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 Burton’s Lost Hamlet 

January 22, 2004

I 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.

Burton’s 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 he’d 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 didn’t 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 didn’t work. Shakespeare demands pageantry.

[Breaker quote: Recalling a great talent wasted]Having 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 in 1964.

The cast was all wrong. Apart from Hume Cronyn’s Polonius, none of the other characters had any distinction. Most were played by Americans with no feeling for Shakespeare’s verse.

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 role’s perplexities. This Hamlet never hesitates. He is a man of action, not meditation.

Even Burton’s 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 Hamlet’s 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 you’ll fully understand if you can lay hands on his electrifying recordings of Coriolanus and The Rape of Lucrece.

Alas, his 1964 turn as Hamlet — weary and dreary — already shows a great talent gone to seed. We didn’t 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 Scofield’s.” The pity is that a few of them might have been Burton’s.

Joseph Sobran

Copyright © 2004 by the Griffin Internet Syndicate,
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