Newsweek, May 2, 1960
Jean Giraudoux’s last play (he died in 1944) is a parable on good and evil, which could have been a bit solemn. To the delight of playgoers on Broadway last week, it turned out to be a fetching high styled vehicle bringing to the New York stage a pair of the theatre’s most fetching actresses–Vivien Leigh and Mary Ure–in high-style Dior gowns.
The duelists of the title are Miss Leigh, lethal and irresistibly wicked, dressed in vivid red, and Miss Ure, pale and the classical Lucrece she plays, sheathed in symbolic white. The scene is Roger Furse’s handsome concept of Aix-en-Provence in the middle 1800s, where Miss Leigh, a wife of notoriously dubious virtue is snubbed by Miss Ure, the militantly virtuous wife of a stuffy magistrate. It is Giraudoux’s point that women of excessive virtue are not only ahead of their times, but a threat to a workable state of affairs that allows women to dominate both husbands and lovers. Threatened by this traitor, the woman-in-red avenges herself by drugging her enemy-in-white and making her believe that she has been ravished in a bordello by a local lecher.
To the victor: In the end, playing fast and leering with logic, Giraudoux arranges a conspiracy among women to keep men in their place as the pompous monsters that they are. While the playwright provides good roles for John Marivale as a gallant dupe, Peter Wyngarde as a rake, and Alan MacNaughton as a proper prig, it is the women who dominate the play: Mary Ure, who dies in virtue, regretting “the disaster of lying down a martyr and rising a virgin,” and Miss Leigh, the vixen who stalks away from the field of honor, evil triumphant. Older, surer, and as handsome as she ever was as Scarlett O’Hara, Miss Leigh plays her role with the look of Lilith and the deadly dedication of a Lady Macbeth. If Giraudoux occasionally talks through his philosophical hat, Miss Leigh, at least, understands women.
There are, of course, any number of Vivien Leighs. She is the visiting British actress who ran home with two Hollywood Oscars–one for her Dresden-china Scarlett O’Hara in “Gone with the Wind,” the other for her blowzy-beautiful Blanche in “A Streetcar Named Desire.” She is also the wife and Lady of Sir Laurence Olivier, who co-starred with her on Broadway in Shaw’s Caesar and Cleopatra and Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra. (Miss Leigh made the transition from kitten to cat with amazing aplomb.)
“I like those Cleopatras best,” she recalled at a last minute rehearsal of Duel of Angels. “The offered a great variety of characterization. I feel the same way about my role of Paola in my present play, and I must admit I like being back on Broadway. I like new York–to visit. I like visiting. But London is my home and I’d like to play Camille” or TV when I get back.”
Miss Leigh was approaching Broadway under considerable strain; she looked abstracted and pale. Two years ago, when Laurence Olivier was playing in “The Entertainer” on Broadway, he took four days off to cheer his wife’s opening in Duel of Angels. This time, the same ocean apart, Olivier remains in England. At the moment, the couple who were once advertised as the great lovers of Romeo and Juliet are separated and living in separate domiciles. The situation, Miss Leigh feels, is nobody’s business. “Of course it’s possible we may play together again,” she said without a great deal of conviction. “I certainly hope so. But don’t forget, it isn’t always easy to find a satisfactory vehicle for both of us.”