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On Aging, Humanity and an End to Acting

MY NAME ESCAPES ME: The Diary of a Retiring Actor by Alec Guinness; Preface by John le Carre; Viking; $23.95, 214 pages

September 26, 1997|ANTHONY DAY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Toward the end of 1994, the editor of the London Daily Telegraph persuaded Alec Guinness to begin a diary for publication. This beguiling book is the result.

The contents of "My Name Escapes Me" were written between January 1995 and June 1996. "I have been unable to disguise [in the diary] my phobias, irritations, prejudices (though the latter are often short-lived) and my childishness and frivolity," Guinness writes in a brief preface. "Sometimes, I hope, my occasional enthusiasms emerge."

"When I am asked," he continues, "which is all too often, if I have retired, I am inclined to assume a pained expression and deny it. At 82 [he is now 83] I am well past my sell-by date and I doubt if any part, however small, would tempt me."

In the course of the year and a half, too many old friends die; his hearing fails; Merula, his wife since 1938, breaks her hip; and, in some instances, he fails to remember the names of old acquaintances: "Tuesday 2 January: 1996 seeped in with enveloping mist which lasted most of the day. I remembered my New Year Resolution--'cause me to hear thy loving-kindness in the morning' (Psalm 143) and I remembered again today."

Elsewhere, Guinness takes great pleasure in writing about painting (the couple seems to attend every show in London), food, wine, France, Italy; their country house in Hampshire with its flowers and wild birds; and especially about those friends who remain.

Guinness reads a lot. "Thursday, 6 July: Spent the evening reading Patrick O'Brian's 'HMS Surprise.' The smell of the sea lifts off its pages together with that of tar and the oiliness of so many Mediterranean harbours. His description of a storm in the South Atlantic takes one's breath away with fear and excitement."

And he bears a strong love for the Roman Catholic Church, to which he converted in 1956. His musings on religion and history can be eloquent:

"Monday 7 August: Yesterday it was almost impossible to escape the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs of fifty years ago--eyewitness accounts, horrific photographs, speculations about political trickery and, of course, the insoluble moral dilemma. In some obscure way it seems ironical that the dropping of the first atomic bomb was on the Feast of the Transfiguration. 'A bright cloud overshadowed them.' Played a CD of Beethoven piano sonatas to ease myself away from morbidity."

*

There are also comments on the little things in life, delivered with a marvelously comical tone: "Yesterday and today we had our favorite winter pre-lunch drink, my version of a Danish Mary. Clamato juice, Aalborg's akvavit, a flick of Tabasco and a dribble of balsamic vinegar put in the whizzer with a cube or two of ice for a few seconds, just long enough to make a little froth on top. It makes a good excuse for doing whatever you want to do for the rest of the day."

Of course, the book would not be complete without some mention of the actor's career. We are treated to a warm reminiscence about productions of Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night," "loveliest of plays:" "In 1937 [Tyrone] Guthrie directed 'Twelfth Night' at the Old Vic with Larry Olivier as Toby Belch, his then wife Jill Esmond as Olivia and the adorable Jessica Tandy as Viola. Marius Goring was Feste and I was Aguecheek; for some quirky reason I played him as if he were Stan Laurel. . . . Like every Aguecheek that has ever been I got a laugh on the line, 'I was adored once too.' One midweek matinee, with a sparse audience, no laugh came although I undoubtedly sought it. Larry hissed in my ear, 'Fool! You should know a matinee audience would never laugh at that.' "

"My Name Escapes Me" is a delightful book for anyone interested not only in Sir Alec, but also in the theater and humanity itself.

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