The place is Afghanistan 1934, the northwest frontier territory, what was once a part of India. Upon a makeshift, stage a family-staged theatrical is in progress. The seductive "Dance of the Seven Veils" is reaching its climax (i.e., Princess Salome's seventh veil is about to drop). Standing in the wings, Queen Herodias gets her cue. In high dudgeon, she makes her grand entrance. "I had no words to speak, but I put my nose in the air, kicked my train and made my way slowly across the stage, looking with disgust at the King and Salome, and made my exit. Never underestimate the power of a non-speaking role. This is for me. I love it," Rosemary Harris recalls thinking, as she tells me what she remembers about her bravura, non-professional debut at the age of 4. For those curious: Rosemary's twelve year-old sister Pam, draped in living-room curtains, played Salome.

As a reigning queen of the professional theater on both sides of the Atlantic for the past fifty years, with appearances in more than 150 roles, Harris would acquire a more authoritatively regal countenance long before she would win a Tony Award in 1966 for her portrayal of Eleanor of Acquitaine ("I was much too young to play her. I am the right age now") in The Lion in Winter.

Radiant, charming and a delightfully chatty Virgo (September 19th), Harris is, despite a full days rehearsal behind her, gracious and warm as we talk in a cozy corner of the McCarter Theater in New Jersey. In rehearsal is Edward Albee's controversial 1971 play All Over, under Emily Mann's direction.

But it's far from all over for Harris, who manages to return to the stage (and screen) virtually season after season and Tony nomination after Tony nomination. It comes as no surprise to hear that Albee was especially keen on her to play the wife in All Over, as she won a Tony nomination for playing Agnes in Albee's A Delicate Balance, the acclaimed 1996 revival on Broadway directed by Gerald Gutierrez.  But it was about her nomination for a Best Actress 2000-1 Tony award for Waiting in the Wings, that Harris says, "Oh, I just sat there and prayed that I wouldn't win. It would have been just awful." That was the year both Harris and her daughter Jennifer Ehle, nominated for The Real Thing, were competing in the same category. "If I won, I would have been the only person on that stage to say I wish I wasn't. To my great relief, Jennifer won," she says.  "I could see my husband John (Ehle) beaming as the camera swept past us and focused on Jennifer." Currently, Harris is second (with seven Tony nominations) only to Julie Harris, with 10 nominations.  

Now the actress is deep into deciphering the enigmatic text of one of Albee's least understood and perhaps under-appreciated plays. "It is time for a reappraisal of this beautiful play while his shares are riding high," she says noting that "not one word of the script has been changed."

One of the most heralded dramatists of the 20th century, Albee has been enjoying a renaissance in recent years that began with Three Tall Women (1994) and last year with The Play About the Baby. There is, in fact, something of an unofficial Albee festival going on with two new plays, The Goat or Who is Sylvia and Occupant, soon to open on Broadway and Off-Broadway respectively.

I asked Harris what aspect of All Over she found the most compelling. "It's the heightened language. Unlike so many modern pedestrian scripts with everyday speak, getting your mind, your thoughts and your tongue around the curlicues of Edward's mind is like getting your mind around Shakespeare. You've got to keep the syntax in your mind with all the sub-clauses and sub-sub clauses and remember what you're going for at the end of the sentence. It's fun to do while your brain will still do it," she says, holding up the script and showing me the long speeches she is mastering ("I've almost got them").

"I love the part of The Wife because I feel already acquainted with her. I think she is very much like Agnes (in A Delicate Balance) who I think would behave very similarly if she were in these circumstances and if her husband had left her. Agnes would have probably turned into this woman."

All Over revolves around the deathbed vigil of a prominent man's family. Gathered together in close quarters, family members, including the dying patriarch's long-term mistress, embark on a ritual of truth telling as they are forced to confront the slippery reality of love.

Actors prepare not only by trying to get inside of the mind of the character, but also by drawing on emotional truths and circumstances from their own lives. Certainly, a life in the theater can foster unusual relationships that allow its people to connect, breakup and reconnect with each other. Harris' marriage to actor/director Ellis Rabb would dissolve in 1967, shortly before she would meet Ehle. But it would not end their artistic relationship. Writer Bella Spiwak, whom Harris says, "loved playing matchmaker," introduced Ehle to Harris. It was "love at first sight," says Harris. They were married in 1967. Two years later Jennifer was born. That Jennifer was somehow not told about her mother's first marriage is another charming story. "It just never came up," says Harris, "and Jennifer was happy adoring her Uncle Ellis." It was at a party that Ellis gave for his friends with children that the truth casually came out. "You weren't married to Uncle Ellis, were you Mommy," asked Jennifer.

"Of course she was," chimed in Zoe Caldwell, "now run along and play." From that day on, Jennifer called Ellis "Daddy Too."

Shades of a Noel Coward comedy, Harris was directed by Rabb in A Streetcar Named Desire, at Lincoln Center in 1973, and again in 1975 when he directed her in The Royal Family, which played at the McCarter prior to Broadway. "It was actually John who suggested I work again with Ellis. They got along famously. Ironically Michael Learned, who is playing The Mistress in All Over, would appear in many of Rabb's productions at ACT.

"Michael and I played many of the same roles, she on the West Coast and me in New York. We both loved and admired Ellis, who died two years ago. We've always had this connection, and it's lovely to finally work on the same stage with Michael." Learned, last seen at the McCarter in Richard Greenberg's Safe as Houses, appeared in the national tour of Albee's Three Tall Women in the role originated by Myra Carter. Myra Carter is playing The Nurse. John Carter (no relation), another alumnus of A Delicate Balance, also appeared in Albee's Finding the Sun and Fragments, at Signature Theater. It all begins to sound very incestuous were it not for the presence of John Christopher Jones, acclaimed for his role as Scrooge in A Christmas Carol, at the McCarter; Pamela Nyberg, who was understudy to Zoe Wanamaker in Electra, the production that had its American premiere at McCarter, and William Biff McGuire, the distinguished veteran of the American stage. McGuire was in the original production of South Pacific, The Time of Your Life, and Camelot and received a Tony nomination for his performance in Horton Foote's The Young Man From Atlanta. Albee has been involved in the casting.

Probably no other play by Albee divided the critics as much as this one did at the time. About the Broadway production directed by John Gielgud and starring Colleen Dewhurst and Jessica Tandy (Peggy Ashcroft and Angela Lansbury appeared the following year in London under Peter Hall's direction), Clive Barnes wrote: "It is a lovely, poignant, and deeply-felt play." However, Walter Kerr wrote "It is remote, detached and non-committal." All Over closed at the Martin Beck Theater after 42 performances.

Some of the criticism focused on the original production's abstract black box set in a nebulous nowhere. "For this production," Edward insisted that the set be designed to look like somebody's bedroom. I think that this will ground the play and help the people seem more real. Albee was very young when he wrote this and yet he was able to get inside of the mind of a woman who was abandoned by her husband. I also like the idea of being directed, in this play, by a woman. I am often wary of directors that I don't know. But I trusted Emily, apart from her reputation, from the moment I met her. I think Emily understands this play so beautifully.

"You know I'm not a very nice person in the play," says Harris, who recalls how Sir Laurence told her that you must always love your character. It was a shock to Harris when her sister went backstage after seeing A Delicate Balance and said, "You're such a horror, aren't you?"

While this McCarter Theater production marks the first major revival of Albee's 1971 play, it also marks Harris' return to the theater for which she has especially fond memories except that she says, "there was no Palmer Square when I was here before."  Her appearance at McCarter in the all-star -- Eva LeGallienne, George Grizzard, Sam Levene, Joseph Maher and Mary Louise Wilson -- 1975 revival of the George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber comedy The Royal Family, directed by Rabb, is fondly  remembered. But it is her numerous appearances in the McCarter's very first full season of plays -- 1960-61 -- that is remembered as historic. By that time, Harris had already appeared with such imposing and prominent actors as Laurence Olivier, Peter O'Toole, John Gielgud, and Jack Lemmon, Jason Robards, Robert Preston, and as Olivia in Twelfth Night (1957) and the wife-marked for death in "Dial M For Murder" (1958).

In 1960, Harris and Rabb had spawned the APA (Associated Producing Artists), a roaming classical repertory company. "Because we had no home, we were not able to get a grant from The Ford Foundation that called us `peripatetic,'" she says laughing heartily. She says it was the first time she had ever heard the word. "We were so grateful when Milton Lyon, Executive Director of the McCarter, approached us to bring our repertory to the theater for its first full season," recalls Harris. When we peruse the roster of 13 plays that the APA performed that season at McCarter, she says "I was in nine of them, including Man and Superman, Anatol, The Sea Gull, Twelfth Night, and As You Like It." The company would soon move to New York as the APA-Phoenix, including two years at the Lyceum.

Born in England, Harris spent her infancy and early childhood in India, where her father was stationed in the military. The family went back to England when war broke out. Tragically, Harris was 14 when her mother died of pneumonia and 18 when her father died of thrombosis. "But I did have the comfort of my older sister and my 10 year-old younger sister when I went to live with my `adorable' grandmother and a great aunt."

Only briefly considering a career in nursing, Harris fortuitously chose the theater. She was awarded the Bancroft Gold Medal when she graduated from RADA (Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts).  Although Harris had already made her Broadway debut in Moss Hart's The Climate of Eden (1951) and her West End debut the following year in The Seven Year Itch, she says she "became a journeyman and learned the craft" in repertory at a little company in Penzance where "I did seventeen plays in seventeen weeks. This was followed by seasons at the Bristol Old Vic playing Elizabeth Proctor in the British premiere of The Crucible, and at the London Old Vic, playing Desdemona opposite Richard Burton in Othello and Cressida in Tyrone Guthries' production of Troilus and Cressida. In 1962, Laurence Olivier invited Harris to join his small newly-formed company, the nucleus of what was to become the National Theater, for their first season at the Chichester Festival Theater.

I asked  Harris if there was a specific time when she felt she had arrived or was defined as an actor. "When Sir Laurence put his mantle on me, it was like an affirmation that I had something to offer. I was cast in Uncle Vanya along with Olivier, Michael Redgrave, Sybil Thorndike, Lewis Casson, and Fay Compton. `Am I really here?' I asked myself. I felt as if I was in the center court at Wimbledon hitting balls across the net to all these fabulous people." She adds this coup de theatre: "I played Ophelia opposite Peter O'Toole, in the opening production at the National.

In between plays, Harris says "I like being a domestic engineer, cleaning out the attic, the garage and tending the garden of her home in Winston Salem, North Carolina, that she shares with Ehle, the prize-winning author of seventeen fiction and non-fiction books. "In my younger days, when I would visit my sister who lived in a small cottage in England with her three small children, my job -- she always left it for me -- was to sweep the leaves out of the two outdoor privies. I rather enjoyed it." I suspect that Harris attended to that chore with the same regal aplomb that she affected so well as a four-year old. But, surely not with her nose in the air.


Key Subjects: 
Rosemary Harris, All Over, McCarter Theater, Jennifer Ehle, Ellis Rabb, Edward Albee
Simon Saltzman
Writer Bio: 
Simon Saltzman has written dozens of New York theater reviews for This Month ON STAGE magazine. His interviews have appeared in TMOS and on Playbill On-Line.
January 2002