Silent Shakespeare: Filling in the blanks of the past

By Nayomi Karthigesu

The Sun rises in the east, Hamlet was the most adapted Shakespearean text of the silent era and I was 15 minutes late to “Silent Shakespeare”: a night of “nostalgia, wonderment and silliness”, in the words of Professor Judith Buchanan. Part lecture, part theatre, Buchanan’s night, in conjunction with Silents Now, a company bringing silent era films back to the modern day audience, and the Society for Renaissance studies, brought about a night fraught with tangible delight and hilarity as Buchanan explored the niche but impressive world of Shakespearean silent films.

Walking into a room filled with laughter, I expected a dreary lecture hall (if I expected anything at all) with a monotone lecturer painstaking extolling the virtues of silent era Shakespeare, (an expectation borne of no evidence, I might add).  What I found was a gripped audience, enchanted by the enthusiasm of Buchanan. A late straggler always catches the eye of one or two of the less enthralled audience members and yet no heads turned as I entered the auditorium, fully packed, as they all listened to Buchanan’s painstaking journey through film archives around the world to bring us the event that night. So much was I engrossed that when I endeavoured to ask the couple sitting in front of me at the end of the event about the beginning, they replied with “We got here after you, dear”. Such was the power of Buchanan’s enthusiasm that it had infected me without even knowing.

Interspersed with her speech were carefully selected film clips, enlivened with actors (Tok Stephen and Dan Wheeler) and piano playing by renowned silent film pianist Jonny Best, to bring about a silent film experience to rival that of the early 20th century. In theory, it seemed a redundant idea to put speech “back into” a silent film however, the use of lines from the respective plays added an element of understanding and depth to the films: films that relied heavily on the exaggerated motions of the actors to convey meaning. Thus, the amalgamation of the two sets of actors created a new experience for viewing Shakespeare, both theatrical and cinematic: something I shall endeavour to find again.

In doing so, Silent Shakespeare has managed to do something that very few events about history manage to do, which is to create something new out of the past. Usually a lecture on a historical subject always falls into the trap of glorifying the past, without acknowledging or describing why or how it is relevant today. Yet, as said before, the combination of speech and music to the films have created something new, as well as Buchanan’s findings providing new insight into the world of both Shakespeare and silent film.

The hard work of the researchers involved was paramount to the success of the evening and especially apparent in the exploration of Vitagraph’s (a motion picture company) productions. Still after still was shown where Vitagraph had included their logo of an eagle on top the letter v; some subtly, disguised as the militia symbol of armies (Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra) and others less subtly, such as being plonked on the floor while Orsino is lamenting about his love to Cesario. This attention to detail, on something so trivial yet important to the understanding of the silent era film industry, did not go unappreciated by the audience who watched enthralled and amused by the advertising ploys of Vitagraph.

A point of interest that Buchanan repeatedly drew our eye to was the casting and plot changes made by certain companies, namely the gender conversion of characters such as Hamlet and King Oberon. Portrayed as female, they present a laxer view on gender norms in the early 1900s where Hamlet (played by the legendary Asta Nielsen) is in fact the princess of Denmark, forced to masquerade as a man for the sake of her father. Thus begins, alongside the plight of Hamlet, the tortured romance between Horatio and Hamlet, who only finds solace in discovering Hamlet is in fact a woman as she lies dying at the end. Although not as open-minded as one would like, it nevertheless shows how there were pioneers for gender and sexual liberation even then.

What was most surprising about the night was the level of hilarity in the room. The gimmicks and visual tricks of the silent era, although probably considered ground-breaking then, reduced the audience to gales of laughter at the superimposition of Hamlet’s father and the shaky flight of a dangling Puck as he finds the flower for Titania’s curse. However, despite these amusing visual delights, the quality of the easter eggs, which apparently existed even then, are second to none. The scene in the forum of Vitagraph’s 1908 production of Julius Caesar is an exact replica of Jean Leon Gerome’s 1867 painting, The Death of Caesar, down to the sleeping senator who comically misses the stabbing of Caesar. The laughter this elicited from the audience shows that although technology may have advanced, what we find funny and amusing or gripping has not changed.

The night concluded all but too soon as Buchanan left the audience with a heightened appreciation for Shakespeare and the filmmakers of old but more importantly, a connection with the theatre and film goers of the past. Usually it is difficult to consider the lives of those in the past, whether it be trying to understand why hypocrisies and prejudices existed back then or how they conducted their lives without the technological advances of today. Yet, exploring the silent film era, with the aid of Buchanan’s expertise and contextual information and the theatrical element from the actors and pianist, the audience was able to create an affinity with the audiences of the past and so maintaining the everlasting love for Shakespeare and film.

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