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Who Is William Devlin?

By George A. Leiper

Even though you may consider yourself well-informed on matters theatrical, it is quite likely that you have been wondering about the William Devlin who is to appear in "King Lear" at Brattle Hall. In hopes of clearing up this matter, I had a talk with Mr. Devlin last week. He seems to be a vigorous, intelligent man, and is articulate on all subjects but himself. For an actor of whom the critic James Agate wrote ". . . it may be that here is the new great actor for whom the English state has impatiently waited since the death of Irving," this is indeed unusual.

Questioning disclosed that Mr. Devlin was educated at Stonyhurst and Oxford and appeared in several productions for the Oxford Dramatic Society. Except for those productions and an occasional visit by a touring company, Oxonians have less opportunity to see first-rate plays than do Harvard students, he says. "I'm amazed at the ambitious and thoughtful plays these people at Brattle have been putting on during the past two years."

In 1984, at the age of 22, William Devlin made his first London appearance as Lear. That Shakespeare's mightiest here should be played by one so young made it a newsworthy event; that the young actor should be unanimously hailed by the critics as the best Lear they had known made it an important occasion in the English-speaking theatre. Later Lears that have come along, notably Laurence Olivier's, have pleased some critics who prefer a witless, senile Lear. But most reviewers emphasize the word "majesty' in their praise of the Devlin Lear. The New York Times corrsepondent wrote that Mr. Devlin was acting Lear "in the classical tradition, caring less for displays than for proportion, completeness, and an architectural justice of line."

After he had lit up the skies over London, the young actor appeared for the next few seasons as the Ghost in John Gielgud's "Hamlet." ("Gielgud is still the best Hamlet. Of course, I won't even count that movie version.") In 1936, he appeared in the role he has enjoyed most, Peer Gynt, in the 5-hour version. He made numerous movies about this time, none worthy of expert. The only American play in which he has appeared was O'Neill's "Mourning Becomes Electra" in 1938. He prefers to see American plays done by Americans, because of "a certain vitality they give it." Of the recent American plays he's seen, Mr. Devlin was most impressed with "The Glass Menagerie."

Four and a half years in North Africa with the Horsed Cavalry, first as a trooper and later as a major, accounted for Mr. Devlin's war years. Since that time, he has done some Shakespeare with the Old Vic: Macbeth, Richard III, and King John... ("my voice limits me to the non-lyrical roles primarily."), and appeared in Walt Disney's all-human "Treasure Island," as yet unreleased.

The husband of one of apprentices at Brattle Hall is a friend and countryman of Mr. Devlin's and it was through him that our local players invited Devlin to appear. This will be his only appearance here, due to commitments in England and plans for taking "Murder in the Cathedral" to Rome for the Holy Year.

The people over at Brattle are understandably excited about this production, and at a rehearsal Sunday night some of them were moved to tears by Mr. Devlin's performance. This is surely the most ambitions local undertaking since the "Agamemnon" was given in Soldiers Field in 1906, and may prove to be the most momentous American Shakespearean production of the decade--Momentous not only in the appearance of William Devlin but in the ultimate "making" of the Brattle Hall group.

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