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The Rivals

May 23, 2000

Was it ironic, or just somehow inevitable, that Sir John Gielgud should die on the birthday of Laurence Olivier? That’s Lord Olivier, life peer. Gielgud was a knight, but Olivier, o’erleaping him as usual, died a baron.

Gielgud came from a famous acting family on his mother’s side, his great-aunt being the renowned Ellen Terry. He ravished audiences with his beautiful voice and elegant delivery of Shakespearean verse. He became legendary as Hamlet, Romeo, Richard II, King Lear, Prospero (in The Tempest), Benedick (in Much Ado about Nothing), and Angelo (in Measure for Measure) — roles he played many times in his long career.

Regrettably, Gielgud, unlike Olivier, never played the great tragic roles on film. He did, however, record many of them. Only a few years ago, well into his nineties, he recorded his last Lear, his voice as brilliant as ever, his readings as subtle.

[Breaker quote: Gielgud 
and Olivier]Growing up in Michigan, I felt cheated that I hadn’t lived in London a generation earlier, when you could go to the theater any night of the week and see Shakespeare performed by the likes of Gielgud, Olivier, Ralph Richardson, Alec Guinness, Michael Redgrave, Donald Wolfit, Edith Evans, Peggy Ashcroft, Paul Scofield, Richard Burton, and Anthony Quayle. It seemed that England had an inexhaustible supply of great actors. If I could have seen any one Shakespearean performance in the twentieth century, it would be Richardson’s Falstaff.

I saw Gielgud in person only once. He and Scofield starred in Ben Jonson’s Volpone in 1977, and I was in the audience. Asleep. Jet lag. I cursed myself even as I was drowsing off. But at least I can boast that I was there. As I recall, the conscious spectators were enjoying themselves very much.

In the 1930s, Olivier began to overshadow Gielgud. He brought an exciting new style of acting, earthy and athletic, to Shakespeare, and he made Gielgud’s quavery reading of the verse seem old-fashioned. They once played together, alternating as Romeo and Mercutio.

Gielgud was the Bard’s humble servant, speaking the lines as he thought the playwright meant them to be uttered; Olivier was more interested in making a splash, adopting what then seemed bold new interpretations — daring then, dated now. When Olivier played Iago to Richardson’s Othello, he embraced a Freudian notion that Iago was a homosexual who secretly loved the Moor. At the climax of the famous temptation scene, Richardson was badly shaken when his Iago, without warning, kissed him on the lips. Olivier similarly imposed an Oedipus complex on Prince Hamlet. (Freud has much to answer for.)

Gielgud was content to play Shakespeare straight, and he trusted both the Bard and the audience to prefer fidelity to the text to modernizing nonsense about “subtexts.” The handsome, dashing Olivier was the matinee idol (doubling as a Hollywood star), but connoisseurs favored Gielgud. It’s a telling fact that in the Gielgud-Olivier rivalry, Alec Guinness, a great and wise Shakespearean, was a firm Gielgud partisan.

In the early 1960s both Gielgud and Olivier played Othello for the first time in their careers. Gielgud spoke the verse with his usual music, but he was physically and vocally too light to play the warrior credibly. Olivier lifted weights, deepened his voice, and played the noble Moor as a wildly jealous African. It was a complete misreading of the play, but it was electrifying. Gielgud and Olivier both failed in the role, but Olivier’s Othello was a hugely successful failure.

The difference was that Olivier, even at his most perverse, always knew how to thrill the groundlings. He was the great demagogue of the theater, as Gielgud was its last aristocrat. For all that, both enriched the stage. In a generous gesture typical of him, Gielgud, after seeing Olivier’s brilliant Richard III, presented him with a sword that had belonged to the great Victorian Richard III, Sir Henry Irving, the first actor to be knighted.

On one point the two supreme Shakespeareans came to agree. In their later years, Gielgud and Olivier reached the conclusion that the real author of the plays was Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford — a view shared by Sir Derek Jacobi, now the finest surviving Shakespearean actor.

Joseph Sobran

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