1920s, Adaptation, Drama, German, Historical, Silent Era

Asta Nielsen as Hamlet.

The role of Hamlet has been played by many a well known actor since it was first written by William Shakespeare between 1599 and 1602, for me probably the most intriguing portrayal was by a Danish actress named Asta Nielsen in the 1921 German silent film of the same name directed by Svend Gade and Heinz Schall.

In this interpretation, inspired by Dr Edward P Vining’s book The Mystery of Hamlet, Hamlet is born a woman and disguised as a male to preserve the lineage.

Though a radical interpretation, the New York Times said this film, “holds a secure place in class with the best.”

Edward P. Vining, was a railway engineer before he turned to literary criticism. In his opinion, the well-known contradictions and perceived deficiencies in Hamlet’s character could be perfectly explained by the fact that he is, in fact, a woman. “When God created man in his own image, male and female he made them,” he explains. The discerning reader will recognize that Hamlet demonstrates an essentially female nature:

Gentleness, and more or less dependence upon others, are inherent qualities of the female nature, and Hamlet possessed both. […] Where strength fails, finesse succeeds; and therefore Hamlet plans and plots. His feigned madness, his trial of the mimic play, are stratagems that a woman might attempt, and that are far more in keeping with a feminine than with a masculine nature.

 

It is also worth noting that there is a long history of female actresses playing Hamlet; Sarah Bernhardt is the most famous example, even if it seems that she got rather mixed reviews. (A film version of her Hamlet survives; the duel scene with Laertes was filmed for the audio-visual Phono-Cinéma-Théâtre spectacle shown at the 1900 Paris exposition). This and other cases were of women playing a male role, though, rather than the gender bending of Asta’s version.

Asta’s Hamlet depicts events that occur before the start of the Shakespeare play, which starts in medias res. In the film, we get a prologue showing the Norwegian and Danish armies at war. During the conflict Hamlet Senior despatches King Fortinbras, but himself is grievously injured.

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Back in the royal castle, Queen Gertrude has just given birth to a girl when she hears of King Hamlet’s mortal wounds; to preserve succession, she takes up the suggestion of passing her daughter off as a prince. However, Hamlet Senior survives, buoyed by the news. Upon returning he learns the truth about his child’s gender, but by that point the deception is entrenched.

The film really starts when Hamlet is a young adult. Her parents worry about her solitary habits, and consequently send her to the University of Wittenberg. It’s here that she meets Horatio, who is from Provence in this adaptation. In the Shakespeare, Horatio was Hamlet’s most trusted friend, but here there is a bit more going on. They get an honest-to-goodness meet-cute, bumping heads in the lecture hall when Hamlet drops her pencil. Hamlet is instantly taken with Horatio, and we see her give him the eye …

She also meets Fortinbras, crown prince of Norway. It is awkward when you realize that your father murdered the father of your classmate. But Fortinbras is willing to make like Black Flag and rise above, and the two of them shake on it. Pals!

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Something is rotten in the state of Denmark. King Hamlet has died after being bitten by a snake. Hamlet arrives back in Denmark to a combination funeral/wedding celebration, her uncle Claudius having hurriedly wed Queen Gertrude. Hamlet is disgusted at the crassness and haste of the event, and withdraws.

 

To uncover the truth, Hamlet decides to feign madness. This means that we get some great scenes where Asta schemes, cackles, and generally causes mischief. Her objective, however, is to catch her uncle off guard and confirm her suspicions, while neutralizing herself as a threat in his eyes.

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Another plot strand of the central part of the film is Hamlet’s interactions with Ophelia. Initially she brushes Ophelia off, but as it becomes apparent that Horatio has fallen in love with Ophelia, Hamlet steps up her game and flirts with her quite boldly (well, interspersed with pushing her away with her crazy behaviour). Motivated by the desire not to lose Horatio to Ophelia, Hamlet succeeds in winning Ophelia’s love.

Hamlet’s turmoil increases. There is a revealing scene in Act Four between Gertrude and Hamlet; Gertrude is unnerved by Hamlet’s increasingly erratic behaviour, though she is more concerned about Hamlet blowing her cover than she is about Hamlet as a person. The following inter title reveals the inner conflict Hamlet feels:

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t’s also the first time she realizes that Queen Gertrude was behind the deception that Hamlet is living.

 

 

Meanwhile, Ophelia has gone crazy in the wake of Polonius’ death. Laertes returns to the castle to find her agitated and unable to recognize him. After she drowns herself, he blames Hamlet for the situation.

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Everyone is familiar with the end of Hamlet, but again gender adds another wrinkle to the story in this version. In the duel with Laertes, Hamlet has been stabbed in the stomach area, and Horatio keeps trying to look at the wound, while Hamlet twists away and tries to keep her shirt semi-closed. After she dies, however, the secret is out, as Horatio’s hand finds her chest.

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“In death your secret is revealed! Your golden heart was that of a woman! Too late, beloved, too late!”

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Adaptation, Historical, Victorian Stage

Ira Aldridge

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(July 24, 1807 – August 7, 1867) born in was an American and later British stage actor and playwright who made his career after 1824 largely on the London stage and in Europe, especially in Shakespearean roles. Born in New York City, Aldridge is the only actor of African-American descent among the 33 actors of the English stage honored with bronze plaques at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre at Stratford-upon-Avon. He was especially popular in Prussia and Russia, where he received top honors from heads of state.

He was married twice, once to an Englishwoman, once to a Swedish woman, and had a family in England. Two of his daughters became professional opera singers.

Ira Aldridge as Mungo in ‘The Padlock’

Aldridge was born in New York City to Reverend Daniel and Luranah Aldridge July 24, 1807. At age 13, Aldridge went to the African Free School in New York City, established by the New York Manumission Society for the children of free black people and slaves. They were given a classical education, with the study of English grammar, writing, mathematics, geography, and astronomy.[1] His early exposure to theater included viewing plays from the high balcony of the Park Theatre, New York’s leading theater of the time, and seeing productions of Shakespeare’s plays at the African Grove Theatre.

Aldridge’s first professional acting experience was in the early 1820s with the African Company, a group founded and managed by William Henry Brown and James Hewlett. In 1821, the group built the African Grove Theatre, the first resident African-American theatre in the United States.

Aldridge made his acting debut as Rolla, a Peruvian character in Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s Pizarro. He may have also played the male lead in Romeo and Juliet, as reported later in an 1860 memoir by his schoolfellow, Dr. James McCune Smith.

Confronted with the persistent discrimination which black actors had to endure in the United States, Aldridge emigrated to Liverpool, England, in 1824 with actor James Wallack. During this time the Industrial Revolution had begun, bringing about radical economic change that helped expand the development of theatres. The British Parliament had already outlawed the slave trade and was moving toward abolishing slavery in the British colonies, which increased the prospect of black actors being able to perform.

Ira Aldridge

Having limited onstage experience and lacking name recognition, Aldridge concocted a story of his African lineage, claiming to have descended from the Fulani princely line.By 1831 he had taken the name of Keene, a homonym for the then popular British actor,Edmund Kean. Aldridge observed a common theatrical practice of assuming an identical or similar nomenclature to that of a celebrity in order to garner attention. In addition to being called F.W. Keene Aldridge, he would later be called African Roscius, after the famous Roman actor of the first century BC.

On October 10, 1825, Aldridge made his European debut at London’s Royal Coburg Theatre, the first African-American actor to establish himself professionally in a foreign country. He played the lead role of Oroonoko in The Revolt of Surinam, or A Slave’s Revenge; this play was an adaptation of Thomas Southerne’s Oroonoko (itself adapted from Aphra Behn’s original work).

According to the scholar Shane White, English people had heard of the African Theatre because of British actor and comedian Charles Mathews, so Aldridge associated himself with that. Bernth Lindfors says:

[W]hen Aldridge starts appearing on the stage at the Royalty Theatre, he’s just called a gentleman of color. But when he moves over to the Royal Coburg, he’s advertised in the first playbill as the American Tragedian from the African Theater New York City. The second playbill refers to him as ‘The African Tragedian’. So everybody goes to the theater expecting to laugh because this is the man they think Mathews saw in New York City.

Aldridge as Aaron in ‘Titus Andronicus’

During Aldridge’s seven-week engagement at the Royal Coburg, the young actor starred in five plays. He earned admiration from his audiences while most critics emphasized Aldridge’s lack of stage training and experience. According to modern critics Errol Hill and James Vernon Hatch, early reviews were mixed. For The Times he was “baker-kneed and narrow-chested with lips so shaped that it is utterly impossible for him to pronounce English”; the Globe found his conception of Oroonoko to be very judicious and his enunciation distinct and sonorous; and The Drama described him as “tall and tolerably well proportioned with a weak voice that gabbles apace.”

Aldridge performed scenes from Othello that impressed reviewers. One critic wrote, “In Othello (Aldridge) delivers the most difficult passages with a degree of correctness that surprises the beholder.”[7] He gradually progressed to larger roles; by 1825, he had top billing at London’s Coburg Theatre as Oronoko in A Slave’s Revenge, soon to be followed by the role of Gambia in The Slave, and the title role of Shakespeare’s Othello. He also played major roles in plays such as The Castle Spectre and The Padlock. In search of new and suitable material, Aldridge also appeared occasionally as white European characters, for which he would be appropriately made up with greasepaint and wig. Examples of these are Captain Dirk Hatteraick and Bertram in Rev. R. C. Maturin’s Bertram, the title role in Shakespeare’s Richard III, and Shylock in The Merchant of Venice.

Aldridge as Othello by William Mulready

In 1831 Aldridge successfully played in Dublin; at several locations in southern Ireland, where he created a sensation in the small towns; as well as in Bath and Edinburgh, Scotland. The actor Edmund Kean praised his Othello; some took him to task for taking liberties with the text, while others attacked his race. Since he was an American black actor from the African Theatre, The Times called him the “African Roscius”, after the famed actor of ancient Rome. Aldridge used this to his benefit and expanded African references in his biography that appeared in playbills.

Aldridge first toured to continental Europe in 1852, with successes in Germany, where he was presented to the Duchess of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, and performed for Frederick William IV of Prussia; he also performed in Budapest. An 1858 tour took him to Serbia and to Imperial Russia, where he became acquainted with Count Fyodor Tolstoy, Mikhail Shchepkin and the Ukrainian poet and artist Taras Shevchenko, who did his portrait in pastel.

Now of an appropriate age, about this time, he played the title role of King Lear (in England) for the first time. He purchased some property in England, toured Russia again (1862), and applied for British citizenship (1863).

Aldridge, portrait in pastel by Taras Shevchenko, 1858

Soon after going to England, in 1824 Aldridge married Margaret Gill, an English woman. They were married for 40 years until her death in 1864.

Aldridge’s first son, Ira Daniel, was born in May 1847. The identity of his mother is unknown, but it could not have been Margaret Aldridge, who was 49 years old and had been in ill health for years. She raised Ira Daniel as her own; they shared a loving relationship until her death. He emigrated to Australia in February 1867.

A year after Margaret’s death, on April 20, 1865, Aldridge married his mistress, the self-styled Swedish countess Amanda von Brandt (1834-1915). They had four children: Irene Luranah, Ira Frederick and Amanda Aldridge, who all went on to musical careers, the two girls as opera singers. Their daughter Rachael Frederica was born shortly after Aldridge’s death and died in infancy. Brandt died in 1915 and is buried at Highgate Woods, London.

Aldridge spent most of his final years with his family in Russia and continental Europe, interspersed with occasional visits to England. He planned to return to the post-Civil-War United States, but he died in August 1867 while visiting Łódź, Poland.

His remains were buried in the city’s Evangelical Cemetery; 23 years passed before a proper tombstone was erected. His grave is tended by the Society of Polish Artists of Film and Theatre.

A half-length portrait of 1826 by James Northcote shows Aldridge dressed for the role of Othello, but in a relatively undramatic portrait pose, is on display at the Manchester Art Gallery (in the Manchester section). Aldridge performed in the city many times. A blue plaque unveiled in 2007 commemorates Aldridge at 5 Hamlet Road in Upper Norwood, London. The plaque describes him as the ‘African Roscius’.

Aldridge at the National Portrait Gallery.

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Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper (London, England), Sunday, April 29, 1849

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The Era (London, England), Sunday, April 28, 1850

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Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper (London, England), Sunday, October 19, 1851

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Reynolds’s Newspaper (London, England), Sunday, March 7, 1852

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Caledonian Mercury (Edinburgh, Scotland), Monday, April 7, 1856

The Era, Sunday May 5 1861

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Reynolds’s Newspaper (London, England), Sunday, August 18, 1867

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1900s, 1910s, 1920s, 1930s, 1940s, Adaptation, Drama, Edwardian Stage, England, Silent Era, Victorian Stage

Harley Granville Barker.

Harley Granville Barker (25/11/1877-31/8/1948), London born actor, director, playwright, manager, critic, and theorist. After early success as an actor in the plays of George Bernard Shaw he increasingly turned to directing and was a major figure in British theatre in the Edwardian and inter-war periods. As a writer his plays, which tackled difficult and controversial subject matter, met with a mixed reception during his lifetime but have continued to receive attention.

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1890s, 1900s, Adaptation, Drama, Edwardian Stage, England, Fashion, Victorian Stage

Nina Boucicault.

Born in 1867 in London, England she was the daughter of actor Dion Boucicault and his actress wife Agnes Robertson, she was the sister of actress Eva and actors Aubrey and Dion Boucicault Jr, the  first ever Peter Pan.

One of her plays was ‘The Light That Failed’ in 1903 at the New Theatre, London it was an adaptation of a novel by George Flemming adapted by Rudyard Kipling.

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1950s, Adaptation, Drama, Musical

Carmen Jones.

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Carmen Jones is a 1954 American musical film starring Dorothy Dandridge and Harry Belafonte, produced and directed by Otto Preminger. The screenplay by Harry Kleiner is based on the libretto for the 1943 stage production of the same name by Oscar Hammerstein II, which was inspired by an adaptation of the 1845 Prosper Mérimée novella Carmen by Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy. Hammerstein also wrote the lyrics to music composed by Georges Bizet for his 1875 opera Carmen.

Carmen Jones was a CinemaScope motion picture that had begun shooting within the first 12 months of Twentieth Century Fox’s venture in 1953 to CinemaScope Technicolor as its main production mode. The historical costume drama, the western and the war film had filled Fox’s production schedule and this all-black musical drama based on an established and popular opera would surely be a box-office success, as proved true. Carmen Jones was released in October 1954, exactly one year and one month after Fox’s first CinemaScope venture, the Biblical epic The Robe, had entered the motion picture houses.

Set during World War II, the story focuses on Carmen Jones, a vixen who works in a parachute factory in North Carolina. When she is arrested for fighting with a co-worker who reported her for arriving late for work, foreman Sgt. Brown assigns young soldier Joe to deliver her to the authorities, much to the dismay of Joe’s fiancée Cindy Lou, who had agreed to marry him during his leave.

Joe: Thanks, but I don’t drink.

Carmen Jones: Boy, if the army was made up of nothin’ but soldiers like you, war wouldn’t do nobody no good.

While en route, Carmen suggests she and Joe stop for a meal and a little romance, and his refusal intensifies her determination to seduce him. When their army jeep ends up in the river, she suggests they spend the night at her grandmother’s house nearby and continue their journey by train the following day, and that night Joe succumbs to Carmen’s advances. The next morning he awakens to find a note in which she says although she loves him she is unable to deal with time in jail and is running away.

Joe is locked in the stockade for allowing his prisoner to escape, and Cindy Lou arrives just as a rose from Carmen is delivered to him, prompting her to leave abruptly. Having found work in a Louisiana nightclub, Carmen awaits his release. One night champion prizefighter Husky Miller enters with an entourage and introduces himself to Carmen, who expresses no interest in him. Husky orders his manager Rum Daniels to offer her jewelry, furs, and an expensive hotel suite if she and her friends Frankie and Myrt accompany him to Chicago, but she declines the offer. Just then, Joe arrives and announces he must report to flying school immediately. Angered, Carmen decides to leave with Sgt. Brown, who also has appeared on the scene, and Joe severely beats him. Realizing he will be sentenced to a long prison term for hitting his superior, Joe flees to Chicago with Carmen.

Carmen Jones: ‘Scuse my dust, gentlemen. The air’s gettin’ mighty unconditioned ’round here.

While Joe remains hidden in a shabby rented room, Carmen secretly visits Husky’s gym to ask Frankie for a loan, but she insists she has no money of her own. Carmen returns to the boarding house with a bag of groceries, and Joe questions how she paid for them. The two argue, and she goes to Husky’s hotel suite to play cards with her friends. When she draws the nine of spades, she interprets it as a premonition of impending doom and descends into a quagmire of drink and debauchery.

Cindy Lou arrives at Husky’s gym in search of Carmen just before Joe appears. Ignoring his former sweetheart, he orders Carmen to leave with him and threatens Husky with a knife when he tries to intervene. Carmen helps Joe escape the military police, but during Husky’s big fight, after he wins the match, Joe finds Carmen in the crowd and pulls her into a storage room, where he begs her to return to him. When she rebuffs him, Joe strangles Carmen to death just before the military police arrive to apprehend him for desertion.

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1940s, Adaptation, Drama, Uncategorized

The Heiress.

The Heiress is a 1949 American drama film directed by William Wyler and starring Olivia de Havilland as Catherine Sloper, Montgomery Clift as Morris Townsend, and Ralph Richardson as Dr. Sloper. Written by Ruth and Augustus Goetz, adapted from their 1947 play The Heiress. The play was suggested by the 1880 novel Washington Square by Henry James. The film is about a young naive woman who falls in love with a handsome young man, despite the objections of her emotionally abusive father who suspects the man of being a fortune hunter.

Catherine’s father believes Morris is courting Catherine only to get her inheritance and threatens to disinherit her if she marries him. Catherine does not care, and plans to elope with Morris but not before telling him about her father’s decision. On the night they are to elope, Catherine eagerly waits at home for Morris to come and take her away, but he never arrives.

Catherine is heartbroken. A day or so later, she has a bitter argument with her father, who reveals he is dying. She tells her father she still loves Morris and challenges him to change his will if he is afraid of how she will spend his money after he dies. He does not and dies a short time later, leaving her his entire estate.

A few years later, Morris returns from California, having made nothing of himself and eyeing the Slopers’ luxurious house with more obvious eagerness. Again he professes his love for Catherine, claiming that he left her behind because he could not bear to see her destitute. Catherine pretends to forgive him and tells him she still wants to elope as they originally planned. He promises to come back that night for her, and she tells him she will start packing her bags.

When Morris returns, Catherine takes her revenge. Her aunt asks her how she can be so cruel, and she responds, “I have been taught by masters.” She calmly orders the maid to bolt the door, leaving Morris locked outside, shouting her name. The film fades out with Catherine silently ascending the stairs while Morris’ despairing cries echo unanswered through the darkness.

The Heiress received universal critical acclaim and won four Academy Awards. In his review in the New York Times, Bosley Crowther said the film “crackles with allusive life and fire in its tender and agonized telling of an extraordinarily characterful tale” and added, “Mr. Wyler . . . has given this somewhat austere drama an absorbing intimacy and a warming illusion of nearness that it did not have on the stage. He has brought the full-bodied people very closely and vividly to view, while maintaining the clarity and sharpness of their personalities, their emotions and their styles . . . The Heiress is one of the handsome, intense and adult dramas of the year.”

TV Guide rates the film five out of a possible five stars and adds, “This powerful and compelling drama . . . owes its triumph to the deft hand of director William Wyler and a remarkable lead performance by Olivia de Havilland.

Time Out London calls the film “typically plush, painstaking and cold. . . . highly professional and heartless.”

Channel 4 says of the performances, “de Havilland’s portrayal . . . is spine-chilling . . . Clift brings a subtle ambiguity to one of his least interesting roles, and Richardson is also excellent.”

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