Written by: Sir Gielgud (read by the actor at Vivien Leigh’s funeral)
To talk of Vivien Leigh in public so soon after her death is almost unbearably difficult for me. Many of you here to-day knew her far more intimately than I did, but, since those most near to her have asked me to pay tribute to her memory, I will try, however inadequately, to do so.
“What seems to me most remarkable, as far as her career was concerned, was her steady determination to be a fine stage actress, to make her career in the living theatre, when, with her natural beauty, skill, and grace of movement, gifts which were of course invaluable in helping to create the magic of her personality, she could so easily have stayed aloof and supreme in her unique position as a screen actress. Of course she will always be remembered as Scarlett O’Hara, as Lady Hamilton, and later for her wonderful acting in the Streetcar film. But these screen successes by no means satisfied her ambitions, and she had a lifelong devotion to the theatre, and determined to work there diligently through the years in order to reach the heights which she afterward achieved. Though in her first big success, The Mask Of Virtue, she had taken the critics and public by storm, she knew that her youth and beauty were the chief factors of her immediate success, and she was modest and shrewd enough to face the challenge of developing herself so as to find the widest possible range of which she was capable.
“Her marriage to Laurence Olivier was an inspiration to her qualities–not only as a devoted pupil but also as a brilliant partner. Her performance in their seasons together, no only at the St. James Theatre (whose untimely destruction she tried so gallantly to prevent), but also at the Old Vic and Stratford, and in tours all over the world–Russia, Australia, Europe, and American fresh laurels were added to her crown. Besides the classic parts, she delighted everyone to in modern plays she chose, each of which made different demands upon her versatility– The Skin of Our Teeth, The Sleeping Prince, Antigone, and later Duel of Angels.
“She had a charmingly distinctive voice. On the telephone once recognized it immediately– that touch of imperiousness, combined with childlike eager warmth full of friendliness and gaiety. But she was determined to increase the range of it for the theatre, and in Shakespeare’s Cleopatra, in which I though she gave her finest classical performance, she succeeded in lowering her whole register from the natural pitch she was using as the little girl Cleopatra in Shaw’s play– a remarkable feat which few actresses could have sustained as successfully as she did. Her Lady Macbeth, too, showed an astonishing vocal power and poignancy of feeling– and it is a thousand pities that the project of filming her performance of this was abandoned, for I believe it would have created worldwide admiration.
“Her manners both in the theatre and in private life were always impeccable. She was punctual, modest and endlessly thoughtful and considerate. She was frank without being unkind, elegant but never ostentatious. Her houses were as lovely as her beautiful and simple clothes. Whenever she was not entirely absorbed in the theatre she was endlessly busy, decorating her rooms, planning surprises for her friends, giving advice on her garden, entertaining lavishly but always with the utmost grace and selectivity.
“I had never thought to become an intimate friend of hers. My first meeting with her was at Oxford in 1937, when she played the little queen in Richard the Second with the students. I was acting in London at the time, and so only met her when I was directing the rehearsals. The part is not a very interesting one, though she managed to endow it with every possible grace of speech and movement, and wore her medieval costume with consummate charm — but I never got to know her in these days.
“A few years later, during the war, I acted with her in The Doctor’s Dilemma, when another actor was taken ill, and from that time we began an acquaintanceship which slowly ripened into a deep friendship and affection, and it is a wonderful happiness to me that during her last years I had the joy of seeing her so often and came to love her so well.
“Of course she was restless and drove herself too hard. Although she seemed so astonishingly resilient, she often suffered ill health and fits of great depression, but she made light of the fact and rarely admitted to it or talk about it to other people. Her courage in the face of personal unhappiness was touching and remarkable. She always spoke affectionately of those who had first recognized her talents and helped her to develop her natural gifts. She studied and experimented continually and always brought to rehearsal a willingness and technical flexibility which was the result of unceasing self-criticism and devotion to her work.
“A she grew older she acquired a new kind of beauty, without any need of artifice, and she seemed to harbour no resentment again the competition of younger beautiful women. She was always enormously interesting in everything, people, place, changes of fashion–and she had friends of every different sort and kind in London, in her country homes, and in America and Australia. How delightfully she would talk of her Japanese admirers, who wrote her such charmingly phrased letters, and those in Russia, where her film Waterloo Bridge is still considered a classic. She had the must punctilious and gracious way of answering letters and of dealing with strangers, admirers, newspaper men and women, and she loved in the theatres she worked in for her sweetness to staff and company alike.
“Fortunately at the end she seems to have had no idea how ill she was – she was full of plans preparing to rehearse a new play – and one can only hope she slept away her life without pain. She will not be forgotten – for her magic quality was unique. A great beauty, a natural star, a consummate screen actress and a versatile and powerful personality in the theatre–she had a range that could stretch from the comedy of Sabina in Skin of Our Teeth to the naturalistic agonies of Blanche DuBois in Streetcar, and the major demands of Lady Macbeth and Cleopatra. Even in Titus Andronicus, when she had only a few short scenes, she contrived the most beautiful pictorial effects. Who can forget the macabre grace with which she guided the staff with her elbows to write in the sand with it, a ravished victim gliding across the stage in her long grey robe.
“Now she had glided away from us for ever, and we who are so much the poorer for her passing must always be thankful for knowing her and working with her, and salute her for all she gave the world, so generously and so gaily.
Now boast thee, Death, in thy possession lies
A lass unparallel’d”