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Michael Meyer, Not Prince Hamlet: Book Review

by John Cobley

Thursday Jul 30th, 2020


It’s over 30 years since this autobiography was published, but Michael Meyer’s “literary and theatrical memoirs” are still of great interest, especially to those interested in mid-twentieth-century drama. He found little success as a creative writer (plays, novel, poems), but as a biographer and translator of both Ibsen and Strindberg he achieved worldwide success. His Ibsen biography was especially praised (George Steiner: “A major achievement”) while his translations at the time of this book’s publication were “on average…staged or broadcast somewhere in the world every four or five days.”


Autobiographies can be full of boring name-dropping, and although there is some of this here—he knew just about everyone in the theatre world from Olivier to Tynan—most of his friends and acquaintances provide interesting material. Terence Rattigan, for example, told the aspiring playwright, “Never forget that the spoken word in not twice nor three times, but five times as potent as the written word, so that what would occupy a page in a novel would take up only five lines in a play.” However, Meyer can’t resist some nasty gossip material as when he quotes Herbert Read on Virginia Woolf: “The cattiest woman I have ever known.” 


Born on the right side of the railway tracks, Meyer completed his education at Oxford. In one of the most interesting chapters he recounts how he became editor of Cherwell and the co-editor (with Sidney Keyes) of Eight Oxford Poets. He provides valuable first-hand material on both Keith Douglas and Keyes. Philip Larkin was also on the Oxford scene at that time, but Meyer didn’t like his early verse and with Keyes omitted him from Eight Oxford Poets.


It took a long time for Meyer to find his mark in the literary world. He spent several years circulating in London and interacting with many established writers—Graham Greene, Arthur Koestler, Terence Rattigan among many. Eventually, since his writing career was not progressing, he accepted a three-year contract at Uppsala University. This job led to a lifelong involvement in Scandinavian literature and an offer to translate Little Eyolf for British radio, despite the fact that he had never read a word of Norwegian. Fortunately he was able to work with Finnish director Caspar Wrede, who had co-operated with him on one of his own plays earlier: “He taught me about playwriting and the theatre in general, he taught me the difference between translating plays and novels, and he turned me from a dilettante into a professional.” Wrede called upon Meyer a second time for a television production of The Lady from the Sea. Soon after that, when Laurence Olivier wanted to do John Gabriel Borkman with Wrede, Meyer was again called upon to work on the script. At 38, Meyer was finally on his way as a translator: “Translating plays became a way of life for me.”


Meyer has many interesting comments on translating Ibsen’s plays. He sees one of the most difficult problems is rendering the sub-text: “the translator must word his sentences in such a way that the sub-text is equally apparent in English.” This involves a “combination of evasiveness and clarity.” Strindberg’s plays were quite different in that they varied from “jagged directness” to “wooly and vague” verse. Whenever possible, Meyer delayed publication until each play had been “through the testing fire of rehearsal and performance.”


Within seven years Meyer had translated twelve Ibsen plays and eight Strindberg plays with at least 36 professions productions. He was involved in many productions, working with the cream of British actors—Leo McKern Donald Wolfitt, Michael Hordern, Wilfred Lawson, Albert Finney, Trevor Howard. His highly acclaimed biography of Ibsen was completed in 1971; his Strindberg biography was published in 1985. Each took him just over five years. Whereas the Ibsen biography was well received everywhere, the Strindberg biography caused a furore in Sweden because Meyer dealt with all the Swedish playwright’s failings.


Meyer made some good literary friends in his eighty odd years. When he was young he befriended George Orwell. There are ten fascinating pages on this friendship. Meyer calls him “the most courteous kindly and lovable man I have known.” Because of his TB, Orwell had a weak voice, and on several occasions he witnessed Orwell dropping out of a discussion because he could no longer make himself heard. Meyer also devotes chapters  to Frederick Valk, whom he considers the greatest actor he ever saw, and to Ralph Richardson, whom he knew from 1950.


One of the most entertaining and insightful chapters covers Ingmar Bergman’s 1970 London production of Hedda Gabler. Meyer describes in detail how Bergman radically changed the play and how Laurence Olivier struggled to deal with the eccentric Swedish director both socially and in production. 


A treasured book.



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