Backward Glances by John Gielgud - review by Christine Eccles

Christine Eccles

How Pleasant to Know the Old Rip

Backward Glances


Hodder & Stoughton 204pp £12.95

Reading these reminiscences one can’t help admiring Sir John Gielgud for still being so stage-struck after all these years. A glittering pageant of hugely individual personalities process across the pages. Gielgud just cannot believe his luck to have met them all. ‘I was lucky enough…’ is his constant refrain.

Gielgud was lucky enough to see Sybil Thorndike on the opening night of St Joan; to hear Sir Johnstone Forbes-Robertson perform a soliloquy from Hamlet during one of his celebrated lectures; to meet four American Presidents; to see the three great actresses – Bernhardt, Duse and his great aunt, Ellen Terry; to appear in a play by Pinter and to work under James Hackett. Conversely, Gielgud was not lucky enough to sec either Lucien Guitry in Pasteur or Haidée Wright in The Unknown he was not lucky enough to have acted with Gertrude Lawrence.

This conversational collection of articles, memoirs and anecdotes partly a reprint of an earlier collection brought out in 1971. Some of this material was then recycled for his An Actor and His Time, a 1979 publication based on radio broadcasts made the year before. But no matter. It is always a joy to come across the story about Esmé Percy’s false eye and a fresh pleasure to read about the false teeth that Edith Evans and Gladys Cooper had to assume for Enid Bagnold’s The Chalk Garden – ‘they handled the episode with remarkable grace and tact’.

Grace and tact characterise Gielgud’s saunter down memory lane, a more viable thoroughfare for him these days than Shaftesbury Avenue. For him the past is still hot gossip and the immediacy his writing is one of its many delights. He conjured up all the glamour of that vanished world ruled by preposterous egos, arcane customs and confidential camaraderie. Oh to have been lucky enough to have seen Mrs Pat Campbell stealing the young Gielgud’s dying moments in Ghosts – ‘“Oswald, Oswald!” she moaned’ lying prone across his lap, obviously resenting the fact that Ibsen had consigned the final words to him, ‘“Keep down for the call,”’ she whispered furiously, ‘“This play is worse than having a confinement.”’

Gielgud revels in the minutiae and trivia of stage life. He compares the distinctive curtain calls of leading players. He recalls the civilised ceremony of an Edwardian tea party and hopes to see it reproduced in some revival. He sketches deft cameos of the supporting as well as the starring characters and is so immersed in his recollections that his prose takes on a strong period flavour. Writing of Willie Clarkson, wig maker and inveterate First Night-er he comments, ‘He was certainly an amusing old rip!’ Ah! Willie Clarkson! They don’t make amusing old rips like him anymore. They don’t make amusing old rips at all.

And though Gielgud mourns the passing of ‘muffs and fans (alas, Lady Windermere) the elbow length gloves and card-cases’ and regrets that ‘no longer can one see a witty actress dabbing her nose with a tiny handkerchief trimmed with lace’, he is astute enough to know that on the whole, with the exception of the dressing rooms at the Barbican or at the National, things have got very much better. A West End First Night may once have been a splendid social occasion but frequently the play was appallingly under-rehearsed; ‘The prompter’s voice was often very much in evidence, and lighting, scene changes, and stage management were apt to go awry.’

The real loss that emerges is the sense of genuine popularity that the theatre then enjoyed; a popularity that embraced both the classics and ‘Chu Chin Chow’. Indeed Shakespeare was so popular that the 19 year old Gielgud playing opposite Gwen Ffrangcon-Davies performed the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet at the Coliseum sandwiched in a bill between the Houston sisters and Teddy Brown, a 20-stone xylophone-playing giant. ‘I suppose I feel a bit jealous of the panoply of the modern Shakespeare set-up in England’ says Gielgud describing the excitement of working at the Old Vic in productions that cost no more than £15 and ran for as little as thirteen nights.

And he is right to feel jealous. It is always the rough popular theatre that saves the day and stagestruck though he is, Gielgud has no time for sophisticated sham. There is a particularly telling moment when Gielgud and the elderly Lady Cunard go by taxi in the blackout to see an experimental production directed by another 19 year old making his debut. It is the young Peter Brook who, poised to sweep away all the Edwardian shibboleths and snobberies and to challenge all the sacred cows, more than anyone established the panoply of the modern Shakespeare set-up in England – but did it by going back to the popular source.

There is something about this moment which unites three generations sacrificing comfort for danger, and demonstrates that the history of theatre is a living, vital, self renewing act; that theatre is a handcrafted knock-about art produced in collaboration and passed on through generations. We are the ones who are lucky enough to have Gielgud’s wit and wisdom to remind us of this shining arc.

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