The Man Who Lived Twice is a new play from Glasgow-based Birds of Paradise theatre company, a “dramatised account” of what took place between Sheldon and Gielgud. In the run-up to the show’s launch at The Arches in Glasgow, before a Scotland-wide tour, Paul F Cockburn spoke with director Alison Peebles and writer and actor Garry Robson.
On 27 December 1936, in a penthouse suite high above the streets of New York, a young, beautiful, much-in-demand actor by the name of John Gielgud met the playwright Edward Sheldon. Affected by rheumatoid arthritis that had left him largely paralysed and blind, Sheldon was nevertheless the centre of an artistic world that came to his door, and Gielgud was not alone in being profoundly affected by this "crippled muse".
Paul F Cockburn: What interested you about this play?
Alison Peebles: I thought the project sounded interesting in terms of the subject matter, the fact that it featured such an iconic person as John Gielgud, at a period of his life when he was the toast of New York for his Hamlet. What I found fascinating was that the meeting with Sheldon stayed with Gielgud for the rest of his life; that, even though Sheldon was paralysed from the neck down and blind, he had an extraordinary effect on people — he seemed able to bring people out and open them up a bit. He was physically paralysed, whereas Gielgud was emotionally paralysed — at that point he was still quite repressed.
PFC: Most people think of Gielgud as an elderly man. Like The Queen, we forget that even the old were young once!
AP: That’s right; he was a sort of matinee idol, and had lots of young fans, but his personal life was a mess — he didn’t have a personal life. His life was the theatre.
PFC: So, this play shows Gielgud undergoing an emotional journey?
AP: Yes; there is a big journey for him. When Gielgud first meets Sheldon, he’s the toast of New York, and this guy’s not really paying that much attention to him. But Sheldon is very perceptive about Gielgud, about how buttoned-up he is. Sheldon keeps saying Gielgud would be better off in Hollywood, on the West Coast, because people there would understand him better. There’s a subtext all the time, about...
PFC: The love that dare not say it’s name?
AP: Yes. Of course, years after Sheldon died, Gielgud was caught for “cottaging”. It was a scandal at the time; Gielgud thought his career was over. But, after the court case, when he came out on stage the next night the whole audience stood up and applauded him. But homosexuality was illegal at the time. It was very difficult.
PFC: Was part of the challenge bringing this story together the fact that you are dealing with “characters” who were based on real people?
AP: I think that is a challenge. People have such strong impressions of Gielgud, but that is normally of the older Gielgud. We have photographs of the young John Gielgud, but we don’t have film or recordings of the younger man. In any case, there’s always a danger of doing an impersonation; we’re trying to get to the essence of Gielgud without impersonating him.
PFC: Does the play have something to say about disability, or is it primarily just a study of two people?
AP: One of the things that Garry wanted to explore in the writing of it, is that disabled people are (usually) either represented as angels or victims. This show is about showing that disabled people are people; that they can be angry, bitter and mean as well as being charming. It’s trying to look at both the public and private sides of both men — very clear to see in terms of physical disability, but then there’s emotional disability, psychological disability.
What interests me is this man, who was so clearly physically disabled, but had managed to transcend this world in his room and have such an effect on so many people. Then you have Gielgud who is playing to huge audiences, but there’s a total repression and tightness. It’s about the inside/outside of both of them, the contrasts.
PFC: Are you looking forward to the run?
AP: It’s been a lovely experience; the cast and production team are great. that’s been lovely. We’ve been constantly reworking the script, which is kind of what you need with a new play, but we don’t have the luxury of six or 12 weeks’ rehearsal — we’ve just got three weeks, so that’s where the stress comes in!
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Paul also spoke to the writer and actor Garry Robson, who is currently touring the UK in Graeae’s Reasons To Be Cheerful.
PFC: How did you first learn about Edward Sheldon?
GR: Through reading John Gielgud's letters. He refers to two visits he made to the playwright Edward Sheldon
PFC: What appealed to you about his story?
GR: A profoundly disabled man who became something of a saint and a seer. Always intrigued by the way disabled people are either saints or sinners. At present we are either “supercrips” or scroungers.
PFC: Given how Sheldon is now largely forgotten, how difficult was it to research the play
GR: The play isn’t a biopic. Sheldon’s story and his meeting with Gielgud is merely the starting point, so the lack of biographical detail about Sheldon really wasn’t a problem.
PFC: What do you think the play says about impairment and disability?
GR: That people are seldom one thing. Disabled people are like everyone else, they have multiple personalities and it is dangerous to define people by their disability alone. The truth is usually somewhere in between.
PFC: Was it a challenge for you to write about real people, especially someone as famous as Gielgud — even if he is now mostly remembered as an older man?
GR: No, not really. It's not a documentary and the key is to use the research to colour (the writing), but not to allow it to dominate.