My Life in Comedy

By Rex Harrison

Bantam. 288 pp. $21.95

This entertaining and surprisingly instructive memoir is Rex Harrison's final performance; he completed it shortly before his death last June at the age of 82, and it is published "exactly as he left it," which is to say that it is sophisticated, witty and smooth as Savile Row, with not a crease or a seam showing.

Beyond that, "A Damned Serious Business" is the last testament not merely of a man but also of the theatrical tradition he so elegantly embodied, one that traces its roots back to "the high comedy style popular in the early years of this century, exemplified by Sir Charles Hawtrey and Sir Gerald Du Maurier, and is in a different tradition from the Olivier/Gielgud style which derived from the grand classical acting of the same period." The word Harrison uses for his style is "naturalism," and he defines it in his opening paragraph:

"I've always tried to make my acting look very simple -- as natural as possible, and as truthful. I've striven not to appear to be striving for anything, and this takes a lot of inner energy, and experience, to achieve. Without that special charge of inner energy, everything, the whole performance, will be wasted. It will -- as we actors say -- all go down your shirt front, and into the stage."

Thus the central theme of this memoir, as summarized in its title: Acting in high comedy, especially acting that never calls attention to itself, is a difficult business. "If it's done immaculately and looks as though it hasn't been any trouble," Harrison writes, "that's when it has been the most trouble. If it looks like a hell of a sweat, that's when it hasn't been taken care of very well."

Rex Harrison, of course, never broke out into anything even approximating a hell of a sweat, at least not where his public could see him. He did his sweating in private, not merely in the initial preparations for a performance but in the continuing labor of keeping it at a high level during that production's run. Writing about the role of his life, Professor Higgins in "My Fair Lady," Harrison says: "I don't think anybody realizes the agony actors go through if they play a thing for a long time. It becomes meaningless after a while." Keeping the part fresh in a long run, Harrison suggests, is if anything even harder than cracking it into shape in the first place.

This is scarcely to say, though, that all work and no play made Rex a dull boy. Quite to the contrary. Though he admits that "acting is the only thing that really engages me" and that "nobody is as interesting to spend an evening with as a really good part," he managed to find time between roles to have six wives -- among them Lilli Palmer, Kay Kendall and Rachel Roberts -- and two sons. As is often the case in theatrical memoirs, he is more evasive than candid in his discussion of these relationships, a not-untypical account being, in its entirety: "In January 1943 I had some leave, and married Lilli Palmer at Caxton Hall in London, my divorce from Collette having gone through the previous July."

All the same, Harrison writes with real tenderness about Kay Kendall, whose death from leukemia seems to have been the central event of his private life, and with something like candor about his marriage to Rachel Roberts, which was a case of irreconcilable personalities and backgrounds. With his last wife, Mercia Tinker, he seems to have found a substantial degree of autumnal happiness, no doubt in part because she figured out how to accommodate herself to his demands and eccentricities.

These must have been considerable. As Maggie Smith says in the affectionate remarks she delivered at Harrison's memorial service last June: "The charm, of course, was not always evident off stage; he seldom suffered fools gladly, and his relationships with certain pompous directors and many overbearing leading ladies were often stormy. He could be exceedingly sharp!"

It's good to have these remarks as a postscript to "A Damned Serious Business," since for understandable reasons Harrison does not bend over backward to portray his less enchanting side; a bit of balance is always useful, and Maggie Smith provides it. But those of us who only saw him from the other side of the footlights doubtless will prefer the undiluted Harrison version, in which he lives the role he always played: the last English gentleman.