STRATFORD, Ct.--One of the siller statements about Shakespeare came from Chesterton, who said that "man have agreed about Hamlet vastly more than they have agreed about Ceasar or Muhamet or Cromwell or Mr. Gladstone or Cecil Rhodes." It is preciously because people have disagreed about Hamlet and its timler character that an unending torrent of words has poured forth on the subject--more than on any other fictional personage in history.
In fact, because Shakespeare created such a full and multi-faceted character in the longest role of his longest play, many have treated Hamlet as a real historical figure. The playwright Percy Mackaye (Harvard 1897) even went so far as to write a quartet of verse dramas to explain what had happened in the royal Danish household during the 30 years leading up to the events offered by Shakespeare.
So fascinating and challenging a role is Hamlet that any serious actor relishes the chance of tackling it. William Betty drew cheering crowds when he acted the part at the age of 12, while Betterton, the first great Hamlet, was still playing the role at 74. And the count of women who have undertaken the part in public is now well over 50.
The American Shakespeare Theatre is now presenting Hamlet for the fourth time in its history. In 1958 Fritz Weaver gasped and wheezed his way through an only moderately cut text, with a running-time of three hours and a quarter. In 1964 Tom Sawyer made an admirable stab at the role in a version with a playing time of two hours and three quarters.
The AST courageously mounted an uncut production in 1969 and was lucky enough to enlist the services of that splendid classical actor Brian Bedford. Bedford delivered his lines rapidly, as was done in Shakespeare's day, so that the running-time was only three hours and a half. He acted, as Shaw advocated, on the lines, rather than between the lines, as the most famous American Hamlet, John Barrymore, was wont to do. (Uncut productions are exceedingly rare. In Britain, Frank Benson did it first, in 1899. Gielgud and Guinness acted the full text in the decade before World War II. New York first saw an uncut Hamlet in 1938, with the much overrated Maurice Evans. And 25 years ago Harvard senior Colgate Salsbury gave us every word in a remarkable Sanders Theater production.)
In his current version, director Peter Coe is providing an evening exactly as long as the 1964 production, though naturally his cutting is not the same. In his casting, Coe took two major gambles in engaging a pair of Academy Award winners to play Hamlet and his mother. One of the gambles paid off, and the other didn't. The latter, unfortunately, happens to be Hamlet.
I wonder whether Coe actually heard Christopher Walken play or read Shakespeare before hiring him. The vocal deficiencies I cited in his Hotspur last month have not diminished. I don't want to give the impression that Walken's experience has been entirely in film, when in fact he has done a dozen Shakespearean roles on stage, including Hamlet eight years ago. I should think, however, that a person who has had all these outings and has now arrived at the age of 39 still so ill-suited to Shakespeare's verse would decide to turn his efforts else where.
In a program note, Coe makes the odd statement that "Hamlet avoids succession to the throne by willing his own death throughout the play because he considers he has nothing to lose by it." Hamlet is, in fact, so chameleonic that there isn't anything he does throughout the play. But Walken's Hamlet lacks range, there is little in it except harshness and choler. It needs infusions of sensitivity, intellectuality wit, irony, and especially music (of which Hamlet claims to be a master).
Hamlet's frequent "O God" comes out "O Gahd," and the dramatist's "O Wonderful" has been turned into a Wittenbergian "Wunderbar," and "inexplicable" is mispronounced. On holding Yorick's skull, Hamlet comments, "I knew him, Horatio, a fellow of infinite jest. "But Walken says, "I knew him, [Long pause] Horatio a fellow of infinite jest." When we reach the Prince's dying words, Walken is so heedless of meter that the beautiful line. "Absent thee from felicity awhile" emerges with an accent on the first syllable.
In the early Council Scene, I wonder whether Hamlet would really remain sitting on the floor when speaking with the Queen. But later there no doubt that Hamlet is feigning madness--a topic of endless controversy over the generations. Gilbert (without collaboration from Sullivan) wrote a delightful burlesque of Hamlet in which Ophelia runs through a host of theories and concludes. "Hamlet is idiotically sane With lucid intervals of lunacy."
The device of shamming insanity has a long tradition going back at least as far as Oceanus' advice to Aeschylus' Prometheus: "To simulate madness is the secret of the wise," Walken's "antic disposition" is correctly a disguise. He appears barefoot, wearing a muddied monk's gown with cowl. He takes things pretty fat, however, In the Nunnery Scene, where he not only berates Ophelia but even knocks her down and slaps her. Later he shinnies up a pole to give a speech.
Coe, by the way, has taken the suggestion of several critics in moving the "To be or not to be" speech and the ensuing Nunnery Scene to an earlier spot right after the Fishmonger Scene--thus following the highly abridged First Quarto of 1603 rather than the fuller Second Quarto or First Folio. Even so, Coe placed Shakespeare's most famous soliloquy after the Nunnery Scene, and in fact makes it a part of the discourses. Thus it is no longer a solioquy, but is addressed directly to Ophelia, to whom Hamlet gives his dagger while speaking it. I suppose that this is one way of making its nutoriously enigmatic thought seem like intentional nonsense.
The nearest approach to Walken's Hamlet in my experience is the snarling and unpoetic one that the overtouted Nicol Williamson came over from England to inflict on us in 1969. For a reminder of how a superb actor can capture 100 facets of Hamlet's nature and meld them into one believable characterization, turn not to the dreadful Olivier film version but to Derek Jacobi's 1980 portrayal for BBC television (which will doubtless be shown here again soon).
If Coe has lost with his Hamlet, he has won with his Queen Gertrude. For this he imported Anne Baxter, a Hollywood veteran with more than 50 films to her credit. At age 59, she is now essaying Shakespeare for the first time, and has come up with an admirable performance. During the first preview, she fractured her left foot, but insisted on going ahead even without a plaster cast. Three performances later, one would never have guessed she had sustained an injury if a cautionary announcement had not been made to the audience.
She is offering us a warm and solicitous Gertrude. She speaks with feeling and understanding, and nicely fulfills the demands of the difficult Closet Scene. This is a perfectly credible portrayal, though I think an ideal Queen would show more sensuality. When Hamlet is duelling, the Queen is supposed to comment, "He's fat, and scant of breath." Coe has, however, changed the first adjective to "hot." The playwright's text tells us three things about the physical Hamlet--that he wears a beard, is 30 years old, and is fat (the role was written, after all, for the portly Richard Burbage, who first played Lear and Othello). It is still hard to get away from the 19th-century view: "Frailty, thy name is Hamlet."