Gielgud’s Achievements

Alan Bennett

  • An Actor and his Time by John Gielgud
    Sidgwick, 253 pp, £8.95

Sir John Gielgud is 75. To hear him talk or watch him on the stage he seems much younger, whereas his recollections of the lions of the Edwardian theatre ought to put him well past his century. It’s an elastic life because baby Gielgud was so quick off the mark, the famous nose soon round the edge of the pram observing the odd behaviour of his Terry uncles and aunts. He had instantaneous success as a young actor and put his popularity with audiences to good effect, bringing Shakespeare and Chekhov to the West End. As an actor manager between the wars he ran what was virtually a national theatre on Shaftesbury Avenue. In the Fifties new directions in the theatre led him to flounder for a while, but in the last ten years he has found his place again. Adjectives like ‘spry’ and ‘vigorous’, indicating the subject is past it, are here inappropriate. His powers show no sign of diminishing, nor his enterprise. He has come a long way. As a juvenile his ‘ambition was to be frightfully smart and West End, wear beautifully-cut suits lounging on sofas in French-window comedies’. Fifty years later ‘I was asked to put suppositories up my bottom under the bedclothes and play a scene in the lavatory which I confess I found somewhat intimate.’ Knighthoods nothing: actors should be decorated for gallantry.

This book has been put together from conversations recorded by John Miller and John Powell for the BBC. They were delightful broadcasts: talking off the cuff, Gielgud rambled backwards and forwards over his life; he rarely paused and then needed only the gentlest nudge to set him off again, bowling down the years. Cut together into a book, the talks come much closer to his tone of voice than previous writings, the only thing one misses is the sound of his laughter: in the broadcasts, a narrative would begin seriously enough, then he would start to snuffle, the snuffle became a giggle and the whole episode would end in a snort of laughter, the object of the joke as often as not himself. It’s a winning characteristic, and an artless one; few public figures can be less concerned with the presentation of self, less calculating of the effect produced. Hence the famous gaffes.

The foot went into the mouth quite early. At a first night of Romeo and Juliet in 1919, Ellen Terry’s last professional appearance, the Terry family was out in force. Gielgud’s grandmother Kate Terry and her sister Marion were both given rounds of applause as they made their separate entrances into the auditorium. ‘In the interval I said in a loud voice to Marion, “Grandmother had a wonderful reception,” and Marion replied: “Yes, dear. I expect they thought it was me.” ’ To compare even implicitly the popularity of two actresses (let alone in a ‘loud voice’) is to invite disaster, but the joy of the story is that even 60 years afterwards Gielgud doesn’t seem to realise that his aunt wasn’t just being witty but that he had put his foot in it.

There were still giants to be glimpsed in the streets of Edwardian London. He saw Sir Squire Bancroft walking every morning to his bank ‘where he would demand a slip with the amount of his current balance, which he would diligently examine before proceeding to lunch at the Garrick’. Bancroft was scrupulous about attending funerals and memorial services ‘and was heard to remark on his return from a cremation service, in those days something of a novelty: “A most impressive occasion. And afterwards the relatives were kind enough to ask me to go behind.” ’ Gielgud’s language still retains a flavour of those days. He can talk of ‘bounders’, of someone being ‘out of the picture’ or ‘caddish’ even. ‘She was jolly and red-faced,’ he says of a costume designer, ‘like an admiral’s daughter.’

In his own person he retains a visible characteristic of that less inhibited generation in his ‘Terry tears’. He has ready access to his emotions and like Churchill he weeps with unaffected ease. On the stage he will produce a wonderfully effective tear seconds after telling some ribald story in the wings, and in full flood his tears are a remarkable phenomenon. I saw him once giving the address at a memorial service, one of those gatherings that seem to occur more frequently in the theatrical profession than any other, generally in the Covent Garden area. This was a service for the old Bensonian actress, Nora Nicholson. Nora had had a happy life and was 81 when she died, so the service was by no means a gloomy one. Sybil Thorndyke, herself 92 and crippled by arthritis, sat enthroned in the front pew surrounded by a posse of ladies who were scarcely younger. At a given moment, these attendants slid along the pew, got their frail shoulders under Dame Sybil and slowly hunched her into a standing position, remaining massed behind her like an aged rugger scrum while she recited the 23rd Psalm in wonderful ringing tones. The contrast between Dame Sybil’s physical incapacity and the undimmed beauty of her voice set Gielgud off crying. By the time he stood up for his memorial address he could scarcely speak, the tears splashing on the chancel steps in a display of grief which, if it was disproportionate, was not inappropriate. It was a sight both moving and funny, and much appreciated by the congregation.

Gielgud is dispassionate about his own talents, and generous about those of others. The publishers are said to have had a hard time preparing this book, with the gentle knight anxious to tone down any remark that might offend. None do, but the anxiety is typical and so is the hard time, as he’s notorious for changing his mind. In fact, the only person who does get any stick is young Mr Gielgud. ‘I had little idea at that time of playing a part with any originality,’ he says, and dismisses many of his youthful efforts as just ‘showing off’. There have been many failures, particularly as a director. ‘I am feather-headed,’ he says, ‘not really thorough.’ True, but he is also conscientious in hidden and unexpected ways. Like many actors from time to time, he tapes books for the blind. It’s a one-off job which most actors do without much thought. I once in his dressing-room picked up a book which he was due to record: he had scored and stressed and underlined it as if for a Command Performance.

Methodical, however, he is not, particularly as a director. His production of Don Giovanni which opened the newly-restored Coliseum in 1968 was a disaster (though that’s not surprising as opening productions generally are – why anybody ever consents to open a theatre I do not understand). At the last dress rehearsal some members of the chorus had still not been placed. A final dress rehearsal in the theatre is done properly, behind closed doors. Opera dress rehearsals seem slightly busier than the first night, grand and populous with all the members of the board on view. There are titled patrons and their ladies, and crowds of discreet functionaries discreetly function in an atmosphere of hushed reverence. This is Art with a capital S. The opera was well under way when Gielgud suddenly noticed the hitherto undirected members of the chorus uneasily wandering about the stage. He rose from his seat, rushed down to the front of the stalls to call a halt while he told them what to do. But operas are not so easily stopped as plays and the orchestra ploughed on relentlessly, with Gielgud trying to make himself heard. Suddenly his voice rose above the din in an anguished wail: ‘Oh, do stop that awful music.’

His has been a fabled and fabulous life and the book is a stream of anecdotes and vignettes. ‘I am Mrs Sabawala,’ an Indian admirer announces. ‘My house on Malabar Hill is a sermon in stone. Lunch with me tomorrow.’

He takes part in a gala at the Foreign Office to celebrate the visit of the French President in March 1939: ‘It was a tremendous affair, the last of its kind before the war and I could not help referring to it afterwards as the Duchess of Richmond’s Ball.’ Sacha Guitry was to appear with Seymour Hicks in a not very funny sketch they had written, adorned but not improved by Guitry’s latest wife, Genevieve Sereville, an extremely pretty girl. ‘At rehearsal Mlle Sereville was dressed in a very short skirt and her stockings were rolled below her knees like a footballer’s, showing a considerable expanse of thigh.’ Sounding unaccountably like Ralph Lynn in an Aldwych farce, Gielgud ventured to remark to Hicks: ‘I say, sir, that’s a remarkably attractive girl with M Guitry, don’t you think,’ and was rewarded with the trenchant comment: ‘Try acting with her old boy. It’s the cabman’s goodbye.’

In one respect, however, this anecdotal style does him less than justice. One would not gather from these pages the nature of the role Gielgud played in the theatre between the wars, nor the extent to which he has been a pioneer. ‘It was not until the Thirties,’ he writes, ‘that by a lucky chance I was able to bring Shakespeare back to the West End as a commercial success.’ This ‘lucky chance’ occurred in a period of theatrical history vividly re-created by Irving Wardle in his biography of George Devine. Devine brought Gielgud to Oxford to direct the OUDS production of Romeo and Juliet in 1932. He had never directed before, though he had played Romeo at the Old Vic. Gielgud has always been interested in stage design; he had at one time considered going into the theatre in that capacity and it was at his suggestion that three unknown designers were brought in to do the costumes. These were Elizabeth Montgomery and her two partners Margaret and Sophia Harris, the Motleys, who specialised in producing stunning effects with the cheapest materials. The OUDS Romeo and Juliet entranced all who saw it and was the trial run for the triumphant version Gielgud directed at the New Theatre in 1935, when he and Olivier alternated Romeo and Mercutio. In this and his other productions in the Thirties, Gielgud was able to put into practice some of the lessons he had learned from Harcourt Williams at the Old Vic, and through Harcourt Williams from Granville Barker. These were simple productions with continuity of action and unity of design, and were entirely modern in feeling. Wardle quotes Tyrone Guthrie as saying that Gielgud’s production of The Merchant of Venice at the Old Vic ‘made Maugham and Coward seem like two Nonconformist parsons from the Midlands’.

It must have been an exciting time to be in the theatre and some of Wardle’s best pages are about the early days of Motley. They had taken as a studio Chippendale’s old workshop behind St Martin’s Lane, where a gang of actors, led by Gielgud, could generally be found sitting around, gossiping, discussing productions and having tea. With a tea bill that sometimes came to £100 a week, it sounds cosy, cliquey and not the stuff of theatrical revolution, and this is the way Gielgud tells it – casually, with lots of anecdotes about Komisarjevsky and Michel St Denis, both of whom he backed. What he does not say is that to design and direct productions in this way brought a gust of fresh air into the English theatre. He made Shakespeare a commercial success 20 years before the Royal Shakespeare Company. Through Komisarjevsky and St Denis he put the English theatre in touch with a European tradition 20 years before the Royal Court. It cannot have been easy to bear that when the Court’s day did come his pioneering work had been forgotten. Out of sympathy with Beckett and Brecht, he missed the bus to Sloane Square and it was a long time before another one came along. But when he did begin to take part in modern plays again it should be remembered that it was a return, not a departure.

Gielgud’s greatest success in the Fifties was his one-man show The Ages of Man, adapted from George Rylands’s anthology. It was a tour de force, a showcase for his talents and also a copy-book exercise in which he could demonstrate as no one else how Shakespeare should be spoken. He did it superlatively well and he did it everywhere. It was something he could fall back on to earn money and to wipe out the memory of less successful enterprises, of which in the Fifties and Sixties there were quite a few. But if Ages of Man was a tour de force it was also a cul de sac. It typed him in the eyes of younger theatregoers as grand, solemn and remote. He was the Voice Beautiful. Not to mention the Voice Imitable. And it was not theatre: ‘I toured it for so many years I feared I would be out of practice when it came to acting again with other people. Also eight performances a week all by myself and sitting alone in a dressing-room between the acts was a very lonely and depressing business.’

I had always assumed that this fairly bleak period in his life came to an end with his portrayal of Lord Raglan in Tony Richardson’s Charge of the Light Brigade in 1967, and then his success in Forty Years On the following year. It was certainly clear from Richardson’s film that Gielgud was beginning to act in a different way. Indeed, he was hardly acting at all, allowing much more of his own personality to be seen. In many ways he was like Raglan, absent-minded, impulsive, out of touch. The headmaster in Forty Years On was the same sort of man and I had thought it was the succession of the two parts that broke the mould. But this is to forget Peter Brook’s National Theatre production of Oedipus, which intervened between the film and my play. Gielgud had had a glorious season at Stratford in 1950 in which he had done Measure for Measure with Brook. But this was Brook ‘when he was still young and approachable and jolly’, not the legend he had since become. On Oedipus he would walk into the rehearsal room and bark: ‘No newspapers.’ Deprived of his beloved cross-word, Sir John was made to do exercises. ‘It was rather like being in the army and I dreaded it; but at the same time I knew I wanted to be part of such an experiment.’ Brook even tried to alter his voice: ‘I had to go into the voice and manner of the blinded Oedipus, trying to produce my voice in a strange, strangled tone which Peter had invented at rehearsal with endless experiment. Technically one of the most difficult things I had ever done in my life … very good, I suppose, for my ego.’ That ‘I suppose’ hides the doubts, the sense of humour suspended, the abject subjection and the outlawing of common sense that working with Brook now seems to entail. If the experiment comes off, as it did with his production of Midsummer Night’s Dream, the result is magical. If it doesn’t (and it didn’t with Oedipus), it is just embarrassing.

Stories abound. The cast were dressed in sweaters and slacks in a tasteful shade of tan. They looked like a Bulgarian table-tennis team. Some, representing plague-stricken Thebans, were tethered to pillars in the auditorium where they were frequently asked for programmes by latecomers. One of the exercises in rehearsal required each member of the cast to come down to the front of the stage and shout out at the top of his voice the worst thing he could think of. ‘We open in three days!’ bellowed one bold spirit. But such jokes were not encouraged, and Gielgud was systematically battered down to his lowest ebb, shorn of experience and expertise. ‘You can’t do that,’ Brook would tell him. ‘It’s awfully false and theatrical.’ But though Brook might strangle his voice and strip him of his manner, he could not eradicate the iron streak of tinsel that runs through Gielgud’s character. This, after all, was a man who first saw his name in lights in 1928, in a farce called Holding Out the Apple. He had one immortal line: ‘You’ve got a way of holding out the apple that positively gives me the pip.’ Dissolve to Oedipus 40 years later. Irene Worth playing Jocasta has to impale herself on a small portable projection that was brought onto the stage. ‘I can’t find my plinth,’ she moaned at one rehearsal. ‘Really,’ said the veteran of Holding Out the Apple: ‘Do you mean Plinth Philip or Plinth Charles?’

But I would guess now that it was Oedipus, though rated a failure with Gielgud somewhat out of place in it, that gave him a new lease of life. He has always been a self-conscious man, his shyness masked by a bubbling stream of anecdote. Brook had somehow inoculated him against embarrassment and in his subsequent career, at a time of life when most men would be standing on their dignity, he threw his away entirely and to splendid effect.

There were plenty of terrible jokes in Forty Years On, and maybe it was those which commended it to him. It still surprises me that he agreed to do it and I’m sure there were times, particularly on tour in Manchester, when he thought he had backed a wrong horse. If so, he never showed it.

‘You won’t fill this place,’ said the stage doorman as Gielgud came into the Palace, Manchester. ‘Nobody fills this place. Ken Dodd doesn’t fill this place.’ He was quite right, and we played sometimes to 30 people. The performances seemed like rehearsals, the more so since Gielgud had only a very shaky hold on the text and, as always when he is nervous, kept coming up with suggestions for radical alterations:

‘I wonder, should the boys come in singing a hymn? It’s very dismal. It makes it seem just like school.’

‘But it’s supposed to be school.’

‘Oh, yes, so it is.’

He had to speak directly to the audience, something he was initially reluctant to do, thinking it vulgar and against all his training. When he eventually plucked up courage to do it and found that it worked, there was no stopping him. He has always been a great counter of the house, able to tell you within five minutes of curtain-up exactly who is in the stalls. Now he could do it legitimately: he would lean far out over the footlights, shading his eyes with his mortar-board, supposedly trying to catch the eye of his sister, Nancy, a woman of easily outraged sensibilities. In reality, he was spotting friends, sometimes even waving. His dressing-room was always crammed with visitors, including a fair quota of the great and famous. I would be summoned in to meet them while Mac, his 80-year-old dresser, who had dressed Martin Harvey and Fred Terry before him, would be struggling to put on the knightly trousers (something old-fashioned dressers take pride in doing, though why I don’t know: to be helped into one’s trousers is no help at all). We had been so close to disaster on tour that it took time for him to register that audiences actually loved him; that this was not respect, which he was used to, but affection.

How narrow an escape we had had with Forty Years On I only appreciated when I saw what happened to Charles Wood’s play Veterans in 1972. This was a play about the making of a film, loosely based on Charge of the Light Brigade, so that Gielgud virtually played himself playing Lord Raglan. It was a very funny piece, with a memorable image of Gielgud hoisted in the air astride a headless wooden horse, doing simulated riding. It was also mildly scatological. Due to go on at the Royal Court after a short provincial tour, it suffered a rough passage. At Nottingham pennies were thrown onto the stage and Gielgud was bombarded with abusive letters saying: ‘You have been sold a pup.’ When the play reached Brighton the audience left in droves, something audiences in Brighton are very prone to do. Indeed, having toured there several times myself, I am convinced that one of the chief pleasures in going to the theatre in Brighton is leaving it. The sleek Sussex matrons sit poised in the stalls like greyhounds in the slips. The first ‘fuck’ and they’re a mile down the front, streaking for Hove. Once Veterans got to the Court, where the occasional oath is part of the house style, it was a great success and would have transferred to the West End. But the reception on tour had so convinced Gielgud of its ultimate failure that he had meanwhile signed to do a Hollywood remake of Lost Horizon.

The public is a problem. Actors of Gielgud’s generation had a strong sense of what an audience expected and what it should be given. In the Fifties and Sixties it was this sense of ‘my public’, as much as a shortage of opportunities, that kept him trundling out Ages of Man. In the last ten years he has shed his public and found another. But then so has everybody else, though not as painfully. Few actors now have this sense of ‘my public’. One or two actresses perhaps, but that’s all. It is not hard to see why. There is no such thing in the West End now as ‘the public’. It survived until quite recently; it was there as late as five years ago, surviving, even strengthened by, the tidal wave of Americans that swept up Shaftesbury Avenue every summer. The Americans were at any rate English-speaking even if they were not always English-joking. Now they too have been submerged. In season and out of season, audiences are now so polyglot they no longer constitute an entity and even playing of the highest quality does not weld them into one. The sense does not carry. The actor is a spectacle, and someone from Taiwan goes to see Gielgud or Guinness in the same spirit as he takes in the Changing of the Guard, which he marginally prefers if only because he is allowed to film it.

The public which goes to the theatre to see Gielgud goes to see Great Acting. These days what the public calls Great Acting is often not even good acting. It’s acting with a line round it, acting in inverted commas, acting which shows. The popular idea of Great Acting is a rhetorical performance (award-winning for choice) at the extremes, preferably the extremes of degradation and despair. Such a performance seems to the public to require all an actor has got. Actors know that this is a false assessment. The limit of an actor’s ability is a spacious and fairly comfortable place to be: such parts require energy rather than judgment. Anything goes. Gielgud’s farting, swearing role in Providence, while it was riveting to watch, was a feat of courage, not great acting. It’s much harder in artistic terms to keep a delicate balance, as he did with Spooner in Pinter’s No Man’s Land. And even more so as Harry in David Storey’s Home, the latter an understated part of immense technical difficulty. Extremes are not edges and the edge is where he excels: the edge of comedy, the edge of respectability, the edge of despair. If he continues to amaze and delight, his powers not to stale, it is because at hit best nowadays he does not seem to be acting at all. The skill lies in letting it seem that there is no skill. He has broken his staff, but he has kept his magic.