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I JOHN GIELGUD The Glass ofFashion Because of his extensive and varied experience with Hamlet, John Gielgud owned the role of the prince in a way that no other twentieth -century actor could. As James Agate wrote of Gielgud's 1944 production , "Mr. Gielgud is now completely and authoritatively master of this tremendous part. He is, we feel, this generation's rightful tenant of this 'monstrous Gothic castle of a poem' ... I hold that this is, and is likely to remain, the best Hamlet of our time." 1 Gielgud played the role of Hamlet more than five hundred times in his long and distinguished career. He was one of the few modern actors who simultaneously performed in and directed himself as Hamlet. And in 1964 he was director of the play with yet another actor in the role, Richard Burton. Gielgud read a draft of this essay before publication, adding his own insights, information, and commentary. His chart below delineates the places and occasions where his performances of Hamlet and his directorial involvement with the play occurred: HAMLET l)irector/l)esi~n 1. Old Vic, London, 1929-30. Entirety and Harcourt Williams cut version. Production moved to Queens (Elizabethan dress) Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue, for short season. I 2. New Theatre (now the Albery), London, 1934. Then toured big provincial English cities. 3. Empire Theatre, New York, 1936-37. Moved to St. James's Theatre. Opened in Toronto, played also Rochester, Washington , Boston, Baltimore.2 4. Lyceum Theatre, London, 1939. Kronberg Castle (for one week), Elsinore; open-air performances in courtyard. 5. Tour of troop performances in the Far East, Karachi, Madras, Colombo, Rangoon , Singapore, Cairo, Delhi, 1944. 6. Haymarket Theatre, London, 1944-45. In repertory with Congreve's Love for Love, Midsummer Night's Dream, Webster 's Duchess ofMaifi" Maugham's The Circle. 7. Directed Burton in New York, 1964, Lunt-Fontanne Theatre. Also Toronto, Boston, Washington.3 John Gielgud (Durer-Cranach-Holbein design by Motley) Guthrie McClintic (Van Dyck design by Jo Mielziner) John Gielgud John Gielgud George Rylands, Cambridge Professor of English John Gielgud (Modern dress) Gielgud's view of the chief character, his mode of playing, and much of his stage business set the fashion for Hamlets in the decades to come. In discussing the acting of a scene in the 1936 production, Bernard Grebanier asserted: "Because of the great prestige of Gielgud's wonderful production, it has more or less become a tradition to play the scene . .. in the same way."4 In a 1988 television documentary titled "John Gielgud : An Actor's Life," the narrator said, "His memorable assumption of some roles has stamped an impression so deep that other actors have found it difficult to erase."s As a model for others, Gielgud cannot be overestimated. Here, indeed, was a definitive Hamlet. Gielgud came to the role steeped in its nuances and possessing an encyclopedic knowledge of past performances. A member of the famous theatrical family of Terrys, he "knew by heart the vivid description in 2 : John Gielgud Ellen Terry's memoirs of how Irving played it."6 But when asked if he had modeled his performance after anyone, he replied, No, I didn't. I thought I had. I thought I would copy all the actors I'd ever seen, in turn, and by then I'd seen about a dozen or fifteen Hamlets [including H. B. Irving (Sir Henry's son), Ernest Milton, Henry Baynton, Arthur Phillips, Colin Keith-Johnston, and John Barrymore].? Of course, [the elder, Sir Henry] Irving was my god, although I'd never seen him.... I didn't try to copy, I only took note of all the things he'd done and looked at the pictures of him and so on. But when it came to the Vic, the play moved so fast and there was so much of it that I suddenly felt, "Well, I've just got to be myself," and I really played it absolutely straight as far as I could. Of course, I was fortunate in that ... Hamlet had never been allowed to be given to a very young actor until I played it. It was the kind of prize that an actor, when he went into management at the age of forty or fifty, H. B. Irving, for instance ... allowed himself.8 Gielgud seldom borrowed performance ideas from other actors for his Hamlet and only rarely from what he knew of Irving. He knew what other actors had done because...


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