As The Stage Review notes in their commentary on Malleson’s play, “William Miles Malleson (1888-1969) is remembered, if at all, as a character actor on stage and screen ‘who had a line in nitwits in which he was unrivaled,’ such as the Sultan in The Thief of Bagdad (1940; which he also wrote), the hangman in Robert Hamer’s Kind Hearts and Coronets (with Sir Alec Guinness, 1949) and Rev. Chasuble in Anthony Asquith’s The Importance of Being Earnest (with Edith Evans, 1952).
But as the author of numerous plays charged with the passion of reform, he never enjoyed the kind of popular success he had as an actor. The Stage and Television Today published a warm testimonial at his death in 1969: ‘Malleson was an actor of distinction, an artist of imagination and depth, whose best characterizations, especially in Shakespeare, were among the treasures of our theatre for many years . . .
He excelled in comedy that came from guileless but not silly men. His nit-wits had souls as well as stupidities. What might have been merely grotesque was never so, it was lit by human feeling. His work in the theatre spanned nearly sixty years, from the time he made his debut at Liverpool Playhouse under Basil Dean in 1911, in Justice. He worked with Granville Barker and J.B. Fagan, with Playfair, Gielgud and Olivier, at the Old Vic in London and Bristol; in the West End and in the provinces.
His acting, within its range, was unrivaled for effect, interest and significance, and he contributed valuable work as a translator of Moliere, as a writer, notably with The Fanatics and Six Men of Dorset—with H. Brooks—and as an influence for all that was intended to be of value to the theatre, irrespective of profit or fame.’”
It’s all true; I must admit I was completely unaware of this aspect of Malleson’s long career, as he did indeed specialize in befuddled character parts in everything from the 1945 British classic Dead of Night, to later roles in Hammer Gothics such as Terence Fisher’s The Horror of Dracula (1958), in which Malleson plays an absent-minded funeral director who manages to misplace a corpse during one of the film’s brief comic interludes.
The play has never been produced until now, and judging from the review in The New York Times, the results are remarkable: as their critic Alexis Soloski writes, “Yours Unfaithfully is both a daring play and a highly conventional one. Under the polished direction of Jonathan Bank, and in the hands of a fine team of designers, its arguments remain provocative, while its structure feels familiar, its tone decorous. Maybe that only makes it more unusual. It’s a bit like a sex farce with real sorrow instead of slammed doors, and something like a drawing room comedy with moral conundrums peeking out beneath the cushions. It is often very funny; it is also very nearly a tragedy . . .
what is extraordinary about Mr. Malleson is his ability to create characters who are capable of feeling several things at once, or who don’t really know what they’re feeling at all. Both Stephen and Anne seem genuinely surprised that their hearts and minds aren’t as orderly as they had believed. (Ms. Gray is especially adroit at rendering these intricate emotional shadings.)” The production was selected by The Times as a “NYT Critics’ Pick” – which The Times doesn’t give out easily.
Yours Unfaithfully is now running at The Samuel Beckett Theatre on 42nd Street in Manhattan; if you’re in the city, it should be on your must-see list, as a long overdue discovery of a playwright whose work is now being compared with Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw – which is heady company indeed.
Tags: Alexis Soloski, Anthony Asquith, British theater, Dead of Night, Edith Evans, Elisabeth Gray, George Bernard Shaw, Horror Dracula, Jonathan Bank, Kind Hearts and Coronets, Max von Essen, Mikaela Izquierdo, Miles Malleson, Oscar Wilde, rediscovered plays, Robert Hamer, Sir Alec Guinness, The Importance of Being Earnest, The New York Times, The Samuel Beckett Theatre, The Stage Review, The Thief of Bagdad, theater, world premieres, Yours Unfaithfully