In Praise of the Holy Trinity: Olivier, Gielgud, Richardson

Hey, ho-a brave new year! We shall do our best. We shall press on, old cockie-as Sir Ralph Richardson liked to put it.

Knights in tights have been giving me pleasure over the holidays. The concurrent publication by Applause Books of the lives of England’s three greatest knights of the theater-Sir Laurence Olivier, Sir John Gielgud and Sir Ralph Richardson-makes one almost proud to be English. If I restrain myself just a little, it is only because the former Oxford don, Roger Lewis, has written an astonishingly silly biography of Olivier in which he favorably compares him to Peter Sellers.

It’s like comparing the Parthenon to Graceland. Mr. Lewis’ previous biography, however, was of Peter Sellers. Obviously he has him on the brain. There have been at least 15 other biographies of Olivier, but Mr. Lewis’ takes the strudel. He writes like an unhinged Susan Sontag. He muses about Olivier’s film of Hamlet : “Am I alone in thinking the curtains of Gertrude’s bed are spread like the lips of a giant vagina?”

Let me assure him about that. He is alone. And so I took another spoonful of Christmas pudding, and left him alone.

The pleasures of John Gielgud’s reissued An Actor and His Time and Garry O’Connor’s delightful Ralph Richardson: An Actor’s Life more than redress the balance. Sir Ralph-the English eccentric who could be seen roaring precariously round London on his motorbike, pipe jammed into his mouth, Spanish parrot, Jose, perched on his shoulder-died in 1983. Sir John-patrician, gossipy, sly, unique-is still happily with us, aged 94. The English love their actors, and Gielgud and Richardson, linked together, as Mr. Gielgud wittily put it, “like the brokers men in Cinderella, ” were loved more than Olivier, who was merely revered.

The glittering triumvirate define the modern history of English theater. Olivier, Gielgud and Richardson-note their habitual billing-could only be English. Sir John’s family tree of actors reaches back to the 19th century, to his great-aunt Ellen Terry and her illegitimate son, the theater visionary and designer, Gordon Craig. It’s an extraordinary theater tradition, the pride of England. For instance, a fourth unbilled member of the Olivier-Gielgud-Richardson ruling elite was Dame Peggy Ashcroft. Among the junior members and satellites were Sir Alec Guinness (Mr. Gielgud’s protégé) and Sir Michael Redgrave (Vanessa Redgrave’s father). That generation led to such other riches as Maggie Smith (Olivier’s Desdemona), Sir Ian McKellen, Albert Finney (who began as Olivier’s understudy) and Michael Gambon, who is said to be the successor to Olivier’s crown, like every great English actor before him.

Today, the irreverent new wave actors tend to dismiss the holy trinity. (But they have never seen Olivier, Mr. Gielgud or Richardson act on stage.) Olivier is viewed more as the dated peak of the 19th-century romantic tradition; Mr. Gielgud as a fossil of airy English lyricism; and Richardson as, well, Richardson-nutty, disembodied, as if appearing in a half-baked dream of his own making.

I wouldn’t dismiss them so easily, if I were you. Olivier will never be surpassed, but I believe that Mr. Gielgud’s contribution has been underestimated, though he remains the greatest verse-speaker of our time. He is an actor of unstoppable curiosity (which makes him too scatterbrained to be a great director). But his love of theater made him an early experimentalist who added an unexpected dimension to the parochial London theater. Mr. Gielgud was the champion of the Russian director and designer Theodore Komisarjevsky, as well as of the French innovator, Michel St-Denis. He was devoted to the new work of Peter Brook, jumping through ridiculous hoops for him in Oedipus at the National Theater.

“Frighten me,” the director, Mr. Brook, said to the Oedipus cast during an improvisation. Each took his turn, but only Mr. Gielgud succeeded. He announced: “We open next Tuesday.”

And Richardson’s legacy? The English adored him because he succeeded in seeming both ordinary and eccentric. (Neither is threatening.) But he was extraordinary , and no one really knew him-including his enigmatic, secretive self.

When he was in his 70’s, I interviewed him and still count my blessings. “I’m a very … square chap,” he confided, squeezing out the words for extra emphasis, as was his way. He certainly looked the part-square and tweedy, camouflaging himself in his pipe smoke. He had his picture taken by the distinguished photographer Jane Bown whom he called, most politely, “Miss Boon.”

“My problem with being photographed is that I never know who I am,” he confessed, and he looked genuinely baffled, as if speaking about someone else. “Who am I? I never know. I haven’t a clue . Who do you think I am, Miss Boon?”

He was fun, that’s for sure! A fireworks enthusiast, he was a proto-George Plimpton. He famously set Olivier’s Chelsea home ablaze. Hoping to impress Olivier’s then-wife, Vivien Leigh, Richardson had organized a fireworks display in their garden. Unfortunately, to everyone’s consternation, the rockets somehow doubled back on themselves, demolishing the Olivier’s drawing room like missiles. The furious, and house-proud, Vivien Leigh banned him from visiting ever again-until, many years later, he was allowed to visit the Oliviers’ stately home, Notley Abbey. Exactly how he managed to fall through the ceiling into the Oliviers’ bedroom below must rank as one of the wonders of the world. He was in the attic respectfully admiring the frescoes created by monks in the Middle Ages when, stepping off a beam for a better view, he stumbled and fell through the floor.

You have the glorious impression that he may have done such things accidentally on purpose. He could have dark moods, too. He once decked Alec Guinness with a blow to the jaw, having mistaken him momentarily for Graham Greene. Greene had called him a lousy actor; Alec Guinness was his friend, even after the knockout punch.

He was knighted before Olivier and Mr. Gielgud, and had the deepest admiration for them both. “I haven’t got his splendid fury,” he said of Olivier. It was true. But nobody has ever acted quite like Ralph Richardson, or dared to, before or since. No actor, for one thing, has spoken like him. (Olivier and Mr. Gielgud are often impersonated on stage, never Richardson.) Stillness was one of his greatest virtues, a hypnotic understatement and compassion. He conveyed compassion better than anyone, and Falstaff was his finest hour. The apparently ordinary Richardson possessed the soul of a poet, and so he was entranced by the mystery of life.

“He wants to hoard all of himself for himself, for that is the power of his acting,” writes Mr. O’Connor in his fine biography. “It is like Philoctetes and his bow. He mustn’t give away the source of his power, for if he does one of the arrows will leap out and wound his own foot, his own flesh.”

Sir Ralph’s biographer comes dangerously close to plucking out the heart of his mystery. Certain magic is best left unexplained. But Mr. O’Connor has succeeded against many odds in writing a sensitive and definitive biography of the great actor. He has brought the unearthly Ralph Richardson back to life, and all will be glad.

In Praise of the Holy Trinity: Olivier, Gielgud, Richardson