There is a defining moment in Harold Pinter's No Man's Land — a word, really — that betrays Christopher Plummer's unbridled passion for the written text.
Playing a shabby wannabe poet, he is taking his leave of Jason Robards in an imperious huff, bundling up against the bitter cold and blathering on in a torrent of lofty verbiage. When he hits the last word of his speech — "nonchalance" — he flings a scarf across his shoulder and heads grandly for the exit. This occurred nearly 19 years ago in a Roundabout Theatre Company venue no longer standing, and the memory of it — "nonchalance," squeezed dry of all its French juice and pretention — is with me still.
"I don't remember it at all," the actor admitted over the phone last week, but he did allow that his love of words is so total he often makes an italic impression without realizing it. In the spirit of that is A Word or Two, his little solo celebration of the poetry of prose that will get a special 60th season presentation at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival July 25-Aug. 26, in Stratford, Ontario, directed by artistic director Des McAnuff.
To date, only McAnuff has seen and heard the piece. Plummer pitched it to him as an audition in the breakfast nook of his Connecticut home, letting his literary life of late pass in review. "Some are silly, some great, some funny, some extraordinary, some classical. There's a huge variety of stuff there, and I enjoy myself thoroughly because I love the words of each character. I have fun and try to make it as funny as I can because, when the serious stuff does appear, the audience is sorta ready for it."
A Word or Two is his autobiographical trek through literature, leapfrogging from one favorite passage to another. Among the bases covered: Shaw, Shakespeare, Stephen Leacock, Archibald MacLeish, Ben Jonson, Ogden Nash and the Bible.
Plummer's point? "I suppose the main theme in it — which I don't hit over the head very hard, thank God! — is the fact that, in this day and age, young people in particular are losing the chance to really appreciate what great literature is... Books are disappearing. Parents should take care that they let their children know at a certain young age how wonderful and great our language is and what fun it is.
"My parents were marvelous. I was very lucky — I grew up in a very well-read home — and we were taught the value of books. Our family used to read aloud to each other sometimes after dinner. It was kind of an old Victorian custom, and it was great to be a part of that. They taught me reading could be fun as well as enriching.
"That's the theme underneath it, but I don't lecture anybody about it. I just show them that I had fun. The early section of my life was influenced by the books I was reading then — the A.A. Milnes and the Rudyard Kiplings. In my teens, I read different sorts of writers. When I reach middle age, we get all the love poems taken care of."
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