A Comedian Who Would Play Hamlet (1928)

A Comedian Who Would Play “Hamlet”

Boyish, Busy, Sincere Leslie Howard as Portrayed by a Word Artist in Syncopated Verbal Strokes

By Ray Henderson

Leslie Howard, 1928

Leslie Howard correcting the script of a new play he has just finished

Leslie Howard, 1928

Mr. Howard making up for his part as Matt Denant in Galsworthy’s Escape

Leslie Howard and his children, 1928

Mr. Howard and his two children in their home at Great Neck, L.I., New York

A stage . . . many actors . . . bare walls . . . scenery piled here and there . . . a prop table . . . with books, manuscripts, pencils, paper . . chairs . . . a border-light center-light . . . empty auditorium . . . Winthrop Ames at one side glancing at his watch . . . a group of actors talking . . . the stage-manager eyeing the door . . . low murmuring . . . restlessness . . . resignation.
A cheery voice . . . why the delay? . . . Leslie Howard appearing from nowhere . . . as though he always had been where he is . . . a visible relief mingled with vexation . . . no denying the charm of the man . . . his boyish, quizzical look . . . a hushed protest . . . the regular procedure of rehearsal . . . tense work . . . Howard keen, vibrant . . . responsive . . . a high-bred horse, sensitive . . . quick to receive a suggestion, quick to act upon it . . . a flash . . . Ames alert, vivid . . . an atmosphere of excitement . . . accomplishment.
Each day the same delay . . . each day the same entrance from out of the thin air . . the same hurt reproof . . . a child expecting to be be believed and being believed . . . just for the pretense of the thing.
A crowded dressing-room . . . Booth Theatre . . . always some one there . . . always a player hanging about the door . . . will they never give him a moment to himself? . . . does he want to be alone? . . . Howard leisurely making-up–five minutes before the curtain . . . genial . . . smiling . . . everyone else rushing about . . . Howard calm . . . more time in the world than anyone else seems to know about.
An interview with a pretty newspaper girl in the Embassy Club . . . on a matinée day . . . theatre sold out . . . curtain to rise at 2.40 . . . streets crowded . . . Broadway a jam . . . Howard hurries down Forty-fifth Street . . . down the alley-way . . . Howard on stage waiting for his cue at 2.39 . . . what can anyone say to such a fellow? . . . no one says anything . . . everyone would like to.
The Waldorf-Astoria . . . Howard arriving one week before the day on which he is to speak at a luncheon . . . thought it was to-day . . . always his way . . . a week too early . . . or a last-minute person . . . somehow always there . . . then the day of the luncheon . . . didn’t want to come . . . couldn’t refuse the charming woman who invited him . . . didn’t really intend to come . . . has to speak . . . two people precede him . . . League of Nations . . . future of the theatre . . . the subjects are exhausted . . . or made to seem futile . . . these lunchers only came to look at the lions . . . funny, that . . . still . . . can’t help knowing they wanted to look at him . . . slightly amazed and amused that they should . . . talks about himself . . . why not . . . silly stuff anyway.
The play in action . . . stage property missing . . . the razor . . . Baldy, paragon of property men, will be miserable . . . no one knows in front . . . leading woman distracted . . . why does she bother . . . it’s all right now . . . the stage manager grows ten years older . . . the moment passes safely . . . Howard comes off smiling . . . no fuss . . . no blame . . . a good sport . . . a good trouper . . . what does it all matter, anyway?
Writes an article . . . about autograph fiends . . . strange birds, they are . . . and those who ask for signed photographs . . . a deluge of letters . . . girls from New Jersey . . . the Bronx . . . Brooklyn . . . stage-struck youths from Wyoming . . . Buffalo . . . nice letters . . . gratifying after all . . . they do care . . . perhaps . . . orders one hundred photographs . . . get thirty-six requests . . . signs the pictures conscientiously.
Confesses he did not think Galsworthy had written a popular play in Escape . . . wanted to act it . . . if only it lasted two weeks . . . thinks of London and how he would like to play there . . . half the season in New York . . . half in London . . . the rest of the time to write and do nothing.
Lives in Great Neck, Long Island . . . two children . . . devilishly fond of them . . . the little girl . . . what a child . . . his wife drives him back and forth to the theatre . . . doesn’t drive himself . . . forgets she is waiting at the garage . . . stays at the theatre half an hour expecting her . . . then remembers . . . another rush . . . rush . . . rush necessary to him.
Scrawling handwriting . . . a bank clerk’s gone aesthetic . . . near-sighted . . . blue eyes . . . blond hair . . . curly . . . slender . . . thinner than the wind . . . knows a good tailor and employs him . . . keen actor’s sense of the value of money . . . best business men in the world these actors.
Eats at the Algonquin . . . never alone if he can help it . . . sleeps until he wakes up . . . no one knows whether he thinks he is a good actor or not . . . reads all his notices . . . endures the theatre press-agent . . . treats him as though he were a gentleman . . . suspects he is a useless person.
Happy-go-lucky . . . perhaps . . . refusing to take anything seriously . . . perhaps . . . at least no one must suspect he does . . . in dead earnest all the time . . . knows his goal . . . aims at it . . . an opportunist . . . with a center-eye shot. Is afraid of being laughed at . . . laughs first.
Born in London . . . beyond the ring of Bow-Bell . . . an inquisitive child . . . timorous . . . sensitive . . . too sensitive . . . never strong . . . survived his mother’s anxieties . . . in school . . . a torture . . . then a bank clerk . . . deadly routine . . . wants to write . . . one must think of money . . . writes some sketches . . . acts them with amateurs . . . feeling his way . . . uncertain . . . sure only that the bank is impossible.
Then the war . . . must be in it somehow . . . must get there . . . better than the bank . . . these eternal accounts . . . pounds . . . shillings . . . pence . . . belonging to some one else . . . and the hours . . . frail no exercise . . . but in service . . . a second lieutenant . . . something that . . . better than the bank . . . and the war . . . camp in England . . . more routine . . . laughing . . . amazed at what happens to men under such circumstances . . . never dreamed they were quite like this . . . ridiculous . . . the strutting . . . too funny . . . did they really think they were important . . . still laughing . . . at himself . . . at them . . . when it is over . . . what then . . . a thought . . . sudden . . . a glance in the mirror . . . acting . . . an actor . . . why not . . . yes . . . when it was over . . . the front . . . in France. . . . impossible . . . unbelievable . . . a hell . . . unbearable . . . but what sardonic glee . . . men . . . and the women . . . horror . . . flamboyant . . . childish . . . theatrical . . . what a spectacle . . . if one could keep his feet on earth . . . laugh . . . laugh again . . . one has to . . . amazing . . . gigantic . . . petty . . . what experiences . . . and the heroism . . . couldn’t think too much about that . . . the world let loose . . . an atom . . . crushing . . . crushable . . . laugh . . . must get through . . . will get through . . . discharged . . . acting was something . . . that night in the hut when he first thought of it . . . the mirror . . . an actor . . . why not . . . it expressed something . . . not too terribly important.
Home again . . . in uniform . . . strange . . . Piccadilly . . . the Strand . . . nothing to do . . . girls in the bank now . . . two months . . . idleness . . . must earn some money . . . an actors’ agency . . . hundreds of men in uniform there . . . no chance . . . name registered . . . the agent said something about his voice . . . was it good . . . was it bad . . . two weeks . . . a letter . . . an engagement in the fifth company of Peg O’ My Heart . . . third-class cities . . . to play “Jerry” . . . first stand . . . Tumbridge Wells . . . the Romans were there . . . first night . . . Town Hall . . . not even a theatre . . . what a life . . . to paint one’s face . . . a man doing that . . . dull people out front . . . dressing in the Mayor’s parlor . . . an actor . . . who cared . . . but laugh . . . one must not forget to laugh.
“Jerry” . . . Peg O’ My Heart . . . what a play . . . are Americans really like this . . . no doubt . . . absurd . . . curious people Americans . . . but the Britishers liked it too . . . touring the provinces . . . four pounds a week . . . a princely sum . . . better than a bank clerk . . . diggings . . . frowsy landladies . . . cold chops . . . weekly bills . . . one town after another . . . each one worse . . . dank theatres . . . dreary audiences . . . sodden . . . was there no hope in England . . . rats under the stage . . . keen lad . . . eager to gen on . . . to make friends . . . terribly unimportant . . . writing all the time.
Then “Charley Wykeham” in Charley’s Aunt . . . the Abie’s Irish Rose of Great Britain . . . and “Monty Vaughan” in Under Cover . . . provinces and provinces . . . would he never reach the West End . . . and these American plays . . . what sort of a place is that country any way . . . better than a round of provinces . . . English actors popular there . . . but an exile . . . at last in London . . . the charmed circle . . . absurd . . . sweet . . . not so grand after all . . . but London . . . no more train journeys.
The Freaks in the Royalty Theatre . . . the war over . . . his bit done . . . no good thinking too much about that . . . a career . . . writing or acting . . . both perhaps . . . one or the other . . . The Title . . . Mr. Pim Passes By . . . The Young Person in Pink . . . critics notice him . . . “Billy Benson” in East Is West . . . these American plays . . . eternally silly young men . . . romantic . . . slush . . . America . . . English actors succeeded there . . . important salaries.
An offer . . . New York . . . Just Suppose . . . the Prince of Wales falling in love with an American girl . . . they would do that . . . what junk . . . and adventure . . . to America . . . New York début in Henry Miller’s Theatre as “Sir Calverton Shipley” in Just Suppose . . . 1920 . . . rather nice . . . a handsome theatre . . . not rats under the stage . . . running water . . . they did things well . . . these Americans . . . friendly too . . . too friendly.
One part after another . . . Danger with H.B. Warner . . . A Serpent’s Tooth with Marie Tempest . . . Withrop Ames sends for him . . . are there such men in the theatre? . . . a part in A.A. Milne’s The Truth About Blayds . . . Ames directs it . . . perhaps there is something to the theatre . . . a round of light comedy parts . . . Aren’t We All? with Cyril Maude . . . English plays . . . English parts in America . . . American parts in London . . . a mad world . . . Outward Bound . . . The Green Hat.
What a play . . . says so . . . New York stops for a moment . . . an actor who says he thinks the play he is in is rubbish . . . a one-minute wonder . . . one way to attract attention . . . didn’t intend that . . . said what he thought . . . the management is angry . . . and then amused . . . then The Cardboard Lover . . . Jeanne Eagels . . . Empire Theatre . . . curtain calls . . . cheers . . . exciting . . . Jeanne Eagels . . . Jeanne Eagels . . . Jeanne Eagels . . . what a fuss . . . first-night notices . . . first-night audiences . . . . what a fuss . . . gratifying . . . but what a fuss.
Writes a farce . . . Murray Hill . . . Boston takes it to its lofty bosom . . . he acts in it . . . Ames talks to him about John Galsworthy’s Escape . . . what a series of parts he has had . . . this Galsworthy hero . . . worth doing . . . an escape for him . . . Murray Hill opens in Philadelphia . . . a success . . . rehearsing Escape . . . three days later , , , his own play . . . first night as an actor-author . . . rehearses Escape all day . . . critical moments for him . . . over and over again rehearses Escape . . . seven . . . seven-fifteen . . . in an hour his own play . . . still rehearsing Galsworthy . . . no whimpering . . . no excuses . . . a thoroughbred.
That first-night audience at Murray Hill . . . what a crowd . . . is this the way a criminal feels in the chair . . . one ought to skip these first-nights and begin with the second . . . Murray Hill closes . . . Escape opens . . . “the leading young actor of his time” . . . but Murray Hill. . . Escape selling out . . . Murray Hill opens in Buffalo without him . . . Escape selling out . . . Murray Hill goes to Chicago . . . Escape selling out . . . Chicago reviews . . . Chicago box-office receipts . . . Escape selling out . . . Murray Hill closes . . . never mind . . . a first play . . . learned a lesson . . . another time.

Always London . . . must act there . . . must write more plays . . . and the children . . . the little girl . . . must write another play . . . New York missed the point of Murray Hill . . . this time some ancient tragic theme . . . what fun . . . Erskine did a gentle comic of Helen . . . laugh at them . . . laugh hard at them before they can laugh at you . . . Lucrece . . . what a theme . . . those funny Cranach paintings . . . if one could do something like that . . . only knowingly . . . or perhaps a play on modern life . . . writes feverishly . . . seems awfully important . . . futile . . . likes to read in print what he has written . . . unfailing enthusiasm for everything . . . cynical . . . Peter Pan . . . the Old Man of the Sea . . . not quite sure which . . . both.
Would like to play Hamlet . . . some day . . . doesn’t pay to be serious . . . at least no one must know it . . . laugh again and again . . . sneer a little . . . writing . . . no time limit to that . . . except the editors . . . if people would understand . . . people never do . . . audience sometimes . . . can’t stop acting . . . that wave of response . . . exciting . . . and to talk to the audience when the audience doesn’t know.
Calculating . . . boyish . . . sincere . . . swinging between two ambitions . . . successful in each . . . each one enough of a job for any man . . . which . . . . eventually . . . writing . . . Hamlet . . . the play that ambitious actors want to do.
Always some player hanging about the dressing room . . . and the press-agent– once wrote a piece about a press-agent . . . and about an insurance man . . . Theatre Magazine.
The dead line . . . curtain time . . . always a stop limit.

(Theatre Magazine, May 1928)

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