Who Were Lynn Fontanne and Alfred Lunt?Thursday, January 15, 2009
Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne are widely considered the greatest acting team in the history of American theater. Not willing to simply coast on their extraordinary natural talent, the Lunts were consummate professionals. Their passion for excellence and commitment to the art of live theater was legendary, even at the beginning of their careers.
By the mid 1920s, Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne were the two most respected, most popular, most critically acclaimed, and highest-paid stage actors in the country. At the height of their individual careers, they made a remarkable decision. They each took enormous pay cuts (from $900 per week to $300 per week) to sign on with The Theatre Guild – a fledgling company dedicated to performing new and avant-garde work – by writers like Ibsen and Shaw. The Lunts believed strongly that creating great theater with broad impact was far more important than money. But since they were taking such large cuts in salary, they were able to put two clauses into their contracts that would profoundly affect the rest of their lives and careers.
First, the Lunts insisted that they only act together, rather than in separate plays. By 1928, until they retired in 1960, the Lunts never appeared on stage separately. And as impressive as their individual careers had been, that was nothing compared to their impact together. The Lunts were instrumental in the transition of American theater from oratory (or declamation) to naturalism. They revolutionized theater with innovations that we now accept as commonplace: overlapping dialogue, turning their backs to the audience, passionate physical contact, and a level of truth and realism in everything they did that simply could not be found on the American stage prior to the Lunts. In fact, the Lunts’ devotion to excellence was matched only by the respect and affection they inspired in their peers and protégés alike.
Biographer Maurice Zolotow wrote, “Lynn and Alfred projected an animal vitality, a spirit of gaiety and intense pleasure in being alive and in being in love. Separately, they had been original and brilliant actors. Together, they were an irresistible expression of the life force – of the joy of living.”
The other requirement of the contract with The Theatre Guild was that the Lunts would never act in the summer, so they could instead come to Ten Chimneys to retreat, relax, and rejuvenate. And every summer they did just that. Because the Lunts were so widely loved and respected, “everyone who was anyone” in theater, the arts, literature, wanted to come to Ten Chimneys to be with and work with the Lunts. The estate, almost inevitably, became an important place for artistic creation, discussion, and inspiration. More than just the Lunts’ home, Ten Chimneys was a home for the arts – literally and metaphorically.
From the 1920s to 1960, the Lunts had a prolific stage career, with over 40 plays. Although their first movie together, “The Guardsman,” was a critical and commercial success, the Lunts hated the process of making films and chose instead to dedicate themselves to the art of live theater. The film studios, however, were falling over themselves to sign the Lunts. Whoever signed them was sure to make a fortune. Not only were they the best-known actors throughout the country, but because the Lunts were so respected by other actors, whichever studio signed the Lunts was likely to sign all of the other “greats”. Finally, in 1932, one studio offered the Lunts $1,000,000 for a two-film deal. Lynn was reported to tell the studio head, “My dear sir, we can be bought, but we cannot be bored.” No more films.
In 1958, the Lunts began the American run of what would be their final stage performance – “The Visit. “The play opened in the newly dedicated Lunt-Fontanne Theatre on Broadway, honoring the couple for their extraordinary contribution to American theater.
Once the Lunts retired from the stage in 1960, they lived in their beloved Ten Chimneys year-round and spent many happy years there enjoying the extraordinary retreat they had created together.
Alfred passed away in 1977, at the age of 84. Lynn passed away six years later, in 1983, at the age of 96. A monument at their grave reads, “Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne were universally regarded as the greatest acting team in the history of the English-speaking theater. They were married for 55 years and were inseparable both on and off the stage.”
Ten Chimneys, the estate lovingly created by theater legends Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, is open to the public as a world-class house museum and national resource for theatre, arts, and arts education. Reprinted with permission from the Ten Chimneys Foundation and www.tenchimneys.org.