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EastE~ W&StE~ andthe yaiace AT THE END OF THE DECADE, IN 1949, my career took another big step forward. I was cast in yet another long theatre engagementthe result of a party, which gives the lie to the often-repeated warning by veteran show folk that social occasions never lead to professional advancement. For the life of me, I cannot remember whose party it was, or why it was given. I do remember very well that this was where I met Peter Ustinov. To say that we hit it off immediately would be inadequate to describe our instant rapport. We both delighted in doing characters, accents, and languages; we both liked to perform, to improvise monologues, and test our mettle with a ready-made audience . At the party Peter and I indulged in an elaborate sort of repartee : two actors who were also linguists, trading characterizations and accents back and forth. That night we went on almost till daybreak, doing German and French professors mostly, as well as bumbling politicians, Russian folklorists , blustering military men of various armies-a fast, exhilarating linguistic Ping-Pong game. What I found so appealing in Peter's draw- c9+ • THEO ing-room talent was that it represented something I myself had been striving for, with varying degrees of success~son1ething that to this day I still practice on the concert stage between songs. It is a rapidly vanishing art form that few people practiced then, and even fewer do now. The closest English term to describe Peter is "monologuist," but this is less than accurate, for it fails to note that monologuists paint with a narrower brush than Peter employed when setting color and mood before launching into his witty and often cruel character sketches. The French tern1s raconteur or diseur n1ore accurately describe this manner of performing. Ruth Draper and Cornelia Otis Skinner were noted practitioners of this art forn1, and son1etin1es used the terms when referring to their own performances. At one time this led to an unexpected result. Cornelia Otis Skinner was scheduled to do her one-woman show in Glasgow, Scotland, and was interviewed in her dressing room prior to her performance by the local press. When she was asked how she would describe herself, she said that she preferred the term "diseuse." The next day the paper carried a review that began: "Last night Miss Cornelia Otis Skinner, the well-known An1erican disease ..." Within forty-eight hours of meeting Peter at the party, I received a script by messenger, entitled The Love of Four Colonels, by Peter Ustinov . There was no question that I was absolutely right for the Russian colonel, nor was there any doubt Peter wanted me to play it. Typical of Ustinov's writing, this was an atypical play giving free rein to bouts of fantasy. The play was set in a remote hamlet of occupied German territory just after the war. The occupation forces of the four great powers, Britain, France, the USSR, and the United States, are jointly administering the region with periodic meetings of the four representatives , each having the rank of colonel. So much for its veneer of reality. The fantasy revolves around the fact that the castle on top of the hill harbors the Sleeping Beauty, still asleep after her many years of dormancy. Each of the four colonels is determined to wake her up, and each one attempts to do so in his own fashion and in the literary style typical of his nationality. The Englishman employs the style of Shakespeare, the Frenchman a foppish comic style, and the American makes his attempt in a takeoff of a Western movie the Russian, in a parody of Anton Chekhov. Each of these scenes becomes a battleground in which the Good Fairy is a supporter of the undertaking, and the Wicked Fairy the opponent. Playing the Wicked Fairy gave Peter a chance to do brilliant and sometimes totally outrageous impersonations within the various styles. He also improvised a great deal. Successful improvisations were repeated Ead End, West End, and theyalace · 85 on other nights. For example, in the pseudo-Chekhov piece, Peter played an Uncle Vanya~type character who enters the garden where Sleeping Beauty, now temporarily awakened by me as the Russian colonel, is playing croquet as I sit knitting on a swing. The improvisations in that scene alone lasted a full four minutes; by theatre measurements a very long time indeed. Peter might admire the foliage, comment on it, walk over...


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