JOHN GIELGUD’S HAMLET (James Mason Brown, 1938)
Two on The Isle – James Mason Brown
TEN YEARS OF THE AMERICAN THEATRE IN PERFORMANCE
NOT SINCE John Barrymore made Elsinore his own, has a Hamlet of the interest of John Gielgud’s been seen—and heard—in New York. If to some of us the Mr. Barrymore who was remains even now the Hamlet we shall continue to see in our mind’s eye as the perfect embodiment of the Prince, it will be Mr. Gielgud’s voice in the future we shall hear lending its color to many of the nobler speeches. Such a voice, such diction, and such a gift for maintaining the melody of Shakespeare’s verse even while keeping it edged from speech to speech with dramatic significance, is a new experience to those of us who since the twilight days of Forbes-Robertson have seen a small army of actors try their wings, and sometimes our patience, as Hamlet.
Mr. Gielgud is young enough to be the part and old enough in Shakespearean experience to play it exceptionally. The verse offers him no difficulties. He is its master and gives abundant proof of his mastery. He is no mere reciter, but an illuminator of what he has to say. He turns the searchlight of his thinking and his feeling on sentence after sentence which gains a new force and meaning because of what he finds in it to reveal. He is an actor who, though he lacks Mr. Barrymore’s natural endowment as far as looks are concerned, is nonetheless possessed of a sensitive, clear-cut face. It is so molded that it can amplify every passing thought which takes possession of his mind. It equals his voice in flexibility.
Without tearing a passion to tatters or sawing the air too much, Mr. Gielgud can suggest the whirlwind of the frenzy which has overtaken him. He has an exciting personality. He moves with grace and is not afraid of taking full advantage of the many steps which Jo Mielziner has placed at his disposal for some of the full stage scenes in Mr. McClintic’s visually arresting production at the Empire. If, in spite of the frequent brilliance, occasional superiorities and steady interest of Mr. Gielgud’s Hamlet, his Prince still plays second-best to Mr. Barrymore’s, one reason is that Mr. Gielgud’s Hamlet lacks the consistency Mr. Barrymore brought to the part. Many of the details of his Hamlet are fine. Some are magnificent. But they are not assembled into a characterization which is large enough to connect and explain them all. Their validity is for the scene in which they occur, rather than for the total impression.
Mr. Gielgud’s Hamlet is frequently more mercurial than is good for it. He changes it to fit new speeches, and in the process often seems to be presenting us new Hamlets to whom he has not hitherto introduced us. The Mr. Gielgud, for example, who reads the speech to the players benevolently, with a professional’s interest in its admonitions and no remembrance of the scheme to trap the King which underlies that interest, is an entirely different person from the Mr. Gielgud who delivers with tremendous austerity the seldom heard “How all occasions do inform against me” soliloquy. Then the Mr. Gielgud who solemnly speaks his first bitter aside about “A little more than kin, and less than kind,” wakes up slowly to the wit which he must later show in his encounters with Polonius, Ophelia, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern,
the First Grave Digger and Osric. It takes almost two acts for Mr. Gielgud’s Hamlet to become aware of the sharpness of his tongue. Mr. Barrymore’s was caustic from the first. Furthermore, the Mr. Gielgud who swears his love for Ophelia at the grave gives no indication of having really loved her before that time, as Mr. Barrymore did in the unforgettable intensity of his “Get thee to a nunnery” scene. Yet because of the excellence of its details and the thrilling revelation of some of its single readings, Mr. Gielgud’s Hamlet is a performance which deserves the loud cheers that greeted it last night when the final curtain had fallen. Mr. Gielgud is strangely disappointing in the Closet scene, when he dispenses with the traditional properties for the “Look here, upon this picture, and on this”; and is weakest throughout in his irony. He is at his best—and a fiery and exciting best it is—in the play-within-a-play, in his first en counter with the Ghost, and in the blood-stained last scene. Again and again during the course of the evening he delivers his individual speeches with such beauty and intelligence, such insight and tension, that one gladly overlooks the lapses in his interpretation. Mr. McClintic has brought to the patterning of his production the same sweep which made his direction of Miss Cornell’s Romeo and Juliet notable. His staging is vivifying, pictorial and inventive, especially in the uses to which it puts the levels and steps of Mr. Mielziner’s unit setting for the inner stage. But the performances of the well-known players Mr. McClintic has gathered about Mr. Gielgud are of varying merits.
Although completely negative until the mad scene, Lillian Gish’s Ophelia then turns into the most effective, if untraditional, Ophelia we have yet witnessed. Judith Anderson’s Queen is stately and captures the eye, but leaves much to be desired in the Closet scene. Malcolm Keen’s Claudius is, especially at the beginning, a welcome relief from the red-bearded, ranting Claudiuses usually on hand.
John Emery’s Laertes has real verve and distinction. And Arthur Byron’s Polonius is handsome enough, but a Polonius who is as slow to suggest his humorous garrulity as Mr. Gielgud is to suggest Hamlet’s wit.
The Ghost, who is always a problem to a generation whose belief in the supernatural stops with ghost-writers, is now almost as adventurously dealt with as he was when Robert Edmond Jones turned him into Tinkerbell by suggesting him with a shaft of light. There are two or three Ghosts lurking around the stage of the Empire these nights, one of whom remains unseen and speaks the Ghost’s speeches through an amplifier, which makes him seem just a little ahead of his times in Elsinore.
Mr. Mielziner’s settings, like the Vandyke costumes in which he has dressed most of the characters, are interesting. But, next to Mr. Shakespeare’s play, the most interesting feature of the evening is, as goes without saying, Mr. Gielgud. Although one may quarrel with this or that feature of his Hamlet, Mr. Gielgud is unquestionably a rare actor, possessed of the stuffs from which rare actors have always been made. He is decidedly worth seeing—and seeing again and again.
October 9, 1936