The Gielgud-Burton Hamlet: Notes on a First Night

fiasco… 2. a complete or ridiculous failure, esp. of a dramatic performance, or of any pretentious undertaking.”

Webster’s Unabridged (2nd. ed.)—

The first disappointment was the audience. I arrived early to find the place swarming with cops like a Hitchcock (or Mack Sennett) film, a hundred and fifty of them the papers said. They were masterfully tough with ordinary citizens who tried to infiltrate their defenses—“You wanna go to the station?” one asked a nice-looking young woman after some previous dialogue I missed; “Yes,” she said bravely, but I was able to create a diversion by pushing past without showing my ticket—and they were apologetically ineffective with more subtantial-appearing citizens who had tickets (they never did get them herded into the lobby). All very American, like the TV trucks, the photograph garlanded with cameras, the brilliant lights that flooded on whenever a celebrity was thought to be disembarking from a Carey limousine. The trouble was that, while the mob in front of the theater looked like Celebrities—the handsomely gowned and coiffed women, mostly “of a certain age,” and their flushed, hard-faced escorts bursting impressively out of tuxe-does—they were not and knew they were not and, like the uncoiffed, untuxedoed, unticketed mob on the wrong side of the police lines, were hanging around in the simple, touching hopes of seeing somebody that was. But Celebrities were in short supply: the only ones I can attest to personally were Lillian Hellman (who left in the entr’acte) and Otto Preminger. (“Are we still on speaking terms Otto?” I asked, thinking of the latest bad review I’d given him: “Of course,” he grinned as we shook hands, “But I wish we were on writing terms”; a real pro.) And even if one adds, from the papers—you don’t know what you’ve experienced at these non-events until you read the papers—Dolores Del Rio, Gwen Verdon, Margaret Leighton, Hermione Gingold, Montgomery Clift, and Lee Radziwill, well I mean to say what do you have really? The one big Celebrity we were all waiting for arrived, with a clatter of mounted police and a few screams, at a remote side entrance into which she instantly vanished. She also disappeared, in the entr’acte, to visit her husband in his dressing room, or so I read in the papers. The only interesting dialogue I overheard was between a hairdo and a tuxedo: “Hey, you look great, Sam, all sunburned!” “Yeah, just back from Puerto Rico.”

When I finally gave up and took my seat, I was not encouraged to see the curtain was up on a bare stage. Bad omen; last time was Kazan’s J.B., and here even less promising: a rehearsal stage with position marks on the floor and the lathes aggressively exposed in the underpinnings of the sole concession to stage design: a higher level. The one moment of excitement that has survived for me in our theater all the way back to The Bat and The Unknown Purple is when the house lights go…

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