A Glorious Bastard: The Witness of Alec Guinness
In Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing the illegitimate Don John plots to spoil the happiness and prosperity of all. His skullduggery springs from the brooding dark moods, resentment, and bitterness at his bastard status. From time immemorial illegitimacy was understood as a dark stain, breeding a bitter character and a doomed fate—as if the character carries a curse.
There is no need to propose a supernatural aspect to such a curse. Too often the struggles that accompany illegitimacy of poverty, a broken home, an absent father, and an insecure childhood result in the very bitterness, resentment, and inability to succeed that perpetuate the idea of a bastard being cursed. All the more encouraging then, when a boy from a broken and dysfunctional home rises above it and goes on to succeed. When he not only achieves fame and fortune, but also becomes a truly gentle and wise person the victory over fate is complete.
A perfect example of such triumph over an inglorious beginning is the story of English actor Alec Guinness. Famous for his role as the monastic mentor Obi Wan Kenobi in Star Wars, Guinness was first known for his work as a Shakespearean actor on stage. After gaining prominence working with Laurence Olivier and John Gielgud, he moved successfully to cinema. After gaining wide acceptance in British comedies The Man in the White Suit, The Lavender Hill Mob, Ladykillers, and Kind Hearts and Coronets, Guinness took roles in notable literary based films just after the second world war. He starred in Carol Reed’s version of Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana, and The Fall of the Roman Empire, before teaming with legendary director David Lean. He won an Academy award for his portrayal of resolute British officer Colonel Nicholson in Lean’s The Bridge Over the River Kwai and took parts in Lawrence of Arabia, Doctor Zhivago, and A Passage to India.
In each of his parts there was a vulnerability and uncertainty that made Guinness a great star. No matter how confident, insouciant, hilarious, or insane the character, there seemed to be a sad, little emptiness deep within. He never spoke about this quality explicitly, but it echoes in the title of his autobiography My Name Escapes Me. Guinness’ name did escape him and with his name his own identity.
He did not mind telling people that he was illegitimate. His mother was a flighty and insecure young woman named Agnes Cuff. His birth certificate does not carry a last name. Instead “Alec Guinness” is listed as his two forenames. His mother later married a violent, shell-shocked veteran who would terrify the sensitive child. Guinness was sent to boarding school in Bexhill on Sea and then Eastbourne, and he once met an “uncle”—a banker named Andrew Geddes who he guessed paid his school tuition and who Guinness assumed was his father.
Searching for the Father is doubtless one of the things that brought Alec Guinness through the doors of the Catholic Church. He recounts his conversion story in his usual modest and understated way in the first volume of his life story Blessings in Disguise. He explains how, while playing Chesterton’s Father Brown, he was walking back from a day’s filming through a French village still in costume. A small boy ran up and took his hand, walking along, and chatting happily in French. Finally he scampered off waving a cheerful, “Au revoir, mon pere!” Guinness was smitten with the experience, wondering that the mere costume of a priest could inspire such childlike trust and joy.
Beneath the innocent story one can see Guinness the fatherless child finding a father in God, and the connection cannot be missed that before too long Guinness himself would take the Father’s hand in the form of a heartfelt Christian conversion.
When his son Matthew was stricken with a serious illness Guinness tells how he found himself in a Catholic Church doing a deal with God. He promised the Almighty that if his son was healed he would allow the boy to become a Catholic. The boy recovered and some years later, asked his father if he might become a Catholic. Soon after Guinness and his wife Merula entered the church and were faithful to the end. I have visited the church in Petersfield where they attended Mass each week, and the great man used to make retreat at Quarr Abbey on the Isle of Wight where I once spotted him minding his own business in the guest house.
While Don John and many other bastards brooded over their less than illustrious beginnings, allowing the vacancy in their heart, their lost love, and absent father to be the seed of depression, despondency, dependency, and evil, Alec Guinness, by some wondrous mixture of talent and grace turned that same open wound into the unique sign of his genius, thus becoming a glorious bastard, and ultimately the adopted son of the Lord on high.
In doing so he communicated to the world a truth that was never made explicit, but which was incarnated in his art. His life was founded on a blessing in disguise—his illegitimacy—and so he revealed the hidden gift, teaching us that the very wound we carry can become our red badge of courage, and that the worst beginnings can have the best endings if only we gather the courage to wrestle with “the dark side” and demand a blessing.
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