I’ve been reading Peter O’Toole’s autobiographies, both of which are titled Loitering with Intent. The first one, subtitled “The Child,” covers his childhood growing up in the wartime years. It is a dizzying ride of prose, very Irish-stream-of-consciousness, punctuated with extremely lucid passages about Hitler. Exhilarating stuff.
I’m now onto “The Apprentice,” which covers his years at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. It is absolutely fascinating to get this inside peek at the training “real” actors get. I love his analysis of Shakespeare and Shaw. It really gives me the acting bug, especially as I consider my increasingly shattered singing voice.
Of course, it’s not all about acting. A fair share of it is a “life and times” account of friends, pubs, alluring women, austerity, hilarious accounts of a Mini named Humphrey, and a touching bit about a secret spot near willow trees where he spent the next thirty years studying and memorizing lines.
O’Toole almost bit his tongue in half during a rough game of rugby and consequently had what he called a lisp. One of his instructors declared it was simply “lazy tongue” and gave him this exercise to do twice a day:
Amidst the mists and coldest frosts, with barest wrists and stoutest boasts, he thrusts his fists against the posts, and still insists he sees the ghosts.
One of my favorite stories so far is his account of nearly being electrocuted while trying to toast marshmallows.
Curious looking animal. Two sharp prongs, long shaft, wooden handle. Bit devilish. Here are the marshmallows. Great load of them on a large plate.…Toast the marshmallows. All right. Uncertain whether or not I’ve ever before seen a marshmallow. Round fat little white jobs. Never eaten one, that’s certain. Hang on. Maybe before the war. It’s possible. Yes, perhaps fourteen years ago I did. Or was that Turkish Delight? Doesn’t matter. Never toasted a marshmallow. Definitely not. Never toasted anything. Not a slice of bread. That’s what’s normally toasted, surely. Bread. Toast the marshmallows. All right. Try one neat. Dissolving rubber. Sweet. Sticky. There are better things in the world, are there not, Lord love you, to chew, than a marshmallow.
…Shove one little bugger on one prong another little bugger on the other prong. Hold steadily before the hot red element.…Toast the fucking marshmallows.…Hot, smoking, sickening pong. Consider yourselves toasted. Get on that plate. Emprong a further two. Hold steadily before hot red elements. Have mercy on me please, will you please have mercy on this sinner. Nina Van, whom God only can love for herself alone and not for her yellow hair, is come slowly walking through the room, the long form of her curving and moving under a white silk robe. Jesus! Jesus! Jesus! I’ve stuck the fucking fork into the fucking element. It’s true what’s said. I can’t let go. It’s punching driving ramming battering through my hand up my arm into my body brains head being! Jesus!
The Son of Man heeded my sincere entreaties. He made arrangements for me to disconnect myself from the dread power of the voltage thudding into me through the media of electrical fire, marshmallow and pronged toasting iron by encouraging me to launch myself into a spectacular, high arching back-somersault whose terminus was reached when the top of my head landed into a tidy right-angle made for me by a skirting board and the dogshelf. The rest of me, of course, followed hard upon; the display ended when I lay sprawling and concussed on the carpet in the corner of this sitting room in which I had diligently squatted at my task. The Daughters of Women were around me when consciousness returned. Concerned young women, lovely girls, and, no, a doctor won’t be necessary, yes, please, a brandy would slip down a treat, what?, an ice pack on the nut, certainly, thank you, from the refrigerator?, I’d like to see that, seen a few in stores and shops but never before in the kitchen of a house, yes, we’re a bit behind here in domestic gadgetry, hand is fine, not burnt, bit of gyp, ice on that?, certainly, another brandy, I’m sure, would work wonders, does look pretty, doesn’t it, sparks and marshmallows and buckled prongs, yes, a minute or two on a bed would turn the trick nicely for me, thank you, yes of course I can walk, whoops a daisy!, groggy, that’s all, come here to me then, I’ll wrap my arms around you, support away, my beauties, support away, this is great, through here?, right, thank you, here we go, you’re very nice girls, you’re very kind, this will do a treat, I’ll be right as ninepence, again, thank you, see you shortly.
Isn’t that great? You have to hang on when reading his sentences because it’s so long from the start to the finish, but it’s no different from novels written before the 20th century and it’s well worth the ride.
There’s another story, touching, addressed to Edmund Kean, a nineteenth century actor who was one of O’Toole’s heroes. Kean’s father killed himself at age 23 when Kean himself was three or four. He was taken in by “Aunt Tid,” the former mistress of the Duke of Norfolk, who now had “permanent employment as walk-on with the odd word to say in the company at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane.”
Just around the corner, Sunshine, Old Drury, Aunt Tid will be here to mind you. You’ll find that her loving will at first mean agony for you. You will be taken to a hospital where you will be starved of food and drink for two days and nights. On the third day you will be given all the milk that you can gulp and the milk will have been heavily laced with gin. The surgeons do it to anaesthetize you. When you are practically senseless, the surgeons will grip the young bones of your bent legs and will stretch and shove and pound and twist at those crooked limbs until they are straight. Thick iron rods with hinges and joints forming them into long splints and heavier than your body is will then be clamped on your legs, from thigh to ankle. When the surgeons are satisfied with the alignments of both limb and splint, the heavy iron rods will be hard screwed into firm place. Night and day for five years you will wear leg irons, Ned, and at first your suffering will be much. However, in time, you’ll find them just bearable; in time, they will hardly hinder you from a prank; in time, you will for good and all be rid of them and at that time when you will be nine or so, you will for the first time know a miraculous sense of freedom such as few of us on earth can ever know. Yes, King Bloody Dick, you’ll become such a frisky little prat that Aunt Tid will wrap a brass dog collar round your neck saying, “This boy belongs to 12 Tavistock Row. Please bring him home,” and sometimes you’ll go home and sometimes you won’t and at all times you’ll be chatting and tumbling and singing and dancing and scrapping and thieving and reciting and boxing and fencing, laughing, cursing, tight-rope walking and saying why not.
See? Marvelous. I’m halfway through “The Apprentice” and can’t wait to dive back in.