Remembering John Gielgud: One Year OnDate: 21 May 2001
On 21 May 2000, John Gielgud died, aged 96. The man who'd performed every major Shakespearean male was sorely mourned in theatreland. A year on, biographer Jonathan Croall explains his struggle to make sense of Gielgud's extraordinary life and career.The theatre was John Gielgud's life. Nothing else really mattered. It was his occupation, his hobby, his obsession, his joy. If he was not working, he was not happy. At the age of 96 he was still at it. He never stopped.
One of the main problems facing any biographer is the sheer extent of his work. In the theatre, over a period of 67 years, he played more than 130 roles in over 200 productions. For the cinema, starting in the silent area, he made over 70 films; on television he appeared in over 60 plays. He also played countless parts on the radio, his first in 1929, and one of his last, King Lear, on his 90th birthday.
For many people, he was the greatest actor of the 20th century. I was both excited and intimidated by the idea of investigating his life. But what surprised me was to discover how many roles he played in addition to that of actor. He was a director of flair and imagination, with over 80 productions to his name, both in England and America. He designed the sets for some of his productions. He was a pioneering actor-manager, and a great discoverer and nurturer of talent in others: numerous actors, playwrights and designers owed their start in the theatre to him. He was also a talented writer, an elegant stylist and witty story-teller who produced several entertaining volumes of memoirs and books on the theatre.
In trying to unravel and make sense of this extraordinary career, I have of course worked through the usual primary sources: reviews, letters, diaries, and other contemporary documents. But I have also been able to gather many personal testimonies from friends and colleagues who knew or worked with him. Once Gielgud, after a little persuasion, had agreed to my writing this biography, I was able to talk in depth with over a hundred actors, directors, writers, designers, friends and members of his family, and to correspond with many others.
What soon became clear was the enormous love and admiration people had for him, not just as an actor but as a man. This made my task of pinning down his personality more difficult than it might otherwise have been. As Dirk Bogarde succinctly put it to me early on: "Everybody adored him, so the book might make rather flat reading". Happily most people were willing and able to go beyond the adoration, and generously and openly share their thoughts about Gielgud's faults and foibles, as well as his many strengths and virtues.
Their recollections - eloquent, vivid, humorous and perceptive - are a crucial part of the book. I have though treated them with extreme caution. Memories are fallible even in relation to the recent past, and some of the people I talked to were casting their minds back 50 years or more. In particular, I have been wary of theatrical anecdotes, which seem to develop a life of their own, changing their plot and sometimes even their characters in the re-telling. I have been told many different versions of the famous gaffes attributed to Gielgud - some of which he was not above embroidering himself.
I have also had to be wary of his own recollections. He was a modest man, and consistently downplayed or under-rated his achievement as an actor or director. This was not false modesty, but a result of the high standards he set himself. Yet if he was his own severest critic, he was not always the fairest to himself. Often he contradicted a judgement made years previously, describing as a failure a performance or production that from contemporary evidence - including his own letters - had clearly not been one.
An allied difficulty was the accuracy of his recollections. A witty and roguish raconteur of theatrical stories, he had an astonishing memory not just for names, dates and productions, but also for detail: the style of shoe worn by an ageing actress, the pillar used for the set of a wartime production, the colour of a supporting actor's wig in a long forgotten Sheridan revival. Yet even he slipped up on occasion, making mistakes over dates, the sequence of events, and sometimes even the names of actors or directors.
He was himself a critical reader of theatrical biographies and memoirs, and hated the effusiveness that characterised some of the worst examples of the genre. What he valued was accuracy, truth and fairness. I have tried to follow these principles in putting together the story of his rich theatrical life. I had hoped he would be able to read it. In agreeing to my writing it he said: "I shall very probably not be here when it comes out". I never quite believed him, but sadly he was right. I would have liked to know what he made of it.
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