John Gielgud: The Authorized Biography

by Sheridan Morley

Sir John Gielgud, one of the greatest classical actors in the
history of the theater, is probably best remembered by American
audiences for his role as Hobson, Dudley Moore's butler in
Arthur. A sad commentary on our cultural proclivities, as
Gielgud played every major male character in Shakespeare's
repertoire. His signature role was Prospero, the mysterious
protagonist of The Tempest. But, according to author
Sheridan Morley, "If, at the end of almost a century, John Gielgud
is to be remembered for any single achievement, it would surely
have to be the way in which he redefined and recreated the resident
classical repertory company."

Gielgud was recognized as one of a famous foursome of British
actors that included Ralph Richardson, Alec Guinness, and Laurence
Olivier, with whom he endured a particularly intense love/hate
relationship, which the author describes in great detail.

That Gielgud's career spanned more than seven decades is an
indication of his popularity and devotion to his art. Besides the
stage and cinema, he also appeared on radio and television and
wrote frequent book reviews on the theater. As a man of many
talents --- actor, writer, director --- he had the occasional
run-in with those less skilled. His temper and sarcasm could be
biting, but often this anger and frustration was a temporary
setback, forgotten by the next rehearsal.

Morley spends an inordinate amount of time reporting Gielgud's
homosexuality, as if his sexuality defined the actor. A watershed
moment in his life, and one that is recorded in painstaking depth,
involves his arrest for soliciting in 1953, a time when deviance
from established sexual mores was less tolerated. While he never
denied this aspect of his identity, Gielgud always tried to
maintain a sense of discretion and was mortified over this faux

Like many actors of his generation, Gielgud eschewed film work. In
the early days of talkies, he wrote of his unease on the set, with
all the "...early rising, the long endless days of spasmodic work,"
and how he hated to be "patted and slapped and curled and painted,
while I lie supine and helpless in the make-up equivalent of a
dentist's chair." But by the 1960s, he realized that "if he was
ever going to make any real money he would have to cease turning
his back on the world of film, and it was at this time that he
instructed his pick up any movie offers within reason
that were to come his way."

As can be expected in a book of this nature, there are plenty of
testimonials from fellow actors and those who looked up to Sir John
as a mentor, including Anthony Quayle, Noel Coward, and Dudley
Moore, who would help Gielgud's career in the twilight years.

Morley, the drama critic of the London Spectator and
International Herald Tribune, has also written the
biographies of such entertainers as Noel Coward, Katherine Hepburn,
Marlene Dietrich, Elizabeth Taylor, David Niven, and his father
Robert Morley. He has attempted to write the definitive biography
of another legendary figure, but the result seems superficial,
devoid of a sufficient accounting of personal information, though
that is not totally the writer's fault. It may have more to do with
Gielgud's admitted lack of interests outside the theater. Politics
and world affairs held no interest for him. His life revolved
around the theater and theater people, for which many of his fans
are grateful. His single-mindedness to perfect his craft, the
self-imposed isolation, the cocoon that he built around himself ---
which he regretted in the sunset of his years --- brought
entertainment to millions over the course of several

Reviewed by Ron Kaplan (mailto:( on January 22, 2011

John Gielgud: The Authorized Biography
by Sheridan Morley

  • Publication Date: March 5, 2002
  • Genres: Biography, Nonfiction
  • Hardcover: 528 pages
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster
  • ISBN-10: 0743222423
  • ISBN-13: 9780743222426