Swans Commentary » swans.com December 28, 2009  



Asta Nielsen & Hamlet's Gender-Benders


by Charles Marowitz





(Swans - December 28, 2009)   Hamlet, the character created by Shakespeare, is talkative, indecisive, unpredictable, given to sudden outbursts of anger (as with Laertes during Ophelia's burial scene) and just as suddenly to apologies (as he is with Laertes before the final duel). He is tender to Ophelia in the play scene, but grossly rude to her in the scene where he shrieks "Get thee to a nunnery"; awed and respectful with the ghost of his dead father but a few moments later, frightened that the spirit he has seen might be "a devil that abuses him to damn him" and almost throughout, a character who moves from one extreme to another, and simply cannot seem to make up his mind.

Now, these are personality traits that some misogynist might clinically associate with the hormonal feminine temperament. Is it any wonder then that female actresses would identify with Hamlet and want to undertake the role?

Hamlet and women have a very long history. The first recorded female Hamlet was Sarah Siddons in the l8th century. When she first played the role, she was twenty years old and she played it on and off for thirty years. There have been literally hundreds of female Hamlets ever since, many of them outstanding actresses such as Eleanor Duse, Eva La Gallienne, Diane Verona, Frances de la Tour, Clare Howard, and Angela Winkler.

One of the most notable was the legendary Sarah Bernhardt, who tackled the role in America, England, and on the continent when she was fifty-two (a rather elderly student to be enrolled in Wittenburg.) She had already played the lead male roles in Alfred de Muset's Lorenzaccio and Napoleon's son, the Duke of Reichstadt, in Edmond Rostand's L'Aiglon. For some reason beyond the scope of psychoanalysis, she actually preferred men's roles. By the end of her career, she had played over eighteen female versions of male characters.

Around the time of her Hamlet, she was quoted as saying: "Most women's roles are mere play. The characters are required to look pretty, to move gracefully and to portray emotions natural to the average woman." "A woman," she went on to argue, "is better suited to play parts like L'Aiglon and Hamlet than a man. These roles portray youths of twenty or twenty-one with the minds of men of forty. A boy of twenty cannot understand the philosophy of Hamlet nor the poetic enthusiasm of L'Aiglon....An older man does not look like a boy nor has he the ready adaptability of the woman who can combine the light carriage of youth with the mature thought of the man. The woman more readily looks the part and has the maturity of mind to grasp it."

In spite of her defense of women playing the Prince of Denmark, her Hamlet in Vienna in 1899 was savaged by the local critic who wrote: "Sarah Bernhardt was acting Hamlet in Vienna last week and failed thoroughly, as she did in London and Brussels. According to the programme, she was to play Hamlet four times, but after the reception she met with at the first performance, she had to give up appearing in the part again here. Nevertheless she made a lot of money; the loser was only the public."

One cruel review suggested that the only thing Madame Bernhardt's Hamlet lacked was Henry Irving in drag as Ophelia. An even crueler scribe complained: "She may be The Great Bernhardt but for me she is only a Great Heart-burn."

In London at the Adelphi Theater, Bernhardt was reviewed by the great drama critic Max Beerbohm who wrote: "I cannot, on my heart, take Sarah's Hamlet seriously. I cannot even imagine any one capable of more than a hollow pretence at taking it seriously. Her solemnity was politely fostered by the Adelphi audience, from first to last, no one smiled. If anyone had so far relaxed himself as to smile, he would have been bound to laugh. One laugh in that dangerous atmosphere, and the whole structure of polite solemnity would have toppled down, burying beneath its ruins the national British reputation for good manners. I, therefore, like everyone else, kept an iron control upon the corners of my lips. It was not until I was half-way home and well out of earshot of the Adelphi, that I unsealed the accumulations of my merriment."

Trying hard to find something positive to say about the performance, Beerbohm closed his review with these words: "Her perfect self-possession was one of the most delicious elements in the evening's comedy, but one could not help being genuinely impressed by her dignity. One felt that Hamlet portrayed by her was, although neither melancholy nor a dreamer, at least a person of consequence and unmistakably thoroughbred. Yes! The only compliment one can conscientiously pay her is that her Hamlet was, from first to last, très grande dame." Which, to an actress who was trying to create a classic masculine hero is perhaps the lowest blow of all.

Asta Nielson resembled Bernhardt only in terms of popularity. She was one of first so-called superstars of the silent cinema, both in Denmark and in Germany. By l914, you could buy Asta Cigarettes, Asta Pastries, Asta Hair-Styles, Asta Corsets, and Asta Lingerie. During the First World War, you could find pin-ups of her in the trenches of both the American army as well as the German dugouts.

You might suppose that in Scandinavia the title "superstar" would properly belong to Greta Garbo, but Nielsen preceded her in popularity and Garbo was quoted as saying: "The woman who taught me everything I know was Asta Nielsen." -- And that wasn't a blurb to sell cosmetics or shampoos, but a heartfelt acknowledgement of how much Garbo had absorbed from her mentor.

Little is known about Nielsen's early life. She was born in Copenhagen in l881 into a working-class family. Her mother's fondest hope was that she obtain a job as a salesgirl. But Asta, even as a teenager, knew she was destined to be an actress. She won a place at the Royal Theatre Academy and promptly became pregnant. Her decision to have her child without being married was shocking in the l900s, but she wouldn't have it any other way.

She began acting on the Danish stage in l902 and in l9l0 made her first film, The Abyss. The highpoint of that film was a daring and seductive "gaucho dance," which was mercilessly cut out of the showings both in Denmark and in Germany and her reputation for brazen, sexual eroticism was immediately established. But the critics also praised her naturalistic acting, which was very different from the style of most silent films of the period that were melodramatic both in plot line and in performance. In her autobiography she described her approach to acting: "I realized," she wrote, "that one had to detach oneself completely from one's surroundings in order to be able to perform an important scene in a dramatic film. The opportunity to develop character and mood gradually, something denied the film actor, can only be replaced by a kind of 'auto-suggestion'." In short, she believed that the actress must enter into a kind of trance to be able to respond instinctively to what was going on inside her character. Hence the mask-like expression she often assumed and, compared to others of her ilk, the minimal gestures. One critic recently wrote of her performance in a restored version of her Hamlet, "It gives us the strange feeling of watching a present-day actress who has dropped suddenly into silent movies." One also has to bear in mind that Nielsen came to maturity during the same period -- the early l900s -- that Sigmund Freud's work was first becoming known in Germany and throughout Europe. Today Nielsen's Hamlet and the woman herself is the subject of rabid investigations of bisexuality and feminist research.

Nielsen's film career improved considerably when in l910 she joined up with the director Urban Gad, whom she married in l912 and promptly divorced in 1915. They made over 30 films together. Throughout her filmic career, she kept on having trouble with the censors. Thirteen years after The Abyss, she appeared in G.W. Pabst's The Joyless Street playing a prostitute and a murderess, sharing top billing with a very young Greta Garbo. After ruthless cuts made by the American censor, the film emerged as a Greta Garbo vehicle and most of Nielsen's role wound up on the cutting-room floor. Happily, the original version of The Joyless Street was recently reissued with all the censor's cuts restored.

Nielsen retired from the screen after making only one talkie in l932 and returned to Denmark where she eked out a living creating art collages and working occasionally as a journalist. She died in 1972 at the age of ninety still cursing that Swedish upstart, Greta Garbo. Thirty-eight of her films survive and in recent years she has become the subject of an enormous amount of reappraisal.

Her interpretation of Hamlet, based on the idea that Hamlet himself was in fact a herself, probably came from Edward P. Vining's book from l881 entitled The Mystery of Hamlet, which suggested that the oddities of Hamlet's behavior might be explained by the fact that the Prince was really a woman in disguise. A notion that is constructed on the fallacy that Hamlet's behavior is in some way "odd," whereas to most critics and actors, every action of the man seems entirely reasonable given a character in those peculiar circumstances.

It is, of the many filmic treatments of this play, certainly the most bizarre. It treats the Hamlet-Horatio relationship in an entirely unexpected romantic manner and the chief villain of the piece, rather than being Claudius, turns out to be Gertrude -- which is poetic justice of sorts because most critics and actors have always felt that Shakespeare's Gertrude is a rather bland and underwritten role.

The real thrust of the film is political. It is instigated by the Queen's desire to retain the Royal Crown of Denmark for herself and her offspring who unfortunately, is born a princess rather than a prince. Had that royal ambition not been so strong, there is nothing in the Hamlet saga that would have been "tragic." Essentially it is feminine ambition that motivates both Gertrude and the innovative film-maker who wants to appropriate the greatest Shakespearean character ever created for herself alone.

What the film proves yet again is that one can do virtually anything with Hamlet. You can play him fat, skinny, normal, mad, a hero, a coward, a college dropout, a would-be intellectual. He's been played as a clown, a buffoon, a transvestite, a homosexual, and, in the l8th century, he was even played by a dog.


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About the Author

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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
URL for this work: http://www.swans.com/library/art15/cmarow155.html
Published December 28, 2009