Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead
I watched Olivier’s ‘Hamlet” this morning. I had not seen it in awhile and everyone should see it every few years. While there are plays I like as much as Hamlet, it is my personal opinion that, with the possible exception of the King James translation of the Bible, Hamlet is the highest use ever made off the English language. Hamlet is probably the highest use that will ever be made of the English language. Not much of the English that you read in this blog is going to remind you of it.
There have been lots of Hamlets of course, Sheridan, Irving, Tree, Booth, Mel Gibson (actually underrated)and too many others to mention. I like Olivier best. Only a great actor can overcome the audience preconceived notion of Hamlet, based on the many readings and viewings of the play a Hamlet audience is likely to have had. Olivier does. Every time. While Olivier’s portrayal of Hamlet is flawless, Olivier’s production of Hamlet is not. Most of the supporting cast is all right, although as Ophelia, Vivian Leigh makes a pretty good Scarlett O’Hara. Actually, that’s not fair to her. Margaret Mitchell’s character of Scarlett O Hara is worth a dozen Ophelia’s , a limp and simpy one dimensional ,virtually useless character that could be played by a tree stump without much of a drop off in the play’s usefulness. Then again, Rhett Butler is no Hamlet and Mitchell did not write in Iambic Pentameter.
What is wrong with the Olivier production is the choice made to write out the characters of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, two of Shakespeare’s most remarkable creations. The two courtiers, so much alike that the King referred to them as Rosenstern and Guildencrantz. The two “ average Joe” characters who flow through the play in all their banality while great events are happening all around them and who are eventually killed by events set in motion far above their sphere. In other words, Olivier chose to write out you and me.
I guess if you are Olivier that is easy to do. I mean here you are married to Scarlett O’Hara and acknowledged as the world’s greatest living actor, The Shakespearean performer of your generation. You probably don’t give the Rosencrantz and Guildensterns of the world much thought. The petty courtiers, some Duke’s second son or a relative by marriage to the Queen, they are a dime a dozen. They see themselves as elevated above the average Danish riff raff, but Olivier (Hamlet) does not see very much difference. He is moving in a world of murdered Kings and incestuous relationships, spirits walking the earth, a world where every major character in the play is going to die under tragic circumstances inside of an hour. What’s the harm in cutting out these pedestrian roles ? It’s not like cutting out the grave digger or Yorick’s skull (alas). Every story needs the powerful and the weak. The upper middle class we can do without. The movie has to be shortened somehow.
In our time Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have gotten their due. Essays and even plays have been written about them. They are popular in our time because there are so many of them among us. Glorified spear carriers, self aggrandizing professionals who act like they do not dance to the tunes of the great Hamlet because they have a 42 inch flat screen T.V. in their media room. Every doctor, lawyer, MBA or CPA who could talk some bank into giving them a mortgage in order to live a life above their true means. The country is lousy with them. They are the ones screaming the loudest over our present plight, brought down ,without a thought, by the Investment bankers and entrepreneurs who were wise enough to invent new ways to slice up and package mortgages , sell them as securities and unload them on the investment funds that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern bought for their 401(k).No production of Hamlet could do without them today. They are the invisible bodies in the last scene.