Broadway – By Brooks Atkinson
Having had a fabulous career in silent films in her youth, Lillian Gish turned upon Broadway in 1930 as Helena in Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, playing a fragile, pliant wife of a pretentious Russian scholar. The casting seemed to be perfect, but it was also deceptive. Miss Gish is a quiet, seemingly frail, unworldly lady, and she has a girlish voice. But she was born a professional and has been implacably professional all her life.
Although she looks vulnerable, she has great strength of character and physical stamina. Her sister Dorothy once remarked that many people made the mistake of treating Lillian as if she were a defenseless woman.
That, according to Dorothy, was like the old vaudeville trick in which the comedian kicked a hat that concealed a brick inside it. The kicker was likely to get a broken toe.
After her return from Hollywood (though not a withdrawal from the screen) Miss Gish played some parts that seemed to be outside her range —the amorous courtesan in The Lady of the Camellias and the gaudy whore in O’Casey’s Within the Gates.
But nothing was outside her range. She was equally well cast as the touching sister of charity in Philip Barry’s The Joyous Season, in 1934, and Ophelia to John Gielgud’s Hamlet, in 1936.
Miss Gish has never failed the author or the audience. She believes that it is the duty of the actor to help make the play intelligible and interesting. She has no patience with the introspective school of acting. To her, what motivates the actor is a matter of no importance; what moves an audience is.
When he appeared for the second time, in 1936, he was thirty-two years old. He came with considerable aura and retained, or perhaps, heightened it. His production of Hamlet, with Judith Anderson as the Queen and Lillian Gish as Ophelia, was joyfully accepted as the leading Hamlet of its time. Being young, slender, and handsome, Gielgud portrayed a sensitive and cultivated Hamlet—a little over civilized perhaps. He lacked fire and passion; the spirit of revolt was weak. But there was no one else who could play with so much delicacy of feeling and patrician authority.
For a brief time, there were two English Hamlets in town in 1936. Leslie Howard, a youthful actor of incomparable charm, had long coveted Hamlet as the part to which he was ideally suited. A month after Gielgud had raised the spirits of the ticket speculators, Howard opened his own production. After Gielgud, Howard’s amiable and accomplished young prince was an anticlimax. It lacked a point of view, and quickly failed. Gielgud’s production had 132 performances— 32 more than the Barrymore Hamlet of 1922.
After World War II, Gielgud was as familiar a figure on Broadway as he was in London. He acknowledged master of an esoteric style, he showed America how the English comedies of manners must be acted. No one could act Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest with so much diffidence and disdain, or Congreve’s Love for Love with such devastating hauteur. Gielgud illustrated one of Wilde’s celebrated apothegms: “In matters of grave importance, style—not sincerity—is the vital thing.” With his head high, his bony face expressionless, his voice dry and snobbish, Gielgud played comedy of manners brilliantly. He made artificial comedy look and sound witty, thin, immaculate, and accomplished. “Style is the way the chin is worn,” says Lady Bracknell in another Wilde comedy. Gielgud wore his very high indeed.
The extent of Gielgud’s Broadway involvement in 1947 indicates the confidence the American theater had in him. In October, he vividly staged Judith Anderson’s tempestuous Medea—although his personal portrait of Jason was ineffectual, for Gielgud does not have the rude strength for parts like that.
In December of the same season, he gave a memorable performance as Raskolnikoff in Rodney Ackland’s version of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. It was staged with sweep and drive by Theodore Komisarjevsky, and it included a crackbrained Katerina by Lillian Gish and a Sonia that Dolly Haas acted with a balancing of strength and meekness that was shattering. Raskolnikoff was just right for Gielgud, whose sharp, lean, tormented characterization composed a masterpiece.
Broadway’s face has changed, but her spirit remains, brilliantly recaptured on Brooks Atkinson’s stage: Broadway, starring Bernhardt, the Barrymores, the Lunts, Laurette Taylor, Mrs. Fiske, Helen Hayes, Lillian Gish, Ruth Gordon, Katharine Cornell, Judith Anderson; W. C. Fields, Fannie Brice, Al Jolson, Eddie Cantor, the Marx Brothers, and those gorgeous Ziegfeld girls. And in the wings, the playwrights—O’Neill, Rice, Anderson, Sherwood, Behrman, Heilman, Miller, Williams, Albee. In the orchestra: Jerome Kern, Victor Herbert, Rudolf Friml, Romberg, Berlin, Rodgers, Hart, Hammerstein, Lerner, Loewe. All the immortals are here—in Broadway, a major contribution to the theatrical history of the twentieth century.