Of all the Hamlets none was the cause of so much discussion as that of Charles Fechter (1824-1879). It was so in England; it was particularly so in America where the Hamlet of Edwin Booth had come to be accepted as the model. Fechter's differed from his as radically as the rose differs from the lily; conception, performance, appearance--all were different. Everywhere Fechter created two parties--those who admired him intensely, and those who condemned him wholly. Few there were who took halfway ground; he was either a wonderful artist, or he was little better than a mountebank.
Hermann Vezin, in whose opinion Hermann Hendrich was the very finest Hamlet he had ever seen, says Fechter will rank high in the roll of great actors who have excelled in that character.
Wilkie Collins is more decided:
"From Macready downward, I have, I think, seen every Hamlet of any note and mark during the last five and thirty years. The true Hamlet I first saw when Fechter stepped on the stage. These words, if they merely expressed my own opinion, it is needless to say, would never have been written. But they express the opinion of every unprejudiced person under fifty years with whom I have met."
Fechter's Hamlet was remarkable for its impetuosity, thus differing radically from the indecision and wavering which are characteristic of most conceptions of the part. In an article in the Atlantic (November, 1870), Kate Field argues in justification of this view, that the entire action of the play covers only ten days, whereas Richard Grant White held that it covered as many years. When, however, this article was reprinted in Miss Field's "Life of Fechter," this argument was omitted.
Some of the peculiarities of Fechter's Hamlet are thus grouped together by Mr. Dutton Cook:
"It was the firm belief of Fechter's Hamlet, in defiance of the general opinion to the contrary, that Queen Gertrude was Claudius's accomplice in the murder of her husband. In the time of Fechter's Hamlet it was the fashion in Denmark to wear a medallion portrait, swinging from a gold chain, round the neck. Fechter's Hamlet wore thus a portrait of his father; the Queen wore a portrait of Claudius; Guildenstern was similarly adorned. Usually there is not a pin to choose between Rosencrantz and Guildenstern; the unfortunate gentlemen are alike odious to Hamlet, and they are slaughtered off the stage, at the instigation of the Prince, after they have been well murdered in the presence of the house by their histrionic representatives. But to Fechter's Hamlet, Rosencrantz was less hateful than Guildenstern: Rosencrantz wore no portrait around his neck. When Fechter's Hamlet spoke his first speech, and compared the late King to Hyperion, and Claudius to a satyr, he produced and gazed fondly at his father's picture; when he mentioned his uncle's 'picture in little,' he illustrated his meaning by handling the medallion worn by Guildenstern; in his closet-scene, he placed his miniature of his father side by side with his mother's miniature of Claudius; when at the close of their interview Gertrude would embrace her son, he held up sternly the portrait of his father; the wretched woman recoiled and staggered from the stage, and Hamlet reverentially kissed the picture as he murmured, 'I must be cruel to be kind.' In the play-scene, Fechter's Hamlet, when he rose at the discomfiture of Claudius, tore the leaves from the playbook and flung them in the air; in the scene with Ophelia, Fechter's Hamlet did not perceive that the King was watching them: had he known that he would have been so convinced of his uncle's guilt that the play would have been unnecessary. In the fourth act, if Fechter's Hamlet had not been well guarded, he would have killed the King then and there. In the last scene a gallery ran at the back of the stage, with short flights of stairs on either side, all exits and entrances being made by means of these stairs. Upon the confession of Laertes the King endeavored to escape up the right-hand staircase; Hamlet, perceiving this, rushes up the left-hand stairs and encountering Claudius in the centre of the gallery there dispatched him."
Charles Dickens, in the August Atlantic for 1869, wrote:
"Perhaps no innovation in art was ever accepted with so much favor by so many intellectual persons precommitted to, and preoccupied by, another system as Mr. Fechter's Hamlet. I take this to have been the case (as it unquestioningly was in London), not because of its picturesqueness, not because of its novelty, not because of its many scattered beauties, but because of its perfect consistency with itself. As the animal painter said of his favorite picture of rabbits that there was more nature about those rabbits than you usually found in rabbits, so it may be said of Mr. Fechter's Hamlet that there was more consistency about that Hamlet than you usually found in Hamlets. Its great and satisfying originality was in its possessing the merit of a distinctly conceived and executed idea. From the first appearance of the broken glass of fashion and mould of form, pale and worn with weeping for his father's death, and remotely suspicious of its cause, to his final struggle with Horatio for the fatal cup, there were cohesion and coherence in Mr. Fechter's view of the character. Devrient, the German actor, had some years before in London fluttered the theatrical doves considerably, by such changes as being seated when instructing the players, and like mild departures from established usage; but he had worn, in the main, the old nondescript dress, and had held forth, in the main, in the old way, hovering between sanity and madness. I do not remember whether he wore his hair crisply curled short, as if he were going to an everlasting dancing master's party at the Danish court; but I do remember that most other Hamlets since the great Kemble had been bound to do so. Mr. Fechter's Hamlet, a pale, woe-begone Norseman with long flaxen hair, wearing a strange garb never associated with the part upon the English stage (if ever seen there at all), and making a piratical swoop upon the whole fleet of little theatrical prescriptions without meaning, or, like Dr. Johnson's celebrated friend, with only one idea in them, and that a wrong one, never could have achieved its extraordinary success but for its animation by one pervading purpose, to which all changes were made intelligently subservient. The bearing of this purpose on the treatment of Ophelia, on the death of Polonius, and on the old student fellowship between Hamlet and Horatio, was exceedingly striking; and the difference between picturesqueness of stage-effect, and for the elucidation of a meaning, was well displayed in there having been a gallery of musicians at the play, and in one of them passing on his way out, with his instrument in his hand, when Hamlet seeing it, took it from him to point his talk with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern."
George Henry Lewes, who wrote of Fechter when Fechter was at his best, and before he had been seen in America at all, dwells upon his ability to properly represent the character in appearance: "He is lymphatic, delicate, handsome; and, with his long flaxen curls, quivering sensitive nostrils, fine eyes, and sympathetic voice, perfectly represents the graceful Prince. His aspect and bearing are such that the eye rests on him with delight." Mr. Lewes thought that Fechter excelled in the scenes which demanded the qualities of an accomplished comedian, and it was only in the more tragic portions that any shortcoming was felt. "It is the nearest approach that I have seen to the realization of Goethe's idea expounded in the celebrated critique in Wilhelm Meister, that there is a burden laid on Hamlet too heavy for his soul to bear."
Clement Scott says (in the London Theatre):
"Fechter broke down tradition, but he was not always intelligible. He was the first daring man who uttered his protest against the mouthing and ranting and bombastic school. But he could hardly speak the language and he was misunderstood. It required an intense sympathy with the reformer to adopt, without hesitation, the method of the reform. His idea struck home to the poetical mind, but it was caviare to the general public. A very educated palate indeed was required to swallow Fechter's Hamlet, even at his best."
"When Fechter played Hamlet at the Princess's Theatre the fight between the new school and the old became so furious that it was dangerous to approach the subject of the Frenchman's Hamlet at club or tavern; a fight that was only carried to a successful issue by the weight of the opinions of men like George Henry Lewes, who had the courage of their opinions, and who had seen acting in other countries than their own. Why, Fechter's Hamlet, and everything pertaining to Fechter would have been laughed off the stage, ridiculed, insulted and condemned had the old play-goer been allowed to have had entirely his own way."--Theatre, Nov., 1884.
George B. Woods, in Old and New, April, 1870:
"If anything is certain about Hamlet it is that he is princely, but this Prince forgets even to be a gentleman--often in his demeanor toward Polonius, very seriously in his treatment of Marcellus whom he brutally snubs again and again merely because he is eager to speak with Horatio alone. If there is an established trait in Hamlet's character, it is the 'infirmity of will and discontinuity of purpose,' which Mr. Lowell thinks he inherited from his frail mother. But here is a Hamlet as quick as Hotspur, as passionate as Romeo, whose doubt-crowded soliloquies are a constant contradiction to his ardor of temperament. But in the midst of all these most logical and incontrovertible objections, the critical spectator, unless he be a man of ice or fortified in a chain armor of prejudice, finds himself thrilled to his finger ends by some light touch of the actor; magnetized by a flitting gesture quick as light and illuminating a sentence with a meaning hitherto unsuspected; moved to tears by a tender or pathetic utterance; transfixed by a passionate exclamation, a word or look of scorn or love which lays the very heart of Hamlet beside the sympathetic heart of the spectator. No one can hear the tragedian hurl forth his epithets at the absent King like a succession of shots from a battery of artillery, 'Remorseless, treacherous, lecherous, kindless villain'; no one can watch the look which comes over his face as he parts from Ophelia, loving her with all the intensity of a fervid nature, angry at her part in spying upon him, driven by his destiny to crush her heart and his own; no one can see even so small a thing as the gesture by which he first reveals his hatred of the King; or the motion of his hand as he questions Horatio and the soldiers around him about the Ghost--and deny that he has greatness--greatness such as is given to few actors in a generation."
The following excerpt was originally published in Some Famous Hamlets. Austin Brereton. London: David Bogue, 1884.
Mr. Fechter's Hamlet--a pale, woe-begone Norseman, with long flaxen hair, wearing a strange garb never associated with the part on the English stage (if ever seen there at all), and making a piratical swoop upon the whole fleet of little theatrical prescriptions without meaning, or, like Dr. Johnson's celebrated friend, with only one idea in them, and that a wrong one--never could have achieved its extraordinary success but for its animation by one pervading purpose to which all changes were made intelligently subsurvient." Fechter's Hamlet was marked in some passages by exquisite beauty of thought and expression, and, as a whole, by high refinement and excellent taste. In all the lighter scenes he played with the ease and spirit of a typical French actor. But he interested rather than moved his audience. He gave undue prominence to the meditative element in Hamlet's nature, concerning himself chiefly with the play of intellect revealed in the soliloquies. The more passionate scenes were neglected by him.
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