Laurence Olivier James Agee - Essay

Anthony Holden

James Agee

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Henry V was all simple, engaging action, and Olivier gave it a clarion confidence and sweetness. Hamlet is action in near-paralysis, a play of subtle and ambiguous thought and of even subtler emotions. Olivier's main concern has been to keep these subtleties in focus, to eliminate everything that might possibly distract from the power and meaning of the language. He has stripped the play and his production to the essentials. In the process, he has also stripped away a few of the essentials. But on the whole, this is a sternly beautiful job, densely and delicately worked. (p. 389)

There is little novel interpretation of character: even that might distract from the great language, or distort it. There is no clear placement in time, no outside world except blind sky, faint landscapes, ruminant surf, a lyrical brook…. The production is as austere, and as grimly concentrated, as Henry V was profuse and ingratiating. Only the wild, heartfelt, munificent language is left at liberty.

Olivier was determined to make the play clear in every line and every word—even to those who know nothing of Shakespeare. For the most part, he manages to elucidate even the trickiest turns of idiom by pantomime or a pure gift for thought transference. But wherever it has seemed necessary, old words have been changed for new. (pp. 389-90)

In the process of cutting a 4-hour play to 2 hours' playing time, the editing has also been very drastic in...

(The entire section is 617 words.)