Playing Winston Churchill: Monumental Man, Not Myth

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Ronald Keaton as Churchill. Photos by Jason Epperson.
Ronald Keaton as Churchill. Photos by Jason Epperson.
Ronald Keaton as Churchill. Photos by Jason Epperson.

How exhilarating and exhausting must it be to play a figure like Winston Churchill on stage? Exhilarating in the possibly obvious sense that this is the reason it’s called acting. Indeed,show us an actor who wouldn’t want to sink their teeth into the epic life and fecund wit of an acknowledged icon like Churchill and we’ll show you someone who ought to pick another line of work. But then, once again: Churchill? The very idea makes you breathe deep. The adjectives to describe the man who led Great Britain through the worst days of the 20th century seem so lacking: monumental, titanic, colossal. Playing Churchill, you would think, would have to be exhausting.

But here we come to a divide, not nearly discussed enough, between ego-driven actors and smart actors. Ego-driven actors would focus on the energy-sucking part of the gig: the mastering of the mannerisms and the accent and the gait and the cigars and the weight of the world hunching Churchill’s broad shoulders. Smart actors scoff would at that — the outside prep is really a warmup. They get their energy by harnessing those outside characteristics to do a deeper dive — to celebrate the soul of the man, not the glory of the icon. This is the aim of actor-playwright Ronald Keaton in Churchill, now in an open-ended Off-Broadway run at New World Stages (340 W. 50th St.), directed by Kurt Johns. And the reviews of the play would seem to bear this out.

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It is very canny of Keaton to set the play in 1946, one of the less understood times of Churchill’s life. It was his wilderness period, a stretch when the Pax Churchilliana for which he gamely fought has come to little personal good. The British had just booted Churchill’s Conservative party from power, and the heroic man himself, in his early 70s, seems a spent force. Inside, no doubt Churchill fumed. And then, as if by luck, President Harry S. Truman invited him to address Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri — and it was there that he delivered his legendary “Iron Curtain” speech. It had the effect of resurrecting Churchill’s career, reestablishing him as one of the finest, most prescient world statesmen, and setting the stage, in 1951, for a triumphant return to office.

Keaton has been an actor for over 40 years. He is particularly established as one of Chicago’s most versatile and dependable actors, with credits ranging from the Goodman Theatre, Chicago Shakespeare Theatre and  Marriott’s Lincolnshire Theatre to Drury Lane Oakbrook Terrace, Theatre at the Center, Theater Wit and Oak Park Festival Theatre. He is also familiar to audiences at Indiana Repertory Theatre, Houston’s Alley Theatre and the Coconut Grove Playhouse in Miami.

For tickets to Churchill, click here.

And now, 5 questions Ronald Keaton has never been asked:

What’s the most perceptive question anyone has asked you about your work?
I was asked once years ago, “Is there a moment in time you can remember that allowed you to say, ‘Yes, I am an actor?'”

Photos: Jason Epperson

What’s the most idiotic question anyone has asked you about your work?
Adding solo work into the toolbox these days, I want desperately to say that it’s, “How do you memorize all those lines?” My stock answer now: “Well…they pay you…” But really, the dumbest question I’ve ever heard is “Do you really like acting?” As if the interviewer simply couldn’t understand a life’s work.

What’s the weirdest question anyone has asked you about your work?
A kid from a college paper asked me, “You ever dream of taking the scene you’re doing into a totally different place and see what happens?” His version of trying to be witty and intellectual.

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So much of Churchill is iconic — the words, the stoop, the voice. As an actor, which elements of Churchill, physical or personal, remain most inscrutable to you and therefore the hardest to play?
I didn’t approach playing Churchill to imitate him. For some people, that seems to be an issue. When one sees the show, they hopefully see suggestions of the physicality…but more importantly, it is the spirit of the man that I wish to share; the physicality is secondary. For instance, most people don’t remember that Churchill had a pronounced lisp and stutter, which followed him into adulthood. When you listen to his speeches closely, you can hear the lisp strongly. But it fades into the horizon, because it’s not how he says it, but what he says that becomes him most, and is therefore most important to the man’s spirit and substance.

Do you think Churchill always took himself as seriously as we — as historians — take him? What do you think he thought of himself? To what degree, on the inside, was he his own worst critic?
Sure he did. The times in which he lived and worked pushed him greatly in that direction. He was a strong, opinionated man whose ambitions arose from boyhood. And that was because he so wanted his father’s approval. Their relationship was the great lifetime personal challenge for Churchill, even into his adulthood. And yes, he was his own worst critic; he didn’t need anyone to tell him when he did something wrong. His problem was admitting fallibility. Churchill was raised in an atmosphere from an exacting and difficult father that taught him making a mistake was one thing. Acknowledging it was quite another; that would be a sign of weakness. So for years, he never took responsibility for the great military mistake of his life — the Dardanelles incident in World War I, in which his hasty judgment cost the lives of scores of men. It was the very thing that solidified in British history the opinion of many that he was a warmonger, that he wouldn’t listen to anyone.

Bonus question:

God returns Churchill from the dead and instructs him to find a solution — preferably political, but military if need be — to three geopolitical problems: ISIS, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and China-Taiwan. What is Churchill’s very first action regarding each conflict?
My own opinion, for what it’s worth: Churchill associated cultural philosophy and military viewpoint with the borders where each was born. So for instance, he would understand the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as being his responsibility and, therefore, would do his best to impose his will on any proposed solution…that being the safety and security of Israel first. Remember, it was his mediation in the 1920s that created the possibility for Israel to exist and eventually rise to statehood in 1948. The battle between China and Taiwan happened mostly during Churchill’s wilderness period, when no one would touch him politically. I can tell you that any association with Communism would have spurred him to fight against it, both politically and militarily. But he would have done things through the United Nations (since Britain is a member of the Security Council) rather than go impulsively with any action on his own — a lesson hard won from both world wars.

ISIS, however, would be his greatest challenge. Churchill was in spirit a Victorian man in a modern age, and his highest unsung talent was in being able to adapt to the moment at hand. Since ISIS is born from the manipulation of a cultural philosophy that uses guerrilla tactics as its thrust — rather than in traditional military strategy — Churchill would need to decipher exactly who and what to fight militarily. And his way in doing so would be to study the history of Islam; to examine the military history and current might of countries in the region; to exact from those same countries a commitment to help him fight ISIS; and then to organize a coalition (approved through the U.N., because he did believe in the idea so much) to fight ISIS on his terms, not theirs. How he would do that remains a mystery to me, because there are too many elements today through which he wouldn’t be familiar, not the least of which is how the Internet influences the reporting of such battles. He’d learn, of course. But life is faster and more reckless these days, and it would be a challenge for any man of Churchill’s era to succeed here.