IF JOHN GIELGUD had not made his career as an actor J and director, he might have been a writer, for his eye and ear took in everything so clearly that when he describes plays, people and events the reader is immediately there with him. The earliest letter here is a note to his mother in 1912, before he was eight, telling her that 'Aunt Nell' (Ellen Terry) is coming to Brighton to lecture on Shakespeare's Women. The last - written when he was ninety-five, dying, and rather sad - is to one of his closest friends, the American academic George Pitcher; in it he affirms, 'I think of the past with nostalgia and, as ever, much affection.' In between, Gielgud became one of the greatest figures in twentieth-century theatre, and enjoyed life with a zest that came from remarkable energy and an unswerving belief in the theatre, not just as a profession or art, but as an essential part of humanity. Maybe that sounds pretentious, but Gielgud never is.
Less than a third of the book is taken up with letters written before 1950. Of these, many are to his mother and the rest to colleagues, famous and forgotten, including Lillian Gish (Gielgud's Ophelia on Broadway in 1936), NOB Coward, Alec Guinness and Michael Ayrton, who designed Gielgud's wartime