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Quayle, Sir (John) Anthonylocked

(1913–1989)

Sir (John) Anthony Quayle (1913–1989)

by Godfrey Argent, 1970

Quayle, Sir (John) Anthony (1913–1989), actor and theatre director, was born on 7 September 1913 at 2 Delamere Road, Ainsdale, Southport, Lancashire, the only child of Arthur Quayle, solicitor, and his wife, Esther Kate Overton. The Quayle family had Manx roots. During a rather lonely youth Anthony's interest in the theatre was encouraged by his lively and imaginative mother. He was educated at Rugby School and at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, where he stayed only a year. His first appearance on the professional stage, unpaid, was in The Ghost Train at the Q Theatre while on holiday from RADA. He began his career in earnest playing both Richard Coeur de Lion and Will Scarlett in Robin Hood at the same theatre in 1931.

In the following year, after touring as feed to a music-hall comic, Quayle found his feet in classical theatre and met two men whose influence was to be an important factor in his career, Tyrone Guthrie and John Gielgud. By 1939 he had appeared in many supporting roles, with Old Vic seasons in 1932 and 1937–8, had appeared in New York, and had played Laertes in the famous Guthrie production of Hamlet at Elsinore. Strongly drawn to the classics and especially to Shakespeare, he took over the lead from Laurence Olivier in Henry V during an Old Vic tour of Europe and Egypt just before the Second World War. Though not yet at the top of his profession, he was known and liked by many who were.

Quayle spent the war in the Royal Artillery, reaching the rank of major. Characteristically, he gave up an administrative job in Gibraltar, learned to parachute, and joined Albanian partisans behind German lines. He later wrote two slight novels suggested by his wartime experiences.

After the war Quayle returned to the stage and as Enobarbus in Antony and Cleopatra (1946) was a great success in the first of the many supporting roles he was to make his own. He also turned to directing, and in 1946 his Crime and Punishment, starring John Gielgud, was considered outstanding.

In 1948, through Guthrie, he joined the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in Stratford upon Avon as actor and stage director. He was soon promoted to run the whole memorial theatre. In eight years he transformed it from an unfashionable provincial theatre to a world-famous centre of classical drama. Because of his many contacts, he was able to attract illustrious players and directors to Stratford, as well as encourage such major new talents as Richard Burton and Peter Hall. He took companies on tours of Australasia in 1949 and 1953 and tried, although without success, to secure the kind of London shop window for the company which was later obtained by the Royal Shakespeare Company. With his 'Cycle of the Histories' for the Festival of Britain in 1951 he foreshadowed the later practice of staging Shakespeare's historical plays in chronological order. Among his own parts during these strenuous years were Henry VIII, Falstaff, and Othello. His work was not entirely confined to Stratford, but his enthusiastic leadership and hard work at the memorial theatre, proudly unsubsidized, put it on the map. He paved the way for the subsequent achievements of Peter Hall, Trevor Nunn, and the Royal Shakespeare Company.

In 1956 Quayle resigned from Stratford and returned to mainstream theatre. For over twenty more years he continued to act and direct in the West End, having a steady if unspectacular career, occasionally taking the lead, as in Tamburlaine in 1956, but more often in highly praised supporting parts. He also appeared in over thirty films, most of them British, again in strong supporting roles. His portrayal of stiff-upper-lip Englishmen was much admired in films, especially in The Battle of the River Plate (1956), The Guns of Navarone (1961), and Lawrence of Arabia (1962). The first of his many television appearances was in 1961.

In 1978, at sixty-five, Quayle's career took a different course and he toured with the Prospect Theatre Company, playing leading roles in The Rivals and King Lear. The company closed, however, when its Arts Council subsidy was withdrawn. Several years later, in 1983, he formed his own Compass Theatre, which bravely stumped the country without subsidy, dedicated to bringing major plays to people who could otherwise never see them.

Quayle had a big physique, a vigorous personality, and a steadfast—even romantic—devotion to great plays and classical traditions. Despite his fine technique he had neither the personality nor the face for a great actor. As he grew older his face became more rugged but there was something about his amiable blue eyes which suggested a warm and pleasant person and deprived his acting of some of its emotional impact. However, as a man of great courage and integrity he was a natural leader and a major influence on the theatre in Britain.

Quayle was appointed CBE in 1952 and knighted in 1985. He had honorary DLitt degrees from Hull (1987) and St Andrews (1989). He was guest professor of drama at the University of Tennessee in 1974, and was nominated for an Oscar as best supporting player for his performance as Cardinal Wolsey in the 1969 film about Anne Boleyn, Anne of the Thousand Days.

On 3 March 1935 Quayle married Hermione (d. 1983), actress daughter of the actor Nicholas James Hannen, but the marriage was dissolved in 1943. On 3 June 1947 he married another actress, Dorothy Wardell Hyson [see below], divorced wife of Robert Douglas Finlayson and daughter of another actress, Dorothy Dickson (1897?–1995), and Carl Constantine Hyson, of independent means. They had a son and two daughters. He was still touring until two months before his death from cancer at his London home, 49B Elystan Place, Chelsea, on 20 October 1989.

Quayle's second wife, Dorothy Wardell Hyson (or Heissen) [Dorothy Wardell Quayle (1914–1996)], was born on 24 December 1914 in Chicago into a theatre family, which moved to London in 1921. She appeared on the London stage as a child actress in Barry's Quality Street (1927) and Daisy Ashford's The Young Visiters (1928) and made her adult début in Novello's Flies in the Sun (1933). A series of successful roles followed, but in 1934 overwork caused a nervous breakdown. She recovered to return in comedy roles, marrying Robert Douglas Finlayson, the actor, in 1935, 'a failure from the start' (The Times, 25 May 1996). She met Anthony Quayle in 1936, who was at once dazzled by her beauty; misunderstanding and complications on both sides deferred romance, but they were eventually married in 1947. Hyson had continued to play a variety of comedy roles, but after her second marriage retired from the stage. It was her dislike of Hollywood that caused Quayle to reject the offer of a contract with MGM in favour of the Stratford directorship. During Quayle's years at Stratford, Hyson became a noted hostess there. A striking beauty, her 'perfect heart-shaped face, vivid cornflower-blue eyes and translucent halo of blond hair' (The Times, 25 May 1996) inspired the Rodgers and Hart song, 'The Most Beautiful Girl in the World'.

Sources

  • Daily Telegraph (21 Oct 1989)
  • The Times (21 Oct 1989)
  • The Times (25 May 1996)
  • The Independent (21 Oct 1989)
  • The Independent (25 May 1996)
  • A. Quayle, A time to speak (1990)
  • b. cert.
  • m. certs.
  • d. cert.

Likenesses

  • photographs, 1935–78, Hult. Arch.
  • G. Argent, photograph, 1970, NPG [see illus.]

Wealth at Death

£626,664: probate, 11 May 1990, CGPLA Eng. & Wales