Gielgud, A Theatrical Life, 1904-2000
Feature by Willard Manus

John Gielgud was one of the towering figures of 20th century theatre, a man who cast long shadows as actor, director, designer and producer on both sides of the Atlantic. His career, which spanned Edwardian times to the end of the 20th century, included not only stage work but accomplishments in the fields of film, television, radio and spoken word. Gielgud truly was one of a kind and any writer trying to sum up his life would be hard-pressed to do justice to it.

Jonathan Croall has taken on that challenge in GIELGUD, A THEATRICAL LIFE, 1904-2000, a biography published recently by Continuum (580 pages, $35). Croall, a writer who comes from a theatrical family himself, did not have an easy time while writing the book. Not only did Gielgud waver in his support of it, but Croall had to go to war with a rival biographer (Sheridan Morley) who tried to undermine his efforts all along the way.

Croall persevered though and the result is something for which every theatrelover should be grateful. GIELGUD, A THEATRICAL LIFE is a triumph in every respect. Lucid, detailed and readable, the book captures the essence of a man who achieved memorable things in his lifetime, yet remained modest, self-deprecating and even insecure, with a puckish sense of humor for good measure.

Gielgud’s great-aunt was Ellen Terry, one of Britain’s most famous actresses. She was his inspiration and help-meet, a woman who gave him moral support when he did battle with his father, who wanted him to become an architect. She also gave him advice and encouragement when he was a young, struggling actor. Gielgud had it tough at first; he nearly flunked out of acting school, and spent many desperate years in rep companies that barely paid him a living wage.

His first starring role was in Noel Coward’s “The Constant Nymph.” In those days British theatre was mostly comprised of light comedies and musicals. Contemporary dramatic works had to be approved by the Lord Chamberlain, who served as the guardian of public morals. Young, courageous theatre folk like Gielgud tried to get around the censorship by forming private theatre clubs, most of which performed on Sunday nights only.

Gielgud also showed his mettle by rejecting the West End for the chance to join the Old Vic. The pay was much less, but he knew he needed to learn his craft, especially when it came to performing Shakespeare. His coach was Harcourt Williams, a man who looked like a “harassed beekeeper,” but who taught him the fine points of speaking Shakespearean verse. “He ruled us by affection and by the trust he had in us, a trust almost childlike in its naivete,” Gielgud said.

Gielgud was equally well-liked by his fellow actors. “His keenness, his modesty, his infinite capacity for work, spread their influence through the company,” one of them recalled.

Gielgud got his chance to play Macbeth (“isn’t it lovely, the dear boy is blossoming,” said his co-lead, Lilian Baylis), but it was his Hamlet that made him a star. The critics were stunned by the work of this 26-year-old, slim, elegant actor with a melodious voice. “His Hamlet is noble in conception,” one of them wrote. “It has been thought out in study, and is lived upon the stage with the result that you feel these things are happening to Hamlet for the first time, and that he is, here and now, creating the words which shall express the new-felt emotions.”

After that, Gielgud never stopped working, right up until the age of ninety-six. As Croall writes, he took part in 130 roles in over 200 productions, appeared in over 70 films, 60 television plays, and innumerable radio plays...and one of his last, “King Lear,” was on his 90th birthday.” Gielgud directed over 80 plays, “was a pioneering actor-manager, and a great discoverer and nurturer of talent in others: numerous actors, playwrights and designers owed their start in the theatre to him. He was also a talented writer, an elegant stylist and witty storyteller who produced several entertaining volumes of memoirs and books on the theatre.”

One of his closest friends was fellow-actor Ralph Richardson, who called him a “kind of brilliant butterfly.” Gielgud himself admitted that his feminine side sometimes took over on stage (his career survived a homosexual scandal), but he could also summon up the artistry to play such masculine roles as Lear and Prospero with stunning, ferocious power.

Gielgud was a titan and Croall’s book pays him proper tribute.