The last time I saw Christopher Plummer onstage, it was in a performance with the New York Philharmonic at Avery Fisher Hall in 2011. The music was William Walton’s score to the 1944 movie version of “Henry V” directed by and starring Laurence Olivier. Plummer performed the monologues and soliloquys for which Walton had written musical prologues or underscoring. The audio clip below is from a performance of the same piece that he gave in London back in 1990. It is the famous prologue to the play (“O, for a muse of fire!”). Twenty-one years had not diminished his magnificent voice or his interpretation one jot. It was a thrilling evening. Plummer was 81 at the time, and he performed the speeches from memory. Ralph Richardson once said it was the actor’s job to “terrify” the audience a bit, so they’d know who was master; Ethel Barrymore was once asked if anyone coughed while she was onstage: “They wouldn’t dare,” she replied. So it is with Plummer. At the “Henry V” performance at Avery Fisher, from the moment he strode out on stage in his plum colored velvet jacket, he was in absolute command. He took a seat in front of the violin section, crossed his legs and listened to the overture. When his first cue came, he stood, took a few steps downstage and delivered the prologue with spectacular clarity, energy and intelligence.
When he resumed his seat, to thunderous applause, I thought of what Herman J. Mankiewicz was supposed to have said about Orson Welles: “There but for the grace of God, goes God.”
Here are two clips of Plummer as James Tyrone, from Eugene O’Neill’s “Long Day’s Journey Into Night.” I’ve seen more productions of this play than of any other. To date, the greatest I’ve seen was on Broadway in the summer of 1988, starring Jason Robards, Colleen Dewhurst, Campbell Scott and Jamie Sheridan. I never thought I’d see an actor give a finer performance of old Tyrone than Robards did, but judging from these two monologues, his old drinking buddy, Chris Plummer, beat him at his own game. The first clip is the famous “fear of the poorhouse” speech.
The second is Tyrone’s heartbreaking account of how he wasted his great talent. This is something Plummer will never have to worry about.
Finally, here is Plummer’s version of one of the most famous speeches from the Shakespearean canon.