Crossing Genre, Age and Gender: Judith Anderson as Hamlet

In 1970 Judith Anderson, doyenne of the classical American stage, fulfilled a long-held desire to play the title role in Hamlet. Employing a heavily cut text and minimalist setting, the production relied on the power of voice to illuminate Shakespeare’s poetry. Yet most viewers were unable to see past Anderson’s seventy-three-year-old female body to the spirit of her Hamlet, and her performance was widely criticised. Anderson later described the experience as a “heartache and a tragedy.”1 Despite its disappointing reception at the time, Anderson’s performance merits recognition, and re-examination, as a notable event in theatrical history with significant aesthetic and social implications. Anderson’s Hamlet was an extraordinary exercise in boundary crossing—rejecting conventions of Shakespearean performance alongside those of age and gender. Furthermore it refused to be aligned with either classical theatre or avant-garde performance, existing in a state of otherness and demanding to be assessed on its own terms.

Australian-born Anderson began her Broadway career in the 1920s, later balancing her stage work alongside steady employment as a character actress in film. Her career was transformed when she appeared as Medea in Robinson Jeffers’s adaptation of Euripides’s play. Anderson’s intense and archly theatrical performance met with popular and critical acclaim and enhanced her status, positioning her as “first lady” of the American stage. In the 1950s and 1960s she cemented this identity, touring both the full production of Medea and her program of excerpts from Medea and Macbeth in America and abroad. Although she continued to appear regularly on film and television, Anderson repeatedly figured the stage as her true metier. As well as lauding the performative freedom of the theatre, she expressed an understanding of the stage as a site that enabled communion with “genius:” “That’s why I like to do great plays—to be a part of greatness.”2 In the 1960s and 70s, Anderson became increasingly disillusioned not only with film and television but with the contemporary theatre. Her solution was to retreat into the classics: “There’s so little that is good. I would rather fail as Hamlet than succeed in something less worthy.”3

Anderson’s Hamlet, directed by William Ball and produced by Paul Gregory, performed predominantly at university theatres but also appeared at venues such as New York’s Carnegie Hall. Anderson’s performance, Ball’s direction, the supporting cast, and the design were all repeatedly deemed weak and ill-conceived by critics, but the production proved a commercial success: the two nights at Carnegie Hall sold out before rehearsals even commenced.

 Figure 1., Hamlet program, signed by Judith Anderson, in Author’s collection.
Figure 1., Hamlet program, signed by Judith Anderson, in Author’s collection.

Anderson’s popularity suggests a nostalgic longing for the grand theatre of the past amongst some sections of the community during a period of immense change in America. The consequences of involvement in the war in Vietnam, the rise of second wave feminism and the civil rights movement, and the emergence of the gay liberation movement transformed American society during the late 1960s and early 1970s. These issues were explored in the work of avant garde troupes such as Richard Schechner’s Performance Group, Julian Beck and Judith Malina’s Living Theatre, and Charles Ludlam’s Ridiculous Theatre Company, as well as in more mainstream forms such as the rock musical Hair. Judith Anderson was removed from these trends; from the early 1960s, she repeatedly conveyed her distaste for modern theatre. In 1969, she told a journalist: “[there] isn’t anything that I want to see today. You hear about Hair and Oh Calcuatta! (sic) and it’s all disgusting to me. There is no quality or imagination in the theatre today [and] I object to the nudity.”4 She also raised her objections to “thrust” stages that brought the actors into the audience: “For her it’s too much reality . . . and not enough left to the imagination.”5 Anderson articulated a preference for performance that occurred inside the pictorial frame of the proscenium and maintained its distance from the audience. Yet despite her conservative outlook, her Hamlet was read as potentially radical, and she was obliged to deny that it held feminist intent or was an experiment in “camp.”