- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 31, 2002

Sheridan Morley never planned to write a book on John Gielgud, but that changed the day in 1989 when he picked up the phone to hear what was perhaps the greatest voice of the 20th century, and certainly of the English stage, say to him, "My biographer seems to have died."
Theater critic and essayist Morley was a fairly logical choice to write the definitive authorized biography of Gielgud, having already chronicled the lives of Noel Coward and David Niven as well as his own actor father, Robert Morley. But even as he began the task, more than 10 years before Gielgud died in May of 2000 at age 96, there were already plenty of books on the market detailing the rich, remarkable career of this master interpreter of Shakespeare and fixture in dozens of films ranging from sheer art to total drivel.
Before agreeing, however, Mr. Morley wanted to be assured that his subject would be open, as he had not previously been, to discussing his private life. Initially reticent, Gielgud acquiesced, handing over to Mr. Morley his letters and private papers. In so doing, he accepted the inevitability of a candid discussion on the darkest corner of his existence, an arrest in 1953 just months after he was knighted for homosexual solicitation in a Chelsea bathroom.
The incident lends the book some added weight and drama, affords Gielgud a personal crisis from which he survives after severe public embarrassment and the possibilities of cancelled bookings in the United States. But while Britain was still in the relative Dark Ages when it came to homosexuality, he never faced the sort of extended incarceration or ruination that Oscar Wilde a playwright whose work Gielgud triumphed in early in his career faced some 60 years earlier.
Other than Gielgud's befuddled account of his arrest and his refreshingly candid observations on colleagues and professional projects in his correspondence, the book is a fairly straightforward biography, albeit one that is meticulously researched without ever feeling pedantic. (Compare it, for example, with the far less substantial or thorough "John Gielgud: An Actor's Life," by Gyles Brandreth, a recently updated and reissued career history.) Mr. Morley details all of the actor-director's major productions, illustrates them with pertinent anecdotes, and makes a compelling case for his subject as the most influential classical performer of the past century.
Of course, such a superlative begs comparison with Laurence Olivier, Gielgud's lifelong rival, with whom he appeared onstage only once, in a celebrated 1935 "Romeo and Juliet" in which the two actors regularly rotated the roles of Romeo and the more swashbuckling Mercutio. It was Gielgud who got the acclaim, for his honey-toned recitations of the Elizabethan verse.
He possessed a musical lyricism that was his greatest gift, in distinct contrast with the athletic naturalism that Olivier became known for. The critical reactions to the two performers led to an undercurrent of enmity that would remain between them for the rest of their lives. It cemented the widely held impression that Gielgud "was the best actor in the world from the neck up," while Olivier excelled from the neck down.
Giving Olivier an edge, in the way that the popular art of the movies will always prove more pervasive than the stage, was his early embrace of film. Gielgud, on the other hand, had an unsatisfying experience in Alfred Hitchcock's 1936 "The Secret Agent," and categorically denounced the medium, turning his back on its lucrative compensations.
Such modern-dress thrillers as "The Secret Agent" were hard enough for Gielgud to master in this tedious new art form, but Shakespeare on celluloid was a completely different matter.
"I cannot see how anybody would ever manage to make a totally satisfactory film of 'Hamlet,'" Gielgud famously declared, then watched as Olivier turned the trick in 1948, directing, starring and picking up an Oscar for his efforts.
Gielgud would reverse himself on the matter, eventually appearing in Orson Welles' still underappreciated cinematic reinvention of Shakespeare's Falstaff plays, "Chimes at Midnight," and Peter Greenaway's audacious, densely packed first-person "Tempest" called "Prospero's Books." At 87, an indefatigable Gielgud filmed Shakespeare's elegiac play, or at least Greenaway's drastically reconceived, visually spectacular version, complete with a wonderfully unself-conscious nude scene for the undaunted Gielgud.
Ten year earlier, in 1981, after twice turning it down, Gielgud accepted a film role that would bring him his own Oscar. The only thing classical about his performance as the solicitous valet Hudson in the alcoholic Dudley Moore romp "Arthur" was Gielgud's martini-dry comic timing. When Arthur announces his intention to take a bath, Hudson memorably asserts with just the slightest edge of condescension, "I'll alert the media."
No doubt this is Gielgud's defining role for much of the general public, a notion that is said to have amused him enormously. And if not Hudson, then surely the closely related butler he went on to play in a lucrative series of commercials for Paul Masson wines.
While it is Olivier who is credited with spearheading the movement that led to the establishment of England's two great subsidized theatrical institutions, the Royal National Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare Company, Mr. Morley argues that it is Gielgud who deserves the credit for organizing the first viable resident repertory company in England, at the Queen's Theatre in the late 1930s. In so doing, he "put the English theater back on the world map."
While he was acknowledged to be a thoughtful and efficient stage director, it was as an actor that Gielgud's brilliance was most evident. His was arguably the most celebrated "Hamlet" of the last century, though he was also, in all likelihood, the worst fencer ever to play Shakespeare. Still, his was an ethereal Dane so indelible that it erased all memories of John Barrymore's performance, surpassing his record as the longest running "Hamlet" on Broadway. That, by the way, is a mark that remained in effect until the early 1960s, when Richard Burton shattered it in a production helmed by Gielgud.
Another central figure in Gielgud's professional career is surely Ralph Richardson, another theatrical great and first-class eccentric character. He met Gielgud early on in their stage lives and forged an odd couple partnership based on their complementary opposite acting styles. If they started out wary of each other, that soon gave way to a friendship of well over 50 years, including a late career triumph for both of them in David Storey's "Home," an extended conversation between two old men in a mental institution. Neither actor professed to understand the play a kind of cross between Harold Pinter and Samuel Beckett but they infused it with such feeling and vulnerability that sense was beside the point.
No history of Gielgud would be complete without an account of the verbal gaffes he committed in everyday speech, not unlike the legendary malapropisms of movie producing mogul Samuel Goldwyn. If Mr. Morley keeps down the number of Gielgud's so-called "bricks," that is in an effort to only pass on those that could truly be authenticated. Typical is a lunch Gielgud had with a commercial dramatist of the 1930s named Edward Knoblock. At it, Gielgud described an acquaintance as "nearly as boring as Eddie Knoblock, no, no, not you of course, I mean the other Eddie Knoblock."
There will simply never be another John Gielgud, and the reasons saturate every entertaining page of this biography. Exhaustive without being exhausting, it makes a breezy read for those only vaguely interested in the theater, and a necessity for those devoted to the stage.

Hap Erstein writes about theater, film and the performing arts in Florida.

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