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Original at The Independent (article no longer available)

'He could steal a scene just by wearing a hat'
By Thomas Sutcliffe
23 May 2000

After David Garrick died in 1779, Richard Sheridan wrote a poem that captured the particular pathos of a great actor's death. Other forms of genius, he pointed out, left behind a concrete residue of their talents, but an actor's raw material - his breath and body - were all too perishable.

The actor, only, shrinks from Time's award;
Feeble tradition is his memory's guard;
By whose faint breath his merits must abide,
Unvouch'd by proof - to substance unallied!
Sheridan was writing at a time when the written description was the main form of recording. But film and television have not really changed this essential truth, since they fatally preserve the visible mannerisms of an actor's style but fail to capture the invisible current that runs between audience and performer.

Sir John Gielgud, long suspicious of film as an actor's medium, would probably have agreed. "Acting should always be an ephemeral business," he said once. "It must be passed on by word of mouth if it's to survive."

But word of mouth is famously unreliable: commenting on his much discussed rivalry with Sir Laurence Olivier - the other great actor-director of his generation - Gielgud said: "It's obvious, isn't it? I'm Macready, and Larry's Edmund Kean." He meant that he was all cerebral soul to Olivier's suffering body; but there is a kind of poignancy in the gap between the "obvious" and the long-vanished clarity of his examples.

Word of mouth is prone to simplification and caricature, so the later view of Gielgud as a kind of cherished antique of the English stage (think of Spitting Image's coarse distillation of him as "Dear, dear Johnnie", a fluting vocal virtuoso who had to be yanked off stage with a broom) conceals his invention and radicalism - the degree to which he shaped the theatrical style that nearly, but not quite, displaced him.

It was Gielgud who in effect reinvented Shakespeare as a commercial prospect, with successful West End seasons of his plays. And it was Gielgud who revived the look of British theatre in his work with the design team Motley.

As an exemplar for other actors he was both admirable and daunting. Kenneth Tynan noted that "he stiffened many a young actor with his exactions and rebukes", suggesting that more than one had to struggle out from under his influence.

But what is consistent in all the writing about him - all the word of mouth - is the sense of his conscientious exploration. He could be magnificently indifferent to the feelings of others. John Mortimer remembers dining with him on an evening when they had brought their infant daughter, Emily, with them in a carry-cot. As he carried her upstairs to sleep, Sir John said: "Why didn't you leave her at home? Are you afraid of burglars?"

But he could also be indifferent to his own feelings too, so that his performances were never pleas for attention (as some brilliant performances can be) but rather a search for the point at which the actor might disappear into the part, leaving the language alone on stage. "Acting is half shame, half glory," he once said. "Shame at exhibiting yourself; glory when you can forget yourself."

That his career was so long, when his diction and manner were not adaptable to fashion, was a tribute to his willingness to take risks. He knew his own limitations as an actor, often ceding the laurels to Olivier when it came to the ability to alarm and arouse an audience.

He also fretted a little about those limitations. Explaining why he did not want to play Malvolio in the early Fifties, he said: "I am quite unable to act without suggesting good breeding." His Shylock had failed, he suggested, "because I find it practically impossible to be disliked on stage". Both these remarks tend to the caricature of perfect breeding and an aristocratic sense of noblesse oblige which limited him to certain parts only.

But in his later career he came to see that likeability and mandarin precision could take on far more subtle and ambiguous forms.

For many, the turning point into the second career was Peter Brook's production of Measure for Measure in 1950, in which he played Angelo. In his book The Shifting Point, Brook recalls the cornucopian nature of Gielgud's theatrical invention - a ceaseless torrent of ideas, gestures and new moves that could leave other actors exhausted. On stage he was a moving target, and one that less talented performers sometimes had difficulty in tracking.

But Brook also records the simplicity with which he would surrender a cherished notion. "He was inspired by the name of Angelo and spent long, secret hours with the wig-maker preparing an angelic wig of shoulder-length blond locks.

"At the dress rehearsal no one was allowed to see him, until he came on to the stage, delighted at his new disguise. To his surprise, we all howled our disapproval. 'Ah!' he sighed. 'Goodbye my youth!' There were no regrets and the next day he made a triumph, appearing for the first time with a bald head."

It was, Tynan records, a "risky excursion" - but also "his best work since before the war". It did not immediately pay off. Throughout the Fifties, Gielgud was largely preoccupied with touring his one-man-show The Ages of Man, an exploitation of his celebrity as a Shakespearean actor, which looked very much like a diminuendo rather than a climax.

But in the Sixties, with Alan Bennett's Forty Years On, and the Seventies, with Harold Pinter's No Man's Land, he showed that he could apply his textual intelligence to contemporary work too.

For Bennett, Gielgud's talent, while less conspicuously high-wire than contemporaries such as Olivier, who seized hold of the extreme tragic roles, was no less intrepid. He noted: "Extremes are not edges and the edge is where he excels; the edge of comedy, the edge of respectability, the edge of despair." Edges do not require sheer muscular strength but an unerring sense of balance - and that is what Gielgud possessed.

It was evident even to those not in awe of his theatrical reputation. Reviewing his performance in Arthur - the film that brought him to people who were unfamiliar with Shakespeare, and made him marketable enough in the United States to do lucrative commercial work - Pauline Kael wrote: "John Gielgud can steal a scene simply by wearing a hat - it's so crisply angled that you can't take your eyes off him. As Hobson, the valet to a drunken millionaire playboy, he may be the most poised and confident funnyman you'll ever see." Funny as he is in it (partly by vandalising his own patrician dignity with obscenities), Arthur is no kind of memorial for Gielgud. It uses him as fantastically flattering prop rather than truly exploiting his talent.

John Miller, a collaborator on several autobiographical projects, said the films Gielgud was proud of included Alain Resnais's Providence and Peter Greenaway's Prospero's Books, in which that unique voice was allowed to play all the parts - a one-man band on an orchestral scale.

But even those films cannot catch the genius of his live performance, which was where his greatness lay. For that we have to rely on "feeble tradition", which, however frail it is, is not likely to give him up soon.

The Wit and wisdom of Gielgud

"I'm a flibbertigibbet, I bolt through cheap thrillers, but I couldn't read Troilus And Cressida or Coriolanus with any great pleasure."

"One's self-image is very important because if that's in good shape, then you can do anything, or practically anything."

"Acting is half shame, half glory. Shame at exhibiting yourself, glory when you can forget yourself."

On Ingrid Bergman"She speaks five languages, and can't act in any of them."

"To Richard Burton, after seeing his 'Hamlet' "I'll go ahead, Richard. Come when you're better - I mean, when you're ready."

To Clement Attlee, when Prime Minister "Tell me, where are you living these days?"

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