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 Sir John and Miss Redgrave 

July 6, 2006 
[Originally published by the Universal Press Syndicate, December 29, 1994]
paragraph indentMany discerning critics rate Sir John Gielgud the greatest Shakespearean actor of the twentieth century. He was never a heartthrob, and for most of his career he was overshadowed by the handsome, thrilling Laurence Olivier, who was not only a great actor but a movie star too. But nobody has ever spoken Shakespeare more beautifully and intelligently than Today's column is "Sir John and Miss Redgrave" -- Read Joe's columns the day he writes them.Sir John, and we can be grateful that he has recorded such legendary performances as his Hamlet, his Richard II, and now, on a BBC Radio audiotape, his King Lear.

paragraph indentAt 90, Sir John is still active. Even more wonderful, both his matchless voice and the mind that guides it are still in peak form. He hasn’t played Lear since 1955 (he thinks his best Lear was the one he did in 1940!). His new performance as the magnificently foolish monarch is supported by a remarkable cast: Kenneth Branagh, Judi Dench, Derek Jacobi, Bob Hoskins, Emma Thompson. Such an assemblage of talent in lesser roles tells you what his profession thinks of him.

paragraph indentWe are lucky indeed that modern technology makes so many great artists available to us. Few Americans could have seen such great Shakespeareans as David Garrick and Edmund Kean when they lived; posterity can only guess what they looked and sounded like.

paragraph indentBut suppose Sir John had been cut off from us in another way. What if he had expressed political views that caused the Christian Right to oppose him, and he had been forced to cancel performances of Lear or Hamlet in this country? You can imagine the uproar in the media. The network news would have made it a cause célèbre: Sir John’s face would have appeared on the covers of the newsmagazines; we’d have had a great to-do about censorship, the First Amendment, artistic freedom, and the threat posed to all of us by religious fanatics who want to decide what everyone else can read and watch.

paragraph indentAfterward, the case would have been referred to for years as the martyrdom of a great artist, like the cases of the Hollywood Ten, Charlie Chaplin, and Ingrid Bergman.

[Breaker quote for Sir John and Miss Redgrave: What if the Christian Right had kept Gielgud off American stages?]paragraph indentIn fact, though, it couldn’t happen. The Christian Right simply isn’t that powerful. If it were, the media wouldn’t dare to portray it as negatively as they do.

paragraph indentBut there is a parallel case in the real world. One of the greatest actresses alive is Vanessa Redgrave, scion of one of England’s foremost theatrical families. I first encountered her in recordings of Shakespeare thirty years ago. She was already a brilliant performer on the British stage. Soon afterward her beauty and talent made her a film star. All the while, she also made minor waves with her passionate Trotskyist politics, her mildly scandalous personal life, and — uh-oh! — her denunciations of the Israeli treatment of Palestinians.

paragraph indentMiss Redgrave has faced the kind of pressures I have just described — but not from the Christian Right. A profile of her in the New York Times puts it with the utmost delicacy and syntactic obliquity: ”It has been her fervent anti-Zionism that has done the most to keep her off American stages.”

paragraph indentWhat does that mean? In the case I imagined, would the Times have reported blandly that ”Sir John’s un-Christian views have kept him off American stages?” No, it would have said plainly that the Christian Right had forced the cancellation of his Lear in America. There would have been no shyness about identifying the malefactors.

paragraph indentBut in Miss Redgrave’s case, we are not really told who has stopped the rest of us from seeing her in person all these years. It is made to sound as if she did it herself, with no help from a certain potent pressure group. There are no thunderous editorials about artistic freedom, no cover stories, no give-me- liberty-or-give-me-death posturings from the Sam Donaldsons. Miss Redgrave doesn’t qualify for victimhood. Neither do those who might have wanted to watch her perform.

paragraph indentHer story is in large part a scandal of media cowardice. Her story, in fact, has not been told, except in hints. Maybe one day the media will look back on their treatment of this gifted actress with the shame it merits.

Joseph Sobran

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