With the May 22 passing of Sir John Gielgud, the world stage lost one of its brightest beacons, not to mention one of its most famous interpreters of Shakespearean roles. As such, it was fitting that the Shakespeare Society opened its fall season with a benefit tribute to the late actor, Sept. 18 at the Sylvia and Danny Kaye Playhouse on East 68th Street in Manhattan.
London-based critic and writer Sheridan Morley served as master of ceremonies for the sold-out benefit, whose notable speakers included Edward Albee, Brian Bedford, Philip Bosco, Zoe Caldwell, Hume Cronyn, Barrie Ingham, Anne Jackson, Tony Randall, Maria Tucci, Eli Wallach and producer Robert Whitehead. According to event spokesperson Philip Thurston, the event was also scheduled to offer video and film clips.
As reported by the New York Post and confirmed by Thurston, Ralph Fiennes, currently playing in both Coriolanus and Richard II at BAM, did the "death of kings" soliloquy from the latter play. Spokesperson Thurston also told PBOL that Caldwell performed Kate's final speech in The Taming of the Shrew, in which the character seemingly subjugates herself to her husband -- just as real-life hubby Whitehead took the stage. Keith Baxter, who played opposite Gielgud in "Chimes at Midnight," also reportedly read.
A non-profit organization devoted to "the enjoyment and understanding of William Shakespeare," the Society has educational programs for both students and teachers, including sending instructors to the Folger Library in DC to "brush up" their Shakespeare. Upcoming events include a lecture by Brown University Professor Arnold Weinstein on "The Hamlet Problem: What's Rotten in the State of Denmark?"
Gielgud was born in London on April 14, 1904, and began his theatre career on Nov. 7, 1921, on the stage at the Old Vic as the Herald in Shakespeare's Henry V. It was a fateful debut: Shakespearean roles were to make up a significant portion of Gielgud's acting credits. He would return to such parts as Hamlet, Macbeth and King Lear again and again, making critical and commercial successes out of the productions in which he appeared -- and often directed and produced as well. For information on the Shakespeare Society, check out their website: www.shakespearesociety.org.
-- By David Lefkowitz