By John Gielgud
Reviewed by Michael Hurst
Until I read this book, John Gielgud
was for me a pale imitation of his more athletic contemporary Laurence
Olivier. Like many people, I had relegated Gielgud to a somewhat ethereal,
more poetic branch of the acting craft. He had, to my mind, a musical
voice and (famously) meaningless legs.
This marvelous collection of his
letters, however, reveals him to be an actor, no, a player, of
extreme discipline and passion, a witty, opinionated, generous and shrewd
thespian with a delightful and unexpected sense of naughtiness and a
keen eye for "manch"--his own word for young men wearing corduroy.
The letters span almost the entire
20th century and, as the great events of that period unfold, we see
them as if filtered through the lens of Gielgud's somewhat rarefied
He is a direct link to the great
theatrical tradition that began with Shakespeare's players and developed
through the work of such legendary exponents of the craft as Garrick,
Kean, Sir Henry Irving, Mrs. Siddons and Ellen Terry (Gielgud's great
Perhaps the most striking aspect
of the letters is their candour and generosity. They are full of advice
to fellow actors, sympathy and support (as at the death of Olivier,
for example), and singular opinions of people and events coloured by
his own predilections and fancies.
He is wonderfully honest about
his homosexuality (many of the letters are to his gay friends and partners)
and reveals himself a man capable of great love.
This book is a great read. I freely
admit to a strong personal identification with the material, especially
considering that, as I read it, my own expression of that great theatrical
tradition was well under way in that I was both directing and playing
the title role in my own production of Macbeth.
But the book will appeal not only
to actors. Gielgud was a great humanist and a gifted artistic soul.
He lived into his 90s, outliving all his contemporaries (such as Olivier,
Ralph Richardson, Michael Redgrave, Edith Evans, Peggy Ashcroft and
Alec Guiness) and his partner of 35 years.
At the end we see a courageous
old man rattling about his house, fully aware of what age is doing to
him, full of wonderful memories involving luminaries such as Noel Coward,
T S Eliot, Marlon Brando ("seems a nice young man") and Cecil Beaton,
and full of nostalgia for those halcyon days before the world went mad.
"Old age is no picnic", he writes
in his final letter. It is terribly moving--as if the world had no more
use for him. And, in a way, it didn't. Elevated as he was, as connected
to brilliance as he was, the man John Gielgud was still just that--a
man. It is this profound sense of the ultimate loneliness of each, the
bedrock of the human condition, that left me both elated and sad as
I finally put the book down.
Hurst has been at the
forefront of Auckland theatre and film for more than 20 years.
What I'm Reading by Michael
NZ Listener, 24 April 2004
"Several books on the go. One
is by Ted Hughes--Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being.
I'm also reading Pandora's Star by Peter F. Hamilton; that's
a science-fiction book. Moonzoo by Paul Hewlett. And I've just
finished Quicksilver by Neal Stephenson. I'm reading Hughes because
I'm doing Macbeth soon and I'm always looking for new and interesting
interpretive angles on Shakespeare. I'm also reading Eliot's The
Wasteland for my book club. It's highbrow for a book club and we're
all a bit aghast at the fact that we've chosen that, but we found that
our discussions got more and more intense over works that we were reading,
so we decided to look at this and see if we can make some sense for
us out of it. I'm loving it, because as I come to things like The
Wasteland as an older person rather than in my twenties, I see more
in it--the possibility of possibilities is what is amazing about The