There's absolutely no truth to the rumor that Denison and Gray were waiting for their marriage to work out before they took on Broadway.
But the fact remains that they just got around to it last season, when Sir Peter Hall installed at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre his smart, stylish, impeccably played revival of Oscar Wilde's An Ideal Husband. That particular day was a red-letter one to the Denisons for another reason‹it was their 57th (!) wedding anniversary‹but, save from some flowers and champagne that passed between them privately, that fact was shoved aside, and, like the rest of their imported British company, they braced themselves for better-late-than-never Broadway bows.
After the show‹at Tavern on the Green‹producer Bill Kenwright pitched the pair a spectacular little anniversary party (cleverly disguised as an opening-night party), and amid the firefly lighting, the couple gave off a lovely‹one could even say, still romantic‹glow. "We knew it was our anniversary, but we had no idea anybody else knew," Denison admits. "It really surprised us."
There were toasts, cake and kind words for the company's resident ideal-husband-and-wife. "Thank goodness nobody sang," she tartly postscripts.
Denison, in his eighties, and Gray, late seventies, are not the stars of An Ideal Husband. They've been there, done that: The all-star edition they did 32 years ago with Margaret Lockwood, Richard Todd, Roger Livesey and Ursula Jeans was a huge hit in England, a kind of yardstick for Wilde and wonderful escapism.
This time out, the Denisons are the supporting pillars of the show. Her Lady Markby is the dowager who introduces into the social whirl a blackmailing temptress (Anna Carteret) who makes some mighty waves for a foreign-affairs undersecretary (David Yelland) and his wife (Madeleine Potter); and Denison plays the Earl of Caversham whose son (Martin Shaw) disentangles these intrigues.
There are no lines of dialogue that actually connect these two senior characters, so the scarlet subtext the Denisons have devised may surprise you. "I have a feeling Caversham and Markby are both far from happily married," he contends. "In fact, I think they get together, these two. It's The Great Unwritten Scene. After all, he takes her off at the end of the reception."
Gray agrees. "I've got my own subtext about Lady Markby, basing it on the fact that she never stops talking about her husband, who never appears. Nobody ever knows who he is. You wonder why she goes on about him. I think, you see, that he's left her‹if not left her, he's having a go with somebody who comes up the backstairs. That's my reasoning about why she's so obsessive about him."
If you happen to be the Denisons who inhabit Wilde, you're entitled to such pronouncements and suppositions. They've also had great success with a TV version of The Importance of Being Earnest. Indeed, he has done all but one male role in that play‹including Algernon in the 1952 film‹and he fully expects to get around to Merriman (the butler in the country) some day.
The Denisons have been acting all their married life‹plus a year before that. They met at drama school, and the first thing they did together was a scene from Parnell. He played the Irish politician, and she was his Kitty O'Shea. "We were falling in love‹I certainly was‹by that time," he remembers.
"During the first meeting of the characters, he says to her, 'Do you always wear white roses?' And she says, 'They only bloom at this time of year.' He says, 'I shall have them grown all year round for you.' There was going to be only one performance at drama school, so clearly I had to get her white roses. In March 1938, there were no flights from the south of France. It was not easy to find white roses, and they were very expensive. But I got six‹and, instead of saying 'To Dulcie, with love, from Michael,' I said 'To Kitty from Charles Stewart,' which were Parnell's first two names. Before the curtain went up, she came into the dressing room with my roses, looking radiant, and said, 'Would you believe it, Michael? I haven't seen him for years, and look what dear old Charlie Stewart sent.' That taught me not to be too clever by half.
"Our first professional engagement was as brother and sister in Noël Coward's Hay Fever," he says. "We married in London on Saturday. We had to be married in the morning because I had a matinee and an evening show in London. We had one night at the Dorchester Hotel in London, one night on the sleeper train going north, and we began work as brother and sister on Monday in Aberdeen."
The honeymoon was, indeed, over‹and damned near the marriage‹as England (and Denison, volunteering on Day One) marched off to World War II. "It's extraordinary how our marriage has lasted so long," she now reflects. "Of our first seven years, Michael was away six‹and, for the last two years of the war, completely away. That was quite a hard beginning to a marriage, but we had always been enormous friends, and that‹obviously‹is very helpful."
While he was winning the war, she was winning audiences‹first onstage (The Little Foxes, Brighton Rock), then in film (Mine Own Executioner, Madonna of the Seven Moons). He joined her in both mediums at war's end. Of the three films they did together, their favorite is their first: My Brother Jonathan.
In 1952 Gray retired from the screen to focus on writing (two dozen published novels to date) and stage work, more often than not with her husband. "Sixty percent of all our work has been together‹by chance," she beams. Of course, certain "adjustments" were required to bring this off: "We decided, early on, we couldn't keep on doing lovey-dovey parts. That would be boring. We've played all types‹people who hate each other, brother and sister, everything."
The big brass ring of Broadway has been waved many times at the Denisons, the first time for The Fourposter. "We were the first people in the world to do it," he says. "We did the world premiere in London, and we were invited to do it here." The hitch was the producer wanted them to do it for 18 months here, and their respective film companies would only go for six. Once the British originals were out of the running, Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy promptly pounced on The Fourposter, and it ran for years.
New York has almost totally‹but not entirely‹eluded them until now. "I spent two nights here on my way to Australia to do My Fair Lady for John McCallum," recalls Denison. "He asked if I wanted to go eastbound or westbound. I said, 'I'd better go westbound because I've never seen New York, and I want to see the El Greco of Toledo by Moonlight at the Metropolitan.' He said, 'That's a very upmarket thing to say.' I said, 'Nevertheless, it's true.' I was not disappointed in the El Greco of Toledo by Moonlight in 1962, and I went back the other day. Dulcie hadn't seen it, and she agreed it's very extraordinary."
Gray did the same New York fling, coming back from Australia and long runs there in Tea and Sympathy. ("I was banned from all the pulpits, from Melbourne to Sydney, for being such a wicked woman.") When she arrived in New York, she threw her things in an airport locker, hopped a cab to Manhattan and marquee-cruised up and down Broadway. When she got to her hotel, the first thing she heard was herself being paged. "I thought, 'Who the hell knows I'm here?' I'd left all my luggage behind at the airport. 'Who could it be?' It was Michael." A smile plays softly with her lips at the thought. "Rather good, wasn't it?"
Denison shrugs his what's-a-fella-to-do shrug. "An ideal husband," he says.
-- By Harry Haun