Scope and Content

This class contains RD's extensive correspondence with friends, fellow actors and other professionals involved in theatre, film, broadcasting and writing. Although the correspondence relates largely to RD's professional life, many of these individuals were also close friends, and there is in addition a small amount of family correspondence. The letters span more than thirty years, and chart RD's life and work from his earliest repertory roles in the 1920s to his final film in 1958.

A valuable source of information on RD's career, the correspondence covers such topics as: his early attempts to find theatrical roles; specific projects he worked on; his move into theatre- and actor-management in the 1940s; collaborations and relationships with fellow theatre professionals; RD's film work, including his constant efforts to find suitable scripts, his dealings with directors and producers, his own creative input into films, problems arising from his early film contracts, his work as producer, director and star in The Cure for Love, and the constant tension and interplay between his theatre and film work; critical and public reception of RD's work; publicity and media interest in him; his verdicts on scripts sent by hopeful writers; appeals from other actors for parts; advice offered to young actors, notably RD's own nephew Peter Donat; and RD's career as a broadcaster and a reader of poetry. Other topics relating to theatre and film are also represented in the correspondence, such as the debate over the Sunday opening of British theatres during wartime; the issue of establishing a suitable memorial for Frank Benson; and the activities of the Un-American Committee investigating alleged communist activities in Hollywood in the late 1940s. The correspondence also reflects more personal concerns such as RD's constant struggle with asthma and ill health, his family and relationships, and his feelings of insecurity about his career.

The letters also provide valuable information about RD's numerous correspondents, many of whom are well-known figures. They include playwrights, screenwriters, film and theatre actors, directors and producers, other figures from the film industry, broadcasters, poets and writers, designers, journalists, and composers. There are two particularly large bundles of correspondence, both with playwrights who became good friends of RD and worked closely with him, namely Walter Greenwood (FRD1/1/179), and Henry Osborne Mavor, also known as James Bridie (FRD1/1/61).

Most of the letters are original, but the correspondence of the following individuals is included only in photocopied form, the originals having been sold at auction in 1997: T.S. Eliot; Greer Garson; Samuel Goldwyn; Tyrone Guthrie; Alfred Hitchcock; Alex Korda; David Selznick; George Bernard Shaw; Feliks Topolski; King Vidor; and Darryl Zanuck. Some but not all the correspondence of Max Beerbohm, James Hilton and Max Reinhardt is also in photocopied form.

Although most of the correspondence is with RD himself, some of it was carried out by his various secretaries over the years. There is also a small quantity of material addressed to individuals other than RD, such as a letter to Renée Asherson (FRD1/1/49) and letters to RD's father Emil Donat (FRD1/1/431).


The majority of RD's correspondence was arranged and given reference numbers (in the form of labels stuck onto the letters themselves) by RD's biographer Kenneth Barrow in the early 1980s. His arrangement is alphabetical by surname of correspondent, and this may largely reflect RD's own arrangement of his papers: the lists of his files included in FRD1/8/2 suggest that he kept at least some of his correspondence in broadly alphabetical order. Barrow further arranged the letters of each correspondent chronologically, with undated items placed at the end of each bundle. In the absence of any concrete evidence of RD's exact original order, the current catalogue largely reflects Barrow's arrangement, although some minor changes have been made in chronology which was inaccurate in some cases. Barrow's former reference numbers are recorded. Some bundles of correspondence were apparently stored in binders at some stage, with buff cover sheets stating the name of the correspondent; where these cover sheets survive they have been retained.

In the following list, the term 'copy letter' is used to refer to contemporary carbon typescript copies of RD's own outgoing letters; 'photocopy letter' refers to a modern photocopy; and 'correspondence' denotes both incoming letters and copies of RD's outgoing letters. Information supplied about the location of dating applies only to incoming letters; RD's own copy letters do not generally state this information. Any reference to an 'autograph' means that of the correspondent, not RD unless explicitly stated (most of RD's outgoing letters are carbon copies with no signature). All correspondence is with either RD or his secretary unless stated otherwise. All letters are manuscript and consist of one sheet of paper unless stated.

Access Information

Before the archive came to the Library, some of the correspondence files were classified as closed files. These are open to consultation only by readers who have obtained the prior permission of RD's executors, Joanna Wellington and Brian Donat. Where this applies it is stated in the relevant catalogue description. Some of the photocopied correspondence is currently closed to all readers for copyright reasons.