Time to Remember: the legendary Sir John Gielgud

Sir John Gielgud. Photo uncredited.

While our live theatre scene is interrupted, here is another in a series which aims to fill the gap. It delves into the past to remind us of interesting people and memorable events.

SIR JOHN GIELGUD (1904 – 2000) was one of the trinity of theatre knights who dominated the London stage for half a century. In this appreciation from 2010, ANTHONY FIELD recalls seeing many of his performances, and even auditioning for the man himself. Enjoy the read!

By the time I became a theatregoer in the 1930s John Gielgud had already been acting every year from 1921; by the time I became a regular theatregoer in the 1940s John Gielgud had already established himself as one of Britain’s leading actors, and admired as a director and a producer.

“Who’s Who in the Theatre” records his first appearance on November 7th 1921 as a Herald in HENRY IV, although his autobiography EARLY STAGES lists his first “walk-on” parts were in PEER GYNT and KING LEAR at the Old Vic in 1922. His schedule of appearances were then endless each month throughout every year in the 1920s and 1930s, repeatedly as actor, director and producer of classics and new drama.

In 1935 a unique production of ROMEO AND JULIET had Laurence Olivier playing Romeo to Gielgud’s Mercutio alternatively with Gielgud’s Romeo to Olivier’s Mercutio. This was a chance to make the difficult comparison of two great actors. Gielgud’s Mercutio was spoken with rare virtuosity, the greatly moving delivery of the Queen’s Mob’s lines becomes a scherzo; whereas Olivier looked a handsome young Italian as Romeo.

During these seasons John played Romeo 186 times, and played Hamlet over 500 times, both the longest runs on record.

My first chance to admire his acting was in the repertory season at the Haymarket in 1944 when he opened in THE CIRCLE on 11 October, LOVE FOR LOVE on 12 October and HAMLET on 13 October. He then took HAMLET and BLITHE SPIRIT on and extensive E.N.S.A. tour to the troops in Malta and Gibraltar, and then on to the Far East, appearing in Bombay, Madras, Singapore, Saigon, Hong Kong, Hong Kong, Delhi, Karachi and Cairo.

He returned to tour all the UK’s regional theatres as Raskolnikoff in CRIME AND PUNISHMENT (with Peter Ustinov) ending with a six-month season in London. His love for THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST led him to produce it and play John Worthing in a long tour of Canada and the U.S. in repertoire with LOVE FOR LOVE.

Gielgud was by then so established that he could develop his interest in new drama which included directing plays such as Tennessee Williams’ THE GLASS MENAGERIE. I, myself, auditioned for the part of the Gentleman Caller in September 1948 and perhaps it was as well that I failed as Gielgud was a notoriously demanding director, quick to sack any actor not up to it with ruthless and peremptory candour, although no-one seemed to be hurt as he was so full of heart for the theatre.

It is really impossible to assess who is the greatest actor of all time. Gielgud defeated Olivier as Hamlet and Romeo while Olivier knocked out Gielgud as Othello and Antony. Each contributed his own colour to the scene. Gielgud’s tremulous voice was such an exquisite instrument, illuminating the test of KING LEAR with passion and clarity. It measured evenly with Olivier’s triumphant exposition of this role. Alan Dent wrote that “John is claret and Larry is burgundy”.

The first performance (26th November 1953) of N C Hunter’s A DAY BY THE SEA at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket was unforgettable. Directed by Gielgud, the cast included Ralph Richardson, Sybil Thorndike, Lewis Casson, Irene Worth, Megs Jenkins and Gielgud himself. Gielgud cast himself as a failed diplomat who proposed twenty years too late to a woman who wasn’t too keen to take on a third husband after two disastrous marriages.

However, not long before the first night, Gielgud was subject to a police entrapment for a homosexual crime and it was of concern that his first entrance on the first night would cause a demonstration. I was sitting at the front of the Upper Circle and could see police officers at each side of the Stalls and Dress Circle. Sir John was, in the event, pushed onto the stage by Sybil Thorndike and was met by a thunderous ovation. This greeting was almost as unsettling to him than if he had been heckled. However, he soon regained his equilibrium and the ensemble acting was admired more than the play.

He reopened the Queen’s Theatre in July 1958 with his one-man show AGES OF MAN. He proved incomparable as Henry IV, Clarence, John of Gaunt and particularly Richard II when both he and the audience wept buckets. The anthology of Shakespeare would become a regular stand-by for him over the next decade, winning him worldwide acclaim.

In his later years John endorsed new playwrights in a way no classical actor had ever done, either appearing in or directing plays including Peter Shaffer’s BATTLE OF THE SHRIVINGS, David Storey’s HOME, Charles Wood’s VETERANS, Edward de Bono’s BINGO, Harold Pinter’s NO MAN’S LAND and Julian Mitchell’s HALF-LIFE. My office wall is adorned with a painting of the front of the Apollo Theatre announcing John with Ralph Richardson in HOME which was a key moment in both actors’ careers, doing for them what John Osborne’s THE ENTERTAINER did for Olivier. It brought them firmly into the modern mainstream and John said “we were like the Broker’s Men in Cinderella”.

Again with Ralph Richardson in Pinter’s NO MAN’S LAND he reported “what does it matter what it means so long as the audience is held” and Peter Hall’s direction led him to consider that “these two great actors are the best double act since Laurel and Hardy”.

Like every great actor, John Gielgud was endowed with faults. He could not walk across a stage without suggesting that his knees were tied together with a silk scarf. But then, Kemble was cold and Macready was pompous. However, John’s speaking voice was supreme in its lyrical flexibility and made him incomparable with its sheer exquisiteness. He brought his vocal beauty when playing Shakespeare to modern plays which benefitted from his nuances of humanity.

Olivier was better suited to the heroic parts, the extroverts, which Gielgud shrewdly left alone, preferring to play the comedies of manners with style and elegance. His Jack Worthing in IMPORTANCE was perfection while his Valentine in LOVE FOR LOVE was warm,tender, glowing and expressive of a heart full of human devotion. His taste and artistry was of the highest integrity and he did more to sustain the artistic standard of British theatre in the 20th century than any other actor.

Gielgud’s last stage appearance, after eleven years absence from the West End, was for Michael Redington at the Apollo in Hugh Whitemore’s THE BEST OF FRIENDS when his charm and wit were undiminished. During the 16-week season he celebrated his 84th birthday.

AFTERWORD: Some of Sir John Gielgud’s performances have been captured for television. You can see him in David Storey’s HOME here

and in Pinter’s NO MAN’S LAND here


2 Replies to “Time to Remember: the legendary Sir John Gielgud”

  1. My opinion may not be worth much, since I never saw any of these greats on stage, and only a few of their movies. But from my limited experience, I’d go with Gielgud as the greater. Olivier is terrific in The Entertainer, but leans toward hammy in almost everything else I’ve seen. Gielgud is never less than excellent.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Kevin. Your comments are just as valid as anyone’s, and always welcome at this blog! I must say that personally I lean towards Gielgud too. I only ever saw him once on stage, but it sincerely felt that decades of stagecraft were distilled within him. We are fortunate to have a number of his filmed performances, such as the ones mentioned in the AfterWord, but of course (as we have all experienced in these last few months) recorded performances miss out on that unique energy that live performance brings, that which is both co-created and shared with the audience. Wishing you and yours safe and well.

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