Theatre

A life in the theatre seen from the waist up

Kevin Byrne December 4 1978
Theatre

A life in the theatre seen from the waist up

Kevin Byrne December 4 1978

A life in the theatre seen from the waist up

Theatre

"Damn, damn, damn,” curses an irascible Sir John Gielgud in Alain Resnais’ most recent movie, Providence. He is, perhaps, the only actor alive who could manage a short symphony out of those three same syllables. As the dying writer alone in a mansion killing time and copious bottles of the best white wine, baring his soul, Gielgud gives his greatest screen performance, perhaps the only great performance delivered, virtually, from the recumbent position.

A certified member of the British thespian Holy Trinity (along with Baron Laurence Olivier and Sir Ralph Richardson), Gielgud has always deferred drama from the extremities and filtered it through his features instead. The marvels of the Great Scone Face have, all these years, been abetted by an ability to cry at will—a legacy from his legendary lineage.

This week he begins a fourweek, tearless stint in a West-End smash comedy at Toronto’s Royal Alexandra Theatre. It’s called Half-Life: hardly a description for a man who, at the rather ripe age of 74, is still going strong, having dominated the British stage for more than 40 years as a classicist, then dramatically switched gears in his mid-60s to become one of the most bankable adornments of contemporary drama. Who else could have conveyed the elusive, almost subliminal nuances of a play like Harold Pinter’s No Man ’s Land? Gielgud considers himself lucky that he hasn’t had to “fall back in my old age on playing seconds in Shakespeare.” People like Pinter must also be offering up orisons.

Straight-backed, with a snub nose that can often sub for a beak, hooded eyes and that mellifluously modulated voice, he’s a natural aristocrat. A stage aristocrat by birth, too. He can remember in precise detail those early visits to the theatre when he was taken as a child to see his great-aunt, Ellen Terry and a host of other Terry relations who became theatrical legends. Scarcely pausing for breath, he pours out a stream of memories, mostly pleasant ones. Ellen Terry, he says, spoke Shakespeare “as if she’d just been talking to him in the next room.” She was also

from that staff of the family granted the gift to let open the floodgates at will. A family weakness, perhaps, but one that was turned to amazing effect on the Victorian stage. A famous specialist told his mother: “Poor lachrymal glands, my dear.”

“I was madly stage-struck,” Gielgud says, “I thought it must be marvelous to be such a big star as these people were.” He didn’t at first want to be an actor, but a stage designer, like his cousin, Ed-

ward Gordon Craig (Ellen Terry’s son and Isadora Duncan’s lover), whom he admired just this side of idolatry. But he soon discovered that in order to be a designer one needed to be fairly good at mathematics. He wasn’t; in view of the slight problem, he chose acting.

In later years, when safely established as an actor of the first rank, critics occasionally complained that he acted “from the waist upwards.” Kenneth Tynan once unkindly compared his physical appearance in one particular play to a tightly rolled umbrella. All his life Gielgud has been acutely aware that his special gift is not for movement

on stage. He studied at two drama schools, the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and one run during the ’20s by Lady Benson. The former actress burst out laughing one day and told her pupil: “You walk like a cat with rickets!”

“I used to get out of fencing and all the bodily things I thought were a terrible bore. I thought I knew them already, which made me a rather conceited, affected actor for a good many years,” he says, not too apologetically. Some of that tenacity tempered him to make a breakthrough in the West End. It was only 50 years ago that managements rarely, if ever, contemplated putting on Shakespeare, thought to spell disaster at the box-office, and Gielgud broke the taboo. “I was very lucky because, after the first war, few of the leading actors played Shakespeare. The West End felt it couldn’t compete with the spectacles which Herbert Tree had created in the early years of the century. With horses, real woods, real foliage, and real rabbits in A Midsummer Night’s Dream." During the late ’30s, Gielgud, defying conventional wisdom, staged Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet, breaking previous box-office records.

Foreign visitors to London between the wars were often mystified at Gielgud’s reputation; the French murmured “one does not see his eyes”. His voice, his chief glory, was one of the big drawbacks of his early career: “I used to be very vain about it and very conceited, and people used to get very irritated with me. I was praised for it and people used to write to me about it and I became very self-conscious with it, and tried very hard, in the last 20 or 30 years, to break down my tendency to sing on the stage, particularly in Shakespeare.”

During the ’50s, Gielgud largely ignored the output of the new dramatists, a mistake for which he paid dearly, feeling the pangs of neglect. The day, in 1970, when his RollsRoyce drew up alongside Ralph Richardson’s giant motorbike outside the Royal Court Theatre marked two memorable occasions: his own spectacularly successful return to the centre of the stage, and the beginning of their celebrated partnership. “We work awfully well together because we’re tremendously contrasted in style. In interviews I was always bursting in with long, effusive speeches and then Ralph would take his time and suddenly say something very witty and amusing in a very calculated way.”

The owl and the pussycat.

In 1938 Gielgud had the temerity to

publish an autobiography, Early Stages, in which he listed his three major failings: “impetuosity, self-consciousness and a lack of interest in anything not immediately concerned with myself or the theatre.”

“Damn, damn, damn,” he might mutter about his life-from-the-waist-up. But it allows him to sing. Kevin Byrne