Rosemary Harris is pure presence
By Maureen Dowd
19 January 1986
The New York Times
Copyright 1986 The New York Times Company. All Rights Reserved.
When Oscar Wilde called the stage “the refuge of the too fascinating,” he might have been talking of Rosemary Harris. The British-born actress has a presence so rare that, over the years, critics have outdone themselves trying to describe it: She flutters like a beautiful butterfly. She rises like an undulating coil of smoke forming into unpredictable billows. She moves like a magical, mesmerizing gauze.
At the moment, she is sitting quietly - no smoke or gauze or flutter -in an East Side restaurant, pondering the question posed: Is such stage presence a natural, or an acquired, trait?
"You can achieve it, I think," she says. “I remember Sir Laurence Olivier invented something he called his green umbrella. He never came on stage without imagining he was carrying a large, green umbrella, which gave him a great advantage over the other actors.
“And I read once that Julie Harris always made entrances on top of a large pink elephant,” she added.
In the hundreds of plays she has appeared in, Rosemary Harris has never relied on such colorful mental props.
“What is presence but self-confidence?
If you crawl on stage with your tail between your legs, bent double with shyness, you don't have it.”
But, during performances of “Hay Fever,” the hit Noel Coward revival at the Music Box in which she plays the vain and vivacious Judith Bliss, she has detected some presence being generated by the large straw garden hat she wears in the first act.
“There's something rather special about wearing a hat, it gives you a feeling of importance,” she says. She plans to use her discovery when she goes home and resumes teaching master acting classes at the North Carolina School of the Arts, which her husband, the novelist John Ehle, helped found.
“I'll make all my students rehearse in their favorite hats,” she says. “We'll call it the hat method.” Miss Harris is gentle and gracious, showing no hint of the histrionic Mrs. Bliss, who, when upset, lifts hand to forehead and trills, “I would like someone to play something very beautiful for me on the piano.”
But Miss Harris's 16-year-old daughter, Jennifer, who is at lunch, teases her mother that she “has picked up little bits of Judith. You can be bossy about getting the laundry.”
“My voice projection has gone up a bit,” Miss Harris concedes.
On the whole, however, her family is very grateful when she is doing comedy rather than drama.
“I'm much easier to live with,” she says. “When I did Arthur Miller's play, 'All My Sons,' in London, I would feel fine after the curtain. But I'd wake up in the morning with a crushing depression. I'd wonder why and then suddenly it would come to me: Last night, my husband shot himself and my son committed suicide, all in the last five minutes of the play. Those feelings in your psyche have to go somewhere else. They're rampaging around in your brain all night and you wake up feeling depressed.
“With 'Hay Fever,' my eyes pop open in the morning and I think, 'Oh, isn't life lovely?'"
When the actress married to the novelist is not on Broadway playing an actress married to a novelist, she can be found at her rambling Spanish-style home in Winston-Salem. Although Judith Bliss pronounces marriage “a hideous affair” and amuses herself by “bouncing about on a sofa with a hearty young thing in flannels,” Miss Harris spends her time at home contentedly tending the crabapple trees, roaming the local fish store, playing with her Cuisinart and cutting out cranberry mold recipes from Gourmet magazine.
Miss Harris says that she and her husband do not have the sort of family readings or rambunctious rows that Judith and her novelist husband do.
“When we got married, John and I had a fantasy that we would sit on either side of the fireplace in the evenings and he would read me what he'd written during the day and I would make helpful comments.” She laughs mischievously at the memory. “But the first time that happened, we had an argument. So we decided that, since we had managed to get so far in our careers without each others' advice, we would continue that way.”
Miss Harris was raised in India, where her father was a British Air Force officer. Her father played the piano and her mother dabbled in theatrical revues, and she grew up longing to be an actress.
“I went to movies a great deal as a child and I always identified with the females. When I was taken to all-male movies, like 'Dawn Patrol' and 'Lives of the Bengal Lancers,' I was bored to death. But the moment Jean Harlow or somebody sailed in in a slinky dress, my interest was held.”
After she saw Vivien Leigh play a lady-in-waiting in Queen Elizabeth's court in “Fire Over England,” she went home, tied her comforter around her waist in an imitation of court dress, and paraded up and down the corridor for hours.
She began her career in repertory companies in England, developing an uncommon range in both comedy and drama, classical and contemporary. “I think I thought that's what acting was - being good at being different,” she says, “We got thrown a new character every week and we had to do something with it.”
One week, she was thrown Cecily, one of the ingenues in “The Importance of Being Ernest.” It was a disaster. “I'd never done anything resembling a classical play before, and I cried myself to sleep every night with frustration and despair. I didn't know how to get one's thoughts, let alone one's tongue, around those convoluted sentences. I only knew how to act as I talked; I didn't know how to act as Oscar Wilde talked.”
But the week ended and she was thrown somebody else. And she worked hard with her acting coach, Mary Duff. “Mary used the wing chair method of teaching: She sat in her chair and said, 'Here, say it this way' or 'This is how you do it,' “ Miss Harris recalled fondly of her teacher, who died this winter in England.
“I asked her once whether I should read Stanislavsky, and she said 'When you can act, you will know everything you need to know about Stanislavsky.' “
Although she has since given some of her most memorable performances on Broadway in revivals of classic plays - as Blanche du Bois in the 1973 “Streetcar Named Desire” and as Julie Cavendish in the 1976 “The Royal Family” - Miss Harris felt stifled by them as a beginning actress. “I played Desdemona with the full weight of past Desdemonas before me,” she once recalled. “I felt I didn't have a chance and I left England for that very reason.”
She came to New York in 1952 and played in Moss Hart's “Climate of Eden.” In 1959, she married Ellis Rabb, who formed the APA company. They worked together for a number of years in the APA Phoenix Company, doing the repertory for which the group became famous.
After Miss Harris and Mr. Rabb were divorced, a friend, Bella Spewack, who had written the play “Boy Meets Girl” and who felt that casting in love was similar to casting in the theater, called one day and said, “Come over. The man you're going to marry is here.”
And so she met Mr. Ehle, wed him, moved to North Carolina, acquired her first washing machine, and retired. “I had spent a lot of my life acting and thought in another phase of my life, I would be perfectly happy not to be an actress.”
But a year and a half later, she was offered “Plaza Suite” in London. “We talked it over. He was able to travel with me, because he can do his work anywhere, so we said, 'Let's do it.' We've been playing it by ear ever since.”
Her desultory approach may have denied her celebrity, but she says that raising her daughter has been much more rewarding than achieving the movie-star fame for which she once yearned. “People don't always know where they know me from,” she says, smiling. “They say, 'Were you ever in Miami?' or, 'Were you at a caravan site last summer?'"
Now that Jennifer is attending the Interlochen Arts Academy in Michigan, Miss Harris finds herself with more time to devote to the theater.
She has wanted to play the role of Judith for years. “I was in a production of 'Hay Fever' so long ago that we did it in modern dress,” she says, with a fey grimace. “I played Myra and had to be kissed by the leading man and blush to the roots of my hair.” As she played the flapper, she said she coveted the juicier role of Judith. Miss Harris does not divulge the year of the production or her exact age - she is in her early 50's - saying blithely, “Oscar Wilde says that a woman who tells her age will tell anything.”
The critics agree that Judith is ideal casting for Miss Harris. “I read once that, to play Noel Coward, one should toss the words out recklessly without too much force,” she says. “You need tremendous energy to play Coward at his best. The first time I come out, I'm on stage for about 30 minutes and when I come off, I feel as though I'd run a 30-minute dash. Unless you come off out of breath, I don't think you've been playing it right.”
The director, Brian Murray, has choreographed the play with the same split-second timing featured in “Noises Off,” the Michael Frayn farce in which he starred last year.
“If you liken Coward to a racquet game, the shuttlecock has to stay up in the air,” Miss Harris says. “As soon as it hits the stage, or the deck, play is over. And, to use a pun on the word, the play is over. And you have to start new points again.
“We discovered that in rehearsals. When the timing goes, you feel it go with a great thud. You know you've lost something. Brian orchestrated wonderful rests where the game is far from over, but just lapses into Pinteresque pauses. Contrary to what a lot of people think, Coward is not just chitchat. There's an iceberg of subtext underneath.”
Lunch over, Miss Harris leaves to go shopping for a “stressless chair” for Mr. Ehle. She manages her graceful exit without benefit of pink elephant or green umbrella. But she does adjust her beige beret - the Harris hat method, at its finest.