Rachel Roberts: When Gifts Go Begging

Here are some notes from a tipsy lunch at Napoleon House:

This will be a tale of gifts that went begging. This will be a tale of gifts that burn and decimate and move swiftly to the next area of destruction. This will be a tale of Rachel Roberts.

Employing the style of Marguerite Duras and the biography of Rachel Roberts, an actress of "diabolical brilliance, a suicide, a Cassandra of the arts," Tenn thought he had the beginning of a profile, an exploration. "I did not care for my autobiography," Tenn told me. "The true story of my life is one that should be told through my influences--those I utilized well and those I failed to utilize at all. I never have and I never will exist without the gifts--shared and studied--of a remarkable group of women."

Scattered notes from Tenn on Rachel Roberts:

Much like Jo Van Fleet, she could find little satisfaction in her talent, and absolutely none in the venues in which it was presented. Resentment was a perfume that surrounded her, cloaked her, made breathing in her presence difficult. Some of this was deserved, I suppose, but I have come to see the effects--the poisonous effects--of holding a grudge, harboring resentments, judging and measuring every act, gesture, karmic flip of the cards. There is no way to be gracious in the face of injustice, I imagine, and Rachel was so much better than her material or her memory will reveal, and the few acts of benevolence that were shown to her she chose to destroy. So do we cast her aside? Do we dismiss her as a difficult woman who got what she deserved? Do we fail to study and marvel at her gifts simply because to do so would reveal too many unpalatable truths about talent and its cultivation and its strength and its standing in the world?

I think that we want to believe that happiness, or, at best, satisfaction accrues to those who have given us pleasure or elucidation or inspiration. Our work can do this for us, but it requires an understanding both of the art and of ourselves for this to exist. Rachel did not possess this understanding; Rachel did not enjoy her own presence unless she was in the process of working, and working well, on a part in a good play with a cast from whom she could garner experience and respect and a decent drink at the end of the day. She expected too much too often, but her diabolical demands  led to her extraordinary work, even as it made her passive hours--the quiet, non-working hours--so hellish.

Tenn had photographs of Rachel Roberts  tucked into a journal, along with several pages of notes that had been torn from various pads and notebooks.

Her eyes see everything and like nothing.

Such a hard jaw, purpose and hunger and power to move forward.

Hers is a face in front of the open door that holds the bad news, the fateful telegram, the unfaithful lover locked in the arms of another. She has always just been given the news that none of us has the strength to bear.

She tries to bear it, but it destroys her.

She swallowed a corrosive substance, silencing the voice, stopping the heart, sizzling the brain, but long before she ventured into her kitchen and found that brightly advertised cleaning agent and swallowed it, she had swallowed so many bitter things: the truth about our theatre, our culture, our world. She had come to see how we lie to ourselves and to each other about what will be, what will come, what will happen if we do the right things or if we fight to make things better or if we just give up.

She seemed to know the score, and there is something to be said for the divinity of ignorance.

I saw Rex Harrison not long after her self-murder, that Isadora-like dance she choreographed that ended in shattered glass and silence. I wanted to know if she had truly hated herself  that much, that fervently. No, he told me, forever unflappable, so smooth, she had hated us that much, and that acidic toast was her final fuck-you to the world that had so disappointed her. She had married him in the belief that fame and money and good wines and good linens and a castle in the hills could make her happy, make her matter, shove her to the place she belonged--the center of attention.

Myths. Delusions. How many corrosive things had she swallowed in the villa in the hills?

How many have I swallowed? Have we all swallowed?

I never hated her, and she never disappointed me. I think it is safe to say that she never disappointed an audience or a playwright or an actor who had high standards and a thick skin. Yes, she would call in the night and yell and hector and criticize: she knew all of my flaws and my weaknesses and my own travel kit of myths and delusions. She was always correct, and she was always able to tell me how I could improve myself. I didn't want to hear it, and I didn't have the strength, the will, the courage to take her advice or to see the damage I had done, but she offered it, she was right, and she was angry.

There is no way to do things well and gently and consistently. There can be no satisfaction anywhere and with anything until we can accept the flawed and unique prisoners we are--prisoners to our memories and the distinct mechanisms we have for sharing them. I do not have this gift--a sort of faith is what it is. Rachel didn't have it either. I have her face in my memory and that voice and that brutal detail she brought to her work and to her life and to every conversation we ever had.

We let her down. She destroyed herself. There is no happy ending here and harsh reminders of what awaits some of us. I feel the incredible need for some reason to apologize to her. I will write words, plays, memorials.

I will try, however I can, to throw some light her way.

 Rachel Roberts and Albert Finney


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