Over the Water

Laurence Olivier remembers Old Vic founder Lillian Baylis

Submitted to vivandlarry.com by Carolina

I had been rehearsing Hamlet in its entirety at the Old Vic for a full four weeks before I was finally ushered into Lillian’s office for the official introduction to her and to her theatre. She and her beloved “mots”, or more unkindly, her beloved “gaffes” have been quoted so often and the style of them is so well known that to reel off a string of them in writing an appreciation of her extraordinarily wonderful character must seem to be a trifle banal. But one’s impression of her is kept so alive by the memory of these things that she said, in conjunction with one’s knowledge of the woman that she was, that they seem to be almost indispensable. In any case I shall never forget my stammering entrance into that holy of holies with its mass of faded photographs, silk programmes and illuminated addresses staring from the walls. Its mass of archaic telephones lying tangled on the desk, and her little dog’s mass of white teeth glaring at my ankles; my being met by a jumbled-volley of words which seemed to indicate that I was welcome, and my being dismissed abruptly with “Of-course-you-really-oughtn’t-to-come-here-at-all-when-you-can-get-so-much-more-money-elsewhere-but-still-that’s-your-business-Goodbye.” I adored her.

I was at first vaguely intimidated by a certain parochial atmosphere, which I had been led to expect from the managerial throne, until, towards the second dawn of the dress rehearsal, having repeated the cue “My thoughts be bloody or they be nothing worth” for the umpteenth time, a clucking voice from Lillian’s box whispered “I bet they couldn’t be bloodier than they are, eh, dear boy?”

I have an even more endearing memory of lying on my dressing-room couch between two “eternity” Hamlets, and of being tucked by two tenderly rough hands into Mrs. Stirling’s eiderdown, with the assurance that such a covering could not fail to put the right loving thoughts into my head, give the correct benediction to my rest, and make the most special spiritual contact with my muse.

Later, when we were on terms both intimate and affectionate, I forgetfully made bold to suggest that the introduction of a licensed bar to the Old Vic might be considered an asset by the majority of its patrons, and the entire war of the “Temperance Rose” was summed up cryptically with: “My dear boy, if it hadn’t been for drunken men beating their wives we would never have got this place.”

It was at Elsinore that I personally saw Lillian at the truest and best, when she would sit solidly through the age-long exterior rehearsals in the drenching rain, encouraging us with very rough pats on the back and frequent cups of “something hot” brought to each of us herself; finally bringing matters to a close by saying: “I really can’t allow my actors to get any wetter.”

One day, at a very impressive ambassadorial lunch, another continent-visiting theatrical manager was conversationally brought to light, only to be ignominiously cast into the outer shadows by “Give me small pox or any disease rather than that man.”

It was always apparent that “My actors are the best” was her unspoken slogan, and it gave one a great glow of warm satisfaction to be accounted one of them.

A sublime character, a magnificent personality, a great woman. I adored her.

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