Part Two of our week-long Talking Theatre Special is an extract from Richard Eyre’s interview with the late John Gielgud.
Actor and director John Gielgud performed all the major Shakespeare roles, and was instrumental in introducing Chekhov to English audiences. In later life he acted in plays by Alan Bennett, Charles Wood, David Storey and Harold Pinter. I interviewed him on the stage of the Theatre Royal, Haymarket, well before the start of filming the rest of the interviews—‘in case I drop off the twig,’ as he put it. He seemed then—the summer of 1998—to be eternal. He warned me that he was ‘just an actor’ who’d never had an idea in his head, which was typically self-deprecating. No one could have mistaken Gielgud for an intellectual, but although his conversation was showered with actorly anecdotes, it was impossible to discount his mercurial intelligence and his extraordinary recall of theatre history, even if life outside the theatre had passed him by.
What was the theatre like that you encountered as a child?
Well, it was very much a theatre of stars. Actor-managers were beginning to die out, but I looked for the big names on the marquee, so I got to know the theatre very well because I stood in the pit and gallery and went whenever I could; my parents were very long suffering. They both went to the theatre quite a lot, but they were never in the theatre, although my mother had strong links with all her Terry relations [Gielgud’s great aunt, Dame Ellen Terry, was the leading Shakespearean actress of her times]. I was fearfully lucky because from the very beginning I got my first jobs through personal introductions and so I never had to sort of stand in the queue to get work. I was earning seven or eight pounds a week from quite early times, and I got scholarships at two dramatic schools, so I didn’t have to pay fees, I didn’t cost my parents anything, and I lived at home. I really had a very easy time those first ten or twelve years, and I learned a bit of hard work.
What did you think of what you saw in the theatre in those days?
I didn’t think then what acting really was like. I loved spectacle and I was immediately taken in by colour and groupings, and the childhood drama of the curtain going up and the lights going down, which would vanish from the scene in years to come. I think that it was spectacle and romance and love scenes and people waving capes and looking out over balconies and things that appealed to me so much.
What was the social mix in the audience?
It was very much divided.
Very much. I mean, the stalls and dress circle were the middle-class and aristocratic public, and then there was the upper circle and the pit and gallery, which were the cheap parts, which hissed and booed or applauded on the first night and were very important for the commercial success. And there were enormous commercial successes: plays that ran a year. And things like Chu Chin Chow that ran three and four years.
Did you see Chu Chin Chow?
Yes, I never stopped seeing it.
The theatre at that time wasn’t was all light comedy, was it? It was also the age of Ibsen and Shaw.
Yes. I was in great difficulty because all my life I’ve been so stupid and flippant. I never cared to think of what was going on in the world or in the two wars, which I in a way lived through. But I had such a childlike adoration of the theatre and of actors and actresses and the ones I met in my parents’ house. My own relations were all very exciting to me and they lived this make-believe world. But when it came to Ibsen and Shaw I rather jibbed; I hadn’t got the appetite for dialogue and I found them very talky. I never got over that. I never have got over it. I’ve never really liked plays that are entirely talk.
You and Olivier must have been fiercely competitive at the time when you first worked together.
I was by then just becoming a leading man; my name was bigger than his, and without knowing it—we were very friendly, always, we got on extremely well—I had a feeling that he rather thought I was showing off, which indeed I was.
Well, he probably was as well.
Yes, but his showing-off was always so dazzling. [chuckles] My showing off was more technical and was more soft and, oh… effeminate, I suppose.
I’m surprised you say that because I would have characterised it the other way round, that his showing-off always seemed to me to be ahead of his interest in playing the truth of a character.
Well, I think his great performances were mostly comedy. I was never so impressed by his Oedipus or the Othello, which were two of his greatest successes. But I was enormously impressed by The Dance of Death and by Hotspur and Shallow and Puff [in Sheridan’s The Critic], and Richard III of course. And I loved working with him, the little that I did. But I always thought he went behind my back and directed the actors his way. When he played Malvolio for me at Stratford with Vivien Leigh as Viola, I was certain that he’d gone away and told her how he thought it ought to be played and that she was torn between the two characters trying to work with her.
Did you feel hurt when the National Theatre started and Olivier didn’t bring you into the company initially—and then only asked you to do Oedipus with Peter Brook?
Yes, I was a bit hurt, but I always had so many other sorts of offers. I’m not, funnily enough, very jealous, I never have been. I had great ambitions but I was never jealous. And I was always surprised to find that some actors were very jealous.
When the new National Theatre started, Peter Hall took you into the company.
Yes, but he gave me a very flat year—Julius Caesar and that old part in Volpone—so I really had no fun at all. I hated the National Theatre building: I hated that feeling of being in a sort of airport. And the Royal Shakespeare Theatre’s like a nursing home. [laughs]
It’s hard for us to believe that there was ever a time when Shakespeare wasn’t very popular, in the same way it’s hard to imagine there was a time when Mozart wasn’t very popular.
It wasn’t till John Barrymore came from America and did Hamlet with a complete English cast—except for two characters, I think—that suddenly it was box-office.
You did the film of Julius Caesar directed by Joe Mankiewicz, which I admire enormously. Do you regard that as a successful translation of Shakespeare to the screen?
I think it’s one of the best. I saw it again after many years. It isn’t bad at all, except for the last part of the battle, which was done for tuppence in the last two to three days. But the main part of the film I enjoyed very much, and they were all very sweet to me. I got on excellently with Brando and with Mankiewicz, and the girls were very charming, and it was very exciting to be in Hollywood and see all the stars and I made quite a lot of money, and it was a new experience altogether.
Did you help Brando with his performance?
One day I did. He only had one scene in which I appeared with him. We worked on that one day, and he said: ‘What did you think of my performance?’ And I said: ‘I don’t want to discuss it.’ And he said: ‘Oh.’ ‘Let me think about it,’ I said. The next week I wasn’t working, and they came to me and said Brando had just done the speech over Caesar’s body and ‘It’s so wonderful you must come and see the rushes.’ So I went and saw them, and I didn’t like what I saw at all, but I naturally didn’t say so. But he then said, would I help him with the speeches in the scene we had together. And so I did. I didn’t know he was really listening, but the next morning he’d put in all the things that I’d suggested to him immediately. He was bright as a button. But I would have loved to have worked with him over some of the rest of it. They were all so pleased with him, but naturally I didn’t interfere. I didn’t want them to think I was teaching them how to speak Shakespeare.
What’s always struck me about the way you speak Shakespeare is that you always let the meaning lead.
You’ve got to be awfully sure of your material. I’ve found a great deal of Shakespeare very hard to follow and very difficult to act. But if a part appealed to me pictorially then I immediately grabbed it and that was all. I’ve never lost my very childish attitude towards the theatre, which is so-called make-believe romance, or pretending to be somebody else and having people round me who were also in the same kind of dream world.
This is an edited extract from Richard Eyre’s interview with John Gielgud. The full interview is published in the new paperback edition of Talking Theatre: Interviews with Theatre People.
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Don’t forget to visit the NHB blog EVERY DAY this week for more exclusive extracts from Talking Theatre: Interviews with Theatre People! Don’t miss tomorrow’s post featuring experimental theatre impresario Peter Brook – on why theatre is so important to the English.