- - Friday, July 13, 2012

By Jonathan Croall
Methuen Drama, $45, 736 pages, illustrated

Voltaire once visited playwright William Congreve, who had written four great Restoration comedies before he was 30 and then retired. Congreve said that in retirement he wanted to be thought of only as a gentleman, not a playwright. Voltaire replied, “But if you are only a gentleman, why should I want to visit you?”

Good question, and one that might be asked of some modern showbiz luminaries, many of whom want to be thought of as political gurus, economic pundits, ecological experts or practically anything other than what they are: ordinary people who happen to have good bone structure or a talent to amuse. Marlon Brando notoriously denigrated the craft without which he probably would have spent his life as a neighborhood crank in Omaha. To such sensitive souls, the way they make their fortunes, while not exactly shameful - at least they are not businessmen - does not express their true high-mindedness.

According to the more than 700 pages of text and notes in Jonathan Croall’s “John Gielgud: Matinee Idol to Movie Star,” disdain for one’s craft never occurred to the great British actor(1904-2000). From his childhood, he had an obsessive interest in every aspect of the theater, not just acting, but producing, directing, scene design, criticism, teaching, publicity and gossip. ” I have three besetting sins,” he wrote, “… impetuosity, self-consciousness, and a lack of interest in anything not immediately concerned with myself or the theatre.” He saw acting not as a job or an easy way to earn a pound or two, but as a vocation. He also had another obsessive interest, about which more below.

On his mother’s side, he was related to one of the great British acting families, the Terrys. His father, of Polish-Lithuanian ancestry, had an amateur’s interest in acting. Gielgud attended the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts and then served an apprenticeship as a touring actor in the provinces. Critics were unkind, especially about his posture and movement onstage:

“… he moved from the knees rather than the hips and bent his legs on standing … [he had] the most meaningless legs imaginable … [he has] dragging calfs … a queer body carriage from the heels backwards ….” (For my own part I do not know what dragging calfs and meaningless legs are, and I do not wish to know.) Not content with warning theatergoers about Gielgud’s queer body carriage, one critic said the actor had “a nose the size of [a] hockey puck.”

But at age 26, at the Old Vic theater, he scored a major triumph as Hamlet (a role he would make his own over the years). James Agate, the toughest critic of the day, wrote that Gielgud’s performance “is the high-water mark of Shakespearean acting in our time.” What followed was a series of unprecedented successes in roles ranging from Richard II to Romeo and from Macbeth to Marc Antony, and in plays by Noel Coward, Anton Chekhov and Oscar Wilde.

There always was high praise fo his uniquely mellifluous voice. Alec Guinness said he had “a superb tenor voice, a silver trumpet, muffled in silk.” For many years, Laurence Olivier was his chief rival. They were friends, after a fashion, but Gielgud wept when he learned of Olivier’s success as Hamlet.

In June of 1953 he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II. He was at last Sir John, respected, even loved, and idolized on both sides of the Atlantic. But four months later, “he was arrested in a public lavatory … taken to the local police station and charged with ‘persistently importuning male persons for immoral purposes.’ “It was known, according to the author, that Gielgud was “obsessive about casual sex,” and he was described by one of his lovers as seeking “schoolboyish, anonymous gratification.” After his arrest, he briefly considered suicide. But most of his colleagues rallied around him, audiences generally accepted him and, amazingly, he not only survived the scandal but prospered.

In 1957, when he was 53, he appeared in a one-man show, “The Ages of Man,” a recital in which he offered speeches from various Shakespeare plays. It proved to be greatly successful, the artistic high point of his late career, especially in the United States, where the reviews went beyond mere praise to near adoration. He directed many plays and even a few operas. But he always needed money, and although he avoided appearing in movies for much of his career, he began to accept cameo roles that introduced him to a new audience and a new generation. His appearance as Charles Ryder’s father in the television adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s “Brideshead Revisited” is a quiet masterpiece of malevolence and old-school British eccentricity.

This book suffers from the problem inherent in all biographies of theatrical stars of long ago: Their magical presence onstage, the chief reason they became famous, is not available to us. Although he made recordings, we cannot hear the silver trumpet of Gielgud’s voice in the same way thrilled audiences once experienced it. But Mr. Croall’s writing is exemplary in its clarity and pace throughout and is jam-packed with copious quotations from Gielgud, his admirers, critics and colleagues. Play after play, role after role, is meticulously described and analyzed.

While I admire the author’s industry, I must confess there were times when I grew drowsy as I plowed my weary way through yet another chapter about ancient theater gossip, amatory intrigues, and superabundant, at times stupefying, details about the actor’s long, long career. Admirers of Gielgud and students of 20th-century theater should find this study invaluable. But, to borrow a phrase, no one will ever wish it longer than it is.

• William F. Gavin is the author of “Speechwright: An Insider’s Take on Political Rhetoric” (Michigan State University Press).

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