Gielgud's Letters

by Richard (ed) Mangan
ISBN: 0297829890

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A Review of: GielgudĘs Letters
by Clara Thomas

This collection, a total of almost 800 out of 1600 of Gielgud's letters, has been chosen and edited by Richard Mangan, the administrator of the famous Theatre Collection at Greenwich. Before Gielgud's death in 2000, Mangan had edited John Gielgud's Notes from the Gods. He was chosen by the executors of the estate to search out letters and to edit this volume. The result is a remarkable collection, arranged chronologically and with a minimum of editorial intervention. For an armchair theatre enthusiast, or for any theatre scholar, it is irreplaceable.
On his mother's side, Gielgud was a descendant of the Terry acting dynasty. His grandmother was Kate Terry and his great-aunt, Ellen Terry, Henry Irving's famous leading lady. Born in 1904, Gielgud's letters to his mother begin in 1912; at 10 years of age he wrote from Hillside School in Surrey about playing Shylock and "I actually introduced (being stage manager also) a little street scenery." From this beginning, the theatre was the cornerstone of his life. He wrote weekly to his mother throughout her long life, but otherwise his correspondents, professional colleagues, friends and lovers, were always of the theatre. He had a sister and two brothers, but their appearances in the correspondence are few and far between.
In his introduction Mangan helpfully erases the confusion arising from the shifting meanings of "director" and "producer" between Gielgud's day and our own. Now, the producer is the money-man, controlling the production, while the director is the head of the artistic team, in control of the creative aspects of the production. Throughout Gielgud's career, producer would often mean director; Gielgud was known to his fellow actors as a director's delight. As a producer, he was "a nightmare to some actors, an inspiration to others; what seemed to work yesterday did not work today, motives and motivations would change almost daily, and his cast needed to be sharp of brain and even fleet of foot to keep pace."
By the twenties, Gielgud was appearing on the London stage and, at the same time, attending The Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (well known as RADA). In 1929 he was asked to join the Royal Vic company and there he played the leading Shakespearean roles that formed the cornerstone of his acting fame: Romeo, Richard II, Oberon, Mark Antony, Macbeth and Hamlet, Antony, Malvolio, Benedick and King Lear.
By the end of the thirties he had played Hamlet, by invitation, in Denmark, and back in London he directed and played in The Importance of Being Earnest, a production that was known ever after as definitive. When war began he expected to be enlisted in a Scottish regiment, but long before that happened he was confirmed by the authorities in his stage capacities. Almost from the start he combined touring with lecturing on Shakespeare's attitude towards war in aid of raising money for the Red Cross. "If I'm not to fight I feel it's important to do the very best plays with as good a cast as possible, and cut down production costs so as to have prices down to 7/6 top at the most, and make everyone play for the minimum." Throughout the war years he toured England repeatedly, Scotland and, in late '45, the East. He spent January of 1946 in Singapore and acted Hamlet for the last time in Cairo.
Before Tom Patterson and a small company of like-minded zealots had miraculously achieved our Stratford, theatre-minded Canadians were served by travelling companies, various amateur productions, a lively "Little Theatre" movement and, in Toronto, a newly founded post-war professional company, the Crest. In Toronto we rushed off to the Royal Alex for every touring classic: in February 1947, one of these was Gielgud's never-to-be-forgotten The Importance of Being Earnest. To him Toronto was "a horrid shack-like town"; to us, the production was a magical experience and indeed we were fortunate to see both Edith Evans and Gielgud himself at the top of their form in a production that has been famous ever since. The company went on to a lengthy and successful American tour, ending in July in London, Ontario, with Love for Love. This was his first extended stay in North America, during which both Olivier and Richardson were knighted. Both wrote to him, embarrassed and regretful that he had not been included, but to his mother he insisted that he was not jealous. In the Coronation Honours List, 1953, he too was knighted.
In the fifties Gielgud began his Shakespeare recital, The Ages of Man, a performance that became a well-travelled standby for the rest of his career. Its first American tour began in Toronto, and again, we who enjoyed it at The Royal Alex were aware of witnessing a classic performance and a matchless tribute to Shakespeare's legacy. This time his report on Toronto was much improved: "horrid tasteless food" but "splendid hotel" and "great prettiness everywhere of all kinds."
As time went on, the enormous demands of his career became more obvious. He was constantly in demand for both acting and directing, often at the same time. In 1964 he directed and rehearsed Richard Burton's Hamlet for an entire month in Toronto before it opened at the O'Keefe in February and began a successful tour in North America and England. In its New York engagement, Burton broke Gielgud's own record for number of performances. In May of that year he took The Ages of Man to Scandinavia and Russia, and in the summer he flew to California to act in a film of Evelyn Waugh's The Loved One: "The film is the greatest fun....Saw a long scene yesterday in the rushes, and we all roared with laughter-I even thought I was rather funny myself." In October he was in Madrid, acting in another film, Chimes at Midnight, Orson Welles's version of the life of Falstaff. In November he began rehearsals in New York for the December opening of Albee's Tiny Alice. With the advent of easy air travel and then television his life became more and more a commuter's; he travelled ceaselessly between North America and Europe with casual acceptance of both, but always came home to England. Wotton Underwood in Buckinghamshire was the home that he loved, bought in the '70s and lived in for the rest of his life. Martin Hensler, the companion of his last forty years, cherished the house as he did and in particular made its extensive garden a work of art.
Always he found time for extensive letter writing. His letters were often long-they are the more remarkable because they were all written by hand. The major impression one gets from the letters is the constant business of his life and his equally constant savouring of his profession and his fame. Even the widely publicized episode in 1953, when he was arrested in Chelsea for soliciting and fined $10, placed no perceptible roadblock in his way. Many of his friends, including Olivier, Richardson, Noel Coward and Cecil Beaton, wrote splendid letters of support and sympathy. While he wrote regretfully to Beaton: "To have let down the whole side-the theatre, my friends, myself and my family-and all for the most idiotic and momentary impulse. Of course I've been tortured by the thought that I acted stupidly afterwards, insisting on tackling it without advice of any kind....The miracle is that my friends have stood by me so superbly and even the public looks like letting me go on with my work." The scandal seems to have prevented him from touring in the States for a few years, as he himself predicted, but at home he was as constantly in demand as ever, both for acting and directing. Many of his friends and co-workers were homosexuals and all of them honoured the theatre and its ramifications beyond individual life-style preferences or compulsions. Among them are three discernible groups: those of his own generation, Cecil Beaton, Noel Coward, John Perry, Binkie Beaumont; younger men who were or had been his lovers-Paul Anstee, Hugh Wheeler, George Pitcher; and a host of other actors, friends of both sexes and temporary companions.
The man who emerges from these pages is above all, a gifted and an attractive human being: gifted in his vast knowledge of drama, contemporary and classic, and in the wide range of his acting ability; attractive in the aura of benign good will that marks his relationships with others. Of the hundreds of names that occur and reoccur in his letters there are very few who do not garner his kind words. There are many who merit a humorous touch. Noel Coward, for instance, a close friend, he often calls "Nell". As he gets old, he and Coward and their contemporaries are "the old ladies." Some women, Irene Worth, Vivien Leigh and Peggy Ashcroft among them, are dear and constant friends. All those whose lives and gifts are dedicated to the theatre are worthy of his considerate and courteous attention. In his old age he was on hand to give numerous affectionate reminiscences at their memorial services, although he found this very hard to do. The letter Mangan chooses to finish the volume was written when Gielgud was 95 the year before he died in 2001. Its recipient, George Pitcher, while an undergraduate at Princeton, was an early lover. The letter ends "I think of the past with nostalgia and, as ever, much affection, Love John."

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