Hamlet – Articles and Reviews – 4
Leslie Howard’s Hamlet – Articles and Reviews
November 12, 1936: “Broadway’s Two Hamlets Battle at the Box Office,” by Wilella Waldorf, NY Sun
Broadway’s Two “Hamlets” Battle at the Box-Office
Empire Entertain Standees on Strength of Gielgud-Versus-Howard Notices–Imperial Also Reports Prosperity
by Wilella Waldorf
The arrival on Broadway of the season’s second Hamlet (Leslie Howard) to join the first (John Gielgud) seems to have done them both a good turn at the box-office.
Since its opening at the Empire last October 8, not a single standee has been in evidence at the Empire Theatre. Yesterday afternoon sixty-two people stood to watch Mr. Gielgud. At the Imperial, where Mr. Howard bowed in last Tuesday, a line formed early at the box-office, and the treasurer reports a flourishing advance sale.
When Mr. Gielgud first appeared as the Dane, several of the critics compared him unfavorably with John Barrymore. The reports on Mr. Howard’s interpretation of the role were better notices for Gielgud than his own review.
In his curtain speech after the Imperial premiere, Mr. Howard remarked that acting “Hamlet” is a hazardous business not only because of inevitable comparison with present-day interpreters of the part but because of memories of past triumphs. Harder to get over than either of these, the star added, is the private conception of each member of the audience, formed in the library, of how he would act if he only had the chance.
In order to take sides in the street-corner controversies on the subject, it is obviously necessary for theatregoers to see both of the current
productions, which should be very nice for their respective managements. The Empire version is announced to close December 12. Mr. Howard’s Imperial project is advertising “limited engagement.” It is now expected Mr. Gielgud will remain in town at least through December 19. His touring plans are flexible.
November 14, 1936: “The Two Hamlets,” by Richard Lockridge, NY Sun
The Two Hamlets
It is possibly a suggestive fact that, seeking some foundation for comparison of the competing Hamlets of John Gielgud and Leslie Howard, one turns almost instinctively to the competing Poloniuses of Aubrey Mather and Arthur Byron. […] The simple truth is that Mr. Mather and Mr. Byron provide a contrast not so hardly observable in the performance of their titular lords in Denmark. The Poloniuses, you see, happen to be pretty much on a par.
They are, except for purely subjective preferences, equally good–and they provide, perhaps, as sharp a contrast as the theater has seen since it was the habit to take the advice Polonius gives to the departing Laertes as a summary of human wisdom. Thinking about the role, studying its dialogue and actions, Mr. Mather and Mr. Byron came, separately, to very interesting and defensible theories about the character as a whole. “He is this kind of man,” Mr. Byron decided after giving proper study to the role. “He is serious and dignified. He is grave and ponderous, as small men become if for long enough they occupy positions of honor and responsibility. He pettifogs a good deal and his more obvious flounderings result from a judicial effort to discover the mot juste. The comedy of the role, which is full of comedy, comes from the absurd contrast between the pomposity of this effort and the insignificance of the subject to which it is applied. What I have to do is to let the audience enjoy that pomposity without ever making Polonius seem a mere clown, or letting any suspicion arise that I, as an actor, am laughing at the character from within.” Having learned this concept, or one somewhat like it, Mr. Byron proceeded to act according to plan. The result was a Polonius which, while not departing from the conventional interpretation, was a delicious refinement upon it and a modest work of art.
Mr. Mather, if one may read his mind through his works, proceeded in a similar fashion, with decisively different results. He, too, asked himself what manner of man this old Polonius, so often interpreted, really was; he studied lines and stipulated actions and came to his conclusion. “Polonius was a rosy old man,” he concluded. “A brisk, tasty, explosive fellow and not, at bottom, anybody’s fool. His advice to his son was of two sorts, and he did not take the precepts of equal value. ‘Costly thy habit as thy purse can buy,’ was in the nature of an aside; a mere bit of worldly advice tossed between two men after all very much of the world. But when he reached the line ‘to thine own self be true, and it shall follow as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man’ he spoke sincerely and earnestly, one man of character to another, because this is not, after all, advice which any person of good will can rightly regard as foolish. For the rest, whan others were laughing at him, it is possible he was laughing too.” So Mr. Mather acted Polonius in that fashion, and added a lively touch of sentimental comedy to the great gravity of the Howard “Hamlet.”
It is not greatly to the point which of these interpretations is the “right” interpretation. Possibly that of Mr. Byron fits a little better with the lines, but Mr. Mather sufficiently justifies his own. The point is that, out of the same material, these two players have created men made after the image in their separate minds, and that the creation is one of the things we call art.
Hamlet is, of course, an infinitely more complex character than Polonius, and of interpretations there is no end. […] It would be absurd, as well as exhausting, to attempt any summary of the Hamlet which formed itself in Mr. Gielgud’s mind. […]
But observation of the Gielgud Hamlet makes it clear, makes it certain, that the actor did approach his interpretation in the same spirit as was displayed by Messrs. Byron and Mather. His was, naturally, an immense task, but it was a necessary task. “What manner of man was this?” he asked himself. He was familiar, we may suppose, with the interpretations current in his time; he went, we may guess, to what has been written about Hamlets of the past, gathering each crumbs as sifted through the fine mesh of critical theories. And then e must have forgotten all that, and started over, with a fresh mind. He formed a concept and after that it was, by comparison, not so hard. He had merely to decide, out of intuition and experience, how the man he had decide was Hamlet would speak when, example, he came to the too familiar soliloquy. Then he had merely to speak that way. Tis is a writer’s conception of the method and no doubt, in all details, quite wrong. But in essence, if a man’s “character” is anything but a convenient myth, the procedure must have been something like this.
It all shows in Mr. Gielgud’s playing. His hamlet is a thing of variety, and unruly emotion, and contradiction. But all these elements, all these apparent disparities are, in dramatised form, the elements which exist, muted, in any man. It is, as one might say, their proportional representation that makes a character. Mr. Gielgud’s Hamlet is, from first line to last, a unified character; he is also an exciting character.
Various theories have been advanced to explain the comparative failure of Mr. Howard’s Hamlet. He lacks fire, we say, or he is more plaintive than we can imagine Hamlet’s being, or there is missing that bitter humor which seems to some of us part of Hamlet’s character. But I am afraid that, as we stress these faults or praise such virtues as grace and cultivation, we rather shun the point. It is an ungracious thing to say of an actor whose intelligence and subtlety we have all learned to prise, but what is missing in Mr. Howard’s Hamlet is Hamlet. The very simple, and rather shocking, thing wrong with his interpretation is that it does not interpret. And this is, I fear, because in the press of business connected with making his very impressive production ready on the stage Mr. Howard could not find time to make a concept of Hamlet ready in his mind.