Lost for words
Star Wars Episode 1 became the first film ever to be projected digitally, without the inconvenience of celluloid. While this reveals exciting possibilities about the future of film it also serves as a tragic reminder that our repository of films is incomplete, damaged, and continues to deteriorate.
So the British Film Institute should be commended for compiling a selection of the earliest filmed versions of Shakespeare's plays on a new video, Silent Shakespeare. Beginning with the first ever Shakespeare film, King John (1899), the video offers a selection of soundless films that are rapidly becoming too fragile even to project. We might expect these films to seem quaint or naive; instead they are vivid and modern.
How can a silent film director do justice to a playwright whose work, more than any other, rests upon the importance of language? In exploring the new medium of film, early directors were forced to find a visual analogue for Shakespeare's metaphors. Perhaps the finest example of this can be seen in Percy Stow's 1908 film of The Tempest, which exploits film trickery to show Ariel flitting in and out of being, and to show a raging storm framed within Prospero's island residence. The central ambiguity of The Tempest, as to whether Prospero is manipulating events or imagining them, is preserved perfectly here: he could be looking out at the tempest, or the tempest could be his own conceit, isolated before him.
Although we are now accustomed to sound in film, the pioneers of cinema considered sound a threat to the medium, which would transform the subtleties of montage into the banality of filmed plays. Leonid Andreyev's First Letter on Theatre of 1911, perhaps the most prescient document of the century with regard to cinema, predicted technical developments such as colour film, but could not conceive of sound as one of them. 'A cinema Shakespeare', said Andreyev, 'after abandoning the inconvenience of words', would develop a film vocabulary 'as expressive as speech'.
I would never bemoan the existence of sound film, but the absence of sound certainly engendered creativity in early cinema and allowed the medium to develop independently. The opulence of Kenneth Branagh's recent film of Hamlet, or even the visceral horror of Roman Polanski's classic Macbeth, create a tautology. They exist in addition to the carefully crafted language of the plays, language written to compensate for the limitations of dramatic representation. Since these plays are so well written, it is easy to use Shakespeare's language as a crutch, relying upon it without infusing it with the talent necessary to bring it to life.
The director of a silent film is denied the easy option, as are those great directors like Akira Kurosawa, who have brought Shakespeare to life in languages other than English. The absence of sound and the advantage of montage, in combination, mirror the theatre's combined advantage of language and limitation of the stage. The creative dialogue between a sixteenth-century playwright and an early twentieth-century film director yields remarkable results.
Silent Shakespeare is available to LM readers at the discounted price of £12.99 (rrp £15.99). Phone the British Film Institute on (020) 7957 8957. For credit card sales, phone (020) 7957 8960
Reproduced from LM issue 126, December 1999/January 2000