- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 29, 2004

Reading the letters of a famous person — particularly one you think you know from stage or screen

— can be a disillusioning business. For instance, the witty brittleness that made Noel Coward so delightful a writer, actor and cabaret performer often gave way in his letters to mannered petulance and posturing.

So what a delightful surprise it is to find that Sir John Gielgud, that thespian virtuoso, was also a truly wonderful letter writer, almost as graceful with his own words on paper as he was with others’ on the boards.

Passion, intelligence, perceptiveness, kindness, shrewdness, and above all, understanding: These qualities shine from the pages of this lovely collection of his letters covering an amazing 87 years, succinctly but informatively annotated.

Often dubbed the most cerebral, even intellectual, of that mid-20th-century trio of actor knights, Sir John Gielgud was careful to debunk this quality in himself when interviewers compared him to Sir Laurence Olivier and Sir Ralph Richardson. He claimed to be no intellectual, saying he read only trashy fictions, and laughed at the notion that he was a thoughtful person.

But these letters reveal him to have been a cultivated, well-read person with exquisite taste and a sharp eye for social observation. And when it came to matters theatrical, he was a brilliant and sensitive critic, as is shown in a lengthy passage in a letter from 1963 in which he advises an actor, Richard Sterne, about “Romeo and Juliet”:

Don’t let the director convince you that the love scenes are realistic. The ball scene meeting is a SONNET, the Balcony the epitome of longing and romantic imagination and ‘getting to know you’. The Wedding is the only scene when he really declares his most complete surrender to her (and she to him).

“The farewell is not a rough and tumble on the bed. It ought to be played on the same balcony as the other one — only they are worn out with the past night and the agony of parting … foreboding on both their parts which they try vainly to hide …

“It is a wonderful part. I know how to play it well now, but I could never convey it on the stage. Olivier was Romeo (though he couldn’t speak it in those days) because he was absolutely the lover of all time in the way he looked at Juliet and leaned against the balcony, and flung himself on Tybalt, but he was VULGAR in the farewell because he insisted on lying on top of Juliet and giving a physical violence in the love scenes which Shakespeare could not have imagined (or risked) with his boy Juliet!

“The words must do it … You need to relax with a Latin indolence, but always with an underlying athleticism and a power that is ready to strike — like a flame — in the moments of fury and expressed emotion …”

This is the distillation of a lifetime of experience as an actor and director keenly sensitive to Shakespeare, expressed with intellectual and verbal verve. Clearly Sir John wasn’t quite the airhead he could pretend on occasion to be.

Gielgud was a pretty canny judge of actors too, even ones light years away from himself in style and affect. Consider this assessment of a young Marlon Brando with whom he was working on the movie version of “Julius Caesar” in 1952:

“[Marlon] Brando is a funny, intense, egocentric boy of 27, with a flat nose and bullet head, huge arms and shoulders, and yet giving the effect of a lean Greenwich Village college boy. He is very nervous indeed and mutters his lines and rehearses by himself all day long … 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 more than a decade before Mr. Brando’s mumble-fest in “The Godfather,” Gielgud presciently and pithily puts his finger on what is going wrong with that talented actor’s work in a letter from May 1960:

“Walked out of ‘The Fugitive Kind’ — Brando enormously fat and quite incoherent — pauses for hours between every unintelligible word — and the whole thing a crushing bore.”

During his long career on the English stage, which stretched over most of the 20th century, Gielgud not only did more than his share of Shakespeare, Anton Chekhov, and other classic masters but also acted with distinction in the plays of such cutting-edge denizens of contemporary drama as David Storey and Harold Pinter.

Always open to new experiences in the theater and admiring of fresh attitudes and talent, he was also a keen judge of character and artistic philosophy, as demonstrated in this view of the critic Kenneth Tynan:

“[Kenneth] Tynan is a brilliant but rather odious young fellow, who is good when he is enthusiastic, but cheap and personal when he dislikes anyone’s work (he hates mine). I said once ‘Tynan is very good to read as long as it isn’t you’ but he is shrewd and readable all the same, only lacking in any respect for the tradition and of course he has seen nothing earlier than 1946!

“And he thinks theatre must be propaganda of some sort, and if it is merely entertainment (even if it includes it being art) it is not worth anything at all, which seems very boring to me.”

When Gielgud wrote this in 1958, Tynan was still a theater critic, but as he moved on in the ‘60s and ‘70s to actually having a role in the productions of London’s National Theatre, he continued to be notable for just those qualities Gielgud so presciently observed.

Perhaps the most difficult letters to write are the ones that are duties, ones called for by occasions ranging from hospitality to bereavement. And in these too Gielgud excels.

What could be more modest and considerate than the letter of condolence he wrote at age 90 to the husband of that marvelous English character actress, Gwen Watford?

“When I rang up only a few days ago to inquire for Gwen, I was much surprised and delighted when she answered herself, which I hoped to mean she was really looking forward to success with the new treatment. Alas, what a tragic disappointment.

“She was such a splendid actress and sweet woman and the whole profession will be grieving with you today. She obviously fought the wretched disease with the utmost gallantry and determination, and one can only remember her with the greatest admiration and affection.

“You will have many letters, so please don’t dream of answering these few inadequate lines of sympathy … I will telephone in a few weeks to see if you feel like lunch with me at the Club one day. With love as ever.”

Or what could be more gracefully, inventively and appropriately tailor-made for the recipient than this bread-and-butter letter to his dear friend, Vivien Leigh?

“You do remember everything, kind friend. Your pin is in my tie, your berries on the piano, the butter in the frig, and at any moment now, the ointment will be dripping from my horny hand — so you can see on every side I am beholden to you, and I had such a divine weekend — cut and thrust, hot and cold, sweet and sour, comfort, causerie and complication. Thank you, thank you.”

What strikes the reader of these remarkable letters most is the lack of repetition. So many letter writers make use again and again of phrases or even of a particular tone that if not shopworn to each individual recipient rapidly become so to the reader, jaded by too much exposure.

But Gielgud is so adept, so supple in his descriptions both of people and events and of expressions of feelings, that he never descends into empty phrase-making or mere mannerism.

He puts the best of himself into his letters, and reading them — so infinitely various — is as great a privilege as it was to see him show the range of his acting skills on stage, television, or in movies. And that is saying a great deal.

Martin Rubin is a writer and critic living in Pasadena, Calif.

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