From the Globe Theatre to the World Wide Web
Edited By Stefani Brusberg-Kiermeier and Jörg Helbig
Sabine Schülting (Berlin): "We can't hear a word!" – Shakespeare in silent film -127
SABINE SCHÜLTING "WE CAN'T HEAR A WORD!" SHAKESPEARE IN SILENT FILM In 1911, at a screening of Herbert Beerbohm Tree's Henry VIII in London, one man in the audience complained: "I say, you know we can't hear a word!" (Ball 1968, 82) This anonymous spectator, who was presumably not accustomed to the movies, can be said to have anticipated modern reactions to early silent adaptations of Shakespeare's plays. Although the study of Shakespeare in early cinema has become easier in recent years because at least some of the early films have been re-released and are now available on video and DVD,63 it is extremely doubtful whether these short films of one to twenty minutes duration will create an enthusiastic mass audience. Most twenty-first century spectators will see them as hardly more than an incoherent sequence of individual scenes, boring or ludicrous at best but, more often than not, also as an unforgivable abridgement and distortion of the original play. In particular, it seems obvious that the Bard's powerful language cannot be translated into silent pictures. A dumb Shakespeare is a contradiction in terms. The Vitagraph Twelfth Night of 1910, directed by Charles Kent, is a good case in point. A modern audience will find it difficult to enjoy the film, which to some extent is certainly due to the differences in film technology, such as the static camera, its considerable distance from the action, the long uninterrupted shots etc. In addition, for someone who is not familiar with...
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