Gielgud's Letters, Ed. Richard Mangan

A flair for elegance and indiscretion
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We know what Sir John Gielgud was like as an actor, with all that expressive clarity and laid-back elegance, but what went on in his head? Biographers such as Jonathan Croall and Sheridan Morley have told us as much as we need to know about the life, but now his centenary is being celebrated with this stout volume of letters.

Gielgud put pen to paper almost every day of his life. Richard Mangan has chosen some 800 letters, which read like the autobiography Gielgud never wrote. Beginning in 1912 with a note to his mother, the collection ends with a letter scrawled eight months before his death, aged 96, in 2000. In this, he says, "I think of the past with nostalgia." You can see why. The first letter, when he was seven, mentions his great-aunt, the Edwardian actress Ellen Terry. Gielgud's life spanned 100 years of theatre.

The book opens with letters to his mother, bulging with the boasts and setbacks of an up-and-coming actor. Hard-core fans will be interested in his comments on Shakespeare, his Chekhov outings and roles in plays by writers such as Edith Bagnold. His spiky asides about other actors and productions are good examples of his legendary indiscretion.

In the 1950s, for the first time, you get Gielgud's love life in his own words. His letters to Paul Anstee, his lover, give acute insights into the gay scene: in one Venetian tableau, Gielgud watches a gang-bang but, typically, doesn't join in: "I merely held the gloves as it were." Judging from his replies to Anstee's jealous recriminations, Gielgud had a rather detached attitude to affairs of the heart, although clearly touched by the support of friends when he was arrested in 1953 for cottaging. The tension of being famous and gay when homosexuality was illegal comes through in agonised letters from New York, when Gielgud was threatened by a blackmailer.

Finally, as he settles down with Martin Hensler, his life gets happier but the letters are duller. Still, addicts of celebrity gossip will enjoy Gielgud's viperous squirts. Marlon Brando is "a funny, intense, egocentric boy"; Charlie Chaplin "prissy, weary and neat"; Laurence Olivier "a born autocrat" given to extramarital affairs. Alec Guinness is spotted on a whorehouse S&M rack.

All this is reported with an old-world charm, with bitchy comments jostling the more temperate descriptions. Conventional, conservative, snobbish, living in a bubble sealed from normal life, Gielgud is indifferent to anything not about him or the theatre. Reading the letters, you would never guess that this was the era of the Cold War, Suez, Vietnam, the student revolution, hippie counter- culture, punk...

Richard Mangan's editing is always light and useful, and his selection of rare pictures excellent. But unless you're a Gielgud fanatic or a student of theatre history, the joys of JG's pen are not a patch on the pleasures of his acting.

The reviewer's 'In-Yer-Face Theatre' is published by Faber and Faber