The Stage Sage – Sir John Gielgud

by | Sep 13, 2023 | Uncategorised | 0 comments

Gielgud was a man of the theatre. 

He even said the theatre has been his universe. He was useless at almost everything except where the theatre was concerned. He felt useless unless he had a job, but when he was working he was at ease with himself. To work in the theatre is all he had ever wanted to do. 

Acting had ridden him of his frustrations and satisfied him of many of his ambitions. It was more than an occupation or a profession: for him it had been a life.

If you had asked him if there ever was a prospect of him doing something else he would’ve said that his parents hoped he might become an architect but he was besotted with the theatre as far back as he could remember. 

He was celebrated as the great interpreter of Shakespeare, but it was the modern work that he was best remembered for. 

As a teenager growing up in London Gielgud would go to the theatre as often as he was able and later to the music halls to see the greats. 

When he wasn’t at the theatre or reading about the theatre he was enjoying his own amateur theatricals. He marked his debut as Orlando in ‘As you like it’. He was sixteen and joined a group of friends to perform the play in the open air at St Leonards on sea. 

Gielgud told his parents of his desire to go onto the stage but they hoped that he might try for an Oxford scholarship, they eventually agreed that should he not have some measure of success as an actor by the age of twenty five he would give up and train to become an architect. 

He had the most meaningless legs imaginable which he had been painfully aware of his awkward gait and mannered posturing by his teacher. 

It took him years to gain full command over his physical movements and appearance on stage: as a young actor he pranced and was very self conscious. Then he became to graceful and posed. 

Eventually he became less shy and able to study himself with more detachment. He tried to control his physical mannerisms by observing them and asking to have them checked by others, which he was originally too vain and shy to do. 

Gielgud worked with various directors who taught him the craft of acting and when Gielgud came to write his book stage directions about the art and craft of the theatre, he acknowledged his debt to Komis, an eccentric director, for teaching him not to act from outside; to avoid the temptations of showing off; to work from within, to present a character and to absorb the atmosphere and general background of a play, this gave him his first important lesson in trying to act with relaxation – the secret of all good acting. 

When he reached the age of twenty five he appeared in dozens of plays and was a busy working actor with a bit of a name and something of a reputation. 

He joined the old Vic and in less than two years played the whole gamut of Shakespeare’s leading men. 

At a sprightly age of 26 he took upon himself to play the real Shakespearean heavyweight play Macbeth at the old vic. Given his age and physical appearance at the time, it was unlikely casting, but he rose to the challenge. 

He derived and based the look and feel of his performance on what he had read and heard of Henry Irving and was made up in the last act with whitened hair and bloodshot eyes, trying to resemble as nearly as he could the gaunt and famished look of Irving description of Macbeth. 

The public and critics we impressed with his performance that some critics weren’t convinced that Gielgud could sustain the performance throughout but he managed to carry them away. 

Having carried out numerous shakespearean roles he found the experience of playing so many major roles in such a limited space of time both exhausting and exhilarating. Being thrown in at the deep end, he was forced to react instinctively to the parts, not studying the details, but imaging the whole. 

He recalled many years later that when he played these parts as a young man he had more success the first time than when he came to study the part more thoroughly twelve years later. He simply imagined it and acted it for the main development and broad lines of the character without worrying about the technical intellectual and psychological difficulties. 

He played it from scene to scene as it seemed to come to him as he rehearsed the play. With only three weeks there was no time to do much more than that. Gielgud believed that one should dare to fly high when one is young: one may sometimes surprise oneself. It is wonderful to be able to give the imagination full play, hardly realising what an exciting danger is involved. 

When asked if Hamlet was the ultimate role for every actor, Gielgud agreed especially for every young actor, because it is the ultimate test. The part demands declamation, macabre humour, passionate violence, philosophical reflection, the combining of action and intelligence. Hamlet is the many sided, multi talented Elizabethan man – prince, son, courtier, swordsman, philosopher, lover and friend. All human life is there. 

Gielgud had long wanted to try his hand as a director and once he got the taste for the craft he never lost it. 

When it came to film he appeared firstly in three or four silent films but he didn’t rate his performances for believing he over acted grotesquely. Eventually he did a Hitchcock thriller that brought him useful income and exposure outside London but his heart and his soul were totally committed to the theatre. 

Having failed with several plays Gielgud turned back to the classics and formed his own permanent company to present a full season of plays in London under his own management. He surrounded himself with first class actors and a group of very capable and enthusiastic young actors. He didn’t try to show himself as a solo actor. He cared more about the ensemble. 

With so much work done over so many years Gielgud the director was known for one besetting sin: the constant changeability of his quicksilver mind. He was restless, anxious, nervous and impressionable. 

He was not over confident in himself. His restlessness went with a tendency to be dissatisfied. Therefore, he worked out more and more plans, more and more ideas, rejecting one for another, working all the time from instinct rather than from careful study. 

When it came to directing other actors his approach was less didactic. Especially professional actors who he came to see as a sort of referee, believing they knew much more about what they want to do than he did. He was only there as a kind of audience to check the spacing, the movement, the pace of the play. He reckoned that you couldn’t direct people who are enormously talented. 

One regret Gielgud had was that he didn’t perform in more contemporary plays and his lack of sympathy with new writers led him to envy an actor like Olivier who had risked going to the Royal Court performing in Osborne and Ionesco plays. He began to feel that he was becoming ‘old hat’ and this sense of being out of touch, out of date, out of tune with the times lasted for several frustrating years until in 1968 at the age of 64 he accepted the part of headmaster in Alan Bennett’s play ‘Forty Years on’ and gave a witty, assured, self mocking performance that was to earn him his best notices in a decade. 

Gielgud then began to take on a whole series of demanding roles by new and difficult writers and did so with confidence and ease. From plays by Peter Shaffer to films such as ‘The Charge of the light brigade’ and to Harold Pinter’s ‘No Man’s Land’ it seemed a Gielgud revival was in the works. 

In between playing the modern Gielgud did not altogether neglect the classics. He went on to play Julius Caesar twice and also went on to direct Othello. 

Even though he started acting in films in the 1920’s and made his first talkie in 1932 it’s only really in the late 50’s that Gielgud was beginning to get recognised for his abilities on the big screen. 

And it was only in the 1980’s when he was well into his 70’s that his face has been on more screen than the MGM lion. Gielgud suddenly assumed a new role – that of a major movie star. 

Whatever that many mean, if you were to ask him today what qualities defined a star performer he would say: energy, an athletic voice, a well graced manner, certainty of execution, some usually fascinating originality of temperament. Vitality, certainty and an ability to convey an impression of beauty or ugliness as the part demands, as well as authority and a sense of style. Not much there to live up to, right?

For many years Gielgud found film work unsatisfactory and unsatisfying: he did not like the early starts and found it difficult to give a cohesive shape and flow to his performance given the way pictures are shot piecemeal and rarely in chronological sequence. 

It seemed that Gielgud’s creative juices had not been fully stimulated until Orson Welles directed him in ‘Chimes at Midnigh’t and instilled in Gielgud a new attitude towards acting in movies and managed to persuade him that he actually had something very exciting to offer the cinema. 

The theatre was what he knew best and loved most in life, it was what he lived for. When once asked to talk about his proudest achievement he replied: it’s the influence he had on other actors who worked in his company, before the war in particular, and the general influence he had in the theatre, because he was very timid, shy, cowardly man. But once he went to a theatre he had great authority and got great respect and love from all the people working in it and this suddenly justified his entire existence. 

When asked what are the most essential things about acting? He replied feeling and timing. Then with a twinkling in his eyes he added ‘I understand it is the same in many walks of life.’ 

The obituaries said about Gielgud that he was a fastidious performer with a matchless voice who stood centre stage through the whole history of modern British theatre. He enshrined the spirit of English classicism… to a unique degree his greatest performances coincided with the greatest plays. ‘Style’ he once said ‘is knowing what sort of play you’re in.’ 

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