Through Two Peepers in Tune with the Times


The work of a stage actor, however great, is writ on water. Not all stars of the theater are available on film, and those that are lose something when not seen in the flesh. John Gielgud came to excel in both media, but still, it was for his theatrical work that Kenneth Tynan (who, mind you, preferred Laurence Olivier) could refer to him as ''not an actor, but the actor.''

Now that Gielgud, who seemed immortal, nevertheless died in 2000 at the age of 96, a century of Anglophone theater seems to have gone with him. Partly because theater has changed, the dashing romantic leading man la Olivier and the sensitive, musical-voiced protagonist la Gielgud are seldom called for nowadays, even in Shakespeare. And though the older Gielgud did wonders for Harold Pinter, as Olivier did for John Osborne, those roles could be duly filled by younger actors.

So, whatever the limitations of merely reading about a magnificent actor, it is gratifying to have such a well-researched and fluently written, committed yet not adulatory biography as Jonathan Croall's ''Gielgud: A Theatrical Life,'' whose 580 pages can claim what Mozart did for his music: not a note too many or too few. Where biographies of far lesser and shorter-lived figures spread themselves over hundreds of gushy pages, Croall's book seems concise, judicious and complete.

It was smart to subtitle the book not Stanislavskianly, ''A Life in the Theater,'' but Gielgudishly, ''A Theatrical Life.'' The former allows for outside interests; the latter suggests theatricalization of every aspect of living. ''My work is my life,'' Gielgud said, ''and I have no real interests outside it.'' Yet he emerges as a witty, charming, conversationally apt human being rather than as a dreary monomaniac. And with what modesty Gielgud, after witnessing the Olivier memorial circus, stipulated that there be no memorial service for him.

Arthur John Gielgud's father, Frank, was of Lithuanian-Polish descent, which may have accounted for his son's high cheekbones and proneness to be moved to tears. John's mother, Kate, was a Terry, one of England's great theatrical families. Though she herself never seriously considered acting, there were all those other Terrys, most notably the boy's great-aunt, the incomparable Ellen. Young John's obsession was a toy theater, for which he also painted scenery, and he enjoyed dressing up with the contents of Kate's clothes trunk. ''Great actors,'' Croall writes, ''never really grow up, and Gielgud did so less than most.''

This may have left him ''hopelessly adrift in the real world,'' but totally at ease in his big toy, the real theater. In school, Gielgud kept aloof from sports and games, but did some acting; when he was 12, the gift of a gramophone started his lifelong love of music. He thrilled to Ellen Terry as the nurse in ''Romeo and Juliet,'' but hoped to become a set and costume designer, excited by the radical ideas of his cousin Edward Gordon Craig. Only when he discovered that stage design required knowledge of architecture, technical drawing and mathematics did his interest shift to acting.

Supposed to follow his elder brothers to Oxford, Gielgud refused, but promised compliance if by 25 he had not made it as an actor. Uncomfortable in drama school in love scenes with girls, he was also teased by his teacher for walking ''exactly like a cat with rickets.''

His first professional role was at the Old Vic as the English herald in ''Henry V''; one line only, but enough to create a poor impression. Advised by some to quit, he was encouraged by recognition from the visiting Sybil Thorndike, and found a helpful teacher in Claude Rains.

Urged to change his ''unpronounceable'' and often misspelled name, he held out. Eighteen months of repertory with the Oxford Players were a good start, though the critic Ivor Brown noted, ''He has the most meaningless legs imaginable.''

Such criticism was to haunt Gielgud, climaxing in Tynan's famous ''He is perhaps the finest actor, from the neck up, in the world today.'' But he persevered and improved. He honed his verse speaking before a mirror and kept developing his voice, which, early on, was labeled affected, one critic calling it an ''unbridled oboe.'' But another wrote of its having ''the range of a violin, a Stradivarius controlled by a master.'' Still another referred to ''this magnificent violoncello voice,'' and Alec Guinness described it as ''a silver trumpet muffled in silk.'' Enough instruments for a small orchestra: John Steinbeck summed it up as ''great music'' by ''a great musician.''

When Gielgud as Oswald was able in 1928 to steal ''Ghosts'' from the legendary Mrs. Patrick Campbell's Mrs. Alving (''Extremely fine,'' James Agate wrote of his performance), the actor had arrived. This was confirmed by his being hired for six Shakespearean leads at the Old Vic.

Though he was to worry about his arms not being beefy enough for Macbeth, his success in the role (proclaimed the greatest since Henry Irving's) established him from the neck down as well. There followed kudos for his first Hamlet, Benedick and John Worthing in ''The Importance of Being Earnest.'' He had become a star.

But a reviewer in Punch found in his Romeo ''no quality of rapture in his wooing.'' Gielgud, a homosexual, loved women -- except when he had to play love scenes with them. Much later, Dorothy Tutin, Desdemona to his Othello, related: ''John was very unphysical. . . . I practically had to throttle myself.''

Later yet, when he had to seduce her in a television version of ''The Rehearsal,'' he asked Sarah Miles: ''What does one do, embrace or kiss first? I never get it right.'' But he had wonderful friendships and collaborations with actresses, and was particularly nice to beginners. He greatly helped Vivien Leigh onstage and at home; when she was in a really difficult mood, Olivier would phone Gielgud, who would rush over and be listened to peacefully.

There were periods when Gielgud preferred directing to acting, though he was better as an actor than as a director. Here the trouble was an unceasing onslaught of ever-changing ideas, hopelessly confusing many actors, although a few thrived on it. Typical is a passage from the diary of Hume Cronyn, whom he directed in ''Big Fish, Little Fish'': ''Johnny G seems to have 16 new ideas a minute. Write in and erase, write in and erase. Script covered with lunatic markings.''

Extremely heartening, as evoked by Croall, are Gielgud's happy relationships with any number of leading and lesser actors, especially Ralph Richardson. Most fascinating were the relations with Olivier, beginning with the famous 1935 production in which John and Larry alternated as Romeo and Mercutio. Throughout the years, the jealous and rather mean-spirited Olivier gave Gielgud, at best, grudging praise, usually, as Croall says, with a sting in its tail. Thus about the 1959 television production of ''The Browning Version'': ''You seem still to find room for improvement all the time.'' Gielgud, a generous nature, admired Olivier and lauded him, saying, at worst, ''Rather a cold man, but he writes very good letters.'' He even bequeathed a precious heirloom, the sword Edmund Kean had worn as Richard III, to Olivier, when he played the part in 1944, the blade engraved with a handsome tribute. Typically, the dying Olivier, asked whom he would pass it on to, replied: ''No one. It's mine.''

Croall evokes stage productions vividly, and often hilariously. I single out his account of the 1935 ''Romeo and Juliet,'' of a disastrous Stratford ''Othello'' that Franco Zeffirelli totally misdesigned and misdirected (yet Gielgud, the protagonist, stuck by him) and of a ''Twelfth Night'' directed by Gielgud, with Olivier as an uncooperative Malvolio. Here and elsewhere, Croall knows exactly how many anecdotes to relate, actors to quote, reviews to adduce and opinions of his own to append. He also traces stimulatingly Gielgud's steadfast learning from important directors like Harley Granville-Barker, Michel Saint-Denis and the Peters, Brook and Hall.

Croall does not fudge the matter of Gielgud's homosexuality. He writes warmly about the actor's first joint household with John Perry in Oxfordshire. When the powerful producer Binkie Beaumont, who had helped make Gielgud a West End matinee idol, stole Perry from him, the saddened actor bore neither of them a grudge and even produced and directed some of Perry's feeble playwriting efforts. In those legally repressive times, Gielgud kept himself carefully closeted until that unhappy incident in 1953 when an agent provocateur elicited a pass from him in a public lavatory, and the affair hit the tabloids, provoking very bad publicity. The theater rallied to Gielgud, who was frightened to go onstage in his current show. Dame Sybil Thorndike embraced him with, ''Oh John, you have been a silly bugger!'' and later led him on, saying, ''Come along, John darling, they won't boo me!''

As the laws changed, so did Gielgud -- to some extent. He who had refused to play the homosexual King Edward II was, in his old age, delighted to reshoot a movie nude scene with other naked men, exclaiming, ''Oh bliss!'' His households with his second companion, the Hungarian Martin Hensler, first in London, then in a Buckinghamshire home that Hensler grandly overdecorated, were to be visited even by royals. Some friends felt Gielgud was kept captive in the countryside by Hensler, whom Frank Kermode in a review described with fine British understatement as John's ''rather sullen but expensive partner.'' Still, when he gave money to the American gay liberation cause, Gielgud preferred to do it anonymously.

Yet he was a brave man. When his friend Terence Rattigan's charming first play was savaged by the influential critic James Agate, Gielgud wrote a strong letter of protest to Agate's newspaper. As Rattigan observed, ''I wonder if anyone not actually in the theater can understand the moral courage involved.'' When flying from Singapore to Saigon with a touring company, as the tempest-tossed plane nearly crashed into the China Sea and others around him were getting sick, Gielgud ''sat quietly doing the Times crossword.'' As late as the 1990's, he staunchly added 13 film and 12 television roles to his catalog, including the movie ''Prospero's Books,'' in which he spoke all the parts of ''The Tempest.''

Though not especially fond of the drama and cinema of his later years, Gielgud acted superbly in plays and movies by young authors to the end.

On his 96th birthday, he played a silent role in a Beckett movie directed by David Mamet. ''I don't understand a word of it,'' he said, but as he had remarked about a Pinter play he had starred in, ''Why should the play mean anything if the audience was held?'' Jonathan Croall, the editor of StageWrite, the magazine of the National Theater, and the author of 12 previous books, writes a perfectly serviceable prose, even if it is less good than Gielgud's own, as evidenced by quotations from the actor's memoirs and books on acting.

Croall's research was extensive, though he occasionally loses his grip.

''Kismet'' was not yet a musical in 1925; Paul Robeson was not in ''Porgy and Bess'' in 1927-28 (it was not done until 1935, and then without Robeson); the actor Sokoloff was Vladimir, not Victor; Kurosawa's version of ''King Lear,'' about which Gielgud wrote the director an unanswered fan letter, was not ''Rashomon'' but ''Ran.''

These, however, are footling matters in a biography of one whose artistic greatness and human fineness are amply documented. As an actor, Gielgud was praised to the skies by such vastly different arbiters -- from him and each other -- as Bertolt Brecht and Lee Strasberg; as a man, he was, as Alan Bennett remarked, ''entirely without malice or amour-propre.'' At the height of his success, he was still seeking to learn, worked tirelessly and self-critically and was much less hard on others than on himself.



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