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'Design for Living: Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, a Biography'

Lunt and Fontanne were theater's dream team

Sunday, December 21, 2003

By Mary Rawson

Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne had style and charm and made a wonderful life in the theater. If their only achievement had been inspiring the musical "Kiss Me Kate!" which they did, they would deserve this exhaustive, highly researched biography.

 
 

"Design for Living: Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, a Biography"
By Margot Peters
Knopf ($30)

   
 

But they did much more. Since theater is ephemeral, we can't call up the thrill of their performing partnership the way we can, say, Fred and Ginger. Although they did a few things for film and television, neither liked the work or the absence of the audience. Still they were the "most famous English speaking acting team of the twentieth century."

Both were stage-struck from early on, she growing up just outside London and he in Milwaukee. Their lives advanced from play to play, from their early individual successes in New York, he as "Clarence" in 1919 and she as "Dulcy" in 1921. With their marriage in 1922 they became a team, turning down jobs if there wasn't a good part for both, and, as time went on, finding playwrights eager to write vehicles for "the Lunts," right to their final stage project, "The Visit," in 1958 under the direction of a young Peter Brook.

They were so crazy about theater they created it all around them. In Ten Chimneys, their estate in Wisconsin, each room was a sort of stage set. Broadway's reigning couple, they also played London regularly and toured the United States, by an odd circumstance being in Pittsburgh for both the great flood of 1936 and the fierce snowstorm of 1950.

The title for this biography is apt, the same as the play that their lifelong friend Noel Coward wrote for the three of them to do together in 1933, and also descriptive of their dedication to making a stylish life. In a petty moment, Coward said that they "were concerned with only three things -- themselves, the theater (in so far as it concerns themselves) and food -- good hot food." They did enjoy the high life, but in keeping with their total devotion to the theater, they recognized its power in a dark world, choosing, for instance, to do "There Shall Be No Light" in 1940 to rouse a public bent on isolationism. They performed in London during the blitz; Churchill saw them perform the night before he went to Yalta.

Perfectionists who worked hard and expected the same of their fellows, they would track down their own props or costumes to make sure they were just right and talk shop endlessly to the despair of some friends. Their commitment to their craft and hard work got results. Lynn would say to Alfred, "We aren't artists -- we're just terribly strong."

In fact, their artistry was widely praised. Lunt was greatly admired by those we think of as giants -- Olivier, Gielgud, Guinness -- and he was widely regarded as their American equivalent. Many lamented that because of his devotion to the Lunts' partnership he never achieved the stature he might have. But still they were seen as "Divines" and influenced generations of actors. Uta Hagen played Nina in "The Seagull" with them, and their devotion to their craft remained her inspiration. Likewise, a young Montgomery Clift was in awe of Lunt's truthfulness and mimicked him until he found his own truth.

The Lunts are fascinating to read about, especially to someone in the theater. But like most biographies, this one is crammed with details but makes no stylish sense of them. Peters makes no attempt to deal with their sexual lives except to say that whatever they were, they were discreet. I wanted more theater stories and fewer Ten Chimneys domestic details -- she quotes lots of servants but not, for instance, their famous disciple, Hagen. But there is a very useful chronology of their performances as well as full notes and bibliography.

Mostly this book makes me sad never to have witnessed their skill and charm. But this biography makes them more than legendary names. I fully believe the inscription on their memorial: "Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne were universally regarded as the greatest acting team in the history of the English-speaking theater. They were married for fifty-five years and were inseparable both on and off-stage."


Mary Rawson is an actor and teaches acting at Point Park College and Pittsburgh Filmmakers.

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