Chapter One: An Edwardian Youth (1904-1921)
If your great-aunt happens to be Ellen Terry, your great-uncle Fred Terry, your cousins Gordon Craig and Phyllis Neilson-Terry, and your grandmother the greatest Shakespearean actress in all Lithuania, you are hardly likely to drift into the fish trade.
Whatever other achievements may yet be claimed for the twentieth century, one is already beyond all doubt or dispute: it produced in Britain the greatest generation of classical actors that the world has ever known. It took almost eighty years to get from David Garrick to Edmund Kean, and then at least another fifty to get to Henry Irving, and they were essentially on their own, loners unchallenged by any immediate rivals. Yet in the middle of this past century it was possible to see, in the same city and sometimes even the same stage or screen productions or acting companies, Laurence Olivier, Ralph Richardson, Michael Redgrave, Paul Scofield, Alec Guinness, Peggy Ashcroft, Edith Evans, and Sybil Thorndike. And, of course, the greatest survivor of them all, John Gielgud.
The coming together in the same lifetime of this classical galaxy is unlikely ever to be repeated; those of us lucky enough to have witnessed it will just have to be content to describe it to anyone who will listen, illustrating only by often inadequate film or television records, aware that, like any of the magic kingdoms from Prospero's to Peter Pan's, it was just there for a while and then, suddenly, it wasn't. Like the boy Thomas Malory, who is sent by King Arthur behind the lines at the end of Camelot to spread the word of what once was, we just have to be aware that, for one brief shining moment, from approximately 1925 to 1975, the British classical theater was at an all-time zenith.
Kenneth Tynan, the greatest theater critic of this midcentury period, and the one lucky enough to be writing about this amazing generation in its prime, once suggested the following analogy:
"You have to imagine the English stage as a vast chasm, with two great cliffs either side towering above a raging torrent. Olivier gets from side to side in one great animal leap; Gielgud goes over on a tightrope, parasol elegantly held aloft, while down there in the rapids you can just discern Redgrave, swimming frantically against the tide."
This, then, is the story of the man on the tightrope: although written with his approval and active cooperation in the last decade of his long life, it is intended as a critical biography of an actor who indeed spent much of that life working on the high wire without a net. And although in retrospect it now seems to have been a charmed life, that of a man from a theatrical family who simply carried on its tradition all the way to solo supremacy, we need to recall at the outset that we are also attempting to record the life of the only leading actor of the twentieth century to have come to the very edge of a prison sentence for homosexual soliciting; a man who then, albeit briefly, considered suicide; a man who had no real financial security until he was well into his sixties; a man who had constantly to cope with the frantic jealousy of his only acknowledged rival, Laurence Olivier; a man who only really learned to live happily in his own skin once he realized that, against all early odds and forecasts, he had outlasted and outperformed all the competition.
But this was also the man who, with his beloved brother Val, virtually invented radio drama and remained, both on stage and radio, his century's longest-running Hamlet, a role he played for almost thirty years at home and abroad. Long before the coming of the Royal Shakespeare Company or the National Theatre in the early 1960s, Gielgud alone in the West End effectively invented what we think of now as the classical repertory company. He was the actor and director who dragged Shakespeare out of the Victorian era of his own theatrical ancestors and toward something vastly more psychologically complex. His early partnerships with his cousin Edward Gordon Craig, the ground-breaking Russian director Komisarjevsky, and the Harris sisters, who made up the radical costume and set-design team of Motley, meant that he was at the cutting edge of all the revolutionary 1930s changes in how Shakespeare was staged. With Ralph Richardson, in a late-life partnership dubbed by Ralph himself "the broker's men," after a well-known British vaudeville skit, Gielgud was also the first classical stage actor to excel in Harold Pinter and Alan Bennett and David Storey, and the first player king ever to hold the Order of Merit as well as the title Companion of Honour.
Knighted far later in life than he deserved, overlooked for the theatrical peerages that have thus far gone only to Olivier and (amazingly) Bernard Miles, John G. yet managed to end the century having not just outlived but also overtaken all his competition. There is a lot to be said for sheer survival. Gielgud spent his ninety-sixth birthday in April 2000 working with Harold Pinter and David Mamet on a play by Samuel Beckett. He died peacefully on a Sunday afternoon, at home, barely a month later, and only then was the sound of what Alec Guinness once called "the silver trumpet muffled in silk" silenced for the first and last time, just three months before Sir Alec himself died at eighty-six, thereby ending the generation of stage and screen giants of which Gielgud was the first and Guinness the last.
In many ways, John G.'s death was as perfectly timed and placed as his life; his lover Martin Hensler, with whom John had lived for the last forty years of his life, had died of cancer in considerable agony almost sixteen months earlier, and John was appalled by the prospect of a hospital end. With Martin's death, just before Christmas 1998 soon after John himself had been in the same local Aylesbury hospital with a sprained ankle, something in Gielgud also started to die; until then, he had been happily going out to film small but richly paid and showy roles in critical hits like Shine and Elizabeth, as well as several more obscure parts in minor television movies. He would only accept two or three days' work at a time, knowing now his own fragility, but he loved the gossipy life of a film set, catching up on the lives of those actors whose names he could still recall, and escaping (albeit briefly) Martin's dominant, craggy, reclusive demands at home. Theirs was not, as we shall see, a marriage made in heaven, and toward the end Martin was by no means an easy, or even a very suitable, partner for the older John. Still, there is no doubt that Hensler's death was the moment when John himself started to die.
He also became convinced that, although he still wanted to take every role that came his way (and indeed in the last few months of his life hired a new young agent, Paul Lyon Maris, on the retirement of his old friend Laurie Evans), he must avoid even the possibility of sudden death on the set. John became hilariously obsessed with the idea that, if he were to die in mid-shot, they would send for Michael Denison to replace him, and that was not precisely how Gielgud wished to have his seventy-year career come to an end. Sadly, Denison died a few months before him, but ironically enough it was his widow, Dulcie Gray, who alone took to visiting John almost daily when Martin was no longer around.
John left strict instructions that there was to be no memorial service, according to a pact he had once made with an old friend and colleague Emlyn Williams, and that even his funeral was to be held as privately as possible. His estate was eventually valued for probate in November 2000 at rather more than a million pounds, of which a large proportion would be accounted for by the sale of South Pavilion in Wotton Underwood, where John and Martin had lived for almost thirty years, having bought the magnificently theatrical property from the historian Sir Arthur Bryant.
A few days after his death, John's niece and principal heiress, the dancer and choreographer Maina Gielgud, talked about his last few months:
I had grown up with John and Martin, and although I know that many found Martin dour and difficult, I got on with him very well, and I knew how much John loved him, even though of course they often irritated each other tremendously. They were like an old married couple, mutually dependent, but also sometimes aching for their individual freedom. Martin was very eccentric, kept all kinds of exotic animals like iguanas in cages in the bathroom, and was obsessed by growing Bonzai trees which Uncle John kept tearing out of the soil in the belief that they were weeds.
But when Martin died, a terrible change came over Uncle John; he always thought he'd be the first to go, not surprisingly as he was twenty years older than Martin, and he began to complain about his ankle injury and a back or hip problem. He could barely walk without a stick, and his wonderful voice had faded to a kind of whisper. Sometimes he would rally and there would be an adventure, like going to see The Lion King, but he was still desperate to work and even his last role, in the Beckett play with Pinter, sadly was silent: "They won't let me have any lines" was the last thing he said to me, oblivious to the fact that the role had been written silent by Beckett.
Arthur John Gielgud was born April 14, 1904, at 7 Gledhow Gardens in South Kensington. He was the third of four children of a father, Frank Gielgud, who served almost fifty years on the London Stock Exchange, working for the family firm of Leonard Messel, who was himself the great-grandfather of the designer Oliver Messel. John's mother, Kate Terry Lewis, came from what was then the royal family of the British theater. Her father, Arthur Lewis, was a wealthy haberdasher who founded the Arts Club, and in Kate's childhood their circle included Oscar Wilde, the painters Watts and Millais, Lewis Carroll, and the artists John Tenniel and George du Maurier. Two dozen of her close relatives had all worked in the theater, and she herself had given up a promising stage career to marry Frank; it was always believed by her family that, had she stayed in the business, she would have become the most impressive actress of her Terry generation.
Their courtship had been surprisingly brief. Frank, a young widower, and Kate had met at one of the tennis parties that were then fashionable, and within a few weeks he had proposed to her at a charity ball. They married on July 18, 1892. Kate was six years younger than Frank, but far from being put off by his air of melancholy she rose to the challenge, determined to make him happy again. In due course he responded to her subtle but effective campaign to woo him away from his rather self-indulgent gloom, and the marriage went ahead, with the honeymoon being spent at a Thames-side inn at Streatley, and then in Scotland.
Kate's decision to opt for her own family life, rather than the theater in her blood, was heartily endorsed by a husband who, despite the fact that his great-grandparents had both been eminent Polish actors, now viewed stage life with considerable misgivings, especially as his many in-laws were later inclined to invade his Kensington home, bringing with them noisy histrionics when quiet evenings at the piano were what he usually craved after a tough day in the city.
Also resident at Gledhow Gardens when John was born were his two older brothers, Lewis, who was ten, and Val, who was four. At the time of his birth, his mother was thirty-five and his father forty-one; after the birth of the two elder boys, both were hoping for a daughter. They were disappointed on this occasion, but three years later, in 1907, their final attempt to produce a girl succeeded, when Eleanor was born.
The most reliable witness to John in these very early family years was his elder brother Val, later to become a distinguished BBC radio director and producer. Val always believed that their mother had regretted her decision to relinquish the theater in favor of her homemaker role, and his own recollections of life in those early Gledhow Gardens days tended to be on the darker side. His mother, he said, always hotly denied any kind of sacrifice, but somehow the family had a strong awareness of her emotional displacement. There was, as one critic was later to say of the Lloyd Webber household, rather more linoleum than carpet on the floors of their house, and hot water was at a premium, but in the fashion of the times there was still enough money to employ several maids and a cook.
One of the very few of Gielgud's contemporaries to live as long as the century, his beloved Gwen Ffrangcon-Davies, once noted that the relationship between John's parents was colored by his father's occasional "unkindness" toward his mother, as he fell sometimes out of sympathy with her histrionic nature. John himself was to recall his father as "very alarming when he was angry, and very charming at other times," and for Val he was "withdrawn, and consequently formidable." Their younger sister, Eleanor, who later became John's secretary and a tower of strength in his time of trouble, added, "We had a happy childhood, but it was very strict...we were all very frightened of Father; he never used force, but he could be very sarcastic. If you did something wrong, you always knew it."
The year of John's birth was also the year in which Bernard Shaw's Candida first opened, the year the early prototype of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (of which John was later to become president and then their first Fellow) was founded, the year Sybil Thorndike made her stage debut, and the year that the Royal Court was taken over by Harley Granville-Barker, who was to play a major role in John's later life.
It was also the year that J. M. Barrie's Peter Pan was born, and it is tempting to see the real-life Gielguds as a counterpart to the Darling family -- Bohemian, eccentric, sometimes short of ready cash, but always individually and collectively fascinating, precisely because they were an extraordinary family on an apparently very ordinary London street, with John as the perennially youthful, starry Peter and his father as the recalcitrant Mr. Darling.
Although the real-life Terrys were thoroughly rooted in what was then becoming, for the very first time, an almost respectable theatrical profession (Henry Irving had, after all, been knighted by Queen Victoria nine years before John was born), the Gielguds came of an altogether different background. Frank was Polish on both his paternal and maternal sides, but a generation or two further back, the Gielguds had emerged from a village in Lithuania that to this day still bears the family name, Gielgaudskis. For three hundred years, the family had lived in what is now a ruined castle beside the River Niemen. They were not, however, renowned for their brilliance; one forebear, General Anthony Gielgud, managed to get himself killed by one of his own soldiers during a Polish uprising against Russia in 1831, and another was killed by Napoleon's troops at the battle of Haynau.
Poland, constantly fought over, divided and reunited in ever more contentious ways, ceased to be a safe place to live and, finally, Frank's father decided that enough was enough. He fled to England and settled in Chelsea, finding work first as a schoolmaster and then as a clerk in the War Office. At the outbreak of World War I, for reasons known only to themselves, he and his wife moved back to Kraków, perhaps because being in the wrong place at the wrong time was an ongoing family tradition. This decision meant that although both survived the Great War, they somehow managed to have grandchildren fighting each other on opposite sides.
Back in South Kensington, none of this really mattered very much to the young John: "I was always supposed to be the delicate one of the family, because I enjoyed and exaggerated quite minor illnesses like measles, since they guaranteed me special food and added attention. I was the baby of the family until my sister was born, and Mother always spoiled me, particularly as I was inclined to be overly sensitive, and as a result I became as strong as a horse."
"John was always the fragile one of the boys," wrote his mother Kate plaintively, "and in the first years of his life he absorbed most of my time. I had to supervise his food continuously and, with several unlucky changes of nurses, he slept so badly that I often had to take charge of him at night lest he disturb Val too frequently....His first summer was an exceptionally fine one but the heat could be trying, and thunderstorms were frequent. In the course of one of these, with the thermometer up to 93 degrees, John terrified me by going into a dead faint as I lifted him into his cot for his morning rest. The doctor found that heat-stroke had affected his heart. He was on his back for several days in a dark room, wan and limp, and we had to carry him about for months afterwards."
Yet in her memoirs, published in 1953 after John had written his Early Stages, Kate refers surprisingly seldom to her youngest son, noting somewhat irritably that the reader should read the actor's own early memoirs, and concluding, "In my early days I was presented to strangers as Kate Terry's daughter; now other people meet 'the mother of John Gielgud.'"
Evidence points to Lewis being their mother's favorite son, which left John and Val always striving for her attention; unsurprisingly, they were both in later life to be the great achievers of their respective professions, theater and broadcasting, as if somehow they were always looking for the approval that Kate was never quite able to give them.
Val remembered that John was, from a very early age, determined to ally himself with his maternal Terry relatives rather than with the paternal Gielguds: "The Terrys lay all about us in our infancy...a toy playhouse, pillared and elaborately gilded, was the pride and joy of our nursery...but John was to owe his career to nothing but his own persistence. Our parents looked distinctly sideways at the stage as a means of livelihood, and when John showed some talent for drawing, our father spoke crisply of the advantages of an architect's office. One of our more managing aunts even extolled the Navy, saying that John would look very nice in the white tabs of a youthful cadet.
"What John possessed from the very beginning was singleness of heart and mind, together with a remarkable capacity for hard work. When he was not acting in the theater, going to the theater or talking about the theater, he was to all intents and purposes not living. All through his life, he was only to experience genuine happiness either on stage or in a dressing-room."
On the other hand, "If I had been a pure Terry," John said later, "my acting talents might have developed in a much more conventional way, especially as at first I never thought that my father's ancestry had any influence on my work. But now I realise that I've always had a tremendous feeling for Russian plays and ballets and music, and it may well be that my Eastern European background gave me a real understanding of Chekhov."
The year of John's birth was the year of the first productions of not only Peter Pan but (in Moscow) The Cherry Orchard, and it could be argued that these two plays neatly represented the twin poles of what came to be Gielgud's theater -- on the one hand a kind of magic sentimentality, and on the other a Russian regret for another type of never-never-land alienation. The year 1904 also saw the births of Graham Greene, Christopher Isherwood, George Balanchine, and Cecil Beaton, all of whose lives were at some point to cross John's.
John and Val shared a bedroom and a bed at the top of the house, and with all the authority of his four-year seniority, Val used to insist that John should get into the bed first, thereby making it nice and warm for him. Relations were not improved between the brothers when Val took to writing acid reviews of John's earliest childhood theatrical endeavors, centered on their toy theater, of which John took instant control. His early directorial efforts were usually dramatic epics starring Val's toy soldiers, despite his early-developed and strong distaste for all things military.
In Gledhow Gardens, where number seven is in fact on the corner of the Old Brompton Road, the young Gielguds led, as Marguerite Steen has noted in her writings about the Terrys:
a rarefied life, initially controlled by a German governess, a staff of servants, an elder brother at public school, and strict parental conventions....John was a nervous and neurotic little boy, brought up (at least to start with) in privileged conditions....Naturally he was also to become a conceited little boy, yet he never appeared to be spoiled -- he was far too serious for that....His grandmother Kate, his parents and aunts, knew everybody; so he grew up, not in the limited world of the theatre, but against a broad and impressive background of Important People. His parents were deeply and intellectually interested in the arts -- his father in music, his mother in theatre and literature. The Gielguds moved in a wide social circle of cultured friends, whose means kept pace with their tastes. There always seemed to be enough money, but above all there was always security....John was indubitably an artist, from the time he played with his first toy theater -- which to him was not a toy at all, but an intrinsic part of his childish life, and the foundation of his career. Later, he would often retire into a private world of books and music.
Christmas provided the annual opportunity for yet more family drama. Every year, on the feast day itself, Ellen Terry and her sister Marion would arrive for a family lunch and then encourage charades around the fireside, as John was later to recall:
Ellen was of course the great star of our family, and I fell madly in love with her the first time she ever came to our house. But she had led, to say the least, a somewhat irregular social and sexual life, and Mother always found her rather restless and fidgety. When I first saw her act, I realised that restlessness was part of her glory because although she was then an old lady, deaf and rather blind and very vague in mind, when she came onstage you really believed that she was either walking on the flagstones of Venice or in the fields of Windsor. I remember her so well, moving with extraordinary swiftness and grace, though of course Shaw said that she also had a genius for standing still. She was a pre-Raphaelite actress, and she had known all the great men of her time, from Browning and Ruskin to Rossetti and Wilde. And although she had learned so much from them, she also had a marvellous humility -- she was ready to learn from us children, and she had a wonderful sense of humour, which the rest of my family rather lacked. I think Marion and Fred and Kate all considered Ellen to be the scapegrace -- she was the one who had been received into all the great houses in England and America, despite having two illegitimate but enormously talented children [Edith and Edward Gordon Craig]. I have always believed that in my childhood I saw only three great actresses -- Sarah Bernhardt, Eleonora Duse, and my own Aunt Ellen. They were all old and infirm, but they could still stop the traffic and form queues right down Shaftesbury Avenue.
The Ellen Terry that John remembered had been born in 1847, herself also the child of a theatrical family. After a brief and unhappy marriage to the artist George Frederick Watts -- "He wanted a model, not a wife" -- she had joined Henry Irving's company at the Queen's in 1867, and within a year went to live with the married architect E. W. Godwin. This alliance led to her two remarkable children, and to a deeper relationship with them than any Ellen was to achieve in her three marriages.
At the Lyceum, from 1878 to 1900, she was Irving's Ophelia, Portia, Desdemona, Juliet, Beatrice, Viola, Cordelia, Imogen, and Lady Macbeth; in 1906 Bernard Shaw wrote for her the role of Lady Cicely in his Captain Brassbound's Conversion. In the years that John knew her, she was making a series of five silent films and also giving solo lectures on the heroines of Shakespeare, as well as returning intermittently to the stage. Because of her somewhat scandalous extramarital affairs, she had to wait until 1925 to be made a Dame, only the second actress to receive such an honor after the distinguished classical actress Genevieve Ward. Ironically, Irving had overcome the scandal of his marital breakdown to get the first theatrical knighthood; but this was still a time when women were expected to follow a higher moral code -- at least in public -- and although Ellen Terry was, before Peggy Ashcroft and after Mrs. Siddons, the dominant actress of her age, this elderly and much loved public figure remained, so far as her family was concerned, something of a black sheep.
But if, in John's early years, Ellen was the shining (albeit still somewhat distant) star of the family, there was no shortage of lesser players closer to home. Both John's parents had come from unorthodox backgrounds with strong European connections, and although on his father's side the relatives included a number of professional soldiers and a former chief justice of Lithuania, his mother could deliver at least five working Terrys, as well as Gordon and Edith Craig. Life in Gledhow Gardens was, therefore, never less than theatrical: one year, the boys' audience for their Christmas show even included G. K. Chesterton. A handwritten program survives for just one of the Gielguds' homemade entertainments, a play written by John himself, entitled The Nightingale and subtitled "A Set of China in Five Pieces from the Famous Fairy Tale of Hans Andersen." The many scenes and settings included: The Lake, The Palace, A Corridor, The Fisherman's Hut, and (most intriguingly) The Emperor's Bed. The cast list for The Nightingale included: Death, A Spiteful Geisha, The Voice of the Nightingale, and The Mother of the Fisherman.
Surprisingly, given all the theatricality around the house, it wasn't until he was seven that Gielgud was first taken to the theater. As for most London children, the play was Peter Pan, and it could well be argued that for this stagestruck child to get his first glimpse of real theater in a play about a strange, sexless boy forever trying to coerce his friends into joining him on a magical never-never island was an entirely fitting start for his life in the theater.
As John himself was later to recall:
I was thrilled by the first entrance of the Pirates, drawn on a kind of trolley with Hook enthroned at the centre of the group, and the sinister song that heralded them as they approached from behind the scenes. I loved Nana taking the socks in her mouth from the nursery fender. Was she a real St. Bernard, I wondered, or a man dressed up and walking on all fours? But I resented the wires on the children's backs, which I could see glittering in the blue limelight, and guessed that their night gowns had bunched-up material on the shoulders to hide the harnesses they had to wear underneath. And I wished the wallpaper at the top of the scenery didn't have to split open, as well as the tall windows, when the time came for them to fly away. The doors immediately fascinated me -- the one in Peter Pan, through which the little house rose slowly at the end of the play, with Peter and Wendy waving to the audience from its windows, and the one in Where the Rainbow Ends, which suddenly whisked the wicked aunt and uncle to the nether regions. And of course I loved the fights in both plays: Peter and Hook, St. George and the Dragon King, and the double scene above and below ground in Peter Pan, and the hollow tree with stairs inside it, with Hook in a green limelight, leaning over the low door at the bottom, leering at the children as they lay asleep.
For the young Gielgud, the most important place to be was already "the second star to the right," in the immortal line from Peter Pan, and to find that you had to keep straight on 'til morning. But there was already a curious contradiction at the heart of John's childhood. Whereas most of his great-aunts and uncles on the Terry side were deeply involved in theater, his own parents were really not at all enthusiastic about it, except in the abstract:
My mother talked about it a good deal, but my father was never keen on the gossipy side of theatre; he was a much more serious and intellectual character than my mother. He liked music very much and would take us to concerts on the very hard seats behind the organ at the Albert Hall, which gave me my appetite for music. He also took us to museums and galleries, which bored me rigid. I think you could say that my two brothers and young sister and I were intelligently brought up, but we were not encouraged ever to play games, because my parents had no interest in that -- neither did they swim, or ride, or shoot, or fish, so if we ever went away, it was always just to the seaside.
We had three or four servants, a nurse and a governess, although my father never made more than <2000 a year, but in those pre-war days of course that was all quite possible. I do remember, very clearly, the London of my early youth -- the straw thrown down outside houses to muffle the noise of horses when people were ill, and the muffin man with the green baize apron, and the coal-man who carried great sacks on his head, like Doolittle in Pygmalion, and would throw the coal down the manhole in front of your house with a terrible crash. In those days, the horses made far more noise than the cars which came later, and everything was for me a kind of excitement and an exhibition.
As soon as I was able to, I started exploring London on foot and fell totally in love with the West End, the marquees, the queues at the Stage Doors and the photographs in front of theaters, all very discreet, with none of the blaring advertisements and quotes from newspapers that you see today. How elegant and dignified it all was.
There followed other theater treats, mostly involving members of the Terry family, and among John's earliest memories were his cousin, Phyllis Neilson-Terry as Queen Elizabeth in Drake, which had real white horses onstage, and his uncle, Fred Terry, swashbuckling his way through Henry of Navarre. John was already completely obsessed by the theater and there was, from this time forward (despite a brief flirtation with architecture and stage design), to be no real career alternative.
But now, everything was about to change abruptly. In the autumn of 1912, when he was just eight, he was sent away by his parents to Hillside, a preparatory school near Godalming where both his elder brothers had been Head Boy. Aldous Huxley had also been a pupil there, as, in John's time, was the future playwright Ronald Mackenzie in whose work Gielgud was later to appear onstage.
The fraternal tradition was not at first one that John seemed likely to sustain. As he noted later, "It was an altogether ghastly place; a great deal of bullying went on, the Headmaster was far too old, and between lunch and the next morning's breakfast, all we ever got were three chunks of bread, thinly buttered, with a scraping of jam."
If John's early years had come straight out of The Forsyte Saga (which, when he read it a few years later, seemed to him to be an amazingly accurate account of his own family life), he now appeared to be moving rapidly into Tom Brown's Schooldays. But here, as so often in John's recollection, one has to allow for a certain theatrical exaggeration.
Most important of all, it was at Hillside that he first decided he really might like to be an actor, after giving a duly tearful Mock Turtle in Alice in Wonderland ("I sang 'Soup of the Evening' with increasing volume and shrillness in each verse"), followed by an equally successful Humpty Dumpty. At the same time that the acting first became important, he also discovered a strong talent for sketching. Every week, the boys of Hillside had to write compulsory letters home, and either because John did not want to betray his loneliness and unhappiness, or because he simply had very little to report, he took to filling the pages of his letters with ink and crayon drawings of the staff and fellow pupils.
John stayed at Hillside until almost the end of World War I. In these five years, he found that Divinity and English were the subjects he liked best, and he especially enjoyed singing in the choir at Sunday services, already working out how to make his voice louder and more identifiable. Gradually, life at Hillside ceased to seem so terrible. As his height and stage experience increased, he was entrusted with Shylock in The Merchant of Venice, a production that he also stage-managed, allowing him, for the first time, to incorporate some design ideas of his own. He was also able to send his mother an ink sketch of himself as Shylock, although there was at this time the very real feeling that art rather than drama would be his eventual career.
The year 1917, John's final year at Hillside, was surprisingly successful for the boy who had so hated being there. Although by his own admission "always a funk at games," he had managed to score in football, rugby, and cricket; but the real joy of these last few terms was when he was allowed to follow his brothers as Head Boy. This meant that at cricket matches he could appoint himself scorer, thus giving himself time to prepare for his last Hillside dramatic role as Mark Antony in Julius Caesar.
In this summer of 1917, Zeppelin raids were apt to interrupt the school curriculum with increasing regularity, though at first John was inclined to find them fascinating rather than frightening. When nearby Guildford was bombed, resulting in a lot of flying glass, he felt inspired to write a poem, which here makes its first appearance in print:
The Zeppelin Raid on Guildford
A. J. Gielgud
One fine evening (so 'twas said)
While we boys were all in bed
Zeppelins passed overhead
Out to show us "kultur"
Back to Germany went they
(They don't like the light of day)
Leaving bombs about this way
'Specially at Guildford
We, excited, rushing round
All believing every sound
"Martha's Chapel's on the ground"
said our music master.
This was not quite true, I fear
We the real truth did not hear
'Til the riders with a jeer,
Said; "It's standing happy"
On the Sunday there we went,
Tried to get some bomb, all bent,
But the Guildford men had sent
All their boys to get it.
Back to Hillside went we sad
Not a bit of bomb we had
But we saw some houses had
Had some bombs inside 'em
Back at Gledhow Gardens, as at so many other addresses, the long summer of the prewar world had been abruptly ended by telegrams bearing news of young men killed at the front. For the Gielgud family the bad news was of Lewis, who had been seriously wounded at the Battle of Loos. After several weeks in the hospital in Boulogne, it was suggested by the Red Cross that Kate herself should go out to nurse her son, and it was here that, like so many of John's female relatives, she really came into her own. While Frank stayed nervously at his desk in London, Kate became the life and soul of the Red Cross hospital where Lewis was forced to stay for several months. As soon as she could, Kate brought him home to England and Lewis was transferred to a small clinic for convalescent officers, which had just been opened in a wing of Kensington Palace. There, Kate noted proudly, his first visitors included two of his prewar Oxford contemporaries, the writer Aldous Huxley and the scientist J.B.S. Haldane.
A few months later still, Lewis was allowed to return home, classified "Permanently Disabled," although by the end of 1918 he was sufficiently recovered to be back in France as a cypher clerk at the signing of the Armistice. Lewis's war ended in a blaze of glory, as he was variously attached to the staffs of Clemenceau, Marechal Foch, and Field Marshal Lord Haig.
The atmosphere back home at Gledhow Gardens was rather less victorious; Frank was no longer having much success on the Stock Exchange, there were still school fees to be paid for the younger children, domestic staff had to be let go, and the house now seemed, like so many others, to be in mourning for its prewar life.
John, with all the single-minded selfishness of the adolescent, was meanwhile discovering a whole new world for himself, blithely ignorant of the fact that his parents' social universe was in some ways coming to an end. Whenever possible, on holidays or weekends, he would hang around Shaftesbury Avenue, greedily gobbling up every production for which he could afford a stool in the gallery queue. In these wartime years, he saw every kind of performance from Chu Chin Chow (no less than five times), to Peg o' My Heart. A year earlier he had also seen the Drury Lane gala celebration of the Shakespeare tercentenary, which brought together every star in the West End firmament, from Henry Ainley and Gerald du Maurier to Genevieve Ward and, from his own family, Ellen, Fred, and Marion Terry.
The Edwardian theatre of my boyhood was dominated by the great actor-managers like George Alexander, Beerbohm Tree and Gerald du Maurier. At the time, I accepted their style of acting completely, and I suppose I longed to be like them. I thought that was the way to act. I much preferred the panache of Fred Terry or Robert Loraine in Cyrano to the naturalistic but brilliant acting of Du Maurier or Charles Hawtrey...but I had no conception of the various methods necessary to achieve such fine results. Du Maurier often put on rubbish, just as Fred did -- they both catered to the public taste for sentimental dramatists like J. M. Barrie. Ibsen and Chekhov had only just arrived in translation, but they certainly weren't what most theatregoers then wanted. Actors in those days read very little, did not like to be taken too seriously, and had little faith in foreign writing. People were also still curiously snobbish about the theatre. My aunt Mabel was very close to Gerald du Maurier's brother Guy, who was killed in the First War, and I once asked her if she had been in love with him. "In love? With an actor?"
As World War I came to its close, the Gielguds' life in South Kensington was slipping into a kind of genteel poverty. Essentially, theirs had been an Edwardian household, and like so many of its kind, it had undergone during the war an almost imperceptible downgrading. The prewar seaside holidays and large family Christmas parties had of course come to an abrupt end in 1914, and as the four children began to move away, to go to war or public school, the house took on the faintly ghostly air of a theater just after the audience has gone home. Where before there had been servants and warmth and hospitality, now there was a general air of decay, ameliorated by Kate Gielgud's theatrical determination not to let any family problems show "from the front."
Because the family was now in considerable economic difficulty, it had been imperative for John to get a scholarship to his senior school. After he failed both Eton (to which Lewis had won a scholarship) and Rugby (where Val had enjoyed a similar triumph), the nearby Westminster School, though very much a third choice, proved willing to accept the young John on a fee-paying basis, but only after some tough coaching.
No sooner had he arrived, at the age of thirteen, for the September term of 1917, than John knew it was the place to be. More important, had he in fact gone to either Eton or Rugby, he would effectively have become a prisoner within the school grounds. Westminster by contrast, less than a mile away from his home or Shaftesbury Avenue, meant that the whole of central London could now become his playground.
Even so, John only survived a couple of terms as a weekly boarder at Grant's House before he was writing home in desperation to his mother: "Please, dearest Mama, let me become a day boy. All I feel inclined to do is either cry or shriek, and it is so awful trying to fight such unhappiness and homesickness. I feel vilely rotten. Woke up this morning with a deadly fear of getting up, the day, the house, the work, the play, the meals and then going to bed again. I shiver and shake and think and worry. It is all too beastly. One can't enjoy a moment."
Even allowing for schoolboy exaggeration and John's already highly developed sense of drama, this plea sounded ominously like a premature nervous breakdown, and John soon got his way, through an appeal not to his mother's rather unsentimental nature, but to her sense of the practical. Soon after her son's arrival at Westminster, the now almost nightly air raids would force the whole school to run through the cloisters into one of the oldest Abbey vaults.
By using these air raids and the consequent loss of sleep as an alibi, he persuaded his parents to recast him as a day boy, a move that also represented a considerable economic saving, which came in useful as his father was by now a special constable patrolling Chelsea and, specifically, guarding the Lot's Road power station while awaiting the "all-clear" signal. John also joined a Westminster Cadet group and, hating it deeply, was at least reassured to find that he looked and felt better in uniform than in the top hat and stiff collar that Westminster pupils were still required to wear.
What appealed to John about Westminster was not the education, which he could take or leave, and usually left, but the sheer sense of drama; as a young teenager, he began to experience his lifelong fascination with tombs and statues and weddings and funerals and memorial services, all of which had a theatricality utterly central to his character.
Like Noël Coward, whom he was to understudy and replace in his first West End engagement less than ten years later, John was now finding in religion a kind of musical theatricality, which much appealed to the showman already in his childhood nature. But where Coward had to content himself with appearances as a boy soprano in the suburban churches of Teddington and Battersea, John's stage was Westminster Abbey itself, where the school choir was often to be found in twice-daily performance, albeit without the applause that he already craved.
Of course, it was by no means clear at this stage that John was cut out to be any kind of an actor. His extramural interests at Westminster were still painting and architecture; at home, he set up an easel in what was now his own bedroom and soon paintings displaced the model theater. As he later wrote, "I have always had such a love of the pictorial side of theatre that the very first things in a production that really strike me are always the scenery and costumes. If they delight me, I am already halfway towards enjoying myself."
Although he was not to meet him for several more years, there is no doubt that by the time John was fifteen, the relative who most intrigued him was no longer Ellen Terry but her illegitimate son, Edward Gordon Craig, already perceived as a great and revolutionary stage designer.
While going through his temporary religious phase, John was unsure whether his Church of England background gave him enough emotional support. One possibility would have been High Church or even Roman Catholicism, and he often went to smell the incense at Brompton Oratory, just around the corner from Gledhow Gardens. What he was always searching for was a sense of ceremony and ritual, and one of the few things that made up for his hatred of the Westminster Cadet training was being allowed to play a very small part, as an usher's attendant, at the 1919 Burial of the Unknown Soldier in the Abbey itself.
At Westminster many of his friends were Jewish, and he became aware of their segregation at prayers and mealtimes. Mostly, he admired and felt comfortable with their almost theatrical openness and their unashamed love for the arts, an interest often either dormant or suppressed in more conventional English schoolboys. One of his best friends, Arnold Haskell, was already a fervent ballet addict, and he took John to see such classic events as the Bakst Sleeping Beauty and the dancing of great prima ballerinas like Karsavina, Lopokova, and Tchernicheva, all of whom were working in London in 1914 to 1918, during the war. This was also the heyday of the Ballets Russes at the Alhambra, and John was soon able to make the connection with his own partly Russian background: "Haskell, who of course became a leading ballet critic, and I used to save all our pocket money and, after school on wet Saturday afternoons we would stand for hours together in queues -- that first production of Boutique Fantasque, the exquisite blue backcloth for Carnaval, the enchanted tower in Thamar and the glory of Bakst's rococo palaces in The Sleeping Princess were all early ecstasies...."
Many years later Gielgud was to write of the first time he saw the Ballets Russes: "The entrancing mixture of music, mime and spectacle enraptured me immediately....For Boutique, the scenery was extremely avant-garde...I was able to appreciate the acting as well as the dancing, which seemed to merge together with incredibly skilful ease and grace....The elegance of Carnaval, the high spirits of Boutique...the savage dances in Prince Igor, as the music crashed out and the curtain fell to tumultuous applause."
For John G. this experience was not just an artistic revelation, but the rite of passage of another sort: "I left the theatre in a dream. Soon I was to become an aficionado of all the Diaghilev seasons that were to follow....Standing in the Promenade beside my father, and walking about with him in the intervals among the cigar smoke and clinking glasses in the bar, I felt I had really grown up at last."
The influence of the Ballets Russes was not restricted to just this stagestruck public schoolboy. Its explosive combination of the best of modern design, dance, and music had an enormous impact on the English cultural scene, inspiring a generation of ballet dancers, choreographers, and patrons, and appealing to a wider audience of artists and actors. The Edwardian age is now looked back on as a golden Eden, removed from the modern world; culturally, at least, it was, in large measure thanks to Diaghilev's extraordinary ability to conjure up new talent (particularly in the work of Vaslav Nijinsky, his lover and protégé and arguably the most famous male ballet dancer of all time), an age of enormous excitement and change, led not from Paris but from what was then St. Petersburg.
From now on, as a would-be artist and even as a theatergoer, John was to be constantly torn between the ornate grandeur of Diaghilev and the avant-garde minimalism of Gordon Craig. He was still by no means certain precisely what he was going to do with the rest of his life, but at this late teenage moment if you had asked him, the answer would certainly have been designing scenery rather than appearing in front of it:
I think at this time I was tempted by the idea of being a designer, at least partly because I was terrified of the thing I most wanted, which was to be an actor. At home and in school plays, I really hadn't got much further than wandering around with a rug draped over my shoulder, thinking I was a King or something. Years later, when my friends got bored of all my theatrical chat, they used to say, "Oh, for God's sake, put a crown on his head and send him on," which always mortified me, but I suppose was good for my ego.
I was always very vain, and very fond of my voice and my looks, so it took me years to break free and learn to be a real actor; at first, what frightened me was that I moved very badly. I have always hated sport, I played no games, I couldn't swim, I couldn't really do anything. Later, when I learned to drive a car, I even had to give that up because I was so clumsy. I've always dropped things, and it was only on stage that I eventually found my confidence; but I was still very conceited and rather effeminate, and much too fond of the sound of my own voice. It took me an amazingly long time to stop showing off, and start acting.
His lack of interest in sport was in strong contrast to his love of walking around London, and especially into the theater district: "These walks around theatreland allowed me to examine minutely all the photographs and bills outside the theatres, while I tried to decide which of them seemed most likely to encourage me to invest my pocket-money, and to savor the never-ending delight of standing in a queue for several hours waiting for the pit doors to open.
"I was still a boy, but lucky enough to have been born just in time to touch the fringe of the great nineteenth-century of theatre. I saw Sarah Bernhardt die in battle, I saw Adeline Genée dance, I heard Albert Chevalier sing 'My Old Dutch,' and I saw Vesta Tilley and Marie Lloyd in their last days. I also stood in the gallery, ridiculous and mocked in my Westminster school uniform, to see Duse make her farewell appearance in Ghosts...what impressed me most was the tremendous reception the audience gave her, their breathless silence during her performance, and the air of majestic weariness with which Duse seemed to accept it all. There was something poignant and ascetic about her when she was old and ill, quite different from the indomitable gallantry of the crippled Bernhardt, and the ageless beauty and fun that Ellen Terry still brought with her upon a stage."
1921 was John's last year at Westminster, and clearly decisions now had to be made. Lewis, after his wartime service and rehabilitation, had returned to win a scholarship to Magdalen College, Oxford, and Val had just gotten into Trinity. Visiting them there, John fell in love with both the city and the university, but he was still woefully unacademic. The problem, as usual, was his utter inability to cope with math, and despite some expensive private coaching, he humiliatingly failed his college entrance no less than three times.
Putting the bravest possible face on his failure, his mother Kate recalled, "John declined the university course we had planned for him. He declared that it would be a waste of his time and his father's money, as he wished to spend those three years studying for the stage....I think he always realised that he had my wholehearted backing. I was always certain that there was too much of the artist in him to let him settle down on an office stool, and though an architect's office was offered as a halfway concession, his very poor records at school in math and geometry did not hold out much promise in that direction."
Ironically, this left him in a rather stronger bargaining position with his reluctant parents, and they rapidly came to an understanding: John would apply to Lady Benson, who ran a private drama school close to his grandmother's house on Cromwell Road. If accepted, he would be allowed to train with her for the theater on the strict understanding that if, by the age of twenty-five, he had not become self-supporting, he would turn to a career in art or architecture.
Meanwhile, at Gledhow Gardens, the toy theater was put away in the attic for the very last time, and John was about to find a real one just around the corner.
Copyright © 2002 by Sheridan Morley