I’ve been reading a new biography of Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, and wondering how many people under the age of 50–or 60, for that matter–recognize their names. Regular New York theatergoers know, of course, that there’s a Lunt-Fontanne Theatre on 46th Street (Beauty and the Beast is playing there), but who among them knows how that house got its name? Yet the Lunts were still widely known well into the Sixties as the most distinguished husband-and-wife acting team in the modern history of the English-language theater, capable of selling out a show merely on the strength of their choosing to act in it.
How do such formidable reputations vanish so quickly and completely? Well, one answer is that the theater itself is no longer a major part of the American cultural conversation. (If you doubt it, ask a friend who doesn’t live in New York to name a living American playwright.) Another is that Lunt and Fontanne starred in only one feature film, the stagy, now-forgotten The Guardsman, and acted on TV just twice. For whatever reason, they felt their gifts were best displayed in the theater, and so they neglected to leave behind a permanent record of their work. Time was when actors could etch their names into the collective consciousness solely by appearing on stage, but with the invention of film, that time ended forever.
Katharine Cornell was as famous as the Lunts, shunned film and TV as they did, and now is no less forgotten. The only reason why Ruth Draper is remembered is because she was shrewd enough to make audio recordings of her self-written monologues, the existence of which kept her memory green even during the long years when they were out of print. (They’re now available on CD, and can be ordered here.)
Which brings us to the last of the Lunts’ fateful mistakes. Unlike Draper or their good friend Noël Coward, they weren’t writers, and unlike other better-remembered actors, they were notorious for appearing almost exclusively in custom-tailored two-cylinder vehicles unworthy of their great gifts. (The only play they introduced that has held the stage was Coward’s Design for Living.) As Kenneth Tynan, that shrewdest of drama critics, once remarked, “I wish the Lunts would test themselves in better plays. I wish I even felt sure that they knew a good script when they saw one. As things are, they have become a sort of grandiose circus act; instead of climbing mountains, they are content to jump through hoops.” Rarely have more damning words been written about more talented people.
For all these reasons, it strikes me as a bit odd that Alfred A. Knopf took the trouble to publish Margot Peters’ Design for Living: Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne: A Biography. (That’s what I call a high-colonic title.) Mind you, it’s not a bad book, but there have been other biographies of the Lunts, and the only thing that distinguishes this one, so far as I can tell, is that it makes explicit mention of the long-standing rumors that both Lunt and Fontanne were homosexual, albeit without a shred of verifiable accompanying evidence. That seems a rather weak reed on which to hang a well-meaning but breathlessly written theatrical biography. Yes, I read it, but only because Knopf sent me a unsolicited review copy and I was desperate for diversion in the midst of more arduous literary chores.
Is there anything so evanescent as what happens on a stage? Paintings last for centuries, the written word for millennia, but performances and productions not captured on film or videotape are gone before they’re over. I’ve long suspected that this was why Jerome Robbins, who abandoned the ballet business to become the richest and most successful musical-comedy director of his generation, started making ballets again in 1969. His productions (especially Gypsy) were praised to the skies by some of the most knowledgeable critics who ever lived. But except for Peter Pan, which NBC taped for TV in 1960, they all vanished into thin air, whereas New York City Ballet performs every ballet Robbins thought worth preserving on a regular rotating basis–while Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne are barely more than names on a marquee.
This story has no moral, incidentally, unless it’s the one that starts Vanity, vanity. But, then, that’s a pretty good all-purpose moral, isn’t it?