Tonight we celebrate the 80th birthday of beloved actor and Affiliated Artist Ted van Griethuysen. To mark the occasion, Ted performs “The Play’s the Thing,” a one-man exploration of the Bard’s most celebrated and debated text, Hamlet. Througout his extensive career, Ted has taken on Hamlet numerous times, embodying Hamlet (twice), Laertes (twice), The Ghost (twice), Claudius, Polonius, First Player and the Gravedigger. For the event, Ted took us on a walk back through the productions that made this text one of the most impactful of his career, which we share with you here.
The Play’s The Thing, by Ted van Griethuysen
Over a year ago I came to Michael Kahn with a suggestion, an idea. I thought it somewhat more than likely that he would tell me—either politely or frontally—that I was nuts. He did not. He said it was a very good idea. “Let’s do it,” he said.
Time passes and I am in hailing distance of my 80th birthday, and either I am going to cower in a corner and whimper my way through, or I am going to step up to the plate, as it were, and Be Eighty! And honoring Hamlet is what I want to do; this is how I want to mark it, celebrate it and, hopefully, survive it.
So, here we are. How did I get here? A chronology might be useful.
The first Hamlet was in 1955, almost 60 years ago, and I was 20. It was in Austin, Texas, at the University of Texas, my third year in the Drama Department. It was under the direction of B. Iden Payne, of whom most people these days have never heard, but he was, in his own time, the doyenne of the educational Shakespeare world. He had been the Artistic Director of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon in the mid-thirties. At the Gaiety Theatre in Manchester he had helped to begin the Repertory Movement in England. Mr. Payne knew his Shakespeare and I am forever grateful that he was my first and substantial introduction.
The culmination of each year at Texas was the Shakespeare production, which was always done on a re-envisioned Elizabethan stage and with Elizabethan costume—still my preference, I am quick to remark.
In 1955, it was Hamlet. There were auditions, of course, and when Mr. Payne decided that I would be Hamlet he called me into his office and said to me, “You must make yourself a lump of clay and put yourself into my hands, or you won’t be able to do it.” I didn’t quibble or hesitate; I welcomed it. I don’t remember being particularly fearful.
It went well, and was well received. The thing I remember most was that it was the first time I felt I might be a good actor. One night, after the scene with Horatio and Marcellus, which follows the actual Ghost Scene, I came offstage, went into the dressing room, looked into the mirror and said “You were very good.” I meant just that one scene, but that was enough to make the whole experience worth it, and Hamlet became a permanent part of my life.
In the summer of 1955, I went with Mr. Payne to the Old Globe in San Diego, whose company was drawn largely from Stanford, Carnegie Tech and the University of Texas. Hamlet was to be done, directed by Allen Fletcher. In my innocent vanity I assumed that, of course, I would be doing Hamlet again. To my consternation and chagrin I learned that Hamlet was coming with Allen and it would be Bill Ball. I was to do Laertes, which, I later discovered, is the usual fate of the actor who didn’t get Hamlet. I am afraid I behaved rather badly.
The actor who played Claudius came from Carnegie Tech as well and he and Bill had been friends and enemies for a while. We sat in the balcony during rehearsals making rude remarks about Bill. Some years later, I got to know Bill better and, I would like to think, atoned for my earlier stupidity.
Now we come to 1960, New York, and the Phoenix Theatre on Second Avenue. With its handsome Ford grant it was a proper repertory company. At the end of my first season there I was to do Laertes once more, this time to Donald Madden’s Hamlet.
The previous summer I was introduced to the work of Eli Siegel by the actress Anne Fielding and had commenced to study the way of seeing the world, art and self that he taught. About the time Hamlet went into rehearsal, Anne gave me a copy of a lecture Mr. Siegel had given some years earlier at the time of the Olivier film. It was called “Hamlet Revisited; or the Family Should Be Poetry,” and it was based on the central idea that “Hamlet could not revenge his father because he didn’t care for his father entirely.”
Even at the distance of more than 50 years, I still feel the amazement, the sense of wonder that I felt then. There was great deal more in the lecture, of course, and all of it has lived with me, taking on greater depth and meaning with the passage of time. I am now more than reasonably sure that what Eli Siegel found in the play is true.
Anne and I read the lecture publicly—this was the Village in the Glorious Sixties, part of my heritage—at the invitation of Barnard College. Mr. Siegel came and said afterwards that there was just too much in the lecture and he wanted to revise it. So he did.
Three actors, Anne and I and Rebecca Thompson, to whom I was now married, formed the Hamlet Revisited Company and proceeded to present this new work in 13 separate “Critical Plays from the Play,” with the stipulation that no one should review it until all parts were seen. Needless to say that didn’t sit very well with New York drama critics. But that is a history of its own. It is not for now.
Between 1963 and about 1970 or so we performed Shakespeare’s Hamlet: Revisited, as it was now called, in a three-evening version and, finally, in a one-evening version. Though it never became a full production of the play, I still see it as my second Hamlet.
Fast forward to 1987 and Hartford Stage in Connecticut where Hamlet is being done with Richard Thomas. I do the Ghost and the First Player. I would say, in passing, that Richard’s was one of the few Hamlets I have actually liked. He was good-natured, and it’s astonishing how rare that is.
By now I am fully pledged to the Shakespeare Theatre in Washington, and Michael Kahn’s work. Tom Hulce is Hamlet and I am Polonius, a part I had always been shy of because I didn’t see how to reconcile the comedy in the part and his deep culpability in the events of the play. It seems to have come out well.
November 2001. The new Harman Center. Wally Acton does Hamlet and gave a fine, surprisingly muscular reading of the part. I heard things I had not heard before. And I was Claudius. Oh, dear. I had an idea that I would shave my head entirely to give myself a different look. Unfortunately, I was dressed in a long robe of a silvery gray metallic cloth.
I bore an unhappy resemblance to Mike Meyers’ Dr. Evil, one that did not escape the notice of the critics. I was alright I think, all in all, but it wasn’t a high point.
Spring, 2007. We come now to the second pivotal moment in my understanding of the play. It is Michael’s second production of Hamlet in Washington with Jeffrey Carlson. I had vowed never to do the play again but changed my mind, because I wanted to do it with Jeffrey. I asked for a “triple”—The Ghost, the First Player and, finally, the part I had never done, the First Gravedigger.
I said pivotal, and this is why. One day, in rehearsal, Michael said, “Hamlet has never killed anyone.” I was deeply startled. It is obvious, of course, but I had never heard anyone see any significance in it. In my mind, that idea reached across the years and joined hands with “Hamlet could not revenge his father because he didn’t care for his father entirely.” Those two ideas belonged together and, I could even say, it was their conjunction that, in time, led to this particular evening and my wish to tell, to show, what I see about Hamlet and the play.
The closer I have come to this evening the more I have grown sure that it is a kind of culmination. Everything I have learned, all the work, all the study, all the performances, that have filled these 60 and more years have brought me to this place. To this play. To this character. To this life-long friend.
Thank you for being here and, with me, greeting the future from the vantage point of 80.