Chicago Humanities Festival + Chicago Shakespeare Theater – Silent Shakespeare

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On Monday, June 6, Chicago Shakespeare Theater and the Chicago Humanities Festival partnered to bring Judith Buchanan, Professor of Film and Literature at the University of York, to the Music Box Theatre for a delightful 90-minute, multi-media presentation devoted to Shakespeare on silent film. In introducing Professor Buchanan, Chicago Humanities Festival Board Chair Clark Hulse observed that it might seem oxymoronic, given the emphasis placed on Shakespeare’s language (as both poet and assiduous neologist), to consider his oeuvre performed in silence. Buchanan echoed this sentiment in her opening remarks, but assured us that the silent celluloid would have a poetry all its own, which proved to be true in her captivating collaboration with actors Erika Haaland and Joe Bianco, and musician Matt Deitchman.

Buchanan framed her lecture, part of the Shakespeare 400 Chicago festivities, by invoking the corresponding celebrations for the tercentenary in 1916, including dramatic readings by Haaland and Bianco of excerpts from the ten special supplements in The New York Times that marked the occasion, and with discussion of a cluster of silent films from the year: The Real Thing at Last (J. M. Barrie and Edmund Gwenn), Macbeth (Sir Herbert Beerbohm-Tree), and two competing productions of Romeo and Juliet (Beverly Bayne and Francis X. Bushman for Metro, and Theda Bara and Harry Hilliard for Fox). Of the 400 silent Shakespeare films known to exist, Buchanan noted that only around forty survive today (though archival research does occasionally turn up another here or there). Barrie’s The Real Thing at Last was one such casualty, but a sufficiently detailed description survived of the film’s cheeky comparative study of a British and an American film production of Macbeth for Haaland and Bianco to give a spirited (and hilarious) rendition of the contrasts. The British film, for example, offered a prim Lady Macbeth, daintily dabbing at a spot of blood, whereas the American film was awash in blood and gore.

Fox and Metro went head to head with their Romeo and Juliets in 1916. Buchanan wryly noted that Metro tried to get out ahead of the competition by advertising their film as the only one worth seeing, while Fox openly urged audiences to put the two films side by side, and judge for themselves which they preferred. According to Buchanan, Fox’s marketing instincts proved correct: the reviews—and the box office receipts—for both films established that Shakespeare on film, silent or no, had all the makings of a blockbuster, particularly when the ingénue Juliet was played by the vamp Theda Bara.

Buchanan demonstrated her considerable skill as both a director and an archivist in her presentation. Noting that her research indicates that, at times, live actors voiced lines in accompaniment to the films, either next to the stage or from behind the screen, Buchanan put Haaland and Bianco through a similar approach to Richard’s confrontation with the Lady Anne in Act 1 of Richard III, complete with rapier sound effects. First, the pair staged the scene for the audience themselves. Then, Buchanan screened the 1911 film of Frank Benson’s performance in the title role at the Memorial Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon, while Haaland and Bianco voiced the same lines (and scraped and clashed the rapiers at the appropriate junctures). The result was compelling, and demonstrated how effectively these films might have conveyed a rich experience of Shakespeare to early twentieth-century movie theater audiences.

Reaching back to 1907 for another lost film, Buchanan stitched together two completely different images from two completely different archives to offer a tiny glimpse into Georges Méliès’s Shakespeare Writing Julius Caesar. She stumbled upon a still of a film set attributed in the lower right-hand corner to Méliès while working in one archive that looked familiar to her. “Watch the chair,” she advised us, projecting the still, and then dissolving it into a still shot from the film from a totally different archive, in which Méliès, as Shakespeare, slouches in the chair, while the scene he has been struggling to write from Julius Caesar unfolds around him. This screen dissolve of one shot into the other was, she told us triumphantly, the first reunion of these two disparate images since they sank into the obscurity of their current archival homes.

Throughout, Matt Deitchman offered wonderfully sensitive scoring to accompany each film clip on piano. One of the more arresting performances in the evening’s presentation came from Asta Nielsen’s 1920 cross-dressed depiction of Hamlet. As Buchanan explained, the film establishes at the outset the conceit that Hamlet is a woman, cross-dressed as a prince (for whatever reason)—a sartorial fiction the truth of which is known only by Hamlet herself and Gertrude. The audience laughed as Nielsen swooned next to Horatio in scenes of their meeting at Wittenberg, and subsequent meanderings at Elsinore. As Buchanan tartly noted, Nielsen’s cross-dressed performance choice gives Hamlet—who scarcely seems to need it—yet one more thing about which to wax melancholic.

Silent film buffs who missed the opportunity to see this wonderful presentation can access parts of it via Buchanan’s book, Shakespeare on Silent Film: An Excellent Dumb Discourse (Cambridge University Press, 2009), or the British Film Institute’s DVDs Silent Shakespeare and Play On!.


Regina Buccola is a professor and the chair of the Department of Literature and Languages at Roosevelt University in Chicago, where she also serves as core faculty in Women’s and Gender Studies. She has published several books on early modern British drama and culture, most recently as editor of A Midsummer Night’s Dream: A Critical Guide and co-editor, with Peter Kanelos, of Chicago Shakespeare Theater: Suiting the Action to the Word. Recent journal publications have appeared in Medieval and Renaissance Drama in England and Borrowers and Lenders: The Journal of Shakespeare and Appropriation. She serves as the scholar-in-residence at Chicago Shakespeare Theater, and is one of the Midwest Ameri­can reviewers for the online journal, Reviewing Shakespeare.