Leslie Howard’s Hamlet Praised
LESLIE HOWARD’S “HAMLET” PRAISED
the Lewiston Daily Sun – November 17, 1936
After talking of “Hamlet” for two or three seasons, says Brooks Atkinson, noted dramatic critic, in the New York Times, Leslie Howard has come to the point of playing him in a handsome production that filled the stage of the Imperial last evening (Wednesday, Nov. 11). Since Hamlet has been for some time his personal idol, Mr. Howard has laid all his actor’s resources at the feet of the greatest part in the Shakespeare procession. The resources are happily familiar to Mr. Howard’s multitudinous admirers – a gracious figure, a beguiling personal beauty, a winning manner, a pleasing voice, an alert intelligence. Add also an integrity of spirit and the personal courage to stand simultaneous comparison with Mr. Gielgud’s more celebrated portrait.
Those being the resources, Mr. Howard’s Hamlet is the logical sum of them. He has providently shaped the part after his own dimensions. He is frank and unstudied, plaintive on the whole, a prince by native sensitivity and with the lucidity of a cultivated man’s address. No one would wish to upbraid him for not transcending his own nature, for he never violates the truth of his own character on the stage. But it is necessary to add that most of the qualities that make Hamlet a commanding figure lie outside Mr. Howard’s compass. There is in his acting none of the bite, savage irony, mental turmoil, raging despair and intellectual torment of a man set apart by fate to put the unjointed times back into wholesome shape. Although his Hamlet is attractive in the opening scenes, it is not powerful enough to hold the play together. He is lucent but tame on a wild ad whirling occasion.
Collaborating with his associates, he has given the play a thoughtful and beautiful production. From Stewart Chaney’s imposing settings and vivid costumes of the 11th century to the direction by Mr. Howard and John Houseman there is nothing tepid or nebulous about the staging. The play-scene has been reanimated by a crisp stylization in the midst of a realistic scene, according to Agnes de Mille’s pattern; and Virgil Thompson has composed some flourishes and fanfares in an exotic manner that serves as excellent theatre.
Nor has Mr. Howard been parsimonious toward the other players in his company. Pamela Stanley plays the most genuinely affecting Ophelia this theatregoer has ever seen. Wilfrid Walter’s King is a domineering monarch with a quick mind and a royal presence. Although Aubrey Mather’s aggressive Polonius might be difficult to reconcile with some of the garrulous lines, it is original, interesting and comic. John Barclay’s ghost is likewise exhilarating, and Clifford Evans plays the part of Laertes with manly compassion. As for the Queen, Mary Servoss is more commonplace, and the First Gravedigger of Stanley Lathbury lacks the pawkiness of Shakespearean clowning.
Obviously, Mr. Howard has set his heart on staging an uncluttered, unhackneyed “Hamlet” that would not stink of the past nor smell of the study. He has succeeded honorably; in many respects this is a notable production. But the greatness of the drama hangs on the greatness of Hamlet. Here the Hamlet is only amiable and accomplished, and perhaps that is inevitable in an actor whose gifts are so individually fastidious.
The appearence of Leslie Howard in “Hamlet” at the Imperial Theatre was the occasion for one of the largest and most brilliant first-night turnouts of the season. At the close of the three-hour performance, Mr. Howard took repeated curtain calls, surrounded by his large company. After the tenth curtain, he stepped forward and spoke briefly.
“Well, ladies and gentlemen,” he said, “here we are at last. I know I can’t tell you of the first-night audience what composite ogres you represent. I assure you, this has been an ordeal.”
After remarking upon the reception of the play in Boston and Philadelphia and the apprehension of the company over the first-night reception in New York, Mr. Howard continued:
“There is a terrible penalty attached to acting Hamlet. Comparison are unavoidable, not only with the present, but with memories of the past. Worst of all is the conception which each person has placed upon the character. There is something in ‘Hamlet’ which each of us could use. ‘Hamlet’ belongs to all men and therefore nobody will receive 100 percent approval.”