John Dexter worked & mingled with the greatest talents of his day: Laurence Olivier, Joan Plowright, Rudolf Nureyev, Paul Scofield, Richard Burton, Stephen Sondheim, Maria Callas, Anthony Hopkins, Kenneth Tynan, & Maggie Smith, among others. Often working with a nearly bare stage to draw out the audience's imagination, Dexter worked to bring freshness to his work without getting in the way of the considerable talent that he had assembled. When the producers of M Butterfly approached him to direct, Dexter countered: “I am known to be difficult, British, homosexual, & expensive, & whilst I can, with modified rapture, admit to the first 3 charges, the last is deeply wounding.''
Dexter, with little formal education, was a leading English director of theater & opera. He won 2 Tony Awards, & was known for the sweep of his directorial imagination with contemporary plays & classics. In the late 1950's & early 1960's Dexter led the Royal Court Theater into trying new & venturesome plays. Under the leadership of Laurence Olivier, he also served for 7 years as an associate director of Britain's National Theater. In later years, as a director of opera & as director of productions for the Metropolitan Opera (from 1974 to 1981), he achieved an international reputation for a new theatre form.
He won his Tony Awards as best director for David Henry Hwang's M Butterfly, & for directing Peter Shaffer's Equus. His final Broadway production was a revival of A Threepenny Opera starring Sting.
Dexter's career led him from small, naturalistic plays to grand epics, & he moved between genres with apparent ease, although sometimes with controversy. The range of his work was demonstrated by the plays he did in association with Mr. Shaffer: the historical spectacle of The Royal Hunt Of The Sun, the farce Black Comedy & the psychological drama Equus.
Shaffer: ''Dexter directs powerfully through suggestion. Into the theatrical spaces he contrives, flows the communal imagination of an audience. He enables it to charge the action of a play with electric life. He is a master of gesture & of economy. Esthetically, his foundation ranges Noh drama to Bertolt Brecht: the plain plank; the clear light; the visual pleasure of the set. He is naturally drawn to plays which demand elaborate physical actions to complete them.''
I was fortunate enough to have spent Christmas Eve-1976 at the apartment of actor Michael Higgins who was appearing with Richard Burton in Equus on Broadway at the time. Mr.Higgins' daughter was a friend of my buddy WCK3. John Dexter was in attendance. His acerbic wit & biting tongue were a bit cruel & I was more than a little intimidated, but I sensed that beneath the satire & irony there was self-doubt & nervous tension. Being Christmas, I told him that I greatly admired his work & gave him a big hug. He died in 1990.