Adapted and Performed by Ronald Keaton
Directed by Kurt Johns
New World Stages, 340 West 50th
Official Website

Reviewed by David Spencer

I may have ruined myself for Churchill: The Play.


                   And may now do the same for you, though that's not my intent. But added perspective is a powerful thing.

                  See, I recently “discovered” the work of a forgotten American writer—a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer, ironically—named Robert Lewis Taylor, who alternated between magazine profiles, novels and full-length biographies. And among the bios was one titled (in hardcover) Winston Churchill: An Informal Study of Greatness. (The more ubiquitous paperback release, also out of print, was given the much less interesting and less tonally accurate subtitle, The Biography of a Great Man.) [You can download this public domain book for free at the Internet Archive. You may have to sign up for a likewise free membership, but once that's established and activated, go to this page for a PDF or a scanned EPUB:  ]

                  What distinguishes Taylor’s work, and puts him far ahead of many in the biography game, is not only how exuberantly he brings his subjects to life, but how wittily and incisively—and economically. He doesn’t report exhaustively, in the modern, often-overkill manner; he reports selectively, to give you overview, essence, dimension and above all, soul. He captures his subject in a brilliant evocation of spirit. Here’s an early sample from his Winston Churchill book, published while Churchill was still a living, very public figure: 

            In any study of a foremost man it is of vital interest to ponder the probable causes of his rise above the mediocre and the merely talented. The people who know Churchill best believe that his motive-power derives from a blend of three main ingredients: matchless energy, a combination of intelligence and memory, and the pushiest ambition since Alexander's wistful complaint about the scarcity of worlds to conquer. Eminent physicians have decreed that energy is born and not made, that humans, through the secret formulas of heredity, receive an impetus at birth which sets the pace for their bumpy journey across the mortal span. In a general way, then, the life-force is influenced more by ancestors than by vitamins. Churchill has been fortunate in both departments; his ancestors could hardly have been selected with greater profit, and his successes with nourishment have been a source of international amity. The Russians in the late war, while disgruntled at his funny suit, were enormously impressed by Churchill at the board. The impunity with which he absorbed caviar and vodka convinced the Soviet leaders that they were fighting on the right side. Hitler, a bilious ascetic, had drunk next to nothing and picked at his food like an anxious raccoon.

                  And here’s an example of Taylor in anecdotal mode. Note how vividly the essential Churchill pops off the page, not only because Taylor is such an energetically elegant stylist, but because of the anecdote he chooses to tell:

            The fathomless wellsprings of energy that drive Churchill have led to interesting alterations in his home of Chartwell, a red brick, nineteen-bedroom farm establishment he acquired in 1923, near the village of Westerham, in the county of Kent. Not long after he bought the place, with his literary earnings, he went down to watch some bricklayers patch things up here and there. He quickly conceived the notion, not entirely foreign to him in other connections, that here was an enterprise at which he could readily excel. He got a trowel and a barrowful of bricks and set to work on a crumbling outhouse. The head bricklayer thereupon advised him that laying brick was not something one went around doing promiscuously but involved joining a union. With a little help, Churchill practiced up in secret, to the point where he was laying, as he said, "two bricks a minute," then he applied for membership in the Southern Counties Division Building Union. The application provoked a genuinely heart-warming row. One local branch went on record as considering the gesture a piece of "dangerous and degrading buffoonery," and another suggested that all bricklayers desist from drinking beer, so as to withhold beer-tax funds from the Exchequer, of which Churchill was then Chancellor.

                  I wish adapter-performer Ronald Keaton had come anywhere that level of spiritedness, but I simply found his show to be a very typical stage bio for one actor, constructed to the usual paradigm—we enter on the main character in his lair, he notices us and instead of calling the cops, accepts that our presence is perfectly natural and then, with no discernible motivation, tells the story of his life and career. Oh, it’s pleasant enough, and Mr. Keaton decent enough company, but it somehow lacks the implicitly promised grandeur of the title figure’s company.

                  In part, this has to do with the nature of the adaptation. For what, I wondered, was Mr. Keaton adapting. As it turns out, a teleplay by James Hume for a 1986 PBS special in which Robert Hardy portrayed Churchill for a live audience. According to this article (, it was not as accurate a bit of dramaturgy as it might be, and that, one assumes, accounts for at least some of Keaton’s motivation to revise and expand the script with additional research of his own.

                But somehow that hasn’t improved matters, only made them drier and more academic. I have no idea how many of Humes’ “inaccuracies” were intended as dramatic license, but at its very core is the fact that Churchill gave a series of lectures in America. The lecture he posits never happened, and occurs years after the actual lectures took place; but in borrowing the circumstance, Humes delivered one of the most overlooked, yet key, ingredients any one actor show ought to have: a reason for the character to address the audience. In jettisoning that, Mr. Keaton also jettison’s urgency, overall motivation and over-arcing dramatic tension.

                  And then, to be perfectly crass about it, there’s just this. Here’s an extended montage of clips from Keaton’s portrayal of Churchill, at the play’s official website. It’s a more than representative sampling. Click on the link here and, when you get to the page, click the video tab. Return to this point when you’re done.

                  Now compare what you've just seen to this, a far shorter clip, but I think far more to the point. Robert Hardy in an excerpt from the original teleplay. Again, return when you're done.

                  I don’t (obviously) know about you, but by my lights, the contrast illustrates the difference between a very decent journeyman actor showing the effort of playing greatness, and a great actor revealing none of the work at all, just carrying himself with innate, natural, charismatic authority. Keaton is a seasoned pro who can hold stage respectably; Hardy is a force of nature. As well, the contrast seems to illustrate the difference (I hedge my bets here because the unabridged Hardy-Humes video is neither commercially available nor found online, save for this clip—not an easy resource to locate) between a script that takes a somewhat vanilla approach to a summary record of a life (Keaton’s adaptation); and one that specifically presents a man addressing an audience (Humes’ unaltered original) who has a passionate world-view to impart—a man who is actually, actively pursuing an objective that makes what he has to say seem urgent.

                  Now don’t get me wrong; Mr. Keaton’s Churchill is far from a misfire and it’s not to his discredit. He’s developed a nice little show that he can take on tour, pull out of the trunk whenever, perform on demand in special engagements and generally have on tap as a little annuity for pretty much the rest of his life. More power to him. My appraisal is merely, or perhaps not so merely, about the power of him. And how it seems proportional to the power of his dramatic approach.

[Note: There is yet another Churchill play floating around, also (usually but not exclusively) performed by its author, Andrew Edlin, and the difference in webaddresses is the absence of the definite article "the." I have no idea how it compares, but if you care to have a gander at a clip or buy the DVD of that one, go here.]

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