Nothing is more legendary than the work of a legendary stage actor, since it is all but impossible to leave behind a permanent record of the live performances that made his reputation. And because theatrical acting usually looks and sounds overemphatic, at times grotesquely so, when filmed and viewed on a screen, many of the most storied stage actors have been reluctant to make movies or appear on TV. As a result, such once celebrated artists of the past as Katharine Cornell, Alfred Lunt, Lynn Fontanne, and Laurette Taylor are now known for the most part only as names in books.
To be sure, some of the great stage actors of the 20th century made sustained attempts to master the more naturalistic technique of screen acting and establish parallel careers in film. One of them, Laurence Olivier, took the medium seriously enough that he turned himself into a director in order to adapt such Shakespeare plays as Henry V (1944) and Hamlet (1948) for the screen, in the process documenting his own much admired performances. Olivier’s contemporaries, however, typically settled for supporting roles, saving their best efforts for the stage. It is still uncommon for a major stage actor to appear in starring film roles that fully convey his power and range, the way Alec Guinness did in the 1940s and 50s.
Rarely, though, has there been so sharp a discontinuity between the stage and film careers of a classical actor as in the case of John Gielgud. Throughout his extraordinarily long career (he made his professional stage debut in 1921 and his last TV appearance a month before his death in 2000), Gielgud was generally regarded as the greatest of English-speaking classical actors. Best known for his Shakespeare roles, he also had success in such modern plays as Christopher Fry’s The Lady’s Not for Burning (1949) and Harold Pinter’s No Man’s Land (1975). He was, however, notoriously “camera-shy” (his word) and so made only one movie of any importance, Alfred Hitchcock’s Secret Agent (1936), in the first half of his life. He filmed only one of his key classical roles, that of Cassius in Julius Caesar (1953, directed by Joseph Mankiewicz).*
It was not until the late 60s that Gielgud changed his mind about movies. Between 1970 and 2000 he played supporting roles in some four dozen films, winning an Oscar for Arthur (1981), in which he was cast as a Jeeves-like butler with a penchant for uttering four-letter words. But because of his initial resistance to the cinema, he is not nearly so well remembered as Olivier, his longtime rival.
Even so, it remains possible to understand and appreciate his significance. He has been the subject of several full-length biographies and many other books by himself and others, including a 2004 collection of his letters that reveals him to have been a witty and insightful correspondent (as well as, sad to say, a discreet but definite anti-Semite). More important, he made a well-directed TV version of Ages of Man, the 1956 one-man stage show drawn from the plays and sonnets of Shakespeare that he performed around the world. In it we can see exactly what it was about Gielgud’s acting that led his colleagues to hold him in such high regard.
Despite its not-inconsiderable gossip value, Gielgud’s private life was of only modest interest. Born in London in 1904, he was the great-nephew of Ellen Terry, one of the most admired British stage actresses of the Victorian era. He took to the stage as if predestined, playing his first Hamlet at the Old Vic in 1930, and thereafter was universally acclaimed. Until his death he did little else but act and direct. He had no interests outside the arts, and the only time that he made the papers for other than professional reasons was when he was arrested in 1953 for homosexual soliciting in a public lavatory, mere weeks after he was knighted for services to the British theater.†
While Gielgud’s homosexuality was a more or less open secret, he never discussed it publicly, nor was it mentioned in the press after the hubbub over his arrest died down. But it was very much an issue in his earliest years as an actor, for the young Gielgud was, by his own admission, “rather effeminate, and much too fond of the sound of my own voice.” A London drama critic who reviewed his 1924 debut as Romeo described him as “scant of virility.” Thereafter he resolved to transform himself into a different kind of actor, one who, as he later explained, took care
not to act from outside, not to seize on obvious, showy effects and histrionics, not so much to exhibit myself, as to be within myself trying to impersonate a character who is not aware of the audience, to try to absorb the atmosphere of the play and the background of the character, to build it outwards so that it came to life naturally.
None of these things came readily to Gielgud, who was just old enough to have seen such Victorian-era stage actors as Terry, Sarah Bernhardt, and Eleanora Duse and to have been influenced by the romantic ethos that shaped their larger-than-life styles. So he chose to model himself on Noël Coward, whose clipped delivery was radically modern by contrast, and the combination of Coward’s bright crispness and his own natural romanticism proved to be hugely attractive to audiences.
Had he wished to do so, Gielgud could have become a full-fledged matinee idol. But he was from the outset an artist of high seriousness (if never any kind of intellectual) who was determined to cultivate his gifts to the fullest. Though he would always enjoy appearing in popular plays, it was against the golden yardstick of the classical theater that he measured himself. When he played the title role in Hamlet for the first time in 1930, James Agate of the London Times, who had clear memories of the great turn-of-the-century Hamlets, called his performance “the high-water mark of English Shakespearean acting in our time…subtle, brilliant, vigorous, imaginative, tender, and full of the right kind of ironic humour.” At the age of 26, he had arrived.
But Gielgud longed for more than the isolated opportunities to perform the classics that were available to him on the London stage in the 30s, and so he undertook a highly risky venture. In 1937 he used the money he had made playing in Hamlet on Broadway to mount a four-show season of classics in London’s West End, presenting The Merchant of Venice, Richard II, Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s The School for Scandal, and Anton Chekhov’s Three Sisters with a more or less permanent company whose other members included Peggy Ashcroft, Alec Guinness, and Michael Redgrave. This was a daring venture in the days when the British government had not yet begun to subsidize nonprofit theaters, and Sheridan Morley, one of Gielgud’s biographers, went so far as to claim that the way in which Gielgud “redefined and re-created the resident classical repertory company” was the achievement for which he would be remembered.
The season definitively established Gielgud as a force in classical theater, not merely as a performer but also as a director of consequence. He simultaneously became one of the first important stage actors to perform regularly on radio, later appearing in such notable broadcasts as the BBC’s versions of Hamlet (1948) and Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest (1951), in which he played John Worthing. These latter performances, which were recorded and have since been commercially released, are the only complete documentation of the two roles that were the bookends of his classical repertoire.
Gielgud had a high, light baritone voice that Alec Guinness described as “a silver trumpet muffled in silk,” suggesting the power that he held in reserve for crucial moments. His lucid yet unfussy diction, for which he was universally admired, was the result of close study of the text. This is how he described his “method”:
I began to trust the sweep of Shakespeare’s verse, concentrating at last on the commas, full stops [periods], and semicolons. I found that if I kept to them, and breathed with them, like an inexperienced swimmer, the verse seemed to hold me up, and even, at last, to disclose its meaning.
The TV version of Ages of Man, in which Gielgud performs monologues from Hamlet, King Lear, Richard II, Romeo and Juliet, and The Tempest, illuminates his style further. In 1957 the British drama critic Kenneth Tynan described him as “the finest actor, from the neck up, in the world today.” Tynan’s bon mot was not meant as a compliment—he preferred Olivier’s frank physicality—but there is truth in it. Neither conventionally handsome (his most prominent features were his bald head and bulbous nose) nor physically prepossessing, Gielgud understood how perfect stillness can concentrate an audience’s attention. Such movements as he makes are simple and economical, and while he never skims over the top of the verse, his line readings are similarly devoid of eccentricity. He attends first to the sense of the words, trusting in the power of his beautiful voice to charge them with intense expressivity.
Gielgud’s career entered a slump after World War II. Never adept at picking new scripts, he sneered at Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot and was similarly put off by the gritty, class-conscious plays of such younger British writers as John Osborne. (He was to be no more appreciative of Joe Orton and Tom Stoppard later on.) It was then that Laurence Olivier came to be widely viewed as a more exciting performer than Gielgud, not merely because he embraced the modern movement in theater—he starred, for instance, in Osborne’s The Entertainer (1957) and Eugène Ionesco’s Rhinoceros (1959)—but because of his contrasting style of acting, which better suited the temper of the times.
As Olivier himself explained it:
I wanted…to bring a new kind of 1930s reality and earthiness and immediacy to Shakespeare, regardless of the verse, but they all wanted still to hear it musically, and I felt that Johnnie was simply encouraging old-fashioned attitudes.
Gielgud responded by reinventing his own style. He began working with Peter Brook, the iconoclastic young British director, and with Brook’s encouragement, he embraced a new manner of performing and a new repertory to go with it, trying his hand at Pinter and Edward Albee. The goal (as Gielgud put it) was “to discard the things about my style that have become old-fashioned, while retaining the essential qualities that make me the particular actor I am.”
The consequent change in his acting is best understood by comparing the recordings of Shakespearean monologues that he made in the early 30s with the performances included in Ages of Man. The young Gielgud is unabashedly romantic, given to easy tears and a no less easily caricatured tremolo on key words. In middle age, by contrast, he stripped away these dated superfluities: “I try not to sing, not to elongate syllables or vowels. … I try now to exert a rigid discipline, and above all not to indulge.” He became, in short, a disciplined romantic, one who learned the lessons of modernity without compromising his own distinctive theatrical identity.
This midlife transformation was what made Gielgud’s film career possible: He now knew how to act with the economy that the movie camera demands. Alfred Hitchcock had remarked in 1935 while filming Secret Agent, his screen adaptation of Ashenden, Somerset Maugham’s 1928 volume of stories about a disillusioned British spy, that “John’s stage experience is of absolutely no use to him here….declaiming Shakespeare on the stage is in direct contrast to playing such a matter-of-fact, natural part as that of Ashenden.” Four decades later, he had finally learned the difference.
Gielgud’s film career, needless to say, was a mere pendant to his stage work, though he gave a fair number of striking small-scale performances, as well as two impressively ambitious ones, in Prospero’s Books and Alain Resnais’s Providence (1977). Nor would one want to be without his appearances in Arthur and the 1982 television adaptation of Brideshead Revisited, which do far more than hint at the brilliant talent to amuse to which Tyrone Guthrie paid tribute when he praised Gielgud’s self-staged 1939 production of The Importance of Being Earnest as “the high water mark in the production of artificial comedy in our epoch.”*
All this said, it is hard not to feel that Gielgud’s life as an actor was in a sense a series of missed opportunities—though not, of course, from his own point of view. He did exactly what he wanted to do throughout his career. Understanding and accepting the radical evanescence of the stage actor’s art, Gielgud acted not for posterity but for the moment. As he wrote in a 1944 letter, “Oh this curse of the theatre—to continue and continue—to improve a little and slip back again, to find the precise formula and not to be able to pin it down—that is our cross, we wretched mummers.” It was a cross he gladly bore.
That he failed to make complete visual records of his classical roles is our loss, not his. On the other hand, he left behind more than most of his contemporaries did, and if we cannot “know” John Gielgud as an actor in the same way that we know Olivier or Guinness, we can still know him well enough to grasp the nature of his artistry, and marvel at its enduring force and beauty.