In Austin Pendleton's factually-based comedy Orson's Shadow, the mastermind behind the 1960's pairing of Orson Welles and Laurence Olivier is the noted West End theatre critic Kenneth Tynan. This brilliant and charismatic man was capable of catapulting or destroying an actor's career. He was also a champion of the controversial and, as legend has it, is often credited as being the first person to intentionally drop an F-bomb on live television. Tynan was prone to pushing boundaries.


A re-occurring theme in the play looks at individuals like Welles, Olivier, and Leigh who achieved their fame and reached the height of their greatness early in their careers. This is also true for Tynan. The son of Peter and Letitia Rose Tynan was an exceptional student while attending King Edward's School in Birmingham. At the age of six, the would-be writer began keeping a diary. Tynan was twelve at the outbreak of World War II and was nearly killed by a landmine at the age of thirteen that destroyed a portion of his neighborhood. 


The event had a profound affect on the young critic and he began to form negative  and oppositional opinions about the government and society. This take on the world around him led Tynan in a direction as a debater in school where he would speak eloquently on behalf of controversial topics. 


His intellectual skills as a writer and debater earned him a scholarship to Oxford. Tynan quickly gained notoriety as a scholar, rebel, and stylish party host. Despite having a congenital lung disorder, the fashionable youth was already a heavy smoker. As a bit of a "rule breaker" he won friends easily and would often invite nearby celebrities to his many campus soirees. The student soon became the most talked about person on campus and used his popularity to take on leadership roles for the school publications and theatrical productions. During his time in college, Tynan also became close friends with his writing professor, C.S. Lewis. The Chronicles of Narnia author became like a second father to him and was an early example of Tynan's debilitating tendencies toward hero worship. 


In 1951, Tynan would marry author, Elaine Dundy after a three month romance. On May 12, of the following year the pair would have a daughter,Tracy. That same year, Tynan made a huge splash as a theatre critic for The London Evening Standard and quickly established himself as the most audacious journalist in the city. Two years later he left for The Observer and it was there that he rose to prominence. The critic became a champion for a new style of modern realism that was emerging throughout the 50's. He pushed for people to see John Osborne's Look Back in Anger and other counterculture plays being developed that were edgy and avant garde like himself.


With his passion for the controversial, the young critic became a huge force in the London theatre scene that challenged and confronted both the performers and his readership. Tynan was regarded with fear, hatred and awe because of his uncanny wit and his ability to cripple the egos of huge stars. Over his desk he pinned the mottos, "Write heresy, pure heresy" and "Rouse tempers, goad and lacerate, raise whirlwinds."


By the mid 50's Tynan's penchant for stirring the pot with crippling reviews like that of Vivien Leigh's performance in two Cleopatra plays began to fade. The critic soon became distracted by his own hero worship and sexual infidelities. His marriage to Dundy crumbled. While he managed to contribute reviews to the papers in the states, he became a starstruck version of his former self. He searched for ways to regain his relevance by hitching himself to the greats he idolized like Laurence Olivier, whom he believed to be the greatest actor of the 20th century and Orson Welles who was the world's greatest film maker.


Orson's Shadow looks at this particular time in Tynan's life. His work with Olivier eventually led him to become the Literary Manager of Britain's National Theatre under the Artistic Direction of the actor. During that time he influenced his stage  idol to take on projects that challenged both audiences and artists.  After his years at The National, the critic continued to write "name-dropping", "tell-all" books without much of the fire he once possessed. He died in 1980 from chronic emphysema.



April 8 through 23 audiences will get to experience what it would have been like to pair the talents of Orson Welles with Laurence Olivier for a production of Ionesco's absurdist comedy Rhinoceros. Figuring into the mix to further complicate the partnership of Orson and Larry was the affair that Olivier is having with his protege, Joan Plowright while still married to famous wife, actress and movie legend, Vivien Leigh. 


When the play opens Olivier and Leigh are at the end of their 20 year marriage that made them one of Hollywood's supreme power couple throughout the 40's. By 1960, history for the two was repeating itself because at the time they met in the late 30's, Olivier had been married to Jill Esmond, a rising actress on the London stage. Vivien was married. as well, to a barrister named Herbert Leigh Holman. 


Each had become fond of one another's work on the stage. Leigh was born Vivian Mary Hartley in Darjeeling, India just before World War I; the daughter of a teacher and an English businessman. Like Olivier, she had wanted to become an actor at a very early age and so her parents put her on a path to accomplish this. Although they traveled the world due to her father's job as a broker, the young actress eventually ended up studying at The Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts. Vivian's time at the academy was cut short when she became married to Holman and gave birth to their daughter Suzanne. 


When Leigh and Olivier began working together on Fire Over London (1937) and a stage performance as Ophelia opposite Larry's Hamlet the couple grew closer and closer. They began living together since neither of their spouses would initially grant them a divorce. When Vivien read Margaret Mitchell's Gone With the Wind and learned that the internationally popular book would be made into a movie she said, "I will be Scarlett O'Hara. Olivier won't be Rhett Butler, but I shall play Scarlett. Just you wait and see." 


In 1938 she took a supporting role in A Yank at Oxford with former childhood friend, Maureen O'Sullivan. Unhappy that she did not get the lead over her friend, she started to gain the the reputation of being difficult to work with. Throughout her life, Leigh battled with Bipolar Disorder and was prone to wild mood swings. At times these fits were so severe that she would have no recollection of them occurring. Despite her behaviors on set, A Yank at Oxford was a success and became her first major exposure to US audiences.
"I am not a film star, I am an actress. Being a film star is such a false life, lived for fake values and publicity."- Vivien Leigh
Her performance in A Yank at Oxford and Fire Over London caught the attention of Myron Selznick whose brother David was producing Gone With the Wind. Selznick, who was acting as Leigh's American agent, championed the actress amidst a highly publicized talent search for Scarlett O'Hara. With Myron pushing her as the dark horse candidate, the actress got the role of a lifetime. Gone With the Wind went on to win 10 Academy Awards with Leigh earning her first  Oscar for Best Actress in 1940.


With Olivier receiving his first Oscar nomination for Wuthering Heights in that same year, the attractive pair became a Hollywood power couple and the fodder of numerous tabloids. Leigh continued to take on film roles in movies like Waterloo Bridge (1940) and That Hamilton Woman (1941) opposite Olivier. The actress also went on international tours to visit the troops during the war.  Her popularity would continue to grow.


She would she would struggle with her mental illness and recurrent bouts of tuberculosis. During the mid 40's she had frequent health problems and long periods of deep depression. With few commercial successes with films like Caesar and Cleopatra and Anna Karenina, Leigh was frequently filled with self-doubt and at times would loathe the movie making process. 


Her second Academy Award for Best Actress would come in 1951 for the role of Blanche DuBois in Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire. The part of the fragile and fading Southern flower that she had played to great acclaim on stage in London, mirrored much of what Leigh had become by the beginning of the 50's. Although she was not director Elia Kazan's first choice for the role, she gained his admiration by the end when he realized that "she was willing to crawl through broken glass if she thought it would make the film better."


Shortly after her success in Streetcar,  Vivien and Olivier embarked on ambitious stage productions of Shakespeare's Anthony and Cleopatra and George Bernard Shaw's Caesar and Cleopatra. Although the productions which alternated nights played to full houses, was eventually brought to the states and received mostly great reviews, West End critic Kenneth Tynan wrote comments that dismissed Leigh's performances as being mediocre. Despite glowing reviews for other stage work, Tynan's words hurt the actress greatly and would haunt her through the rest of her career. 


As Orson's Shadow opens, Leigh is completing work on A Roman Spring for Mrs. Stone based on a novel by Tennessee Williams. The film co-starring a young Warren Beatty, told the story of a widowed actress who is told she is  "too old" to play a role. The movie received disappointing reviews despite the character of Karen Stone being in Leigh's wheelhouse. 


As her health both mentally and physically began to take their toll, Vivien would make one last film. 1965's Ship of Fools was considered a critical success and a personal triumph for Leigh. She would die two years later following her long and ongoing battle with tuberculosis at the age of 53. Despite the highs and lows she had experienced with Olivier, Leigh once remarked that she was far more happier to have had him in her life than if they'd never been together at all.


On April 8, you will be treated to a behind the scenes look at a time in the lives the Hollywood giants Orson Welles, Laurence Olivier, and Vivien Leigh. Based on real-life events, Orson's Shadow by Austin Pendleton is a critically acclaimed comedy that is sharp-witted yet tender-hearted expose of the thin skins, hot tempers, and rampaging egos that exist when titans of the stage and screen come together. Set during a time when all three were struggling to recapture the fame they'd had in the their past, the play examines the nature of genius and the art of making art once the spotlight has faded. 


For Laurence Olivier, the start of the 60's was a time to reinvent himself as his marriage to screen legend Vivien Leigh was crumbling. The couple had become the Hollywood tabloid stars of their day during the 40's and 50's. With Leigh away in the states, Olivier was looking for a way to create a legacy for himself. The play looks at the time in his life as he was coming off the success of his role as Archie Rice on stage and in the film version of The Entertainer. As he had done throughout his career, he attempted to use his popularity in the moment to create something bigger for himself--he wanted to build a theatre as prestigious as The Old Vic, which had helped him to become one of the greatest actors of the 20th century.


Olivier had always wanted to act. His early beginnings were that of a son to a clergyman who moved the family often. Seeing that Olivier had a general interest and talent for theatre, his pious father enrolled him in London's Central School of Speech Training and Dramatic Arts. Upon graduation, the young actor went on to become a member of Sir Barry Vincent Jackson's Birmingham Repertory Company where he worked as a general stagehand, understudy and performed bit roles. He received his first lead for the company in the title role in Harold at the age of twenty. Shortly thereafter, he started playing much older roles like Macbeth and Hamlet. His performances soon caught the attention of the critics and established theatre community. 


Playwright, Charles C. Bennett stated once that Olivier spoke Shakespeare's words as naturally as if he were thinking of them himself. In truth, the actor's interest in Freudian psychology inspired him to attack the roles he was playing in a more internal way--to look at their desires and their motivations. Olivier also looked at the physicality of his characters and would train extensively for parts. At other times he would create makeup, prosthetics, or make costuming choices early in the rehearsal process to do what he called "building a character from the outside inward." With his methods in place, more prestigious theaters sought him out.


In 1930, Olivier started looking to film so that he could afford his wedding to his first wife, fellow stage actress, Jill Esmond. The actress was a rising star of the British stage and so he turned his attention to movies, in part, to avoid being "out-shined" by his wife. Although Olivier wanted the meatier parts that he was afforded to perform onstage, his good looks tended to typecast him in the innocent heroic roles. Dissatisfied by his early work on movies, he returned to the stage. In 1935, he was selected by his contemporary, John Gielgud, to play the lead in Romeo and Juliet at The Old Vic. The overwhelming success of that production led the company to pick Olivier for their Hamlet. Little did the actor know that he had a secret admirer coming to many of his performances of Romeo and Juliet who was an aspiring actress herself. Vivien Leigh took a liking to the dashing actor and set out to be cast opposite of him in Hamlet.  The pair starred in the Danish tragedy and went on to appear in the films Fire Over England (1937), 21 Days (1940), and That Hamilton Girl (1941).


As Larry was away doing movies with his new leading lady, he and his wife drifted further and further apart. Despite being married to Esmond for nearly a decade and the pair having one son together, the two decided to call it quits. Olivier was enjoying his new-found success in motion pictures. By 1939, he and Leigh were both in high demand with Leigh being selected to play Scarlett O'Hara in Gone With the Wind and Olivier bringing his psychological intensity to the role of Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights. The roles made both actors into International superstars and they received Academy Award nominations for their work.


Olivier used his success on Wuthering Heights and an Oscar nomination the following year for Rebecca to help Gielgud and John Burrell build The Old Vic into one of the most respected theatre's in the world. Throughout the 40's, Olivier would continue to receive accolades for his stage portrayals of Richard the Third and Henry the Fifth. The "actor of his generation" and now Co-Director of The Vic was doing so much for theatre in England that he was knighted in 1947. As he used his star power to advance the mission of The Old Vic, he decided it was time to begin producing, and directing himself in movies of his own. In 1944, he reprised his role as Henry V of England for a big screen adaptation of the play.


Henry V went on to receive Oscar nominations for Best Picture and Best Actor but instead was given a Special Award from the Academy. It wasn't until Olivier returned to his role as Hamlet in 1948 that the producer, director, and actor received his first pair of awards. The movie was the first non-American film to win the Oscar for Best Picture. In addition, Olivier took home his first gold statue for Best Actor. 


He continued to work on film projects throughout the 50's but never really delivered performances that grabbed audiences the way he had in the previous decade. Larry and Vivien continued to work on both stage and screen with Leigh winning her second Academy Award for Best Actress as Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire. As with his first wife, Olivier was being upstaged on film by his second wife. He hit an acting doldrum and began working with more experimental theatre companies to challenge himself. 


In 1957, Olivier took the role of Archie Rice in John Osborne's play The Entertainer at the Royal Court Theatre. The drama was well-received and when it was moved to the US for a Broadway run, a young Joan Plowright was cast to play Archie's daughter. She later went on  to make the movie version directed by Tony Richardson with Olivier receiving an Academy Award nomination for his portrayal of a down and out dance hall performer.


With his career on the upswing again, the actor took Plowright on as his protege and the pair embarked on creating The National Theatre. When Pendleton's play opens it is early in the process of what would eventually become Olivier's greatest legacy. The actor served as the Artistic Director of The National from 1963 to 1973. He and Plowright's relationship grew to become much more than that of mentor and apprentice. The actress became his third wife in 1961 and stayed by his side until his death in 1989.


Audiences will get a rare glimpse into the life of these Hollywood stars April 8-23 when Orson's Shadow comes to Chicago Street.


-Eric Brant, Member and Director of Marketing