Shakespearean Actors: Sir John Gielgud.

You would know his voice in a second, without looking up at the stage or screen.

Sure, you might say that about Kenneth Branagh, Ralph Fiennes, or Alan Rickman. But they're not up to King Lear yet; we can only hope that they aspire to the same beauteous majesty that Sir John brought to his many Shakespearean performances. Though we might make the list a bit longer, Gielgud's name was invariably on any list of the notable modern Hamlets: John Barrymore, Sir John Gielgud, Laurence Olivier, Kenneth Branagh. ("Who's Who in Shakespeare" by Wendy Nelson-Cave) For some, he was the definitive Hamlet.

The man who thusly inaugurated our Shakespearean actors page on the occasion of his birthday died at the age of 96 on Monday May 22, 2000.

"In Shakespeare, [Gielgud] set the standard across radio, film and legendary stage performances," actor and director says Kenneth Branagh. "He excelled in both comedy and tragedy. He made Shakespeare vivid, passionate and real for millions of people across the world."

Gielgud leaves behind him many inspired actors and audiences.

Sir Derek Jacobi, at the Golden Quill ceremony 2000, had this to say about Kenneth Branagh (the recipient) and Sir John:

"Tonight Ken will receive this award - it's one of many he has received, will receive no doubt in his glittering career, but I think tonight's award is the rightest, most fittable, given, as it is, in the name of so globally respected and loved an actor as Sir John Gielgud. I wish Ken John's longevity, not the least because I shall be needing the work." Bravo and farewell, Sir John.

Below, some thoughts from the New York Times.
Read more about Gielgud: From the Los Angeles Times. From BBC News.
Comments on Gielgud here.
New York Times obituary here.


Remembering the Still, Simple Beauty of Gielgudīs Art
New York Times
May 28, 2000
Benedict Nightinglae

If I had to pick out one of the many memories John Gielgud has left me, it would be the final moments of the Prospero he played for the National Theater back in 1974. He stepped forward and removed the Elizabethan cap he was wearing, revealing that high forehead, majestic dome and receding hairline. It wasn't just Prospero who was abjuring "rough magic" and throwing away a conjuror's staff. It wasn't just Gielgud bringing "The Tempest" to a profoundly moving close. No, we in the audience had the spooky feeling that we were seeing Shakespeare himself using his last play to bid farewell to the stage.

What made the strange spirituality of the moment doubly, trebly remarkable was that Gielgud had played Prospero three times before, on each occasion in a strikingly different way: as a young, turbaned Eastern magician in 1930, as a fine but embittered Italian scholar-aristocrat in 1940, and in 1957 as Timon of Athens' first cousin, a half-naked hermit fighting the temptation to take violent revenge on his foes. No wonder his contemporary and friend, Ralph Richardson, described him as "a Catherine wheel, spinning out a thousand ideas." He was a far more restless, versatile and even experimental actor than many people, himself included, managed to acknowledge.

Throughout the long, long career that ended with the 96-year-old Gielgud's death last on May 21, a frequent accusation was that he had a noble head and an exquisite voice box but that neither seemed attached to moving parts below. Even his admirers talked of his work in terms of verbal music, Alec Guinness typically describing him as "a silver trumpet muffled in velvet." In 1991 Gielgud himself remarked in his self-deprecating way that from the very start he "spoke well but rather too well and fell in love with my own voice."

He was also apt to quote the critic who said that "from the waist downwards Gielgud means absolutely nothing: his legs are the most meaningless imaginable." His knees, he once remarked, looked as if they had been tied together with ribbon, which made some roles pretty taxing. He was the first to agree that he had been miscast as Shakespeare's roistering Antony and the first to concede that his boldly athletic rival, Laurence Olivier, had been a more effective Romeo: "I have neither the looks, the dash nor the virility to make a real success of it," Gielgud said. "I love the language and revel in it all too obviously."

But any such summing-up is of course inadequate. First, that precise, delicate voice was always more a strength than a limitation. Moreover, it could be argued that in an era when even classical actors have become vocally more slovenly, often wallowing in barely comprehensible emotion, he never forgot that Shakespeare, in particular, was the most adroit and exacting of poets.

The great exponent of the Method, Lee Strasberg, who might have been expected to have been hostile, once said that "when Gielgud speaks the verse, I can hear Shakespeare thinking." You only have to think of the Prospero he played in that National Theater "Tempest" or later, in Peter Greenaway's film "Prospero's Books," to know what Strasberg meant.

Second, Gielgud had a far greater talent for imaginative impersonation than was often recognized. Another of my indelible memories is of his Spooner, the opportunist poet in Harold Pinter's 1975 play "No Man's Land." The tumbledown bohemian with the flapping hair, the lizard eyes and the old sandals, who cadged and crept into the house and life of Ralph Richardson's alcoholic Hirst, was meticulously observed and, as Gielgud himself revealed, partly based on the famously grimy W.H. Auden.

As he proved in another pairing with Richardson, this time as a woebegone mental patient in David Storey's "Home," Gielgud could think and feel his way into roles contemporary as well as classical -- and into a formidable array of characters.

He was, for instance, in the vanguard of those who established that supposedly abstruse Russian, Anton Chekhov, on the British stage. Starting in the 1920s with Konstantin in "The Seagull" and the student Trofimov in "The Cherry Orchard" ("perfection itself," according to the day's leading critic, James Agate), he went on to give acclaimed performances of Trigorin, Vershinin and Gayev. His acting successes ranged from Sheridan to Wilde, Ibsen to Shaffer, Noel Coward to Edward Albee, Edward Bond and Alan Bennett, for whom he memorably played a hilariously blimpish headmaster in "Forty Years On." Wry humor was yet another of Gielgud's less recognized strengths. Only coarseness and vulgarity were beyond him, as some of his movie roles inadvertently demonstrated.

But as Agate said in 1934, Gielgud was "much too fine and romantic an actor to be happy away from rhetoric and robes." It is surely for the distinction and, yes, the variety he brought to classical parts that he will be mainly remembered. The Hamlet he played at the age of 26 in 1930 was arguably the most important and influential of the 20th century: neurotic, vulnerable, self-lacerating and even shrill, as well as sweet and sad. "I never hoped to see Hamlet played as in one's dreams," declared Sybil Thorndike. Others, too, felt that Gielgud's elegant but damaged prince expressed the intricate emotions of a deeply troubled era.

So his career continued into the 1940s, 1950s and beyond, perpetuating and refreshing a tradition of classical acting that had begun with Richard Burbage more than three centuries before: Richard II and Shylock and Macbeth, a wonderfully witty Benedick that entranced New York as well as London, an icily puritan Angelo in "Measure for Measure," a Cassius in 1950 that left one critic talking of "a new, magnificently forceful Gielgud," an even more fiery Leontes for Peter Brook in 1951, and a Lear who not only raged to savagely ironic effect but ended by attaining what The Times of London called "a stillness of beauty which is rarely achieved on the stage."

There, perhaps, was the essence of Gielgud's magic. He displayed range and flexibility, yes, but behind it all he had a simplicity. His often-stated belief was that the actor's duty was not to over-elaborate or over-complicate, not to draw unnecessary attention to himself or his art, but to express an author's intentions as purely as possible.

As he might have added, it was unpretentiously and unfussily to find his way to the very core of a play and a part. After all, what linked his Prospero and his incalculably different Spooner? The glimpse it offered of the human soul, that's what.


Gielgud as Hamlet

From Contemporary Review, August 2000 v277 i1615 p103

... There has been a certain Castiglionean quality in the princes of Derek Jacobi and Kenneth Branagh, but that approach has fatal difficulties for most actors today. Ralph Fiennes' Hamlet -- the Danish Patient -- was not universally admired. Alan Rickman probably left it too late. Stephen Dillane's was memorable only for a full-frontal strip-tease. No heir to Sir John Gielgud is now apparent....


  In his film masterwork *HAMLET*, Branagh ingeniously cast Gielgud as the doomed Priam, opposite Dame Judi Dench as Hecuba, in a lavishly vivid conjuration of Troy under bloody Pyrrhus' attack. Though the film diary by textual advisor Russell Jackson doesn't mention Gielgud on the set, Branagh (in his best Gielgud voice) reports that Gielgud's first comment as he joined the Hamlet set was, "Yes, yes, but where's Jack Lemmon?"

Branagh's Academy-Award winning short film "Swan Song" stars Gielgud as actor explaining--to himself--why the show must go on. The film is based on a story by Chekhov.

Here is a choice bit from Branagh's autobiography titled "Beginning". The book was written to help finance Branagh's newly-formed Renaissance Theatre Company, which was to present an impressive array of work for several years, including Branagh as Hamlet as directed by Derek Jacobi, and later, Branagh's explosive debut film "Henry V" which put Shakespeare back on the map of modern film.


"It was RADA's seventy-fifth anniversary, and Hugh [Crutwell, now Branagh's performance advisor--Ed.] announced a visit by the Queen and Prince Philip to mark the occasion. They would go on a tour of the Academy, and there would be a small concert in their honour, a miscellany of items that charted the progress of students through the Academy.

Hugh asked for volunteers who might like to do some Shakespeare or any other solo work . . . . 'Could I do a bit of Hamlet?'

Although I was by no means Hugh's favourite student, I think he admired my doggedness and enthusiasm, and I was allowed to perform the 'rogue and peasant slave' soliloquy. We rehearsed it in detail with Hugh asking me first to colour particular lines and words and then encouraging me to forget all point-making and let the speech surprise me. It was yielding good results, and at the end of our second session he said, 'Yes, that's really coming along. Now look, John Gielgud, the President of the Academy, is coming in on Monday to discuss arrangements for the royal visit, as he'll be showing them round. Perhaps we'll get him to listen to your speech. What do you think?

I heard myself say, 'That would be terrific,' but my feet had left the ground. Gielgud had been one of my heroes since I had first begun to read about the theatre. My next reaction was the worst possible. I went back to the speech on my own in the following days and worked it to death. The margin was full of 'brilliant' ideas, and I stayed late at college to work on breathing and voice. If you were going to do a speech from Hamlet for the Hamlet of the century, then you had to be prepared. I ended up over-prepared.

On the day, I waited nervously in RADA's Studio 1. Hugh was due to bring him in at three o-clock. The door opened on the dot. 'I hear we're going to see a bit of your Hamlet.' That voice. Oh, my God. I began.

And that's about as much as you can say for my performance on that frightened afternoon. My voice had gone up an octave with nerves. I was as tense and tight as a drum. It was terrible, terrible acting.

As I finished I saw Gielgud wipe away a tear. There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that he was moved by seeing a young actor struggling in utter desperation with a part that he had made his own. He must have felt sorry for me. I was pretty sorry for myself. I knew I'd muffed it. Trying too hard, I was straining and shouting and my delivery was wildly exaggerated. I simply wasn't very good. Gielgud knew it, and Hugh knew it, but I shall never forget the kindness in his tone as he came up to me and put a hand on my shoulder to give the following advice.

'Well done. There are some good things there, but you're really trying too hard. Don't over-colour the early section. You can be much straighter. Give yourself a breather in the middle. Don't stress "I am pigeon-livered" when "pigeon-livered" is much more juicy. . . '

He went on to give me some more specific notes which I failed to take in because I was hypnotized by the humility of the man. He spoke to me not as a teacher, but as one professional to another. He was completely beguiling. He left as quickly as he'd arrived and I sat down half depressed at my failure to impress a god of English theatre, and half exhilarated by his presence and kindness.

The concert was a week later. All the Academy's students and staff were there, along with hundreds of former students and associates, including Ralph Richardson and Peggy Ashcroft. The adrenaline flowed but was under control, and I tried to remember everything Gielgud had said, telling myself I would never do anything quite like it again and simply to enjoy it.

. . . I did enjoy it, and the speech was a hundred times better. At least I'd satisfied a certain personal pride. Afterwards we lined up on stage while the Queen and Prince Philip went down the cast. The Queen asked me how I managed to remember all those lines. I didn't know. Gielgud followed and said, to my delight, 'Oh, that's much better. Very good. You took all my notes.'

I could have kissed him. I'm sure he forgot the whole episode the moment he left the building, but his remark made all the difference in the world to me."

From "Beginning" by Kenneth Branagh, St. Martin's Press, 1989.
Want to read more? This book may be ordered online from Amazon booksellers.


That other newspaper also looked back on the occasion of Gieglud's birthday. Here's what it had to say.

SEVENTY FIVE years ago today, John Gielgud, not yet 20 and just out of Rada, received this letter: "Dear Mr Gielgud, If you would like to play the finest lead among the plays by the late William Shakespeare, will you please call upon Mr Peacock and Mr Ayliff at the Regent Theatre on Friday at 2.30pm. Here is an opportunity to become a London Star in a night. Please confirm. Yours very truly, Akerman May."

It didn't quite work out. Gielgud's first Romeo (with Gwen Ffrangcon- Davies as Juliet) was a "pretty good disaster". "I had the most terrible clothes to begin with, and the most wickedly unbecoming wig . . . and, as a young actor, I'm afraid I pranced and was very self-conscious."

Despite this inauspicious start, within a year he had secured his first West End lead (taking over from Noel Coward in The Constant Nymph); in 1928, he made his Broadway debut; and, in 1929, he joined the Old Vic where, over a period of 20 months, his roles included Romeo, Richard II, Oberon, Antony, Orlando, Macbeth, Hamlet, Hotspur, Prospero, Malvolio, Benedick and King Lear!

In the Twenties he was making silent pictures. Half a century later he emerged as one of the world's most sought-after movie actors. Since winning his first Oscar for Arthur at the age of 78, he has appeared in dozens of films and television series. This weekend, he features in Merlin on Channel 4. Inevitably, there are millions who have only ever seen him on screen, but it is as a stage actor that he would want to be remembered, above all, as an interpreter of Shakespeare.

"Never has English sounded more beautiful from the human mouth" was the verdict on his Hamlet at Elsinore in 1939.

Ask him to name a favourite performance and he shakes his head and closes his eyes. He has a particular place in his heart for Gordon Daviot's Richard of Bordeaux in 1932 ("My first smash hit. There were queues around the block. I said to myself, `I'm a star!"') and for the successes he enjoyed in the Seventies with his lifelong friend Ralph Richardson ("Dear Ralph. Dear, dear Ralph").

Outside Shakespeare, he also has a special fondness for Jack Worthing in The Importance of Being Earnest and Joseph Surface in The School for Scandal. Laurence Olivier called it "the best light comic performance I've ever seen, or ever shall."

"I am lacking in ambition for power, large sums of money or a passionate desire to convince other people that they are wrong or I am right, " he says (in a way Olivier might not have done). "But I have a violent and sincere wish to be a good craftsman and to understand what I try to do in the theatre, so as to be able to convince the people I work with." He appears to have no enemies, although Donald Wolfit was an exception: "He loathed me. The feeling was entirely mutual."

His colleagues speak of his genius, his generosity - in cash and kind - and his gaffes. He has a legendary capacity for the accidental insult. When Glenda Jackson and I entertained him to lunch at the House of Commons for his 90th birthday, we told him how honoured we were that he should be with us on such a special day. "Oh, I'm delighted to be with you," he cooed. "You see, all my real friends are dead."

Martin Hensler, his companion of 40 years, and 20 years his junior, died a few weeks ago and there is a frailty to him now, but he is still indisputably the leader of his profession, our greatest living actor, and, by every account, the sweetest and most generous of men. Happy birthday, Sir John.

***Actors' Comments***

Kenneth Branagh

Ask Sir John what makes the so-called "star" and he will suggest " energy, an athletic voice, a well-graced manner, certainty of execution, some unusually fascinating originality of temperament; vitality, certainly, and an ability to convey an impression of beauty or ugliness as the part demands, as well as authority and a sense of style." John also conveys great intelligence. A mind at work. He can present Hamlet as a man of feeling and of thought. He is a formidable intellect - whatever he may say to the contrary.

One of the most charming things about him in relation to young actors is that he knows who we are and what we are doing. His curiosity about the current theatre and film worlds is inspiring. His knowledge of the present scene puts many of us to shame.

Paul Scofield

I have a special memory of the magnificent JG. It was 1953, during his season at the old Lyric, Hammersmith, that John received his knighthood. We were playing Otway's Venice Preserv'd in a superb production by Peter Brook.

John's first entrance was followed by a long solo speech. On the night that the news of the knighthood broke, John's entrance was greeted by a huge, roaring ovation. It went on and on. I have never heard anything like it. He waited silently, and waited, the tears streaming down his face.

This I observed from the wings, my own entrance being at the end of his speech. Finally, the uproar subsided and he spoke. He was by then completley in control of his emotion, except for that tear-drenched face. His soliloquy ended, I came on stage and our subsequent scene was exactly as always, except for my own rather shaken sensation of having been on the spot and having witnessed, at close quarters, a piece of theatre history.

Sir Donald Sinden

In 1945, I had been performing with Ensa in Burma and had arrived in Bombay ready to return to the UK when John arrived with his company to perform Hamlet and Blithe Spirit. I had already seen his Hamlet nine times in London - - for me, the definitive interpretation. I have now seen 28 different Hamlets and none can touch his.

I spent my days with the company, eating and lying on the beach. Conversation was usually theatrical tittle-tattle. Someone told me that, as his company boarded the aeroplane in England, John had said, "If this plane crashes they'll have two minutes' silence at the Ivy!"

One evening at dinner I asked, "What are the most essential things about acting?" With hardly a pause John replied: "Feeling and timing, " then, with his head erect, his eyes twinkled to the side (a favourite expression of his) as he added, "I understand it is the same in many walks of life."'

Eileen Atkins

I played "a piece of corn" when Sir John played Prospero in Peter Brook's production of The Tempest in 1957.

I was very young, but I remember being deeply impressed that he cried so easily in it. In the reconciliation scene, Cyril Luckham, who was playing Gonzalo, used to cry, too. Sir John said to him, "Cyril, don' t cry. If you cry, the audience won't." Cyril protested, "But you cry, John." "Yes, I know," said Sir John, "but I'm such a silly-billy."

Oddly enough, although he has, to the modern ear, an incredibly posh voice and great musicality, which we don't get now, he seems very real, not at all "theatrical", and when I think of my favourite performances of his they are in modern roles.

He was quite wonderful in Pinter's No Man's Land (1975) and, on television, as Edward Ryder in Brideshead Revisited (1981).

David Hemmings

I treasure his performance as Lord Raglan in The Charge of the Light Brigade (1968) because of the joy of watching it in the making and then seeing it work so perfectly on screen. He was so delightful.

On location, every day he rattled through the crossword in a matter of minutes, then one of us looked over his shoulder and where he hadn' t been able to solve a clue he'd just filled in a nonsense word that happened to fit.

Clive Francis

I will never forget the very first time I saw him, in his Shakespeare recital programme, The Ages of Man (1959) at the Theatre Royal, Brighton. I was mesmerised. He was in evening dress and stood at a lectern and yet somehow he conjured up all these characters and made them fill the stage.

When he was casting Halfway up the Tree (1967), I was called back for a second audition and, as I was announced and came nervously onto the stage, Sir John looked up and wailed, "Oh God, no. No, no, no, no. I'm more than certain I didn't ask for you back again."

Richard Briers

Paul Eddington told me the story of the rehearsal of Forty Years On (1968) at which Sir John, playing the headmaster, looked very unhappy, obscured at the side of the stage, surrounded by all the schoolboys. The director sensed his unease. "Where would you prefer to be Sir John?" "A little further upstage, towards the centre, under a light, and on something."

He was 88 when I worked with him in a film of a Chekhov story. The power of his personality and the enjoyment he got out of his role were striking. His enthusiasm for all things theatrical hasn't dimmed since he built his first toy theatre in 1912.

If I had to choose one moment from his career, I'd pick Cassius in the film Julius Caesar: a close-up and the line, "For we will shake him or worse days endure".

Sir Alec Guinness

It is 65 years since I first worked for him, playing Osric in his definitive Hamlet of 1934, and although he has lost none of his authority and charm in the intervening years, it is impossible to convey to a younger generation the glamour and theatrical innovations he represented.

He has straddled the English theatre for most of this century as the exemplary actor, his head thrown back as if peering beyond us, his eye clear as an April morning, his voice always instantly recognisable and thrilling.

In younger days, an exotic whiff of Cypriot cigarettes preceded him as he entered the stage door, his smart black trilby hat tilted over his nose; and his manner was a rather unsettling combination of courtesy, exasperation and professional impatience, as if nothing must impede his progress to his dressing-room and the stage. He was hero-worshipped by many young actors like myself who copied, in the cheapest form possible, his outward trappings without being able to emulate the inner man.

If forced to choose one performance out of so many, it would be his Mercutio, from later that same season at the New Theatre, when he and Olivier alternated Mercutio and Romeo.

From The Daily Telegraph Arts & Books: Dear, dear Johnny

No detail too small--Branagh writes that Derek Jacobi suggested Hamlet for the RTC, while Jacobi says that he doesn't know what Ken means--this Hamlet was Ken's idea. If you can shed some light on this, please drop us a line here.

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