12 April 2013

John Gielgud

Sir John Gielgud (1904 – 2000) was an English actor, director, and producer, known for his warm and expressive baritone voice. His prominent hooked nose gave him a distinctive profile. In the 1929 he achieved great acclaim at the West End for his youthful, emotionally expressive Hamlet, which in 1937 broke box office records on Broadway. Although he made his film debut in 1924, Gielgud did not make an international impact in the cinema until the last decades of his life. He is one of the few entertainers who have won an Oscar, Emmy, Grammy, and Tony Award.

John Gielgud
British postcard in the Picturegoer Series, no. 1066A. Photo: Gaumont.

John Gielgud
British postcard in the Picturegoer Series, no. 1066. Photo: Gaumont.

Perfection Itself
Arthur John Gielgud was born in South Kensington in London in 1904 to Katie Terry and Frank Gielgud, a stock-broker. He had a theatrical lineage - on his father's side his great grandmother Aniela Aszpergerowa, had been a well known Polish actress - and on his mother's side, his grandmother Kate played Cordelia at 14 and became an instant star. His great aunt was the celebrated English actress Ellen Terry, and his great uncle Fred Terry, who made his name with The Scarlet Pimpernel. John’s elder brother Val Gielgud came to be a head of BBC Radio, and his niece Maina Gielgud is a dancer and one time artistic director of the Australian Ballet and the Royal Danish Ballet. In 1917, John won a scholarship to Westminster School. There he showed talent at sketching, and he spent hours at home designing and constructing elaborate scenery for his toy theatre. He had the idea to become a scenic designer, but at 16 he decided to become an actor. In 1921 he won, a scholarship at Lady Benson’s drama school and in 1922 he took his first job in the professional theatre when his cousin, Phyllis Neilson-Terry, asked him to tour with her. Gielgud next trained briefly at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London. J. B. Fagan, the director of a small repertory company at the Oxford Playhouse, then offered him a contract. In 1924 he made his film debut opposite Isobel Elsom in the British silent drama Who Is the Man? (1924, Walter Summers). The film, based on the successful French play Daniel by Louis Verneuil, received a mixed reception from critics. While the standard of acting and the film's visuals were well-appreciated, it was generally felt that there were always going to be problems arising from trying to capture a wordy stage play in silent film form, with nuances of character and motivation inevitably being lost. The film is also believed to be lost. Due to its curiosity value as Gielgud's screen debut, it is included on the BFI's ‘75 Most Wanted’ list of missing British feature films. In 1925 at Oxford, Gielgud appeared in his first Chekhov play, as the young revolutionary Trofimov in The Cherry Orchard. "Perfection itself," said James Agate, the most influential critic of the period about his performance. Around this time he met Theodore Komisarjevsky, the Russian director who strongly influenced Gielgud over the next ten years. Theatre manager Basil Dean offered him the male lead of The Constant Nymph, and Gielgud played the part for over 14 months until the end of 1927. During the run of The Constant Nymph, Gielgud met the actor John Perry, who had a walk-on role in Avery Hopwood's The Golddiggers starring Tallulah Bankhead. Gielgud and Perry fell in love, and Perry abandoned his unpromising stage career to live with Gielgud in his flat in Covent Garden. In the US, Gielgud played the Tsarevich in the Broadway production of Alfred Neumann's The Patriot and though the play was a failure, Gielgud got a favourable reaction from the influential critic Alexander Woollcott. In 1929 Lilian Baylis of the Old Vic appointed a new director, Harcourt Williams, and he asked Gielgud to join as a leading actor. Gielgud met with Baylis and did join the company. That year he also appeared in the Edgar Wallace-based crime film The Clue of the New Pin (1929, Arthur Maude) with Benita Hume.

John Gielgud, Adele Dixon as Romeo and Juliet
British postcard. Photo: Polland & Crowther.

John Gielgud
British postcard in the Picturegoer Series, no. 762A. Photo: Dorothy Wilding.

All Ages And All Types
In 1929, at the Old Vic, John Gielgud became a star. Nicholas de Jongh in The Guardian: “In the next 19 months he worked fantastically without more than a flicker of strain, taking on more Shakespeare leads than any subsequent actor has attempted in twice the time. He was all ages and all types - Romeo and Lear, Orlando and Prospero, Macbeth and Malvolio, Antony and Benedick. One of these roles, his Richard II - 'A tall willowy figure in black velvet.. the pale agonised face set beneath a glittering crown,' was the making of him." His Hamlet was the first Old Vic production to be transferred to the West End. It happened in a period when Shakespeare and the classics were out of favour in the commercial theatre, since the middle-class public taste of the 1920’s was for farces, light comedies, thrillers, revues and American musicals. Critic James Agate called Gielgud as Hamlet "the high water mark of English Shakespearean acting in our time." He returned to the role of Hamlet in a famous production under his own direction in 1934 at the New Theatre in the West End. He was hailed as a Broadway star in Guthrie McClintic's production in which Lillian Gish played Ophelia in 1936. Gielgud's Hamlet was later taken to the Lyceum Theatre and even to Elsinore Castle in Denmark, the actual setting of the play. Inspired by Gielgud's performances, a woman wrote, under the pseudonym Gordon Daviot, the play Richard of Bordeaux specifically for him, and he starred in and directed the play. Richard of Bordeaux, a romantic version of the story of Richard II, was a box-office smash and made him a celebrity. Another success was The Importance of Being Earnest which he first performed at the Lyric Hammersmith in 1930 and which remained in his repertory until 1947. And there was a legendary production of Romeo and Juliet (1935) which Gielgud directed and alternated the roles of Romeo and Mercutio with a young Laurence Olivier. His early important film roles included Inigo Jollifant in Victor Saville's comedy The Good Companions (1933) with Jessie Matthews, and the lead in Alfred Hitchcock's Secret Agent (1936) opposite Madeleine Carroll. In 1937/38, he produced a season of plays at the Queen's Theatre. He presented Richard II, The School for Scandal, Three Sisters, and The Merchant of Venice with a permanent company that included himself, Peggy Ashcroft, Michael Redgrave, Harry Andrews, Dennis Price and Alec Guinness. He set a precedent and shaped the development of the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Royal National Theatre. In August 1938, Gielgud was offered a big salary to play in Dodie Smith's Dear Octopus with Marie Tempest and tired of the worry of management, he accepted. He spent over ten months in the play at the Queen's Theatre. A revival of The Importance of Being Earnest at the Globe Theatre followed, but on 3 September 1939 war was declared 'and the Globe Theatre went dark.' Gielgud volunteered for active service but in October 1939 was told he would not be enlisted for at least six months. Hugh Beaumont arranged a provincial tour of The Importance of Being Earnest and it returned to the Globe to run until the end of February 1940. Gielgud was involved in the first major theatrical event of the war, the re-opening of the Old Vic, in a special Shakespearean season with Tyrone Guthrie as co-director, and then, July 1940, toured military camps with a programme of three short plays. In January 1941 he returned to the West End, where only nine theatres were open, in Dear Brutus by J.M. Barrie, a whimsical fantasy about an enchanted wood. He also played Benjamin Disraeli in the film The Prime Minister (1941, Thorold Dickinson).

John Gielgud
British postcard in the Picturegoer Series, no. 762. Photo: Dorothy Wilding.

A.W. Baskcomb, John Gielgud, Jessie Matthews, The Good Companions
British postcard by Raphael Tuck & Sons in the Real Photograph Series, no. 27-B. Photo: Gaumont-British. Publicity still for The Good Companions (1933, Victor Saville) with a.o. John Gielgud (third from left), A.W. Baskcomb (fifth from left) and Jessie Matthews (third from right).

Distinctive New Voices
John Gielgud was a restless seeker. According to Nicholas de Jongh, he learned to rise above the prejudice of his first impressions and to cast aside hide-bound convictions: “In the 1950’s when the new wave of dramatists broke excitedly upon the London theatre, when Bertolt Brecht and theatre of the absurd began to threaten the hold of the upper-middle class drawing room comedy and the regimen of the well-made play, Gielgud was at first left bothered and bewildered, though he did confess himself thrilled by John Osborne's Look Back in Anger and Harold Pinter's The Caretaker.” Throughout the 1950’s and 1960’s, he performed his one-man recital Ages of Man of Shakespearean excerpts. He won a Tony Award for the Broadway production, a Grammy Award for his recording of the piece, and an Emmy Award for producer David Susskind for the 1966 telecast on CBS. In the 1950’s he also played Sherlock Holmes for BBC radio and the American Broadcasting Company, with Ralph Richardson as Watson. Gielgud's brother, radio producer Val Gielgud, appeared in one of the episodes as the great detective's brother Mycroft and in the last episode, Orson Welles appeared as Professor Moriarty. In the cinema he appeared as Cassius in Julius Caesar (1953) for which he won a BAFTA Award for Best British Actor, as George, Duke of Clarence to Laurence Olivier's Richard III (1955), and Henry IV to Orson Welles' Falstaff in Chimes at Midnight (1966). Gielgud made his final Shakespearean appearance on stage in 1977 in the title role of John Schlesinger's production of Julius Caesar at the Royal National Theatre. As he aged, Gielgud sought out distinctive new voices in the theatre, appearing in plays by Edward Albee (Tiny Alice), Alan Bennett (Forty Years On), Edward Bond (Bingo, in which Gielgud played William Shakespeare), and Harold Pinter (No Man's Land). He also worked often for the cinema. He won a BAFTA Award for Murder on the Orient Express (1974, Sidney Lumet), and a New York Film Critics Circle Award for Providence (1977, Alain Resnais) with Dirk Bogarde. He won an Academy Award for his supporting role as a sardonic butler in the comedy Arthur (1981, Steve Gordon), starring Dudley Moore and Liza Minnelli. His performances in the war film The Charge of the Light Brigade (1968, Tony Richardson), The Elephant Man (1981, David Lynch), and Shine (1996, Scott Hicks) with Geoffrey Rush were also critically acclaimed. On television Gielgud gave a particularly notable performance in the acclaimed BBC series Brideshead Revisited (1981, Charles Sturridge, Michael Lindsay Hogg), and won an Emmy Award for Summer's Lease (1989, Martyn Friend). It looked as though Gielgud had retired from the stage after appearing in Half Life at the Duke of York's Theatre in 1978, but he made a successful comeback in 1988 in Hugh Whitemore's play The Best of Friends as museum curator Sydney Cockerell. Gielgud was able to satisfy his life's ambition by immortalising his Prospero on screen in Peter Greenaway's version of The Tempest, the film Prospero's Books (1991) in which Gielgud voiced every single character in the play. In 1994, he gave one of his final radio performances as King Lear. It was mounted to celebrate his 90th birthday, and the cast included Judi Dench, Kenneth Branagh and Derek Jacobi. Gielgud's final onscreen appearance in a major release motion picture was as Pope Pius V in Elizabeth which was released in 1998. His final (silent) acting performance was in a film adaptation of Samuel Beckett's short play Catastrophe, opposite long-time collaborator Harold Pinter and directed by American playwright David Mamet. He died mere weeks after production was completed in Wotton Underwood, England at the age of 96 of natural causes. John Gielgud was homosexual. He lived and worked in an era when there was a conspiracy of silence around homosexuality outside of theatrical circles. Shortly after he was knighted as a Knight Bachelor in 1953, Gielgud was arrested for trying to pick up a man in a public lavatory. The police made an attempt to prevent the press from learning of the incident, but an Evening Standard journalist was in the court that morning. The afternoon edition came out with a headline "Sir John Gielgud fined: See your doctor the moment you leave here." Deeply humiliated, Gielgud considered suicide. Gielgud was told by the British embassy in Washington to forget about a planned American production of The Tempest, as he might prove 'an embarrassment'. Doubtfully he continued to rehearse N. C. Hunter's play A Day at the Sea in which he was scheduled to direct and act. At the opening he stood in the wings unable to bring himself to make his first entrance. His co-star Sybil Thorndike brought him onstage, whispering "Come on, John darling, they won't boo me." The house was brought down by a standing ovation for Gielgud. His partner for over 30 years, Martin Hensler died in December 1998, 16 months before Gielgud's own death in 2000. Following his death it was revealed that late in his life Gielgud had made financial contributions to the gay rights lobby group Stonewall, but had insisted that his support not be made public.

John Gielgud, Peggy Ashcroft
British postcard in the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre series, no. 33. Sent by mail in 1963. Photo: Angus McBean. Publicity still for a 1950 stage production of Much Ado About Nothing with John Gielgud as Benedick and Peggy Ashcroft as Beatrice.

Sources: Nicholas de Jongh (The Guardian), Rhoda Koenig (The Independent), Jon C. Hopwood (IMDb), Wikipedia and IMDb.

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