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The Religious Affiliation of
great British actor
From his obituary at Obits.com (http://obits.com/olivierlaurence.html):
The son of an Anglican minister, Laurence Olivier made his stage debut in "Julius Caesar" at the age of 9 and rose to be named the consummate interpreter of The Bard's works in the 20th Century. Olivier's contributions to stage and film earned him titles in his native England and Oscars, Emmys and international film awards before his death on July 11th, 1989. Laurence Kerr Olivier was born into an old but modest Anglican family on March 22nd, 1907 in Dorking, Surrey, England. His father was a stern minister with a closet fanaticism for plays and literature. When young Olivier inherited his father's mania for the stage it was heartily encouraged, and he debuted in a parochial school production of "Julius Caesar" at the age of 9... After an extended and secretive battle with cancer, Lord Olivier died at his home in Steyning, West Sussex, England, on July 11th, 1989 and was entombed with great honors at Westminster Abbey.
From New York Times biography (URL: http://movies2.nytimes.com/gst/movies/filmography.html?p_id=105057):
Olivier was the son of an Anglican minister, who, despite his well-documented severity, was an unabashed theater lover, enthusiastically encouraging young Olivier to give acting a try.
From: "Few Well-Known Episcopalians/Anglicans" article on "Random Thoughts" web page/blog on website of St. Martha's Episcopal Church (520 S. Lark Ellen Ave., West Covina, CA 91791), 6 March 2005 (http://www.stmarthas.net/random_thoughts/files/archive-1.html; viewed 11 May 2005):
Few Well-Known Episcopalians/Anglicans: Just a sampling, in no particular order: C.S. Lewis, William Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, T.S. Elliot, Jonathan Swift, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Vincent Price, Olivia de Havilland, Ethel Merman, Anne B. Davis, Laurence Olivier, Robin Williams, Judy Garland, Humphrey Bogart, Fred Astaire, Sammy Sosa, Rod Carew, Florence Nightingale, George Washington, James Madison, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, (more than a quarter of all presidents of the United States as well as roughly half of all Supreme Court justices and members of Congress), Thurgood Marshall, Sandra Day O'Connor, Samuel Johnson (author of the first dictionary), Colin Powell, Robert E. Lee, Winston Churchill, Lorraine Salem & Dorothy Tarozzi, Buzz Aldrin, Isaac Newton, Margaret Mead, Christopher Wren, Willa Cather, Nelson Rockefeller, J.P. Morgan, Nat King Cole, Duke Ellington, Judy Collins, Jerry Garcia (Grateful Dead), George Frederic Handel, Desmund Tutu, John Milton, William Wordsworth, John Keats, Jane Austen, Walter Scott, all the Brontes (Charlotte, Emily and Anne), Tennessee Williams.
From Roger Lewis, The Real Life of Laurence Olivier, Applause Books: New York, NY (1997), page xi:
[Laurence Olivier's] relatives were churchmen and schoolmasters, and his father, Gerard Kerr Olivier, experimented with both avocations. His mother, Agnes Louise Crookenden, a headmaster's daughter, died of cancer in 1920, when Olivier was twelve, and his solitariness -- his sense that something essential was missing in his life -- stemmed from that moment. 'I've been looking for her ever since,' he said of his absent parent. 'Perhaps with Joanie [Plowright] I've found her again.'
Lewis, pages 23-24:
It wasn't a mother he wanted -- so much as a Holy Mother. Before going to St. Edward's in Oxford, Olivier had been for at least four years a choirboy at All Saints, in Margaret Street, London. What with those high Anglo-Catholic [Anglican] services and his father's regular sermons and professional admonitions about sin and evil, it is little wonder that there was a deep religious sense in his work. Beyond the Englishness, the heroism, the bravura acting; beyond the changes in his appearance... what mattered was inside: the sensibility, the spirit. His autobiography had a quasi-religious aura; his final roles, in Brideshead Revisited, A Voyage Round My Father, and King Lear, were priestly and other-worldly. So what was the nature and extent of his guilt? Why do I feel that he believed he had not lived his life as he ought to have done so?
[Olivier] had an Edwardian upper-middle-class core, with the concomitant proprieties and discriminations. He sent his eldest son to Eton, Chris Church and into the Coldstream Guards. His lineage is packed with rectors, rural deans, colonels and politicians. Yet his perspectives are longer than that... It's not so much that, through the connections of kin -- e.g. the Revd. Jourdain Olivier, who was chaplain to William of Orange -- he had a sense of pomp and circumstance, the power and the glory...
Chapter Four in Lewis' biography (pages 55-86) is titled "The Time of the Angels," and focuses entirely on Laurence Olivier's religious faith and beliefs as an Anglican, and how these were expressed both in his life and his acting career. Only a few excerpts from this chapter are below, but needless to say, Olivier was not simply a "nominal" Anglican -- he was quintessentially Anglican. From Lewis, pages 55-56:
Ellen Terry said, 'You cannot act without a feeling for religion,' and in his foreward to Fabia Drake's Blind Fortune, Olivier claimed, 'I am aware of much religious feeling, but no certain belief.' He did indeed possess what was essentially a religious mind, which revolved around the concepts of sin, confession, punishment, deliverance, and grace. Macbeth, Richard III, Titus Andronicus, Astrov (Uncle Vanya), Edgar (The Dance of Death), James Tyrone (Long Day's Journey into Night): Olivier knew that each of his characters had a soul to save or lose...
Lewis, page 64:
The importance of liturgy and Anglican pieties; psalms and hymns and a sermon's cadence: it was all in his blood. Crockford's Clerical Directory is clogged with Oliviers. The Revd. Dacres Olivier (1831-1919), prebendary of Salisbury, honorary chaplain to the Earl of Pembroke, who married the daughter of the Rt. Revd. Robert Eden, primus of the Scottish Episcopal Church, for example; or the Revd. Henry Eden Olivier (1866-1936), vicar of Epping, rural dean of Chigwell, who married the daughter of the Revd. Cape, rector of St George's, Hanover Square, author of What Happened at the Reformation, and whose recreation was listed as motoring.
It would be possible to argue that the dilemma in Olivier was his fidelity and moral strength doing battle with pagan temptations and amusements: the Church vs. the Theatre; Jehovah vs. Jove. But his family, at least, far from recoiling in puritanical disdain at the idea of drama, actively encouraged Olivier to perceive the theatricality of a religious life.
Lewis, pages 66-68:
Olivier imitated his father in the pulpit, but his mother attempted to parry the religiosity and (says Sybille) 'deflect him from any youthful ambition to become a clergyman himself.' His mother, instead, 'encouraged Larry to turn his mock-sermonizing into recitatinos and monologues from well-known plays.' Shakespeare, Marlowe, Jonson. Then, at his choir school, where he enrolled in 1916, at the age of nine, he used to sing the church music of Mozart, Handel, Bach, Beethoven (masses in C and D), Schubert, Mandelssohn, Gounod, Dvorak, Palestrina, Attwood, Tallis, Tinel, Silas, Wesley, Stainer and Stanford: 'masses, evensongs, choral services of every kind, anthems and requiems'.
Lewis, page 74:
It was an intense education in discipline and showmanship... There were only fourteen pupils in the school. They rose at six forty-five, church, then breakfast; choir practice and lessons; lots of Latin. Walks in the afternoon, prior to choir evensong...
Olivier's ancestors were religious; he was divine, or could seem as if he were...
When Olivier talks about divineness and the extra-mundane, hoever, he is both figurative and telling us no more than the truth. For he did indeed levitate out of real life. I was there -- I witnessed the Ascension, at noon on Friday 20 October 1989 in Westminster Abbey: the Service of Thanksgiving for the Life and Work of Laurence Olivier OM, Baronn Olivier of Brighton, 1907-89. It was a magnificently royal event, with the processions of dolled-up clergy, the crimson-clad chaplains and choirboys, the representatives of the Queen, the Prince and Princess of Wales, Princess Margaret and the Kents; the swelling organ music...
Secular and divine, theatre and church, seriously mixed and matched when 'items symbolic of Laurence Olivier's life and work' were shipped to the Sacrarium and laid on the High Altar -- the sheer reverence put me in mind of those festivals in Mediterranean communities, when holy relics are paraded through the streets. Alleged saints' bones, fragmenst of the true cross, phials of Christ's blood... and suchlike bits and bobs. We didn't get to venerate Olivier's prepuce... but the historical artefacts were none the less peculiar -- stage props which, owing to Olivier, were rendered religious.
What matters is the way High Church ritual and formality, and their associations, related to his sensitivity and emotions -- to what Philip Larkin calls a 'primitive vivacity'. Virginia Fairweather, his press secretary at Chichester, once asked him outright if he believed in God: 'No -- I wish I could,' he replied; and on the one hand, with Olivier, there is his striving and straining... and on the other hand, the supposition that gifts are handed down by God, and life has to be spent beseeching and worshipping and being grateful. (A dispute, as it were, between the pressures of greed or fear, and providence.) Though Olivier did indeed once say that he owed his talent to being one of those whom 'God had touched on the shoulder', prayer, for him, was not contact with some transcendental being but a communing with his own conscience. (When he was appointed director of the National, a Union Jack flag was pinned to his dressing room door in Chchester with the message 'God Bless Sir!' Olivier read it and was heard to murmer, 'Please, God, help!') Religion wasn't a searching for solace; it was what provided the laws and injunctions by which he lived -- laws derived from the authority of those lovely fictions, the gods (Jove, Jupiter, Jehovah); laws, about sensuality and spirituality, remorse and guilt, grief and ecstasy, destruction and creation, whcih were formulated in wars between angels and demons...
These are the primitive forces, the religious tendencies and sacred themes, which Olivier adapted to theatrical practice...
Webpage created 24 June 2005. Last modified 24 June 2005.
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