"A Shakespearean Tribute to the Late Sir John Gielgud"

From Yahoo news

Some of the brightest stars of stage, screen, and theatrical communities in New York and London paid "A Shakespearean Tribute to the Late Sir John Gielgud," at the Kaye Playhouse this past September. Noted critic and theatrical personality Sheridan Morley-currently readying his authorized biography of Gielgud for Spring 2001 publication-flew in from London to host the event, produced by The Shakespeare Society.

The gala featured reminiscences and short performances from Edward Albee, Keith Baxter, Brian Bedford, Philip Bosco, Zoe Caldwell, Hume Cronyn, Ralph Fiennes, Barrie Ingham, Anne Jackson, Tony Randall, Maria Tucci, Eli Wallach, and Robert Whitehead. Morley extolled Gielgud, whose great-aunt was Ellen Terry and "who saw Eleanora Duse and Sarah Bernhardt," as more than the 20th century's greatest actor, but "the link between the 19th century theatre and the 21st." Summarizing Gielgud's place in the pantheon, Morley noted, "Gielgud has no place in [theatrical] history-he is that history."

Actor Ralph Fiennes (on his night off from "Coriolanus" and "Richard II" at the Brooklyn Academy of Music) spoke movingly of his single meeting with Gielgud: a lunch at Gielgud's 18th century home that began late because Fiennes had missed his train. Describing himself as "very nervous" about asking Gielgud for advice on playing "Richard II"-a role Gielgud himself had redefined, like so many others, throughout his career-Fiennes nevertheless sought out his wisdom before commencing work on the role.

After Fiennes' exit from the stage, Morley surprised the audience with a Gielgud confidence: After lunching with the young actor, it seems, Gielgud remarked that he had "seen a boy like that only once before...his name was Paul Scofield."

New York Times
May 23, 2000
John Gielgud, 96, Dies; Beacon of Classical Stage
Mel Gussow

Sir John Gielgud, one of the great actors of the English stage who enthralled audiences for more than 70 years with his eloquent voice and consummate artistry, died on Sunday at his home near Aylesbury, west of London. He was 96.

He was the last survivor of that triumvirate of legendary theatrical knights -- Laurence Olivier, Sir Ralph Richardson and Sir John -- who dominated acting in England and vitalized Shakespeare in what became a golden age of classical theater. He was especially celebrated for his performances as Romeo, Hamlet, Benedick, Angelo in "Measure for Measure," Prospero and various kings of the realm. With equal ease, he demonstrated his finesse in plays by Wilde and Chekhov and by his contemporaries, who ranged from Shaw to Harold Pinter.

A quintessential man of the theater, he was also known as a director, producer and author. He loved acting and was devoted to the stage, but he always understood the contradictions of his profession.

"Acting is half shame, half glory," he once said. "Shame at exhibiting yourself, glory when you can forget yourself."

On another occasion he said: "Acting has rid me of my frustrations and satisfied many of my ambitions. It is more than an occupation or a profession; for me it has been a life."

Many contemporary critics considered him to be the greatest classical actor of their time. Where Olivier was known for his physical daring and Richardson had a gift for eccentric characterization, it was Sir John who elevated language. In his bearing as well as his speech, he was the most lyrical of the three, a fact that could lead people to underrate his versatility. The beauty with which the actor transmitted Shakespeare in his one-man show, "Ages of Man," caused the critic Kenneth Tynan to offer the backhanded compliment that he was "the finest actor on earth from the neck up," leaving other anatomical claims to Olivier.

What the Tynan judgment overlooked was Gielgud the risk-taker, especially in the last half of his distinguished career, in which he revealed himself as a masterly character actor in plays by Mr. Pinter and David Storey. "The joke is that people think of me as an intellectual actor," Sir John said. "Yet I have always trusted almost entirely to observation, emotion and instinct."

A Hard Worker, Lauded for His Work

An indefatigable worker, Sir John acted until the very end of his life. In his late 80's and 90's he appeared principally in films and on television. His final performance onstage was in 1988 in Hugh Whitemore's "Best of Friends," in which he played Sir Sydney Cockerell, curator of the Fitzwilliam Museum at Cambridge University.

In a collection of tributes published on Sir John's 80th birthday, Sir Alec Guinness said, "John Gielgud did more to liberate the English theater from the fustian attitudes of the 20's and early 30's than any other man and paved the way for what is best in London today."

Sir Alec later wrote that Sir John led the list of "lasting influences on my professional life." In that birthday book, Dame Peggy Ashcroft wrote that "his charm and his charisma have never flagged, and who knows what he may have up his sleeve for us yet?" He was one of the most surprising actors, and someone who could not resist a challenge.

Late in his career he achieved an even wider popularity for his roles in films and won an Academy Award as best supporting actor for playing the butler in "Arthur," the 1981 Dudley Moore comedy.

He said he was surprised that people were surprised he had a success in a comic role. "I always thought you must try to find the comedy even in parts like Lear and Hamlet," he said.

The vulgar dialogue he spoke in "Arthur" seemed to contradict his courtliness. Tall, elegant and dignified, with an imperious profile, he could quite easily strike a stance of snobbishness.

Fittingly, his last major movie role was as Prospero in "Prospero's Books," Peter Greenaway's 1991 version of "The Tempest," fulfilling a dream of his to perform that Shakespearean role on film. This was the fifth time he played Prospero; he reinterpreted characters, returning again and again to Romeo, Hamlet and other roles.

His fifth "King Lear" was in a 1994 radio production, directed by Kenneth Branagh.

All the World as a Stage

In one magnificent season early in his career he alternated with Olivier in the roles of Romeo and Mercutio. Sir John received more admiring reviews for his Romeo; Olivier for his Mercutio. In the course of his long life in the theater he played almost all the great Shakespearean characters and in many cases affixing an enduring imprint.

For someone who was known for his brilliant articulation of Shakespearean verse and for his graceful stage presence, it is interesting to note that as a young actor he was dismissed for his artificiality and his physical awkwardness. His first drama teacher, Constance Benson, burst out laughing in the middle of a rehearsal and said he walked "like a cat with rickets."

For the young Gielgud, acting became a project of self-education and self-improvement. He was his own most demanding critic. Within a few years of his debut, he had worked his way to the top of his profession, and remained there throughout his career.

He was born in London on April 14, 1904, the son of Frank Gielgud, a stockbroker, and the former Kate Terry-Lewis. The name Gielgud is Lithuanian, he said, "not Scottish, as many people imagine." He was christened Arthur John, but was always known as John or, to friends, Johnny.

One of four children, he came from a privileged background. Sir John had the lineage to be a great actor. His grandmother was the actress Kate Terry, Ellen Terry was his great aunt, Edward Gordon Craig was a cousin and there were other actors and theatrical managers in his family. His brother Val Gielgud was a playwright, novelist and director. Besides their talent for the theater, he said, the Gielguds and the Terrys shared "the same weakness: weak lachrymal glands." They were easy criers, something that he used to his advantage in performance.

Partly in emulation of Gordon Craig, he set his earliest sights on being a set designer. As a child, he said, he "developed a passion for painting back cloths and designs in pastels for my toy theater." He later wrote, "I was stage-struck, mad about the theater." Although he never lost his interest in design, he was soon caught up by the idea of being an actor.

His theatrical beginnings were inauspicious. At Hillside, his preparatory school, he played the Mock Turtle in a production of "Alice in Wonderland" and sang, he said, "with increasing volume and shrillness in every verse." After attending Westminster School, he rebelled against the idea of a university education and decided to enter the theater, vowing that "if I did not succeed before I was 25, I would follow my parents' wishes and work to become an architect."

In a Debut and Other Walk-Ons

When he was 17 he made his professional debut, of sorts, as a walk-on in a production of "Henry V" at the Old Vic in London. He played the herald and had one line: "Here is the number of the slaughter'd French." As he later said, he made such a bad impression that when he had walk-ons in "King Lear" and "Peer Gynt" he was given no lines to speak. After three years at Lady Benson's school, he won a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art.

At 19 he played his first Romeo (opposite Gwen Ffrangcon-Davies); it was, he later wrote, a "baptism by fire." One critic, perhaps in anticipation of Tynan's remark, said that "Mr. Gielgud from the waist downward means absolutely nothing." But within a year he was understudying Sir NoŽl Coward in the leading role in Coward's play "The Vortex," and when the author left the cast he replaced him. Later he was to credit Coward with teaching him the art of timing. Soon he was playing Chekhov: Konstantin in "The Seagull" and Baron Tusenbach in "The Three Sisters." In 1926 he replaced Coward again, this time in "The Constant Nymph."

The first time his name was in lights was in 1928 in a farce with Hermione Baddeley. It was, he said, "an appalling concoction, backed by the lady who had written it, called 'Holding Out the Apple.' " It was followed by two more disasters. For several years, he said in his autobiography, "Early Stages," he was on "the fringe of real success," while in danger of being typecast as "neurotic, rather hysterical young men."

'Finding My Feet' in Shakespeare

Then he joined the Old Vic, where he played, in succession, Romeo, Richard II, Oberon, Macbeth and Hamlet. It was in "Richard II" that he "began to feel at last that I was finding my feet in Shakespeare."

"Hamlet," which he played at the age of 25, was the first of the plays to transfer to the West End, where it joined two other "Hamlets" on the boards. The English critic James Agate said the Gielgud performance of Hamlet was "the high water mark of English Shakespearean acting in our time." In other words, he had fulfilled his vow to his parents. It was Agate who called him "our first player."

In these plays, as John Mortimer recalled, the actor's "voice ensnared and enslaved" the audience. "No one had ever spoken Shakespeare with such intelligence and understanding," he said, adding that "no one ever mentioned a cat with rickets again."

The next season he returned to the Old Vic, where he was joined by another young actor, Ralph Richardson. In their first play together, he was Hotspur to the Richardson Prince Hal. On opening night, he was surprised to hear Richardson whisper to him on stage during the dueling scene: "Now you hit me, cocky. Now I hit you."

"I found his clothes extravagant, his conversation flippant," Richardson said. "I didn't like him. But when I played Caliban to his Prospero, John said, 'Would you care to run over your scene with me.' I thought to myself, 'Not much.' But we ran it through and he gave me about 200 ideas as he usually does and I thought, by God he knows something about this here play."

They quickly became fast friends and mutual admirers. "I was always rather amazed at him," Richardson said. "A kind of brilliant butterfly, while I was a very gloomy sort of boy."'

At the Old Vic in 1931 the young Gielgud played Sergius in "Arms and the Man," Malvolio in "Twelfth Night" and "King Lear." But it was as Richard II in "Richard of Bordeaux" in his own production in 1933 that he became a West End star. As he said, "Queues coiled like serpents round" the theater, as he was "photographed, painted, caricatured, interviewed" and lionized. These were heady Shakespearean days, as he, often in tandem with Olivier and Richardson, tackled the weightiest classics.

In 1936 he brought his "Hamlet" to Broadway, with Jessica Tandy as his Ophelia. Again, there was another Hamlet in town: Leslie Howard, and the two dueled for domination. The Gielgud version ran for 132 performances, a record for "Hamlet" on Broadway, until broken by Richard Burton in 1964 in a production directed by Sir John.

Working for Hitchcock and Following Bernhardt

In his first film, the silent "Who Is the Man?" in 1925, he played a drug addict; that role was originally performed onstage by Sarah Bernhardt. That was, he said, "the most ridiculous part I played on screen." Then Alfred Hitchcock persuaded him to be in "The Secret Agent," by telling him it was "another Hamlet part." To his dismay, "Peter Lorre pinched all the best lines." "The Secret Agent" opened the year of his Broadway "Hamlet" and it did not augur a promising film career.

For many years, his cinematic work was sporadic; the high points were Shakespearean, as Clarence in Olivier's "Richard III," as Cassius in Joseph L. Mankiewicz's version of "Julius Caesar" (1953) and as King Henry IV in Orson Welles's "Chimes at Midnight" (1966). But his stage career continued unabated during and after World War II and covered a wide range of classics, as he proved to be equally at home in Wilde and Chekhov, Sheridan and Congreve.

He returned to the United States in 1947 with "The Lady's Not for Burning," directing a cast that included himself and Burton. "The Ages of Man," his one-man collage of excerpts from Shakespeare, was a tour de force that he played in London, on Broadway and on tour. In 1950 in "a fresh start in a glorious season at Stratford," he played Angelo, Cassius, Benedick and Lear. Five years later he returned to Lear and astonished audiences in George Devine's production designed by Isamu Noguchi. He was knighted in 1953.

Into Modern Plays and Surprising Roles

Through the next decades, he continued to direct as well as act, with the emphasis on classics, although in 1965 he acted in Edward Albee's "Tiny Alice" opposite Irene Worth, and several seasons later he staged Mr. Albee's "All Over" on Broadway. In 1968 he played the title role in the Peter Brook production of Seneca's "Oedipus." As Mr. Brook said: "John is always in the present; he is modern in his restless quest for truth and new meaning. He is also traditional, for his passionate sense of quality comes from his understanding of the past. He links two ages. He is unique."

In the 1970's Sir John took a sudden and exhilarating step into modern theater, first with David Storey's "Home" (1970) and then with Harold Pinter's "No Man's Land" (1975). In both plays, he shared the stage with his old friend Richardson. The director Peter Hall had expected him to choose the "posh part of Hirst" in "No Man's Land," because it was similar to other roles he had played. Surprisingly he chose Spooner, the seedy poet in sandals.

"We both felt we were paddling dangerously in uncharted seas," Sir John said, adding that their success in "Home" and "No Man's Land" "was a lively encouragement as well as a refreshing challenge after the more conventional ups and downs of our past careers." In 1977 he moved into experimental films, starring as a tormented, aged novelist in Alain Resnais's "Providence." With that movie, he said, "I felt I was in the avant-garde with a vengeance."

The next decade, while acting onstage in "Julius Caesar," Julian Mitchell's "Half-Life" and other plays, he expanded his opportunities in films and television. In addition to his role in "Arthur," he was featured in the films "Chariots of Fire," "Gandhi," "Shining Through" and "Power of One," and on television in "Brideshead Revisited," "War and Remembrance" and "Summer's Lease," for which he won an Emmy as best actor in a mini-series. With Lord Olivier and Sir Ralph, he appeared in the television mini-series "Wagner."

Known for His Faux Pas, Though Charmingly

Throughout his life, he was known for his faux pas, for dropping bricks in public. While having lunch with the playwright Edward Knoblock, he said: "Do you see that man coming in? He's the biggest bore in London -- second only to Edward Knoblock." Then realizing who was sitting next to him, he said: "Not you, of course. I mean the other Edward Knoblock." When he was directing Burton in "Hamlet," he went backstage after the performance and said, "We'll go to dinner when you're better," instead of "when you're ready."

His response to questions was candid. When the actor Michael Hordern asked him for advice on how to play King Lear, Sir John famously replied, "All I can tell you is to get a small Cordelia." Years later he commented about Robert Stephens's Lear at Stratford-on-Avon, "He had somebody else carry her on!"

For the last 24 years, Sir John lived in a 17th-century house in Buckinghamshire. With its beautiful garden and ornate furnishings, the baronial estate was Sir John's own Brideshead. The garden was tended by his companion of many years, Martin Hensler, who died last year. Sir John has no immediate survivors.

The League of New York Theaters announced yesterday that all Broadway theaters would dim their lights at 8 tonight in tribute to Sir John.

Declaring Priorities in Life and Work

In an interview with The New York Times in 1993, the actor was slender and stately, unbowed by his years. Anticipating his 90th birthday the next April, he had actively discouraged any celebration. "If I can manage to go on working, it's much more interesting," he said.

In 1976 he sold his home in London and moved to the country, seldom returning to the city. "Every street in London is full of memory," he said. "I've lost so many dear friends: Peggy, Ralph, Olivier, Redgrave and, in America, Helen Hayes, Judith, Lillian." Choking back his emotion, he added, "Thank goodness Alec Guinness is going strong." The poignance was especially resonant for someone like Sir John, for whom the theater had been family.

In his eighth decade as an actor, he was still stage-struck and carried with him the history of the English theater in the century. "I used to love being in the theater and having great actors come to visit me," he said. Although he did not often see plays anymore, he resolutely read reviews and kept up with what was happening onstage in London.

When he was not working, he said he passed "the time rather agreeably, as long as one doesn't brood too much about death and the unhappy things of one's life." "I get moments of great depression," he said. "Fortunately, I've had very good friends who have been critical of me. They haven't flattered me too much so that I acquired a sense of my own importance. That's a danger for an actor."

He was a great reader, often finishing four books a week, and he also watched television. For many years his favorite shows were "Cheers" and "Dynasty." Through the 1990's and into this year, he never stopped working, appearing on television and in 1998 in the film "Elizabeth."

Despite his interest in experimental theater, for years he had avoided doing works by Samuel Beckett. He said he had talked Ralph Richardson and Alec Guinness out of doing the original London production of "Waiting for Godot." In retrospect, he said he regretted not doing "Endgame"; this spring he acted for the last time, in a film of Beckett's play "Catastrophe," directed by David Mamet. Sir John played a political prisoner opposite Harold Pinter. The film is part of a series of

movies made of all Beckett's stage plays. Sir John's writing was as elegant as his acting. His books include the autobiographies "Early Stages" and "An Actor and His Time" and two collections of essays, "Stage Directions" and "Distinguished Company." In "Stage Directions" he wrote, "For me the theater has always been an escape, a make-believe world, full of color and excitement, fun, emotion, poetry and movement, a world of striking characters and extraordinary personalities." One of the most extraordinary was Sir John himself.

Back to the Gielgud page

The Good Bits




What's Up: STAGE

What's Up: BOOKS

What's Up: MUSIC

What's Up: FILM

Fictional Characters

What's Up:

Today's Special

Sure We
Thank You