The Cusack Stand
At 74 Cyril Cusack is writing his autobiography and considering retirement. In the forthcoming Abbey production of "The Merchant of Venice" he plays his first Shylock.
Cyril Cusack was 20 minutes late. The woman with the mouth of Liv Ullmann, on her own at the next table, had been there when I went in. Fearing that I had missed Dr Cusack in the crowded Saturday afternoon pub, I asked the woman if she had seen him. No, he hadn't been. The Ullmann mouth smiled roundly and we chatted the time away. "Oh, you're doing it for Magill," she said, "I have a cat called Magill."
Soon - too soon - the cat called Cusack came padding into the Bailey, carryying two large hags strung over his shoulder and a tweed hat in his hand.
Cusack is feline, calculating, purring. Apologies, apologies; the rehearsal a The Merchant of Venice had run ove time. Again, apologies: fastidious apologies, but erring on the right side of warmth.
Because of the crowd and the noise, there was no point in tryin to talk in the Bailey, which was his choice. He thought perhaps we might try the Shelbourne: yes, the Shelbourne should be, er, satis-fact-ory. So, good bye to the rugby-crowded Bailey goodbye to the pub noise of Saturday afternoon Dublin: goodbye, goodby to the mouth of Liv Ullmann: love to the cat called Magill.
Oysters, Dr Cusack thought, in the Shelbourne. Oysters would he nice. And a pint of stout. The waiter was less than happy about giving the oysters a character reference. "Are they old?" asked Dr Cusack, who is 74 this year. "Middle-aged," the waiter said. We had sandwiches instead. Two sandwiches, two pints of stout and glass of wine - £15.28. That's the Shelbourne. The actor only picked at the food.
Cyril Cusack was born in Durban in South Africa in 1910. His father wa Birmingham Irish and his mother wa a London chorus-girl. He had a grandmother called Grogan the midlands, but he doesn't know exactly where. At the age of 18 his father joined the Natal Mounted Police. He was sent out to quell a riot; he clapped his hands and said, "Stop that!" and the riot stopped.
Five times, Cyril traveiled with his mother from Durban to Ireland; finally, they stayed. "South Africa was all too much for her; she anticipated romance; it was too bleak and isolated," Cyril met his father again at the age a 21, when he went on holiday to Switzerland. And after he had married, the father came to see his children.
As a small child, Cusack and his mother toured Ireland with the fit-ups. He was nurtured on Boucicaul and the melodrama, for which he ha a high regard. He played in Arrah-na Pogue, in which his daughter, Niamh until recently a flautist with the RTE Symphony Orchestra, will play at th Gate Theatre.
The child Cusack had a scattered ed ucat ion, in a different school ever week, both Catholic and Protestant. His secondary schooling was at New bridge College, which he regarded almost as home.
He is still a practising Catholic. He is not sceptical, he says. "You have doubts, but you tackle them and can quer them if you can. Belief is a voyage of exploration and expansion, not a narrow closeted area." He is neither conservative nor liberal, but something in between.
For all his wandering scholarship as a child, he made his way to UCD, where he studied politics, modern history and Roman law. He had thought of becoming a barrister. "It was really a theatrical thought," he smiled wanly, bristling his invisible cat-whiskers.
In holiday time, his mother worked in repertory in the provinces, where he joined her, again playing melodrama. Which, he says, is sometimes disparaagingly called stage-Irish. "I imbibed from it a sense of nationalism. " He pauses. "Call it idealism." Because of some things he had written which might be construed as ambivalent I asked what he thought of the Proviisional IRA. "They are - whether one approves or disapproves - the result of misgovernment." When I pushed him a little, he said, "All war should be outtlawed."
He remembers the Black and Tans taking a pot shot over his head as a child - in what is now called Pearse Street. "I choose to absent myself from political activity. I lean towards the unification of Ireland, of the world, of individuals." The notion of spiritual integration interests him.
In an article on Teilhard de Chardin, which he wrote for The Irish Times, he finds himself admiring Teilhard for his emphasis on Personalisation, that of God and man. He adds: "I believe myself to be further enlightened by Teilhard in his theory of parallel material and spiritual evolution moving towards ultimate reconciliation and unity, towards and until Omega." He finds Teilhard "in the fighting bloodstream of Voltaire and Pascal."
Cyril Cusack takes another nibble at his sandwich, waiting for the flying pen to catch his thoughts and scribble them on paper.
AFTER UCD, HE TOURED THE English midlands - Norwich, Birmingham, Northampton. But he always felt the tug of Ireland and came back in 1932 and joined the Abbey Theatre. Lennox Robinson was then manager; Yeats had withdrawn and Lady Gregory had gone back to Gort. From 1932 to 1945, he played Synge, O'Casey, Shaw and T.C. Murray, with time out for work in London and elsewhere. "
Cusack was in London for most of the War, playing with actors such as Alec Guinness, Ralph Richardson, Edith Evans and Peggy Ashcroft. He was engaged to play in The Cherry Orchard, but it was cancelled when war broke out. He came back here and went over again to play in Cocteau, when a bomb fell and brought the house down about his head. He did a radio programme on Balfe, with John McCormick and C.D. Lewis, in an underground studio with the bombs falling overhead.
His mind slips back and forth in time. "Before all that, in 1936, I did O'Neill's Ah, Wilderness in London. And in 1938 I was in The Playboy with Maire O'Neill." It is not necesssary to name the part each one played.
In 1945, the year the War ended, Cusack married his first wife, Maureen, on borrowed money, and bought a house in Dalkey. "Maureen was a Derry girl," he says, "a consummate actress." They had five children, of whom he is very proud, in a quiet way - off stage, he is not given to dramatic statements, though he allows himself to borrow the style of the gossip columnist when he says that Sinead is now the toast of New York.
Cyril Cusack formed his own commpany "about 1946"; dates seem not to interest him very much. At the Gaiety, he presented Shaw, Synge and Walter Macken. He did The Playboy of the Western World, which "was then considered a museum piece at the Abbey." Siobhan McKenna played Pegeen and they toured Ireland with it. He took it to Paris for the first International Theatre Festival. Brecht was there with the Berliner Ensemble; Cusack and Brecht came out on top that year. He is "out of sympathy with Brecht." He sees him as a propaganndist, and he dislikes his device of alienation. "There must be an emootionalist relationship between the audience and the actor." He allows an unexpected vehemence of tone to enter his voice: "Even Mother Courage was involved."
Does he not find Shaw a little bloodless? "Ah, I thought you might say that." Slyly and slowly: "I am immpelled to humanise the character. "
Cusack is "a little dubious about Beckett as fully theatrical; he is too cerebral. "
Back to Brecht. "He came to see The Playboy and afterwards wrote a letter congratulating the company on the acting and production. But he thought the costumes were far too operatic. They were genuine Aran ... !"
His voice drifts away. He takes a small sip of his pint of stout. The waiter comes over to ask if everyything is all right, Dr Cusack. Everyything is lovely. The waiter, after the cunning of his trade, has even manaaged to know the name of the interrviewer. (The service charge on the bill was fifteen per cent.)
Cyril Cusack's first film was K nockknagow, in 1917. His mind goes forward to 1946, when he made Odd Man Out with James Mason. Mason died recenttly; the tributes paid him were unusually restrained and uniformly kindly and warm. Cusack played with Mason in his last film, Dr Fischer of Geneva. Mason he found "a little bit aloof." He reemembers that he was in the Gate before the War, where he played "a beautiful Brutus - and again on film, of course. He had a very individual style." A little blind is pulled down; it seems inappropriate to try to raise it again.
Actor-managing took up much of Cusack's time from the War until 1961, "when I presented my creative adaptation of The Trial, by Kafka, written in doggerel verse and Dubliinese."
Throughout this time, his wife Maureen "was a very valuable parttner, maritally and professionally. She gave herself entirely to the family and my career. She was an ingenue. Sine ad has carried the torch." She died in 1977, when he was playing The Plough and the Stars in London. "The news came through Sinead. It was a great shock."
Dr Cusack has remarried. "Yes, Mary Rose. We met in Italy. She is a fan of the theatre. She is living in London, now. We bought Eileen o 'Casey's house in Dun Laoghaire, but she has to stay in London to take care of Hogarth - Hogarth is a bull terrier - who is incontinent."
My mind slips a cog for a moment and goes back to a cat called Magill.
SINCE 1961, CYRIL CUSACK HAS been more in film than on stage - a hundred films in all, and much television. When he lived in America, he was asked to follow Stanley Holloway in My Fair Lady, but he turned it down because he was longing to get back to Ireland. In Hollywood, he had a very happy time. Barry Fitzgerald was there, as well ashis brother, Arthur Shiels, and Sean McClory. "We did a lot of visiting of one another."
He wonders if he is remem bering enough for me. His mind goes back to Beckett - "a charmer, very attracctive." His wife, Maureen, asked Beckett, "Why don't you write a happy play?" He wrote Happy Days.
Cyril Cusack has been a writer all his life. "It was always there." At twelve, he was writing verse. At UCD, he wrote for student magazines. He remembers Myles na Gopaleen there; he was "spiky, the prince heckler, oppositions." He admires Denis Devlin, Brian Coffey (esoteric) and Mervyn Wall. In the Poetry Ireland series,
Liam Miller has published his Timeepieces, a collection of 21 poems. He writes occasional essays, mostly on the theatre. Now, he is feeling the urge to write anew. After Shylock, he intends "to pick up the thin literary threads that exist from verse." The theatre is a difficult discipline, though gregaario us; writing is solitary.
He has been asked to write his autobiography several times. Now, Faber and Faber have commission_ed him to write it. He has written about 30,000 words. It is A Life, he emphaasises, not gossip. It is called The Tour.
Strangely, Cyril Cusack has never played Shylock before. He is reluctant to be drawn on his interpretation of the part - we must wait for the night - but he gives hints. "The denouement may be a little original. The pound of flesh is in dubium. There will be no pyrotechnics. "
Is Shylock an evil bloodsucker, or is he a victim of society? He muses. "There is an element of greed. He is mercenary. The play is relevant to our society. There is racism. The mind goes to Northern Ireland, to Iran, to India. "
He switches away from Shylock and back to his family. "They have made enormous strides." He names them one by one, lingering upon what each is doing. "Niamh was schooled to be a flautist; she switched with A Woman of No Importance." Given the careers they all pursue, "it is difficult to meet as a family. Maureen- was it. We have not lost the centre point. There are tensions because of absence, but not estrangement."
What does he detest most? "Hypoocrisy, which one has to combat in oneeself, especially as an actor; yes, falsity of any kind."
He is searching for anecdotes. One of his favourite parts was in Hugh Leonard's A Life, which was written with Cusack in mind. The actor changed some of the words here and there, as actors do, for the sake of meaning or rhythm or melody. After the first perrformance, Leonard said, "He rememmbered his own lines on the opening night: I hope he remembers mine on the following night."
Cyril Cusack is thinking of retiring after The Merchant of Venice. He never chased money; he turned down a career in Hollywood and in the English theatre; he remains an Irish actor. He may continue to act occasionally on television. "I will only choose."
What about Lear? He couldn't see himself in the part. "Lear should .be an oak. I am not an oaken persoonality." He pauses and permits himself the nearest imitation of a broad smile that he is likely to permit. Yes, he confesses, it might be nice to play Lear with his three daughters ... That should fill the house.
He wonders what else he can tell me. Inevitably, he returns to Shaw. "His work was controlled thematically. He knew the value of entrances and exits. His humour was pure Dublin Protestant humour." In 1956, Cusack's company was the only one that ackknowledged the Shaw centenary. When Vivien Leigh played Mrs Debedat, did he fall in love with her? No, you can't allow another priority to take over; there must be devotion to the work. "But hath not a Jew lust?" I wonder. "Concupiscence must not be allowed to override the work; it's another involvement. An actor is more in love with himself than with anyone else. "
This takes him to the diabolic ego and the angelic ego, "F.J. McCormack surrendered wholly to the character. Barry Fitzgerald absorbed the characcter into his own personality." With a woman actor, one could become ennsnared in an emotion that is extraneous to the performance. The woman could become the dominating person and steal the play out from under your nose.
Cyril Cusack looks r-elaxed on the outside, but, he says, he is turbulent on the inside. He hates noise. "The human voice is becoming more and more barbaric as we go along. There is the loss of beauteous speech in Ireland and the absorption of Anglo-Saxon and American cliche and jargon. "Motorbikes!" he cries. "Noise is the precursor of, and encouragement to, crime."
The democratic principle is harped on, he finds, but is it practised? The electorate grows more and more immmature, leading to the selection of representatives who are inferior. It is not a maturing society.
THREE DAYS AFTER HE SPOKE those words, he rang to say that there was no contradiction between them and the view of de Chardin which he adopts - the parallel material and spiritual evolution towards the Omega of reconciliation and unity.
Cusack likes Dublin. Walking to the Abbey on the morning of the day I met him, he found it like an old Dublin day; there was something in the atmossphere of softness and ease; aggression seemed to be absent. He likes the Concert Hall, which has a pleasing ambience, an atmosphere of quiet and tradition. He would like to see some flags flying in the hall. He recalls a late Betjeman interview. "Do you see any improvements in modern society?" Betjeman was asked. With deliberation, he replied: "Yes, in den tistry. "
The life of the travelling actor is a very lonely one, and Cusack loathes hotel life. "You are incarcerated in celluloid when on location, but there is a great warmth in theatrical relaationships in performance. The feuds are family feuds, and relationships can sustain themselves over a lifeetime."
Cyril Cusack - does not look his 74 years. At 40, he was the same animaated garden gnome as he is now. "Menntally," he says, "I am the same age as the 20-year-olds. As an actor one reemains necessarily immature. One must remain impressionable, all the time seeking maturity. The child-like conntent is of great value. As pointed out by Christ, simplicity is very imporrtant - the simplicity of wisdom, not of naivety."
He pays tribute to Fidelma Cullen:
"She promises to be a splendid Portia." Other actors in the cast are praised, too. The acting is more realistic than one might see on the British stage, with full reverence for the metric and poetic element in the play. "Stage speech in England has fallen into conventional sounds, with a conseequent loss to the meaning. With the arrival of the provincial actor, howwever, there is a redeeming of reality."
The Shylock of Shakespeare, he thinks, is about sixty; he is called "old Shylock". But could he not be less, considering the life expectancy of persons in Elizabethan times, and considering that Shakespeare, who died at 52, thought of himself as an old man? He acknowledges that this may be so. Hamlet, he feels, is 22. There is a school of thought that maintains that Hamlet is only about 14. Dr Cusack raises further his perrmanently-raised eyebrows as if in disbelief.
On the question of death, he is aware of the quick passage of time, aware of hurrying. "I think of death with fear and apprehension. There is the awareness of the possible obliteraation of the ego. In the area of belief and doubt, one hopes to find a realiisation of the angelic self within the Divine Presence."
Any favourite actresses? Liv Ulllmann, he says, and Wendy Hiller.
Ah! Perhaps at last I've got him.
Was it possible to work in close assoociation with Ullmann and not fall in love with her? The rehearsals, he says, drily, were always experimental; every rehearsal presented a different aspect of the piece. It was very satis-fact-ory. "She is a gorgeous, lovely person. I loved her, but was not in love with her."
With his two bags on his shoulder and his tweed hat on his head, the cat called Cusack padded off into the night, like a medieval scholastic on his way home from a lecture by Abelard. There is something of the perennial student in Cusack: something of the finical balancing of angels on the point of a pin. Abelard would never have walked away from the round Nordic mouth of Liv Ullmann. •