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May 3-17, 1999Volume 27, Number 31

A Conversation with an Acclaimed Actress

Claire Bloom has been acting professionally since she was a teenager.

In a career that has encompassed the theater, films and television in both Britain and the United States, she has portrayed heroines from Shakespeare, Ibsen and Tennessee Williams, among others -- winning numerous awards along the way. She has appeared opposite such legendary actors as Richard Burton, Sir Laurence Olivier and Charlie Chaplin.

Bloom visited the Yale campus on April 18 as a guest of the Maynard Mack Lectureship. During a "Conversation" with Murray Biggs, adjunct associate professor of English, she spoke about her career and the world of the theater. The following are edited excerpts from that conversation.

You cut your professional teeth on Shakespeare. Can you tell us about playing some of those young roles?

The first Shakespeare part that I did professionally was Ophelia when I was 17 at Stratford-Upon-Avon. ... And, after a gap, I did Juliet at the Old Vic. ... Those roles, of course, are glorious. There's nothing to compare with the beauty of the love poetry of Juliet, for instance. They're not, perhaps, as interesting as the roles you play as you get older. They're not as interesting as Lady Macbeth, Cleopatra, Gertrude, Lady Constance, Catherine of Aragon. ... It's much more interesting when the character has more luggage to carry on its back.

In those early days, you played several times opposite Richard Burton. Can you describe what he was like as an actor, and how he changed over the years?

Those are two questions. What he was like as an actor was this kind of miracle that you see very rarely. He was a young man of 23 when we first acted opposite each other in Christopher Fry's "The Lady's Not for Burning." I was 18. We were kids. He was this beautiful kind of peasant prince ... a brilliant young man. ... He was extremely beautiful. He had these very hypnotic green eyes ... He had this kind of bell over himself of silence and self-containment and certainty and masculinity. When he was on stage, nobody could look at anyone else. ... And yes, he changed over the years. We all change over the years. ... But he made enough of an impression in his youth that it will never be forgotten. ...

Actors generally are apt to say that intellect gets in the way of good acting. But you have maintained that you've never known a stupid good actor. So how does the successful actor balance intelligence with other qualities?

I don't see how you can play these roles without an intelligence. ... There are some actors who seem very much blinkered, who only see acting and plays and their performance. But others whom I know have an immensely wide range of interests, and a vision, and learn from everything around them.

You've said of Blanche DuBois in Williams' "Streetcar Named Desire" that there's no role like it in the whole of 20th-century theater. Can you tell us why, and how you experienced playing that role yourself?

Tennessee Williams seemed to know more about women than any writer from Shakespeare to Chekhov to Ibsen. He knew everything about women: their sexuality, their psychopathology, their neuroses, their passionate romanticism. Everything comes together in this perfect play which is, moment to moment , flawless; in which the characters -- not only Blanche, but Stanley, Stella, Mitch -- are so wonderfully delineated. Blanche's tragedy is so touching and believable, and her desires, her wish for beauty and youth and a new start, a new respectability -- not respectability in the dull way, but to be a virgin again. She's the most touching of characters, and just wonderful to play ... wonderful ... the marvelous language, and the magic that Tennessee Williams creates.

I think your view is that the play ends rather positively for her when she goes off with the doctor.

[Sighs.] Who knows? I mean I did say that, but I don't know that I really mean it.

Is that how you played it?

I think she has to think it. She feels that she's secure, and this doctor's going to take care of her, and she's going somewhere lovely -- because she's absolutely barking mad at this point -- so, certainly, I played it positively. ... It seemed to me that she kept her illusions. ... Tennessee said when I asked him what happens to her after -- which really has no point because a play is a play and it's over -- and he said: "She just goes on doing what she did," meaning she goes into the psychiatric center and comes out again, and she keeps doing it all over again. ... But I don't, somehow, think she came out.

Why is it that you've been able so happily to spend your life in the theater?

Oh, you say "so happily" (laughing), you say ... I think it's a very, very difficult profession. It's one that I've had great success in, and that I love doing when I do it, but I don't think the life of an actor, particularly an actress, is easy. On the other hand, if I didn't think there was some reason to do a play, I would never do it. ... I don't mean a desire to educate, as opposed to entertain. I know that one has to entertain, in the sense of holding, gripping an audience, but I've always only wanted to do parts where I was able to expose some hidden part of my persona and interest an audience enough for them to want to enter in.


Bulldogs name new coaches of basketball teams
Gift from Class of 1951 will help to strengthen libraries in four city schools
The homes of many older people are rife with easily eliminated hazards . . .
Gelatin gladiators
Three named to Endowed Professorships
Former Clinton counsel says Starr went 'beyond ethical pale'
Baryshnikov's White Oak Dance Project to perform on campus
A Conversation with an Acclaimed Actress
Talk by noted biochemist will highlight Student Research Day
Memorial service held for former trustee David C. Grimes
Lecture series will explore whether Yale and New Haven share . . .
Art Gallery expands its exhibit offerings on the theme of Asian art
Campus will be the site of the annual meeting of the American Law and . . .
Institute's first resident scholars to pursue projects on race and religion
Winks honored by Oxford, National Parks
Campus Notes

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In her talk with Professor Murray Biggs, actress Claire Bloom praised playwright Tennessee Williams for his understanding of women and "the magic he creates" in his plays.