Updated: Nov 10, 2021
To act, is to do, not merely to pretend. To act a role, is to play a part, to perform a task. In the use of language, it is the metaphor of the actor, the player, the performer, that is used to mean, participant, and the need to participate. "We must act, we must do something!" The cry or plea goes out. " We cannot just talk!" We often now hear the phrase, "political actors," to mean people as participants, involved in politics. Or we come across the modern expression, "bad faith actors," to mean, people acting in bad faith, in a socio-political context. And we have always referred to people, "acting in good faith."
Acting itself, not metaphorically, but dramatically, speaking, is really about the representing and revealing of an alternative reality and the truth behind it. It is rarely only the putting on of costumes, or airs and graces, strutting one's stuff about the stage. The actor is often researching, long before and during, rehearsing. Research can be a kind that is scholarly, or it can be the sort that is of use practically. It is why actors who are political, in actuality, as individual people who are participants in politics, bring a particular level of understanding to their task, an open mind, and very rarely, prejudice.
How sad it is then, to see the world of supposed scholarship. take leave of its selective senses, over a political actor who was the antithesis of prejudiced. Fifty years ago, this Autumn, The University of Wisconsin, Madison, named its theatre, The Fredric March Theatre. The actor Fredric March attended and spoke at the event, with his wife, the actress, Florence Eldridge, his partner, often, on and off the stage and screen and his political ally. Fifty years later, the name on that theatre is no more, removed there, and elsewhere, on that of another local organisation. As the actor understands the need to research as well as rehearse, it is a crying shame that in this situation, some in the field of academia, not acting, have acted so stupidly.
The career of Fredric March, as an actor, was one of the most impressive and distinguished of any American or international actor, of the twentieth century. The National Theatre of the UK, in London, has one of its venues, named The Olivier Theatre, after, Lord Olivier, the actor, Laurence Olivier. So too, the UK theatre awards, have been named, The Olivier Awards. It is ironic, that it was the ten years older, Fredric March, whose modest legacy, was a college theatre, who was a significant influence on the career of the young Olivier. The career of March was in many ways, as prolific, in the context of Hollywood and Broadway. He received awards, such as his two Best Actor Oscars, for truly great performances, among many that he gave. Flawed as a man often is, it is the actor whose great work survives or does not, and is, or is not, remembered. But it is March, the political actor, who, long after his passing, has got caught up in controversy.
In a country politically often polarised, in an era more so than ever, both then, and now, America, can be called divided. Fredric March stuck his neck out, politically, with greater subtlety than he did as a man, personally, and as much humanity as he brought to his roles, professionally. He spent years campaigning for causes. Active as a supporter of the Democratic Party, and a vocal member of it, in praise of, and critical of it also, his politics were very progressive, his focus, the fight against poverty and prejudice. Years before the march to Washington, one he himself was involved in, in support of civil rights, March was acting in the service of that cause. When the renowned African-American soprano Marian Anderson was prevented from appearing in a concert, March was at the fore of the campaign on her side. When the protest march on Washington was being planned years later, March was in the room with Martin Luther King! So numerous were the "acts," of kinship with others in need of, and deserving of, his support, only an internet search, such as "Fredric March, political actor," and actual research does him justice, in his long march for justice. Recent letters signed by the great and good in the fight for civil rights, such as singer, actor, campaigner, Harry Belafonte in the New York Times, have been written in support of Fredric March. Why? Why now?
A hundred or so, years ago, when Fredric March was a student at the same university of Wisconsin, Madison, that honoured him in his seventies, young Fredric was asked to join a fraternity grouping, based only at his University, and with no outside links, that was called, the Ku Klux Klan. It had nothing to do with the Ku klux Klan of infamy, more famous for its outrages, later than then. It was like a Fraternity House, but less actively involved in anything, and indeed not involved in anything much at all, political. it was in the era of the First World War and its aftermath, when patriotism, not prejudice, was the pride of place, in that locality and wider. Young Fredric was only a member for a matter of not much longer than months. In the same period, as a youth, he had participated in a State wide debating event, for which he chose, and recited, the anti slavery speech of the great African American legendary writer and campaigner, his namesake, Fredric Douglas. Then, as later, March was as far as can be, from being prejudiced. But a youthful indiscretion, can indeed catch up with someone. With a political climate that is often called politically correct, the Faculty leaders of the university of Wisconsin, Madison, have "acted," politically, incorrectly! The name Fredric March, culturally significant, has been removed, and history, which is significant, has been re-written.
Fredric March loathed and actively fought everything the actual Ku Klux Klan stood for. That a student fraternity took a name they did not understand, made them worthy of being considered ignorant, and certainly innocent, until proven, guilty. The journey of Fredric March proves him worthy of respect and honour, and not the disrespect and dishonour unworthy of him and the Faculty that have stripped him of his name, retrosectively.
But what if, as a youth, a young man or woman, had been prejudiced, ignorant, innocent, of the facts and believing of the fiction, of the reality and the related situation. What if he then changed? what if he disowned his earlier views and spent a lifetime as an adult proving he stood with and indeed marched with, his fellow man and woman and for humanity? Would such a one as this not merit honour also. The students of the University of Wisconsin, Madison, seem to be of a mind that they would agree, because they have voted against the decision of the Faculty leaders. But Fredric March had no need to change politically, because he was proven to be ever progressive and had nothing to prove, but did, that he was ever thus. The University of Wisconsin, Madison, leaders, need to take the lead and reinstate the name, of Fredric march on a theatre. It is a small act of significance that is greater, for if they do not, who knows where such a thing could lead. To not do so, would be an indiscriminate act, towards a man who fought against discrimination.
As a "political actor," myself, involved with this site and project inspired by a man who was a political actor, in many senses of that increasingly used expression, Sir Peter Ustinov, I feel very strongly about this, as do others too. The actor, and his role, is often not appreciated, however strong his commitment. Another expression comes to mind. "There are no such things as small parts, only small actors," is used as a theatrical expression. It celebrates the character, at the heart, of a role that is perhaps smaller, but is not thought of as a small part. The actor as bit player, as spear carrier, as walk on, is thus, no more. The actor must indeed, in such a situation, as in this, march on!