Tony Award nominee Kate Burton, considered one of the great actresses of her generation for appearances in Hedda Gabler, The Constant Wife, The Corn Is Green and Three Sisters — either on Broadway, in London or regionally — is now playing a stage legend.
Kate Burton
Kate Burton Photo by Joan Marcus

Burton stars as 20th-century actress Katharine Cornell — a beloved creature of the stage who made only a few television appearances — in A.R. Gurney's warm ode to theatre people, The Grand Manner, at Lincoln Center Theater's Mitzi Newhouse Theater. The play, set in the green room of a Broadway theatre in 1948, after a performance of Antony and Cleopatra, is an imagined meeting between a young man and the grande dame. Both are Buffalo natives. It was inspired by Gurney's real, brief meeting with Cornell in '48. The playwright expanded and fictionalized the encounter to be about the weirdos of the theatre — and those who want to be near them, or become one of them.

Part of what makes The Grand Manner so intriguing is that it's a glimpse, even though it's fictional, of this 20th-century actress that we don't know today because she hasn't been on film. I can't help thinking about Laurette Taylor or Helen Hayes, to a certain extent — both acclaimed, but unknown today, partly because they were not major film actresses. Do the lives of actresses who came before you interest you?
Kate Burton: Yeah. Because I grew up in a theatrical family, I kind of knew a lot of these actresses. I think I probably met Helen Hayes. I don't actually remember meeting her, but the actresses who were my mentors growing up — Eva Le Gallienne, Colleen Dewhurst, Maureen Stapleton, Rosemary Harris — these were all actresses who I knew and three of whom I worked with. And there's a sweet kind of symmetry, because when you think of Cornell being in Cleopatra, in this production, and Maureen Stapleton is one of her young actresses in the show, and then cut to 1982, when I shot "Alice in Wonderland" on PBS and Maureen Stapleton played the White Queen and I was Alice — and then cut to 2010 and I'm playing Katharine Cornell, and young Bobby Steggert [who plays the Gurney character] — we're meeting this wonderful young man, who's just so extraordinary… So, it is that wonderful thing of the theatrical traditions being passed along.

I learned a great deal when I worked with Maureen, and I'm sure Maureen learned a great deal from Katherine Cornell. And I worked with Marian Seldes, who also worked with Cornell a lot. You know, Cornell was a kind of a mystery to me, frankly. Coincidentally, I was watching Turner Classic Movies with my mother [Bay Street Theatre artistic director Sybil Christopher] last October, I think it was, and they were showing "Stage Door Canteen," and that's the one time that Cornell's on film, because she's in it as herself. And I remember watching it with my mom and going, "Oh, my God! That's Katherine Cornell! I've never seen her!" And I didn't really know that she had never done any other movies, but it occurred to me that I had never seen her. And then cut to early December, I get a call — I'm in London with my mom — and I get a call from my agents saying, "You've been asked to play Katherine Cornell." And so they sent a copy of the play to my British agents and I read it on the tube and I just go, "Oh, my God!" I immediately loved it and said, "Oh, yes, I'll be doing this."

It's sort of interesting that you bring up somebody like Maureen Stapleton or Marian Seldes because they have one foot in the "grand manner"-style of acting and one foot in the Brando era, don't they? That's what the play really deals with, in a large sense: a change in the air.
KB: Right. I mean, frankly, the whole idea of…[Tony Award-winning Best Play] Red — the wonderful Red. You know, when I went to see Red, I thought, "My God! There's so many issues about art, and what is art? And old art and new art and how do you produce art? Whether it's a painting by Rothko or whether it's a performance by Katharine Cornell, you know, somebody new comes along…it's the classic thing that happens in the history of art." That's our story, in a lot of ways.

Kate Burton and Marian Seldes at the opening night of The Grand Manner.
photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

Also, in terms of Pete — Pete Gurney, our playwright — it's his story. The genesis of the play is that he was asked by the American Theatre Wing, which I'm on the board of, to write about the play that changed his life. And he wrote about this play and then he said, "And I'm also gonna write a play about it." And that's really what happened. That's how it all began. But yeah, it is very interesting, because I think that Cornell was very clear about what was happening around her. It's very clear from this play. I mean, certainly, the bigger part of the play is a fantasy about what Pete imagines, but I'm sure that she was very unhappy. I mean, it is documented that she was very unhappy about her interpretation of Cleopatra. She just never felt that she got it. Because she had been so successful in other shows, playing Juliet, playing Elizabeth Barrett, playing Constance Middleton in The Constant Wife. She knew what it was to be successful. She had had huge successes. I mean, she was in 38 Broadway plays! [Laughs]. I've done 12 and I think I'm an old man! Did you do research?
KB: You know, we all used similar source material. The source material for the play, besides Pete's own experience, was Tad Mosel's book, "Leading Lady," which is written with Gertrude Macy, who is played by Brenda Wehle in our show. And it's sort of considered to be, I guess, the definitive biography of Cornell, although there are many wonderful memoirs of Cornell. I read Christopher Plummer's chapter about Cornell and Guthrie McClintic. I'm not a big research person. I tend to do it as I go along, and I tend to use the play as my road map because I've had some experiences, times where I've played real people — in fact, I just did a film where I played a real person, and what we shot on film was just a little dab of paint of this person's life but I did an enormous amount of research for it and I found it frustrating, because I wanted to bring so much of my research to what we did and there was just no opportunity to do that. So this time, I decided to just let Pete take me on the road that I needed to do, and then I've been sort of filling in the blanks. For instance, when I talk about Michael Arlen's The Green Hat — any time there's a reference to something very specific, a play that [Cornell] was in, I will read [about it]. I've read everything about her experience of doing that play.

Frankly, the Lincoln Center magazine is an incredible resource. We've all read it multiple times because it's very useful. It's interesting knowing how I work as an actress and knowing what she experienced. There are a lot of things that she experienced that I don't experience at all. She had incredible stage fright, and she was very, very nervous before every performance, and that is not my experience. [Laughs] I'm very nervous before the first performance, and I'm often quite nervous before opening night, but the rest of the time, that's just not been [my style]. So it was really interesting to play. And [there have been] a few times where I've not been feeling 100 percent and doing the play [but] Cornell always felt like she was on the edge, you know.

Because she's such a question mark to me, I didn't know if a monster was going to show up or a diva was going to show up. She was apparently not that, was she?
KB: No, no, she's not. She's a very real person. I mean, she really was a wonderful girl from Buffalo, New York. As you know, obviously — all the references to Buffalo — you know how much she loved her home town.

There's a kindness about her, about what you're doing…
KB: Oh, a deep kindness. And when she meets Pete, it's genuine. And that's what Pete Gurney told me. He said, "She was so warm. She was incredibly warm." And when you see her in "Stage Door Canteen," she's just warm. She's incredibly warm to everybody . She looks you right in the eye. She is genuinely interested in people. I find that's the case with a lot of really, truly great actresses.

Because this is an imagined experience by Gurney, is that a challenge to fill in her blanks?
KB: No, not really. I mean, there's so much richness there in terms of the storyline, how he tells a story. And part of it is that I think [director] Mark Lamos has such a beautiful facility with this play, as he does with Pete's work. He's directed a number of his plays. And you know, it's factually correct, certainly, about her relationship with Gert Macy, certainly about her relationship with husband Guthrie [McClintic]. The thing that I did find interesting is that, actually, she and Guthrie did have a very healthy physical relationship — not healthy, but a very heterosexual relationship. She got pregnant. She had an abortion. She gave her life to her art — it was as if she was married to the theatre. And then they both went their separate ways, but continued to be devoted to each other. And the reality is, when he died, she never acted again. And she lived a number of years beyond him.

And do we know why she didn't do more film or TV?
KB: Exactly what she says in the play — she just didn't want to. She was a theatre actress. That was her preference, and she did not have any desire [to work in other media]. She did do some television. She did about three projects on television, and apparently they're O.K. I've never seen them. That happened, I think, in the late '50s and early '60s, and then after The Constant Wife, which was an enormous success, she did a few other plays. She played a character based on Eleanor Roosevelt, which was not a very successful play, and I think she did a few other things. She did a few projects on TV, and she never did any film. Which is too bad, actually. She might have gotten the hang of [film], actually. I think she might have enjoyed it very much. It's too bad.

(Kenneth Jones is managing editor of Write to him

Kate Burton and Bobby Steggert
Kate Burton and Bobby Steggert
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