Hamlet – Articles and Reviews – 5
Leslie Howard’s Hamlet – Articles and Reviews
A Disappointing “Hamlet”
Mr. Leslie Howard in New York
From our own correspondent
New York, Nov. 13–Mr. Leslie Howard’s production of Hamlet, which has been several years in preparation, opened at the Imperial Theatre here this week.
It proved generally disappointing. The staging itself, thanks largely to the costumes and settings by Mr. Steward Chaney, was found impressive, and the playing of several of the minor parts, notably Miss Pamela Stanley’s Ophelia and Mr. Aubrey Mather’s Polonius, was praised by the critics. Even Mr. Howard’s most seasoned admirers, however, found his playing of Hamlet tepid–lacking, according to the New York Times, “the bite, savage irony, mental turmoil, raging despair, and intellectual torment” of the part. Such praise as is forthcoming is rather faint, stressing the actor’s grace of person and cultivation of voice. Neither the force of the old school nor the colloquial intelligence of the new is found in his playing and there is nothing to stand serious comparison with the interpretation of Mr. John Gielgud, whose production is still playing at the Empire.
November 14, 1936: “Critics Cross Swords over 2 Hamlets on Broadway”, Oakland Tribune
Critics Cross Swords Over 2 Hamlets on Broadway
New York, Nov.24.–For the first time in 11 years Broadway is witnessing two simultaneous productions of “Hamlet” and, although the debates are fiercely electric, there have been at this writing no inciting to mayhem, tweaking of critical noses or similar acts of violence.
Five weeks ago English actor, John Gielgud, presented his conception of the mad Prince of Denmark, and this week Leslie Howard, vacationing away from the Hollywood cinema studios, brought to town his interpretation. Then the arguments began, and there hasn’t been such noisy disagreement among theater audiences since 1925 when Walter Hampden, with Ethel Barrymore as Ophelia, was acting Hamlet in his own uptown playhouse, while, at the same time, on a stage further downtown Basil Sydney was playing Hamlet in modern dress.
These rival productions of “Hamlet” were in the Broadway tradition even before that for, 33 years ago, E.H. Sothern was playing the Danish Prince on one Broadway stage with Julia Marlow as his Ophelia. At the same time, in a rival Broadway playhouse, Sir Johnson Forbes-Robertson and Gertrude Elliott were playing the same roles.
Howard was generally praised by most of the current critics, and it was only when it came to comparing his performance with that of Gielgud’s that dissension arose.
The situation is best explained in the words of Howard, who, after the final curtain of his opening night in New York told his audience that “there is a terrible penalty” attached to acting Hamlet.
“Comparisons are unavoidable, not only with the present but with memories of the past.” He said: “Worst of all is he 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.”
Hamlet is mad, mad like mercury, and so his character runs into seemingly strange, unlimited conceptions, depending upon who is interpreting his qualities. So, in their two productions, Gielgud and Howard, both acknowledged finest of actors, make their impressions upon their audiences with the same mercury-like qualities. To some audiences one will seem finer than the other, and to other audiences each will seem like two entirely different characters.
There is no hard and fast rule to lie down for comparison. Just as one actor depends upon another for reaction to his lines, so here the two Hamlets must depend upon the reaction of their varied audiences, and it is that very reaction of the audiences that will answer the question of whether it is best that Hamlet should be Howard or Gielgud.
Howard has assembled around himself as impressive, exciting cast as that around Gielgud. Mary Servoss, as the Queen, is a different Queen from that of Judith Anderson’s in the Gielgud production, but their difference is that of interpretation just as is the difference between the two Hamlets. Miss Servoss is a regal Queen in the dignified meaning of that adjective, but with admirable, berserk fervor she detaches herself into the trouble, conscience-stricken, yet earthy woman to which her princely son so much objected. Pamela Stanley is a studiously arresting Ophelia, as most of the cast is impressive with only rare moments of weaknesses.
Meantime the debates flourish like fire and probably will all Winter.
November 17, 1936: “Leslie Howard’s Hamlet Praised”, The Lewiston Daily Sun
After talking of “Hamlet” for two or three seasons, says Brooks Atkinson, noted dramatic critic, in the New York Times, Leslie Howard has come to the point of playing him in a handsome production that filled the stage of the Imperial last evening (Wednesday, Nov. 11). 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 has providently shaped the part after his own dimensions. He is frank and unstudied, plaintive on the whole, a prince by native sensitivity and 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 it 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. From Stewart Chaney’s imposing settings and vivid costumes of the 11th 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 midst of a realistic scene, according to Agnes de Mille’s pattern; and Virgil Thompson 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 smell 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.
The appearance of Leslie Howard in “Hamlet” at the Imperial Theatre 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. Comparison 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 percent approval.”