Hamlet – Articles and Reviews – 9
Leslie Howard’s Hamlet – Articles and Reviews
Leslie Howard’s Hamlet
Anyone within striking distance of New York now has the unusual opportunity of seeing either or both of two worthy productions of Hamlet, and to the Shakespeare fan there is a sufficient variety of treatment and interpretation to make seeing both a pleasure.
Leslie Howard’s production, which he produced and directed and which he graces as the harassed prince, opened under the great handicap of having to compete with the fine Guthrie McClintic production in which John Gielgud shines. It is safe assumption that faced with this handicap, the Howard company strained every fiber to give us a Hamlet second to none.
They have very nearly succeeded. The cast is exceptional, and in some roles definitely superior to the distinguished McClintic company; Stewart Chaney’s setting have sweep and power, and his eleventh-century costumes are memorable in the simplicity of their line and the subtlety of their color. And what about Mr. Howard? For his unsententious conception of the character one can only give thanks, and his somewhat unconventional modern-man rendering is consistent and serves to keep more clearly traceable than is customary the tangled threads of the second half of the play. All this, however, could not have been said of his performance during the first third. This reviewer got the uncomfortable feeling that Mr. Howard was just reeling off the first scenes in a traditional elocutionary style. We have all seen legitimate stage actors greatly overact the first time they face a movie camera. Perhaps the converse was happening during the early part of Mr. Howard’s performance; he seemed unconsciously to be leveling out the contrasts in tension and tempo as if he might be afraid of the camera’s high fidelity. But for the rest of the time he was supple and keen and eloquent.
But something which had more portent for the theater than anything in the play happened after the closing second-night curtain. In response to prolonged if not thunderous applause, Mr. Howard stepped forth and did a bold thing. He made a frank, graceful, and modest appeal for those present to go out of the theater and engage in a campaign of word-of-mouth advertising for the show. This, he said, was necessary to prolong its life in view of its poor reception by the press. Agreeing that the newspapermen’s right to their opinions was “sacred,” he nevertheless appealed to the audience to save the play from the “irreparable damage” which the reviews might do it. He made no argument for the continuance of his production beyond remarking that he didn’t think it would do Broadway any harm “if we stay around here a little while longer.”
One can only surmise that Mr. Howard was doing his best for the members of his company. Yet his words had the fateful accents of a Canute’s. What reason is there for Broadway to support two good and expensively produced Hamlets at the same time? The fact that Mr. Howard (or Mr. McClintic either, for that matter) asks us to is not enough. Mr. Howard by his appeal recognized in a partial sense the need for the theater and audience to work together in a cooperative organism, but at the same time he asked the audience to assume a responsibility when he had not consulted that audience to determine whether his venture was such as to warrant it. An audience can be organized to support a theater only when it has been consulted and is convinced of the importance of what it is asked to support. One has the feeling that in such a pre-production conference the audience would have decided that one good Hamlet was enough, and that there was little or no sense trying to put over two at once. Even though such a consultation did not take place, it seems a safe bet that the same verdict will be rendered, Mr. Howard’s appeal to the contrary notwithstanding.
A snooper reports that during the premiere of his “Hamlet” in New York, Leslie Howard was so scared that a masseur had to stand by to sooth him therapeutically between scenes. If this is a canard, don’t blame Kinnaird. Such conduct isn’t surprising. Al Jolson has suffered stage fright countless times. Moss Hart is on record as spending most of his opening nights in the washrooms of the theatres, suffering the disturbances identified with seasickness. It happens to them all.
And it can be surmised that Mr. Howard was sicker the next day, when he read what New York critics thought of his performance.
Before he left Hollywood for New York, to realize the inevitable actor’s dream of playing Hamlet, his friend John Barrymore advised him, with the usual Blythe modesty, “God be with you Leslie—-for you will have my ham performance thrown in your face.” Restatement of the legend of Barrymore supremacy in the role wasn’t the biggest critical custard pie he had to pick out of his blonde wig. There was the “Hamlet” of John Glelgud down the street, and the comparisons the critics made were all to the Gielgud. If they had thought of it the critical fraternity probably would have compared Howard’s Hamlet to Ed Wynn’s, too.
It isn’t surprising therefore, that when, after the opening, Emlyn Williams, actor-playwright now appearing as the murderer In “Night Must Fall” (and who wrote Glelgud’s next play), met Howard for the first time, at a bar, and admitted he, too, had a yen to impersonate the melancholy Dane, Howard replied, an eavesdropper reports: “Don’t do it. All you have to contend with now is flesh-and-blood policemen. Me-—I have the shadows of all the great actors, living and dead, who played Hamlet—-to haunt me—-now and for evermore.”
Hamlet Controversy Rages.
Mr. Howard, the former Leslie Stainer, bank clerk, expended some $45.000 of his movie earnings on his production of the rewrite of a contemporary play Shakespeare did for a Leslie Howard of the time, Richard Burbage. He rehearsed four weeks and had three weeks of profitable appearances on the road before he brought his company to New York. When, coincident with publication of notices given his presentation, sale of tickets for the Gielgud Hamlet took a spurt, naturally he wasn’t happy.
Many persons who didn’t feel equal to two Hamlets in a season, obviously waited to get the critical reports on Howard’s version before deciding which one to see. The sour notes sounded by the critical orchestra gave the advantage to Glelgud. But there were a sufficient number of persons curious about both, and a large legion of loyal movie followers of Howard, to start by word-of-mouth a drive upon the Howard boxoffice, too. So now the town is split into Howard and Glelgud camps, and a controversy is raging comparable to that which rattled teacups in London in the days of Forbes-Robertson and Sir Henry Irving, and caused bloody riots between partisans of Forrest and Macready in New York.
Howard Stresses Realism.
This writer strings along against the majority of critics and with those who like the Howard performance best. His is a brilliant characterization of the most mystifying of all Shakespeare’s protagonists. It does have a curious unevenness.
In the opening scenes, particularly with the Ghost, no Hamlet could be worse. Obviously, he doesn’t believe in ghosts; and he isn’t helped much by the studied declamation of John Barclay, the erstwhile radio and stage singer, who plainly doesn’t believe in ghosts, either. And without a Ghost, there’s no more point to Hamlet than there would he to “A Christmas Carol” with a live Marley. Shakespeare thought the Ghost so important he played the role himself.However, in later scenes, no Hamlet could be more believable than the character Howard conjurs up. This, of course, raises a question. Should an actor strive for realism in “Hamlet,” or for poetry and beauty? It is useless to seek for Shakespeare’s own advice on this: no prompt-copy of any of his plays is in existence, and the printed stage directions were inserted later by editors and professors. So there is no exact information as to the kind of performance the Bard intended “Hamlet” to have—-or the kind it was given by Burbage, for whom it was written. The Gielgud version is poetry, the Howard “Hamlet” is a show.
All producers of “Hamlet” take liberties with the text and there are pronounced differences between the Gielgud and Howard scripts. Gielgud, for instance, omitted the famous “Alas, poor Yorick” line. Howard ends the Ghost scene after his vow to avenge his father’s death, “I have sworn it.” Howard puts the play in a true Danish setting, whereas Gielgud, or Guthrie McClintic, the producer, adheres to the classic tradition of settings and costuming of Shakespeare’s own time.
As comparisons must be drawn between Hamlets, so, inevitably, comparisons must be made between Ophelias. Miss Lillian Gish’s, it seemed to this writer, was superior to that of Miss Pamela Stanley, who accompanies Leslie Howard.
Having stated a preference for Howard’s performance, this reporter cannot be accused of weaseling in advising all and sundry to see both “Hamlets.”