Hamlet… 1936

Hamlet… 1936

by Leslie Howard

When a modern actor, one who is completely lacking in the remotest form of classical training, attempts the preparation, production and performance of a Shakespearean chef d’oeuvre, he saddles himself with a responsibility which is both dangerous and formidable.
It is dangerous because he may be revealed (after many satisfactory years of deception) in his true colours as no actor at all in the “important” sense, or at best as one whose claim to attention has been based on an attractive personality, a pleasing voice, or some originality of bearing.
And I say formidable because there is no better word to describe the manifold difficulties of presenting the play “Hamlet” in a way which shall be exciting, sympathetic and understandable to a Broadway audience in the year 1936.
With regard to the danger to the modern actor’s career attendant upon a sudden plunge into Shakespeare, there is little that can be said except “don’t”. And as this word has never been a deterrent in the theatre, it might as well be left unsaid. It is too well known anyway that the risks in an acting career increase in direct ratio to the degree of its success. These hazards must be ignored.
However, with regard to the method of presentation and performance of Shakespeare in the present day theatre, there are volumes that can be said. We start with two extremely opposed schools of thought on this problem–not to mention an infinite variety of highly coloured intermediate theories.
There is, at the ultra-violet end of this spectrum, the die-hard school which insists there is one way, and one way only, to do Shakespeare, and that is the way it has “always been done”, the classical way, with rhetorical-poetical acting and a background of rich realism. The way it has always been done refers, one presumes, to the Shakespeare of living memory, the latter nineteenth century methods of Booth and Irving and even Forbes-Robertson. It ignores completely the lack of reverence of the eighteenth century, in particular that of David Garrick who admits to ‘the most imprudent thing I ever did’ in his complete alteration and rewriting of Hamlet.
On the infra-red end of this spectrum we find parked defiantly the modern radicals–or such of them as have any use at all for Elizabethan drama. With them it is held that nothing should be retained of earlier methods. The plays should be cut, re-arranged, scenes and lines transposed, characters modified, new meanings discovered, settings made abstract and significant and symbolic.
I must confess to a lack of sympathy for either of those extremes. The nineteenth century methods, whatever their merits, are dead and gone and could find no sympathy or understanding in the modern theatre. Certainly they could not hope to interpret Shakespeare satisfactorily for the people of today.
On the other hand departures as attempted in Moscow and Berlin represent to me a still worse evil, in that they are freakish to eye and ear, and go directly counter to the poetry, the living truth and beauty, and the simple homeliness which constitutes nine-tenth of the appeal of Shakespeare.
No, for myself, in order to find a way of approach to the problem I have gone to Shakespeare as one man of the theatre to another. I have tried to understand the methods of his craftsmanship and the conditions under which he worked. I have been governed by a spirit of reasonable humility, but not of slavish reverence. I have had the nerve to consider the two of us co-workers in a theatrical enterprise and have tried to forget that my partner is separated from me by over three hundred years of time and ringing fame. In this light I have had the following conversation with him:

Me: You see, Will, times have changed.
Will: Not as much as you think.
Me: I mean, after all, you did write for the Elizabethan theatre.
Will: I wrote for the theatre.
Me: I beg your pardon. But a great many of your allusions are contemporary. They would be understood only by your Elizabethan audience.
Will: You over-rate them. Most of the time they didn’t know what I was talking about.
Me: Even so, a play like Hamlet, though Danish, has a political background which is Elizabethan English.
Will: Are you reproaching me with writing a play about a country of which I could ascertain little? Too late. Bacon was before you.
Me: Good heavens–no. Frankly, Will, your anachronisms don’t worry me at all–or any of your admirers, I venture to say.
Will: Good. They never worried me, I assure you.
Me: I only mean that much of Hamlet would be a mystery to a modern audience because of contemporary allusions with which your audience would be perfectly familiar.
Will: You repeat yourself so much. I understand. What do you propose to do about it?
Me: We have to resort to a certain amount of cutting.
Will: You want to cut those part of Hamlet which mystify the audience?
Me: (Falling into the trap) Yes.
Will: Will there be much left?
Me: Within reason, Will–within reason. The mysteries of Hamlet are its greatest attractions.
Will: (So help him) You’re informing me. I have cause to be thankful for the riddles of Hamlet. It’s not the best play I ever wrote.
Me: (Shocked) Oh Will–
Will: Or rather it’s not the best play I ever re-wrote. Would you care to hear how I got the assignment?
Me: (breathless) Go on.
Will: Burbage had bought an old play of Kyd’s. It was a terrific affair–full of treasons, incest, killings and poisonings. Burbage had a great time acting it–he went at it with a will and the groundlings loved it–it was the talk of the town. Then, one day, Burbage had an attack of good taste. He said to me: “That old Hamlet play is beginning to nauseate me. Take it and polish it up, Will– give it touch of philosophy, humour and poetry (but don’t injure the melodrama). You could do it in a couple of weeks and we’ll put it on for Christmas.’
Me: A couple of weeks. Good God!
Will: Oh, we worked fast in those days. I didn’t care for the assignment, but how could I refuse?
Me: You had a contract.
Will: Exactly. ‘Twas ever thus. So I went to work on it and suddenly got interested in the thing.
Me: You certainly did.
Will: It got in my blood. I worked for months on it. Burbage was livid at the delay–but I was obstinate. I said I had difficulty getting a treatment. And it was a frightful muddle–an outrageous plot, full of unexplainable loose-ends, inconsistencies and absurdities. I eliminated as many as I could and left the rest to dramatic licence. It was a long time before I finished it and Burbage was very irritated. He said I’d been carried away and had overdone the whole thing. It was too high-brow and ignored the groundlings altogether. I compromised and put back a few killings and some of the early gags, and so it was produced. I think I improved the play but Burbage never really liked it.
Me: God–what a fool–
Will: I wouldn’t say that. An actor, and a good actor– of a certain type.

I could go on indefinitely with a description of these mental and sacrilegious chats but they would get me into trouble–if I’m not in trouble already. People don’t like their Bard meddled with–even in imagination. This will serve to show, in a facetious way perhaps, an attempt to understand the working of Elizabethan theatre, that institution which sheltered and nurtured the tremendous mind of Shakespeare. These were hard-working men of the theatre running a show factory. To get the limited public in at all was a problem and competition was keen. A constant change of bill was necessary and so a very large repertory was required. It was in many ways like a Hollywood film studio. The playwrights worked like screen-writers. There was rarely time for original plots and any old story had to be doctored up and made into a play. And made appealing to an audience composed,  nine-tenth of people who could neither read nor write and who were almost half-wit, intellectually speaking; and the one-tenth of the most brilliant minds of a brilliant age. And out of this hectic muddle came the miracle that is “Hamlet”. What a lesson in adaptability and compromise alone!
I harp on this theme so much because of a belief in Shakespeare’s amazing theatrical flair, and a conviction that if he were here today he would know exactly what to do and would proceed on the following lines.
He would quickly sense that the audience today is neither as clever nor as stupid as his own. The brilliant tenth is not quite as brilliant, but the main body is infinitely quicker and more appreciative. He would not offer his play to them as an Elizabethan curio, but adapt it to their altered requirements.
He would almost certainly cut “Hamlet” to fit the two-and-a-half-hour show period of today. But he would cut in such a way as not to injure the delicate architecture of his work. He would be conscious of the fact that, while in his Globe theatre plays went on for hours without a break, and the audience wandered in and out at will and slept or ate during incomprehensible passages, our spectators attend with religious intensity but require a rest every so often. And so he would allow one or two intermissions (I hope he would agree to two). And he would arrange these intermissions at effective moments in the play’s climaxes.
He would further realise in his cutting that, except in rare instances, we moderns need not to be given expository information in duplicate and triplicate but will remember a fact if told it once.
He would rejoice in and encourage the disappearance of theatrical conventions in acting and the general acceptance of holding ‘the mirror up to nature’.
In regard to the scenic background he could not fail to remember that his plays were written with none in mind and that the action must not wait on scene changes. So that though, I am sure, he would accede to our convention of a background that bears some relation to the place in which the action is supposed to transpire, he would rigidly oppose any elaboration or the slightest halting of tempo to effect changes (with the sole exception of intermissions). To devise such a setting might be, in fact is, difficult, but he would be adamant.
He would finally, I am certain, exult in, and make full use of, our remarkable control of illumination, the very essence of the theatre.
These are some of the things he would do if he were here. As he is not, may we be forgiven for attempting to do them for him.

(originally published in the Stage magazine, November 1936, then reproduced in the official programme; also published in Trivial Fond Records, 1982)