One of the 20th century's most distinguished actors, John Gielgud (born 1904) was noted for his Shakespearean roles for the stage, especially Hamlet, and appeared in numerous theatrical and television films and on recordings of classic books and plays. He also authored several theatrical "reminiscences" throughout his career.
John Gielgud ranks among the foremost interpreters of Shakespeare in the 20th century and was one of the most prolific theater artists; continuing to work in theater, film, and television abundantly into his eighties. He was often ranked with Ralph Richardson and Laurence Olivier as comprising the "Triumvirate" of English actors which dominated the acting world of the English theater from the 1930s through the 1960s; with Gielgud branching into a significant directing career in the 1950s.
The third of four children of Frank Gielgud, a stockbroker, and his wife, the former Kate Terry-Lewis; Gielgud was born in London, England, on April 14, 1904, into a family with theatrical roots. On his mother's side he was descended from the great Terry acting family, one of his great aunts being Ellen Terry, one of the most famous actresses of the 19th century; on his father's side, his great grandparents were leading actors in 18th-century Poland. Young John took an early interest in performance; designing and inventing plays in a toy theater along with his siblings.
After finishing his secondary education, he decided to try his luck on the stage, promising his father that if he did not succeed by age 25 he would study to be an architect. Fortunately he was offered a scholarship to Lady Constance Bennett's Drama School, and through this experience made his first professional debut as an unpaid walk-on in Henry V at the Old Vic. Gielgud became involved in managing and understudying with James Fagan's Company in 1922. He obtained a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA), and after leaving there in 1923 he played a number of parts, the most significant of which were Trofimov in Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard and understudying, then taking over for Noel Coward in Coward's play The Vortex. Both roles guaranteed his success as an actor.
Gielgud joined the Old Vic company in 1929, where he began to develop his elegant style and expressive "cello-like" voice. He won immediate acclaim in his Shakespearean roles, and over the course of his career he played most of Shakespeare's leading men including: Angelo, Oberon, Lear, Julius Caesar, Romeo, and Mercutio (which he alternated with Laurence Olivier in 1935), Prospero, Antony, Macbeth, Hotspur, and Richard II. He was most famous for his role as Hamlet, which he played first in 1930 and which he played over 500 times in his career, being fixed in the tradition of significant English "Hamlets" since the 18th century. Of his Hamlet the critic John Mason Brown wrote: "Such a voice, such diction, and such a gift of maintaining the melody of Shakespeare's verse even while keeping it edged from speech to speech with dramatic experience, is a new experience." The Literary Digest called his Hamlet "cerebral" and "intellectual," "sensitive, disciplined, disdaining rant and the roaring traditions."
In addition to the classics, Gordon Daviot's Richard of Bordeaux (1932, which Gielgud also directed) established him as a popular star in the West End. He was also noted for his performances of Jack Worthing in The Importance of Being Earnest (1939). About his early career, in a 1983 interview he noted that: "I played a lot of very neurotic young men. I might have been typed as an hysterical juvenile. I was lucky to get Shakespeare, Chekhov, and Congreve early on and develop an appetite for really good stuff that showed I could do something outside my own range. One is inclined to trade on the qualities that brought one's reputation…."
In the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s Gielgud alternated acting with directing, helping to promote many new playwrights such as Terence Rattigan, Graham Greene, and Enid Bagnold, as well as directing opera. He created a one-man show based on the works of Shakespeare entitled Ages of Man, which toured Britain and was seen in New York and on American television. He appeared with lifelong friend Ralph Richardson in two acclaimed plays in the early 1970s: David Storey's Home and Harold Pinter's No Man's Land. He won the Tony Award in 1961 for his direction of Big Fish, Little Fish, a special Tony Award for Ages of Manin 1959, and a Drama Desk Award and Tony nomination for best actor for Home (1971).
Gielgud made his film debut as Daniel in the silent 1924 film Who Is the Man? and appeared in dozens of films, more notably in Hitchcock's The Secret Agent (1936), as Disraeli in The Prime Minister (1941), Around the World in 80 Days (1956), Saint Joan (1957), Becket (1964), Murder on the Orient Express (1974), The Elephant Man (1980), and Chariots of Fire (1980). As Hobson in Arthur (1981), he won the American Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor.
Gielgud's more recent film credits include: Arthur 2: On the Rocks, Shining Through, The Best of Friends, The Power of One, First Knight, and Shine.
Gielgud's career has been multifaceted. In 1996 he worked with actors Jane Seymour and Christopher Reeve to provide voices for the lead characters in Warner Bros. Feature Animation's The Quest for Camelot. Gielgud's numerous and recent television credits include: Brideshead Revisited, Wagner, The Far Pavilions, The Master of Ballantrae, Oedipus, War and Remembrance, A Man for All Seasons, and Inspector Alleyn. In the early 1980s Gielgud appeared as a spokesman for Paul Masson wines on television. In 1996 he recited poetry with Alan Bates and Ben Kingsley for a television advertisement for the Union Bank of Switzerland.
Although he wrote several books about his life in the theater, he admitted to enjoying reading "trashy" American novels and listening to opera in his elegant country home in Buckinghamshire, England. Gielgud was knighted in 1953 and held honorary degrees from St. Andrew's University, Oxford University, and Brandeis University. He continued to be active in the arts in the 1990's.
John Gielgud wrote six autobiographical works: Early Stages (1939), Stage Directions (1963), Distinguished Company (1973), An Actor in His Time (1979, republished in 1996), Backward Glances (1989), and Acting Shakespeare (1991). Two good biographies exist in John Gielgud: A Celebration (1984) by Gyles Brandmeth and Ronald Hayman's John Gielgud (1971). See the Columbia Encyclopedia (Edition 5, 1993, p14870) for a short biography on John Gielgud. Other considerations of his career can be found in Poet at the Piano by Michiko Kakutani, The Player by Lillian Ross, John Gielgud's Hamlet by Rosamund Gilder, and Sir Laurence Olivier's autobiography, Confessions of an Actor (1982).
For additional biographical resources about John Gielgud see: Redfield, William, Letters from an Actor, Proscenium Publications, 1984; Harwood, Ronald, The Ages of Gielgud: An Actor at Eighty, Proscenium Publications, 1984; Findlater, Richard, These Our Actors: A Celebration of the Theatre Acting of Peggy Ashcroft, John Gielgud, Laurence Olivier and Ralph Richardson, Elm Tree Books; and The Columbia Encyclopedia, Edition 5, 1993.
For periodical articles about John Gielgud see: America, August 13, 1994; and Entertainment Weekly, September 6, 1996.
For on-line resources about John Gielgud see: <http://www.mpx.com.au/~zaphod/ProsperoGielgudIdea.html>, <http://www.flf.com/shine/allnotes.htm>, <http://www.oceanfm.com/magazine.text/camelot.txt>, and <http://moviereviewmagazine.com/029704c5.htm>. □