Crossing Genre, Age and Gender: Judith Anderson as Hamlet

Anderson did eventually find someone to guide her Hamlet: William Ball, founder and director of the American Conservatory Theatre (ACT), based in San Francisco from 1965. Under Ball’s vigorous leadership, ACT presented modern classics by authors such as Chekhov, Pirandello and Tom Stoppard, rising to become “one of the most active and prosperous resident repertory companies in the country.”23 During the 1960s, Ball also directed John Gielgud, Edith Evans and Margaret Leighton in A Homage to Shakespeare, and worked at a number of America’s major Shakespeare festivals. The venture was produced by Paul Gregory, who had worked in Hollywood and the music industry in addition to the theatre. In 1953, he had produced John Brown’s Body, a dramatic reading starring Anderson, Tyrone Power, and Raymond Massey. In this production, Anderson had demonstrated two things above all else: her range, and her ability to build characters through voice—she created, through recitation, “anything from a great Southern hostess to a child of the woods.”24 In the Hamlet program, Gregory and Ball are described as initiators of the production and, if this was the case, it may have been Anderson’s creation of diverse characters through voice in John Brown’s Body that inspired the project.25 The program notes state Gregory and Ball have (like the actress herself) lived with the idea of Anderson as Hamlet for a long time: “It has been a long cherished dream of [Gregory and Ball] to bring Dame Judith back to the stage as the doomed heir of Elsinore, and when she became available, they lost no time in bringing it to fruition.”26 This comment “authorises” Anderson’s performance by framing it as the “brainchild” of two respected and experienced theatre practitioners, and forestalling its being read as the whim of an aging actress.

The idea of Anderson as Hamlet held a popular appeal few might have anticipated. The actress herself stated she originally intended the play for university audiences (a decision she framed in part as a pedagogical exercise27), but Lewis Funke noted that when “the big city managers heard that she would be going out in the production they “demanded” that she play for them too, hence Carnegie Hall.”28 Anderson’s desire to remove the production from Broadway and other avenues of “high status” theatre suggests she was conscious of the risky nature of her venture. The managers’ insistence that she play Carnegie Hall shows the actress remained tethered to a position of status within the American theatre. This status meant Anderson was obliged to present herself as an item of consumption to the critics and patrons that would descend on Carnegie Hall—some of whom then read the “failure” of her Hamlet as a transgression of her status.

While some reviewers (especially those from regional and university papers) supported Anderson’s performance, most were critical of her interpretation and of Ball’s production in general. Dan Sullivan, of the Los Angeles Times, found Anderson’s performance “so far off the mark in conception and execution that it is hard to know where to start to describe it.”29 Chris Curcio, of the California State University at Hayward, described the performance as “misconceived,” “monotonously boring,” and “awkward and contrived.”30 Nathan Cohen, of the Toronto Daily Star, suggested Ball had “done nothing to benefit Dame Judith or the play,” and the New York Times’s Mel Gussow described Ball’s Hamlet as “a bloodless production, with no power, poetry, or humour.”31 The reviews indicate the voice was the focus in this Hamlet. As Nick Milich noted in the Watsonville Register, the “point” of this production was “Shakespeare’s poetry, not action, not swordfights.”32 Indeed Milich and Cohen referred to the production as a “recitation,” and Gussow felt “it was almost like a concert reading.”33 In A Sense of Direction, his manifesto on directing, Ball lists “language” as one of the five basic elements of a play, alongside “theme,” “plot,” “character,” and “spectacle.” In any production, writes Ball, a director should identify one of these as the “predominant element;” this element then becomes the focus of the work.34 In keeping with a focus on language, Ball devised a minimalist production: “There are no props, and red velvet backdrops take the place of sets. All the characters except Hamlet wear variations of the same costume, deep red velvet and silk. In vivid contrast, Hamlet is garbed—boots, tights and vest—all in black.”35 Such costuming of Hamlet in black can be read as a further effort to erase the body, but with the set and remainder of the cast in red it is likely that it highlighted not only Hamlet’s body, but also the character’s singularity and Anderson’s star status.

Figure 2., Judith Anderson as Hamlet, production still. Department of Special Collections, Davidson Library, University of California, Santa Barbara.
Figure 2., Judith Anderson as Hamlet, production still. Department of Special Collections, Davidson Library, University of California, Santa Barbara.

A number of critics went so far as to describe the production as “stylised.”36 The actors used gestures rather than realistic movement, and there was little “action.”37 These factors enhanced the sense of a recital, although Ball also incorporated some more striking production choices, such as when “the ghost makes its entrance to the sound of amplified heartbeats.”38 The performance text was cut to run under two hours; it was in fact so abbreviated that one critic suggested “a more honest title would be ‘Gems from Hamlet.’”39 Anderson’s degree of input into the performance text is difficult to determine. In Ball’s 1985 manifesto on theatre, A Sense of Direction, he states that his preferred method was to cut the text himself and distribute the arranged script to the cast at the first rehearsal.40 Such a method was unlikely to appeal to Anderson, and Lewis Funke in the New York Times notes “[some] of the original pruning wasn’t to Dame Judith’s liking.” However, the text developed in performance, and Funke added that “things are better now [in November] than when the tour started out [in October].” Anderson later admitted: “[Hamlet] wasn’t done the way I wanted it done.”41 Yet, despite the friction between them, Ball and Anderson actually held the same vision for the production: the desire to focus on language, and a belief in the power of the voice.42