by Charles Marowitz
Smith, Geddeth: Walter Hampden: Dean of the American Theatre, Farley Dickinson University Press, ISBN 978-0-8386-4166-8, 430 pages.
(Swans - November 30, 2009) How many still remember Joseph Jefferson, William Gillette, Julia Marlowe, Minnie Madern Fiske, Otis Skinner, E.H. Southern, Leslie Carter, Harrigan, and Hart? Very few, I would speculate, yet all of these performers were radiant stars in their time on the American stage and regularly drew a large and enthusiastic following. They had their span of celebrity -- sometimes it lasted decades -- and then vanished, remembered fondly only by the avid theatre-researcher and the Ph.D. student assembling an historical dissertation.
The lifespan of theatrical celebrity tends to grow smaller and smaller; movie stars, because they leave tangible proofs of their talent behind them, fare very much better. We can appreciate the gruff comedy of a Marie Dressler or the spindly-legged high jinks of Leon Errol because footage of them is still available. To this list of half-forgotten celebrities we can now add Walter Hampden, a popular exponent of the works of Shakespeare and, after Richard Mansfield, the most outstanding Cyrano de Bergerac on the American stage. But if we want a whiff of the man himself, we have to turn to something like the opening moments of Joe Mankiewicz's All About Eve where a tall, white-haired Hampden is presenting the Sarah Siddons Award for Distinguished Achievement in the Theatre to Eve Harrington (a modest and falsely humble Anne Baxter.) There are half a dozen or so other short film clips of Hampden at work, but from none of them would we recognize the diligent and respected trooper who contributed outstanding portraits of Hamlet, Shylock, Othello, Macbeth, and Cardinal Wolsey.
To jog our memories and re-ignite the past, Geddeth Smith has written what I believe is the first biography of Walter Hampden, who was appropriately nicknamed the Dean of the American Theatre. In so doing, he has effectively captured the frantic life of the itinerant American actor of the first half of the 20th century in such a way that you can actually hear the clickety-clack of the railway cars that brought him to every conceivable honky tonk on "the road," exposed him to every hardship and calamity that beset performers touring the eastern and western United States bringing "dramatic art" to cities where the traveling stock company was often the only exposure they had to serious dramatic entertainment.
Hampden's most durable success was unquestionably Cyrano, which he revived every time his economy took a dip and he needed to rescue himself from penury. We can also thank Hampden for being godfather to the best and most durable English translation of the play, written by Brian Hooker, which remains the most performed version of Rostand's drama.
The pattern of Geddeth Smith's biography is consistent throughout. We hear of a Hampden project; it is produced; excerpts from reviews are provided; we proceed to the next production. It's kind of like Another Opening -- Another show and although it establishes a clear-cut biographical record of events, one never feels one encounters the psyche of Hampden the man. In other words, it is short on interpretation and rather too long on statistics. I kept waiting for some kind of analytical breakthrough that would enable us to confront the man behind the greasepaint, but this never happens.
That said, given the variety of Hampden's career that spanned almost half a century, it is rather more of value as a detailed history of the early American theatre than it is a revelation of the man himself.
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