London Stage Giant Alan Howard Shelves Shakespeare to Play a Nazi for the Good of Broadway

updated 01/24/1983 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/24/1983 AT 01:00 AM EST

To bring its London production of Good to New York, the Royal Shakespeare Company traveled light. The late C.P. Taylor's play, which traces the subtle, insidious slide of a Frankfurt professor toward Nazism, unfolds on a virtually barren stage. The rear brick wall of the Booth Theatre is visible, steam pipes and all; lighting is harsh and artless—80-odd bulbs inside metal caps mounted on long skewers that nearly converge above center stage. Props? Forget it. The RSC brought to Broadway the one—and perhaps only—property that could leave audiences spellbound after two hours: Alan Howard, 45, widely hailed as one of the world's greatest living Shakespearean actors.

Howard already copped several best actor awards in London for his portrayal of fictional professor John Halder during Good's 1981 debut. American critics have called him "riveting" and cheered that you could "count him on the one hand on which are numbered the finest actors of the English-speaking theater." The secret may be in his genes: Howard's parents were both actors and his uncle Leslie played, among other famous roles, that of Ashley Wilkes in Gone With the Wind. In 25 years in the theater, this Howard has mastered no fewer than six Shakespearean kings and princes and has, at times, performed as many as three RSC parts on the same day.

Still, he found Halder, one of his rare antiheroic roles, a challenge. He's onstage from beginning to end and delivers every second speech in the two-and-a-half-hour play. "It's an extraordinary piece," says Howard. "I've never worked a totally exposed stage before. The feeling out there is nightmarish and intense, like being an insect in a laboratory test."

What gripped him about the drama was the playwright's handling of the theme of moral disintegration. As Howard sees it, "Halder is an average man trying his best with a wife, a mistress, a senile, demanding mother and kids. It's a sad, hollow, inadequate existence." Vulnerable to flattery, morally indecisive, academically aloof from the reality of the Nazi regime, Halder becomes easy prey to megalomaniacal bullies. But Howard warns those who are tempted to feel morally superior. "It's bloody nearly impossible to put ourselves in a pre-Holocaust mind," he says. "What were these people like before they knew what we know now? What about us and the Bomb? That really is the issue today. Are we on the threshold of some other terrifying historical process which only our great-grandchildren will know about? And are we morally up to scratch to handle it?"

Actor Gary Waldhorn, who plays a Jewish psychiatrist friend betrayed by Halder, states the obvious: "Alan is a very intense actor, totally committed to this play." Adds Howard, "In the beginning we all behaved a bit hysterically after shows. It is a mentally very daunting piece to do eight times a week."

He cannot say he wasn't warned. His father is comedic actor Arthur Howard and his late mother was actress Jean Compton Mackenzie, niece of author Sir Compton Mackenzie. His parents "slightly tilted me away from the business," says Howard. "It had been rough going for them." Nonetheless, he dived in at an early age, not through drama school, but as a stagehand at the Belgrave Theatre, Coventry. He joined the RSC in 1966 and soon won an award as London's most promising actor for his performance in Troilus and Cressida.

Away from the theater, which Howard says consumes most of his time, he reads—novels and history—and relaxes with writer Sally Beauman, the woman he has lived with for 11 years, and their son, James, 8. (Alan and Sally each had a previous, childless marriage.) They met when she was assigned to interview him ("It lasted 24 hours, a classic," he recalls with a laugh). Work and life mixed less happily in the last several years as Beauman struggled through her recently published book, The Royal Shakespeare Company: A History of Ten Decades. "Those years were difficult for poor Sally," says Howard. "She always wanted to discuss RSC with me. We found ourselves going a bit potty."

For Good's limited 20-week run, which ends next month, Howard, Beauman & Son temporarily moved from their suburban north London home to a Manhattan apartment. After Good Howard will return home to look for new roles. "I hope to find the same sort of interest in another play," he says. "I may rechannel my energy into a different medium, perhaps television. And I expect some sort of decompression. Halder has been a slightly unnerving role."

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