Gielgud, Welles, Baxter: Call Down the Corridors of Time!

I didn’t want it to end. The Shakespeare Society’s¹ John Gielgud memorial tribute was such an amazing evening I wanted it to go on longer.

I wish John Gielgud had gone on longer. One of the speakers reported that he died, at 96, while he was still in the middle of working, filming some David Mamet–Harold Pinter dramatic collaboration. While he’s most known as a man of the theater, Gielgud came late in life-despite the jealous warnings of his great rival, Laurence Olivier-to love film work. Well into his 90’s, he kept popping up for memorable moments on screen. He played the Pope in Elizabeth a couple of years ago. He did a silent cameo as a beleaguered Priam in the Player King’s “dream of passion” in Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet. Better still, he played the ghost in Mr. Branagh’s earlier, better radio version of Hamlet a few years before that.

The ghost, of course, was the role Shakespeare himself is said by tradition to have played, and it’s hard to imagine any ghost since Shakespeare as chilling and plaintive as Gielgud. None so haunting as when the ghost of the murdered king cries out, “O Hamlet, what a falling off was there.…” And none so bitter and vengeful when he spits out: “Lust, though to a radiant angel linked, / Will sate itself in a celestial bed / And prey on garbage.”

I’d been getting deeper into Gielgud’s work for several years now-I guess ever since I bought my own tape of Chimes at Midnight, which I re-run obsessively, awed by every quavering utterance of his Henry IV. And then I’d come upon the amazing 1994 BBC radio recording of Gielgud’s Lear, made when he was 90-his last take on the great role, the culmination of a lifetime’s learning about Shakespeare’s language and the ages of man.

And then there was Gielgud as director. Now that I’ve got his staging of Richard Burton’s 1964 Hamlet on tape at home (albeit in the primitive “Electronovision” version, Electronovision being a supposedly revolutionary development in recording theatrical performances for movie-theater release). In my limited but not negligible experience, it’s the best Hamlet I’ve seen. I can play it over and over again; it transcends Electronovision and, I’ll bet, any Hamlet you’ve seen. (Hume Cronyn, who played Polonius beautifully in this version, made a memorable appearance at the Shakespeare Society’s Gielgud tribute.)

Still, one thing you generally lose when Gielgud directs is his voice. Someone once called it the most beautiful voice in the 20th century. (The only rival to my mind might be Rickie Lee Jones on Flying Cowboys-but that could be love talking.)

There’s nothing like that voice, which perhaps can best be heard on that magnificent final Lear. So it was interesting that, in all the encomiums and anecdotes at the Gielgud tribute-and there were some great ones2-few, if any, spoke specifically about that voice (maybe because among an audience of Shakespeareans, it was taken for granted). The emphasis was on how transformative Gielgud had been in theater-how there would be no Royal Shakespeare Company, no National Theatre, had he not pioneered the modern repertory company. And of course, there were reminiscences of his famous and hilarious “inadvertent” insults, which, after hearing a whole evening’s worth, sounded brilliantly advertent, if that’s a word (it should be). I think he only feigned the fogginess that masked the malice. But there were also tributes to his generosity from actors and playwrights who’d worked

with him.

But what is it about that voice? It’s many things, but one thing is that thrilling rhythmic quaver, a quaver that turns each extended phoneme into dark music. That quaver, in fact, can be seen as the intersection, the transition point between two styles of Shakespearean acting.

Recently I listened to a fascinating recording that reproduced-albeit in a sonic cloud of scratch and static-extremely early recordings of late Victorian Shakespeareans, actors such as Henry Irving, Herbert Beerbohm Tree, Ellen Terry, even Edwin Booth. All except Booth were emoting in what had become an operatic (at best) and stilted and encrusted (at worst) oratorical style. But they all carried the power to infuse their voices with that rhythmical ululation, a primal pattern of sound that carried the sound. Listening to it at the Lincoln Center Performing Arts annex, it occurred to me that this pulsing wave form that bore along the particles of speech in a way replicated the rhythms of the iambic pentameter verse. It was the pentameter beneath the pentameter, and the best of the old Shakespearean actors played with it, played with synchronic and diachronic ways of manipulation to serve the emotion expressed.

That quaver is a genetic legacy as well. Gielgud was the great nephew of Ellen Terry and the inheritor, in a way, of the cumulative artistry of three centuries of Shakespearean actors.

There’s a scholarly article I came across recently that argues there is “an unbroken chain of Hamlets” from Richard Burbage, who played it under Shakespeare’s eyes, to the generations of succeeding Hamlets, each of which saw the previous generation’s Hamlet. So that when Olivier played Hamlet, his take on it represented an incorporation-even if by selective rejection-of all the Hamlets that preceded him. Thus, Gielgud’s Hamlet was the link between the Ellen Terry generation of Shakespeareans and Olivier and his modern successors.

Gielgud was an avatar of all that history, but he was also, crucially, a transition to the best of contemporary acting. A number of speakers at the tribute mentioned the powerful influence of his performance as Angelo in Measure for Measure back in 1950 as a breakthrough, a turning point in Shakespearean acting, bringing a Brando-like tormented psychological realism to the role of the sexually repressed (and sexually obsessed) Viennese deputy. But he never left that classical quaver behind; he disciplined it to bring the pulse of poetry to the prose of naturalism.

And we might not have had much of a record of that at all if Gielgud had listened to his insanely jealous rival, Laurence Olivier. That was one of the revelations in my conversation, a couple of days after the Gielgud tribute, with one of the featured speakers, Keith Baxter.

Mr. Baxter played a unique and pivotal role in the history of Shakespearean performance, the role of Prince Hal in Orson Welles’ Chimes at Midnight-not only the heir torn between the throne and the tavern, between the powerful personalities of Bolingbroke and Falstaff, but also the performer torn between Gielgud and Welles, two of the most powerful actors of the age.

One could do worse things in life than to spend it watching Chimes at Midnight over and over again. I’ve done that a lot lately. Each time one sees it the film grows, the performances deepen; it becomes more sophisticated and more primal, one of the great intersections of film and theater, perhaps the greatest Shakespearean film of all.

And then there’s that scene in the very middle of Chimes at Midnight after the horrific battle of Shrewsbury, that amazing scene when the three of them-Gielgud, Welles and Baxter-face each other over the body of the slain Hotspur.

There’s no indication in the text (which Welles rejiggered) that the three of them exchange glances, but it’s one of those moments in which Welles’ genius as Shakespearean and his genius as filmmaker came together to capture and express the implicit emotional dynamic between the three in a way I’ve never seen on stage.

“Orson gave me almost no direction,” Mr. Baxter told me when we met the morning of his flight back to London, at the townhouse where he was staying.

“But the one thing he did tell me was that this is essentially a love story, a love triangle-a boy torn between two fathers, two father figures.”

And in fact, in life Gielgud and Welles were in some ways father figures to Mr. Baxter; they’d both crucially fostered his career as a Shakespearean actor.

Mr. Baxter was a Welsh lad who had come to London to study at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, but felt no special calling to do Shakespeare until he saw Gielgud play Leontes in The Winter’s Tale. Mr. Baxter found himself stunned by Gielgud’s ability to take some of the knottiest, some of the most twisted and involuted language in all Shakespeare and deliver it with a casual, offhand eloquence.

Getting cast by Welles as Hal was another turning point in Mr. Baxter’s life. He’s gone on to play many of the major Shakespearean roles, including Hamlet and Mark Antony (his favorite-he played Antony four times, once opposite Judi Dench’s Cleopatra).

He feels he owes it all to playing Hal between Welles and Gielgud. And, by the way, he’s a terrific Hal; you can see the future Antony he loves in his Hal. Like Antony, Hal is torn between two worlds, between the realm of the sensual and the realm of the sensible. Mr. Baxter’s Hal was also torn between two actors, two titans who represented different realms as well: Gielgud a man of the theater, Welles who’d gone from theater to film. And each, says Mr. Baxter, in awe of the other.

“When I would be driving to the set with Orson, he’d tell me, ‘I’m sure John sees me as a terrible fraud and mountebank.’ And then when I was driving with John, he’d say, ‘I’m sure Orson considers me a terrible old ham.'” For his part, Mr. Baxter says, he was in awe of them both, an awe that fed into his role as Hal, the prince caught between two powerful charismatic figures, two conflicting father figures. It was an awe, he says, that made the rejection scene at the close of Chimes at Midnight so deeply moving.

You know the rejection scene at the close of the Second Part of Henry IV, right? Falstaff has roused himself from the fleecing of Justice Shallow (an amazing version of the greedy, credulous and yet somehow charming old geezer, played by Alan Webb) in order to race off to the court when he hears that King Henry IV has died and that his old partner in crime and carousing, Prince Hal, is about to be crowned king. Dragging the credulous Shallow with him, drunk with the foretaste of the spoils of the realm he thinks he’ll share, Falstaff barges into the solemn, chanting coronation procession and cries out to the new king, “God save thee, my sweet boy!”

Hal, now King Henry V, soon to be conqueror of France at Agincourt, stops his fat friend dead in his tracks with “I know thee not old man.…”

And then delivers a stunning, stinging, bitter and sweeping condemnation of his onetime misleader:

I know thee not old man: fall to thy prayers;

How ill white hairs become a fool and jester!

I have long dream’d of such a kind of man,

So surfeit-swell’d, so old, and so

profane,

But being awake I do despise my dream….

It goes on, and it gets worse-cruel, cold, cutting. It’s a stunning moment, and as played by Mr. Baxter and Welles in Chimes, it becomes not just one of the great moments in the history of Shakespearean performance, but one of the great moments in the history of cinema as well. (There are those who argue that, as Wellesian cinema, Chimes at Midnight is superior to Citizen Kane.)

Mr. Baxter told me a fascinating story about the way that scene was shot, how it typified the on-the-run, on-the-lam, catch-as-catch-can way Chimes at Midnight was filmed. The way the 1965 production had to be shut down repeatedly, as Welles ran out of money and had to con new sets of producers to finance him. How one of the cons involved Welles convincing a set of money men that he’d be shooting a (more commercially viable) remake of Treasure Island simultaneously with Chimes at Midnight. With Falstaff’s tavern doubling as the Admiral Benbow Inn. How Welles raced across Spain to do a camera setup for Treasure Island to keep the con going. And then there was the time Welles had to skip town to escape a couple of Americans he thought were pursuers from the I.R.S.-but who, it later turned out, were just American journalists in trench coats.

The rejection scene itself was filmed on the run in three parts. Hal on horseback was filmed in Andorra, the coronation procession in Alcazar. “Then,” Mr. Baxter said, “the money ran out, but Orson forbade me to go back to England. He let me go to Morocco, but I had to go every day to the American Express and see if we were starting up, and word finally came that Orson had found a church somewhere in the Pyrénées to shoot the rejection speech.”

Despite the haphazard desperation-or because of it-it’s an utterly, profoundly heartbreaking scene. An almost cosmically heartbreaking sight, to see Falstaff’s stricken countenance as the reality of Hal’s rejection sinks in and Falstaff sinks to his knees. Welles was the first to bring the power of the full-screen close-up to Shakespearean acting; some, like Peter Brook, have argued that the film close-up frees Shakespearean actors from the need to rant to reach the rafters of a theater, allows them to register rather than over-project emotion. And nowhere is the power of the full-screen close-up more evident than in the rejection scene. It invites us to look into Falstaff’s-and Welles’-soul.

But what is really going on in Falstaff’s face? As Hal’s denunciation comes to a close, surprise and hurt are succeeded by an enigmatic expression that looks suspiciously like a smile.

What’s the story of that surreptitious smile? “I found that expression, personally, almost unbearably moving,” Mr. Baxter told me. “The look on his face becomes almost a fierce pride, as if to say, ‘That’s my boy. He’s come out right.'”

Fascinating. Whatever you think about Welles’ choice of expression, and Mr. Baxter’s interpretation, it’s a challenging notion. This moment of utter rejection is, after all, the final close-up of a character who is one of the great creations in all literature, rendered by one of the greatest Shakespearean actors and directors. And he chooses a smile! It’s just a token of the way Welles’ performance as Falstaff is one of those treasures that deepen, become ever more layered and complex. One almost wants to say it grows and matures like a fine wine, except that would inevitably, unfortunately summon up memories of Welles in his tragic lost, last years. The Welles who supported himself in his futile, frustrating attempts to make films by doing wine commercials-like the one for Paul Mason in which he uttered, with mock Shakespearean gravitas: “We will serve no wine before its time.”

Mr. Baxter tells an extremely sad story from this period, an encounter with Welles that is almost an eerie recapitulation of that rejection scene they played together. It was 20 years later, sometime in the mid-80’s, not long before a “surfeit-swell’d” Welles died. Mr. Baxter was making a stopover in L.A. and thought to surprise him by showing up at Ma Maison, the Beverly Hills hot spot where Welles took long, Falstaffian lunches.

“You know,” Mr. Baxter told me, “there’s something to the idea that actors become the roles they play in Shakespeare. I mean, Olivier’s Richard III was so like Larry. Larry destroyed everything that got in his way- and like Richard, he was feminine and serpentine.” (One of the most serpentine things Olivier did, Mr. Baxter says, was to tell his lifelong rival, John Gielgud, that he had no talent for making films, that Gielgud should stick to the stage. “It was Orson who told John he should do more film, that he could do anything in film.”) If Olivier became Richard, Mr. Baxter says, Welles became Falstaff.

Mr. Baxter had arrived late that day at Ma Maison. “I’m almost never late,” he recalls, but that day he was, and “as my car pulled up, there was Orson making his way out. Looking just … huge. It was terrible. He had to be helped down the stairs by two waiters and then helped into the cab they called.…”

Mr. Baxter didn’t know what to do. In the end, he stayed out of sight until Welles was gone.

He didn’t intend it as a rejection. Not the kind of harsh blow Hal had dealt to Falstaff. It was more a kind of loving forbearance, I think; a sense that he might not be able to conceal his dismay at the surfeit-swell’d figure Welles had become. He was reluctant to serve as a reminder, as a mirror to Welles of the way everything had gone wrong since they’d played the rejection scene together in Chimes. And so he waited, unseen, while Welles was hoisted into his cab and spirited away.

It’s a sad story, but the deepening beauty and power of Chimes at Midnight gives the dignity of tragedy rather than pathos to Welles’ end.

“Orson said only one thing to me before we started shooting,” Mr. Baxter recalled. “He said, ‘We want to call down the corridors of time with this film.'”

And they did. John Gielgud and Orson Welles-and Keith Baxter between them-still call down those corridors; you can hear the echoes ring out in Chimes at Midnight.