Hamlet – Articles and Reviews – 11
Leslie Howard’s Hamlet – Articles and Reviews
December 5, 1936: “Notes to Correspondents,” by Richard Lockridge, NY Sun
Notes to Correspondents
To several courteous correspondents who have suggested a second visit to Leslie Howard’s “Hamlet” intimating that Mr. Howard did himself a little less than justice on the opening night and should be reconsidered:
Even critics can sometimes take good advice, I saw Mr. Howard’s Hamlet again on Thursday afternoon, and the advisers are quite right. Mr. Howard is incomparably better than he was on the opening night. He is, as a matter of fact now giving an extremely good performance.
Missing is that curious perfunctoriness which did not so much mar as eliminate altogether his interpretation of Hamlet on the rather doleful evening when he began it at the Imperial Theater. Gone is that lackadaisical elocution, which so puzzled those of us who hold Mr. Howard high in esteem as an actor. Where he was vague and listless, he is now forceful. He has deepened and strengthened his playing at a hundred points; watching him now, his Hamlet lives, a man sensitive and thoughtful and not majestic, but forceful and with curbed passion evident under a quiet exterior. Save for the too many futile gestures, which distract from and weaken his playing, giving it a fidgety aspect which everything else denies, Mr. Howard is providing now very much the Hamlet most of us hoped, and confidently expected, he would give. Backed by the dignity of Stewart Cheney’s fine settings, supported by a cast which seems only the more excellent on second viewing, Mr. Howard has now at the Imperial a “Hamlet” which is subtle, intelligent and impressive.
But do not make any mistake. This is not the “Hamlet” which he showed us on the opening night when, quite on his own volition and under no sort of compulsion, he brought it to the test. If he was not then ready to play Hamlet or if the strain of preparing the production had left him too tired to give us the Hamlet he had made ready, no one stood with a sword drawn, compelling him to do or die. We could all have waited for him, if he had asked It. But he made no such request. He invited the critics, knowing as well as anybody that they could write only about what they saw. If what they saw was not what Mr. Howard really had to show them, that was Mr. Howard’s misfortune. It was also entirely Mr. Howard’s fault.
Leslie Howard’s “Hamlet” When Seen a Second Time
A Reconsideration of the Production of the Tragedy That Has Been Playing at the Imperial
by John Mason Brown
So many letters have poured into this office urging me to see Leslie Howard’s “Hamlet” a second time, that this week I followed what from the first had been my own intentions, and revisited Elsinore as it is set up on the stage of the Imperial.
As a production Mr. Howard’s mounting of the tragedy seems to me, when re-seen, as when I first witnessed it, an unusually impressive one. Not only impressive but in many respects better than is the production with which Mr. McClintic has supplied John Gielgud.
Stewart Chaney’s costumes and backgrounds for an eleventh century Denmark are as a whole stunning and far more satisfying than are Jo Mielziner’s cramped visualization of a Stuart England.
Aubrey Mather’s Polonius grows in mellowness, point, and comicality into a truly admirable characterization when once the hazard of the speech of advice to Laertes is passed. The earlier scenes of Pamela Stanley’s Ophelia remain as uncommonly good as they were on the opening night. The Horatio of Joseph Holland, the Laertes of Clifford Evans, and the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern of Denis Green and Winston O’Keefe are far better played than the same parts are in the Gielgud performance. In every visual and secondary respect this Howard “Hamlet” is a notable one. And the comparison between the two interpretations are comparisons which should prove challenging as well as exciting to any one interested in acting, Shakespeare on the modern stage, or the theatre in general.
But there remains the question of the Prince himself as Mr. Howard plays him. To say Mr. Howard is not better than he was at the New York premiere would be to lie. The stage-fright from which rumor says he suffered has left him. His Hamlet is more vocal in its tragic speeches, and more humorous in its lighter episodes. The first-night freeze which apparently congealed it has begun to thaw to a noticeable extent. Yet, if I may say so without being discourteous or running the risk of being abused by its many stanch admirers, it continues to be (in my humble estimation) anything but a good Hamlet.
It has achieved its moments of competence. Frequently the words in its great speeches are read well enough from the point of view of the words themselves. And often when Mr. Howard stands still, with a spotlight trained upon his handsome face, his Prince creates arresting pictures. But there is more to Hamlet than what his words say. There is also that vast part of him which lies behind his words, the meaning of which an actor must make clear and at the disclosure of which Mr. Gielgud proves himself to be such an extraordinary master.
In a broad, mocking and untortured manner, Mr. Howard has now begun to indicate the “antic disposition” assumed by the Dane. He makes the Prince’s feigned madness laughable, wistful and to a certain extent “cute.” That is all. The real anguishes of Hamlet are not indicated in his playing. His performance, though much improved, remains to my way of thinking external from beginning to end.
Mr. Howard has attempted to give his prince a physical expansiveness he did not at first possess. He now struts and strides and gestures consistently. But just as the subtle dilemmas of Hamlet’s mind elude Mr. Howard, so does his newly attempted bodily freedom overtax his equipment as an actor. The awkwardness of Mr. Howard’s gestures becomes more and more apparent as they increase in frequency. They are stiff, puppetlike gestures, with good intentions as their chief recommendation.
Battered though his Hamlet is, it continues to be a negative performance. Frequently it finds the text well spoken. But for me at least it turns that text into something which is colorless and unexciting. It does this if for no other reasons than that it has no revelations to make, that it is unequal to the true demands of the part and that Mr. Howard appears to have appropriated Hamlet’s speeches without ever having taken possession of his mind.
It is simple fact which more than any other causes the Howard “Hamlet” to resemble a fine, beautiful arch from which the keystone has been omitted. Mr. Howard does charmingly as Mr. Howard. But as Hamlet, I still insist, he does very little, though he does do much more than he did at first.
January 17, 1937: “Leslie Howard: He Realizes a Life’s Ambition in His Production of ‘Hamlet'” by Florence Fisher Perry, The Pittsburgh Press
He Realizes a Life’s Ambition in His Production of ‘Hamlet’
by Florence Fisher Parry
Percy Burton, who is general manager Leslie Howard, all week has been demoralizing the routine of good newspapermen by his persuasive and devastating presence. When he enters an office, be it in the dead-line or a great news scoop, everything stops; it is not humanly possible to resist his robust onslaught.
He knows more people, more stories, than any other one person in the theater world; and is definitely the best raconteur of his experiences that I have ever met. Once wound up, his yarns spin their length with outrageous speed. Most of them, I trust, are true; but if they’re not they should be. He tells me that he is writing his reminiscences. They should be the fruitiest that the theater has yet produced.
He tells of the night in Boston when Noel Coward came back stage, after seeing one of Howard’s first performances of Hamlet, and saying to him: “Leslie, you’ll have to be Hammier. Hamlet, to be credited, must have a touch of Ham in him.” Whether or not Howard has since needed his friend’s advice, I do not know. Certainly the performance I saw in New York showed no evidence of it.
The Ranting Type!
Which reminds me of a story I told Mr. Burton, and which, is definitely, sternly, true. A great friend and admirer of Leslie Howard stalked into my office last week to herald his master’s engagement in Pittsburgh. I expressed myself as being delighted, and proffered the information that I had seen both Hamlets (Gielgud’s and Howard’s), in New York.
“And your preference?” he demanded sternly.
“Oh, I see. You prefer the ranting type of acting.”
Be that as it may, comparisons are odorous, and I shall strive not to make them here. Also, there is no occasion. We are informed on good authority that Mr. Gielgud’s Hamlet will not be exhibited n Pittsburgh, as his New York engagement has been so extended that after its forced termination he will have time for only a few engagements in cities near New York before sailing for England to meet the rigors of his new assignments.
Personally, I am grieved that we may not be exhilarated by the opportunity to make our own lively comparison; for I am of the mind that both Hamlets have benefited immeasurably by the acute differences of opinion that they have excited. Never has Hamlet been given so much unsolicited and unpaid-for publicity as has followed in the wake of the Messrs. Gielgud’s and Howard’s performances.
Each of these worthy gentlemen owes the other a deep debt of thanks. Nothing thrives so mightily as a thing under fire. I know that the case of my humble output, when it does not draw fire I know it is slipping. Controversy is the very breath of life to all creative forms.
The Two Poles
In the case of the two Hamlets of this year, it is impossible for any witness of the two of them to be unpartisan. One simply HAS to accept either one or the other; there is no middle course. I doubt if there ever have been two actors who embody as contrasting and wholly OPPOSITE conceptions of the role, as Mr. Gielgud and Mr. Howard. If you accept one, you reject the other. Their respective characteristics do not converge upon a single point.
But, relieved of the necessity of making more than general comparisons, my delight over the engagement of Leslie Howard in Pittsburgh is genuine and profound. It is unthinkable that any thoughtful person able to see the performance would not avail himself of the privilege; for the production is magnificent and the acting from all members of the cast of a very high order. Mr. Howard cannot be too much praised for his generous contribution to the theater. Par of his own earned fortune has gone into the production; it is wholly his own. He has spent two years of secret preparation to which he has subjected his own characterization of Hamlet.
Moreover, he has approached his task, not with solemnity, but with fine intelligence. He offers the modern theatergoer a thoughtful and spirited conception; new but far more profound than mere novelty; challenging to tradition, for it ignores many fixed “rules” and engages in provocative innovations; but at all times an invitation to the intellect, the eye and the ear.
A ‘New’ Text
As you perhaps know, Mr Howard’s conception differs from precedent in that he conceives the King to be the dominating and principal character in the play; and this placing of the accent relegates Hamlet to second place in his scheme. Also, it explains and excuses Mr. Howard’s own rather pastel interpretation of the Prince.
He conceives Hamlet to be, not Fortune’s fool alone, but King Claudius’s as well, doomed to a fate of utter intellectuality. We are informed, int the brochures which announce Mr. Howard’s Hamlet, that the text of Shakespeare’s play was “edited with certain particular scenic backgrounds in mind:” so we are let to assume that the settings were Mr. Howard’s first concern, and that the liberties which he took with the text were the result of physical requirements of conformity rather than any desire to disarrange the original text. For the text does not necessarily some rather startling juxtaposition of arrangement.
The “explanation” follows:
“The play has been divided into three acts. Mr. Howard during the editing of the script discovered that the play fell naturally into three divisions: one, Hamlet’s quest for revenge; two, hs campaign of lunacy; and three, a changed Hamlet, the fatalist. So the curtain is lowered twice during the performance.”
As to the production of Mr. Howard’s Hamlet, whatever may be our attitude toward its control over the text, we must accord it the full measure of our respect. It is impressive and wholly satisfying to the eye. There is about it a dark, somber, oppressiveness which strikes the ominous note persistently but not too insistently. The physical production is, indeed, more satisfying than Mr. McClintic’s, and often gives new illumination to the text.
Indeed, Mr. Howard’s fidelity to his conception of the production as a whole, has been the very instrument by which his own performance has been made seem smaller in stature than it indeed is.
January 21, 1937: “Shakespeare Returns To American Stage This Season in All His Majesty” by Leslie Eichel, Central Press Columnist, The Times from Hammond, Indiana
Shakespeare holds the boards in America this year, On the stage we see Leslie Howard’s “Hamlet,” John Gielgud’s “Hamlet” and Walter Huston’s “Othello.” And, in many movie theaters, we still can see “Romeo and Juliet,” “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and ‘As You Like It.” Of the stage productions we have seen so far only Leslie Howard’s “Hamlet.” It is a magnificent production. It is a beautifully, intelligently spoken Hamlet. As has been remarked by many reviewers, Leslie Howard has not the passion and power to make a great Hamlet or even the traditional Hamlet. His methods of interpretation does, however, bring to light passages that remain un-highlighted, unaccented in the traditional manner of characterization. Thus, in the hinterlands at least, he stirs once more the deep reasoning that this mightiest of Shakespeare’s plays engenders. Hamlet’s philosophy is timeless. Written in lines that require a master’s art, the master must come to speak them ere we understand fully. And for that we are grateful to Leslie Howard.
The night of the final performance of “Hamlet” at the Imperial Theatre, New York, Leslie Howard’s dressing room was as crowded as a bargain counter. The star himself was sitting at his make-up table, still dressed in his “Hamlet” costume.
In response to a casual question by a ubiquitous newspaperman, who had gently but firmly forced his way into the room, as to what were really the underlying ideas behind this particular production of “Hamlet,” all five men began to talk simultaneously, but by common consent the privilege of explaining was accorded Mr. Howard.
“Well, in the first place,” said he, “the play in its original form is much too long for presentation to the average theatre audience of today. Uncut, ‘Hamlet’ runs five hours. Our version is over three hours, which is closer to the accepted length of most plays in the modern theatre.
“But at that there has been no radical cutting indulged in. All the important scenes have been left in, and we have also restored a few which are seldom played.
“Then we have divided the play into three acts, and for a very good reason. After we had finished our adaptation, we discovered that the play fell naturally into three divisions. First, there is Hamlet’s desire and quest for revenge. That constitutes the first act. Then there is the Prince’s campaign of feigned lunacy, which takes us through the second act. Finally, in the third act, a new Hamlet appears, the fatalist. So we have two intermissions, each of which occurs at a logical point in the drama. There are no pauses for scene changes to detract from the forward sweep of the action; that is, none save the two intermissions I have mentioned.”
“We have tried to make every little bit of the play fit into one unified whole. The soliloquies, for instance, important as they are, have not been given an exaggeration. They simply come in their logical place, and contribute to the movement of the play rather than to slow it down.”
This production of “Hamlet” with its illustrious star, will be presented at the Orpheum Theatre Monday evening, February 1st, when local playgoers will have the opportunity to decide for themselves whether or not Howard has also developed an equally rare talent as a producer.