On Writing: Words part 1: Acting Like Hamlet



At the end of the 1962 film “To Kill a Mockingbird,” Robert Duvall makes his screen debut as Boo Radley in a scene that lasts three minutes at most. But in that brief scene the young Duvall turns in a performance that stands as the epitome of great acting.

Radley, the mentally ill recluse who never leaves his house, risks being caught in public to save Jem and Scout from Bob Ewell’s attack. He carries the wounded boy back to Atticus’s house and hides behind the door in Jem’s room until he’s discovered by Atticus, Sheriff Tate and Scout.

When he’s first discovered there behind the door, Radley recoils in horror, in his eyes a look of sheer terror. But then he sees Scout. Their eyes meet, Scout smiles, and slowly the look on the face of this poor frightened man changes from terror to tenderness and to a love that overcomes his fear.

It’s a beautiful moment, but the incredible thing is Duvall’s performance, which is nothing short of amazing. He effects this transformation from terror to tenderness without moving a muscle on his face. Nothing changes in the features of his face, not the mouth, the eyes, the brow — nothing. But somehow everything changes.

It’s all in the eyes. The eyes: windows of the soul, right? Duvall has discovered Boo Radley’s soul and shows it in his eyes. But even Duvall’s eyes don’t seem to move or change in any empirical way that analysis can describe. I don’t know how he does it. Some kind of magic, I think.

I compare Duvall’s performance to what I call the Mel Gibson School of Acting, where Hollywood celebrities try to fake (and end up falsifying) real human emotions by gesticulating wildly and contorting their faces.

Mel Gibson is not alone in this approach, of course, but our subject at hand is Shakespeare’s Hamlet (we’re getting there, trust me). And it tickles me to no end to recall that Mel himself played Hamlet, in a manner of speaking, in Franco Zeffirelli’s 1990 film of the play.

Zeffirelli’s film unintentionally brings these two different acting styles face to face when Mel as Hamlet meets the ghost of Hamlet’s father, played by the great British actor Paul Scofield. On one side of the screen we see a real, tormented ghost—fearsome, deeply aggrieved, and back from the dead to spur his son to revenge. And on the other side of the screen is Mel Gibson making faces.

I draw this distinction between real acting and the Mel Gibson School of Facial Contortion, because Shakespeare drew it first — in Hamlet’s instructions to a troupe of actors about how (and how not) to imitate human nature.

I’ve been thinking about Hamlet a lot since last month when Gold Town Nickelodeon presented the film of the British National Theatre’s production, with Benedict Cumberbatch in the lead role. But, really, as my wife Michelle will tell you, I’m always thinking about Hamlet. It’s that kind of work: once it gets under your skin, it’s always there, just below the surface. The trick is to let it get under your skin — like life itself. This play has become germane to how I think about writing, philosophy, life and all.

But back to this acting business: like a good critic, Hamlet presumes to tell the actors how to do their job. Don’t rant and rave, he tells them, and don’t gesticulate wildly and make faces like Mel. (Well, he doesn’t actually mention Mel, but he may as well have: we all know who he’s talking about.) An actor should represent even the most tempestuous passions in modest and measured tones — like a real human being, not a caricature.

And as Hamlet reminds the actors of the purpose of acting — to portray real human behavior — Shakespeare lets his audience see how that’s really done.

With the play “Hamlet,” Shakespeare and his friend Richard Burbage (the first actor ever to play Hamlet) were quietly effecting a revolution in the art of acting — a revolution needed to stage a new kind of play, the kind of play Shakespeare was writing, a play like “Hamlet.”

It’s a play where the plot has very little to do with people’s actions — “actions that a man might play.” The plot focuses instead on the characters’ inner lives, the very stuff that, as Hamlet says, cannot be seen on the surface: “that within which passeth show.”

And that’s the problem: in so many ways, Shakespeare suggests that language is not a very good tool for communicating our inner lives. In “Hamlet,” it’s quite the opposite: words are more often used to hide the truth, to cover up the real, to disguise the way a character apprehends his or her experience. Sometimes a character’s words hide the truth from others, sometimes a character’s words hide the truth from himself.

In the few instances where a character speaks honestly, speaks as clearly and sincerely as possible, other characters think he’s talking about something else anyway.

“Hamlet” is a play about words, and it doesn’t have nice things to say about them. As Hamlet lies dying, he pleads with his best friend, Horatio, to stay alive to tell Hamlet’s story — which Horatio does, but he gets it all wrong.

Hamlet’s famous “To be or not to be” soliloquy concludes that our problem is that we don’t know what comes after death. Toward the end of the play, as he commits himself to the play’s closing act of violence, Hamlet reaches a different conclusion: we don’t know what comes before death either. The truth of Hamlet’s experience, so strenuously sought after throughout the play by others and by Hamlet himself, is a truth no one ever grasps. In the face of this fundamental ignorance, aren’t all words pretty much useless? Hamlet’s final words are perhaps the most honest of all. “The rest is silence.”

Next column (the day before Christmas Eve): “Words, part 2,” where we take issue with Hamlet.

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