The story of Duel of Angels
(Left): PETER with Vivien Leigh – the woman he describes as “The love of my life”
PETER first met The Olivier’s – Lawrence and Vivien (Leigh) in the autumn of 1956, when he was playing the down-on-his-luck Chinese pilot, Yang-Sun, in the Bertold Brecht’s ‘The Good Woman of Setzuan’, at the Royal Court Theatre, London. It was at this time that PETER favoured an early attempt at Method Acting, and it wasn’t uncommon to find him sitting in one of the rubbish bins outside the stage door as he tried to immerse himself in the part.
It was mainly due to this newly acquired habit that Ms. Leigh – as known stickler for cleanliness, had been heard to say that she could barely stand to be near him. Nevertheless, PETER was selected as her leading man in Olivier’s production of ‘Duel of Angels’, which began rehearsals in Oxford in the spring of 1958.
Olivier had just left London for a run in ‘The Entertainer’, which was playing in the United States, and would be away until June. The role of his daughter had gone to Joan Plowright, with whom he’d been indulging in a lengthy affair. Aware of this fact, Vivien had thrown herself into the role of Paola – a character who she openly despised.
‘Duel of Angels’ had been written by Jean Giraudoux, but had been translated for the British stage by Christopher Fry. At Ms Leigh’s insistence, Jean Louis Barrault had been brought over from Paris to direct the play, which was later described by Alan Dent, one of America’s leading drama critics, as being “an immaculate mixture of mythical tragedy and Victorian melodrama, with a tang of French bedroom farce.”
With PETER in the role of Count Marcellus, and Vivien Leigh as the faithless wife to Claire Bloom’s virtuous one, the play went on tour in Britain, visiting most of the major cities and finishing its run at the Apollo Theatre in London’s West End.
During the long tour, PETER and Vivien became inseparable, and created a professional partnership that PETER later described as being on two levels: “It was like being completely in the play and, at the same time, being able to comment in a language of our own like ventriloquists. It was almost telepathic.”
It was around this time that PETER and Vivien embarked on an affair. Their Co-star, Claire Bloom, suggested later that Ms Leigh had set her sights on PETER from the off. “All the ladies in the play adored PETER. He was a beautiful boy who we’ve all loved to take to bed,” said Ms Bloom. “Vivien had her heart sent on him right from the start, and she managed to seduce him.”
(Right): PETER with Vivien Leigh backstage at the Apollo Theatre
On the night that the company had arrived in Newcastle, Vivien received news that Olivier would be extending his run in ‘The Entertainer’. He had been to see rehearsals for ‘Duel of Angels’ prior to the start of the tour, but had thought Barrault’s style too stylized for English audiences. As so often before, he’d decided to redirect the play himself, and had drastically changed many aspects of the leading characters – including those of Marcellus and Paola. It was said by one critic that all Olivier had succeeded in doing was removing a certain strength from the performers, which they did not find again until the opened in New York.
When the Play finished its run in London, Vivien went to join her husband in America, but it was already apparent that their marriage was all but over, and that plans were already afoot for him to marry Joan Plowright. With this realisation, Vivien found solace in PETER’s arms, whose loyalty and love had helped her through an extremely difficult period in her life.
There is a rather cryptic reference to PETER in Lawrence Olivier’s biography, ‘Confessions of an Actor’, which reads: “My diaries bear witness of determined encroachments on my resolve; Vivien departs, Vivien back; PETER away, PETER back (this was evidence of another encroachment form another quarter).”
Following their triumphant finale in the West End, the cast disbanded temporarily, until rehearsals began for their tour of the States. Having filled the role of Marcellus for over a year, PETER felt that he couldn’t bring anything new to the part, and so declined the opportunity to make his debut on Broadway. Vivien, however, knew instinctively that only he could complement her so unconditionally on stage, and so she herself refused to go unless he went with her. But this wasn’t the only reason she wanted him with her on tour. As it turned out, she also needed his moral support.
During the rehearsals for the America leg director, Robert Helpmann, insisted that PETER should wear a new costume. Which consisted of a VERY tight pair of riding breeches, which he’s previously worn in a costume parade. When he arrived on stage for the first dress rehearsal, Vivien immediately asked him what he thought he was doing. Helpmann screamed: “Isn’t he perfect? So much more revealing than those baggy numbers he wore in London!” “PETER, dear,” Ms Leigh retorted, firmly. “If you come on in those on the first night, not only will they not be looking t your face, they won’t be looking at mine either. Take them off at once!”
Despite this minor setback, the paly opened in New Haven to rapturous reports, with one critic describing Ms Leigh’s performance as the “Most controlled and captivating of her life.” What the reporters didn’t appreciate, however, was that an even greater drama was about to unfold backstage.
On the evening of the first performance in New York, PETER was summoned to Helpmann’s where he was met by the news that Vivien was refusing to go on stage. She’s received a telegram from Oliver which he’s timed to arrive a few days later. However, due to the efficiency of Western union, the message had arrived early. It read that Olivier wanted a divorce. PETER was then given the unenviable task of persuading Ms Leigh to go on.
“I don’t think that she ever fully recovered from the impact of that telegram,” PETER said, 2and throughout the performance I had to watch and gently guide her through. I had to be, not only in character, but also to let her know I was there if she wavered for a second. She never did. It was why I consider her to be such a great actress. Without a shadow of a doubt it was her best performance in ‘Duel of Angels’. She was devastating! It was as if she realised she’d was on her own from now on. She completely won with her talent and overwhelming courage.”
There was a lighter moment in New York during the first week there, when a woman in the front row began to distract the actors by continually rattling her jewellery in an otherwise silent auditorium. At one point PETER became so irate that he stormed to the front of the stage and told the woman, in no uncertain terms, to either be quiet of leave. It was only after the performance when the cast were introduced to a group of dignitaries, that he realised the woman he’d chastised was none other than Jacqueline Kennedy!
PETER as Count Marcellus and Vivien Leigh a Poala in ‘Duel of Angels’
In May, a long-running dispute between Actors Equity and the New York Theatre Managers came to a head. The insurrectionists hit upon the idea of closing one theatre per night an hour before curtain-up, without prior notice. This proved to be an impossible situation, so at the beginning of June, all the New York theatres closed for ten days. Several plays were lost thanks to this action – one of which was ‘Duel of Angels’. On June 10th, PETER, Vivien Leigh and Robert Helpmann took a flight back to London for the duration of the dispute.
In July, ‘Duel of Angels’ went on tour throughout America, taking in Los Angeles, Denver, Kansas, Chicago and latterly San Francisco, where PETER picked up the prestigious ‘Best Actor in a Foreign Play’ Award to add to the ‘Most Promising Newcomer’ accolade he’d won in New York.
On October 19th, 1960, following the completion of their gruelling four-month tour, PETER, Vivien Leigh and Co-Star, John Merivale, returned to New York to board the Queen Elizabeth cruise liner for home. It was while on the ship that PETER and Merivale were asked to act as judges of a beauty contest – much to the amusement of Ms Leigh!
Speculation fuelled by Vivien’s divorce from Olivier filled the air as the giant ship docked at Cherbourg, and a barrage of flashbulbs popped in anticipation to see which of her dashing male companions she would emerge with. Their wait was over as she strolled away on the arm of both men!
The Hellfire Club: The OFFICIAL PETER WYNGARDE Appreciation Society: https://www.facebook.com/groups/813997125389790/