Brief Encounters

Andrew O’Hagan

  • Gielgud's Letters edited by Richard Mangan
    Weidenfeld, 564 pp, £20.00, March 2004, ISBN 0 297 82989 0
  • Secret Dreams: A Biography of Michael Redgrave by Alan Strachan
    Weidenfeld, 484 pp, £25.00, April 2004, ISBN 0 297 60764 2

Norman Tebbit announced the other day that Tony Blair’s government had made both obesity and Aids in this country much worse by doing ‘everything it can to promote buggery’. Aside from anything else, this comment might cause us to reflect (buggerishly) on the England beloved of bigots like Tebbit and to see it as a land not only of warm beer and cricket on the village green, but also, more significantly, of generations of excellent buggers performing on radio, stage and television, warming the cockles of English hearts and occasionally laying down their trousers in pursuit of their genius.

Poofterism has a very grand tradition in England, and though the subject failed to catch the attention of George Orwell, it might have been a nice thing if it had, given its place in England’s emotional life at every level and in every class. Orwell was an old Etonian, so he knew all about that, but he also spent a certain amount of time in the vicinity of Wigan Pier, where a succession of drag artists have kept working-class audiences howling into their tumblers for years. To someone like me who grew up thinking Kenneth Williams was the perfect English gentleman (and imagining Russell Harty and Lily Savage to be the perfect Northern blokes), the words of Norman Tebbit are not just mad in the way you’d expect from him, but also profoundly at odds with something outrageously British. People have been paid to camp it up in this country since the time of Blondel, which might explain why all the great institutions – the Royals, the BBC, the Royal Shakespeare Company, the Church of England – would be as empty as Tebbit’s head if the gay players were suddenly sent to Paris to live out their afternoons cackling and drinking absinthe, a fate, one suspects, very much worse than death in the mind of the ageing Eurosceptic Tory.

We know who John Gielgud was – the greatest English speaker of his generation, the lyre of English verse – but his letters tell a story of who he was underneath all that, or perhaps because of being all that. At 23, we find him writing to his mother from Newcastle about ‘the physical perfection of our British workmen’, before developing the particular snobbery of the English theatre that is forever struggling to keep its place a few feet above the heaving scum on the other side of the footlights. The story told by his letters has to do with a courageous and petted individuality set against the demands of the common throng. His mother taught him well, and for her trouble she got a John quite comically aristocratic, always about the business of raising himself and hiding himself, and, from a young age, brilliantly observing Britain from the top of his nose and the summit of Parnassus. From Blackpool in 1942:

The best thing about this place is the potted shrimps one can buy for succour between performances! Not really a holiday attraction, of course, and the wonder is that as many people (hideous and common as they all seem to be) come in at all. They are obviously impressed and possibly edified in their moronic Lancashire way, but it’s not much fun.

And from Glasgow: ‘Here it is Holiday Week – half the shops shut, no drink left anywhere and vast crowds of hideous people thronging the streets and bus queues.’ There’s an old-fashioned, white-gloved, Bowes-Lyon kind of superiority to all this, and reading Gielgud’s letters makes you realise how theatrical the business of class often is in this country.

It is of course perfectly English to hate people at bus stops, but also English to romanticise them, and for actors to romance them, too, when chance allows. Gielgud emerges from his own correspondence as an audience in thrall to the working-out of his own desires: you smell the resin of the rehearsal studio and the bacon on the stairs of the bed and breakfasts, but also the whiff of a narcissistic captivity that only his acting talent can make bearable and eventually triumphant. Gielgud is fascinating thanks to his ability to be himself in never quite being himself: he has the arch-thesp’s ability to recognise the vitality that can exist in the character of another, hiding himself among thousands of evenings and matinees of Hamlets and Henrys, but also finding a version of himself in the act of performance and the rigours of success. Gielgud could play the part of the great actor better than any other role: he had worked for that, and his letters show a wonderful man in tandem, loving his own enlargement but also the massive opportunities it could afford for the diminishment of those less fortunate at the business of being themselves than he was. If the homosexual tendency in English art could be understood to be nothing more threatening than a complication of selfhood, then Gielgud – with his busy mother, his important sensitivities, his mimetic impulse and his constantly imaginative resentments – might be taken for a modern hero of a culture whose health we now take for granted.

In later years Gielgud was famous for the brio he could demonstrate when getting things wrong, but he has plenty of brio when getting things right as well. ‘I did meet Lord Alfred Douglas on two occasions,’ he writes in 1994:

He came to see me in my dressing-room after a performance of The Importance of Being Earnest during the early years of the war, but I was very disappointed, finding him quite without charm – and when I asked him to give me some details about the way the play had originally been produced and acted, he merely insisted that most of the best lines in it were his, and that he had stood over Wilde when he was writing it.

Of course Douglas had quite lost his looks and I thought that must have been a great tragedy for him.

Gielgud had his own minor tragedy, or an event, at least, which at the time seemed full of tragic dimensions. In October 1953 he was arrested in a public loo in Chelsea for soliciting and was later fined £10. To say that a great actor is moved by shame and competition is to say nothing at all, but the incident comes to seem central to Gielgud’s view of his own life. Characterfully, he expresses remorse not only on his own behalf but on behalf of some imagined community of actors. As he seeks to express it first in a letter to Cecil Beaton, then in one to Edith Evans, the matter provides a near operatic occasion on which to delineate – in exasperated parenthetical gasps, like sobs – the very meaning of kinship:

It’s so hard to say what I feel – to have let down the whole side – the theatre, my friends, myself and my family – and all for the most idiotic and momentary impulse. Of course I’ve been tortured by the thought that I acted stupidly afterwards, insisting on tackling it without advice of any kind – but I expect it would all have come out anyway – and I just couldn’t bear the idea of a case and weeks of obscene publicity – even if I had got off with a clean sheet the slur would still have been there, and everyone would have gossiped and chattered. As it is – well, I can only feel that I’ve been spoilt and protected all my life and now it’s something basic and far-reaching that I’ve got to face for many years to come. The miracle is that my friends have stood by me so superbly, and even the public look like letting me go on with my work.

You know I love you as a woman, and esteem you greater than any living player, and I could not have borne to feel that you no longer wanted to know me or look on me as a friend.

Strange are the ways of experience – but you know that better than anyone – and I hope that you will believe that I have learned some truth, however bitterly, along with a wonder at the intrinsic fairness of human beings even in bad times. So much has happened, vile things and glorious kindnesses all mixed together in a few short weeks. I hope to sort it all out and learn from it in days to come.

We can assume that whatever he learned he put into his art, for the following years were good ones for work – Lear, Benedick in Much Ado about Nothing, Prospero, the Légion d’Honneur, directing and acting in everything good wherever it was on – ‘Turned down 25,000 dollars to do Potting Shed on TV,’ he writes from New York. ‘Get me!’ – but we see no obvious decline in his sexual up-for-it-ness. From the Hotel Cipriani he writes to tell his boyfriend Paul Anstee about taking in the sights: ‘Another visit to the likely beach made me witness to a quite interesting gangbang in which the principal performers were Patrick (and equipage, rather to my surprise) and a German of remarkable handsomeness and Royal physique. I merely held the gloves, as it were, but it was quite interesting en plein air.’ Then it’s on to Spoleto: ‘This place is mad – Festival of Fifty Queens, it ought to be called. Marvellous characters and camp little restaurants and art shops. Americans, gorgeous Italian boys, gents and trade alternately, sweep round eyeing one another.’ Despite his sweet protestations to Anstee, there is enough zest in these letters to suggest that the gloves more often than not had to fend for themselves.

Gielgud was never out of work, unlike his Julius Caesar co-star the late Marlon Brando, who made a fabulous cult of his non-appearance on stage, and whose indolence and contempt for the business causes Gielgud to look like a worker bee, making regular honey at no great expense to the spirit. Brando ‘tells me he owns a cattle ranch’, Gielgud writes to his mother, ‘and after two more years filming, will be secure financially altogether!! He belongs to a students’ theatre in New York and is desperately serious about acting, but I think he has very little humour and seems quite unaware of anything except the development of his own evident talents. It will be rather fun to watch him.’ And that is perhaps one of the larger points about Gielgud and the kind of acting he turned into a mode of belief: it was methodical, as opposed to Methodical, company-minded as opposed to solitary, devoted to the glories of diction not the mysteries of charisma, the discipline of repertory not the self-immolation of the single performance. He directed and lectured, recorded albums of Shakespeare, did films, television; but the English stage was Gielgud’s echo-chamber for seventy years, and he is centrally responsible for the English sense of a national ensemble theatre in the years before Olivier built one.

But letters are better for gossip than for history, especially the letters of performers, who show new sides of themselves when they imagine they are performing for an audience of one. On the strength of Richard Mangan’s edition, we must assume that Gielgud’s contribution to the documenting of theatrical history will be uncertain (‘I had never noticed that Albee had such big ears!’) while his contribution to the understanding of bad character is pleasingly immense. ‘I am so sad not to have seen him these last years,’ he writes to Joan Plowright after Olivier’s death. ‘But I hesitated to intrude on the family life he had so richly deserved and I felt it might distress him to find me still lucky and well enough to go on working while he himself was so sadly disabled.’

There are many occasions like this, when the sentiment is admirable but its explication wicked, and Gielgud spent a great deal of his life laughing, as it were, at the bad reviews and other misfortunes endured by his contemporaries. In later years, he did a good job impersonating the bumbling, absent-minded old buffer of high achievements and wide tolerance, but he spent his life not only needing applause, but needing (badly needing) other people to have a little less of it. David Frost once asked him what he wished he’d known at 20. ‘To hold my tongue,’ Gielgud said. ‘I’ve talked too much, gossiped too much.’

The fear of gossip can run a life, and sometimes ruin one; Michael Redgrave was an actor powered by secrets. ‘What an odd fish he is,’ Gielgud wrote in 1977. ‘So talented but now a wreck, yet determined to go on working – a real pro.’ And again, in another letter: ‘Michael Redgrave should be admired for his courage and determination. There must be something about the theatre and social life which manages to drive one against all reason, to continue to be lively and interested and refuse to lie down.’ The question of lying down – how often, and with whom – is as interesting a question in Alan Strachan’s "biography of Redgrave as it is in Gielgud’s letters, yet, if anything, the Actor’s Dilemma, grandiosely experienced, is more brilliantly conjured with in Strachan’s book than by any one of Gielgud’s describers, including Gielgud himself.

Some of this must be due to Redgrave’s having been a more properly divided man: bisexual, yes, but also showing tendencies both of cruelty and of careful lovingness. He managed to be underhand and loyal at the same time, giving a great deal to his family while also possessing what Michael Powell called ‘the innocence and cunning of a child’. Where Gielgud’s double life was single-minded, Redgrave’s was chaotic; his psychology was more modern, just as his acting was more intellectual and his sense of the theatre more political. This alone might explain the difference in their reputations: Gielgud was always more liable to become an institution than be taken into one; Redgrave often lived with his talent at the very edge of any manageable personhood. One actor looked at himself and saw a vision of his own plenty; the other saw something terrible and mystifying and sad.

‘Actors are the only honest hypocrites,’ Hazlitt wrote. ‘Their life is a voluntary dream.’ Yet to what extent voluntary and to what extent compelled? Redgrave’s 1958 novel, The Mountebank’s Tale, features an actor sitting at his dressing-table before going on stage. ‘I looked in dismay at the mirror,’ he writes, ‘and then I could see the make-up slowly start to drain down my face, over my chin, down my neck and onto my chest! When the greasepaint reached this point it recomposed itself and there, amid the hair on my chest was the greasepaint portrait of my face. I stared at it in horror.’ This might seem like a passage out of Nathaniel Hawthorne, but there is something autobiographically realistic about the description, too: Redgrave came from a long line of ticket touts, chorus girls, gamblers, vaudeville personalities and stage-door Johnnies; his father was a bigamist and Michael spent his childhood toddling from Sheffield to his mother’s Battersea flat to a boarding-school in Leigh-on-Sea, before his mother married the well-heeled ‘Uncle Andy’ who installed them in a grand house in Belgravia.

Uncle Andy was the requisite Claudius – the funeral baked meats coldly furnishing forth the marriage tables – but he helped the boy to a place at Cambridge and a life of the dreaming mind. Before going there, Michael said a few things to his diary: ‘Dreams are not such worthless things,’ he wrote, ‘and dreamers do not miss as much as the world likes to think.’ Cambridge provided a solid world of aesthetes and queers: Anthony Blunt (with whom he edited the Venture) and Dadie Rylands, the Apostles, and young John Lehmann, who fell in love with Redgrave in the Bloomsbury mode. ‘I am shallow, selfish . . . at times hideously immoral,’ Redgrave replied to the proposition, as if that might make him less attractive. But soon he is off to the Liverpool Playhouse for quickening glory at £4 a week.

‘More and more, however,’ Strachan writes, ‘he was making the kind of discovery so exciting to a young actor – just as John Gielgud had found when playing Trofimov in The Cherry Orchard in his first rep job – that acting is so much more than display, that it is possible to inhabit a character completely different from one’s own.’ It may have been a distinctive feature of Redgrave’s career that he more and more found himself playing characters who were not very different from his own divided self. He was never simply one thing, and his famous parts – Antony in Antony and Cleopatra, Leo in The Go-Between, Carlyon in the film of Graham Greene’s The Man Within, the ventriloquist Maxwell Frere in Dead of Night, Jack Worthing in The Importance of Being Earnest – tended to make a dark festival out of the business of being everything but the one thing specified. Trust is an actor’s medicine, they spoon it into themselves for comfort, but in Redgrave’s case the tincture was never quite right and something in the practice of acting laid waste his personal confidence. He was too clever to miss the force of his own duality and too ambitious to fail to deploy it in his own work, and yet, though everyone liked Michael Redgrave, no one had reason to trust him. His private life offers lessons in bad behaviour that Gielgud can only think about.

He began an affair with Edith Evans when his wife, Rachel Kempson, was seven months pregnant with their first child. ‘Acting with Edith Evans was heaven,’ he said. ‘It was like being in your mother’s arms, like knowing how to swim, like riding a bicycle. For the first time in my life I felt completely unselfconscious.’ Then there is Tommy or Tommie or Tony Hyndman, also a lover of Stephen Spender’s (who calls him Jimmy Younger in World within World) and a character in T.C. Worseley’s autobiographical novel Fellow Travellers (Worseley calls him Harry Watson). But Strachan’s intention is always to give Redgrave the benefit of his own doubts:

For part of that time the dutiful son, adoring husband and doting father was still involved in his affair with Tony. On Tony’s side there was no intention of breaking up a marriage and it is also possible that Tony, who had not always been faithful to Spender, was not exclusively Michael’s to love. Certainly, for a time, it was love, although – not unusually – one which Michael came to attempt to anatomise, again turning, as if a solution might lie therein, to Gide’s Journals and the description of a man in Michael’s position contrasting the abandon of his affair with wartime reality: ‘To carry on being happy and comfortable one must in fact not know how many thousands are suffering in order to preserve one’s happiness.’ Rachel’s ‘agony’ illustrated that for him only too graphically. The problem with loving two different people – people of different sensibilities, loved in different ways – is, as his son wrote later, that ‘He cannot be in two places at once.’

Redgrave’s acting miracles were made of many things, as miracles are, but not least from transmutations of his own pain and indecision. As a portrait of such an unconventional mess of a life, Strachan’s book couldn’t be improved on, but it reaches outside even its own fond network of empathy to offer a picture of forbearance and loving tolerance in the person of Rachel Kempson. People can pay a high price for their spouse’s self-consciousness and its stardust melodies, but Kempson gets the laurel: she was a brilliant actress herself, but here she is constantly making room for Redgrave’s doubleness and its threat to her own well-being. She sometimes has to endure a shadow-love from her husband, but it places no shade on her own affection. Michael had an intense affair with Noël Coward during the war. ‘Noël said that he hadn’t wished to hurt me,’ Rachel wrote years later, ‘and that it was no use having regrets about what you have done, but he had found Michael so irresistibly charming. I couldn’t but agree with him.’ To some this must seem overbearingly tolerant, silly, even aggressive, but Strachan shows you that this is simply the sort of love she felt for him. She knew how to forgive. She even had a favourite among her husband’s lovers, Bob Michell, and in time she began an affair of her own.

The person more injured by Redgrave’s after-hours shindigs was of course Redgrave himself. Feasting with panthers at the White Room, the Music Box, the Gargoyle, the Blue Lagoon – places that ring out the tones of another England – he ran himself ragged with his obstinate desire and eventually found himself victim to the same kinds of blackmailer that had once or twice dogged Gielgud. Each actor was the best Hamlet of his generation, but only Redgrave knew the true texture of indecision. Leaving the Old Vic, he was in the habit of picking up guardsmen on his way home. Strachan captures very well the brutal worry of it all:

Now well into the rhythm of the season, and at a time of high professional excitement, Michael began to slip off the rails at night: ‘Home via Victoria and Knightsbridge. To office. Very foolish and a great regret and disgust after.’ Post-performance adrenaline, that ‘high’ familiar to most performers, was another factor leading him to crave these anonymous encounters, fleeting sex, usually with guardsmen or soldiers making . . . a bit extra on top of army pay. What was new and disturbing – and what surely explains the mentions of shame and self-recrimination – was the element of increasingly seeking some form of expiation as well as solace or escape in those brief encounters, often with ‘rough trade’. He must have known what dangerous territory he had entered and tried hard to resist, often vowing, ‘Home late after what I swear shall be the last mistake of this kind,’ but usually it was not long before another ‘office’ incident and more shame, more remorse.

Redgrave was a master of the vocal line, and these stories of his anarchic humanness can only brighten one’s sense of his greatness: behind his steady eyes there was a turmoil always averred in his performances; behind his voice there were beautiful hesitations, silences too, which gave way in time to the kinds of silence the live theatre cannot tolerate, when his ‘wall of fear’ descended and he couldn’t speak his lines. Gielgud and Redgrave might not have said everything there was to say about themselves while they lived, but in one way or another they revealed everything. In the best and the worst senses, Redgrave never stopped thinking about himself: he sought himself from every possible angle, and he thought deeply about the job of acting and must have known it as a miasma of competing selves, sexual and political and everything else. Those who took against the work he did – Kenneth Tynan thought him ‘self-deceiving’ – remarked that Redgrave was too intellectual, more given to the thinking than feeling parts of a performance. But the truth is his imagination appeared to be shackled to both, allowing an infiltration of emotional experience into the words he weighed and measured and spoke, and one suspects that the thinking went on long after the words were out.

Theatrical lives that end theatrically are apt to confirm our sense of what we already know; they remind us that deception (and self-deception too, Kenneth Tynan) have their part to play in life just as they do in dreams. At the end of his days, ill in his hospital bed with the curtains drawn, Redgrave assumed the noise in the ward was, as Strachan writes, ‘the buzz of an anticipatory audience’. At one point his daughter Vanessa told her father it was not really a theatre at all but a hospital. Reality had its position by the bed but reality is never alone. A while passed and Michael looked up at his daughter Lynn. ‘By the way,’ he said, ‘how’s the house?’ She told him he had a capacity audience and made sure he knew his name was above the title.