Hamlet – Articles and Reviews – 6
Leslie Howard’s Hamlet – Articles and Reviews
November 19, 1936: “Talk About Women” by Jane Corby, The Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Talk About Women
by Jane Corby
Fired by Youth and Stabilized by Age, Leslie Howard’s Hamlet Captivates Feather and Flower Topped Women Who Hang on Words
What women see in Leslie Howard is no mystery after seeing him play Hamlet. They see youth, eternal youth, plus the serious point of view, the wisdom of the older man. It’s a combination which women are forever seeking, a search which is perhaps at the bottom of many romantic mistakes.
Young girls marry men a generation or so ahead of them, lured, according to the cynics, by money. Post-mature women marry boys young enough to be their sons, and the cynics credit them with over-powering vanity. But money is an important consideration in the majority of marriages, from the woman’s point of view, and vanity in women is overrated, tradition notwithstanding.
They Seek Master Quality
These overpublicized emotions may be at fault, but it is just as likely that the ladies are led astray by their romantic ideals. Looking for a master quality which boys of her own age do not possess, a girl may to look for the resilient qualities that youth automatically possesses but which are often lacking in later years. The older women, dazzled by youth’s variable charm, may forget to look for less ornate mental equipment. Yet the sought-for combination of youthful fire and mature wisdom is not an impossible one, as Leslie Howard’s Hamlet proves.
It is true that as the Great Lover Hamlet falls somewhat short. But blame Ophelia for that! Consider the situation–the families on both sides cheering for the match; Ophelia softly acquiescent. Hamlet would be less than human–and no Shakespearean character is ever that–if he failed to dramatize himself as the occasion demands. So he stages a renunciation scene with the girl–a masterpiece–and any girl except Ophelia would have seen through his pose.
If ever a man was misunderstood by a woman, that man was Hamlet. At any rate, Leslie Howard’s Hamlet. For there is one moment in which he looks at Ophelia, and in that brief look there is enough love for a lifetime–if Ophelia had recognized it for what it was. A modern girl would have handled the situation more adroitly. Hamlet’s insulting technique would have meant nothing to her stacked up against that high-powered look. But poor, old-fashioned Ophelia could think of nothing better to do than become unbalanced.
The modern girl, before the scene was over, would have found out more about Hamlet than himself knew, would have had him telling his suspicions and his plans in detail–would simply have led him to talk about himself. Then she would have insisted on a 50-50 partnership in his schemes. There might have been considerably more excitement around Elsinore Castle as the result of this co-operation, but there would also have been less frustration.
Ophelia’s failure to snatch at her opportunities, however, really does very little to obscure Hamlet’s own personality. He continues up to the very moment of his encounter with death to be not the melancholy Dane of legend but a young man wittily serious, sophisticated, outsmarting his enemies with satisfactory ease, lovable, worthy of being loved.
Evening-hatted feminine heads–everybody who is “dressed” at the theater wears some sort of velvet, flower, feather or veil arrangement which serves as a hat–turned to follow raptly Hamlet’s every move. It was obvious that every woman was pleasantly certain that Ophelia, poor girl, just wasn’t Hamlet’s type–and she herself could be.
(The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, November 19, 1936)
Man About Manhattan
by George Tucker
New York–One of the major benefits of the new drama season has been the clearing-up of a pertinent question. I mean, we are no longer in the dark as to how a Hamlet must behave on Broadway in order to satisfy the metropolitan reviewers.
He must, first, over-act. Then he must rant and rave like a lunatic and cleave the air with a battle-axe as well as with horrid speech, leaping like a mountain goat from one emotional peak to another. Finally he must read into the character a degree of lunacy such as not even Shakespeare himself imagined. These are the “must” in order successfully to stage “Hamlet” on Broadway. Emulate these and you will be exalted to the disparagement of all others.
At least recent history indicates as much. I am thinking now of Mr. John Gielgud, the distinguished over-actor, who came from London to play the title rode in Mr. Guthrie McClintic’s production of “Hamlet”. Mr. Gielgud believes in nothing if not tradition and so he plays Hamlet as two centuries of distinguished over-actors before him have played the part. The New York critics were charmed by this fidelity and sang him a hymn of such lyric sweetness that I think it should be set to music. Where Mr. Gielgud to over-act in any other play as he does in Shakespeare the critics themselves would be the first to hoot him off the stage. And that’s what I can’t figure out. Why is Shakespeare exempt from the temperance demanded of every other playwright?
Howard’s Tone Quieter
After Mr. Gielgud established himself at the Empire theatre, Leslie Howard brought his production of “Hamlet” to the Imperial. But Mr. Howard does not throw an epileptic fit every time he opens his mouth, and so the reviewers were unable to see in him any of the “verve and consummate fire” so plenteously found in Mr. Gielgud. Mr. Howard fancies that one can love one’s mother without shouting it from the third balcony, but this, of course, is a fallacy and the sooner he realizes it the happier he will be.
I have always thought that Shakespearian character, at least occasionally, should speak in modulated tones, and I have always hoped that some day somebody would give up a Hamlet in whom we could believe. Hamlet, after all, was a moody creature (in no sense mad in the beginning) and I suspect that the over-hasty marriage of his mother had more to do with his despondency than the murder of his father.
If Hamlet actually achieved madness he approached it in measured steps, and he certainly wasn’t crazy when the first curtain rose–at least he wasn’t in my understanding of the play, nor in Leslie Howard’s interpretation of it.
But Mr. Gielgud, in the first scene, shows us a Hamlet already wrecked by emotional violence. It is unreal to me that one could attain such a frenzy at that point without then and there wrecking vengeance on whomever he has condemned.
Hard To Understand
Let me make it clear that I am not disparaging Gielgud. The critics liked him and so all power to him. Nor am I carrying the torch for Leslie Howard. It is simply that I am unable to understand how a press could be so overwhelmingly against what seems to me the most satisfying “Hamlet” Broadway has seen. It may be that Howard’s personal following will be strong enough to pull him through, although few plays ever survive the lambasting visited upon this one.
If Howard falls, it seems to me the theatre shall have been bankrupt of something fine it has never had before and perhaps may never have again.
November 21, 1936: “A New Yorker at Large”, syndicated column by Jack Stinnett, Associated Press
A New Yorker At Large
by Jack Stinnett
New York–From 29th street to the upper Fifties, where ribs of the Rialto dwindle to mere nubs, Broadway’s main topic of conversation is Leslie Howard’s “Hamlet.”
In New York, it is almost impossible for a play to survive what is known as “bad press”–that is, a mass of critical opinion ranging from lukewarm to unadulterated antagonism. There are notable exceptions, of course, but an examination of the record would find them rare. We doubt if there has been anything since “Abie’s Irish Rose” which has so turned the tables on adverse critical notices as to become a roaring bonanza.
There is nothing in the wind to indicate that Howard’s “Hamlet” will become such. But certain it is that the absolute unanimity and the almost blind fury of the critical attack on Howard has given the public pause.
It is impossible to trace a public reaction accurately without perspective, but we have discovered many questions being asked, many doubts being expressed. In the first place, it goes without saying that none of the critics had the temerity to call “Hamlet” a bad play. All agreed that the production in question was one of the most beautifully and effectively mounted dramas of recent years.
Few critics found anything to dislike in the efforts of the supporting cast and those who did were widely at variance in their opinions.
Since “Outward Bound” a dozen years ago, Leslie Howard has rarely, if ever, failed to measure up to the standards of acting set for him by his most enthusiastic supporters. How, then, could he be as black a Hamlet as he was painted? Why should the attack be so completely without dissension? Why should it be so personal? And why should the second-string commentators and columnists dash so gleefully into the affray to pour salt into the wounds of the injured? Why should some of the commentators abandon criticism altogether and devote their columns to sarcasm at Mr. Howard’s personal expense?
Personally, we found Howard’s performance a clear, simple statement of a usually complex and over-stated characterization. Considered in the light of John Gielgud’s contemporaneous interpretation, the remarkable thing is their similarity… not their difference.
True, Gielgud’s acting in the role imparts a thrilling warmth that seems to arise in a youthful inner flame but we can not believe it detract from Gielgud’s glory to point out that Howard interprets the part with a gradual maturity which, at the final curtain, may leave some who understand their Hamlet much more satisfied.
In response to a wildly enthusiastic second-night audience, Howard came forward with a curtain speech which was a masterpiece of good humor, good taste and good business. Wan as he was, and weary as he must have been from weeks of work and worry and the worst first-night reception accorded a major production in some years, that curtain speech convinced us thoroughly, “Hamlet” or no “Hamlet,” Leslie Howard is a consummate actor.
Everybody’s Doing It–So Why Not Mr. Dick Watts?
Herewith Appears His Analysis of the Hamlet Lads
Howard’s Dane Not So Bad As His Brethren Contend, Sir Richard Says
by Richard Watts, Jr.
New York, Nov. 21–It must be cold comfort to Mr. Leslie Howard to be told that his Hamlet isn’t as bad as most of the critics said it was. No performance could be. In fact, a casual reading of the notices bestowed upon this one-time favorite by his ex-pals, the reviewers, would have led one to believe that he was the latest mass murderer not just an actor innocently attempting to play a classic role.
To go back to a similar denunciation you will have to look up, not the files of dramatic criticism, but the denunciation of a particularly vicious killer by some unusually savage district attorney. Mr. Howard wasn’t received with any remarkable enthusiasm when he appeared upon the screen as Romeo, but his reception in the role opposite Miss Norma Shearer’s excellent Juliet was acclamation as compared with his greeting in the part of Denmark’s sable-clad prince.
Yet despite the novel anti-Howard assault, I still suspect that the verdict against him was not absolute, but was based on a matter of timing. If he had brought his Hamlet into town before Gielgud’s, I believe he would have received proper credit for the numerous merits of his performance. On the other hand, I, who was a little cold to his rival, would probably have been a bit more enthusiastic over the Gielgud portrayal.
Both Lack Fire
There can be little doubt that Mr. Gielgud’s is a considerably more distinguished characterization. At the outset it seems to me that both he and Mr. Howard lack the fire and the sardonic humor which, as I appear to be saying over and over again, belong so strongly to the role and which made John Barrymore’s performance so great.
It is sometimes denied that Hamlet possessed either of these two qualities, which seem to me such important traits in the man. Hamlet, it is said, was a weak and timid neurotic, incapable of either fire or humor, just as he was incapable of action. But he wasn’t incapable of action. He had no talent for it; he brooded over it long and savagely and he almost invariably did the wrong thing, but he was capable of sudden burst of energy, volatile if misdirected.
After all, in a fairly brief career as an avenger, he managed to slay Polonius, Laertes, the king and those two cloak-and-suit classmates of his, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. He was obviously more comfortable when brooding, but surely in his fits of introspection he had bitterness, fire, savage humor and mocking self-contempt. His scornful, ironic contemplation was not that of a thin-blooded pedant, but of one in which the gift for action had gone tragically awry.
I do not see how the most casual reading of the lines can deny him bot passion and humor. It was their maladjustment to his time and his predicament that made him a failure in his world. Unfortunately for my taste, it is other qualities in this subtle and many-sided prince that Mr. Gielgud and Mr. Howard concentrate upon.
Comparing the Two
Obviously Hamlet was a charming and admirable young man suddenly caught up in a course of action for which he had no talent. That is the side of him which Mr. Howard shows us. Obviously he was a thoughtful and melancholy prince, so neurotic that he had learned to doubt all of his own carefully deliberated mental processes.
That is the part of him which Mr. Gielgud desires to interpret for us. The Howard version thus provides the touching and sympathetic picture of a likable, romantic youth in an unfortunate predicament, and he is always a figure of pathos if not of great tragedy.
Mr. Gielgud, on the other hand, emphasizes the mind behind the tragic ineptness of the prince’s misdirected efforts to be a man of action. It is because this aspect of the character, even though it is not the only important phase of the role, is more important than mere sympathetic wistfulness that mr. Gielgud’s portrayal is more successful of the two.
For example, neither actor captures to a satisfying degree the superb eloquence of the soliloquies, but while Mr. Howard is merely a bewildered young man in confused contemplation of his difficulties, Mr. Gielgud gets every bit of thought content out of he incomparable speeches. He really gives the impression of a man thinking deeply and with subtle insight of the mysteries of human conduct and human fate. His is the most understandably cerebral if not the most eloquent Hamlet of our time.
If, you might ask me, Mr. Howard is not properly eloquent or brilliantly contemplative and if he lacks the corroding humor and the biting fury of the man, just what virtues does he possess? As I have said, he suggests most successfully one important trait of the man; his pathos in the face of a personal universe collapsing about him.
When you think over the Hamlets you have seen you will probably find it remarkable to recall how few of them really made the prince the enormously sympathetic figure that he should be. Int the rush of suggesting Hamlet’s contemptuous sense of fun or his incomparable eloquence or his neurotic bitterness or his subtle mind or his pre-Freudian sex complexes or perhaps a combination of such qualities, not many of them have also remembered how compassionate human a figure he was.
It is Mr. Howard’s inability to make his role much more than a quietly pathetic that is the measure of his failure. It is his skill in capturing that quality which is the mark of his success. At least his Hamlet is not too much the selfish egoist.
As to the supporting roles in the two productions, there seems to be a hearty difference of opinion. Spurning the contention of any one else, I will offer you my view-point of the topic. Certainly Ophelia is a curiously thankless role, and it is even rarer than to see a good Hamlet to find an Ophelia who can be persuasive in the scenes both of ingenue sweetness and suicidal madness. I think we should be pleased if an actress handles either section of the part with satisfying conviction.
It seems to me that Miss Lillian Gish, in the Gielgud production, managed the mad scenes with such heartbreaking poignancy that she was genuinely thrilling, while Miss Pamela Stanley, of the Howard version, was never more than mildly effective. The Polonius was excellent in both cases, but I thought that Arthur Byron, of the earlier production, was better than Aubrey Mather at suggesting one important phase of the character, the splendor of intellect that the old man must have possessed before senility set in.
In one respect the Howard production is far superior to its rival. The settings by Stewart Chaney are magnificent and for the first time give the play its proper historical background, that of eleventh-century Denmark. You will recall that the earlier version set the tragedy seemingly in the England of the cavaliers, many years after Shakespeare’s death.
But even in this success Mr. Howard’s edition has one dubious quality. Somehow the contrast between the eleventh-century barbarism of later-Viking days and the slightly effete modernism of the star’s performance was occasionally a little too pronounced.