By Keith T. Martin |
In presenting celebrated theatre actress Rosemary Harris with the 2021 Distinguished Career Award, SETC President Maegan McNerney Azar (she/her) astutely noted that the recipient “has been in the industry as long as SETC has been in existence.” At 93 years young, Harris is indeed the most senior recipient of the award by almost a decade, born a few months after Charles Lindbergh crossed the Atlantic in 1927. Always gracious, Harris (she/her) responded to Azar with her usual wit and charm: “Oscar Wilde said, ‘A woman who tells her age will tell anything!’ ”
Indeed, Harris told us anything we wanted to hear during a thoughtful, wide-ranging keynote conversation prior to receiving the organization’s highest honor at SETC’s first virtual convention on March 6, 2021. She is quite familiar with SETC, having delivered a standing-room-only all-convention keynote at the 2005 convention in Greensboro, where she graciously filled in after the scheduled speaker had to cancel at the last minute. In her acceptance speech this year, Harris said, “[SETC] is a wonderful organization because it’s about young people starting out in this wonderful career and the journey of life they have in front of them.”
Azar reminded SETC members that the versatile Harris “has played some of the greatest known roles in the theatrical canon,” including Cressida, Desdemona, Ilyena, Lady Teazle, Natasha, Olga, Ophelia and Portia, to name but a few. Harris was exuberant when detailing her early years and the path that led to her stage, film and television acting career, which has been honored with a long list of awards, including two Tony Awards, five Drama Desk Awards, an Emmy Award and a Golden Globe Award.
From Europe to Asia to America
The noted British actress was born in the parish of Ashby in Suffolk County but spent her early years in Asia. Her father was in the Royal Air Force and stationed in what is now India with his wife and two young daughters. They returned to England, which Harris thought “was a very cold and dreary place.”
As a teenager, Harris thought she would become a nurse and applied to a hospital for training. Secretly wanting to be an actress, she found a “little, tiny repertory company in the town where I was living with my grandmother and my great-aunt.” In a letter to the man who ran the theatre, Harris asked, “Before I waste time and money on an academic training, can you tell me if I have any ability?” She auditioned and was offered bus fare as her salary.
“I had a wonderful time because I played all sorts of different parts in a different play every week,” she recalled. “I got moved up to another theatre company … also a different play every week, but two performances every night. I actually got paid for that, seven pounds a week; half went to my landlady. I had a bicycle to get back and forth to the theatre and was with that company for a year … that was a lot of parts under my belt.”
Applying to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, Harris had a private audition with Sir Kenneth Barnes, the RADA president.
“I got in … but I sort of did it backwards because you don’t usually start by being a professional actress and then go to drama school. But, in actual fact, it was really quite good for me, because I knew exactly what I wanted to learn, which was how best to use my voice,” she said. “I have to rather self-consciously admit that I ended up with the gold medal.”
Harris became an understudy in a play in London’s West End, which she “wasn’t very happy about. I didn’t even have a part [and] was looking after the dog in the play. My job was to walk him between the acts so he wouldn’t pee on the stage.”
Then “the magic” happened. American playwright and director Moss Hart came to England to cast a play he had written, and the company Harris was working for had her read opposite all the young men auditioning for the show. After three weeks, Hart called her downstage to the footlights and said, “I’ve gotten used to you reading this part for so long; would you like to come to New York?”
Harris said yes and made her Broadway debut in The Climate of Eden in 1952 before returning to Britain for classical theatre roles at the Bristol Old Vic, the Old Vic, the National Theatre, the Chichester Festival Theatre and the Royal National Theatre.
Leading men in the life of a leading lady
The roster of leading men who played opposite Rosemary Harris reads like a Who’s Who of world theatre: Richard Burton, Sir John Gielgud, Sir Laurence Olivier, Peter O’Toole and Sir Michael Redgrave, among others.
“Pretty much everybody worked in a different way,” Harris recalled. “I had a fascinating experience working with Sir Michael and Sir Laurence, both in the same play [Uncle Vanya]. They both had completely different techniques and it was like sort of playing a game because I could get away with this with Sir Michael but not with Sir Laurence. [Sir Laurence] acted, but he didn’t react because he’d already decided on his [delivery], but with Sir Michael you could experiment, do little slightly different things, look at him at different times, do a different gesture, and he responded. Two brilliant actors working in completely different ways.”
Harris played opposite Sir John Gielgud in his farewell stage performance.
“Oh, that was a wonderful treat,” she said, “and I’ve still got the letter he wrote [after] we both got cast in the play, The Best of Friends, in his neat, tiny little writing. He was 80 or 82, I think, and it was his swan song. Only occasionally did he stumble, but he got through it beautifully. Later on, we did a television play, Summer Day’s Dream, and we’d rehearse and break for lunch – and, being [a] wonderful gossipmonger, John adored nothing better than a good gossip.”
With regard to playwrights, Harris appeared on Broadway in Edward Albee’s A Delicate Balance and Off-Broadway in his play All Over.
“I loved Edward dearly and admired him greatly,” she said. “He was very dogmatic about what he wanted, a bit like Harold Pinter, very, very specific. I think directors were more scared of him than actors because he was hell on wheels if they weren’t doing it as he wanted. [Edward] knew what he wanted, which I think is very helpful in a writer.”
Rosemary Harris ‘has generously given her life to the theatre and has become, in the process, a true national treasure.’
– André Bishop, Producing Artistic Director, Lincoln Center Theater
Asked to put Harris’ stage career in perspective, André Bishop (he/him), producing artistic director of Lincoln Center Theater in New York City, responded: “Rosemary Harris is, to use a phrase that is no longer in fashion, a true leading lady,” Bishop said. “That doesn’t mean just playing all the best and biggest roles; it means being the leader of a company. Rosemary has had great success in England playing opposite Olivier and Gielgud – the famous Olivier Vanya and Gielgud’s final stage performance – but she has had equal acclaim in the United States. She stopped being a Broadway star for a while to start, with Ellis Rabb, the finest repertory company we have ever had, the APA [Association of Performing Artists], which then became the APA/Phoenix. She led it with Ellis, playing small roles and big ones and doing a million other chores that someone has to do in a company.”
The North Carolina School of the Arts
Harris joined the SETC Virtual Convention from Winston-Salem, NC, home to the prestigious University of North Carolina School of the Arts (UNCSA). The school, originally the North Carolina School of the Arts (NCSA), was co-founded in 1963 by the late John Marsden Ehle, Jr., an award-winning author and staunch supporter of the arts who has been described as “the father of Appalachian literature.” He became Harris’ husband in 1967 – a union that lasted over 50 years, until his death in 2018.
“It was through NCSA that I met John,” she said, explaining that they were introduced to each other over a cup of tea at the Manhattan apartment of Bella and Samuel Spewack, the husband-and-wife writing team responsible for the play My Three Angels and the Cole Porter musical Kiss Me, Kate. “John was only in Manhattan for one day with the search committee for a new chancellor at NCSA, but he found a wife instead!”
After marrying, Harris and Ehle relocated to his home state of North Carolina, with homes in Winston-Salem and in the Blue Ridge Mountains near Penland, NC.
An emeritus member of the UNCSA Board of Visitors, Harris holds an honorary doctorate from the venerable institution, and has been a commencement speaker on several occasions. She even stepped in at the last minute to direct a production of The Royal Family for the School of Drama.
“The school is very, very much in my heart and so much a part of my life – I admire it greatly,” she said, noting that their daughter attended UNCSA.
Family tradition: daughter Jennifer Ehle
A surprise guest at Harris’ keynote address was her daughter, Jennifer Ehle (she/her), who “Zoomed” into the conversation from New York, where she lives with her husband, writer Michael Ryan, and their two children. A film, television and theatre star, Jennifer is a two-time Tony Award-winning actress who told SETC members that “my mother is the most extraordinary, wonderful person I’ve ever met, and that I think I ever will meet. She is radiant, she is brilliant, she is hilarious. She’s a force of nature and a force of life with the biggest heart, spirit and soul of anybody.”
Even as a young child, she wanted to be an actress, Ehle said, “because Mummy has so much fun! That’s definitely a great gift about being an actor; if you love it, it’s the most fun. Mum has always taken such joy in her work and is so fed by it intellectually, the challenge of it, the puzzle of it, the craft of it … That’s what we both love the most. It’s like our drug of choice.”
Ehle is grateful to have had her mother as a model: “As an artist, she is extraordinary … Her technique is just so refined, and I think she gets better and better and better and better and better.”
After seeing Harris’ most recent Broadway performance, Ehle spoke with pride about her mother: “Just to watch her command that stage and that language – she’s just a consummate artist.”
Spider-Man and the lady with the bun
Harris gained new generations of fans when she appeared as Aunt May in director Sam Raimi’s film trilogy Spider-Man from 2002 to 2007. She used the occasion of her keynote session to suggest to current theatre students that “you never know whence cometh your help, because it sometimes comes from the most unexpected quarters. Jennifer did a film in Australia with a wonderful actress, Cate Blanchett, and I got to meet Cate when she came to England.”
Blanchett later did a film, The Gift, and convinced Harris to play the cameo role of the grandmother in a single-day shoot on her Monday off from the Broadway production of Noel Coward’s Waiting in the Wings.
“As luck would have it,” Harris recalled, “the director of that film was Sam Raimi, and when they were discussing just who might play Aunt May, Sam said, ‘Well, it’s funny you should mention that, because I’ve just directed an actress who has white hair and a bun,’ which is a characteristic about May. ‘I think she would be just right for the role.’ And who were they to deny him? I want to impress on young people that you never know where the help is going to come from, and you do depend on the comfort of strangers. That’s what it’s all about really, people helping you, giving you a leg up and a helping hand because you can’t do it on your own.”
My Fair Lady on Broadway
Several questions submitted in advance by SETC members pertained to Harris’ triumphant 2018-19 Broadway appearance in My Fair Lady, the Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe musical based on George Bernard Shaw’s 1913 play Pygmalion. It was her second portrayal of Mrs. Higgins. She previously had played the socialite mother of Professor Henry Higgins in a 2003 concert at the famed Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles. During her SETC conversation, Harris was asked how her most recent turn on The Great White Way came about and how she responded to the invitation from Lincoln Center Theater.
“I thought, ‘I can’t play Mrs. Higgins!’ Then I looked up in the closet, and there was a pair of high-heeled shoes, not very high, only about two and a half inches, and [I] thought, ‘I wonder if I put those on [if] I might feel a little bit more like Mrs. Higgins?’ So, I climbed up, got them down, put them on and started walking around the apartment. The more I walked around, the more I felt like Mrs. Higgins, and I said, ‘Yes, I think I could do it.’ It was all because of my feet! Sir Laurence [Olivier] said in one of his biographies that you start from the shoes upwards; if you get the shoes right, the rest of it will come right.”
The Lincoln Center Theater’s André Bishop was both surprised and pleased when she accepted the role.
“When Rosemary Harris agreed to play Mrs. Higgins in the recent Lincoln Center Theater production of My Fair Lady, we all felt exuberant, lucky, slightly amazed and just plain happy,” he said. “She had appeared in our Broadway production of A Delicate Balance with Elaine Stritch and George Grizzard, but that was many years earlier. ‘She’ll never do it,’ we all thought, but she said yes to Mrs. Higgins almost immediately!”
Responding to his comment, Harris said, “That’s a sweet thing for André to say. What a dear, dear man he is. I’m so fond of him. He’s a prince … a king.”
Advice for the next generation
Harris recalled a time in England after World War II when America was helping Britain and other Allies get back on their feet through a five-year effort called the Marshall Plan. When starting out to be an actress, she said, “I gave myself a five-year plan and said to myself, if I haven’t gotten anywhere by then, I’ll do something else. I’ll go back to my nursing. I’ve got Plan No. 2 standing by. You don’t want to waste your life doing something that you’re not going to compete very well in … change horses and do something else. But certainly, give it a fight, give it a go for five years. Accept any job you are offered, sweeping the stage or dressing the wigs or whatever … just do anything that needs to be done to make yourself so useful they can’t manage without you.”
Recalling the readings for Moss Hart that led to her Broadway debut, Harris said: “The magic happens … and I want to tell all the young people who are starting their careers that magic can happen if you stick with it.”
Harris is known for arriving at the first rehearsal of a play with lines memorized.
“I don’t want to waste anybody’s time,” she said. “It’s a lovely feeling to go to rehearsal [off book] because you don’t want to hold anybody up. You should do your homework. Any actor who says, ‘I can’t learn my lines until rehearsal,’ that’s nonsense, just laziness. The point of rehearsal is that you [figure out] how to do the words, not to learn the words. If you know the words, you find all sorts of wonderful new ways of thinking about them.”
As an aspiring actress in her early years, Harris said, “I learned from watching my elders, my betters, the leading lady and the leading man in the company. I would study them, learn … and was taught by them.”
She believes that sometimes success is simply about luck and chance, “lucky chances, lucky breaks … There will be some there, I promise you, along the road. It’s just knowing and being ready for them. As Hamlet says, ‘The readiness is all.’ ”
Thanking the audience
A final note in her keynote speech harkened back to June 2019, when Harris concluded her acceptance speech for a special Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement in the Theatre from the Broadway League and the American Theatre Wing with a thank you to audiences. She echoed that sentiment in her SETC keynote. “If playgoers didn’t come to see plays, none of us would be here,” she said. “As they rather crudely say in England, ‘Bums on seats.’ If we didn’t have bums on the seats, none of us would have a job, but of course that’s what’s happening now because of the pandemic. I’m not living in New York at the moment and it must be heartbreaking seeing all the theaters dark, because theatre is the lifeblood of New York, or one of the arteries. I’ve got friends in New York and it must be very sad.”
‘A true national treasure’
What makes Rosemary Harris unique? Perhaps Lincoln Center Theater’s Bishop said it best: “Her talent is intelligent, graceful, disciplined, understated and utterly glorious. It always has been. And she is beautiful. She has generously given her life to the theatre and has become, in the process, a true national treasure.”
Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts (RADA), LondonSELECTED LONDON CREDITS:
The Best of Friends (1988), with Sir John Gielgud in his farewell theatre performance; All My Sons (1982); Ophelia, with Peter O’Toole in Hamlet(1964) and Yelena, with Sir Laurence Olivier in Uncle Vanya;(1964), both at The Royal National Theatre; Desdemona, opposite Richard Burton in Othello at the Old Vic (1956); The Crucible (1954); and The Seven Year Itch (West End debut, 1953)
27 productions, with nine Tony nominations for: The Royal Family (2009 and 1976), Waiting in the Wings (1999), Edward Albee’s A Delicate Balance (1996), Noel Coward’s Hay Fever (1985), Pack of Lies (1984), Heartbreak House (1983), Old Times (1972) and The Lion in Winter (1966). Her other Broadway appearances include Lerner and Loewe’s My Fair Lady (2018), The Road to Mecca (2012), An Inspector Calls (1994), Lost in Yonkers (1991), A Streetcar Named Desire (1973), The Merchant of Venice (1973), War and Peace (1967), You Can’t Take it With You (1967), The Wild Duck (1967), We, Comrades Three (1966), Right You Are If You Think You Are (1966), The School for Scandal (1966), Herakles (1965), The Tumbler (1960), The Disenchanted (1958), Troilus and Cressida (1956) and The Climate of Eden (Broadway debut, 1952)
India Ink (2014), Oscar and the Lady in Pink (2008), The Other Side (2005), All Over (Obie Award, 2003), The Three Sisters (1977), The New York Idea (1977), War and Peace (1965), Man and Superman (1965), Judith (1965), Interlock (1958) and The Glass Eye (1958)
SELECTED TELEVISION/FILM CREDITS:
25 films, including The von Trapp Family: A Life in Music (2015), Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy (Aunt May, 2002-07), Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (2007), Being Julia (2004), The Gift (2000), Hamlet (1996), Tom and Viv (1994), Crossing Delancey (1988), The Boys from Brazil (1978), and A Flea in Her Ear (1968). Television work includes 27 programs and series, including The Undoing (2020), Law and Order: SVU (2010), Death of a Salesman (1996), Summer Day’s Dream (1994), The Chisholms (Miniseries, 1979-80) Holocaust (Miniseries, 1978), Notorious Woman (Miniseries, 1974), Blithe Spirit (1966), Profiles in Courage (1964), Dial M for Murder (1958), Omnibus (1958), Twelfth Night (1957) and Studio One in Hollywood (1952)
Tony Award: Lifetime Achievement in the Theatre (2019)
Tony Award: Best Actress in a Play, The Lion in Winter (1966)
Five Drama Desk Awards: A Pack of Lies (1985), The Royal Family (1976), The Merchant of Venice (1973), A Streetcar Named Desire (1973) and Old Times (1972)
Golden Globe Award: Holocaust (1978)
Emmy Award: Notorious Woman (1976)
Three Obie Awards: All Over (2003) and for distinguished performances at APA Repertory (1965, 1962)
Academy Award nomination: Tom and Viv (1994)
American Theatre Hall of Fame (1986)
Theatre World Award: The Climate of Eden (1952)
This article originally appeared in Southern Theatre, The Magazine of the Southeastern Theatre Conference,
Volume LXII Number 2, Spring-Summer 2021