15 November 2014 | rick_lapin
Olivier Flat in "Devil's Disciple"?
This is in answer to otter_c, who wrote: "The only disappointment is Laurence Olivier as General Burgoyne. Olivier castigated himself in his autobiography for botching one of Shaw's most hilarious roles, his personal griefs were overwhelming him at the time. He's nervous and unfocused, line after wonderful line falls flat. (He returned to form shortly after in "Spartacus" and "The Entertainer")"
All due respect to both you and Sir Lawrence, but I think this is an instance where his self-appraisal is a little off-target.
I've always enjoyed this performance as a very excellent portrait of a thinking man and wit under a great deal of pressure, with no idea that Olivier did not care for it -- thing is, Burgoyne IS distracted; he has more important fish to fry than this petty punitive hanging, and even before he gets the news about Howe he is deeply concerned for the continued viability of his command: He tosses off his bon mots as the after-thoughts of the kind of intellect who could actually write plays when he wasn't under siege in an unpopular war in unfriendly country.
And I find that makes them and Burgoyne funnier than, say, Ian Richardson's total self- awareness in the '87 BBC production.
Olivier liked to be In Control when he worked; and in some of the roles in which I do not much care for him I feel it makes him artificial and excessively mannered. So naturally, a performance given when he was overwhelmed with grief is gonna rankle the perfectionist in him; but since he was preoccupied with other, more important (to him) matters it put him willy-nilly square in the same frame of mind as I gauge Gentlemanly Johnny to have been in as disaster loomed, I feel it really helps make the performance live in a way the studied Olivier technique might not have come within yards of.
The two men -- the actor and the general he portrays -- are up against it, but instinct pulls each through even if more distractedly than if under less severe constraints; there is still enough of the essence of each to make a credible showing.
The artist is not always the best critic of his own work; and Olivier's General Burgoyne is excellent work whether the actor knew what he was doing or not.