Crossing Genre, Age and Gender: Judith Anderson as Hamlet

During the tour, Anderson expressed frustration at the media’s interest in her age. As she told the New York Times: “Sure I’m old . . . but I am sick and tired of you writers who keep dwelling on that. I want people to see me and not be thinking of how old I am.”59 In this conceptualisation of her identity, Anderson distinguishes between her essential self and her physical self. She spoke of Hamlet in similar terms: figuring the character as a “soul” rather than a “body.” In her vision for the production, Anderson denied Hamlet a physical identity, but she also denied him a gender identity. Lewis Funke noted that “she doesn’t think of [Hamlet] as being a man . . . She sees the role as asexual.”60 Anderson refused to align Hamlet with either male or female subjectivity. She asked a student reporter: “‘Well, what did you think of me as while watching the play? Did you think of me as a woman or as Hamlet?’” The student replied: “‘At first I thought of you as a woman . . . [but later] I thought of you as Hamlet.’”61 Hamlet is here not female but is also, perhaps, not male. For Anderson, Hamlet appears to have been simply “human” and “his” experience “universal,” and there is a suggestion here that at least one viewer shared her vision.

Despite the negative criticism, there were other viewers who approached the play on Anderson’s terms. Nick Milich suggested the majority of critics were searching for the wrong production: “[this Hamlet] is very hard for a modern audience to take . . . [For the players] offered nothing else but the poetry; their production was stripped down to essence, to a dreamlike state.”62 Prior to its opening, Variety predicted Anderson’s Hamlet would dismay theatre purists.63 Most reviews suggest this prediction was realised, as does Bernard Grebanier in Then Came Each Actor, his 1975 history of Shakespearean performance, in which he lists Anderson’s Hamlet as a “total failure.”64 Yet for Milich, Anderson’s Hamlet did not fail. Rather it affirmed the significance of Shakespeare’s poetry and the power of performance to transform the written word. In addition, for several viewers it provided a glimpse of some universal human “essence” that transcended age, gender, celebrity and the body. It was for such transcendence that Anderson had essayed the role: to escape her seventy-three year old body and the yoke of established celebrity and performance identities, and become “part of Shakespeare’s riches and poetry.”

Anderson seems to have received the most positive responses from students, her intended audience. The audience at La Crosse University, for example, was described as “rapt” in the production; they gave Anderson a standing ovation.65 Anderson told the New York Times she regularly received letters from appreciative students: “I had a three-page letter only the other day from a girl thanking me, saying ‘Thank God you exist, thank God I saw you’.”66 Grebanier refers to this letter in Then Came Each Actor. It had prompted him “to wonder whether or not the college girl had not already been enlisted in that branch of the woman’s lib movement which would like to see men unsexed.”67 He was not the only writer to suggest Anderson’s performance held some affinity with contemporary feminism. The New York Times told its readers not “to go running over the landscape in praise of Women’s Liberation . . . [as Anderson is] not the first and surely not the last of her sex to essay the Dane.”68 Chris Curcio admitted, “Women’s Liberation proponents may be astatic [sic] that Dame Judith Anderson is playing Hamlet, [but] theatre aficionados were dropping in the aisles.”69 In common with much contemporary media commentary on the women’s movement, these critics’ alignment of the production with feminism was done jokingly and/or disparagingly. Anderson herself denied any feminist agenda in her work, and described “Women’s Lib” as “a lot of tommy-rot.”70 And yet, although she seems unaware of it, Anderson’s Hamlet performed a destabilisation of gender distinctions that, like the discourse of women’s liberation, questioned gender boundaries.

“I’m Not Going to Camp it Up”71

When Anderson announced her desire to play Hamlet, the media recognised the camp potential of such a project: a syndicated newspaper article published throughout America “predicted that [Anderson] would camp up the role.”72 “Camp” had entered the American mainstream with the publication of Susan Sontag’s influential essay, “Notes on Camp,” in 1964.73 Fabio Cleto notes that “within weeks” of this essay’s appearance, camp “exploded as a mass media keyword.”74 In 1970, as a consequence of Sontag’s essay and its application by the mass media, the word “camp” signalled excess, incongruity, and theatricality, and while recognised as an important part of gay culture was not thought of as exclusively “homosexual.”75 In “Notes on Camp,” Sontag describes an enormous variety of cultural moments, objects and persons as “camp,” and her essay has been criticised as “unsystematic” and “inconsistent.”76 Yet, due to its influence, Sontag’s essay provides a useful insight into how camp was perceived at the time of Anderson’s Hamlet.

For Sontag, the “essence of Camp is its love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration.”77 Camp is thus found in excessive and/or incongruous displays of gender, age, class, or style. A number of Anderson’s performances prior to Hamlet can be identified as camp in their excess. In films such as Salome (1953) and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958), and in Hallmark Hall of Fame television productions, “Elizabeth the Queen” (1968) and “The File on Devlin” (1969), Anderson’s overt theatricality could not be contained by the camera. Her performances in the above productions were characterised by emotionalism and exaggerated gestures and movement. In his review of “The File on Devlin,” George Eres described Anderson’s “dramatics” as “out of all proportion” to the script and the medium.78 The implication here is that Anderson’s performance is not only “excessive” but also “passé,” belonging to an earlier, and superseded, style of performance. As Andrew Ross notes in an important definition, the “camp effect” is created “when the products . . . of a much earlier mode of production, which has lost its power to produce and dominate cultural meanings, become available, in the present, for redefinition according to contemporary codes of taste.”79 Ross notes that the distance between contemporary and historical performance was highlighted by the “recirculation of classic Hollywood films on television.”80 Repeated screenings of Anderson’s intense emotionalism in Rebecca and Salome, and the theatricality of her television appearances, rendered her anachronistic in a culture influenced by the understatement of the Method. These performances, and Anderson’s performance and celebrity identities, were liable to be received as camp in Ross’s terms.