Backward Glances – John Gielgud 1989 (Distinguished Company 1972)
John Gielgud reflects on …
The year 1936 when I played Hamlet at the Empire Theatre in New York for Guthrie McClintic (with Lillian Gish, Judith Anderson, and Arthur Byron) was, of course, one of the most exciting of my life, though I was placed in a somewhat embarrassing position when Leslie Howard appeared during the same season in his own production and with a number of English players in his cast. (Malcolm Keen and Harry Andrews who played the King and Horatio respectively were the only English actors in mine.)
Howard had announced that he had decided not to put on the play before I had agreed to come over in the spring of that year, but later changed his mind, and I was upset at having to compete with a fellow countryman whom I did not know but greatly admired, and who was also an internationally popular film star. The reviews for my performance were encouraging but not wholly enthusiastic, and I was expecting a run of not more than a few weeks. When Howard opened, however, a few weeks later, and was poorly received, our performances began to sell out almost immediately. The press tried to persuade us to meet and give interviews about one another, but we stuck to our own guns and behaved with as much dignity as possible. Still, the Battle of the Hamlets was quite a popular topic in the city for several months. Beatrice Lillie played in a sketch about us in a revue, and even the taxi drivers used to ask which of the Hamlets I was when I directed them to the stage door of the Empire.
The abdication of the Duke of Windsor, which happened at the same time, helped to fascinate the New York public with England and Royalty, everyone arguing and taking sides. I have been lucky enough, through my work in the theatre, to meet four American Presidents. Lillian Gish took me to see President and Mrs Roosevelt at the White House, and I met Truman, Johnson, and Kennedy on different occasions when they came to see plays that I was appearing in. During the Hamlet run I did not keep a diary, and find it hard to remember the many fascinating and illustrious visitors who were kind enough to come round to see me.
But two amusing incidents have always remained with me. One night, when I was very tired at the end of two performances, Maria Ouspenskaya, an elderly Russian actress, was announced. I had greatly admired her in films, particularly Dodsworth and The Rains Came, and she had recently been acting in the theatre in New York in a Greek tragedy, though I had not been fortunate enough to see it. She came into the dressing-room, a formidable and striking personality with a long cigarette holder in her hand, looking very distinguished and escorted by an elegant young man who leaned gracefully against the wall behind her. ‘Oh, Madame Ouspenskaya,’ I burst out, gathering my dressing gown about me and wondering if I ought to kiss her hand, ‘I am so sorry to think you were in front tonight. I was dreadfully tired and I know I played so badly!’ On which Madame nodded her head twice in profound approval, turned around, and left the room without a word.
On another evening, Judith Anderson brought in a friend of hers to see me, a Swedish Countess beautifully bejewelled and dressed. She seemed greatly moved by the performance and, as she was leaving, murmured, ‘I would like to give you something in remembrance of this great experience,’ and, putting out her hand, began to take off a most beautiful square cut emerald ring that she was wearing. I nervously began to put out my own hand, but, just as I did so, she hastily drew her ring back on to her finger and made a graceful exit. I thought I must have imagined the whole episode, but Judith Anderson assured me afterwards that it was perfectly true.
The generosity of the leading players in America has always charmed me. When I opened in Hamlet I received telegrams of good wishes from a number of stars whom I had never even met, and on the last night, Helen Hayes, who was playing Victoria Regina so brilliantly at the Broadhurst Theatre just opposite, sent over a tray, with a bottle of champagne and glasses, saying how sorry she was that I was leaving this neighbourhood.
I have the happiest memories of the Players Club, the courtesy of its late presidents, Walter Hampden, Howard Lindsay, and Dennis King, and the dinners given there for me, and on other occasions for Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, and for Howard Lindsay just before his death. I was given a degree a few years ago at Brandeis University in Massachusetts and made a freeman of the City of Philadelphia, and I need hardly say that I have always found America, and Hollywood too – on the few occasions I have worked there – to be immensely kind and encouraging. I shall always look on that country as my second home, where I have made so many delightful friends among my fellow players and the audiences for whom I have played.