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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  Book Reviews



  John Gielgud: Matinee Idol to Movie Star, by Jonathan Croall; Methuen Drama, 720 pages, £30.

"I am quite unable to act without suggesting good breeding," said John Gielgud, a flaw which, had he been born much later than 1904, would have made his career a minor one or made it impossible. Nor was that his only limitation. Homosexual and slightly built, Gielgud was often criticised for being insufficiently masculine or physically inexpressive. Kenneth Tynan wrote that he was the greatest actor in England "from the neck up." Gielgud also said that he was not convincing as a character who was evil, and that, despite his big nose, he was no good at playing Jews.
Yet, as Jonathan Croall's magisterial biography demonstrates to those who do not know it, and confirms to those who do, Gielgud was the greatest actor of the century that his life and career nearly spanned. (He died in 2000, when Croall had just finished the first version of this book. Since then, he has been able to consult previously unavailable people and documents for this revision, 130 pages longer.) His Hamlet, in which he took 20 curtain calls on the first night in 1930, was never bettered. Forty-five years later he was overwhelmed with praise for his seedy Spooner in No Man's Land. What the two roles had in common, as did the ones between, were Gielgud's incomparable voice (Alec Guinness called it a silver trumpet muffled in silk) and his restless, darting intellect, fed on the classics of world literature. (Again, Gielgud was fortunate not to have been born when these qualities were irrelevant or a hindrance, when an actor he was directing would not say "huh?" on being told to be less Norman and more Gothic.)
Though Gielgud was hailed in his old age for his daring in working with Pinter, David Storey, Alain Resnais and Peter Greenaway, he had actually begun by challenging convention. He appeared in the first English productions of The Three Sisters and The Cherry Orchard, which changed the English idea that Chekhov was obscure and boring. In the philistine West End theatre of Gielgud's youth, even Shakespeare was considered a risky choice. By repaying the cost of his 1934 Hamlet in its first two weeks, by appearing in plays then thought box-office poison, such as The Merchant of Venice, he showed that the greatest playwright in history could, wonder of wonders, be a commercial proposition. As a producer, he hired Peter Brook to direct as early as 1953, and as a director, two years later, he collaborated with Isamu Noguchi for a startlingLear.
In a biography this long, about work that has mostly vanished, there are inevitable longueurs. Gielgud's early stage work is an often-daunting procession of names and quotations from reviews. The relegation of most dates to a chronology sometimes makes it difficult to place an incident, and the list of pointless celebrity tributes that ends the book shows a lack of confidence at odds with Croall's authoritative yet sensitive handling of his material. He is very good on the rivalry between Gielgud and Olivier, portraying it as far more complex than the usual division between the spiritual and the animal. Their different styles, in directing as well as acting, were opposing responses to insecurity – Gielgud always seeking alternatives, Olivier desperate for certainty. As a person, the modest, vulnerable Gielgud comes out as far more sympathetic than the driven, overbearing Olivier, who made the astonishing suggestion that he take over the role Gielgud was playing when the latter was arrested for public indecency. The theatregoing public proved more compassionate than his producers; on his next engagement in New York, Gielgud was humiliated by being assigned a chaperone who, after the evening performance, walked him home.
On this and aspects of Gielgud's homosexuality, Croall is revealing without going into excessive detail, quoting love letters in which the actor, with startling frankness for such a reserved man, analyses and explains himself. There are also plenty of the notorious "bricks" Gielgud dropped. Dining with the playwright Edward Knoblock, he said of a man who passed their table, "Thank God he didn't stop, he's a bigger bore than Eddie Knoblock." These seem the inevitable result of Gielgud's always being mentally at one remove from his companions, as he was from himself. He was always, he said, a spectator of his own emotions, thinking of how he could use them in his work.
For all the facts here, Gielgud remains a mystery, as art and love are mysteries. Indeed, he was a mystery to himself. Near the end of his life, when he was presenting a television series, the director told him to just be himself. "Yes, yes, dear boy," he replied, "but who am I?"

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