Hamlet – Articles and Reviews – 1
Leslie Howard’s Hamlet – Articles and Reviews
Leslie Howard gave his first performance of Hamlet at the Boston Opera House last evening, appearing in an artistically impressive and richly staged production of Shakespeare’s tragedy that had been made under his personal supervision. The audience assembled to welcome him was large and representative, although it did not fill the vast auditorium.
The applause was cordial rather than demonstrative until after the fall of the final curtain, at 11:45 o’clock, when there was tremendous enthusiasm and no less than 10 recalls for Mr Howard. He responded with a speech of thanks that was not only appreciative, but a bit informative of what an actor has to contend against on the the opening night of a big production.
Every actor who brings a new Hamlet to the stage must expect to have his creation judged by comparison with earlier impersonations of the character rather more than by consideration of his own accomplishments. However intelligent, illusive and convincing his performance may be, praise is always qualified by more or less invidious comparisons.
That there will be wide spread and decidedly controversial comment upon Mr Howard’s Hamlet is inevitable. Those who chose to compare his acting and readings with famous Hamlets of other days, are likely to find little in his impersonation that will please them; but those who desire that “Hamlet” shall be thoroughly “modernized” will no doubt discover much to admire.
Mr Howard, like almost every other able actor since Shakespeare’s day has no doubt regarded Hamlet as the goal of his highest ambition. The only actor of distinction who may be said to have actually failed as Hamlet during the last half century was the late E.S. Willard, an English actor of deserved renown in romantic and melodramatic roles. His failure may have been due to the fact that he was an early pioneer in “modernizing” Hamlet, and in speaking his lines colloquially. In those days, 40 years ago, neither the critically endowed nor the ordinary playgoer wanted an “up-to-date” Hamlet. When John Barrymore played “Hamlet” here 16 years ago he fairly “out-modernized” Mr Willard, and was rewarded with praise from the multitude.
Mr Howard visualizes a much younger Hamlet than the character has often been presented here. At times he seemed almost boyish, an illusion for which there is ample justification in the text of the play. Physically he was realistically effective. His Hamlet was consistently melancholy, never depressively moody. There were moments of poetic idealization, but until the final scene there was little in the impersonation suggestive of tragic inspiration.
His was always an intelligent, skilful and, from a modern point of view, soundly effective performance. His readings of Hamlet’s immortal soliloquies did not lack impressiveness and intelligence of emphasis, but unfortunately he did not always speak sufficient loud to be heard distinctly throughout the large auditorium.
Only warmest praise is due the beautiful stage production that Mr Howard has provided. As a spectacle “Hamlet” has never been more authoritatively and gratifyingly presented. The arrangement of the scenes and the adaptation of the text to a swiftly moving narrative may also be warmly commended. Indeed, Mr Howard’s 1936 revival of “Hamlet” is in many respects a splendid achievement.
Most of the leading roles in Mr Howard’s supporting company are acted by English players and they collectively gave a much more intelligent and gratifying performance than is commonly granted a Shakespearian play in these days.
Pamela Stanley brought personal charm and sympathetic appeal to Ophelia, adding girlish touches that were always in harmony with the character and effectively illusive in the scenes of gentle madness. Mary Servoss played the role of the Queen in substitution for Gertrude Elliott who retired from the cast after the final dress rehearsal Sunday on advice of her oculist. Miss Servoss has often played the role and last evening brought the surety of experience to her portrayal.
Aubrey Mather was an excellent Polonius, commendably refraining from over accenting the comic values of the loquacious dotard, and praise of the same sort was due Stanley Lathbury for his sanely amusing First Grave Digger. Wilfrid Walter wore with dignity the kingly robes of Claudius and gave resonance to his delivery or the verse. John Barclay portrayed the Ghost with more impressiveness and discretion than have many of his predecessors. The great Italian tragedian, Tommaso Salvini, did not consider it beneath his dignity to play the Shade to Edwin Booth’s Hamlet.
Among others who should not be denied mention for contributing to the prevailing effectiveness of the performance were Clifford Evans as Laertes, Joseph Holland as Horatio, Herbert Ranson as the First Player and Albert Carroll as Osric.
Leslie Howard’s engagement here in “Hamlet” will end next Saturday night. Box office reports are that only a few seats are unsold for the remaining performances.
October 20, 1936 (Boston tryout):”Leslie Howard as the Great Dane,” by E.F.M., NY Times
If Boston is any criterion, Leslie Howard’s “Hamlet” will provide ample discussion for Manhattan. Even at is first performance Monday night in the Opera House there was abundant difference of opinion. Those who had seen John Gielgud in London or New York were not averse to voicing comparisons. Less fortunate stay-at-homes were equally ready with opinions. Cynic seated not too near the stage called the production more visual than audible. To confound them, an ovation that came as much from crowded galleries as from below stairs summoned the actor before the curtain for a speech at the end of a long evening.
More than in most Shakespearean ventures, Mr. Howard seems to be feeling his way with the part and the play. Not all that was revealed to Boston will be seen in Philadelphia during the next fortnight or in New York on Nov. 10. Even by the second night, an unfortunately stylized intoning of the play-within-a-play, accompanied by weird motions and strange music, had disappeared. Hamlet’s advice to the players, which had been omitted, was restored. Time has been clipped from the three-and-a-half hours of the opening performance. The closet scene, first perched in an awkward corner of the stage, will be moved nearer the footlights. Alterations in costumes are contemplated.
It is agreed that the settings are uncommonly handsome. On the battlements with sentries silhouetted against a distant perspective, in the eleventh-century splendor of the Danish court, again in the towering prow of a ship that serves as rostrum for the “What is a man?” soliloquy, or in the churchyard with a funeral procession etching lacy shadows, Stewart Chaney has clothed the stage in beauty. Virgil Thomson’s incidental music, at its best, adds to the impression of a barbaric age. Less satisfying are some of the transpositions that Schuyler Watts has made in the text.
But it is on Mr. Howard that most of the discussion centers. To an unusual degree he emphasizes the frailty and youth of Hamlet. In gesture he is sparing, after the fashion of the modern stage. His voice surprisingly misses much of the music of the speech. By choice he does not so much project himself above his surroundings as submerge himself within them. To some, a Hamlet helpless in the web of fate is appealing. It is intellectually defensible. But it tends to a low-pitched performance that misses emotional depths and retards the pulse of excitement.
Supporting parts are carefully acted and, aside from rearrangement of lines, conventionally done. For fillip, Mr. Howard adds a final not too common scene in Fortinbras’s retinue bearing Hamlet from the stage. It is a touch in Keeping with his pictorial treatment of the play.
Leslie Howard brought his Hamlet to Boston for its world premier last night, and revealed to the sparse audience a unique conception of the Prince of Denmark.
The Howard Hamlet is a delicate, sensitive youth, but with scracely a touch of the meloncholy usually associated with the Dane, Sober, self-contained, and introspective–Howard is all these, but with it all the thread of humor Shakespeare most certainly intended his Prince to have runs throughout this entire production. At times the wit is biting, at times it is gentle, and again there is a touch of rich whole-hearted merry-making. It seems almost as though Mr. Howard had determined to avoid the pit-fall John Gielgud’s humorless characterization of Hamlet has apparently fallen into in New York.
It is of course completely superfiuous to mention that Mr. Howard reads his lines with extreme beauty, sympathy, and understanding. Never once is there a suggestion of ranting; indeed at times, in the most intense scenes, there appears almost an underemphasis, but this is more due to Mr. Howard’s determination to create an original Hamlet than from any lack of power. He conveys the effect of almost an unwillingness to believe the accusations of the Ghost at first, and later skillfully avoids the perennial charge of procrastination by the calm, detached manner in which he builds the case against Claudius.
On the whole, however, the skill of his characterization is minimized to a great extent by the adaptation of the play. Apparently unwilling to sacrifice much of the text usually cut, Mr. Schuyler Watts, who prepared the script, has run several of the scenes together, so that there are only three acts instead of Mr. Shakespeare’s five. Thus the emotional stress is carried from scene to scene with scarcely a break; and the rise and fall in pitch that is so noticeable in reading is almost completely lost. Still with all this running together of the scenes much of the original text is deleted, and the action of the scenes so removed is explained in various addenda tacked onto speeches in succeeding scenes. Sometimes this is successful; more often it causes confusion. Undoubtedly various changes will be made before the play reaches New York.
The supporting cast is adequate though not entirely distinguished. John Barclay as the Ghost is excellent in every respect, Aubrey Mather extracts a little too much comedy from the role of Polonius, and the King is a trifle too much the conventional villian. The First grave digger is especially worthy of mention, as indeed the entire graveyard scene is. The play portrayed by the actors before the Court, on the other hand is almost pure Watts, with very little Shakespeare included.
Taken all in all, Mr. Howard’s Hamlet is a production fit to rank with best, and undoubtedly one that will attract more than ordinary attention.