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Submitted by Neal Lofthouse

Defeatism Defeated
Esmond Knight Will Tread The Boards Again

by Eric Johns
from Theatre World, April 1942

Berlin - lovely as a Whistler Nocturne - spread out below us that Midsummer night seven years ago, as the blue and silver twilight slowly transfigured the city.

With Esmond Knight high above the Budapester Strasse on the roof garden of the Hotel Eden I was sharing a Kalbsbraten mit Bier while listening to his experiences as Lillian Harvey's leading man in 'Black Roses', then being filmed at the Ufa Studios. [1935]

Suddenly awed by the vastness and the beauty of the starlit heavens, we paused, neglecting both our Kalbsbraten and our conversation to watch the sombre lindens of the distant Tiergarten dissolving languidly into the blue of the night.

The Penny and the Bun

"You're a lucky man," I murmered. "Here you are living like a lord in one of the most interesting cities in Europe and its not costing you a penny. They're actually paying you to make love to Lilian Harvey by day and to fall in love with Berlin by night. There are times when I feel you actors get the penny and the bun!"

"Perhaps we are a bit spoilt - when we're in work," conceded Esmond, "but our year doesn't always add up to fifty-two weeks."

"It's not the most stable of professions," I admitted ... adding after a pause,

"Have you ever thought what you'd do, if for some reason you were compelled to renounce acting as a career?"

Esmond thought for a moment as he contemplated the steady stream of traffic purring along under the trees towards the Kurfurstendamm, centre of Berlin's elegant night life. "Oh, I don't know," he replied, with that characteristic little nervous laugh of his. "I think I'd like to mess about with cars."

Little did I realise that last Autumn I was to pick up a newspaper which was to make that carefree chatter of ours in Berlin surge up in my memory like the telling dialogue of high tragedy. My eyes refused to believe the printed page that starkly announced in ther paltry space of an inch:

"Mr. Esmond Knight, the popular young actor serving as a naval lieutenant aboard the Prince of Wales, lost his sight during the action against the 'Bismarck' off Iceland last May."

The War Hits Home

I felt the war was beginning to hit rather near home. We had been close friends for years. We were together when he scored his first success as a musical comedy hero at the old Alhambra in 'Waltzes from Vienna'. I had seen him move up to stardom at Drury Lane with Charlotte Greenwood in 'Wild Violets' and 'Three Sisters', slowly ascending the ladder of fame by vitue of public demand, and not through influence or polite blackmail. Esmond had only charm of personality backed by an oustanding flair for the stage to thank for the envied position he won in the hearts of West End playgoers before the war.

Now I felt it was over. He could never act again, and what cut me to the quick was the cruel thought that even his second choice of "messing about with cars" was denied him. It was too ghastly to contemplate. I felt I ought to write to him, but it seemed so difficult to say anything in the least constructive, that I put off the task from day to day for the best part of a fortnight.

His Superb Self-confidence

Then his exhiliarating reply arrived- the old familiar handwriting, the old familiar greetings, the old familiar 'joie de vivre'. The Esmond I knew in former days was still with us, quite unscathed; and he was not long in telling me he was still an actor without the slightest intention of quitting the stage.

Esmond's determination to tread the boards again even in the face of misfortune is no cheap publicity stunt designed to evoke widespread interest, such as the advent of a pegleg dancer or some other freak of circumstance.

He is going back to the theatre because it is his life and what he has always lived for; and it is a consolation to realise that he will still be excellent value for the playgoer's money. The superb self-confidence of his recent broadcasts has proved that no sympathy will be called for and no indulgence craved. No one will dream of saying, "But you should have seen him before the war!" No such thought will ever enter the head of his new audiences, confronted as they will be by a sensitive artist who despite his youth has reached full maturity in the grim finishing school of modern war.

Encouragement at St. Dunstan's

By using St. Dunstan's as an experimental theatre during his residence there, Esmond has demonstrated beyond all doubt that his projected return to the theatre is no idle flight of fancy. On that little stage he has worked out his own artistic salvation, and won the admiration of a vast new public by defeating defeatism.

Last Christmas he appeared in a one-act play at St. Dunstan's. The stage movements of his part were not too complicated and he learned the geography of the set so thoroughly that he was able to move about the stage with so remarkable degree of swiftness and confidence that certain members of the audience literally refused believe he had lost his sight.

This performance, a high watermark in his stage career, proved that his acting ability was in no way impaired, and futhermore, a considerate letter from Sir Alfred Denville, the M.P. impresario who has done so much to help distressed stage folk, gave Esmond more joy and encouragement than any flattering first night telegrams that formely poured into his dressing room like an avalanche.

Sir Alfred convinced Esmond that the door of the professional stage was still open, by informing him that his grandmother, who was totally blind, played leading parts for a period of fifteen years in plays specially adapted for her, using a variety of subtle means to guide her about the stage and to enable her to move with apparently effortless ease from one situation to another.

New Problems

Discussing the choice of part for his return, Esmond said: "Any good part would appeal to me as long as it didn't entail too much violent action or rapid movement. That doesn't mean it needs to be a minor part, of course. I think it would be possible to play a part as spectacular as "Danny" in 'Night Must Fall', since nearly all the movements in that play were leisurely and the entire action passed in the same room. Given time for rehearsal it would be possible to learn one's way around the stage set as perfectly as one masters the layout of one's own bedroom in the blackout."

"The great problem for the sightless actor is being certain that he is going to arrive at a definite exit or chair at a set moment. Having learnt the exact disposition of doors and windows, he can then use carpets of different texture beneath his feet and cleverly arranged furniture to guide him about the stage. A soon as he becomes familiar with his surroundings, which unlike a private living room are never altered even by a fraction of an inch from night to night, he can 'get up speed' and move about as quickly and as confidently as any sighted person. As long as the movements demanded are not too complicated it will appear to people sitting on the other side of the footlights that he can see."

"At first a specially writen part might be easier study for the sightless player, since the conception of such a role would necessarily entail the minimum of movement, but on the other hand I feel that any good part in any play could be produced in such a way as to make it a suitable vehicle for this highly specialised art of acting."

"Tragedy appeals to me more vividly than comedy at the moment, as the movement is usually more measured in its gait. This, of course, varies with the nature of the tragedy; but one cannot imagine Macbeth or Othello leaping about the stage like D'Artagnan. Although the playing of comedy requires equally skilled technique there is more satisfaction to be derived from playing tragedy, as the play is almost certainly bound to be more worthy of production."


"One hears of people deprived of sight being compensated in some other way. Their remaining faculties become keener and I've been wondering if it will be easier for me in the future to sense the mood of the audience immediately on making my entrance. It is an advantage I may possibly possess over my colleagues."

"Knowing him to be sightless, it is possible an audience would focus more than usual attention upon a blind actor, which perhaps would be a little unfair on his colleagues and throw the play out of perspective, but the fact remains that if he acted with sufficient conviction the audience would forget he was unsighted, and what is more, they would even be unable to believe that he could not see."

"I played the part of a blind man once, and the great problem then was to convince the audience that I could not see. But with remarkable little gesture and some slight awkwardness of movement here and there I am told that I was successful in conveying the impression of blindness to the audience. So the difference between a sighted actor playing a blind man and a blind man acting a sighted person is really very small."

I am convinced that sooner or later night will fall on London - as beautifully as it fell on Berlin that Midsummer when we sat on the Eden roof - throwing into bold relief a neon sign blazing the name Esmond Knight across the facade of a West End theatre.

[and so it was]

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