These words, penned twenty years apart by two of the most distinguished actors of the twentieth century, reﬂect one of the central dilemmas of the modernist actor: how to claim status as a professional and escape categorization as either an unfocused dilettante or a vulgar entertainer. In the cases of Gielgud and Olivier an important part of the answer to this dilemma was: ‘play Hamlet’. For them, as for so many other twentieth-century actors, the performance of Hamlet and the claim to professionalism seem
inextricably linked. In fact many critics, like Peter Stead in his 1991 biography of Richard Burton, go so far as to credit Gielgud’s performance of Hamlet at the Old Vic in 1929 with inaugurating ‘the new age of English acting’ that marked modernist productions of Shakespeare and that was consolidated with Olivier’s performance of the same role in 1938 (Stead 1991: 12-13). The choice of Hamlet as starring role was nothing new, of course; many actors before Gielgud and Olivier had chosen Hamlet as vehicle for demonstrating their talents. But, as Gielgud and Olivier’s above quoted words attest, the ways in which actors sought to legitimate their work changed with modernism, and the way they chose to play Hamlet changed at the same time.