In October 1953, while he was rehearsing for N.C. Hunter’s play A Day by the Sea at London’s Haymarket Theatre, John Gielgud was arrested for importuning a young man in Chelsea and booked at a local police station. It being Gielgud and a knight of the realm, the news made all the papers. When the legalities had been disposed of, Gielgud was still scheduled to open his play. Even after the Wolfenden Report in 1957 recommended that homosexuality be decriminalized, legalizing consensual sex between males, British homosexuality was conducted with great discretion, and so Gielgud was clearly in a high state of agitation about appearing in public. “Let’s play the thing as quickly as we can,” he urged his co-star Sybil Thorndyke, “to avoid any barracking from the house.” On opening night, as he stepped shakily on stage for his first entrance, the entire audience burst into applause and gave him a standing ovation, thus registering a protest against the government’s repressive attitude toward gays and giving a resounding vote of confidence to one of their most treasured artists.
Kenneth Tynan underestimated Gielgud’s talent when he wrote in 1959 that Sir John was “the finest actor on earth from the neck up.” The more salient truth was that it didn’t matter that he lacked Olivier’s physicality or Richardson’s gregariousness; listening to Gielgud play Shakespeare was like hearing silver liquid being poured into golden goblets.
When the New Drama was flourishing and writers like Arnold Wesker, John Osborne and David Storey had raised an aesthetic challenge to the theater of Coward and Rattigan, Gielgud thought of himself as something of a relic; particularly when Olivier, with Osborne and Tynan in tow, took over the National Theatre and rather ã pointedly froze him out. But with performances in Storey’s Home, Pinter’s No Man’s Land and Albee’s Tiny Alice, Gielgud virtually created a new stage persona for himself: quirky, acrid, cynical and refreshingly modern.
His greatest gift, that syrupy, textured voice, was also his greatest handicap, rendering him virtually oblivious to subtext. That didn’t mean that things weren’t going on underneath the lines. But Gielgud instinctively relied on language to activate his feelings.
Lyricism was a constituent not only of his acting but also of his personality — which is why he was so successful as Hamlet and Richard II, and incapable of roles like Richard III or Iago. The pampered upbringing, the tendency toward stylishness, the reverence for elegance — all of these qualities predisposed him to success in parts like pompous Jack Worthing in The Importance of Being Earnest, prissy characters like Malvolio, or hierarchical types like Prospero. But he turned his limitation into a strength and, in the main, veered away from parts that were too earthy or too remote from his own genteel character.
His face was a scowling Japanese mask, but his character was gentle and adorably fey — like one of those traditional British eccentrics who inhabit the Mayfair clubs and are forever awash in anecdotage. Even with all his later forays into the avant-garde, he always remained a kind of stranded Victorian dandy reminding one of an earlier and more elegant era.