A Punishing System’s Stress Chews Up Another Hamlet

The Guardian

On Tuesday night, Daniel Day-Lewis, one of Britain’s most exciting young actors, finished Act 1 Scene 5 of Hamlet at the National Theatre and, in a state of nervous exhaustion (now clinically diagnosed as stress syndrome) told the company that he could not go on.

An attempt was made to dissuade him, but the young actor, known for pushing himself to the limits of experience, simply could not go back on stage. Forty-five minutes earlier, and the understudy would have taken over and no one would have been the wiser.

It wasn’t entirely unexpected. Earlier in the run, Day-Lewis had talked of the “demons” in the role, was hurling himself passionately into the part and was reportedly seeing his father in the ghost. Under very great personal stress, he had continued for weeks.

That, in the personal circumstances, is the remarkable aspect of the whole episode. Actors are expected to battle through everything. The show must go on.


It did. Exit Day-Lewis, enter Jeremy Northam, understudy. Underprepared and under a different sort of pressure, he swapped the dull garb of the tiny part of Osric for the rich robes of Elsinore and stepped into every actor’s nightmare of initiation.

Three hours later, triumphing in having survived the ordeal, intoxicated with the effort and physically and mentally drained, he returned home--"gibbering.” His wife had to slap him about the face repeatedly to bring him to his senses.

Olivier knew it, McKellan knows it, Gielgud, Gambon, Hopkins, Shaw, Cox, Pennington, Williamson, Redgrave, Smith, Jacobi, Bates, Ashcroft, Price, Callow, Ryland, Peck and every actor who has ever played a major role knows that stress is fundamental to the large parts.

From the act of learning the lines, through to the opening of a play and then way into the production, it hovers and drops in different ways and, if it does not exhaust the actor, can almost paralyze him.

“Drying” is one thing; the words are simply not there. Personal terror of a role is another, deeper and rarer reaction, most often feeding off existing problems. Then the play becomes a burden, real naked fear is constantly there and the psychological pain is enormous.

The pressure on lead players has always been great and reaches to the old debate of whether the actor should actually experience the emotion being played or whether it should be demonstrated. Obviously, if someone enters a role completely and identifies fully with a major part--as often as not a totally unbalanced character--great psychological damage is possible.

Two major problems for actors are how to achieve consistency of expression and how to cope with the abnormal mental and emotional stress of creativity. It has long occupied actors’ minds. On the eve of the French Revolution, the great French actress Mlle. Dumesnil was in furious debate with Le Clarion, Voltaire’s favorite actress. One took the emotional line, the other begged actors to rely on stagecraft, which “remains solid throughout.” Henry Irving was a firm believer in the value of experiencing a role; Coquelin, the great French actor, took the opposite view.

The debate is actually summarized in Hamlet; in the play within a play, the actor is carried away by the sense and emotion of his speech. When Hamlet is alone, he comments:

Is it not monstrous that this player here,

but in a fiction, in a dream of passion,

Could force his soul so to his own conceit

That from her working all his visage wann’d,

Tears in his eyes, distraction in his aspect,

A broken voice, and his whole function suiting

With forms to his conceit?

And all for nothing!

For Hecuba!

While most actors devise their own answers--turning to meditation, the Alexander technique, zen, yoga and all manner of mental and physical exercises--some like Al Pacino, Dustin Hoffman, Jane Fonda, Marlon Brando and Dennis Hopper turn to theories of acting such as Lee Strasberg’s Method, based on the earlier work by Constantin Stanislavsky. This system, often discredited, is designed to stimulate consistent creativity through concentration, emotional memory and relaxation techniques. For realistic acting, especially in film work, it has been greatly used and admired.

But film and TV, though time-consuming and demanding and with their own pressure points, are different from theater. While stage actors can sublimate themselves to the overall production, and the star system is less developed, no stage performance can work night after night on a total intensity of experience; the actors would burn up within a week. A stage performance cannot just be halted. To achieve consistency of expression, a stage actor must have great inner strength and resources. Often these have been built up over years.

Many actors say that there is no substitute for real stage experience and that what is happening increasingly is that good young actors--straight out of drama school, with only a few months of theater work behind them--are being creamed off for lucrative TV and film parts. Having made a name and achieved box-office potential, they are then invited to take leading stage roles, but they do not necessarily have the techniques to cope with them.

Aside from the publicity and attendant expectations of audience, press and managements, there is the knowledge that the whole company depends on a good lead performance. This is hard enough to cope with anyway, but for an actor without real confidence or experience it can prove disastrous.

Even with years of playing leads, many stars are desperately nervous in the weeks leading to a big opening. The fear usually vanishes on stage, but the pattern of building up nightly to an explosive role is wearing.

In the Royal Shakespeare Company, the National and other major repertory theaters, there are additional problems. Only in Britain are actors treated like workhorses and not thoroughbreds. No one asks an opera singer to play Tosca eight times a week. No one asks Meryl Streep to film three major roles a week. Yet British theater directors regularly ask actors to play six nights in seven, sometimes such huge roles as Lear, Hamlet or Coriolanus twice a day. Marathon performances where a company will play nine hours of Shakespeare some days, are in vogue. On top of this, a lead actor may be playing in another production, learning another play, doing a TV ad or just trying to be a good parent or person.

The demands are sometimes inordinate, so it is often only a consuming love for the stage and belief in the work being done that allows a play to succeed.

It is remarkable that there are not more episodes such as at the National this week. With theater against the financial wall and the star system in Britain so entrenched, the odds are that it will recur.

The lesson for artistic directors and those who arrange the scheduling of plays is clear: Treat actors like marionettes, and sometimes the strings will loosen.

For actors, aware that every production is a risk, the lesson is simply that to overreach is to betray the part.