John Gielgud - Matinee Idol to Movie Star
By Jonathan Croall
Methuen Drama £30
Dateline: 26th June, 2011
When reading the very best biographies in any field, it feels by the
end as if one has met the subject and known him or her well. By the
end of Jonathan Croall's massive homage to Sir John Gielgud, the great
actor seems like an old friend.
The main reason for this is that the author has taken so much trouble
to work through all of the available documents and speak to and meet
as many as possible of those who worked with and knew a man who might
well have been the greatest actor of the 20th century.
His work certainly spanned most of that century, with almost 80 years
separating his initial performance at the Old Vic in 1921 from a final
TV appearance at the dawning of the new millennium.
However, Sir John's theatrical history started long before his birth,
as he was a scion of one of the most famous theatrical dynasties of
the previous century, the Terrys, and had fond recollections of the
greatest of them all, Ellen Terry.
Even as a child, there seemed every chance that dreamy young Jack would
spend his life on stage and he conquered so much in his 20s that he
was already a leading light. From the earliest days, he was recognised
for his impeccable speech, especially in Shakespeare. However, there
was far more to John Gielgud than merely a voice.
He started out as an actor, particularly distinguishing himself in
many Shakespearean roles and unforgettably playing Hamlet at the Old
Vic in 1934. While the acting career flourished, a new one arose when
he branched out and became what was then known as a producer and we
would now call a director.
Gielgud firmly believed in the strength of acting companies and their
ability to provide better performances than casts chosen for single
productions. In this way, his work can be seen as a precursor for the
efforts at the National Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare Company commencing
three decades later.
While he was initially reluctant to get involved in the broadcast media,
eventually Gielgud also won acclaim for his radio, TV and film performances
which, along with the stage, brought him into contact with every great
actor, writer and director of his era.
In the early days, he appeared and communed with the likes of various
Terrys, Gwen Ffrangcon-Davies, George Bernard Shaw and Harley Granville
Later on, he built up particularly close relationships with Laurence
Olivier (with whom he had something of a rivalry) and Vivien Leigh,
Peggy Ashcroft, Ralph Richardson and Alec Guinness, the cream of his
own generation. Rather more distant but still influential was Noël
However, Gielgud was also generous with younger actors and directors
providing encouragement to the Peters - Brook and Hall, Richard Burton,
Marlon Brando and much later, Kenneth Branagh.
While the theatrical career contained many highs, there was a period
when he was probably rather too close to Binkie Beaumont and his unexciting
brand of commercial theatre. This led to a comfortable but undemanding
few years when more challenging work would surely have made the future
theatrical knight happier.
His popularity did wane and then the ever resourceful actor came up
with The Ages of Man, a one-man Shakespearean recital that toured
the globe and was guaranteed to keep the bank balance healthy when other
actors might have been resting.
His private life was something else. To be homosexual when it was illegal
was bad enough, but Gielgud's tastes were always likely to cause trouble
at some point.
Despite having a number of regular partners and three in particular
for long periods, his sense of adventure was dangerous and eventually
landed him in court as well as the newspapers. The support that he received
from colleagues such as Sibyl Thorndike meant a great deal and kept
him going in the darkest hours.
One fascinating facet of this long career was the way in which Gielgud
so often consciously stretched himself. Rather than continuously repeating
his Shakespearean successes, he was willing to take a blind jump into
the world of angry young men, having particular successes with David
Storey's Home and Harold Pinter's No Man's Land.
This sense of adventure also took him to New York and around the world
and eventually led him off the stage and into the broadcast media, where
he became a star, though it took time. If nothing else, the silver screen
and later TV left the often impecunious Gielgud a rich man in later
This meticulously researched book can be read as more than merely a
biography of a single man, since it is wide-ranging enough to place
his life in the context of theatre across the 20th century. Readers
are therefore able to learn much about trends in drama throughout Gielgud's
Sir John Gielgud was a man of the theatre the like of whom we may never
see again. Therefore, the ever-readable Jonathan Croall should be warmly
congratulated on researching and writing what must surely be the definitive
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