The Truly Great

Paul Greenberg

4/7/2008 12:01:00 AM - Paul Greenberg

I think continually of those who were truly great.
Born of the sun they traveled
a short while towards the sun,
And left the vivid air signed with their honor.

-Stephen Spender

You know how it is. You're flipping though the paper, get to the obituary page, and there is the name of some once prominent personage - a politician, an artist, an athlete or some other celebrated figure you may never have met, and who hasn't been in the public eye for years. But he long ago became an indelible part of your own consciousness, someone who has entered not just your thoughts but dreams.

So that, years later, long after the name has disappeared from the daily news or Broadway marquee, you see it atop an obituary, and you want to read every word, not just to learn more about a figure who had such a powerful effect on you, but to relive the experience he gave you.

Such a name is that of Paul Scofield, the British actor who has died of leukemia at the age of 86. He was a man of the stage who gave many a memorable performance, for he brought to his craft a remarkably adaptable voice, body and persona. At six-foot-two, he could play a towering monarch, yet disappear into the background if that was required.

To quote the director Peter Brook, who recalled waiting for Mr. Scofield to rehearse the part of the priest in Graham Greene's "The Power and the Glory": "The door opened and a small man entered. He was wearing a black suit, steel-rimmed glasses and holding a suitcase. For a moment we wondered why this stranger was wandering on our stage. Then we realized it was Paul, transformed. His tall body had shrunk, he had become insignificant."

Paul Scofield had many triumphs on stage, including his Salieri in "Amadeus." The actor Richard Burton, no small talent himself, once said that, "of the 10 greatest moments in the theater, eight are Scofield's."

The role that made Paul Scofield's lined features and timbered voice internationally known was that of Sir Thomas More in Robert Bolt's "A Man for All Seasons." The relationship between a great play and a great actor is complicated. The actor is both true to the playwright's lines and truer, for he makes them distinctively his own. It is one thing to read Robert Bolt's lines on paper, and be moved and enlightened. It is another but different thing to have been moved and enlightened by watching Paul Scofield bring the lines to stage, screen and life.

So much about "A Man for All Seasons" informs and awakens an amnesiac modern mentality. For we have long since forgotten the ideas the play champions: a reverence for law for itself, quite beyond the game playing that lawyers have made of it; a reverence for a God whose will we hope to honor and discern, however imperfectly, through His greatest gift, Reason; and, perhaps most un-modern of all, the recognition that perjury is the ultimate treason, betraying not just the law or society or an oath, but one's very self. Can we even speak of the soul now without embarrassment?

The great project that Robert Bolt undertook with his little play might be called The Restoration - of values. That it should have been written just as the 1960s were dawning, and with them that decade's great challenge to all the old pieties, only adds to its continuing power and freshness. For there may be nothing so novel as the defense of old truths.

In a preface to the play that ought to be required reading in law schools, the playwright tried to explain to the modern reader why a man would go to his death rather than just "put his hand on an old black book and tell an ordinary lie." Robert Bolt did so through the written word, Paul Scofield through the spoken. The playwright provided the lines, but it took a great actor to give them a vivid power that seals their meaning in our minds.

Paul Scofield would win both a Tony and an Academy Award in the 1960s. Decades later, no one who had seen him in "A Man for All Seasons" was likely to forget its continuing relevance when the smoothest of American politicians and lawyers were explaining that, far from a high crime and misdemeanor, perjury was no great matter - at least not if committed by a political leader of sufficiently high rank like a president of the United States.

To those who knew the play, the question that captured a nation's flitting attention at the end of the 20th Century had been definitively answered long before - not just in Robert Bolt's plain words but in the rolling, deeply humane cadences of Paul Scofield's soft but far-carrying voice. The Sir and Saint Thomas that he gave the world remains unforgettable after all this time: by turns knowing and innocent, playful and sorrowful, and, perhaps most impressive of all, the most amiable and sociable of men.

Paul Scofield was a shy, private man off-stage. You wouldn't find him discussing his politics or performances on late-night talk shows. Once the curtain fell, he became one of the throng of unnoticeable commuters headed home after work to wife and family.

The actor respectfully declined the knighthood that was offered him in the 1960s, perhaps because he didn't want the attention, perhaps because becoming Sir Paul might have put a barrier between himself and his fellow actors. Like all the truly great, he realized he was but one of a whole cast. No matter. Actors know their trade, and always treated him as the knight he was anyway.