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This article is taken from PN Review 255, Volume 47 Number 1, September - October 2020.

Pictures from a Library
Pictures from the Rylands Library
‘Respiratory Relics’: Robert Donat and Recordings of Keats’ ‘Ode to a Nightingale’
Stella Halkyard

'Nightingale', pen and ink drawing on paper. Mary Griffiths

It’s 1953 and the actor Robert Donat, hailed by Graham Greene as ‘the best actor we possess’, waits for his cue in the wings of a packed Old Vic in Robert Helpmann’s production of T.S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral. Wheezing painfully, a prisoner of asthma, his eyes close until the paroxysm subsides. The oxygen canisters, ready by his side, and the hovering of his understudy on constant standby exert their pressure. Then his line comes and he strides onto the stage, transformed into the likeness of the ‘turbulent priest’ Thomas Beckett, all breathlessness banished as the poet’s verse takes hold.

Regarded as the most accomplished performance of his theatrical career, it was also sadly Donat’s last as the debilitating effects of asthma increasingly reduced his opportunities. However, Donat, apprenticed in a classical tradition of voice training that began ‘with recitals of poetry in North Country towns’ (Donat), could also create an aural presence of ‘great mastery’ (C.A. Lejeune). The exquisite ‘range of colour, pitch, power and tempo’ (Tyrone Guthrie) of his voice found perfect expression in radio broadcasting, a technology that happily allowed ‘him to re-record material ruined by his asthma’ (Vicky Lowe) and to return to his first love of poetry and ‘especially reading
it aloud’.

Around this time he began to record readings of poetry at home as ‘a release from the torment of his illness’ (Donat) and found there a therapeutic solace, ...


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