I Will Be Cleopatra by Zoe Caldwell
An Actress's Journey

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Echoing such classics as Eudora Welty's One Writer's Beginnings and Moss Hart's Act One, I Will Be Cleopatra is a riveting account of a determined, yet modest woman who became one of the leading classical actors of our time.

To those whose only exposure to acting are the films of Hollywood, Zoe Caldwell remains a secret. To those of us, however, who have seen her on the stage—whether in London, Toronto, or New York—she is the essence of theater, her presence so transfixing that the memory of having seen her is emblazoned in the mind forever.

The daughter of a plumber and a taxi dancer born in Australia at the height of the Great Depression, Caldwell first demonstrated her talents at the age of nine when she appeared on the stage as Slightly Soiled in Peter Pan. Hampered by a mild dyslexia, she felt that acting was the only way she could communicate, and by the age of fourteen she was appearing professionally in national radio soap operas. Caldwell spent the next ten years honing her skills as an actress, before she was sent to Stratford-upon-Avon in 1958, where she began a Shakespearean acting career that would culminate in her stunning portrayal of Cleopatra, the Bard's greatest female role.

Caldwell's own uniquely charming and powerful voice—one that she brought to her roles in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and as Maria Callas in Master Class—shines throughout this intimate memoir. Rather than emphasizing the stories of her adult triumphs, however, Caldwell deliberately focuses on the early influences and experiences that molded her as an actress: her enchanting first visits to the theater, sandwiched in between her parents, where she sat in "the gods," way up in the cheap seats; her early teachers and coaches who taught her not only how to use her diaphragm but also how to keep people "awake and in their seats"; and her journey—steerage class—to England at the age of twenty-five to perform at Stratford with many of the greatest actors of the twentieth century. As Caldwell reveals in these pages, acting is not a craft practiced in isolation. With an experienced eye, she describes her fellow performers, writers, and directors who have shaped her career: from Charles Laughton and Albert Finney to Edith Evans, Paul Robeson, and Laurence Olivier. She has performed the works of major playwrights from Shakespeare and Chekhov to Harold Pinter and Tennessee Williams, many of whom she knew personally. Her insights into the actor's craft reveal the completely undiluted and remarkably fine voice of an artist still impassioned about her craft and dedicated to its perpetuation in its purest form.

I Will Be Cleopatra represents the literary culmination of a legendary theatrical career and a fascinating life.

About Zoe Caldwell

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Zoe Caldwell lives in New York City.
Published January 1, 2001 by NY: W.W. Norton & Co. (2001). 208 pages
Genres: Biographies & Memoirs, Humor & Entertainment, Arts & Photography. Non-fiction

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Kirkus Reviews

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By 1967, when she appeared at Stratford, Ontario, opposite Christopher Plummer in Antony and Cleopatra, she was in love with producer Robert Whitehead (now her husband) and was a seasoned professional who so shamed an audience of noisy schoolchildren when she broke character to reproach them that...

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The New York Times

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Any actor still influenced by the Method should read how she learned to listen carefully to her fellow actors and share the stage: ''to take only the amount of oxygen that was rightfully mine or the part I was playing.'' Self-indulgence is ana...

Oct 21 2001 | Read Full Review of I Will Be Cleopatra: An Actre...

Publishers Weekly

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This short record of her early life and career—from birth into a lower-middle-class family in Melbourne in 1933 to her triumphant performance as Shakespeare's Cleopatra at Stratford, Ontario, in 1967—is a succinct, witty and illuminating exploration of the mind, intuitions and methods of a great ...

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At the age of nine in her native Melbourne, Australia, Zoe Caldwell was Slightly Soiled (her stage-debut role in "Peter Pan") and mildly dyslexic.

Jan 18 2002 | Read Full Review of I Will Be Cleopatra: An Actre...

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