Crossing Genre, Age and Gender: Judith Anderson as Hamlet

Anderson had played Gertrude opposite John Gielgud’s Hamlet on Broadway in 1936, and this actor’s reading is likely to have influenced her. Gielgud evoked the character’s grief, sensitivity, intellect, and emotional connectivity to those around him. The actor himself described his Hamlet as “introverted,” and located his voice as his focus during the performance: “[I was] more worried about the inflection, the phrasing, and the diction [when I played Hamlet].”43 Anderson also used “grief” as a keynote of her reading, and one critic pejoratively described her as the “Melancholy Dame.”44 The actress conveyed grief through vocal effect: reference was made to her “frequent sobbing voice.”45 While some reviewers criticised her “blubbering” and “sobs,” another admitted, “nobody hovers on the edge of tears so thrillingly” as Anderson.46

In one of the few interviews discussing her interpretation of Hamlet, Anderson suggested she would “be a more emotional Hamlet than, say, Gielgud or Olivier. I might cry.”47 This seemingly innocent comment provides a clue to the critical reception of Anderson’s performance. As Tom Lutz notes, “the meanings assigned to tears are always compounded by the age and sex of the crier.”48 The performance of Hamlet by an elderly woman held the potential to radically destabilise the play’s accepted meanings. James W. Stone has explored Hamlet in terms of its ordering and expulsion of the feminine through language and action. In Stone’s analysis, the feminine is represented in the play in images of dissolution, of movement into water, and therefore in tears: “Whether tears . . . represent Niobe’s sincere expression of grief or Gertrude’s masquerade of seeming, they serve variously to define the bifurcated feminine.”49 Stone describes Hamlet’s journey in the play as a movement away from the feminine. Anderson’s decision to make Hamlet more emotional, to cry noticeably and often, had the potential to instead show him collapsing into the feminine. Such a reading of the text would unsettle critics by its unconventionality, and by its disturbance of the play’s symbolic function: the ordering and expulsion of the feminine. And while the focus on the voice in this production was to draw attention away from the body, the act of crying—a manifestation of the feminine—may have actually underscored the presence of the actress in the role.

“She is Judith Anderson”

Critic Dan Sullivan described Anderson in Hamlet as the “victim of three obdurate facts. She is a woman. She is a rather short woman. She is Judith Anderson.” For Sullivan, the actress’s association with performative evil through her appearances in Rebecca, Macbeth, and Medea prevented her from becoming Hamlet.50 Frank Hains found Anderson’s Hamlet in conflict with her celebrity, rather than her performance identity. He found he “was never able to associate in any way that Great Lady of the Stage before me with the character which my program told me she was playing.”51 In his review, Hains divides “Judith Anderson” into two personae: “Miss Anderson” and “Dame Judith.”52 “Dame Judith” is linked with Sarah Bernhardt, connoting celebrity, wilfulness, and performative excess. In contrast, “Miss Anderson” is linked with roles such as Lady Macbeth and Medea, which signify tradition, professionalism, and the craft of acting. Lady Macbeth and Medea are described as Anderson’s “property,” suggesting these roles form the basis of her “authentic” performance self. The appearance as Hamlet is a transgression of this self, or as the critic himself puts it, “madness.”53 We can also read Anderson’s Hamlet as a transgression of her status and established identity in Chris Curcio’s response to her performance as “grotesque,” and Bernard Grebanier’s description of it as a “strange [undertaking].”54

For Grebanier, Anderson’s Hamlet became “strange” when considered alongside her “brilliant” performances in Medea and Macbeth.55 Like Medea, Hamlet explores the protagonist’s desire for revenge that leads to murder, but does so via contemplation rather than hasty action, and through lyric, philosophic musings instead of raw and bloody dialogue. It is, paradoxically, a more “feminine” role than was usually associated with Anderson. In addition, unlike the wicked and wilful Medea and Lady Macbeth—Anderson’s most famous roles—Hamlet aims to do good and is obsessed with “right.” Hamlet thus exists at a considerable distance from Anderson’s trademark roles. Anne Davis Basting’s analysis of another actress’s return to Broadway helps us appreciate the transgressive effect of Anderson’s Hamlet. In 1995, at the age of seventy-four, Carol Channing played Dolly Levi in Hello, Dolly!, a role she originated in 1964, and with which she was strongly identified. Basting suggests the popularity of Channing’s 1995 performance resulted in part from its performance of “authenticity”—its nostalgic affirmation of a much-loved actress’s identity, and of a golden, “lost” period in Broadway’s history.56 Anderson’s Hamlet, in contrast, denied her authentic self, and was compromised not by the lingering presence of Medea or Lady Macbeth, but by their very absence.

While critics figured Anderson’s Hamlet as a transgression of her status and performance identity, I would like to suggest Anderson herself perceived it as an escape from her performance identity—an identity epitomised by the emotion and arch theatricality of Medea. Emerging as it did in the early 1950s, Anderson’s desire to play Hamlet arose in the midst of her journey with Medea. In 1969, Anderson reflected that playing Medea had been a physically and emotionally draining experience: “Medea consumed every bit of me . . . I saw nobody and did nothing, other than concentrate entirely on my work. It took everything out of me, including all my blood. I had to have a blood transfusion.”57 Anderson read Hamlet in distinctly cerebral terms and perhaps Shakespeare’s sensitive, reasoning Danish prince appeared to her here as a tantalising retreat from the physical onslaught of Medea. The body and its sufferings were at the centre of Medea, but Anderson’s vision for Hamlet virtually elided the body: the actress told Robert Feldman that the production “will be in chiaroscuro with lots of shadows,” and the “shadows will include everything from the waist down.”58 Anderson made this comment ten months before the production opened and it is not clear from the reviews and still photographs if her vision was realised in performance. What is apparent is that in Anderson’s approach to the text (she focussed on the poetry); in her performance style (she privileged the voice); and in her proposed design (she hoped to mask the body), she turned away from the mode that the physical had been configured in her landmark role, only to have it reinscribed by the critics.

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