Saturday, July 7, 2012

Positive Quiddity: actor John Gielgud

Sir Arthur John Gielgud

After Hillside Preparatory School in Godalming, Surrey, and Westminster School, where he gained a King's Scholarship, Gielgud trained briefly at RADA and understudied Noel Coward in Coward's The Vortex at the Everyman Theatre in Hampstead under the direction of Norman MacDermott (1890–1977). He had his initial success as a stage actor in classical roles, first winning stardom during a successful two seasons at the Old Vic Theatre from 1929 to 1931 where his performances as Richard II and Hamlet were particularly acclaimed, the latter being the first Old Vic production to be transferred to the West End for a run. He returned to the role of Hamlet in a famous production under his own direction in 1934 at the New Theatre in the West End. He was hailed as a Broadway star in Guthrie McClintic’s production in which Lillian Gish played Ophelia in 1936. (The production's popularity was assisted when a rival staging featuring film star Leslie Howard opened shortly afterward and was critically denounced in comparison to Gielgud's. Gielgud's production broke the long-run record for a Broadway "Hamlet.")

There followed a 1939 production that Gielgud again directed at the Lyceum Theatre, historic for having been the professional home for Henry Irving’s company. This was the last production to play the Lyceum until 50 years later when it was restored to host, among other shows, the hit musical The Lion King. Gielgud's Hamlet was later taken to Elsinore Castle in Denmark (the actual setting of the play), there was a 1944 production directed by George Rylands, and finally a 1945 production that toured the Far East under Gielgud's own direction. In his later years, Gielgud played the Ghost of Hamlet's Father in productions of the play, first to Richard Burton’s Melancholy Dane on the Broadway stage which Gielgud directed in 1964, then on television with Richard Chamberlain, and finally in a radio production starring Gielgud's protégé Kenneth Branagh.

Gielgud had triumphs in many other plays, notably his greatest popular success Richard of Bordeaux (1933) (a romantic version of the story of Richard II), The Importance of Being Earnest which he first performed at the Lyric Hammersmith in 1930 and which remained in his repertory until 1947, and a legendary production of Romeo and Juliet (1935) which Gielgud directed and alternated the roles of Romeo and Mercutio with a young Laurence Olivier in his first professional Shakespeareean leading role. Olivier's performance won him an engagement as the leading man of the Old Vic Theatre the following season, starting his career as a classical actor, but he was said to have resented Gielgud's direction and developed a wary relationship with Gielgud which resulted in Olivier turning down Gielgud's request to play the Chorus in Olivier's film of Henry V and later doing his best to block Gielgud from appearing at the Royal National Theatre when Olivier was its director.

Shakespearean legacy

It has always been, however, for his Shakespearean work that Gielgud has been best known. In addition to Hamlet, which he played over 500 times in six productions, he gave what some consider definitive performances in The Tempest (as Prospero) in four productions (and in the 1991 film Prospero’s Books), as well as in other roles – Richard II in three productions, Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing which he first played in 1930 and revived throughout the 1950s, Macbeth and Oberon in A Midsummer Night’s Dream twice, Romeo three times, and King Lear four times (as well as taking on the part for a final time in a radio broadcast at the age of 90). He also had triumphs as Malvolio in Twelfth Night (1931), Shylock in The Merchant of Venice (1937), Angelo in Measure for Measure (1950), Cassius in Julius Caesar (1950) (which he immortalised in the 1953 film), Leontes in The Winter’s Tale (1951), and Cardinal Wolsey in Henry VIII (1959) (although his 1960 performance as Othello was not a success). It became rumoured that Gielgud also provided the voice for the uncredited role of the Ghost of Hamlet's Father in Laurence Olivier’s 1948 film version, but the voice was actually that of Olivier, electronically distorted. Gielgud did voice the Ghost in both the stage and film version of the Richard Burton Hamlet, which he directed in 1964, and in the 1970 Hallmark Hall of Fame presentation starring Richard Chamberlain.

Gielgud's crowning achievement, many believe, was Ages of Man, his one-man recital of Shakespearean excerpts which he performed throughout the 1950s and 1960s, winning a Tony Award for the Broadway production, a Grammy Award for his recording of the piece, and an Emmy Award for producer David Susskind for the 1966 telecast on CBS. Gielgud made his final Shakespearean appearance on stage in 1977 in the title role of John Schlesinger’s production of Julius Caesar at the Royal National Theatre. He also made a recording of many of Shakespeare’s sonnets in 1963. Among his non-Shakespearean Renaissance roles, his Ferdinand in John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi was well-known.

Gielgud was an accomplished director who did extensive television, radio and recording during his long career.
, OM, CH, (14 April 1904 – 21 May 2000) was an English actor, director, and producer. A descendant of the renowned Terry acting family, he achieved early international acclaim for his youthful, emotionally expressive Hamlet which broke box office records on Broadway in 1937. He was known for his beautiful speaking of verse and particularly for his warm and expressive voice, which his colleague Sir Alec Guinness likened to "a silver trumpet muffled in silk". Gielgud is one of the few entertainers who have won an Oscar, Emmy, Grammy and Tony award.

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