April 27, 2018: Theatre Yesterday and Today, by Ron Fassler
Sir John Gielgud (1904–2000) was an actor of irrefutable gifts, who in a career that spanned nearly 80 years of continuous employment, gave countless performances as rich and original as the man himself. He was born into the Terry lineage — one of most esteemed theatrical families of all time — best exemplified by his great aunt, Ellen Terry, who in the late 1800s, was considered the world’s eminent English-speaking actress. As a child, Gielgud was fortunate to see many of his famous relatives perform in London’s West End, as well other legends of the day, such as Sarah Bernhardt. And though as a teenager he acted in school plays, it was hardly a fait accompli he would go into the profession, as his parents by no means encouraged it. However, Gielgud took to acting anyway as, like most actors, he had no other choice. Slowly, he rose through the ranks of England’s stock companies, going from smaller roles to larger ones, until finally at age twenty-six, he starred as Hamlet in a production that shook London to its core. Unabridged (which at the time was not at all the custom), the five-hour production proved monumental. Gielgud’s career as a classical actor was set and he went on to achieve international fame and to conquer every field of the acting profession, in addition to becoming a renowned stage director. In the year of his death in 2000, his obituaries all claimed he was the 20th century’s finest speaker of Shakespearean verse. His one-man show, The Ages of Man, first performed in 1957 (and on and off again for years thereafter), offer proof of his skill with words in musicality, expression and timing, which thankfully can still be seen and heard, forever preserved on both DVD and CD.
Having lived a long and adventurous life in the public eye, Gielgud was quoted extensively on matters from those of great importance to the totally trivial. And he was infamously guilty (on an almost continual basis), of “dropping a lot of bricks.” This is the British expression that refers to someone with a talent for saying something — even if it was truthful — at exactly the wrong time. An example: When a friend complained that he never visited him anymore, Gielgud rather less-than-sensitively replied: “No, I used to enjoy coming to your house when your father was alive.”
It’s not that Gielgud meant to be cruel. It’s simply the way things came out of his mouth before his brain had a chance to discern whether what he was saying might cause any harm. Thus, a dropped brick. And over the years, these quips and quotes have been collected in anthologies, creating a catalog of inappropriate remarks. Recently, I was surprised to discover an entire book had been published in 2012, devoted solely to Gielgud gaffes, lovingly collected under the title “Gielgoodies!”
So I mailed away to England for a copy immediately, and after the thirty minutes it took to read the whole thing, I can report that it does not disappoint. Here are a few highlights (and if you can read them out loud, and do your best high-toned British speech, they are all the more entertaining):
- He once asked a young actor where he was spending Christmas. “I’m going to have a wonderful Christmas, the enthusiastic youngster replied, “I’m spending it with the Oliviers.” “With the Oliviers,” John replied. “But they don’t even like you!”
- Waiting outside the Strand Theatre for a friend, Peter Sallis, “There were huge blown-up pictures of me and Honor Blackman appearing there in Wait Until Dark. And he said: “What are you doing at the moment?” So I looked up at him, and then I looked up at all these posters and bills, and said: “Well, I’m in this.” “Ah,” he said, “I hear the girl’s very good.”
- To Emlyn Williams, while casting a radio play: “Stephen Haggard is splendid, but much too well-bred. It calls for an actor who would convey somebody savage, uncouth — Emlyn, you should be playing it!”
- To Julian Glover, during rehearsals for The Tempest: “One thing you must never do is cry on stage. Of course I always do, but then I’m so sweet.”
- Explaining why he didn’t want to play Malvolio in Twelfth Night: “I am quite unable to act without suggesting good breeding.”
- To Alec Guinness during a rehearsal of Hamlet: “Get someone to teach you to act. Try Martita Hunt — she’ll be glad of the money.”
- To the cast of Henry VIII, including Harry Andrews, reminiscing about his Hamlet in America: “I had a rather poor Horatio. Oh, it was you Harry. Well, you’ve improved so much since then.”
- Actor Lee Montague recalled that “During rehearsals for Twelfth Night he passed me in the street, turned, and said, “Have we met?” I replied, “Yes, I’m playing Fabian.” “Oh yes,” he said. “An unmemorable part.”
Bear in mind that even if these statements make Gielgud seem as if he must have been hell to be around that people always forgave him for his dropped bricks. Perhaps it was the innocence with which he went about it, even though he meant every word of what he said. Or the direct honesty behind being told where you stood with Gielgud, which for better or worse, was overall, a good thing.
It should come as little surprise that someone of Gielgud’s across-the-board accomplishments would have become one of the first EGOT’s — in fact, the fourth so cited among the dozen who have won the Big Four entertainment awards in a competitive, individual (non-group) category for the Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony. He is also, to date, the eldest to have done so, having been eighty-seven when he won his 1991 Emmy for the TV movie Summer’s Lease.
And since he’s gone now, one can only imagine what Gielgud might have quipped when he was informed him he’d become an EGOT. Perhaps something along the lines of “EGOT? Goodness! It sounds like some new venereal disease.”
If you enjoy these columns, check out Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway, now at Amazon.com in hardcover, softcover and e-book. Email me with comments or questions at Ron@ronfassler.org.