THE BOOK SHELF: "The Letters of Elia Kazan," a New Biography of Olivier, "Two-Actor Plays" and Long Day's Journey Into Night

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27 Apr 2014

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This month's column looks at "The Selected Letters of Elia Kazan," Philip Ziegler's biography of the great Laurence Olivier, an anthology of "Plays for Two" (including Venus in Fur) and the new critical edition of Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey into Night.

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Back in 1988, Elia Kazan — who probably qualifies as the premier American stage & screen director of the 20th century — published his revealing and illuminating autobiography, "A Life." By this point, Kazan had fazed out of stage and screen activity, his final major credits being Broadway's Sweet Bird of Youth (in 1959) and the 1976 Robert De Niro film "The Last Tycoon." His attention had turned to writing, with four best-selling novels starting in 1961. By the time he came to prepare his life, he was an accomplished writer — which is to say, his autobiography was carefully and meticulously written by someone who knew what he wanted to say and how he wanted to say it.

"The Selected Letters of Elia Kazan," edited by Albert J. Devlin with Marlene J. Devlin [Knopf], start in 1925 and continue until 1988, although all but 50 of the 600-odd pages of letters come before 1970. (Kazan died in 2003, at the age of 94.) Thus, the "Selected Letters" does not give us Kazan's final word on his many triumphs and fewer missteps, and that turns out to be the new book's great strength. Kazan surely self-filtered himself when he was writing the letters, depending upon what he was writing about and whom he was writing to; but a wise and cagey forty-year-old writing about what happened yesterday is quite different from a wise and cagey eighty-year old writing for posterity.

Kazan was intimately involved with — and in some ways contributed to the success of — some of the major theatrical achievements of the 1940s-through 1960s, including Thornton Wilder's The Skin of Our Teeth; Arthur Miller's All My Sons, Death of a Salesman, and After the Fall; Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof; Robert Anderson's Tea and Sympathy; and Archibald MacLeish's J.B. Films include "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn," "Gentleman's Agreement," "Streetcar," "On the Waterfront," "East of Eden" and "A Face in the Crowd." That is an impressive list, and only a partial one. Kazan has plenty to say and much of it is intriguing, which makes his "Selected Letters" readable and pertinent.

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From England comes "Olivier" by Philip Ziegler [Quercus MacLehose]. Ziegler, a book editor turned award-winning biographer, often writes about royal subjects. But who is more royal than Lord Olivier? The author has not only done a meticulous job of research; he has had access to more than 50 hours of recollections taped by Olivier while preparing his 1982 autobiography, "Confessions of an Actor." He also received information, notes and taped interviews from other writers who have done significant research on Olivier. It is one thing to uncover fascinating and in some cases surprising information; it is another to know how to distill and organize it. Ziegler gives us a well-informed and immensely readable portrait of the man, his circle and his career.



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