Hamlet – Articles and Reviews – 7
Leslie Howard’s Hamlet – Articles and Reviews
November 21, 1937: “Fire and Ember” by Florence Fisher Parry, The Pittsburgh Press
Fire and Ember
Gielgud’s Hamlet Thing of Flames, Howard’s Sluggish, of Scanty Warmth
by Florence Fisher Parry
Somebody has got to say this, so it might as well be me. The contrast between Leslie Howard’s Hamlet and that of John Gielgud is painful. It is little short of tragic. We love Leslie Howard; we wanted to care for his Hamlet. Indeed, our pride would have been mighty if he had come off with the honors.
But I cannot tell a lie. Leslie Howard’s Hamlet, compared with John Gielgud’s, is like cambric tea to dynamite. To see the one performance and then the other is one of the most painful experiences one could undertake. For until you see both characterizations, you cannot believe that there could be such an appalling difference.
Howard’s is diluted, underdone, tepid, flat. Gielgud’s is strong, raw, bitter, mighty. Howard’s is gentle and graceful. Gielgud’s is violent and ruthless. Howard is the “glass of fashion and the mold of form.” He is the “courtier” and “the rose of the fair state.” Here his resemblance to Shakespeare’s Hamlet stops. Here, indeed, is precisely the point where Gielgud’s Hamlet BEGINS; for in these gentler attributes the British star shows littles aptitude.
Is is fantastic, it is even a little grotesque that the same role should have been essayed by two actors, simultaneously, in two New York theaters, and bear so little resemblance to each other. The comparison is bound to be embarrassing. I regret the necessity, but I am impelled to state that John Gielgud’s Hamlet makes Leslie Howard’s appear MORE stale, MORE flat and MORE unprofitable than it would have been had it held sole possession of the Manhattan stage.
I feel constrained to protest the manner in which the New York critics have hedged in their duty as true reporters. I can understand their feelings; I shared them myself. But I cannot understand heir indulging them in their reviews of Howard’s Hamlet. However much they WANTED to spare this favorite star, their first duty was to their profession of dramatic criticism.
Not one critic came out with a direct condemnation of Howard’s Hamlet. And if ever a performance deserved condemnation, his does. The production, no. The production was magnificent. For his admirable accomplishment in providing Shakespeare’s tragedy with every physical advantage; for his generous casting; for his ready distribution of honors; for his lavish expenditure of not ony money, but reverent devotion, we cannot be too grateful. But for his own performance, we can give praise only to his appearance, his grace, his diction and his restrained taste. The rest is silence.
I went to see John Gielgud’s Hamlet on Monday night. I was electrified. It struck me like lightning. It was overwhelming. It was storm and sun and tide and every elemental violence and beauty. It was a blasting performance. It lifted you up and threw you prostrate and knocked the breath out of you. It burned; it seared; it cut like a scalpel.
Then, on Wednesday night, I went to see Howard’s.
Well, I’m sorry. But it must be said; for Shakespeare, for Hamlet, mean more to me than a million Leslie Howards. His performance was the only bad thing about the production. Maybe he was ill. Maybe the wormwood of disappointment already had begun to eat into his spirit. I don’t know. But he walked about in a poetic trance of ineffectuality. The only advantage that Leslie Howard’s Hamlet has over John Gielgud’s is his legs. He has better legs.
Stick To Text
And now that I’ve performed my bitter duty, let’s to a more specific account of the two Hamlet productions and performances.
First, Gielgud’s. The script used in Guthrie McClintic’s production more nearly approximates Shakespeare’s own than any I have seen. It tampers very little with the pure narrative form of Shakespeare’s text. It gives you the STORY, the PLOT, the sustained continuity of the original play. The audience, like that Elizabethan audience for which Shakespeare wrote, is considered, is patiently INFORMED, by the text, what is happening and why.
For the first time in recent Hamlets we know not only what’s happening to Hamlet, but what’s happening to DENMARK as well. Particularly grateful was I for the later scenes, usually omitted or so abridged that their contents only serve to further telescope the action. What a grand scenario writer Shakespeare was, to be sure! He would have liked the explicit technique of the scren. He would have delighted in McClintic’s production.
For Guthrie McClintic, in his magnificent treatment of the play, sticks to its context, delivering to a grateful audience a forthright and arty condensation.
In consequence, we have, not merely a study in morbid psychology, but a full-bodied PLAY. And if, in its rendition, we still find our eyes riveted n its central character, it is the dynamic quality of Gielgud’s performance, rather than any contrivance, that makes all else but HAMLET seem like a diffused background to his sharp-focussed Reality!
A burning Hamlet
For indeed, while John Gielgud is on the stage he is the focus of our absorption. He is the most exciting Hamlet I have seen, and I have seen all of the last thirty-odd years. He is not so princely as John Barrymore. He is not so beautiful to watch as Leslie Howard. It is hard to conceive his having been, even before his father’s death, “that unmatched form and stature of blown youth,” the “glass of fashion and the mold of form.” Surely he was BORN violent and dark and burning! Certain it is that from the first he is pure agony incarnate, a prey to Fate and enemy of himself.
Nor is he lovable or even sympathetic; there is to be detected in him from the first an intrinsic hostility, and apartness; even a faint odor of decay… Gielgud’s Hamlet is a born target for the Gods of the Lightning. Health may have been in him once… but long before the curtain goes up upon the castle room where Claudius and Gertrude sit in sad contemplation of their difficult “son.”
Fire and Ember
Summing the to Hamlets: John Gielgud succeeded more by shock than artistry. Consumed as by a devastating fire, its flames have robbed his characterization of a certain dignity and Princeliness implicit in the role. Thus deprived of these familiar touchstones, the audience stands OUTSIDE, like congealed spectators looking on at a conflagration which it has to power to quell, and which forbids any response other than terror and awe.
Contrasted with this is Howard’s gentle hearthside characterization, which, when we approach, has lost, somehow, its glow, and gives but scant warmth from its sluggish, bleaching embers…
Rival “Hamlets”: Howard, Gielgud
Two Britons, Both Young and Blond, Vie on Broadway Stage
Two Hamlets cleaved the general ear of Broadway last week, both British, both blond. For the first time in eleven years, there were active comparison to be made, for the first time in half a century youth was part of the measurement.
In the Empire Theater, seven successful weeks tucked under his belt, John Gielgud continued to stroll the ramparts, rail at the Queen, sob the misfortune which set a young Prince the task of setting his awry times back in joint. At the Imperial Theater, in a production boldly colorful, its tints raw, its walls sheer and cold, Leslie Howard achieved a long-time ambition, wore black, portrayed his own compassed version of the jittered Dane.
Critics and first-nighters were in general agreement that the Howard Hamlet was disappointing, unmuscled. They rejoiced in the setting of almost barbaric splendor, applauded the decision to play the melodrama in the style of eleventh century Denmark. The Gielgud production, less an eye-smiter, was in the cavalier fashion, therefore more graceful, less thunderously regal. Professional commentators wished devoutly that the Gielgud performance could have been hitched to the Howard settings.
Gentle Prince–For two years, Mr. Howard has yearned to play Hamlet, after his fashion–a slender, gentle Hamlet standing out almost cameo-like against the brawl and vivid color of the early Danish court. For one year he has been plagued by an apocryphal, transatlantic anecdote. If it were true, Mr. Gielgud has had his revenge.
The back-stage and drawing-room whisper was that Mr. Howard went to see the Gielgud Hamlet in London a year ago, walked out at the end of the first scene. Taxed, later, by Gielgud for a seeming discourtesy, Howard is quoted as replying: “I’m sorry, but I just didn’t like it.”
This may or may not have spurred Gielgud to hasten to New York and bring his production in ahead of the Howard project. Gielgud received an enthusiastic press in New York, would have received still more unchecked praise if he had come in after Mr. Howard.
Every actor setting forth to give his own estimate of The Role, tampers with the Shakespeare text. In this case, Schuyler Watts was engaged to shift the scenes around in an effort to provide the play with more continuity, more smoothness between scenes. In the main, the Watts rearrangement is succesful, twice it takes away from big scenes in the play: the scene between Hamlet and the Queen in her suite, this time played in open court in the great hall, and the scene with the flute, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.
Less distinguished members of the Howard cast fell afoul of the critical need for comparison. Almost unanimous verdict credited Lillian Gish’s Ophelia for Gielgud with besting Pamela Stanley in the role for Howard. Likewise, Arthur Byron’s Polonius for Gielgud was counted better than Aubrey Mather’s for Howard.
It is in his first three scenes, when requirement is to register quickly, that Mr. Howard falters. He is cool, remote, lackadaisical. The scene with the Ghost is irresolute. It is almost as tho Hamlet resented being tumbled into he distasteful work of avenging the murder of his father.
Critics Pan Howard As Hamlet
Edge Given to English Star
Film Actor, However, Has Following
by Burns Mantle
New York, Nov. 21–You could not have blamed Leslie Howard much if there had been more than a suggestion of murder in his heart the morning after he presented his Hamlet to his first New York audience. On that occasion his critics brusquely informed him that while his performance was earnestly studied and handsomely staged it really wasn’t much good.
Consider for a moment the young man’s approach to the role: He has been talking about it and planning it for years. He has been saving up his money so he could do it handsomely, and with as little outside aid as possible.
He had it pretty well in hand last season when time was ripe for it, but was called back to Hollywood and forced to abandon his plans. He finally got it together this year, only to learn that he would be faced with his stiffest competition in the importation of the John Gielgud Hamlet, which is accredited the outstanding Hamlet of the English speaking theater.
Howard staged his first production in Boston and received the endorsement of all but one of the Boston reviewers, and attracted crowds that overflowed the theater. He moved on to Philadelphia where his reception again was enthusiastic and his business huge. The he came to New York? And these were a few of the bouquets tossed at his feet the following morning: “…the greatness of the drama hangs on the greatness of Hamlet. Here the Hamlet is only amiable and accomplished.” “…It is quite the weakest Hamlet, the most flaccid Hamlet, the most rice-paper-thin Hamlet I’ve ever seen or heard.” “Leslie Howard plays Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and it seems shouldn’t.”…
Like all quotations, it is a little unfair to remove these from their contexts, but they give a general idea of what all the reviews were like. Not one of them sounded a “more in sorrow than in anger” note. This is probably what held the actor back from going gunning for critics.
The truth, as usual, lies between the severer castigations of the critics and the plaudits of friends.
The Howard Hamlet, as the critics intimated, is a shallow characterization in that it has neither the authority that long association with the classic drama imparts, or the technical fluency, in either speech or action, which the classic drama demands. Nothing came to this Hamlet from inside Howard, so to speak, because there was no understanding conviction to propel it.
He is a nice, fair haired, earnest Hamlet, but he is not convincingly the son of a beloved father murdered, nor a prince of Denmark, nor a sensitive neurotic swept from his mental moorings by a soul-searing grief and a compelling desire to revenge his father’s death.
Comparisons with the Gielgud Hamlet were inevitable and virtually forced upon the play’s reviewers. It happens that the very weaknesses of the Howard Hamlet are the strong points of the Gielgud Hamlet. Both are modern in the sense of being comparatively youthful, but where the Howard Hamlet is free and unchartered, a lightly labored attempt at being casual, colloquial, and different, the Gielgud Hamlet, largely, I suspect from unconscious absorption is steeped in the traditions both of the role and the Shakespearean drama in general. There is neither hesitancy nor questioning in the Gielgud mind. He knows Hamlet. He probably studied all the English Hamlets, from Burbage to Irving and Forbes-Robertson. Thus fortified, he is Hamlet rather than just another actor playing Hamlet.
Mr. Howard, with the assistance of Schuler Watts, made his own version of the tragedy. It is not greatly changed–scenes altered here and there, lines cut, and other replaced to speed the action and reduce duplication of statement. He has added a soliloquy on Hamlet’s departure for England, beginning, “How all occasions do inform against me and spur my dull revenge! What is a man if his chief good and market of his time be but to sleep and feed?”
He speaks these lines from the prow of a viking ship brought to dock just outside the pillars of Elsinore, though you are presumed to have sufficient imagination to place it at the waterfront. This does help to establish Hamlet’s absence from the scene, but adds little more…
Of the two productions I think that of Howard, by Stewart Chaney, is the handsomer. It has a genuine solidity and a grimness that are impressive. Elsinore is populated and alive, and there is a nice casualness in the movement of citizens, servants, etc.
The Howard duel and death scenes, too, are the better of the two, and there are various incidental scenes–that in which Hamlet, following the “To be, or not to be” soliloquy, looks up and discovers Ophelia at her prayers, for one–that are more sensibly negotiated by Howard than by Gielgud. Hamlet’s coming upon the king as he would shrive his soul is also nicely managed, where usually it is awkwardly done in a front scene. The closet scene with the queen is much less effective in the Howard version than it is as Gielgud plays it.
Of the two casts I prefer that supporting Gielgud, with Arthur Byron, Judith Anderson, and Lillian Gish to that of Howard with Aubrey Mather, Mary Servoss, and Pamela Stanley playing Polonius, the queen and Ophelia in that order. But it is largely a matter of personal taste. Both groups are capable.
An interesting development of rivalry is the reaction of the audiences. The day after the Howard Hamlet was so severely criticized the Gielgud business jumped appreciably. Now the Howard audiences, which have been growing steadily, remain after each performance to stage a kind of demonstration to attest their loyalty to their idol and put the nasty critics in their place.
Gielgud is to tour as far west as Chicago, starting in another three weeks. He is obliged to return to London in February. Howard announces a limited engagement and has not made known his future plans. Waiting, I assume, to see which way the business jumps.