Sir Alec Guinness was that strangest of beasts, an actor with an obsessive concern for privacy, says Quentin de la Bedoyere
Alec Guinness: The Unknown by Garry O'Connor, Sidgwick & Jackson £18.99
In my younger, and less charitable, days I would point out to people who told me they "were trying to find themselvesthat their search was neurotic. Although they would never find an answer. they would know the search was over when they had ceased being interested in the question. Alec Guinness. in Garry O'Connor's account, was, however, motivated by escaping from himself through assuming the personae of the characters he played so well. And the literal meaning of persona is mask. But strip off the mask, and you find another mask; and if you strip off that...
The masks are many. Who will forget his performance as Herbert Pocket in Great Expectations, his multiple manifestations in Kind Hearts and Coronets. or his supremely convincing Colonel Nicholson in The Bridge on the River Kwai? And his George Smiley in Tinker, Tailor. Soldier. Spy and Smiley's People gave us the ultimate irony of a man behind a mask playing a man behind a mask. According to O'Connor's useful chronology he took part in around 130 productions between 1933 and 1996.
I have always admired Guinness's work. Knowing many actors personally. I have often been struck by the fact that their stage and film presentations were no more than their ordinary selves writ large. Gielgud was always Gielgud, and the soap opera actor turns out to be just what you would expect. But Guinness had, to an extraordinary degree. the ability to slip into the skin of the character and simply become what he portrayed.
O'Connor suggests that the psychological grit, around which the pearls of his performance were perfected, was his deep doubts and shame about himself. He was illegitimate and, although the identity of his father was almost certainly estab
lished, the shame of paternal anonymity and the neglect of his less than satisfactory mother, left him without a taproot. Combined, as O'Connor argues, with a strong propensity to bisexuality notwithstanding his long and successful marriage to Merula — he protected himself by a formidable degree of personal privacy. Try to prise open the shell of the oyster, and it snaps shut. Even his autobiographical writings focus on other people, and are guarded about himself.
Understandably, he confessed in 1985 that he would never submit to psycho-analysis in case his talent was traced to some interior factor and therefore neutralised — -instead of something you can't explain, something tucked inside". We must be thankful for his prudence.
We are all, in our ways, playing roles. as we know from our own experience and from Erving Goffman's masterly analysis, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. Without more than a moment's introspection, I could list at least ten different roles I play in my ordinary life, depending upon the circumstances and the audience. But they are all extensions of me rooted in some kind of solid, common ground. But Guinness, O'Connor tells us, was rooted in deprivation and self doubt: an absence and not a presence. And so he dons his masks as a proxy for a vacuum.
While this frame of analysis is interesting in itself, it can be wearying if everything, from his choice of parts to his choice of coactors, is interpreted through the same psychological lens. For example, we are told that he avoided the great parts which required the protagonist to face up to his interior self, and his occasional attempts at these were unsuccessful. O'Connor attributes this to a similar fear of selfconfrontation in Guinness. But we do not know, because Guinness does not tell us. So the author has continually to speculate. He does this plausibly and well, supported by external evidence and the running pattern of Guinness's behaviour; but, frustratingly, we never really know. The oyster remains shut. prayed, in the manner of Augustine, Da mihi pacem sed noli modo, lest he should lose his talent too early.
Some of O'Connor's remarks about Catholic principles which may have had a bearing on Guinness' later psychology suggest that this is an area where the author is not at home. But, to be fair. without Guinness opening his heart on the matter, we all have to guess. God approaches each individual in his own time and, as Arnold Lunn pointed out in his correspondence with Ronald Knox, according to that individual's needs. It would be no surprise and no devaluation of Guinness's new faith if the Spirit had found a way through the interstice of his vulnerabilities.
Many geniuses of the arts, from Proust to Beethoven, have suffered from deep, internal disturbance. It is as if their imbalance has been a necessary condition of their vision: out of their pain has come forth sweetness. So, though we may sympathise with Guinness's sense of deprivation, we must be grateful for his incomparable performances. For many, including the young, he is the consummate actor of the 20th century. Among the photographs in the book, Michael Noakes's portrait is reproduced. In some ways this sad, wistful, almost clown-like portrayal tells us more than even a book like this can do.
But the book can trace . for us his artistic development and influences. and provide us with useful critiques of his key performances. The epilogue, which succintly assesses Guinness's talent as a "great" actor, is admirably judged.
O'Connor knows the world of show business, and we learn a great deal, through Guinness's many friends and colleagues. about the effect he had on those he met and with whom he worked. If the interior Guinness chose to remain "The Unknown", that is scarcely O'Connor's fault.
Guinness, in later life, became a Catholic and, apparently, a devout and conservative one. There were those who argued — again, no more than opinion — that following his conversion his acting genius then tailed off. But it could have been no more than declining years or even (more speculation) that his conversion resolved the inner uncertainties that spurred his acting. Towards the end of his life, he wrote that his one regret was that he had not become a Catholic as a young man. Perhaps he