Thursday, August 16, 2007

I, Hamlet

The BBC in the 1970's made the decision to tape performances of all of Shakespeare's plays, and when they came to Hamlet (first broadcast in 1980), they chose the most versatile actor of his generation to play the title role, Derek Jacobi. Jacobi has been appearing in Shakespearean films since 1965, when he played Cassio in Olivier's Othello; in 1996, he played Claudius in Branagh's Hamlet. Even though many British actors have played different roles in Hamlet at various points in their careers, I don't think that many could achieve the combined quality of these performances of Jacobi's . He is directly in the line of British transformative actors I've written about before, such as Charles Laughton and Laurence Olivier, but is subtler in his use of make-up and facial putty to change his appearance. He even tackled a role that took Charles Laughton so long to get ready for that it imploded the movie he was to star in: that of the stammering C-C-Claudius in Josef von Sternberg's adaptation of Robert Graves's I, Claudius, of which Jacobi later did the TV version.

All that said, Jacobi's performance, while supremely intelligent, is not moving enough for me. I find myself more admiring of it than becoming involved in it. His line readings are full of wit, passion, and beauty, and I would like to like his portrayal more than I do. Frankly, I think his Claudius for Branagh is better: subtler, more revealing of the character's constant need to remain under steely control, the level of his apprehension only betrayed by his eyes. You, however, might find his Hamlet more moving than I do.

This production also has the strongest Claudius and Gertrude of any version in Patrick Stewart and Claire Bloom. Students always get a kick out of recognizing Picard under the curly wig and beard; his Claudius is full of bravura and chutzpah. The rest of the cast, though, is very weak, until you get to Ian Charleson's Fortinbras, who is a right cold bastard. Unfortunately, he comes in at the end of the play.

The production is videotaped, in color, with early seventeenth-century costumes and an eminently forgettable set design. The real joke of this version is its price: the BBC licensed these performances to a company who demands around $30 per DVD, probably because they assume that libraries will foot the bill. But even libraries get hit by budgetary constraints (and often are the first to suffer when they have to be applied). Charging so much for workmanlike and sporadically brilliant versions of the plays is no way to make Shakespeare palatable--or even available--to the masses.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007


The other "greatest" Hamlet of the last half of the twentieth century was, according to some critics, Nicol Williamson's. It become so famous that he was invited to perform a one-man show for Richard Nixon at the White House, a circumstance that gives rise to multiple ironies, since Hamlet is a play full of spying, overheard conversations, and advice to be true to oneself given by self-deceivers. At any rate, the movie version of Williamson's Hamlet was filmed at the Roundhouse in London and directed by Tony Richardson. It shaves the text to a minimum (reducing the Ghost to a brilliant light and a clangorous sound effect), but is nevertheless worth seeing, because Williamson's performance is special, and some of the other casting is daring and works.

Burton's Hamlet paved the way for more choleric Hamlets, angrier princes; Williamson's keeps some of the anger, but no actor quite combines that quality with Hamlet's nervous tension, and above all, his intelligence. Add to that the hint of a burr in Williamson's accent (most previous Hamlets sounding as if they had all been born in Mayfair), and the interiority that Richardson's close-ups evoke (especially in the soliloquies, where the actors address the camera directly), and Williamson's becomes a very personal Hamlet.

The interesting casting choices include one of Anthony Hopkins's earlier notable performances, as Claudius, and it doesn't seem to matter that in this case it is not the Gertrude who is too young, but the Claudius--Hopkins is only a year older than Williamson (further irony lies in the fact that Hopkins later played Nixon in Oliver Stone's movie). Hopkins's voice also still conveys a Welsh lilt. Gordon Jackson is another splendid Horatio, and Michael Pennington (who has written a fine book on Hamlet) is a solid Laertes. One of my favorite actors, Roger Livesey, he of the gravelly voice, plays both the first player and the Gravedigger. Several other actors double roles, thus giving a hint of the kind of performance a repertory company like Shakespeare's would give.

The gamble in casting, one which at first seemed a capitulation to the Zeitgeist, was having Marianne Faithfull play Ophelia, but she does a creditable job. Only here Richardson makes the questionable decision of implying that Laertes and Ophelia have an incestuous relationship--their kiss in Act 1 would probably prompt cries of "Get a room" from today's audiences--or at least one person who shows it in his classes. When Polonius reports to Claudius and Gertrude about Hamlet and Ophelia, they are depicted as granting a general levee in their bed, greasily eating a meal, with their large dogs on the blankets. It's as if Richardson wants to remind us that he directed the "lusty" Tom Jones.

The film is shot in color, and the costumes are traditional early seventeenth-century garb. It is a short Hamlet, less than two hours long, but Richardson decides to keep in the rarely performed scene where Polonius sends Voltemand to spy on Laertes, as well as the fourth soliloquy. The second and third soliloquies are transposed. Unfortunately, the movie is available on DVD only in Great Britain, and no decent stills seem available on the net. Still, it pops up on cable and satellite from time to time, and it's worth watching--within fifteen minutes you'll know if this Hamlet is palatable for you.

No John-a-dreams, this

In 1964, just as he was about to reach the heights of gossip notoriety, Richard Burton starred as Hamlet on Broadway, in a production directed by John Gielgud, whose own performances of the role stressed the beauty of Shakespeare's line. The production immediately sold out, so the producers decided to enact what passed for "pay-per-view" in that day: one live performance was filmed, and presented simultaneously in movie theaters across the U.S. on one night. Then all the prints were to be destroyed. However, Burton kept one print for himself, and, of course--and thankfully--it's made its way to DVD.

The film was shot in black-and-white, on a stage devoid of scenery, with the minimum of props (and those used are ratty in the extreme), the actors wearing casual contemporary clothes. Gielgud wanted the words to shine forth, so he called it a "final run-through" Hamlet, with nothing to distract the audience from the text--most of which he used. The cast, besides Burton, was mainly American, with the notable exception of the Ghost, which was shown as a monstrous shadow with Gielgud's voice. Alfred Drake, normally a musical lead, played Claudius, and not too badly (except he died like a punk, as Samuel L. Jackson might put it); the most famous American was Hume Cronyn (pictured in the still), who got quite a few laughs as Polonius.

That fact points out the strength and weakness of the film. It is a performance, with a live audience, and thus is one of the few presentations on film of Hamlet as an actual drama on a stage. Unfortunately, the film is directed more like a film, in that during Hamlet's soliloquies, Burton is shot in various forms of close-up; scenes with two characters are done in a two-shot, with the entire stage shown only to establish a scene or when absolutely necessary (as during the final duel). An audience sees Hamlet in the theater as an entire image, as it were; if an actor is alone on stage, it is up to him or her to make us look and make our own mental close-ups.

And Burton does this chiefly with his voice, although at this stage of his life he was surprisingly graceful, and had not entered that degree of alcoholism that prevented him from holding a gun steadily in Where Eagles Dare, thus prompting co-star Clint Eastwood to do volunteer to do all the shooting. As I've mentioned a few entries ago, Hamlet is a role well suited to Burton's strengths, particularly his voice, with a superlative control of range both in loudness and pitch, biting the words off: "to post with such dexterity to incestuous sheets," delivered in throaty growl, for instance. A friend of mine saw this performance in New York, and said Burton was amazing, which I can well imagine. His Hamlet is angry, intelligent, and witty.

My students generally do not like this version, but it provides magnificent examples of stage acting to contrast with movie acting, as well as a performance that some have called one of the two best Hamlets of the second half of the twentieth century. The other? That's for next time.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Some Sweet--and Some Sour--Princes

In honor of a film that's finally appearing on DVD this Tuesday, I decided to go over--here--a few versions of Shakespeare's Hamlet that have been captured in various media over the years. Every year I teach Hamlet as part of first-year course in composition and literature, and I show as many versions as I can, trying to cover most of the important parts of the play, also showing several different versions of key scenes--the play-within-a-play, the final duel and deaths--to show that actors and directors have to make all sorts of decisions at almost every line of the play to present it. How drunk is Claudius? How much of a buffoon Polonius? Should the fourth soliloquy ("How all occasions do inform against me") even be performed? Since Hamlet is a play, it should be watched as well as read.

Directors first have to decide what text should be used, how much of it, and in what order. Most modern texts of Hamlet are conflations of the three versions published during and soon after Shakespeare's life. The First Quarto (these name come from the size that the paper that formed the book was folded in) is often called the "Bad Quarto," because it's much shorter and rougher than the other two versions. Scholars once thought it was constructed from the memories of two actors who played minor roles in the play, but more recently some have argued that this is Shakespeare's "rough draft" for the play. The Second Quarto is the longest version; it contains all four soliloquies, as well as a famous passage about the tragic flaw. The Folio version was published after Shakespeare died in 1623 as part of his collected works. It's shorter than the Second Quarto (no fourth soliloquy) but includes some lines not in either version. Some critics thus claim it is Shakespeare's final version of the play, "streamlined" for performance in the theater.

Because the conflated Hamlet runs about four hours.

So: do you cut, what do you cut, why do you cut, and what do you do with perceived imbalances in the play? How do you set the play? One set, many sets? What time period? What sort of costumes? How do you cast it? What genders? (in Kenneth Branagh's A Midwinter's Tale, an "old queen," as he calls himself, plays Gertrude, and I've seen a Marcella, and heard about Bernhardt's Hamlet.) How Oedipal do you make the scene in Gerturde's bedchamber? Does Gertrude know the cup is poisoned? How do you handle the switching of the swords? Is the Ghost visible? Does Hamlet hear Polonius and Claudius when he asks her, "Where's your father?" Do you stage both the plays-within-the-plays, and if you do, how do you show that Claudius doesn't "get" the dumb show? And so on.

Laurence Olivier had proven he could sell audiences on Shakespeare in general with his Henry V, and when he did Hamlet a few years later, won Oscars for both Best Picture and Best Actor, but I think his achievement as a director was even greater. I have never particularly liked his characterization: too pretty, too epicene, too weak (maybe it's that blond wig the Brits think a Dane should have). However, his physicality in the duel scene is amazing: the leap he takes on to Claudius is one he used to do every night in the theater. It does have one of my favorite Horatios, Norman Wooland (seen above next to Larry), and as strong a cast of actors in minor roles as any version: John Lawrie and Anthony Quayle in the still, Stanley Holloway as the Gravedigger, and Peter Cushing as Osric (or the Grand Moff Tarkin as I tell students today). But why is Osric usually always portrayed in British performaces as such a homosexual fop?

As far as directing, just watch the way Olivier presents The Mousetrap (he only shows the dumb show). The stage is set with the audience forming a "U" with Claudius, Gertrude, and Polonius at the bottom of the U, the play at the top, Horatio at the top of the right side of the U, and Hamlet and Ophelia at the top left. The camera starts behind Horatio, then tracks down the U, behind the royal couple, who are kissing and thus missing what's happening, and then up to behind Hamlet, with Hamlet staring at Horatio, Horatio staring at Claudius, and the action visible on the stage. The camera then retracks, and this time you can see from behind that Claudius is watching the play (Polonius is very concerned), and back, till Olivier cuts to a close-up of Claudius shielding his eyes. It's masterful, with an economy of cuts, and every camera movement meaningful, purposeful. It's a shame that Olivier didn't get to direct more Shakespeare on film than the three he did.

Costumes: seventeenth-century. Black-and-white. Cuts: extensive, and the second and third soliloquies are juggled so that they are not as close as they are in the play.

"The Speech of the People"

When James Joyce created for Ulysses his modern analogues to Homer's Odysseus, Penelope, and Telemachus, he intended them to be, if not anti-heroic, then at least a-heroic. The modern Ulysses, Leopold Bloom, is Dublin Jew, who suffers from his countrymen's prejudices; his wife, Molly, is anything but faithful; and Ulysses's "son" is, at this point, an artist manque, whose last name (Dedalus) only hints at his vocation. The political aspect of Joyce's decision to treat characters of this social stratum (lower middle-class) is that his main characters are of the people: not royalty nor aristocrats. However, the manner in which Joyce describes their thought processes (except perhaps Molly Bloom's) is such that the book becomes a coterie experience; while democratic in spirit, it is anti-democratic in execution.

In U.S.A., John Dos Passos gets around this modernist dilemma by concentrating the least readily intelligible texts into "The Camera Eye" sections, and even those are far more comprehensible than, say, the "Proteus" section of Ulysses (which nevertheless contains such immediately beautiful sentences as Stephen's wondering "Am I walking into eternity along Sandymount Strand?" "Ineluctable modality of the visible" indeed). By allowing his characters their own language in free indirect discourse when describing their actions, Dos Passos fulfills the definition that he sets out in the preliminary section he wrote for the novels when they were finally published together, also called "U.S.A.": "But mostly U.S.A. is the speech of the people." And their speech is human, sometimes all too human. But as Hemingway observed, "All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn," and the demotic strain of Twain is fulfilled in the works of both Hemingway and Dos Passos.

However, U.S.A. is also a vast novel of political ideas about American history, much more overtly so than most works by Hemingway or Faulkner. The first character we meet, Mac, becomes involved in the labor movement, as does Mary French, the last character we read about some 1200 pages later. Labor is constantly exploited by capital; America was hoodwinked by the mendacious Woodrow Wilson into entering the Great War; the laws and ideals of America are constantly bent by those in power: these themes are hammered home again and again over the course of the work. Although the impending Stock Market Crash of 1929 looms in the minds of readers as they approach the end of the saga, it is the trial and execution of Sacco and Vanzetti that are crucial to the best characters in the book.

"History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake," complains Stephen in Ulyssses. And while Irish history permeates the fabric of Ulysses, Joyce presents no over-arching theory about it, as Tolstoy does at the end of War and Peace. Is history affected by great individuals, such as Napoleon, or are even they moved by intransigent forces? After finishing the novel, readers of U.S.A. can come away with the impression that all the characters have been swept along, except for the few who valorously labor against the system; however, the biographies that Dos Passos interjects into the flow show that individuals can make a difference, for good and ill. There is so much here, so much in this novel that especially now needs to be remembered, beyond the triumphs of its methods.

Note: One of the few examples of another author's adapting the methods and form of U.S.A. is the sf novel Stand on Zanzibar by John Brunner, which won the Hugo Award in 1968. In this near future dystopian novel, Brunner substitutes for Dos Passos's Newsreel sections the SCANALYZER, providing an "INdepth INdependent INmediate INterface" between the reader and "the happening world." Brunner also quotes tellingly from Marshall McLuhan at the beginning of the novel:

A point of view can be a dangerous luxury when substituted for insight and understanding.

Some Old British TV Show

To break up the monotony of my critical acumen on display ("Hey, Doc--can you use the word 'technique' just one more time?"), I decided to share this music video of one of my favorite XTC songs, "Mayor of Simpleton."

I don't know why I felt the need to watch this again.


Friday, August 10, 2007

"U.S.A." 2

One of the central ideas of modernism is the fractured nature of modern life, the loss of an organic unity both in reality and in art. "These fragments I have shored against my ruins," as T.S. Eliot says in The Waste Land. The three novels of John Dos Passos's U.S.A. trilogy (The 42nd Parallel, 1919, and The Big Money) are written in a set of deliberately fragmented sections, representing the overt discontinuities of American life. These are

  • The NEWSREEL. This title is somewhat anachronistic, since the first "newsreel" in the novel deals with events at the beginning of the twentieth century, when newsreels per se did not exist; it is also inaccurate, since a newsreel is made up of moving images, and Dos Passos presents us with snippets of texts from newspapers, popular songs, speeches, press releases, and slogans ("BONDS BUY BULLETS BUY BONDS"). These snippets can sometimes form a larger pattern (the lyrics to an entire verse from a song will be spread throughout one newsreel), but more often, when taken together, evoke a comprehensive mood of the period--a mood that Dos Passos himself selects. You soon get the impression that Dos Passos has a thesis behind the details that he chooses; someone could very well select other details and claim that they were equally representative of the period. There are 68 of these over the three volumes, the last entitled WALL STREET STUNNED.
  • The Camera Eye. This section is closest to the stream-of-consciousness techniques that Joyce perfected in Ulysses. These are the supposedly unmediated thoughts of the narrator; they start in infancy and progress throughout the series. They are impressionistic, "poetic," and fairly opaque. There are 51 of these.
  • "Biographies," for want of a better word, since that's what they are--lives of people that Dos Passos deems important and representative, for good or ill, usually introduced by a descriptive noun phrase, such as TIN LIZZIE for Henry Ford, or ADAGIO DANCER for Rudolph Valentino. The cast of notables is easily divided into heroes, often inventors/scientists like Luther Burbank and Thomas Edison, political figures such as Eugene Debs, or thinkers like Thorstein Veblen, along with villains such as tycoons like Ford, William Randolph Hearst, and Samuel Insull, or politicians like Woodrow Wilson. About celebrated performers such as Valentino and Isadora Duncan he is mainly neutral. The two most moving biographies are the ones that conclude the last two volumes: THE BODY OF AN AMERICAN about the Unknown Soldier, and VAG, about an out-of-work "vagrant" hitch-hiking across America. What is interesting about these biographies is that they adopt the techniques of what would become known much later as "the new journalism": the application of fictional methods to non-fictional subjects. To me they are the most brilliant--and successful--sections of the novel.
  • Characters: these sections, taken together, most resemble a conventional novel, third-person narratives that trace the lives of twelve people throughout the series, each section introduced by that character's name and concentrating on him or her (CHARLEY ANDERSON, for instance). For example, there are 17 character sections in the last volume, covering four characters. Their lives can intersect, intertwine, collide, or just as often do not meet; sometimes a complete arc is described, while sometimes the story is broken off at what later seems at arbitrary point. For some of these we can assume the character will not change; with others, who knows?

In these sections Dos Passos comes up with his most conspicuous joining of modernism and democracy, one that I was surprised to find (while reading a book about film noir) that Jean-Paul Sartre praised. Dos Passos uses free indirect discourse in these sections to give the thoughts of his characters in their own words, without resorting to first-person narrative or stream-of-consciousness. Here is a paragraph about Mary French, one of the more heroic characters in the work:

She'd never been in Boston before. The town these sunny winter days had a redbrick oldtime steelengraving look that pleased her. She got herself a little room on the edge of the slums of Beacon Hill and decided that when the case [of Sacco and Vanzetti] was won, she'd write a novel about Boston. She bought some school copybooks in a little musty stationers' shop and started right away taking notes for the novel. The smell of the new copybook with its faint blue lines made her feel fresh and new. After this she'd observe life. She'd never fall for a man again. Her mother had sent her a check for Christmas. With that she bought herself some new clothes and quite a becoming hat. She started to curl her hair again.

The sentence "She'd never fall for a man again" is in Mary's words, as is the phrase, "quite a becoming hat." The other words and phrases are probably very close to Mary's thoughts, except perhaps for the description of Boston, but in Mary's case, they could be her words. The narrator's own voice only becomes plainly evident in these sections at such times of description, which can seem more highly charged, more "poetic," than the normal language of the characters. And the omission of hyphens from compound adjectives ("oldtime") and nouns is straight out of Joyce.

But what does this all mean?