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All his world a stage

3 April 2004

12:00 AM

3 April 2004

12:00 AM

Gielgud’s Letters edited by Richard Mangan

Weidenfeld & Nicolson, pp.564, 20

As in the theatre, so in his letters: John Gielgud was a man of many parts, and acutely aware of his audience for all of them. In this comprehensive volume of 800 letters spanning nearly 90 years, we see the great actor in a range of roles: loving son, wicked gossip, star actor, indecisive director, anguished lover, brilliant anecdotist.

Some parts he plays with style, others with affectionate wit, yet others with sympathy, courage or blazing honesty. One of the many attractions of this absorbing and deliciously entertaining book is Gielgud’s capacity for self-criticism. He was by his own admission vain, impulsive, often selfish, totally impractical in ordinary life, and quite oblivious to the world outside the theatre. ‘You know how blinkered I sail through life,’ he reminds one actress friend.

Yet it is precisely his obsession with the theatre that makes this book historically valuable. Gielgud stood centre stage in the English theatre for half a century, working as actor or director (and often both at once) in some of the finest and most influential productions of the day. His detailed, witty and sometimes despairing accounts of working with figures as diverse as Edith Evans, No


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