Sir John Gielgud: From the Sublime to the Ridiculous

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Today is the birthday of Sir Arthur John Gielgud (1904-2000).

Through one of the great peculiarities of our culture and the “industry” which entertains it, I (like so many others no doubt) discovered one of the most important theatrical men of the 20th century only when he condescended to play the butler in Arthur (1981). When one probes, and not very deeply, one can find reasons why we hadn’t heard of this important man before.

First, to what he was. A grandson of Kate Terry, sister of the famous Ellen (and several other acting siblings), he first wanted to be a scenic designer before resolving to go on stage himself. In 1929, after seven years of steadily distinguishing himself on the boards he became one of the leading players at the Old Vic, where his Richard II and Hamlet were smashes. His was one of the great Hamlets; he played him over 500 times in six productions, including a 1936 Broadway smash that trounced Leslie Howard’s which was up at the same time. In 1935 he directed a version of Romeo and Juliet, with himself and the younger newcomer Laurence Olivier swapping roles as Romeo and Mercutio on alternate nights. In time, the more vigorous, virile, good-looking and competitive Olivier was to eclipse the gawky, skinny, and high-strung Gielgud as a “star”, both on stage and screen (though this doesn’t diminish Gielgud’s considerable accomplishments. Gielgud also got the last laugh in their rivalry by outlasting Olivier by over a decade.) But here is one reason why myself as a teenager hadn’t heard of Gielgud. Olivier had taken the mantle of king. I hadn’t seen Olivier in any movies either but I’d at least heard of him.

In addition to the countless Shakespearean productions he acted in and directed Gielgud was also notable for his interpretations of Chekov, becoming instrumental in selling the Russian playwright to English audiences. (Gielgud himself was of Polish stock on his father’s side and had worked closely with Russian director Theodore Komisarjevsky for a decade early in his career). His production of The Three Sisters was the hit of his 1937 season managing the Queens Theatre in a company featuring himself, Alec Guiness, Michael Redgrave, Peggy Ashcroft, et al.

There were also important films, such as Alfred Hitchock’s The Secret Agent (1936) and Julius Caesar with Marlon Brando (1953). The younger Gielgud on the screen is a bit tough to take — though one of the greatest actors of his generation, he is not built like a leading man, at least aesthetically. He was better suited to character parts, or as eventually happened (naturally), old men. But the real speed bump in his career was a 1953 scandal in which he was arrested in a men’s lavatory for a lewd act. Gielgud was gay, and from that moment, against his wishes, he was out of the closet. Apparently he was not blackballed in any way, but it made him reticent to seek high profile film roles for a time, even as he continued to enjoy stage triumphs for decades.

Cavorting with Elke Sommer

But in later years, he made up for lost time in such films as the above mentioned Arthur, Orson Welles’ Chimes at Midnight (1966), Caligula (1980), The Elephant Man (1981), Prospero’s Books (1991), and many more. His final performance was in a film of Samuel Beckett’s Catastophe, co-starring Harold Pinter and directed by David Mamet (1998).

Here is some excellent insight and advice from Gielgud on the art of acting, from a 1965 interview:

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