Hamlet – Articles and Reviews – 2
Leslie Howard’s Hamlet – Articles and Reviews
October 27, 1936 (Philadelphia tryout): “Leslie Howard Plays Hamlet,” by Linton Martin, Philadelphia Inquirer
Leslie Howard Plays “Hamlet”
English Actor Stars in His Own Production at the Forrest Theatre
by Linton Martin
Leslie Howard’s long cherished ambition to play the greatest role in all dramatic literature was disclosed last night with more than fresh effectiveness.
His impersonation of Shakespeare’s great Dane is far from being just one more Hamlet, with a different intellectual inflection here, and a different emotional mood and modulation there. His is a Hamlet that is at once boyish and believable (1), personable, persuasive and progressively powerful: A Hamlet whose impulses and ideas spring spontaneously from the changing action, and whose course of conduct is imposed upon him from without by the unequal odds that enmesh him in his struggle to avenge wrong with with retribution.
This would seem, obviously and overwhelmingly, to be the only logical and possible approach to the infinitely familiar and famous part. That it has not been so played–that it has been, indeed, approached from a diametrically different angle–everybody familiar with the Hamlets of history knows. Most of them have been “interpretations” based upon individual ideas about the inexhaustibly rich role, “interpretations” cleverly conceived to pluck out the heart of Hamlet’s mystery. Thus we have had Hamlets who have been, in turn, essentially and primarily neurotic, or introspective, or obsessed, or mad, or murderous, or moody, or sardonic, or bitter, or any one of a number of things, without taking in the whole of Hamlet’s horizon, or the fullness of his philosophy.
A Fresh Characterization
Mr. Howard brings his Hamlet on the scene at the outset as an almost bewildered boy, with no preconceived notions of conduct. Only after the awful revelation of his father–an exceedingly substantial ghost last night–does he begin to get his bearings, and only by degrees do his mental mists turn from fog to force, from uncertainty to intention that is crystallized when the King’s reaction to the play scene leaves no doubt.
This characterization is as captivating as it is convincing. And it is matched by Mr. Howard’s appearance and his delivery of his lines. Although his eleventh century Danish prince wears the same type haircut as his Renaissance Italian youth of Verona wore in the recent film of “Romeo and Juliet,” a sort of Garbo bob, it becomingly enhances his slight, youthful figure, while his utterance of the lines, with their matchless music and surpassing profundity of feeling, steers a happy course between overly poetic rant, and prose realism. It was always unaffected and spontaneous, and when bitterness intruded, as in the scene with Hamlet’s mother, or uncertainty in the soliloquy, it gave added emphasis.
Production Is Impressive
If tere has been no mention of cast of production thus far it is because Hamlet himself is, after all, the whole show. But Mr. Howard, in his initial venture “on his own,” has done himself proud on both counts. Utilizing a semi-permanent setting, which looks like solid masonry, he achieves–or Mr. Chaney does for him–scenes of impressive beauty.
A cast that is good if not uniformly great gives effective support.
The Call Boy’s Chat
Mr. Howard’s Uninhibited Interpretation
Since that distant day when Dick Burbage walked out on the bare stage of the Globe Theatre on the Thames Bankside in London and started something with the first “Hamlet” of history–of stage history, that is to say–in 1603, the world has had almost as many Hamlets as a tree has leaves. Or so it seems. But if time has brought forward a nearly innumerable array of actors in the past several centuries and more, there have been even more “explanations” and “interpretations” of the Hamlet “mystery.” These explanation have ranged from the erudite to the absurd, from the obvious to the involved. A whole library in itself has been built up on the subject, while on the stage Shakespeare’s great Dane has been fairly buried beneath the trapping of tradition.
With his new production of the play, now visiting us at the Forrest before moving to New York, there to challenge comparison with John Gielgud’s performance, Leslie Howard has done a quite considerable service for Shakespeare. He has also crowned his own career thus far with a persuasive, plausible, progressively powerful performance of the greatest role in all dramatic literature by approaching it from a fresh and unaffected angle. And he has accomplished all this by a means and method which would seem to be simplicity itself. He has taken “Hamlet” out of the clinic and the classroom into the natural light of the day. He has tossed aside the traditions of time, and as the famous figure emerges again, not as the mummy it has almost been made by some solemn scholars, but as a man–a real man, a rational, even normal man who finds himself in highly abnormal circumstances, and who can more readily be nasty than nice.
Mr. Howard projects “Hamlet” in a light which exchanges the spotlight of artifice for the sunlight of reality. His Prince of Denmark is a youth of sanity and sagacity, not the melancholy dreamer of mental mists and moody maunderings he has sometimes been made. It is good to ave the part so played, for in thus humanizing Hamlet, Mr. Howard brings him down to our day in character if not chronology, reminding us all over again how much of Hamlet there is in each of us.
Comparisons Are Odious–to the Actors
Until Mr. Howard’s Hamlet came along, your Call Boy had reveled in the recollection of John Barrymore’s Hamlet as by all odds, and any evens, the best on the boards in this generation. That was a Hamlet of sardonic sarcasm, homicidal humor that was almost self-destroying, biting bitterness. Mr. Howard’s amiable English eyes could not summon, if they would, the wild look, the somewhat fey effect, of the Barrymore eye. The rather more mature manner of the Barrymore characterization was far from the slight figure, the almost eager boyishness of the Howard Hamlet, though, oddly enough, when Barrymore played the part fourteen years ago he was three years younger than Howard is now. For those with an appetite for information about actors’ ages, John, now 54, was 40 then, while Leslie is 43 now. That’s what “Who’s Who in the Theatre” unequivocally claims, at any rate.
Comparisons, always odious to the actor, need not be indulged in now, beyond the physical factors just mentioned. But looking back beyond Barrymore, at the “interpretations” of actors remote and recent, it becomes apparent that performances may become hopelessly of the past, while a play may remain of the present–that is, if it is a mighty masterpiece, or, as Ben Jonson said of Shakespeare: “Not for an age but for all time.”
Indeed, the freshness of effect with which the lines come over the footlights at the Howard “Hamlet” affirm afresh the fact that, however familiar we may be with every inch and aspect of them, we may spend all of our lives growing up to the greatness of genius as expressed in art. The farther we travel in our own individual evolutions the more we find of food for our souls and our spirits in these inexhaustible achievements. And hearing “Hamlet” again–hearing it, because there is always more to meet the mind and the emotions than the proudest and most impressive production can ever offer for the eye–is to make us marvel that Shakespeare had anything left for any other play, before or after it. For into its lines, with nearly every phrase become the current coinage of our common and unconscious quotation, he poured his genius with unstinted prodigality. For the first-time-“Hamlet”-hearer it must come as a thrilling experience to hear these familiar phrases and realize whence they came.
Kinship of “Hamlet” and “Peter Pan”
Although the reviewer tried to say that Mr. Howard’s Hamlet was at once “boyish and believable,” the printed page last Tuesday turned it into “boyish and unbelievable.” Evidently Mrs. Howard is a lady who in all innocence imagines that the typewritten remarks of reviewers go through no sea changes in their crowded course through the composing room. And so, as she and Mr. Howard scanned the “boyish and unbelievable” over the breakfast grapefruit and English tea last Tuesday morning, Mrs. Howard shook her head and murmured: “See, I told you, Leslie, your Hamlet should have a little less of Peter Pan.”
The Call Boy can see what she means. Anyway, while “believable” was what was originally written, this Hamlet did look almost unbelievably boyish, come to think of it, in contrast to Mr. Howard’s middle-aged Romeo of recent film fame. For as Hamlet on the stage he looks far younger than as Romeo on the screen. His Hamlet seems as spontaneous as it seems unstudied–which is the true triumph of study, or, to put it more informally, to know it well enough to forget it. It takes cue and keynote from what Hamlet commissions his mother, the Queen, to tell the King: “That I essentially am not in madness, but mad in craft.”
Perhaps the Howard Hamlet may be most open to adverse opinion because its frenzies are restrained. Hamlet, though sane, possessed an ungovernable and vicious temper, which got the best of him when he was overwhelmed by the enormity of the wrong he was abjured by his father’s ghost to right through retribution. Mentality and emotion went and-in-hand with Hamlet.
Since this is a flesh-and-blood Hamlet, perhaps Mr. Howard was not entirely fair to himself, as quoted in an interview printed in the London Era last summer. His talk for type quotes him then as saying: “All my acting is purely mental, telepathic, an attempt to get through to other people’s minds… I’m no good at physical or emotional acting; I try to communicate thought rather than feeling.”
(1) In the original article believable was misprinted as unbelievable. See the following article by Linton Martin.