Review: ‘Gielgud, A Theatrical Life 1904-2000’

"The theater was John Gielgud's life." With this simple declaration, Jonathan Croall sets the tone and lays down the parameters of his meticulously researched, exquisitely written biography of the most sublime classical actor of the 20th century.

“The theater was John Gielgud’s life.” With this simple declaration, Jonathan Croall sets the tone and lays down the parameters of his meticulously researched, exquisitely written biography of the most sublime classical actor of the 20th century. The author looks for the meaning of Gielgud’s life in the body of his work. In following this grand arc, readers will end up absorbing nearly a century of theater history.

Croall imposes thematic order on Gielgud’s long, eventful life by dividing its riches into five distinct stages.

Early Stages: 1904-1929 takes the “delicate and artistic little boy” from his cushioned childhood in the bosom of the celebrated Terry acting family through his West End debut in “Charley’s Aunt” to his first season at the Old Vic — for which the young dandy showed up with a red carnation in his buttonhole.

Lord of the West End: 1929-1937 follows his triumphs as a matinee idol on the London stage and a “prince” on Broadway (where his “Hamlet” was acknowledged by Variety with the laconic headline: “Well-Known British Thesp Makes Good”). For sheer reading pleasure, nothing touches the color and vitality of these early entrances into theatrical immortality.

The long, sobering interlude of Shakespeare in Peace and War: 1937-1948 sees Gielgud’s dream of establishing a national theater with his own permanent repertory company dashed when theaters were being bombed and closed during the Blitz and everyone was off to war. (However, “I was quite amazed by the reception given to the Shakespearean speeches by the forces,” he wrote home of his tours of the front.)

Tension gives a nervous edge to Rise and Fall: 1948-1968, which captures Gielgud at the most vulnerable stage of his life — rising to the challenge of roles like Lear and directors like Peter Brook, but suffering the humiliation of having his new knighthood tarnished by his arrest for homosexual soliciting.

Losing his direction, he questioned his own relevance in a new theatrical age that had come to regard him as the embodiment of a dying classical tradition. “One doesn’t want to be left behind, stuffed, and put in a museum,” he said in 1961, defending a decision to act less and direct more.

In taking Gielgud through this trying period, Croall maintains a calm, authoritative — and above all, trustworthy — voice. But he can’t suppress the literary equivalent of a cheer in Indian Summer: 1968-2000, when the great man snapped out of his doldrums to take on the modern age. In one daring move after another, he originated the seedy, disreputable character of Spooner in Pinter’s “No Man’s Land” (“the happiest theatrical experience of my life,” Gielgud called it); flourished on British television in such memorable roles as the malicious Edward Ryder in “Brideshead Revisited”; enjoyed a late-flowering career as a Hollywood movie star (although the Oscar he won for “Arthur” was promptly relegated to the bathroom); and executed a tour de force, at the age of 86, by reciting all the dialogue in Peter Greenaway’s avant-garde film “Prospero’s Books.”

“I get restless if I have nothing to do,” he explained away the 14 film roles and nine television parts he took when he was in his 90s — including the TV shoot for Beckett’s “Catastrophe” that he undertook on his 96th birthday.

Under Croall’s exacting analysis, each stage of Gielgud’s life adds another dimension to the finished portrait, which reveals a man of enormous complexity — kind, generous, witty and sensitive, but also vain, insecure and tactless; too easily influenced and too quickly hurt.

No wonder he could play them all, from Hamlet to Lear. It wasn’t only the magnificent voice and flawless technique that earned him his heroic stature as an actor: It was also what the critic T.C. Worsley saw as his incisive perceptions of “the ironies, the irresolutions, the subtleties” of a character.

The beauty of this book may well be the grace and sweetness of the life it details. But its significance lies in Croall’s presentation of that life in its broadest perspective. In showing us a man who is not only the pre-eminent classical actor of his age, but also “a director of flair and imagination … a pioneering actor-manager … a great discoverer and nurturer of talent in others … a talented writer, an elegant stylist and witty storyteller,” he also makes us aware of how Gielgud’s execution of his prodigious gifts reverberated down the years and throughout the theater.

Within this historical context, there are no throwaway anecdotes or isolated events. The tale of the toy theater that little Johnny got for Christmas illustrates an aptitude for stagecraft that would develop into a passion for experimental design destined to influence visionaries like Brook and Greenaway. In the same vein, the young actor’s ardent support for the “controversial” plays of Chekhov and the “new drama” of Wilde and Coward would help validate fresh styles of comedy and future generations of intellectual wits.

Even backstage anecdotes about Marlon Brando, Michael Redgrave and Richard Burton are told less for their incidental humor (“He sure knows his way around the meanings,” Brando said) than to reveal the elder Gielgud’s directorial acumen at recognizing and shaping raw talent.

Writing from his historian’s perspective, Croall leads us to the simple, stunning conclusion: Not only did the theater define John Gielgud’s life, his life came to define the theater itself.

Marilyn Stasio is a columnist for The New York Times Book Review.

Gielgud, A Theatrical Life 1904-2000

Continuum; 560 pgs.; $35


Jonathan Croall
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