Romeo by Leslie Howard


by Leslie Howard

That every actress should want to play Juliet is as understandable as that every actor should want to play Hamlet. Both are rich in the elements that make great roles.
Both have the varied ingredients of gentle comedy, pathos, desperation, impending doom, stark tragedy.
The audience is “with” these characters; it pities them and it understands them.
But, above all, they obviously hold the passionate interest of their creator.
The poet had his heart and soul in Juliet and in Hamlet.
Hamlet may will be regarded as Shakespeare, just as Juliet may be regarded as the ideal woman of his heart.
But that any actor would want to play Romeo is a horse of another colour.
Shakespeare must have been ideally in love at the time this play was written. His whole interest is so clearly centred in this shining girl, Juliet.
She is the perfection of youth, beauty, passion, and unswerving fidelity. (This was before Will’s disillusionment.)
Romeo was necessary, since you cannot have a love story without a lover. But he seems hardly to be a three-dimensional figure; his principal function is to be the object of Juliet’s affection.
Compared with any of the great Shakespearian characters, he appears to be a silhouette cut from cardboard. This would seems to be borne out by the stage history of the play.

Successful Romeos are conspicuous by their sparsity. And yet nearly every important classical actor of the earlier school has played the part.
Almost the only striking hit within living memory was the Romeo of Kyrle Bellew, who was not otherwise, I believe, considered a great actor.
And though I did not see it, the reports indicate another exception in the recent production of the play by John Gielgud in London.
Is Romeo, therefore, a bad part? Are my suspicions that Shakespeare was not very interested in him correct? And if so, why am I attempting him in a medium so revealing as the motion picture.
The answers to the first and second question are largely “Yes”- but there are qualifications. The fundamental trouble with Romeo is that he is nothing more than a man in love.
If he is as young as Romeo is reputed to be, we do not take him seriously. And if he is so old as the average actor has to be to have the necessary experience for this role, he is a bore.
Furthermore, as the play opens he is in love with another girl, obviously one of a succession of infatuations. The fellow is in love with love (what is more depressing in a man?), and even his friends are laughing at him. To make the chap interesting is a task to frighten any actor.
But, I repeat, there are qualifications. The very fact of Romeo’s constant heart affairs can be turned to advantage if one regards him as a philanderer who gets hit at last so deeply and truly as to bring him to his doom.

This makes him a character, gives him a theme and a raison d’être. And later on, after the first youthful raptures are over and he is banished and waits miserably in Mantua, the stunning news of Juliet’s apparent death produces in him for the rest of the play a mood which has some stature and nobility.
Then he is overcome by a fine philosophic world-weariness and melancholy which is prophetic of that profound character study which Shakespeare had not yet created when he wrote Romeo and Juliet. Romeo becomes a baby Hamlet.
One may therefore understand that an actor who has ambitious designs upon the Danish prince, and who has never spoken a word of Shakespeare, should want to take his first classical steps in this part.
Particularly on the screen where a colloquial, naturalistic style has its greatest chance. And with a script which has be shorn of such passages as may seem repetitious, involved and irritating to a modern audience.
And in a production rich in beauty, vividness and authenticity.
Besides, there is always the hurried urge, when years begin to pile up, and these things threaten to elude one for ever, to pretend to be young and impetuous and touching and beautiful.

Originally published in Picturegoer’s Supplement, Romeo and Juliet, March 27, 1937

Leslie Howard and Norma Shearer in Romeo and Juliet

Leslie Howard in Romeo, from Picturegoer's supplement