Wednesday, 7 March 2012

The Man Who Lived Twice - John Gielgud, Edward Sheldon and A Bird of Paradise


As the power of celebrity dictates, when a beautiful A-list actor is 
courted by once-great writers, there's usually only one thing on both 
their minds. In the case of The Man Who Lived Twice, Garry Robson's new 
play for the disabled and non-disabled performer based Birds of 
Paradise company, it's a bit more complicated than that. As it imagines 
a real-life meeting between the young John Gielgud and the reclusive 
Edward Sheldon, Robson's play raises questions about the fleeting 
allure, not just of fame, but of the famous, as well as notions of 
sexuality and physical beauty.

Two days after Christmas 1936 when the meeting took place, twenty-eight 
year-old Gielgud was the toast of Broadway following his debut playing 
the title role in a smash-hit production of Hamlet, playing opposite 
Lillian Gish's Ophelia. Gielgud was also a closet homosexual at a time 
when such behaviour was not only taboo, but illegal.

Sheldon, meanwhile, who had scored hits with works such as his 1913 
play, Romance, which ran in London for more than a thousand 
performances prior to being made into a film starring Greta Garbo, was 
seemingly in hiding. Aged fifty at the time of the meeting, when he had 
been much the same age as Gielgud, he'd contracted rheumatoid 
arthritis, which eventually claimed his sight as well as the use of his 
limbs.

Retiring to his penthouse suite, Sheldon became a legendary figure 
somewhere between Howard Hughes and Andy Warhol, holding audiences with 
the era's beautiful people, who he would effectively mentor. Whatever 
went on at that fateful meeting in 1936, as Gielgud hinted at in two 
letters to his mother, the only known records of the liaison, his life, 
at least, was changed forever.

“I  was reading Gielgud's letters,” says Robson, “and he makes these 
two short references to this guy he'd spent a bit of time with in New 
York, who'd had this profound affect on him. I'd never heard of 
Sheldon, but I started looking into him, and it turned out that he was 
this playwright who was a kind of pre-cursor to Thornton Wilder in 
terms of bringing naturalism to the stage. The more I looked into it, 
it became clear that Sheldon was disabled in some way, and after all 
his limbs seized up, because he was quite a wealthy man, he set himself 
up in his penthouse in what almost became a portable theatre. It became 
quite a thing to be invited to see him, and he was a bit of a 
collector. If someone famous was in town, then they went to see 
Sheldon. He became this oracle, who never left his room, but stayed in 
touch with hundreds of people.”

One of these had been legendary actor John Barrymore, who Sheldon may 
have had an affair with. As a parting shot, Barrymore gifted Sheldon a 
pet macaw, who in Robson's play becomes an acerbic chorus on an an 
audience engineered by actress and muse of Bernard Shaw, Mrs Patrick 
Campbell. Whether Sheldon's intentions were honourable, however, isn't 
on record.

“It's clear he had issues with sexuality,” Robson says, “and in a way 
he was retreating from the body . He couldn't deal with his physical 
urges, and I think perhaps made himself a bit more disabled than he 
needed to be. This is a harsh version of Sheldon in the play. It's 
clear he was eminently useful to others, but somehow he missed out on 
himself.”

The Man Who Lived Twice, then, is according to Robson “about two men 
who are hiding things, and whether or not they came out of hiding when 
they met. It's also a play about how other people relate to people who 
are disabled. It's not a play about disability, but Gielgud at that 
time clearly knew a thing or two about the body beautiful, yet here he 
was, fully in tune with a man who was far from physically perfect.”

Did, one wonders, with the gossipy prurience of a latter-day celebrity 
rag, anything happen between the two men?

“I would doubt it,” Robson says bluntly. “I'm sure they got close, but 
how close is anybody's guess. Sheldon had a profound affect on Gielgud 
that lasted all of his life, but whether their meeting had the same 
affect on Sheldon is a mystery.”

The Man Who Lived Twice, The Arches, March 7-10, then tours

www.birdsofparadisetheatre.co.uk

The Herald, March 6th 2012

ends

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