The Center's Hamlet file contains photographic documentation of productions from over a century of American theatrical productions of Shakespeare's play.
The most celebrated actor in a theatrical family, Edwin Booth was arguably the greatest American Shakespearean actor of the nineteenth century, and was especially well-known for his rendition of Hamlet. In one of at least three obituaries devoted to the actor upon his death in 1893, the New York Times dubbed his most famous production of the Shakespearean tragedy, “the long run of ‘Hamlet.’” The "long run" lasted one hundered days at New York's Winter Garden Theatre in 1864, and featured, according to the Times, a veritable advertising bonanza: “The posters on the fences bearing his name were big enough for a circus... Busts and pictures of Booth were seen on every hand. Public excitement about the actor was then at fever heat. Critics who doubted ‘if the modern stage had anything to equal his Hamlet’ were plentiful. The handsome face of the actor, shaded by dark, flowing locks, bearing an expression of gentle poetic melancholy, was impressed on the eye of the multitude. His beautiful voice was raved about. Women flocked to see him, and his photograph, by Gurney or Fredericks, was in demand... His hour of triumph was at hand and fortune smiled upon him.” After New York, Booth took his Hamlet to Boston. Merely three weeks into the Boston run, however, Booth’s younger brother, John Wilkes, assassinated the president. Deeply affected, Edwin Booth retired from the stage for eight months. When the actor reappeared, it was again in the role of Hamlet at the Winter Garden. Wrote the Times, “He had never before acted with the firmness, the repose, the strength in passion, the exquisite delicacy, that then marked his work, and he never surpassed the portrayals of Shakespeare’s heroes, which he gave that last year at the Winter Garden Theatre.”
Walter Hampden was no stranger to the role of Hamlet in the early twentieth century: between 1918 and 1924, he reprised the part at least five times in New York alone. In 1925, Hampden opened his own Broadway theater and selected Hamlet as his debut play. (According to the New York Times, he did, however, select “modern works” and “one or two Shakespearean characters in which he is not familiar to New Yorkers” for his second season.) The 1925 performance was called “‘Hamlet’ to the core” by the Times, and praised for its relative fidelity to the original text. The Times critic also observed, “since Mr. Hampden began his ‘Hamlet,’ at odd moments in theatre, some six or seven years ago, his own performance seems to have deepened.”
Gareth Hughes, to whom Hampden dedicated his photo, was a Welsh-born actor who settled in the U.S. A star of the silent screen as well as the theatrical stage, Hughes played Hamlet opposite Margaret Bourne for a Los Angeles radio broadcast in 1926. In the late 1930s, Hughes became director of the Los Angeles Federal Theatre, where he again played the melancholy Dane. A New Deal initiative, the Federal Theatre Project was meant to both employ struggling artists and to entertain and educate impoverished families. Apparently taken with the mission of the Federal Theatre Project, Hughes went on to direct and star in a 1940 educational film featuring two excerpts from Hamlet. Sold to schools by the Educationettes Distributing Company for $37.50 a print, “Shakespeare the Immortal” was slotted to be the first in a series of eleven-minute shorts, and was budgeted at $600 to $1,000. The Los Angeles Times reported, “the Elizabethan staging eliminates the necessity for sets, though an approximate reproduction of the Globe Theatre will be built, according to the company.”
Perhaps best known for his portrayal of the weak Ashley in Gone with the Wind (1939), Leslie Howard was also an accomplished stage actor. In 1936, Howard directed, produced, and starred in Hamlet for Broadway audiences. On opening night, Howard reportedly observed, “There is a terrible penalty attached to acting Hamlet.… Comparisons are unavoidable. ” Three New York Times critics accordingly compared Howard’s performance to that of John Gielgud, who had debuted on Broadway as the melancholy prince only a month before. Howard's production was praised for Stewart Cheney's innovative set design, for its humorous bent, and for its modernist sophistication. But Howard's performance was criticized for its overly gentle nature. Brooks Atkinson was particularly harsh, complaining, “most of the qualities that make Hamlet a commanding figure lie outside Mr. Howard’s compass.”
Like Leslie Howard, John Carradine remained active on the stage. During the 1940s, Carradine was known for touring Shakespeare productions. Carradine's 1943 Hamlet, from which this still was likely taken, was staged at the Pasadena Playhouse. Carradine was credited with artistic direction; Carlo Caiata with décor. Katherine Von Blon of the Los Angeles Times described Carradine’s performance as follows: “John Carradine, as the Melancholy Dane, painted a poignant and tragic picture of the lonely introspective youth, beset with so many conflicting emotions. He somehow seemed to stress the piercing medieval note of doom in his moving revelation of the pathos and travail of the human soul. The one flaw in his performance was noted in his voice, which in certain passages rang with fine resonance, and in others rendered the text more or less obscure."
"Theatrical Johnny Appleseed" Tyrone Guthrie founded the Tyrone Guthrie Theater (home to the Minnesota Theater Company) in 1963. Built for a cost of more than $2 million dollars, the Tyrone Guthrie combined traditional Elizabethan theater-in-theround with stunning modern architecture. Guthrie, known for "gimmicky" direction, selected Hamlet as the opening play for his new theater, and dressed his cast, headed by George Grizzard, in modern duds. Many reviewers were dubious of the choice (a critic for the Associated Press positively lambasted the production), but Howard Taubman of the New York Times recognized its importance. Though he found that “Laertes with a belt and holster over his trenchcoat looks like a spoof of private-eye fiction,” Taubman reflected that “Mr. Guthrie’s theatrical imagination is never at rest," and applauded the birth of a Midwestern center for innovative theater.