Hamlet – Articles and Reviews – 10
Leslie Howard’s Hamlet – Articles and Reviews
November 26, 1936: “Leslie Howard’s Dane,” The Stage, London
Leslie Howard’s Dane
(From Our Own Correspondent)
New York, November 12, 1936
Rival Hamlet may not spell theatrical novelty any longer, but they can still make theatrical news. Of that–in the words of the Grand Inquisitor–there is no shadow of doubt, particularly after a perusal of the New York journals for the past six weeks or so. For New York is privileged to see two “Hamlets” at the moment. John Gielgud, costarred with Judith Anderson as the Queen, Arthur Byron as Polonius, and Lilian Gish as Ophelia, opened under Guthrie McClintic’s management and direction at the Empire on October 8. One month later, on November 10, Leslie Howard, supported by Wilfrid Walter, Mary Servoss, Pamela Stanley and others, appeared at the Imperial under his own direction and management in a production that has been long in preparation. Meanwhile, we have been living and breathing “Hamlet.” Half the theatrical gossip recently has been of “hamlet, the revue burlesque “Hamlet”; the wireless blares “Hamlet.” And the theatre-going public seems to have spent most of its leisure time asking itself which of the “Hamlets”–the recent visitor from England, preceded by a high reputation in the role and supported by a cast of exceptional local drawing power, or the long-popular Leslie Howard, whose Dane would be a query and whose carefully chosen entourage is relatively unknown to Broadway–would carry off the palm. Which would be the better production, the better Hamlet? Would either make a run? And more tantalising still, would either eclipse John Barrymore’s record–of 101 performances–for “Hamlet” in New York?
Well, the second of the combatants is in the lists, and some of these questions can be tentatively answered. Mr. Gielgud has caught on after a slow start–his notices, though all more than favourable, were not all enthusiastic. He bids fair to realise his admitted desire to smash the record. He will be helped rather than hindered by the competition. Mr. Howard’s Hamlet runs far behind in general critical estimation, and the future of his very ambitious and handsome production is still a query. But whatever the verdict and whatever the fate, it has qualities that make it memorable.
Perhaps the aim and purpose of Mr. Howard’s Hamlet can best be studied in a single scene–the scene that is likely to be the focal point of such discussion as this production may evoke. At the climax of the second act of Schuyler Watt’s three-act arrangement of the play the curtains part not on any of the usual climatic high spots but on a striking setting for the comparatively rarely given episode of Hamlet’s departure for England. Between two massive walls, in a sort of dock in the centre of the stage, the huge prow of a Viking ship topped by an immense brown bellying sail, thrust itself forward ominously towards the audience. Fortinbras enters, has his short scene with the Captain and departs. Hamlet appears on the prow–a little, gentle figure, extraordinarily pathetic, seemingly almost crushed by the threat of that bellying sail and the weight of those ponderous walls–and delivers the “How all occasions do inform against me” soliloquy.
The speech is the turning point in the interpretation: the scene epitomises that interpretation. From the rise of the first curtain on the battlement of Elsinore the main emphasis had been all upon crushing circumstance and human insignificance. In the first platform scene the Ghost had loomed uncannily gigantic. In the first court scene the frail figure of the Prince, placed below King, Queen, and revellers on the middle elevation of a terraced setting, had been deliberately dwarfed. Hamlet’s colloquy with the spirit of his murdered sire had–unwarrantly, one thinks–been transferred for deeper threat and mystery to within the ponderous and marble jaws of the tomb. In his acting, too, Mr. Howard did all in his power to lay stress on the slightness of the character, its constitutional unreadiness, and–what is more unusual–went out of his way as actor and director to emphasise its sweetness. A hundred touches–the eyes of Hamlet following Ophelia, the placing of a hand on the shoulder of Horatio, compassion by Polonius for the young man’s supposed madness, even a kind of groping on the part of the tetchy Claudius for his nephew’s understanding and affection–were introduced to expound the sentiment in Hamlet’s relation with the world, and his incapacity as an instrument of vengeance. “From this time forth,” resolves Hamlet on the prow, “my thoughts be bloody, or be nothing worth.” But is is a desperation resolve, and as the curtain falls you know well that they will not long be sanguinary.
The rest is anti-climax. Through the graveyard scene Hamlet moves as an almost wholly listless figure, but faintly stirred to wrath, and little if anything to vengeance: and the dénouement, the carnage at the end, seems more than usual the fruit of circumstance. In short, Mr. Howard offers an intentionally futile Hamlet–and unfortunately it is in the nature of things that such a Hamlet will tend to be dramatically disappointing as well.
A Forbes-Robertson might put such a Hamlet over. Mr. Howard is not Forbes-Robertson, though at its best his playing has traces of the Robertson style. He is notably ill at ease and at a loss in the soliloquies, which he seems to treat as melodramatic monologues. His repertory of gesture is spare, and his voice has little range. His Closet scene is poor, and in most moments of bitterness or wrath he is apt to be bombastic or flat.
But that said, the worst is said. This Hamlet also has excellences of a high kind. Mr. Howard speaks the verse clearly and beautifully and with perfect cadence, and he shirks no difficulties. He has studied the part with uncommon care, slurs nothing, knows what he is trying to do, and does it. New York has not seen in the last twenty years a Hamlet more consistent with itself.
And Mr. Howard has done his casting with great care. Wilfred Walter as Claudius, Aubrey Mather as Polonius,and Albert Carroll as Osric are all admirable. Stanley Lathbury is an amusingly sour and cantankerous gravedigger, quite out of the ordinary. Pamela Stanley is the most touching Ophelia we have seen here in many years (incidentally she introduces a highly effective novelty by playing the mad scenes not in the traditional white, but in tattered mourning). Mary Servoss as the Queen is an able substitute for Gertrude Elliott, who was to have returned to the stage in this production, but reluctantly surrendered her role, on doctor’s orders, during the rehearsals. The text and production are less unequivocally to be praised. Shuyler Watts’s acting version contains some remarkable elisions (e.g., “thy knotted and combined locks,” etc.) and the last act is hopelessly “pied” with nothing gained, so far as one can judge on a single hearing. Stewart Chaney’s eleventh-century Danish décor, though very handsome, is just a little too ponderous, and the tomb setting is downright absurd. All in all it confirmed one in the belief that the less scenery visited on Shakespeare the better. Furthermore, in spite of the apparent keynote of Mr. Howard’s interpretation, one strongly suspects that it would be far more effective against a simple background.
Hamlet on the New York Stage
From our New York correspondent
The arrival of Mr. Leslie Howard’s long-awaited production of Hamlet at the Imperial Theatre gave New York its first opportunity in several years to compare two modern interpretations of Shakespeare’s troubled Dane. The production in which Mr. John Gielgud appears is still at the Empire. Mr. Howard’s production, like its predecessor, is staged in the best of modern styles and so far as visible splendour is concerned is generally admitted to be superior. In the playing of some of the minor parts it stands the inevitable comparison well, Miss Pamela Stanley’s Ophelia, for instance, being notably better than that of Miss Lilian Gish in the Gielgud version. But it is impossible for even Mr. Howard’s most loyal friends to find grounds for favourable comparison of his art with that of Mr. Gielgud. The playing of the two has, as was inevitable, certain superficial similarities. Both interpretations are modern in the sense that the playing is quiet and the thought, rather than the music, of the lines is stressed. But where Mr. Gielgud, rubbing his own personality against the familiar lines brought sparks of new and often vivid meaning, Mr. Howard seems content with mere euphony.
Mr. Howard’s Hamlet is, of course, graceful, and in the accustomed black, topped by a blond wig, he is an appealing figure against the massive, architectural set designed by Mr. Stewart Chaney. His voice has a gentleman’s cultivation, and its even flow is troubled by few storms of feeling. Mr. Gielgud’s interpretation stresses the craftiness of Hamlet’s simulated madness, but Mr. Howard goes one better, or, as it turns out, one worse, his Hamlet remaining at all times entirely sane and logical, so that one wonders how the theory that he was mad ever got about in Elsinore. But the major disappointment was in Mr. Howard’s failure to bring to the playing of those quieter passages in which it was expected he would be at his best the new inflections, reflecting new realizations of the character, which are obviously what the modern style of acting has to bring to Shakespeare. Mr. Gielgud’s playing of the part is full of such flashes–a new emphasis in the soliloquy or in the nostalgic speech over Yorick’s skull cut through the familiar music of the lines and brought the listener up standing to reconsider the whole character. Mr. Howard has, a dozen times in his American career, done more for the slight dialogue of contemporary drama than he succeeds in doing for Shakespeare’s. It seems possible on the opening night that physical weariness brought on by the strain of preparing the play in the course of the tour for its New York opening might have had something to do with the actor’s graceful inadequacy. But it is probable that the fault goes deeper: that Mr. Howard, in contrast with Mr. Gielgud, has formed for himself no sustained view of Hamlet’s character and that it is on this rather fundamental oversight that he stumbles.