Meaningless Legs

Frank Kermode

  • Gielgud: A Theatrical Life 1904-2000 by Jonathan Croall
    Methuen, 579 pp, £20.00, November 2000, ISBN 0 413 74560 0
  • John G.: The Authorised Biography of John Gielgud by Sheridan Morley
    Hodder, 510 pp, £20.00, May 2001, ISBN 0 340 36803 9
  • John Gielgud: An Actor’s Life by Gyles Brandreth
    Sutton, 196 pp, £6.99, April 2001, ISBN 0 7509 2752 6

These biographies of John Gielgud by Jonathan Croall and Sheridan Morley are quite hard to tell apart. They are of much the same size, bear handsome pictures of the actor in old age on the front of their dust-jackets, and are, inevitably, affectionate and indulgent towards their subject. As Dirk Bogarde remarked when Croall consulted him about the work in hand, ‘everybody adored him, so the book might make rather flat reading.’ Morley’s title emphasises that his version is authorised, and the implication is that his rival’s is not, though it appears that Croall also sought and obtained the actor’s consent to his enterprise. Not good enough, says Morley: it was his version that Gielgud thought of as the ‘Book’. He was impatient to see it, but it did not get written. Meanwhile ‘other books about him began to appear with increasing frequency and sometimes even with his cautious blessing.’ Irritating, no doubt, but one had the satisfaction of knowing that ‘none was able to deal in any detail with his private life, not least because by now John had given me all his own letters and private papers.’ Despite the actor’s impatience to see it, Morley resolved not to publish or even write his book while its subject was alive. His motive was, it seems, not so much to thwart rival biographers as to avoid damaging his hero’s reputation by bringing up the matter of his homosexuality and, in particular, discussing the court case of 1953.

Morley argues for the great public importance of that case, believing it to have prompted the reform of the relevant law; if so, the matter must have been far from secret, and indeed it was at least alluded to in other books by writers that appeared during the actor’s lifetime, for example Gyles Brandreth’s lively tribute, now republished. In any case Croall seems to have had access to plenty of material – sometimes, one feels, too much. He also had more time to write his book, since Morley didn’t start until after Gielgud’s death, only a year or so ago.

These twins aren’t of course identical, and there are bits in one that are missing in the other, but they run parallel courses. Reading them both is to come again and again on the same anecdotes concerning performances, the same examples of the faux pas for which Gielgud was famous, the same bewilderment induced in experienced casts by his wild behaviour as a director, and the same difficult relations with the sometimes ungenerous Olivier, the invariably envious Wolfit and the amiable but rather straitlaced Richardson. And of course both books have to deal with the crisis of 1953.

Gielgud was arrested for soliciting, and although Morley and his publishers claim to have dealt for the first time fully, frankly and sympathetically with this episode there is a perfectly adequate account of it in Croall. Morley regards the prosecution as the culmination of a malign homophobic campaign that was already in progress in 1939, when Auden and Isherwood and Pears and Britten fled to America to escape it. This claim may not be quite groundless but it probably underestimates the complexity of the emigrants’ motives. And perhaps, as Morley believes, the police and the judiciary had been gradually getting tougher on homosexuals ever since the persecution of Wilde in 1895, reaching some kind of peak with the trial of Lord Montagu of Beaulieu in 1953. Morley thinks the homophobes had resolved to clean the national slate in Coronation Year, touted as the beginning of a new and purer era, and he indignantly but somewhat extravagantly compares their machinations with Senator McCarthy’s contemporary witch-hunt against Communists.

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