Wednesday, September 5, 2012

"John Gielgud Directs Richard Burton in Hamlet" by Richard L. Sterne

As I may have mentioned before (and probably have), I'm very fond of Shakespeare's play Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. I've read it probably ten or eleven times in the past ten years and seen at least six versions on film (though none on stage yet). I've read several books pertaining to it, ranging from the scholarly Hamlet in Purgatory by Stephen Greenblatt to fictional retellings like John Updike's Gertrude and Claudius and Alan Gordon's An Antic Disposition. I wrote several papers about the play during college and studied in in a couple different classes.

So while I am by no means an expert on Hamlet, I am definitely familiar with the play and more than passingly fond of it.

Which means it's very odd that it took me this long to get around to reading Richard L. Sterne's journal of rehearsals, John Gielgud Directs Richard Burton in Hamlet. I actually did read a tiny bit of it when I was a college senior while doing a paper on Gielgud's relationship with the role, but I didn't have time to read the whole thing. All I can say now is, what a shame.

Because this book is brilliant. Basically, Richard L. Sterne had a small role in the 1964 Broadway production of Hamlet that starred Richard Burton as the embattled prince and which John Gielgud directed. Sterne smuggled a tape recorder (which occupied a whole briefcase back then!) into all the rehearsals and recorded all the cast's discussions of the play and, most importantly, Gielgud's own ideas about the play and the main role.

And the insights Gielgud had into the play are breathtaking. He'd played the role hundreds of times, setting the previous Broadway record for performances of the play in the 1920s (which Burton broke and I believe still holds). He'd participated in quite a few productions, even one in Elsinore itself. And he'd obviously studied the play and thought deeply about it for years and years and years.

Which means the book is chock full of wonderful little perceptive statements from Gielgud like these:
"I don't agree with Larry [Olivier], who said in the film that this is a play about a man who can't make up his mind. Surely it's about a man who cannot reconcile his own conscience with the world as he sees it, but who is able to come to this reconciliation by the end of the play" (56).
"What I find so fascinating about the part is that Hamlet always begins a scene one way and has to end it in another because something has happened in the course of the scene. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern's spying doesn't occur to him until he catches them. The arrival of the Players causes another enormous change. he meets Ophelia in the nunnery scene and he doesn't know how she'll react to him. Then he realizes they are spying on him and there's another change. He goes to his mother, hears a voice, and kills Polonius, and this changes the whole course of his life" (59).
"Claudius is a professional poisoner, and as soon as Laertes mentions it, we should see him already planning to go one better" (71).
"They're bad, shallow people, the people in this play. All except Hamlet, Horatio, the Gravedigger, and the Player King. They all have a zestful superficiality which should create a feeling of corruption" (91).

And there are lots of wonderful discussions about the various parts and scenes between the actors and the director, things like this:

"BURTON: John, do you suppose I could start the "too, too solid flesh" before the court leaves?
GIELGUD: No, no. This is the most realistic of the soliloquies and it would seem odd that the Courtiers would fail to hear it if they were there.
BURTON: I would like to be close to the audience for this. (Burton moves downstage and says the soliloquy with great energy and passion.)
GIELGUD: That's fine, but I think it's too active. Keep it sad and simple. Soft. He's down -- a very sad boy, but not morose" (22-3).
You get to hear all about the process of blocking the play, rehearsing different scenes, changing things around, even changing the costumes. In fact, it really made me wish I was involved in a theatrical production again. Maybe some day I'll go back to living in the daylight and join a local theater group or something. If I get really gutsy.

At any rate, this book was so delightful, so crammed with thoughts about the play that I'd never even considered, that I simply had to buy my own copy. I have a feeling it's one I'll return to often.

(All quotations taken from the 1967 edition from Random House.)

(Originally posted on Inscriptions on Mar. 28, 2007.)

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