• Email
  • Print

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 down, the footlights come up, and the curtain begins to rise: a moment of hope, despite all past experience, before the infinite magic of the possible has begun to be ground down by the extremely finite machinery of the actual. We were to be deprived even of this. I thought, but, as with other aspects of this confused, style-less production, it turned out we weren’t exactly. When the house lights went down, the curtain was lowered—surely some kind of theatrical landmark?—to rise at once on the same bleak prospect, this time with Francisco at his post; enter Bernardo. “Who’s there?” “Nay, answer me, stand and unfold yourself.” “Long live the king!” And we were off. In a manner of speaking.

This is a Hamlet acted in rehearsal clothes, stripped of all extraneous trappings, unencumbered by a reconstruction of any particular historical period.” So, in the program notes, Sir John Gielgud, who directed and who was, I think, chiefly responsible for the fiasco. Charging the customers eight bucks to see a rehearsal may have been attractive as a fashionable gimmick—the medium’s the thing now—or as a way of saving money, but Sir John’s justification is nonsense. There is no escaping history even disguised in rehearsal clothes, since these were different in 1864 from today, while in 1764 they would have been what we now call “costumes.” The only historically “unencumbered” Hamlet would be a nudist one—and in fact I once saw in Paris a scene in which Ophelia, at least, was stripped and unencumbered except for a cache-sexe. And what is extraneous about actors, like the rest of us, wearing appropriate dress (“trappings”)? There is much to be said for a modern-dress Hamlet like the excellent one Basil Sidney did around 1926, as a way of freeing the play from that massively fake Irving-Belasco scenery and those boguslooking halberds and doublets right out of the costume warehouse. There is also much to be said for a freshly interpreted period production like Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet, where the clothes (especially the men’s hats) were fantastic and beautiful while the sets had the clear, simple colors of the backgrounds in good Renaissance paintings. But there are no advantages, beside cheapness, in a rehearsal-clothes Hamlet; one would think even an actor might see that. Hamlet is, among other things, a drama of court intrigues, of power politics; it begins and ends with soldiers; when Fortinbras comes on at the end, it is not merely to clean up the corpses, it is also because power too, just can’t be left lying about on the stage. Modern dress marks the social dimension: Fortinbras wears a uniform, the servants livery, the courtiers dinner jackets or lounge suits, the soldiers trench coats, the king and queen formal dress with decorations. Rehearsal clothes, while not a-historical, are a-social. Fortinbras marches in wearing slacks and a sweater; Horatio wears a windbreaker; courtiers, servants, soldiers are indistinguishably casual and tweedy. “Boy, did they need those costumes!” I overheard a girl say in the entr’acte.

In Basil Sidney’s Hamlet—or in Orson Welles’s Julius Caesar ten years later—I forgot the modern dress in a few minutes, but here those rehearsal clothes were always offputting. Especially since Sir John tried to have it both ways: Hamlet conveniently wore an elegantly fitted jersey and pants of deepest black, with gleamingly polished black pumps; Polonius and Claudius wore well-pressed, neatly buttoned suits with neckties; Gertrude and Ophelia semi-formal bodices with long flowing skirts—all of which made the sweatered, tieless servants and nobles constantly puzzling. And the players in the play-within-a-play were elaborately costumed, even to stylized masks. A very peculiar rehearsal.

Sir John also skimped on the cast, an ill-assorted crew who never seemed to be getting through to each other. There were at least four unharmonized acting styles. Traditional Shakespearean: Burton, George Rose’s gravedigger, Eileen Herlie’s Gertrude, Dillon Evans’s Osric. Broadway: Hume Cronyn’s Polonius, William Redfield’s Guildenstern. Indeterminate: John Cullum’s Laertes, Alfred Drake’s Claudius. Amateur Night: Robert Milli’s Horatio, Linda Marsh’s Ophelia. There were some good performances. Rose is still a superb Shakespearean clown (and one of the few times when Burton seemed to be relating to others—and enjoying himself—was when he was matching wits with him) and Cronyn gave a briskly professional, and original, interpretation of Polonius, rapping his lines out like a spry old top executive, full of smug know-how. But he was out of key with the Shakespeareans. The great triumph was Gielgud’s recorded voice as the ghost—what splendid lines Hamlet, Senior, has, by the way, one can see where his son got his flair for self-expression—which was beautifully articulated and cadenced, and at the same time coarse as if the vocal cords were deliquescing like those of Poe’s M. Valdemar: “the sound was harsh and broken and hollow…the voice seemed to reach our ears from a vast distance, or from some deep cavern within the earth…it impressed me as gelatinous or glutinous matters impress the sense of touch.” The great disaster, even worse than the breathy ranting of Horatio, was poor Miss Marsh’s Ophelia—her mad scene was as embarassing as if one were watching a pretty young thing really going nuts before one’s eyes. The Times‘s egregious Mr. Taubman, while enthusing—I think this ghastly word is justified here—about everything else, did feel obliged to note that Miss Marsh was “in a little over her head as Ophelia,” though adding at once, as if frightened by his daring, “she manages the Mad Scene with a touch of rue.” The rue was all in the audience, however.

I expected Richard Burton’s Hamlet to be tough, virile, even brutal, but, perhaps because Sir John toned him down too much, he proved to be full of boyish charm, if anything a little epicene. He was Mercutio rather than Hamlet, best in the satiric speeches like the “Get thee to a nunnery” one, where his delivery rose to real power at the end: “You jig, you amble, and you lisp…and make your wantonness your ignorance. Go to, I’ll no more on’t; it hath made me mad. I say we will have no more marriages…” (Did I detect an un-easy rustling in the audience?) His voice is an extraordinary musical instrument, but he used it with the coldness of a virtuoso; for all the Welsh charm, there was surprisingly little feeling in his performance. Also he seemed to have no middle range, nothing between soft complaint or ingratiation and a full-throated bellow. One cannot perhaps expect any actor to render all the facets of Hamlet, but two are essential: he was a prince and he was an intellectual. Burton missed both. He was without dignity; there was no space between him and the others; he was always edging up to them, shrinking away from them, handling them, bullying them, more like a teddy boy than a prince, shamelessly “indicating” and leaping about the stage. (This must have been Sir John’s directorial fault.) He ruins the play scene, for instance, by swarming all over Gertrude and Claudius, as when Ophelia says of the Prologue, “This brief, my lord”, and he replies “As woman’s love,” actually pointing to Gertrude; and later, after the Player Queen has vowed eternal constancy, addressing his “If she should break it now!” directly to Gertrude. Nor is he convincing as an intellectual. Hamlet is constantly bringing himself up short with self-criticism after he has torn a passion to tatters and split the ear of the groundlings; with Burton, one believes in the latter mood but not in the former. He roars out satisfactorily “Bloody, bawdy villain! Remorseless, treacherous, lecherous, kindless villain! O vengeance!” but when he goes on, “Why, what an ass am I!” and accuses himself of unpacking his heart with words like a whore and cursing “like a very drab,” in Burton’s delivery these lines are just another kind or rodomontade. I suppose “To be or not to be” is by now a hopeless proposition—the actor must see it approaching as a skier sees himself gliding toward a suicidally steep slope. Burton adopts the modern, sophisticated strategy of trying to throw it away. But it won’t be thrown away.

Apparently Burton felt something was wrong about the first night. He blamed the audience in one interview: “They did not pay attention. They were awed with themselves. There were so many celebrities out on the other side of the footlights they hardly had time to notice us.” But there were not many celebrities, and even if there had been what does he expect if he insists on marrying Elizabeth Taylor? On the radio, I’m told, he was more realistic, blaming himself, which is to his credit, since, with the expected exception of Walter Kerr (and the less expectable one of John Chapman of the News) the critics were as usual—uncritical.

Maybe they hadn’t made the mistake I did of re-reading the text. What a work! There seems to be a tag in every other line, tags that have become mortised so deeply into us we often don’t know when we are echoing them, formulations that have become part of the racial unconscious, of our very language. Only the King James Bible, from the same miraculous half-century, contains a larger stock of wonderful chestnuts. And a central character, direct and ambiguous, crafty and noble, tender and cruel, elevated and ribald, intellectualizing everything and yet also acting out his contradictions—can this hero, who is the play more than any other of Shakespeare’s heroes, and whose motivations and character have been matters of dispute among scholars and critics for centuries, can one reasonably expect any actor to render him fully on the stage, or any company to rise to the greatness of the language—the “big” lines are by no means limited to Hamlet’s part—or any director to make dramatic a work that is essentially literary and intellectual without losing those qualities? Lear‘s moral impressionism can be more moving, and coherent, on the stage (the cinema might be an even better medium) than when read in cold print. Or, the opposite case, that tightly constructed melodrama, Macbeth, so perfectly designed for the theater, with a clearly defined villain and villainess, the most “advanced” and realistic psychology (the dialogues between Macbeth and his Lady before and after Duncan’s and Banquo’s murders often sound like Ibsen, or Freud) combined with great set pieces of rhetoric that “work” theatrically and, unlike Hamlet’s soliloquies, don’t require the actor to create a whole personality as a launching-pad. So perhaps no actor can ever give us the complete Hamlet of the text—as no singer can fulfill the impossible demands Wagner made—and perhaps Hamlet will always read better than it plays. Still, Sir John and Mr. Burton might have done better.

  • Email
  • Print