John Gielgud: Prince of the Theatre

John Gielgud, photographed by Carl Van Vechten

John Gielgud: The Prince of the Theatre


     John Gielgud came into my life through the generosity of Marian Seldes, who made a phone call to the man she called her prince of the theatre, asking him to take the time to speak to me about Tennessee Williams, Irene Worth, Jessica Tandy, literature, the world--whatever happened to come up.

     The first phone call took place in 1991, when Gielgud was in his late eighties, but he was happily and giddily busy--acting, writing, being interviewed, seeing things. "I have managed," he told me, "to end up with the most extraordinary repository of memories, and the happiest of dispositions. I would never have imagined myself in this position."

     Gielgud was open and direct about all things that came up in conversation, and he was also curious and argumentative: One had to not only make a clear point with Gielgud; one also had to defend it mightily, down to the last detail. There was never any anger in these conversations, and he could easily admit when he was wrong or confused or enlightened.
   The conversations, more than a dozen, yielded so much that has been valuable in the composition of Follies of God, but there remained many comments of his  that could not find their way into the manuscript. I think they warrant an audience, and so, on April 14,  his birthday, which I used to celebrate with both Marian Seldes and Irene Worth, I share his words with you.

Judith Anderson and John Gielgud, performing in Hamlet

I wanted always to act; in fact, I cannot recall a time when that was not my dream. I was lucky to be surrounded by friends and relatives who worked in and loved the theatre; I was unlucky in that their standards were so remarkably high and their criticism so pointed and exacting. Nonetheless, they made me aim higher than my talents might have allowed; they made me a strong and smart worker in the theatre, and I am now so grateful for the dreams and the demands that were allowed to live inside of me and take me where I wanted to be.

One is determined by the choices one makes--in all things. The choice of friends; the choice of parts or jobs; the choosing of one's location in the world or one's own mind and heart. These are the important decisions of life, and, ironically, so much of what happens to actors is entirely out of their control. One needs to have exacting standards, but one also needs to make a living and gain experience. What to do? Sacrifices are made; poor choices begin to define you; the career suffers. I don't know how to tell young actors to proceed or to persevere, but there is, I suppose, a metabolism of success, a personal commitment to integrity and good work, and one either has these things, or they do not. You can generally tell when working with someone. For so many the desire is simply to be successful, loved, famous, seen. This is catastrophic but common. These particular actors are never satisfied because there is no amount of attention or success available to fill the recesses their narcissism has built: they are horrible to work with because they do not see you, or the characters being played--merely the latest personal opportunity to do well for themselves.

This is terribly common, as I am sure you can imagine.

Avoid these people and the situations they create. I believed--and I still believe--that if you craft a life for yourself that is devoted to the right intentions and the right motives, you will enjoy a life that will enrich and sustain you. This is where I am now, and I am not about to say that I didn't make mistakes or abandon my standards or my friends, but I learned well and quickly, I think, and this is because of the circle of people surrounding me. I chose them; they chose me. We kept each other, loved each other. We did well.

There is very little else for which you can hope. 

One gains a purer concept of love as one grows older. I think of love and friendship and affection now and I compare it to the sensation of that first day with spectacles, when you put the lenses to your eyes and suddenly you could see the outline of leaves in trees, or the precise contours of a friend's face. This what happens with everything in your life as you burn away so much foolishness--you see things terribly clearly, and it is not dour at all: It is very liberating and lovely. There is nothing so extraordinary as deep friendship, having as a foundation an unconditional love. Whether or not it becomes or has been romantic, it is what keeps us able, I believe, to do whatever we must. The words in plays or novels mean more when you can sense the contours of a friend within them, or when you can share them and talk about them.

Let the primary results you seek be an accumulation of love and friendship and a circle, a family, to whom you can be devoted. Everything else will come. 

I love that Rosary that Tennessee gave you, and the alteration of the beads, substituting religious miracles for the human miracles who sustained him and helped him to dream or to believe. I do something similar, but I am not as tied to a particular regime. I meditate upon the memories of so many remarkable people, and I can lose myself for hours and days recalling the act of growing as an actor, as a man, as a friend. You can actually feel yourself loving something or someone. I hope you realize this. I hope you have experienced this. It is a remarkable feeling; perhaps the greatest feeling we can have or remember.

I sound very treacly, I imagine, but it's all about loving the right things. I'm old and I have made some mistakes that you can either avoid or make with the understanding that you'll end up realizing the same thing I did. 

I would like for this to happen for you.

I didn't enjoy getting older, but I think I acclimated myself to it. I'm fortunate in that I possess or I have developed an ability to find the great lesson or great advantage in most situations, and even as I lost my mental acuity or my flexibility or what Tennessee calls his glandular strength, I could also see that I had burned away, like pounds of unhealthy fat, so many illusions and resentments. You find your blessings if you look for them: They have to be sought, discovered, noted, appreciated, and used.

I have turned into an old seer.

No one on the planet has ever appreciated himself in his age or his time. It is sweet now to look at photographs of myself and realize that I wasn't all that bad-looking or awkward, and you dream of being that age again, but I think it is a required passage through which we must all struggle, and I think we are only supposed to appreciate our achievements in the past tense. I don't think it all that inappropriate to say, in my eighties, that I was doing particularly well in my thirties, but it would have been insufferable at the time.

Surviving gives one the right, I guess, to look back and be pleased, satisfied, amused.

I am very grateful. I have been very lucky, and I have loved and I have been loved. It's a good life.


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