Dangerous liaisons: The secret life of John Gielgud

Plague over England, the acclaimed West End play about John Gielgud's sexuality is to be filmed. Here, the critic-turned-playwright Nicholas de Jongh reveals more about his subject's secret life
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The Independent Culture

The dramatic, drama-related shock came out of the blue via email. I didn't know how to deal with it. My play Plague over England, in which John Gielgud is depicted as a prime victim of that gay witch-hunting period, had just begun rehearsals last January for a West End run at the Duchess.

The email brought news that might have been calculated to cast Gielgud in a fresh, more disconcerting light. My emailer was female, heterosexual and a great admirer of the actor. She did not remotely seek to tarnish the actor's name and I had no reason to disbelieve her story when we talked. What she had to report confirmed what had been whispered about Gielgud at the time but never corroborated.

My informant's father had been a BBC chauffeur in the early 1950s. One evening – it would have been just a few months before Gielgud's Chelsea arrest in 1953 – this chauffeur delivered a parcel to Hampstead police station. While he was there who should be brought in by a young policeman, but John Gielgud. Sir John had been arrested in a public lavatory in the Vale of Health. The desk sergeant reacted in an unbelievable fashion to the incident. "Oh, no," he told the PC, launching into a far-fetched story. "Sir John is a famous actor and he would just have been rehearsing for one of his plays. Nothing more." The chauffeur was then invited to give Gielgud a lift back into central London and the grateful actor gave him a generous tip on being deposited at Marylebone station.

The story lent credence to what was suspected or even known by quite a few of his friends. Gielgud was an inveterate cruiser, uncontrollably attracted to the danger, risk and anonymity of cruising in public lavatories. There had been rumours, never substantiated, that Sir John had been arrested before or warned off by a sympathetic policeman. Here was likely confirmation of the fact – more than half a century later.

I had based Plague over England on the testimony of an old friend of Gielgud's who recalled the day when both of them were filming Orson Welles's Chimes at Midnight on location in Ireland. Some of the actors were having dinner one night when one asked Sir John what had really happened that night in 1953. Gielgud responded by saying that it was a disaster that should never have happened. He said that he had dinner with the script-writer and former film critic Paul Dehn and Dehn's partner, James Bernard. Gielgud walked almost everywhere in London and that night he set off to walk home as usual.

Having suddenly needed to pee he had stopped at Dudmaston Mews lavatory which was on his route home. As he had been leaving a highly attractive young man had come in. Gielgud had turned to look back, as did the young man. In those days it took no more than a glance, a wink or a smile in a public lavatory or sometimes in a public place for a man to be arrested and charged with persistently importuning. "You lie, John. You always lie," retorted his partner, Martin Hensler, who was there at the dinner. With tears pouring down his cheeks, Gielgud insisted he was telling the truth.

After being given this news, I did what I should have done before. I knew the long-dead Dehn had lived somewhere in Chelsea. I spoke to a theatre director who knew his address. I looked up its location in the A-Z. The Dudmaston Mews lavatory was a considerable detour on Gielgud's home-journey. It was difficult to resist the conclusion that after having had quite a lot to drink he had gone to the lavatory with intentions. Gielgud had lied. It was understandable. Some unfortunate things are best left denied.

My reaction to this information and its likely significance was one of confused uncertainty. Ought I not make some allusion to this fact? I was not out to condemn or criticise. Far from it. I saw, and see, Gielgud as a victim of those cruel, intolerant and hysterical times, who had early in life involuntarily come to eroticise this anonymous, dangerous form of sexual contact. But I did not want to – so to speak – sanitise the man's life. Should I, could I, absorb, incorporate this incident into my play? I feared to do that. I felt people might lose sympathy with Gielgud as a witch-hunt victim and write him off as a silly, uncontrollable sex addict who got what he deserved.

I decided to forget the revelation. I was too preoccupied to think about its significance. There were far more pressing worries. I who knew quite a lot about judging plays in performance, knew next to nothing about the fears, tensions and disagreements that attend the high-risk business of putting on a new play by an unknown author in the West End without benefit of a star name. Bill Kenwright, who was putting on Plague over England with the Ambassador Group, is not only prepared to shell out hundreds of thousands in a theatrical cause in which he believes. He's also a fabulous gambler, negotiator and wily schemer, apparently keeping calm as the storms break over every West End theatre production.

He had waited, negotiated and haggled to get a suitable playhouse (the Duchess) but the business of finding a star to play Gielgud was agonising. I was told that for a West End success you need that rare commodity, at least one true box-office star together with a set of four-star reviews. A succession of leading players then held us in a vice-like grip of anticipation as they considered whether to play the role. One by one they said no. The first day of rehearsal began ominously to beckon. Suddenly, it looked as if a real star of stage and screen was eager to take the role. Regretfully, he said no at the last moment. Would we get anyone? Would the production have to be cancelled? I, and to a lesser extent, Tamara Harvey, the director, grew more fearful by the day. "It's a terrifying business – the theatre", Nica Burns, who owns the Duchess and a few other West End theatres said unconsolingly to me. "Quite a lot of people have to give up the theatre. They just can't bear the strain."

We were lucky to discover Michael Feast, who had twice acted with Gielgud in the 1970s, to take on the role at the shortest notice, five days before rehearsal. He saved us from God knows what and on the first day knew almost half his role already. In such nerve-wracked circumstances, I did not have the courage to contemplate tinkering with the play any more. But in the end, I managed to take the Gielgud revelations and weave them into the fabric of my play. It was, however, after the run had ended.

It so happened that London's small collection of play publishers refused even to consider publishing Plague over England while it was on. They evidently practised a form of theatrical apartheid. Just as in South Africa's days of whites-only playhouses, so, here and now, play publishers would not allow their play lists to be sullied by a script written by a theatre critic who has failed to admire their own writers. One drama editor, who adored and regularly published a dramatist I had disparaged, refused even speak to my agent about Plague over England, let alone read it.

There was though a better class of ending. Finally, Samuel French decided to publish. Almost all new play-scripts make their appearance at the first night. I was to have the chance of making revisions post production. I would, I concluded, allude to the Gielgud revelations rather than make much of them. I watched the first night and later performances with a critical eye. I saw opportunities for editing and excising. As a theatre critic, I reacted to advice and criticism made by those colleagues I trusted. The Samuel French edition is therefore an unusual, final cut.

Now I sit brooding over a film-script of my play that producers, Kenwright and 19 RM (a joint venture with 19 Entertainment) intend to make. How strange the change from stage – hard enough with its 20 or so characters on slightly changing set – to a film script which needs to roam everywhere and does in my version. The rhythms and structures, the sheer momentum of a movie, feels so different, so difficult to catch. As with a West End play, but only far more so, the problem of enticing an actor with a big box-office pull, this time in movie terms, looms very large.

What would Gielgud think of the film project? Would he be more appalled by being turned into the stuff of cinema than he would have been by a stage version? I fervently hope not. The last theatre survivor of his generation, the amazing Sam Beazley, who was a teenage Player Queen, to Gielgud's 1934 Hamlet and Tybalt to the Gielgud-Olivier-Edith Evans-Peggy Ashcroft Romeo and Juliet in 1935, talked to me only the other night about how the awful impact of that 1953 incident affected Gielgud for life. In my mind's eye I can see him considering with wry amusement a movie that marks his stoic courage as well as rashness. The only actor I can think of whom he might endorse to play him is Daniel Day Lewis. "Of course, he's just about the right class," I imagine him saying. "He did very well as a gay cockney skin-head didn't he. So I shouldn't be beyond his range."

Now those anxieties over the Duchess and Finborough productions seem far-off, distant things, replaced by fresh fears. I realise now, far more clearly than before, that something significant happened to me when Plague over England reached the West End. The realisation that I had become smitten with theatre happened in a startling new way and in a flash. It was at the West End first-night party. I realised I no longer wanted to write in judgment, particularly scathing judgment, on players and playwrights, for whom I now felt fresh empathy. I recognised it was high time to leave the uncomfortable seats and impossible benches and see where Plague over England took me.

'Plague over England' is published by Samuel French at £8.95; Nicholas de Jongh was theatre critic of the Evening Standard from 1991 to 2009

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