Methuen Drama, £30, 717pp. £27 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030
John Gielgud: Matinee Idol to Movie Star, By Jonathan Croall
Friday 24 June 2011
Even before Twitter and Facebook revelled in gossip and rumour, a few whiffs of scandal were recommended to make a theatre biography more commercially pungent. Jonathan Croall's elegantly written and extended edition of his Gielgud biography, first published in 2000, comes duly retitled and scented with the aroma of fresh revelations about the actor's private life.
The author's elementary Freudian theorising scarcely convinces, but he conveys a vivid sense of the anxieties from which this intelligent and insecure actor suffered, despite being born into theatrical royalty, with great-aunt Ellen Terry as the family lode-star. Early on, Gielgud was derided at drama school as effeminate. In the 1920s, the critic-playwright St John Ervine rebuked him for speaking in an "emasculated manner". He was condemned for physical ungainless too, and later suffered the witty malice of Kenneth Tynan, who likened him to "a tight smart walking umbrella".
Sweet-natured, he took such blows to his self-esteem with stoicism and flourished, sometimes retreating behind a self-protective façade of aloofness. He may have been regarded as the chief ornament of producer Binkie Beaumont's derrière garde production stable in the 1950s, but Gielgud was always keen on novelty and daring. From the exciting shock of his first Hamlet and Richard II to his creation of inspirational repertory seasons of classic drama across three decades, he continued to revive himself. He delayed overlong before joining the Royal Court avant garde, but changed style and played in David Storey and Edward Bond to a new manner born.
Crucially, Croall claims he has been able to compile "the first full and accurate account" of Gielgud's 1953 debacle, when he was arrested in a Chelsea public lavatory and fined for persistently importuning for immoral purposes. After Gielgud had been charged, according to Croall, Gielgud phoned Binkie Beaumont, for whom he was about to open in a new play. His call, the account runs, was answered by Gielgud's friend, the actor Robert Flemyng, who said Beaumont was away in the country and that he would phone on Gielgud's behalf. When Flemyng did so Beaumont's partner John Perry, also Gielgud's former lover, refused to wake the well-connected impresario who might have been able to bribe the police to drop the charge.
The story beggars belief. Croall attributes it to Flemyng, who died 16 years ago. He makes no reference to the fact that Gielgud himself, quoted in Sheridan Morley's official biography, says the entrapped actor was too ashamed to contact Beaumont. Is Croall posthumously calling Gielgud a liar? There are at least two of the actor's friends alive who can authoritatively challenge this allegation.
Croall likens his first Gielgud biography to a sketch and the new edition to a full portrait, but because he belongs to the narrative-descriptive rather than the investigative-analytic school of biography, it will best serve as a valuable foundation on which more questing theatre writers can build. Since, though, Croall has been given access to Gielgud's papers and to hundreds of letters not published in the major collection collated by Richard Mangan in 2004, the book comes freighted with disturbing revelations of how stressful Gielgud found it to conduct gay affairs in dead secret, at a time when homosexuality was illegal and stars could fall like meteorites if trapped by agents provocateurs.
The paradox of Gielgud's personality, at once generous and compassionate, self-absorbed and tactless, reserved and reckless, vacillating and abruptly decisive, found chief expression when directing. "When something is half- way there it's like a child," Edith Evans memorably complained during rehearsals: "You can't say it's not a boy. It's a girl."
Oddly, Croall seems to shrink from detailing Gielgud's gay life, with its periods of bravely born loneliness and addiction to the dangers of anonymous sex. He plays down the significance of Sir John's long-term unrequited passion for the far younger American academic George Pitcher, omitting the vital fact that Pitcher already had a partner. Gielgud's enduring, cherished partnership with the mysterious, bullying Hungarian Martin Hensler sparked animosities in some of Gielgud's friends, and his earlier relationship with jealous Paul Anstee posed problems. Such discoveries make the journey in Matinee Idol to Movie Star riveting. You are left wondering whether the actor sublimated the erotic disturbances of his life in the escapist and redeeming magic of his art.
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