May 23, 2000
ironic, or just somehow inevitable, that Sir John Gielgud should die
on the birthday of Laurence Olivier? Thats Lord Olivier, life peer.
Gielgud was a knight, but Olivier, oerleaping him as usual, died a
Gielgud came from a famous acting
family on his mothers side, his great-aunt being the renowned
Ellen Terry. He ravished audiences with his beautiful voice and elegant
delivery of Shakespearean verse. He became legendary as Hamlet, Romeo,
Richard II, King Lear, Prospero (in The Tempest), Benedick
(in Much Ado about Nothing), and Angelo (in Measure
for Measure) roles he played many times in his long
Regrettably, Gielgud, unlike Olivier,
never played the great tragic roles on film. He did, however, record many
of them. Only a few years ago, well into his nineties, he recorded his last
Lear, his voice as brilliant as ever, his readings as subtle.
Growing up in Michigan, I felt
that I hadnt lived in London a generation earlier, when you could go
to the theater any night of the week and see Shakespeare performed by the
likes of Gielgud, Olivier, Ralph Richardson, Alec Guinness, Michael
Redgrave, Donald Wolfit, Edith Evans, Peggy Ashcroft, Paul Scofield,
Richard Burton, and Anthony Quayle. It seemed that England had an
inexhaustible supply of great actors. If I could have seen any one
Shakespearean performance in the twentieth century, it would be
I saw Gielgud in person only once. He
and Scofield starred in Ben Jonsons Volpone in 1977,
and I was in the audience. Asleep. Jet lag. I cursed myself even as I was
drowsing off. But at least I can boast that I was there. As I recall, the
conscious spectators were enjoying themselves very much.
In the 1930s, Olivier began to
overshadow Gielgud. He brought an exciting new style of acting, earthy and
athletic, to Shakespeare, and he made Gielguds quavery reading of
the verse seem old-fashioned. They once played together, alternating as
Romeo and Mercutio.
Gielgud was the Bards humble
servant, speaking the lines as he thought the playwright meant them to be
uttered; Olivier was more interested in making a splash, adopting what
then seemed bold new interpretations daring then, dated now.
When Olivier played Iago to Richardsons Othello, he embraced a
Freudian notion that Iago was a homosexual who secretly loved the Moor.
At the climax of the famous temptation scene, Richardson was badly
shaken when his Iago, without warning, kissed him on the lips. Olivier
similarly imposed an Oedipus complex on Prince Hamlet. (Freud has much
to answer for.)
Gielgud was content to play
Shakespeare straight, and he trusted both the Bard and the audience to
prefer fidelity to the text to modernizing nonsense about
subtexts. The handsome, dashing Olivier was the matinee
idol (doubling as a Hollywood star), but connoisseurs favored Gielgud.
Its a telling fact that in the Gielgud-Olivier rivalry, Alec Guinness,
a great and wise Shakespearean, was a firm Gielgud partisan.
In the early 1960s both Gielgud and
Olivier played Othello for the first time in their careers. Gielgud spoke the
verse with his usual music, but he was physically and vocally too light to
play the warrior credibly. Olivier lifted weights, deepened his voice, and
played the noble Moor as a wildly jealous African. It was a complete
misreading of the play, but it was electrifying. Gielgud and Olivier both
failed in the role, but Oliviers Othello was a hugely successful
The difference was that Olivier, even
at his most perverse, always knew how to thrill the groundlings. He was
the great demagogue of the theater, as Gielgud was its last aristocrat. For
all that, both enriched the stage. In a generous gesture typical of him,
Gielgud, after seeing Oliviers brilliant Richard III, presented him
with a sword that had belonged to the great Victorian Richard III, Sir
Henry Irving, the first actor to be knighted.
On one point the two supreme
Shakespeareans came to agree. In their later years, Gielgud and Olivier
reached the conclusion that the real author of the plays was Edward de
Vere, Earl of Oxford a view shared by Sir Derek Jacobi, now the
finest surviving Shakespearean actor.
Archive Table of Contents
The Shakespeare Library
Return to SOBRANS home page