Friday, July 15, 2016

Micheál MacLiammóir (1899-1978) began life in London under the much more prosaic name Alfred Willmore. A child actor like his contemporary and friend Noel Coward, he worked in the British theatre through the 1920s when he ended up in Dublin, Ireland. With his partner Hilton Edwards he founded Dublin's Gate Theatre and established it as a successful rival to the city's venerable Abbey Theatre.

In 1931 a precocious American showed up at The Gate, claiming to be a Broadway star and virtually demanding to be hired as an actor. That assertive teenager, one Orson Welles, made his professional stage debut later that year in The Gate's production of Jew Suss, playing the elderly Duke Karl Alexander of Württemberg while only sixteen himself.

The young Orson Welles:

Cast list for the Gate production of Jew Suss, the stage debut of Orson Welles:

Welles once described Micheál MacLiammóir as looking “like something Beardsley would have drawn if they'd taken away his erasers.” I'm not sure what that means either. Maybe he was referring to MacLiammóir's hilariously obvious hairpieces.

Welles and MacLiammóir (with Eartha Kitt, left), probably in the early 1950s:

Outside of his work with The Gate MacLiammóir is best remembered for his superb performance as Iago in Welles' film of Othello:

In 1960 MacLiammóir put together a one man show on Oscar Wilde called The Importance Of Being Oscar. He was far too old for the role (just as he'd been for Iago) and for all his talent he lacked the playful frivolity of Wilde. Nevertheless the production became an international triumph, running on Broadway and eventually on worldwide tour.

MacLiammóir explores aspects of Wilde in The Unimportance Of Being Oscar:

In 1964 MacLiammóir recreated his performance for television; by some miracle, a kinescope of this production has survived:

As stated MacLiammóir was too old for the charmingly witty young upstart, a role for which he was temperamentally unsuited anyway. Instead he emphasized the post-prison Wilde, tired but not yet defeated, not bitter but not wholly accepting of his lot. It's a fascinating performance and not to be missed.

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