Sam Waterston and Charles Laughton ran into the same problem with their interpretations of Prospero.  Waterston, who gave a sympathetic portrayal of Helmer in A Doll’s House in 1975 (he softened the character in the mind of the audience, because he appeared hurt and used crutches), returned to the Delacorte Theater in Central Park in 2015, as an understated Confederate, in Michael Greif’s  muted  The Tempest . The production, overly simplified and controlled, used an azure setting by Riccardo Hernandez, reminiscent of a Matisse, and the staging, also like the great painter’s work, intentionally lacked depth.  The critic James Agate saw a similarly unmagical Prospero in 1934.  He said of Laughton’s work that he didn’t have “the power to terrify.”  “This ‘must be at least latent in the character; how else could the old josser keep the whip-hand over Caliban?' ”

James Agate’s work has recently been recalled, in March, by Michael Feingold, who wrote two articles concerning him for Theatermania. Agate, who published from 1917 to 1949, writes of actors you may never have heard of—and he, like William Hazlitt, among others, are deeply important to our understanding of Shakespeare in performance.  Last year, this reviewer recalls doing peripheral research on Sarah Siddons, gathering bits and pieces around the Web.  This year, a splendid new book, Great Shakespeare Actors: Burbage to Branagh, by Stanley Wells (Oxford University Press), has come out that allows us to grasp the scale of Shakespearean interpretation–and, of course, it is estimable.  Contemporary artists may feel that their analyses of the Bard are the most cogent—and maybe they are.  However, there is an immense amount of thoughtful and in-depth study of Shakespeare’s actors by eminent critics and theatre lovers, going back to and including the Bard himself.  Writing of Siddons—whose niece, Fanny Kemble—also a prominent actress—“married an American plantation owner and became a campaigner for the abolition of slavery,” Hazlitt said:

"She was not less than a goddess, or than a prophetess inspired by the gods.  Power was seated on her brow, passion emanated from her breast as from a shrine.  She was tragedy personified. . . .”  

Wells, who has been called "our greatest authority on Shakespeare's life and work," by British Labour politician Roy Hattersley, has been watching great Shakespeare actors in performance since Edith Evans. He is also honorary President of The Shakespeare Birthplace, Emeritus Governor of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, and was for nearly twenty years the editor of the annual Shakespeare Survey, among other distinctions. His writing is informed and thorough—and brave.  This is because already people have begun disagreeing with the choices for inclusion in his volume.  It’s an impossible proposition really, even as it is an important, unsettled one.  

The issue is not with the 40 personages Wells has chosen–great, virtually mythical thespians, including Richard Burbage, Will Kemp, and Robert Armin: Wells's tight profiles provide biographical information, first-hand observations, anecdotes, critical appraisals, and societal contexts. For example, he compares the “racy libertinism” of the Regency actor Edmund Kean (“Send me Lewis or the other woman.  I must have a fuck”) to “the staid respectability” of William Charles Macready during the Victorian era (“with the puritanical sense of duty that was to characterize his entire career, he suppressed his personal desires and started . . . to train himself as an actor. . . .” ). The problem is the enormity of the writing task. As Wells brings us forward in time—and as our memories are jogged—there is more to fight for.  Of course Gielgud, Olivier, McKellen, and Dench deserve to be here—South Africans, such as the great Janet Suzman and Antony Sher are essential parts of this text, too, as well as the American Ira Aldridge.  But the subject goes beyond the English stage. What about Colleen Dewhurst, for example, James Earl Jones, or Stacy Keach (a book such as Actors Talk About Shakespeare, by Mary Z. Maher, may relieve some of the pain regarding thespians from North America)? Fortunately, Wells had the sense to dedicate his volume “To all the great Shakespeare actors not included in this book”; I’m sure Waterston would warrant inclusion in a volume, too, based on his 1973 role in A. J. Antoon’s Much Ado About Nothing, if not more, which introduced many Americans to Shakespeare—20 million people viewed the Public Theater’s television production at the time.

From David Garrick to Dora Jordan; Ellen Terry to Michael Redgrave; Ralph Richardson to Derek Jacobi—even as our historical knowledge on the general subject is being enlarged,  Great Shakespeare Actors, because of its deep scholarship and telling detail, elicits the kind of response those appearing on the boards live to hear:  “More, more!”

View Great Shakespeare Actors, Burbage to Branagh on Amazon:

© 2015 by Bob Shuman.  All rights reserved.

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