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.

It seems that Gielgud was caught in a police trap. He may have had a warning from a friendly policeman and been made to understand the importance of not giving his real name if arrested. But when he was charged at Chelsea Police Station, says Morley, he ‘truly lost the plot’, absurdly (though correctly) giving his name as ‘Arthur Gielgud’ as if he could conceal himself behind an unused first name; he was always, and for the most part endearingly, capable of eccentric responses. Even so he might have got away with it if his very distinctive voice, variously described throughout his life as resembling a cello, an ‘unbridled oboe’, or, most spectacularly, ‘a trumpet muffled with silk’ (Alec Guinness), had not been recognised by a person who was in court on some other, unrelated business.

If all this indeed happened at the height of a homophobic witch-hunt, the actor seems to have got off easily with a small fine and a routine scolding. It was just bad luck that he was recognised and the case got into the papers. There is no doubt that he was worried and ashamed, largely because of the trouble he might bring on other homosexuals, but his fellow actors warmly supported him; he was not asked to forego his new knighthood; and the Garrick Club mercifully decided not to expel him. Morley claims that the case was ‘the start of a considerable liberalisation of the laws governing homosexuality’, having had an influence on the setting up of the Wolfenden Committee. This is surely an exaggeration, giving the case, however important it was to the actor and the theatre generally, greater political significance than it can bear. Gielgud was not a militant: his world was the theatre, and it absorbed all his interest and energy. He seems to have been indifferent to larger public issues, like Peggy Ashcroft, who, when asked by a reporter in the 1930s for her view on the Slump, answered: ‘What slump?’ Ashcroft certainly had many intense interests but the condition of England was not among them. So with Gielgud, and with many of his friends.

As these biographies agree, many theatrical people were gay, from top management down, and their response to the law was not defiance, much less agitation for reform, but reticence. Reticence cannot have been very difficult, their world being so enclosed; danger lay in forbidden excursions from it, and even then, one gathers, the authorities were not invariably merciless. Indeed, there seems to have been no great surge of hostile police activity at this time. As Morley himself observes, prosecutions were running at the rate of around three hundred a year, not more than usual and not exactly a purge. That an actor should have been the subject of one of them would have caused no great interest had he not been eminent and admired. Gielgud at first wanted to leave the play he was in and abandon a tour, but sensible friends prevented this, and although distressed he went on with his work. So it all blew over, only now to be resurrected for an unfortunate but fortunately rare public appearance when reticence is no longer obligatory.

Perhaps the biographer, trying to evade the danger mentioned by Dirk Bogarde, needed to make the most of his subject’s single non-theatrical irruption into the news. For the rest, both these books are catalogues of performances, triumphs and disasters, extracts from reviews, listings of lovers, endlessly adulatory comments by fellow actors and reviewers (with only a few limiting judgments), remarks by the man himself on directors such as Komisarjevsky, Michel Saint-Denis (more fully treated by Croall), Peter Brook and Peter Hall.

They are, of course, purely theatrical. Gielgud had an abnormally long theatrical life, appearing in or directing a great many plays in a great many places and also making dozens of movies, so his biographers have felt obliged to be long in their turn. They are saved from the repetitiveness of mere chronicle only by the occasional disaster or flop, and by ample evidence of the subject’s eccentricities and unintentionally comic remarks. Ground-covering narrative of this kind encourages, almost makes inevitable, workaday or reach-me-down prose. Like their subject, the biographers are trapped in a closed world.

In the theatre, representation, performance and the preparation of performance supplant all other modes of life. Work (so anxiously sought) is play, and the ordinary concerns of life, where work is work and the word ‘tragedy’ connotes not King Lear but cancer or a child run over or a train crash, are intrusive, unwelcome and strange.

Has it always been so? And has this limitation of interest necessarily had a bad effect on the chronicler’s prose? It seems once to have been otherwise. The memoirs of 18th-century actors are full of conflicts not very different in style from the spites and enmities of their modern successors, except that they were more likely to issue in brawling and duelling; but their lives also had a more public dimension. As a relief from the virtuous tedium of these modern biographies I looked again at Colley Cibber’s Apology for His Life, a book Gielgud had in his library. It was first published in 1740, a date at which many educated persons and even second-rate playwrights could write lively English.

Cibber became Poet Laureate and is now best known as the victim of Pope’s ridicule, but his book gives one a lively idea not only of the theatre of his day and its antecedents but of the political world in which it had to exist. His perceptive sketches of other actors won the praise of Hazlitt, but he does not see them as separated from the greater world by the curtain. Born in 1671, he knew the London stages and the principal performers from the time of Betterton, when female actors were still a novelty. Normally there were only two theatres, the Haymarket and Drury Lane, both subject to close official scrutiny. As a manager Cibber had to deal with the Lord Chamberlain’s office, which had power over the actors as well as the plays; they might even appeal to him to settle an industrial dispute. Given its connection to the great world it was impossible for the theatre not to be involved in politics and the law. Cibber, in a dispute about theatrical management, had to defend himself in a Chancery court. There is much information about the early London stage in Cibber’s book, but above all it is a reminder that as an actor, without being one of the great stars, he knew the importance of technique, whether in acting or in business, in the making of plays and also in biographical writing. Cibber could write, not simply put the stuff down on paper. For him no contrasts are stark, and you could be inadequate without being woefully so.

Grumbling apart, Gielgud is certainly a rich and fascinating subject. My acquaintance with him was so slight that he probably had no clear idea who I was, yet he would fill a vacant ten minutes before or after a committee meeting with interesting theatrical anecdotes of the kind he seems to have gone on producing for the best part of a century. There was a delightful combination of urbane gaiety and innocent gossip, occasionally slightly scandalous but never malicious, and an assumption, which his authority tended to validate, that the theatre was in every detail a matter of permanent and universal interest to everybody. We gather from these books that he was essentially modest without ceasing to be aware, as they developed from a slowish start, of his unusual powers. He was proud of his distinguished theatrical forebears (‘born into the purple of the Terry family’, as he put it) and at one time thought of changing his name to Terry. He accepted the charge that he moved badly; he was no athlete, hated having to get up on a horse, and had, according to Ivor Brown, ‘the most meaningless legs imaginable’. He had to conquer, and succeeded completely in doing so, his early tendency to shyness, self-consciousness and laziness.

He was proud of his voice, perhaps occasionally too much in love with it, especially in Shakespeare. He knew a lot about Shakespeare and one understands why Richard Sterne, who was in the Hamlet Gielgud directed for Richard Burton, spoke of the ‘scattered scholarship of John’s remarkable mind’. As a Shakespearean he claimed that he had come ‘to trust the sweep of Shakespeare’s verse, concentrating at last on the commas, full stops and semi-colons’, thereby inducing the verse ‘to disclose its meaning’. Nobody seems to have warned him that Shakespeare’s punctuation is a difficult subject, or that in any case he was probably studying the modernised punctuation of some editor; but it seems to have worked well enough.

He did a good many Hamlets and played most of the major Shakespearian parts with varying success, at the Old Vic and elsewhere, but he also did many modern plays, sometimes for long runs. He was suspicious of the new kinds of play that turned up in the 1950s, but eventually joined in and had a huge success with Richardson in David Storey’s Home, described by Lindsay Anderson, who directed it, as ‘one of those uniquely happy, harmonious and fulfilling theatre experiences that happen, if one is lucky, once in a lifetime … Gielgud’s moments of pure, exposed emotion are inexpressibly touching.’ Already in his seventies, he repeated this success with Richardson in Pinter’s No Man’s Land. He was now close to the end of anything that could be called a normal career, but his zest for performance did not diminish and in his last years he played a great many small parts in film and television drama, unforgettably in Brideshead Revisited, unforgotten, unfortunately, in Dudley Moore’s movie Arthur, which made him more famous than Hamlet or Richard of Bordeaux had done. He was 90 when he played all the parts in Peter Greenaway’s Tempest film Prospero’s Books.

One gets the impression that for most of his life money was not a matter of importance to him; presumably there was usually enough of it. As a younger man he was, to put it firmly, constantly cheated by Binkie Beaumont without doing much about it. He was naturally generous; he distributed thoughtful presents to colleagues. It was a fine gesture to present Keane’s sword, handed down from one distinguished Hamlet to the next, to Laurence Olivier, who decided to keep it.

As an old man he seemed to change his ways with money, but this was largely a matter of appearance. He would hardly ever turn down a part, however small, because movies especially could provide the money needed to keep up his splendid house and the contents with which his rather sullen but expensive partner filled it. A glowing impression of those late years of high prosperity may be had from the catalogue of Sotheby’s sale last April of his effects: chandeliers, Persian carpets, paintings including a Dufy, a Nicholson and a Matthew Smith, drawings by Fuseli and Samuel Palmer and his distinguished cousin Edward Gordon Craig, objects of all sorts along with much fine furniture.

By the time they come to the end of their task, readers of these books can no more than their authors doubt the scale of this performer’s achievements. Croall has the colder summing up, mentioning again some rash decisions, reminding us of the period when Gielgud ‘seemed to have lost his way as an actor’. But he found it again, and in the end had done most of the things he could possibly have wanted to do, achieving grandeur while remaining a lover of civilised fun and entirely free of self-importance. Morley avoids ‘valedictory emotion’ and quotes some words of the old man himself: ‘Where you’ve got art, where you’ve got talent, there’s no room for old age, no room for loneliness or being ill,’ and he calls himself ‘a theatre rat’. It was a good idea to give him the last word, if only because throughout these books the liveliest writing is by Gielgud himself.