- or merely runs a thumb down the index -- the impression is that the author has known, observed, learned from, worked alongside, guided productions for just about everyone prominent in English theater during the last half-century or who has been no more than what the Brits call "a jobbing actor." He's also done rather well befriending Americans pursuing his same goals -- an example being a stint working with Mike Nichols and Meryl Streep on the movie adaptation by Carrie Fisher of her autobiographical novel, Postcards From the Edge.
(Callow may be most known stateside for his film appearances as the cause for the funeral in Four Weddings and a Funeral and as the skinny-dipping cleric in the Merchant-Ivory Room With a View. He's not known here for his portrayal of the hyperkinetic Wolfgang Mozart in Amadeus, because, originating the role in England, he wasn't asked to reprise it in Manhattan. Nor was he asked to appear as the adored composer in the Milos Forman flick, although his account of dealing with the director is one of the book's comic highlights.)
Yes, Callow knows theater inside and out, and that includes what goes on in the box-office. When still wet behind the ears, he toiled at the Old Vic ticket window and therefore was able to watch such greats as Laurence Olivier, John Gielgud, Ralph Richardson and Michael Redgrave behind the footlights and behind-the-scenes and subsequently jot down his impressions.
Of Gielgud and Richardson, he says in part, "From the beginning, Gielgud had the manners and the looks of a matinee idol; Richardson was cut of coarser cloth. While Gielgud made Shakespearean role after role his own -- Hamlet, Richard II, Romeo, Prospero, Lear, Leontes -- Richardson never seemed comfortable with the great heroes. His stupendous Falstaff (a prose role, of course) was a rare success for him in an Elizabethan play; instead, he was able to conquer the great outsiders: Peer Gynt, Cyrano de Bergerac."
That's just a small sample of his expertise as critic -- his authority grounded in having read every book about theater he could devour. (Referring to Denis Diderot's 18th-century essay "The Paradox of Acting" is second nature to him.) As he discourses with intense merriment along his lengthy list, he reserves some of his highest praise for the now nearly forgotten (in the United States, at least) Michael mac Liammoir, who co-founded Dublin's Gate Theatre and was Callow's most influential mentor, and for Paul Schofield, with whom he acted in Amadeus. About that experience, he writes, "When we left the rehearsal room and got into the theatre, I felt him stretching and prowling like a panther in the jungle, sniffing the space out. He seemed, even during technical rehearsals, to be expanding."
While lining out his recollections and opinions on theater and movies as well (he directed, not very successfully, the film of Carson McCullers's Ballad of the Sad Café and somewhat lets himself off the hook for its deficiencies), he comments on topics as diverse as homosexuality (his own with candor), AIDS and even cosmetic surgery. Of that sore (pun intended) subject, he comments, "[T]he results are doubly unhappy, firstly because even the smallest tuck or nip limits flexibility of expression of the single most communicative part of the body, and secondly, because it's not you anymore."
For all Callow's mastery of what he surveys (pun also intended), it's only the overlay for the real reason his book succeeds so handsomely. Its astonishing impetus is a love of theater that pushes up between the lines like tulips in early spring. He writes, "Theatre is not really the place for ideas. It is a playground for the imagination, a gymnasium for the soul, the heart's stadium." He's made certain that his autobiography is also a playground, a gymnasium, a stadium. However he sees it metaphorically, there's endlessly informative fun here from start to finish.