In her autobiography, My Life in Three Acts (1990), Helen Hayes contrasted her acting career with that of her friend, Maurice Evans. “Maurice had an advantage that I lacked,” she explained, “a strong drive to get ahead.” Of herself, she shrugged, “I just floated along, and things somehow fell into my lap.”
Unimpressed by Evans’ drive, Orson Welles told Peter Bogdanovich, “Evans didn’t have much of a talent.” Welles went on: “He took on practically everything in Shakespeare, the critics raved, and the people packed in to see him.” For Welles, critical and popular acclaim was irrelevant. “The great roles, you see,” he assured Bogdanovich, “endow an actor with something that isn’t necessarily related at all to his real merit—a place in the pecking order, prestige.”
Today, if anyone remembers Maurice Evans, it is most likely as Dr. Zaius in the 1968 Planet of the Apes. By then, Evans was in his late sixties and was best known for his Shakespearean roles on stage. Three years earlier, though, he had starred alongside Charlton Heston, who would play Zaius’ nemesis, as a loopy priest in a feature film, The War Lord, set in eleventh-century Normandy. Also in the late 1960s, Evans was parodying himself as a Shakespeare-quoting villain called the Puzzler on television’s Batman and as Maurice, a vain and pompous Shakespearean actor, who also happens to be a warlock, in a sitcom, Bewitched.
These roles show Evans’ range, as well as his ambition. Rather than retire, he kept working, taking on a variety of parts, including that of an academic orangutan. Still, as he recounted in his memoirs, All This and Evans Too! (1989), his first theatrical love was Shakespeare.
Born in Dorchester, England, Evans sang in a local Anglican church choir, and one year as a school prize for his singing he received a volume of the complete works of Shakespeare. He paid his dues as a young actor in minor roles and then performed at the Old Vic theatre in London as Benedick, Iago, and Richard II, and then went to New York and appeared on Broadway as Falstaff, Macbeth, and Romeo. On both sides of the Atlantic he starred in an unabridged, four-hour version of Hamlet. Although billed as “Hamlet in its Entirety,” some wits called it “Hamlet in its Eternity.”
In 1941, Evans became an American citizen, and shortly after Japan attacked America, he was drafted into the Army. Although Evans assumed that at age forty he was unfit for military service, the Army gave him the rank of captain and assigned him to inspect entertainment opportunities at bases stateside. Baffled by such work, Evans again assumed, thinking the logical job for him would be as a liaison officer stationed in London.
Instead, the Army sent him to Honolulu, Hawaii, to produce theatrical entertainment for troops on leave. When a chaplain with the rank of colonel objected to a contemporary farce, what he called “filth,” Evans had staged, Evans asked if the reverend officer would prefer something by Shakespeare.
“Infinitely preferable,” replied the chaplain.
“So it was with the church’s blessing,” Evans wrote, “that we plunged into a play about the powers of darkness, murder, and violence.” As modern farce gave way to Macbeth, Evans recalled, “If that was what the Corps of Chaplains considered to be good clean fun, let ’em have it, I thought.”
Two years in Hawaii found Evans promoted to major and booking traveling acts such as Bob Hope’s comedy tour. Also boosting morale were concerts by violinist Yehudi Menuhin and a special appearance by Boris Karloff in Arsenic and Old Lace. The curtain had long been down on Evans’ Macbeth, and he mulled over what to do next.
Despite having performed Hamlet some 380 times, Evans decided it seemed just right for his current situation. “In refreshing my memory of the play,” he noted in his memoirs, “I was to discover one facet of the story that had escaped me until then,” namely “the constant reference to military matters.”
What Evans noticed were not only the sentries pacing the battlements in Act I, Scene 1, but also the recurring concern throughout the play that soon Fortinbras might invade. Also, lines like these: In Act I, Scene 2, Claudius calling Denmark “this warlike state;” in Act V, Scene 2, Fortinbras ordering full military honors for the murdered Hamlet.
Evans also noticed the limitations of time. Since soldiers had to be back in their barracks by 10:00 p. m., Evans saw that he needed to abridge Hamlet, but he also knew the soldiers had to take it seriously. He wanted to avoid any stereotypes they might have brought with them of Hamlet as an effete college kid in tights blathering on about suicide and hamming up “Alas, poor Yorick.”
For costumes, Evans decided against medieval or Elizabethan attire. Sentries wore overcoats and caps, and officers wore brass-buttoned uniforms. Members of the royal court wore the sashes and swords, epaulets and medals seen at coronations and other state occasions.
Of Evans’ cutting of lines and whole scenes, the most drastic and provocative was omitting the entire graveyard scene. He believed that Shakespeare wrote it simply to give a part for his troupe’s clown, Will Kemp. As Evans explained in his preface to the 1958 Dell paperback of Hamlet, “The story-line is stronger and the climax more poignant without it.”
“We were seeking to be truthful to the temper of our own age and to restate Shakespeare’s eternal verities in the spirit of these times,” Evans wrote in his memoirs, adding, “Hamlet is perhaps the theatre’s greatest heritage, and it behooves us who are its servants to serve it well.” A West Point graduate turned English professor, Nicholas Utzig, agreed. Writing in 2020 in the Journal of War and Culture Studies, Utzig said that Evans’ version “transformed the introspective Dane into the embodiment of a model, combat-ready soldier.”
This abridged Hamlet ran for seven weeks, and after the war, Evans took it to Broadway and then on tour throughout the United States. Dubbed The G. I. Hamlet, in 1947 Doubleday published an illustrated hardcover edition of it with a preface by Evans. Long out of print, it deserves to be better known, and Evans’ abridged military Hamlet ought to become the standard version of a play most modern audiences would never endure “in its eternity.”