Alec Guinness, the Great Little Briton
When Alec Guinness died in 2000, obituary writers around the world mourned the passing of a beloved artist, one of the last survivors of the great generation of British actors born between the death of Queen Victoria and the coming of World War I. He had launched his career by sharing the stage with John Gielgud and ended it by playing Obi-Wan Kenobi on the screen and George Smiley, John le Carré’s enigmatic spymaster, on TV. In between he won a best-actor Oscar and made a string of screen comedies that Time praised as the work of “one of the most subtle and profound of all the clowns since Chaplin.”
To this day, Guinness continues to be spoken of in the same breath with Gielgud, Laurence Olivier, and Ralph Richardson, and rightly so. Yet Guinness was reluctant to rank himself alongside his fellow theatrical knights, and the tributes that followed his death suggest why. Especially in this country, his obituaries had surprisingly little to say to say about his long stage career, instead stressing his work in motion pictures. The New York Times led its front-page death notice by declaring that he was “known to older audiences for films like The Bridge on the River Kwai and to a whole new generation for his role as Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars.” This emphasis is understandable, since he appeared on Broadway only three times—but even in England, where Guinness performed on stage with fair regularity for six decades, he came to be known mainly as a film actor, thus causing cognoscenti of the theater to look askance at his talents.
About the Author
Terry Teachout is COMMENTARY’s critic-at-large and the drama critic of the Wall Street Journal. Satchmo at the Waldorf, his first play, runs through November 4 at Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, Connecticut.