Hamlet – Articles and Reviews – 3
Leslie Howard’s Hamlet – Articles and Reviews
November 11, 1936: “Leslie Howard Brings to Town the Second of the Season’s Hamlets,” by Brooks Atkinson, NY Times
After talking of “Hamlet” for two or three seasons, Leslie Howard has come to the point of playing him in a handsome production that filled the stage of the Imperial last evening. Since Hamlet has been for some time his personal idol, Mr. Howard has laid all his actor’s resources at the feet of the greatest part in the Shakespeare procession. The resources are happily familiar to Mr. Howard’s multitudinous admirers–a gracious figure, a beguiling personal beauty, a winning manner, a pleasing voice, an alert intelligence. Add also an integrity of spirit and the personal courage to stand simultaneous comparison with Mr. Gielgud’s more celebrated portrait.
Those being the resources, Mr. Howard’s Hamlet is the logical sum of them. He providently shaped the part after his own dimensions. He is frank and unstudied, plaintive on the whole, a prince by native sensitivity and nicety of perception. He speaks with the lucidity of a cultivated man’s address. No one would wish to upbraid him for not transcending his own nature, for he never violates the truth of his own character on the stage. But is necessary to add that most of the qualities that make Hamlet a commanding figure lie outside Mr. Howard’s compass. There is in his acting none of the bite, savage irony, mental turmoil, raging despair and intellectual torment of a man set apart by fate to put the unjointed times back into wholesome shape. Although his Hamlet is attractive in the opening scenes, it is not powerful enough to hold the play together. He is lucent but tame on a wild and whirling occasion.
Collaborating with his associates, he has given the play a thoughtful and beautiful production. Form Stewart Chaney’s imposing settings and vivid costumes of the eleventh century to the direction by Mr. Howard and John Houseman there is nothing tepid or nebulous about the staging. The play-scene has been reanimated by a crisp stylization in the mist of a realistic scene, according to Agnes de Mille’s pattern; and Virgil Thomson has composed some flourishes and fanfares in an exotic manner that serves as excellent theatre.
Nor has Mr. Howard been parsimonious toward the other players in his company. Pamela Stanley plays the most genuinely affecting Ophelia this theatregoer has ever seen. Wilfrid Walter’s King is a domineering monarch with a quick mind and a royal presence. Although Aubrey Mather’s aggressive Polonius might be difficult to reconcile with some of the garrulous lines, it is original, interesting and comic. John Barclay’s ghost is likewise exhilarating, and Clifford Evans plays the part of Laertes with manly compassion. As for the Queen, Mary Servoss is more commonplace, and the First Gravedigger of Stanley Lathbury lacks the pawkiness of Shakespearean clowning.
Obviously, Mr. Howard has set his heart on staging an uncluttered, unhackneyed “Hamlet” that would not stink of the past nor spell of the study. He has succeeded honorably; in many respects this is a notable production. But the greatness of the drama hangs on the greatness of Hamlet. Here the Hamlet is only amiable and accomplished, and perhaps that is inevitable in an actor whose gifts are so individually fastidious.
Tells Audience of “Ordeal”
The appearance of Leslie Howard in “Hamlet” at the Imperial Theatre last evening was the occasion for one of the largest and most brilliant first-night turnouts of the season. At the close of the three-hour performance, Mr. Howard took repeated curtain calls, surrounded by his large company. After the tenth curtain, he stepped forward and spoke briefly.
“Well, ladies and gentlemen,” he said, “here we are at last. I know I can’t tell you of the first-night audience what composite ogres you represent. I assure you, this has been an ordeal.”
After remarking upon the reception of the play in Boston and Philadelphia and the apprehension of the company over the first-night reception in New York, Mr Howard continued:
“There is a terrible penalty attached to acting Hamlet. Comparisons are unavoidable, not only with the present but with memories of the past. Worst of all is the conception which each person has placed upon the character. There is something in ‘Hamlet’ which each of us could use. ‘Hamlet’ belongs to all men and therefore nobody will receive 100 per cent approval.”
Leslie Howard’s “Hamlet” Presented at the Imperial
Shakespeare’s Tragedy Given an Elaborate Production in Its Second Revival of the Season
by John Mason Brown
Although there are now two productions of “Hamlet” in town, there remains only one Hamlet. And that is the Prince John Gielgud is playing at the Empire.
Leslie Howard’s revival at the Imperial has a costly look. The ancient Denmark in which it is set is majestically suggested. It is placed for the most part by Stewart Chaney in a great hall of the palace which, though it is used as freely as if it were a combination dining room and living room, is none the less impressive. Its scenes move swiftly in the conventional order. There are many buglers, banner carriers and supernumeraries. Several of the secondary characters are well played. And quite a number of the episodes are visually interesting. But if ever the Prince of Denmark met with a tragedy, he meets with one at the Imperial. For the old saying about “Hamlet” with Hamlet left out has at last become a reality.
Mr. Howard’s Prince
This “Hamlet” does not find Mr. Howard playing Hamlet. It merely finds him being Mr. Howard, which is quite a different thing. To be sure, he has memorized Hamlet’s lines. But Mr. Howard speaks them as some talented high-school boy might speak them. Although he knows the words, he does not even attempt to suggest what they are saying.
Does this Hamlet feign madness? Does he surrender to the “antic disposition”? Has he a deep and probing mind? Is he a tortured spirit? Has he a sardonic wit? Is he plotting to avenge his father’s murder? What is his attitude toward the Ghost? Does he love his mother? Has he any interest in the play-within-the-play? Is he a fellow who is tormented by the fate which has overtaken him? Does he jest with Polonius and mock Rosencrantz and Guilderstern? Has he a poet’s soul and a thinker’s passion? Do the problems of life and death agitate his mind?
These are only a few of the questions to which every Hamlet must find his own answer but which Mr. Howard leaves completely unanswered. He does not interpret Hamlet; he merely repeats his lines. He walks through Elsinore as if he were walking down Bond Street. His spirit is still in “slacks” even if his body is not. He is handsome, and one would say, to look at him, a thinker. But he plays Hamlet as if he were acting “The Petrified Forest” in ancient dress. He is whimsical where e should be tragic; quizzical where he ought to be ironic; mute where he needs to be eloquent. His clothes, though becoming, appear to embarrass him, because they are not what he is accustomed to. They make him seem awkward in many of his movements and call for gestures which he is not able to supply.
Words, Words, Words
It is not that Mr. Howard understates the part. It is merely that he does not state it at all. He never reaches for its meanings, is never troubled by its dilemmas and seems unaware of its possibilities. His Hamlet is empty; hopelessly empty. His thoughts do not find expression in his face, his body or his voice. He speaks clearly, but what he speaks are words, words, words.
He is such a suave fellow throughout that is impossible to understand what the King and Polonius are talking about when they refer to his madness. If he is feigning madness, then O.Z. Whitehead, who plays the Second Gravedigger, is pretending to be Mussolini.
There is no method in Mr. Howard’s madness, or purpose in his playing which is made apparent. He dodges not only the intellectual content and the poetic beauty of the verse but also its theatrical implication. His by-play is as uninventive as his readings are innocent of dramatic significance. All of the qualities of understatement which rightly enough have endeared him as an actor in modern scripts are exposed not as virtues but as limitations in his performance of the Prince. Although his Hamlet is perhaps better than was his Romeo on the screen, it is doubtful if any distinguished player has ever attempted the part and acted it throughout with less distinction.
In Praise of Mr. Gielgud
Mr. Howard’s production makes it difficult to follow the text with interest. A drama which is rich in excitement becomes so tame at the Imperial that one’s mind wanders away from it again and again. The tension, the revelation and the vocal beauties which make Mr. Howard’s costly labor of love at the Imperial.
Mr. Howard’s supporting cast is uneven, as is the way of supporting casts in “Hamlet.” Wilfrid Walter is an admirable Claudius, Mary Servoss an unsatisfactory Gertrude, and Aubrey Maher has his moments as Polonius. John Barclay speaks the Ghost’s lines with dignity; Clifford Evans is an excellent Laertes; Joseph Holland a fair Horatio; Stanley Lathbury an amusing First Gravedigger, and Pamela Stanley a colorful Ophelia until she fails, and fails completely, in the mad scene where most Ophelias triumph.
Now that Mr. Howard’s “Hamlet” is here, Mr. Gielgud is as liberty to drop the “Giel” from his name. In the future his production need only be known as the “Gud ‘Hamlet.'”