‘A Great Idol of Mine’ Sir John Gielgud and the Irving influence by Frances Hughes

In the 1950s Eleanor Farjeon saw John Gielgud play Benedick in Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing five times. In her youth she had seen Henry Irving and Ellen Terry act in the same play at the Lyceum but she wrote about Gielgud ‘s performance,

‘The upshot is – and I confess it with the greatest reluctance –
Henry Irving is the second – best Benedick I have ever seen.’

Henry Irving    How proud John Gielgud must have been to read those words. Gielgud said that from his boyhood, ‘lrving was a great idol of mine’. He based many of his earliest Shakespearean performances at the Old Vic in the seasons 1929 – 1930 on what he had read of Irving and his interpretations. Gielgud never saw his hero act; Henry Irving died in Bradford when the baby ’Jack ‘ was only eighteen months old but Irving was a close friend of his family.

    Five of Gielgud’s immediate relations had acted with Irving -his maternal grandmother Kate, his great aunts Ellen, Marian and Florence and his great uncle, Fred. Gielgud ‘s mother, Kate Terry Gielgud, as a young woman, knew Henry Irving and one of her most cherished possessions was a photograph of the young HI, possibly taken in Manchester. His hair is long and curling on his collar. He has inscribed it My dear Katie, ever your affectionate friend, Henry Irving.

    In her delightful autobiography published by Max Reinhardt in 1953 to coincide with her son‘s knighthood, she writes of Irving the actor and Irving the family friend. These were the stories that were part of the young Gielgud‘s child-hood. His mother describes how Irving visited the Scottish cottage, ‘Divach’ near Inverness owned by her mother and father Mr. and Mrs. Arthur Lewis. (Kate Terry gave up the stage to marry the Conduit Street silk merchant.) The cottage had low ceilings and Irving‘s height made stooping essential as he went through the doors. He relished scones and jam for tea and fresh fruit and vegetables at dinner but preferred sitting in the garden with the sound of a nearby waterfall in his ears, to playing tennis. Katie Lewis as she was then, the eldest of four daughters, was impressed by Irving‘s generosity and love of his profession. He endured an eighteen miles drive in a wagonette to Inverness and a repeat eighteen miles return in the dark to be present when Edward Compton ‘s Comedy Company put on The School For Scandal. His appearance was advertised on the bills in order to ensure a full house and the Lewis family accompanied him, watching the play from two boxes and being given programmes especially printed on pink satin for the occasion. Afterwards, before the journey back, Irving paid for a supper at the hotel for the whole company. One year he joined the Lewis family on Christmas Day, much to the delight of the four schoolgirl daughters, sitting drinking wine and smoking cigars whilst Kate Lewis (nee Terry) sang songs and ballads and retold Scottish legends. In June 1890 Gielgud’s mother spent three nights at the Duke of Sutherland’s house, Trentham, when HI and Ellen Terry and Edie Craig were also guests. The whole house party travelled in covered shooting brakes to Hanley where Irving gave a reading of Macbeth.

    Kate Terry Gielgud had first seen Irving on stage in 1879 at the Lyceum in The Merchant of Venice from the corner seat in the box that was on a level with the stage. From that moment she was in thrall to the theatre and it was this love that she passed to her third son, Arthur John, always known in the family as Jack. She describes Irving’s Shylock with his black, greasy and unkempt ringlets straggling over the edge of his shabby gabardine. He was ‘cunning and craven until suddenly swept into a frenzy of despair -and as suddenly of pathos.’

    From 1879 she saw every Lyceum production that had Irving and Ellen Terry in the cast. She could recall to her last days Irving’s tone as he said ‘Fare-well’ to his wife and children in W.G. Wills’ Charles I and she saw Wills’ Olivia seventeen times. The scenes between Irving as Dr. Primrose and her aunt Ellen as his daughter, Olivia, always made her weep but then as Sir John knew all the Terrys had weak lachrymal glands.

    In Macbeth she would recall Irving’s first entrance with the huge sword over his shoulder and the swift lift of his head at the witches’ ‘All hails Macbeth.’ When her son came to play the same part at the Old Vic in 1929/30 he based his interpretation of the role on his mother’s memories and Bernard Partridge’s drawing of HI. Copying Irving, the twenty five year old Gielgud carried a sheathed sword on his shoulder but then faced the dilemma of how to lose such a burden. At the dress rehearsal he decided to drop it at Banquo’s words,

‘Good Sir, why do you start and seem to fear
Things that do sound so fair?’

    Gielgud pored over the reviews of Irving’s playing and he found the most illuminating phrase came in Ellen Terry’s autobiography when she described her partner in greatness as looking like ‘a great, grey famished wolf.

    John Gielgud left no one in doubt as to his hero worship of Henry Irving. When he was at school at Westminster he had obtained from a Verger in the Abbey, after the anniversary commemoration of Irving’s death, a black edged card written in Ellen Terry’s unmistakable hand, ‘Rosemary for remembrance’. At Constance Benson’s drama school when Lady Benson described his walk as that of a cat with rickets the dismayed adolescent read as many books as he could describing Irving’s dragging leg and circumscribed movements to reassure himself. By September 1922 his cousin, Phyllis Neilson-Terry, daughter of Fred, had offered him a tiny part and the job of A.S.M. in a fifteen week regional tour of a play by J.B. Fagan called The Wheel. Gielgud was immensely excited when he knew that it was to open in Bradford where Irving had died in October 1905, a mere seventeen years before. He believed it must be a romantic city! He was quickly disillusioned and wrote home to his parents already displaying that unconscious outspokenness that was to lead to many ‘Gielgud gaffes‘.

‘No wonder Irving died here, poor man, (the locals are) dull
and heavy like the sheep whose wool they mangle.’

    Much more to his liking was when Leslie Faber, whom Gielgud admired and respected took him to the Garrick Club. They met Allan Aynesworth and Gielgud asked nothing more than to sit and listen to stories of ‘the Old Man’. Gielgud’s favourite was the probably apocryphal story of HI sitting in front of the fire at the Garrick one winter evening with the night’s return from his son Laurence‘s play Peter the Great in his hand, muttering despondently, “Henry Irving! Ellen Terry! Lyceum Theatre! Twenty five pounds!”

    Gielgud’s passion for the theatre of the past continued throughout his life. When he went to a party at the Apollo Theatre after the first night of Terence Rattigan’s Flare Path, Gielgud was found sifting beside Lady Oxford better known as Margot Asquith, who was ‘mournfully chatting of HI.’

    Gielgud began to direct in the early Thirties but he already had vast playgoing experience. In 1922, aged eighteen, he went to the London theatre sixty five times. The next year he went to seventy-two plays and in 1924, as well as being in steady stage work, he saw fifty straight plays, revues and musicals. When he came to direct Romeo and Juliet for OUDS and then directed it again in 1935 at the New Theatre with Peggy Ashcroft and Edith Evans from the Oxford cast joined by Olivier and Gielgud alternating as Romeo and Mercutio, he turned back to family memories of Irving ‘s production at the Lyceum. Gielgud was not a true reactionary and one of his famous directorial sayings was ‘If it‘s different it‘s better but he respected the past. This was especially true in his youth. He wrote one word on his programme after seeing Colin Keith Johnson’s ‘plus fours Hamlet at the Kingsway Theatre in 1925 – UNspeakable (sic). He could not accept Sir Barry Jackson‘s interpretation of the play. (However, being a practical man of the theatre later in 1925 when offered the chance he played Rosencrantz in the same production at the Royal Court for two performances!)

    Directing Romeo and Juliet he contemplated Irving’s cuts — no ‘cords scene’ and no last scene after the death of the lovers. Though he did not make the same excisions he read of the tableau with four ‘tag’ lines and Ellen Terry‘s description, “Everybody on stage held a torch and the effect was magnificent” and decided to emulate it. In his talks with his designers, the Motleys, he persuaded them to use a similar stage effect.

    Of course, his Great Uncle Fred had acted in several of the original Lyceum productions and before his death he was happy to tell his great nephew of things past. When Gielgud admired his Sir Peter in The School for Scandal especially a moment in the screen scene Fred waved his hand and said, “Ah, that’s Coghlan‘s business”. Another source for Lyceum stories was the painter, Graham Robertson. Gielgud visited him often in his studios in Campden Hill and Argyle Road, Kensington and also at his home, Sandhills near Witley. It was Robertson who had gone as a young man to Boscastle on holiday with Henry Irving and who was a faithful friend of Ellen Terry until her death in 1928. In his splendid autobiography Time Was Graham Robertson relives the time when he had free access backstage at the Lyceum.

    John Gielgud saw Ellen Terry act several times and was given by her an annotated Shakespeare and some of Gordon Craig’s books. At the Gielgud home in Gledhow Gardens, South Kensington, one Christmas Ellen Terry appeared and said to the young boy, “Well Jack, do you read your Shakespeare?” He was able at eleven years old to reply in the affirmative. His last visit to her was just before her death when he went to Smallhythe and saw and talked with her surrounded by many souvenirs and remembrances of Henry Irving.

   Gielgud had two favourite sayings relating to Irving. He was very amused when Bernard Shaw said of Gordon Craig, “He never forgave his mother that Irving was not his father” and he relished Mrs. Aria’s supposed remark to a young actress “In all matters pertaining to Sir Henry I am believed to be considered the past mistress”.

    When the Irving Society was founded in 1996 there was no doubt in the Chairman and Hon. Secretary mind as to who would be our first Patron. Sir John Gielgud had already followed in Sir Henry Irving’s footsteps as President of the Shakespeare Reading Society, Irving having been the first President on its founding in 1875.

    Now the actor who was in the great tradition honoured us with his acceptance of Patron of the new Irving Society. His death in May marks the end of a great era but Sir John through his writings and interviews as well as his acting has left us with tangible remembrances of Henry Irving. Sir John knew his own worth but always sought to improve. His emulation of his acknowledged master had a major influence on a career that spanned nine decades.

    John Gielgud left the Old Vic Company in 1931 and as a parting gift Harcourt Williams gave him a glove that Henry Irving had worn as Benedick. The spirit of HI, I am sure, influenced those never to be forgotten performances of Gielgud’s as Benedick in the early fifties with three different Beatrices -Diana Wynyard, Peggy Ashcroft and Margaret Leighton. I believe Eleanor Farjeon’s judgment was right. The admirer of Irving had become the master and the great actor of the Twentieth Century to whom his profession and his public owed an enormous debt.

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