BOOK REVIEW / Dexter, not sinister: 'The Honourable Beast: A Posthumous Autobiography' - John Dexter: Nick Hern Books, 25 pounds
Sunday 18 July 1993
'Read Peter Hall's diaries?' he demanded.
'Yes,' I said, 'I have.'
With his famous grin of malevolence, he hissed: 'Wait until they read mine.'
Now, in this 'posthumous autobiography', we can read those diaries, from his early days at the Royal Court to the day he was given the sack by Laurence Olivier. John Dexter mentions here that people sometimes behave like characters in the great Japanese film Rashomon, acting out in flashback their own differing versions of the same narrative. One of his own Rashomonisms occurs as he documents that sacking in a single line: '10 minute interview with LO. Sacked thank you very much.' The truth is that I was in my office when he arrived; the meeting lasted barely three minutes; he burst into my room looking very shocked and hurt, Olivier having told him that he thought they had had quite enough of each other and that John perhaps wouldn't mind clearing his
office out as they would be needing
the space. I wonder how many other such Rashomonisms are contained in this book.
It is a pity that John Dexter did not begin his journal in the late Fifties, when he first became involved, through John Osborne's influence, with the English Stage Company. It was then that I first met him, in the pub next to the Royal Court, when he was sniffing around for any kind of job with the company, most of whom regarded him as a toadying little shit. He did finally secure a general dogsbody position until Tony Richardson suddenly decided that the position should be dropped. Yet with enormous tenacity he turned up again directing a Sunday night performance of a new play by Michael Hastings, with Alan Bates and myself, establishing himself as one of those Royal Court Redbrick directors. His works with Arnold Wesker are now legendary. His production of The Kitchen, an hour-long play in three scenes directed with the minimum of everything, was a revelation. Here was a talent touched with genius. As his reputation steadily built, so his personality began to harden into the man you love to loathe. I was not myself exposed to his destructive (and, of course, counter-productive) ill-
temper, but I know actors who were driven into a corner of fear, panic and loss of confidence. Yet, like most bullies, he was also a tearful coward, bedevilled by feelings of inferiority (most of his contemporaries were from a university background) and fear of disapproval. And though an inverted snob, he longed for the life-style of the great opportunist Tony Richardson. For those with an interest in offstage machinations, power politics and back- stabbings, in correspondence to and from the famous opera stars of the Metropolitan Opera in New York, in fancy restaurants and glamorous holiday resorts, this book will be a must.
For me, John Dexter's self-portrait is far too sober: a serious, pontificating theatre visionary like Brecht or Peter Brooke he wasn't; a fast, furious basher-up of, and lasher-out against, negative attitudes he was. When I first heard of his appointment as Director of the New York Met, I wondered if he had acquired the many varied qualities - diplomacy, tact, charm - necessary in the running of such a complex organisation. Having been exposed for so many years to Laurence Olivier's dazzling displays of flirtatious, charming persuasiveness, which could put a hole in a sheet of tensile steel, I think John could have pinched a bit and popped it into his box of tricks.
The latter part of the journal focuses on his departure from New York and his attempts to re-establish himself in London. For some years he found it difficult to work here - the whole theatre scene had changed and left him behind. New, younger directors and producers had established themselves. Older ones had become wary of classical revivals with large casts. His attempts to establish a new company were met with little interest. 'Old Mother Dexter' talked to me several times about the possible formation of a company to present plays in Leicester before touring them and bringing them to the West End. His enthusiasm had not flagged and I was all too willing to join him in the adventure. Sadly it was not to be. He died tragically following a heart bypass operation in 1990.
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