When Gielgud came to Galesburg

by Bill Monson

In the fall of 1958, the great English actor Sir John Gielgud (1904-2000) was appearing in Chicago in his one-man touring production of ''The Ages of Man.''

Gielgud, perhaps better known today for his movies like ''Arthur'' and ''Julius Caesar,'' was in 1958 one of the two great stage Shakespeareans; Laurence Olivier was the other.

A grand-nephew of Ellen Terry, Gielgud made his first appearance onstage in 1921 and by the middle-thirties was a dominating force on the English stage. Olivier was more imposing physically and fared far better in roles like Othello and Richard the Third; but Gielgud's Romeo was better and his Hamlet was the one against which all actors would be measured. He was also an excellent director and often both directed and starred in productions at London's Old Vic Theater. In 1964, he directed Richard Burton in a famous production of ''Hamlet'' on Broadway.

Possessed of a voice with the beauty of a musical instrument, Gielgud was never surpassed as an interpreter of Shakespearean prose and poetry. The variety he could bring to a soliloquy or sonnet -- fortissimo, pianissimo, crescendo, diminuendo, volume, timber -- was incredible.

It was inevitable that one day he would build a selection of Shakespearean readings into a whole evening. Alone on a stage, he could spin a web of words to enthrall any audience.

Happily for Galesburg, someone at Knox decided it would be a good idea to engage him as a visiting artist for performances at the college. He did not perform Sundays in Chicago, so he was persuaded to come down on a morning train to deliver matinee and evening shows at the Knox Theater in Alumni Hall.

Dean and Helen Currie were in charge of his stay, and a room was procured for him at the Hotel Custer to rest and eat between performances. Happily for me, I was in town on my way west from OCS to Armed Forces Radio and Television Service in Hollywood. Dean and Helen invited me to meet the great man between shows.

After watching him work his artistry on a bare stage with only minimal lighting, black drapes and a gap of blue cyclorama behind, I was almost transfixed. Gielgud needed no props, no microphone, no fancy costumes. All he required was a little table with a glass and carafe of water. He wore a fashionable Saville Row suit, somewhat rumpled from his train ride. But he became Romeo and Hamlet and Prospero as that glorious voice of his dazzled us with its magic.

At the hotel afterward, he was still a bit pumped from the performance but he soon mellowed out over a drink and began to talk to the Curries and me about acting and directing. Instead of resting his voice, he delivered what amounted to a two-hour monologue on the finer points of acting, vocal delivery, and stories of actors and plays he'd been involved with. He listened to me read a Shakespearean passage, then gave me advice on vocal control and interpretation which I have used to advantage ever since. But his best advice was perhaps ''Believe in the words and believe in yourself.''

After a brief nap and a sandwich, he went back to the Knox Theater and gave another full house performance as fresh and exciting as the matinee before climbing aboard a late evening train back to Chicago.

Several hundred people from the Galesburg area heard one of the giants of the stage that day; but I'm grateful I got to meet personally the talented, warm human being that was John Gielgud.

Uploaded to The Zephyr Online June 6, 2001

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