Sir (Arthur) John Gielgud



  • (1904 - 2000) British actor and director, noted especiallyfor his interpretations of Shakespeare. Gielgud's noble presence onthe stage prompted Olivier to describe him as "alwaysthe poet, head upturned towards the stars". At RADA, however,he had been criticized for walking like "a cat with rickets".He was knighted in 1953 and appointed OM in 1997.

    Gielgud's mother was the daughter of the actress Kate Terry-Lewisand a niece of Ellen Terry (see Terry family). Hewas taken to the theater from an early age and soon became stage-struck.He made his debut in 1921 as the herald in Henry V, havingthe one line "Here is the number of the slaughter'd French."In 1924 he joined the repertory company at the Oxford Playhouse andfive years later moved to the Old Vic, taking a large salary cut inreturn for the chance to play Shakespeare. His great Shakespeareanroles included Romeo, Macbeth, and especially Hamlet, which he wouldplay more than 500 times in his career. In 1934 his performance ofthe part at Wyndham's Theatre inspired Sybil Thorndike to describehis interpretation as "hauntingly beautiful". When Olivierplayed the part in 1937, Gielgud went backstage and said, "Larry,it's one of the finest performances I have ever seen, but it's stillmy part."

    During World War II Gielgud entertained the troops in Malta,Gibraltar, and Burma with plays by Noël Coward and others. Afterthe war he developed as a director, presenting works ranging fromTennessee Williams's The Glass Menagerie (1948) to Berlioz'sopera The Trojans (1957). In 1949 his production of ChristopherFry's The Lady's Not For Burning ran for 294 performancesat the Globe, during which time Gielgud directed four other plays.Between 1956 and 1964, he successfully took his one-man Shakespeareananthology, The Ages of Man, around the world. His roles incontemporary British plays included the headmaster in Alan Bennett'sForty Years On (1968), Harry in David Storey's Home(1970), and the depressed poet, Spooner, in Pinter's No Man's Land(1975). He also appeared in numerous films, usually in supporting roles;in 1981 he won an Oscar (at the age of 77) for his performance as asupercilious valet in the comedy Arthur.

    A potentially scandalous incident from Gielgud's private life - in 1953 he was arrested for "importuning for immoral purposes"in a gents' lavatory - forms the basis for Nicholas de Jongh's 2008play Plague Over England.

    I have three besetting sins, both on and off the stage; impetuosity,self-consciousness, and a lack of interest in anything not immediatelyconcerned with myself or with the theater.
    Sir John Gielgud: Early Stages