Burtons Lost Hamlet
January 22, 2004
once saw the legendary actor Richard Burton in person, a few years
before his untimely death. I was leaving a Manhattan restaurant after
lunch and saw him sitting with a small group. I strained to hear his
famous speaking voice, but he said nothing.
Burtons 1964 Broadway
performance as Hamlet has finally been released on video. It was a
sensation at the time; his celebrity had peaked during his scandalous
affair with Elizabeth Taylor, which got roughly the combined publicity of
the Kennedy assassinations and 9/11. Liz and Dick, as the
press called them, had met during the filming of the mega-epic
Cleopatra, now nearly forgotten.
I followed the story, but I was
more interested in Dick than in Liz. In fact I wished hed dump her
and go back to Shakespeare and, if necessary, his wife. So I was enthralled
when he played Hamlet on Broadway.
As a high-school boy in Michigan,
I didnt expect to see it; but it was shown for one night only at
movie theaters across the United States on closed-circuit television, so I
saw it in Ann Arbor. This, the public was told, would be our only chance to
see it, forever; the tape would be destroyed. Home video was still
undreamed of. But lo, here it is at last, available to everyone.
It was a curious production. The
actors wore street clothes instead of period costumes. The conceit was
that Hamlet can never receive a definitive performance, but
can only be eternally rehearsed, so it was performed as a rehearsal. I
supposed it saved the producers a lot of money.
My impression at the time was
one of disappointment. The conceit didnt work. Shakespeare
seen the video, I feel even more disappointed. Yet the
Burton Hamlet remains an interesting period piece. If
nothing else, it tells you what kind of cultural fraud could be perpetrated
The cast was all wrong. Apart
from Hume Cronyns Polonius, none of the other characters had any
distinction. Most were played by Americans with no feeling for
This forced Burton to carry the
play all by himself. He was acting as if in a vacuum. You can still sense his
riveting stage presence on the video, but he seems to overwhelm the other
actors rather than interact with them.
As a result he appears less
Hamlet than just hammy. He was already too old for the young prince, too
commandingly virile to reflect the roles perplexities. This Hamlet
never hesitates. He is a man of action, not meditation.
Even Burtons great voice
becomes a liability. It snaps off the familiar lines with what one writer
called its tympanic resonance, undeniably thrilling, but
there is no real drama, only the sense of brilliant recitation. Hamlet is
played as a celebrity, witty but hardly tragic. His death brings no tears.
Sir John Gielgud directed, and
the spare production uses a tape recording of his voice to represent the
ghost of Hamlets father. Here is another bit of incongruity. In his
day Gielgud was considered the greatest speaker of Shakespeare in the
world, but to hear his quavery tenor urging the rugged basso Burton to
violent revenge is almost comical.
Burton never played another
serious Shakespeare role. Near the end of his life he spoke of alternating
with Robert Preston as Othello and Iago, but it never came off. In his youth
he had made an awesome reputation on the English stage as Hamlet, Iago,
Prince Hal, Coriolanus, and the Bastard in King John
a reputation youll fully understand if you can lay hands on his
electrifying recordings of Coriolanus and The Rape of
Alas, his 1964 turn as Hamlet
weary and dreary already shows a great talent gone to
seed. We didnt know it then, but he was nearly finished before he
was forty. After that he made lots of movies, many with Taylor, in which
he looked as bored as he was boring.
Too bad. He could be a generously
eloquent man, as when he said of his great contemporary and rival Paul
Scofield, Of the ten greatest moments in the theater, eight are
Scofields. The pity is that a few of them might have been