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Alas, poor Yank; thy inarticulateness doth grow hither and yon

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The man whom the Royal Shakespeare Company's board chairman, Fordham Flower, once called ''robust and Elizabethan'' is peering at a chafing dish of tortellini.

''What is that?'' comes the querulous inquiry in a distinct British accent. It is the same tone of voice he will later use to ask why there is no national theater in America, decry the decline of classical acting, and insist that a tolerance for inarticulateness is growing in both America and Britain.

He is Anthony Quayle, one of England's grand old men of the theater. And if you didn't know better, you might assume him to be a bluff grandfather who becomes miffed when his lunch is unrecognizable. As it turns out, the tall man with grizzled hair and gold-buttoned blue blazer is one of the most celebrated actor-directors working in the English language.

Probably best known to American audiences for his roles in such films as ''Anne of the Thousand Days'' and ''Lawrence of Arabia,'' and on Broadway as the star of ''Sleuth,'' Quayle is considered in his native England to be one of the most distinguished classical actors - in the same league with John Gielgud, Laurence Olivier, and the late Ralph Richardson.

But it is for his tenure at what has become the Royal Shakespeare Company that Quayle achieved his eminence. His 10-year RSC directorship during the 1950s catapulted the then second-rate Stratford-based company to national prominence.

''Yes, there is no question about it,'' says Quayle, working his way around a plate of salads, ''when I was at the RSC, it was the premier theater in the country. But I had a very good basis handed down to me.''

The combination of frankness and generosity of spirit is characteristic of this man, who after half a century of work in some of the finest theaters in the world is not hesitating to start all over again. Quayle was recently in residence at Dartmouth College as a Montgomery Fellow, and his latest project is his own newly formed theater company called Compass. His troupe is set to open on a regional tour in Britain this spring with an 18th-century comedy, ''The Clandestine Marriage.''

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