By Peter Filichia
Long before Stephen Sondheim gave us The Three Ages of Women – “First you’re another sloe-eyed vamp, then someone’s mother, then you’re camp” – William Shakespeare in his 1598 hit As You Like It detailed “The Seven Ages of Man.”
They encompassed, to use The Bard’s words, infant, schoolboy, lover, soldier, justice, pantaloon and second childishness.
Back in 1923, Shakespearean scholar George Rylands compiled A Shakespeare Anthology: The Ages of Man. Many moons later, John Gielgud read it and decided it would make a marvelous one-man show for him.
Rylands agreed. He wrote in the Playbill that theatergoers would be “listening to a varied programme recited by the leading Shakespearean actor of our time who also cares sensitively and profoundly for English poetry.” And starting in 1957, Gielgud, clad in a dinner jacket and pants, took the stage, recited many passages from Shakespeare, and received raves from critics in cities as disparate as London, Edinburgh and Chicago.
When Gielgud announced that he’d bring Ages of Man to Broadway in late 1958, crowds were expected to be so large that the producers booked The 46th Street (now the Richard Rodgers), which usually housed musicals. Indeed, what followed Ages of Man into the theater were Redhead, Christine and the 1960 revival of Finian’s Rainbow.
At first glance, the evening doesn’t seem to have been successful. Ages of Man opened on Dec. 28, 1958 and closed on Jan. 31, 1959 for a total of 40 performances. But there was a forty-first performance when cast album guru Goddard Lieberson brought Gielgud into a Columbia Records studio to wax Ages of Man, which has now been re-released by Masterworks Broadway.
Robert Schear, one of the production’s assistants, worked on thirteen Broadway shows from 1958 through 1986, including I Can Get It for You Wholesale with Barbra Streisand, Do Re Mi with Phil Silvers and Nancy Walker and the all-star No, No, Nanette revival. “But Ages of Man,” he says, “was the only one that made me sit on the stairs and watch night after night after night.”
So Ages of Man didn’t close for lack of business or critical enthusiasm (“Masterpiece” – Atkinson, Times). Gielgud had already planned to direct an adaptation of Thornton Wilder’s The Ides of March in London and had to skedaddle back home.
Before that, however, came that forty-four and a half minute condensed recording. Actually, that was a generous amount of time in the “long-playing record” era, but one longs for what audiences saw: Gielgud’s takes on Oberon, Benedick, Julius Caesar and, needless to say, Hamlet.
Ah, well. Half a recorded show is better than none. Besides, listeners will be immediately mollified when they hear Gielgud’s plummy tones in the famous first line: “All the world’s a stage,” he intones in a line that is to be confused with “Everybody wants to be in show business.”
Shakespeare was only thirty-four when he wrote As You Like It, but “Seven Ages of Man” proves that his powers of observation were those of a man far beyond his years. More remarkably, As You Like It was his twentieth play in eight years – a more astonishing feat when one considers that he wrote them with a quill pen, not even a ballpoint, let alone a typewriter or computer.
Depending on how you look at it, Gielgud was able to get the famed EGOT – the acronym for Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony — thanks to Ages of Man. The one-man show got him a Special Tony Award in 1959 “for contribution to theatre for his extraordinary insight into the writings of Shakespeare.”
True, Gielgud did have a previous Tony — in a manner of speaking. After he’d appeared as Jack Worthing in the 1947 Broadway production of The Importance of Being Earnest, he and seven other cast members were given Tonys for Outstanding Foreign Company. But that’s not quite the same thing as getting one all on your own.
(For those of you who know that Earnest has ten actors: the two butlers weren’t included in the prize just as George Gershwin was snubbed when the words alone of Of Thee I Sing were cited for the Pulitzer Prize and his music wasn’t.)
Now some, such as my buddy Joseph Miller, say that if a “Special” Tony shouldn’t count towards the EGOT. Frankly, I can’t see why not. The Special Tony is no different in shape and size than the Competitive. Must one BEAT someone else in a race to be eligible for an EGOT? I say not.
(However, Miller does say that Gielgud got an EGOT by his standards by winning a 1960-61 Tony as Best Director of a Play for Hugh Wheeler’s Big Fish Little Fish.)
In 1960, this “cast” album of Ages of Man “only” got a Best Spoken Word Album Grammy nomination. But a remaking of the same property finally got Gielgud the Grammy in 1979.
(In case you’re wondering about Gielgud’s Oscar and Emmy, the former came in for his performance as Best Supporting Actor in the 1981 film Arthur and the latter arrived in 1991 for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Mini-Series for Summer’s Lease.)
On the back of the CD booklet, the selections are listed by the name of the play without adding the first line of the speech, which is more often the custom with Shakespearean selections. And because Gielgud was closing in on 55 when he did Ages of Man, you’re well within your rights when you see listed The Merchant of Venice, The Tempest and Romeo and Juliet that you’ll be hearing him do Shylock, Prospero and Lord Capulet or Montague. Don’t be so sure.
Actually, keen-eyed readers might not come to that conclusion, for they might note that all three of these plays (as well as two others and a couple of sonnets) are listed under “Youth.” Two cuts serve “Manhood” and eight represent “Old Age.” Now we understand why the show is called Ages of Man and not the more familiar “Seven Ages of Man.”
Gielgud turns up the heat when he portrays Hotspur, in a scene where he must defend his military decision to his king (Henry IV). He also contrasts his enduring a battle and coming out “dry with rage and extreme toil, breathless and faint, leaning upon my sword” with “a certain lord, neat, and trimly dress’d, fresh as a bridegroom” who showed up after the battle was over. You know the type.
For those who may doubt that Shakespeare is relevant in this twenty-first century, just go to Track Six. Gielgud starts by saying “In Measure for Measure, Shakespeare has drawn a narrow self-righteous judge — Angelo — who finds himself caught against his own will in the very sin he most condemns.” Paging Larry Craig (R-ID) Mark Foley (D-FL), Anthony Weiner (D-NY) and Mark Sanford (R-SC)!
Peter Filichia also writes a column each Friday at www.mtishows.com and www.kritzerland.com and each Monday at www.broadwayselect.com. His book The Great Parade: Broadway’s Astonishing, Never-To-Be Forgotten 1963-1964 Season is now available at www.amazon.com.