Gielgud, Sir John

Gielgud, Sir John
▪ 2001

      British actor, producer, and director (b. April 14, 1904, London, Eng.—d. May 21, 2000, near Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire, Eng.), was widely regarded as one of the modern era's finest interpreters of Shakespeare's verse and was renowned for his elegant bearing and for the unsurpassed artistry of his exquisite speaking voice. Along with his contemporaries and frequent costars Ralph Richardson and Laurence Olivier, Gielgud defined Shakespearean acting in the 20th century. The grandnephew of noted British actress Ellen Terry, Gielgud studied at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and made his stage debut in 1921. He was 25 when he first appeared in Hamlet (1929) at the Old Vic. Critic James Agate singled out Gielgud's performance as the melancholy prince as “the high water mark of English Shakespearean acting in our time.” Speaking some of Shakespeare's most beautiful verse as Richard II in his own production of Gordon Daviot's Richard of Bordeaux (1933), Gielgud established himself as a West End star. He alternated with Olivier in the roles of Romeo and Mercutio in a celebrated 1935 production of Romeo and Juliet; played Lear, Prospero, and Benedick among other Shakespearean parts; performed in classics by Oscar Wilde and Anton Chekhov; and worked as Noël Coward's understudy (an experience he later credited with improving his comic timing). From 1959 he toured extensively with his acclaimed one-man show, Ages of Man, in which he performed passages from Shakespeare. He spent much of the 1960s directing, including a 1964 staging of Hamlet, starring Richard Burton, and Hugh Wheeler's comedy Big Fish, Little Fish, for which he won a Tony Award as best director in 1961. Gielgud eventually tackled modern theatre, appearing in Edward Albee's Tiny Alice (1964) and opposite Richardson in David Storey's Home (1970) and Harold Pinter's No Man's Land (1975). Gielgud's motion picture career began in 1925 and included acclaimed turns as Cassius in Julius Caesar (1953), Clarence in Olivier's Richard III (1955), and Henry IV in Orson Welles's Chimes at Midnight (1966). After receiving an Academy Award nomination for Becket (1964), Gielgud won an Oscar for best supporting actor for his hilarious portrayal of the supercilious butler in Arthur (1981). Another comic gem was his performance in the television adaptation of Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited (1982). Gielgud published two autobiographies, Early Stages (1939) and An Actor and His Time (1979), and two collections of essays, Stage Directions (1963) and Distinguished Company (1972). His final stage appearance was in Hugh Whitemore's Best of Friends in 1988. Three years later he captured his portrayal of Prospero in his last major film, Prospero's Books. Gielgud's final performance was in David Mamet's screen version of Samuel Beckett's Catastrophe a month before his death. Gielgud was knighted in 1953, made a Companion of Honour in 1977, and named to the Order of Merit in 1996.

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▪ British actor and director
in full  Sir Arthur John Gielgud 
born April 14, 1904, London, Eng.
died May 21, 2000, near Aylesbury
   English actor, producer, and director, who is considered one of the greatest performers of his generation on stage and screen, particularly as a Shakespearean actor (Shakespeare, William). He was knighted in 1953 for services to the theatre. (Click here to hear Gielgud reading from “A Midsummer Night's Dream”—> and “The Tempest”—>.)

      Gielgud was the grandnephew of the celebrated English actress Ellen Terry (Terry, Ellen). He was educated at Westminster School and at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, London, and made his acting debut in 1921 at the Old Vic Theatre, London, later playing Romeo at the Regent Theatre, London, in 1924. He made his first American appearance in New York City in 1928. After affiliations with the Oxford Playhouse, he joined the Old Vic company, for which his performance in 1929 as Hamlet established his reputation as one of England's most promising actors. A series of impressive Shakespearean performances followed. His greatest early success was probably as Richard II in the play by that name, which he also directed.

      An actor of considerable versatility with a superbly controlled speaking voice, Gielgud performed in such diverse plays as Richard Brinsley Sheridan's School for Scandal, Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest, Anton Chekhov's The Seagull, Graham Greene's The Potting Shed, and Edward Albee's Tiny Alice. He directed the repertory seasons of 1937–38 at the Queen's Theatre, London, and of 1944–45 at the Haymarket Theatre, London.

  Ill at ease with the new English drama of the late 1950s, Gielgud appeared chiefly in classical revivals and in a solo recital of passages from Shakespeare, Ages of Man (1959), touring with this production throughout much of the world. In later years, however, he was acclaimed for his performances in such contemporary plays as David Storey's Home (1970) and Charles Wood's Veterans (1972). He also made many television appearances and was featured in numerous films, including Murder on the Orient Express (1974) and Arthur (1981), for which he received an Academy Award for best supporting actor. His last major film role was in Prospero's Books (1991), based on Shakespeare's The Tempest. He also directed for the stage.

      Gielgud's writings include his autobiography Early Stages (1938; rev. ed., 1976); Stage Directions (1963), a collection of speeches and essays; Distinguished Company (1972), detailing some of his “youthful enthusiasms” for stars of stage and screen; an amply illustrated memoir, Gielgud: An Actor and His Time, with John Mills and John Powell (1980); and Shakespeare: Hit or Miss? (1991; also published as Acting Shakespeare, 1992), with John Miller, reminiscences and observations on his Shakespeare acting and directing.

Additional Reading
Ronald Hayman, John Gielgud (1971), is a biography. The tribute by Gyles Brandreth, John Gielgud: A Celebration, rev. ed. (1994), is especially useful for its many illustrations.

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Universalium. 2010.

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