Sir Laurence Olivier described, in On Acting, how the role of
Hamlet has passed from actor to actor since Richard Burbage played the
first Hamlet and then coached the second, Joseph Taylor. After the reopening
of the theatres in 1660, William D'Avenant, who had seen Taylor's performance,
directed Thomas Betterton. David Garrick studied and learned from some
of the older members of Betterton's company, and Edmund Kean from the
survivors of Garrick's and so on by direct tuition or through observation
via Henry Irving, Olivier and Steven Berkoff to George Dillon!
Just as our knowledge of Shakespeare's life is conjectural so too is
our impression of the way Burbage played the first Hamlet, but from seventeenth
century allusions to the play in performance and from Betterton's prompt-books,
whose cuts are thought to reflect Elizabethan practise, we know that Hamlet
was originally seen as a crazed avenger, energetically and often comically
mad but with no question about his decisiveness or bravery. The restoration
was, however, a more delicate age, and David Garrick, who played the role
from 1742 to 1776, cut all the impieties and indecencies and began the
refined misconception of Hamlet's character which ruled for the next two
hundred years: 'Whether in the simulation of madness, in the sinkings
of despair, in the familiarity of friendship, in the whirlwind of passion,
or in the meltings of tenderness, he never once forgot he was a prince;
and in every variety of situation, and transition of feeling, you discovered
the highest polish of fine breeding and courtly manners' wrote the
playwright Hannah More of Garrick in 1774.
In 1783 the twenty-six-year-old John Philip Kemble chose Hamlet for his
London debut as a direct challenge to the leading actor of the day, John
Henderson, and was praised by many as being his equal. When Henderson
died of food poisoning in 1785 the way was clear for Kemble to shine alone
for the next thirty years. After Garrick's 'naturalism', Kemble's acting
swung the aesthetic pendulum back towards stylisation 'It was a great
effort of a great artist, but I could never discover aught in it save
the rehearsal of an endeavour' wrote one spectator. Tall and handsome
- Kemble bore a striking resemblance to Eric Cantona! - although his style
was flamboyant, his characterisation was, however, entirely orthodox,
pleasing the conservatism of the age.
'He fixed on melancholy as the essence of the character and sought
to give a generalised and idealised portrait of that single trait. Sadness
hung like a visible colour over everything he said and did. Levity,
anger, tenderness, intellectual pleasure - all were subordinated, suppressed,
subsumed.' (John A Mills in The Great Tradition).
At 5 feet 4 inches, Edmund Kean was altogether the opposite of Kemble
in appearance, and in his acting too he represented a return to the naturalism
of Garrick. Garrick's widow, at the age of eighty, attended his every
performance at Drury Lane and hailed Kean as Garrick's rightful heir.
Even his direct predecessor's niece, Fanny Kemble, was an admirer, praising
his reading as 'exquisitely touching and melodious in its tenderness,
and in the harsh dissonance of vehement passion, terribly true.' However,
Kean was inconsistent in the role, causing Samuel Coleridge to comment
that watching him was 'like reading Shakespeare by flashes of lightning'.
In the late nineteenth century, the dramatic potential of Shakespeare's
original texts was rediscovered and the production ethos centred on a
charismatic star actor was toppled by William Poel who used only amateurs,
Edward Gordon Craig who subordinated actors to set design and Harley Granville
Barker who promoted the totalitarian rule of the director. Poel devoted
50 years to the attempt to stage Shakespeare 'exactly as it was given
the first time it was acted' in Elizabethan costume, without sets,
with musical accompaniment on original instruments. He used the shorter
and more dynamic First Quarto of Hamlet as the text for his first
historic production in 1881. He also started the tedious trend of staging
Shakespeare uncut; the first 'complete text' production of Hamlet (a combination
of everything from the three different texts) was produced by Francis
Benson at the Lyceum in 1901.
The Age of Science also introduced a more psycho-analytical approach
to acting. In the early nineteenth century Hamlet had been dreamily poetic,
and the acting involved declamatory delivery, statuesque poses, sweeping
gestures and long pauses. Towards the end of the century and in the early
1900s there was a reaction against this artificiality. The soliloquies,
for example, were now played as 'spoken thoughts' with Forbes-Robertson
and even Henry Irving making no eye-contact with the audience. The 1920s
and 1930s saw the ultimate triumph of psychological acting, in the emotional
prince of Gielgud and Olivier, the Oedipal son.
In the immediate post-war period, the choice was still limited to the
honourable or the Freudian prince, but in the 1960s everything changed.
Olivier chose to direct Peter O'Toole in Hamlet as the first production
of the National Theatre at the Old Vic in 1963 and hinted in the programme
that Hamlet resembled John Osborne's archetypal angry young man, Jimmy
Porter. Richard Burton, who had created Jimmy Porter in the film of Look
Back in Anger, played Hamlet in 1964 directed by John Gielgud, and
his tough, virile Hamlet (albeit with an upper-class accent) attracted
world attention, and broke box office records on Broadway. The angry young
man proper finally arrived with Peter Hall's 1965 production in which
David Warner, at 24 the youngest Stratford Hamlet, spoke his soliloquies
direct to the audience. 'As for Glenda Jackson as Ophelia, one can
only yammer in admiration. This was a regular man-eater: a highly sexed
young woman, cracking under the strain of a disintegrating love affair.'
From the mid-sixites to the late-seventies experimentation was in. Frances
de la Tour joined the ranks of the female Hamlets, and Jonathan Pryce
writhed and growled as he doubled as the ghost of his own father (which
saved hiring another actor!) In 1976 Peter Hall again directed Hamlet
as the last production of the National Theatre at the Old Vic, with the
39year-old Albert Finney playing a burly, athletic, Lancashire-accented,
unprincely, modern, hard-bitten young man, racing through his poetic speeches
sporting a Samurai headband.
In 1979, while Derek Jacobi was scoring a hit at the Old Vic, Steven
Berkoff sold his mother's premium bonds to finance his Edinburgh production
in which he directed himself. It is said that when the Guardian's theatre
critic, Nicholas de Jongh, wrote that he was 'fatally miscast' and the
actor later chanced upon him in a restaurant and half-jokingly threatened
to kill him, the credulous critic's editor call in police protection.
Berkoff later wrote in his production journal I am Hamlet:
'Since Hamlet touches the complete alphabet of human experience
every actor feels he is born to play it. The bold extrovert will dazzle
and play with the word power... The introvert will see every line pointed
at him, the outsider, the loner, the watcher, he... The wit will play
for laughs and the lunatic for madness. The romantic for ideals. So
you cannot be miscast for Hamlet 'fatally miscast' as one critic called
me in fact since he too had his version of Hamlet fixed in his head.'
(Steven Berkoff, I am Hamlet, 1989, Faber & Faber).
This article first appeared in the programme for George Dillon's production of Hamlet in 1995. Other pages from that programme are also available:
Interpretation of Hamlet
Quotes on Hamlet
Hamlet - Story, Dates, Sources, Texts, Cuts
George Dillon, 1995