On January 19th, 1956, William Shatner performed on Broadway for the very first time in Tamburlaine the Great. Less than four years out of college (where he took not one acting class) this must have felt like an enormous achievement if not a dream come true for the young Canadian. Directed by the British director Tyrone Guthrie, Tamburlaine the Great looks like an elaborate spectacle of a play and was intentionally designed as a limited engagement of 12 weeks at New York’s Winter Garden Theatre.
Instead, it ran for less than 3 weeks and only 20 total performances.
Written by Christopher Marlowe in about 1587, Tamburlaine the Great (a play in two parts) was to prove both enormously popular for the London stage and extremely influential for all subsequent playwrights, most notably Shakespeare. Though he and Marlowe were the same age, many believe that Tamburlaine was one of the very first London plays that Shakespeare ever saw and this influenced him and his writing immensely. Wikipedia puts it quite succinctly: “The play is a milestone in Elizabethan public drama; it marks a turning away from the clumsy language and loose plotting of the earlier Tudor dramatists, and a new interest in fresh and vivid language, memorable action, and intellectual complexity.”
The plot is fairly simple to boil down: Tamburlaine, who starts the first play as a Scythian nomadic bandit in 14th century Persia, swiftly rises to conquer much of the known world through cunning, savagery, bloodshed and torture. At the height of his powers, he even burns a copy of the Qur’an and challenges God. In the end he is finally killed not by any enemy, but by illness. Still, he urges his sons to carry on for him and to conquer the rest of the world in his name.
Now, there is a bit of confusion surrounding Guthrie’s version of the play. In Shatner’s book and in many online sources there is mention of the fact that Guthrie’s version debuted at Stratford prior to making its way to Broadway. However, I can find no official confirmation that this ever occurred, and often there are dating issues (with some sources stating that it ran at Stratford in 1956, which makes no sense as it debuted in January of that year on Broadway.) There are no pictures of it at Stratford, and Stratford’s own official production history does not list it ANYWHERE as having been performed, either before or after its Broadway run. I have a strong suspicion that the fact that it was a Guthrie production, using the 1955 season’s Stratford actors and coming shortly after the close of that season caused some confusion as to whether it was actually ever staged there. It’s possible that perhaps there were some rehearsals going on there for it, or that it was staged very briefly there near the end of the summer, but I am doubtful.
I mentioned above that Tamburlaine the Great is a two-part play. To ask a Broadway audience to sit through both parts together would have been prohibitive, so Guthrie and Donald Wolfit basically edited out half the play to make it more manageable. Their version first debuted at the Old Vic theater in London in 1951 and was revived intact for Broadway less than 5 years later.
In the play Shatner plays Usumcasane, one of Tamburlaine’s most loyal followers and later the King of Morocco. Even going through the fully intact two-part version of Tamburlaine it’s clear that Usumcasane doesn’t have a ton of lines. He spends most of his time onstage praising Tamburlaine, reinforcing his decisions and proclaiming victory over enemies. With the play being essentially cut in half, it is reasonable to assume that Usumcasane’s lines in this Broadway version were even more scarce. As Shatner writes in Up Till Now:
Anthony Quayle was the lead and Guthrie told me, “When we do this, you will play Usumcasane, the second lead.” As it turned out the second lead consisted mainly of carrying Anthony Quayle around the stage in a sedan chair.
Alas, as mentioned above, Tamburlaine the Great and William Shatner would not be long for the Broadway stage in 1956. As Shatner puts it:
This was one of the greatest seasons in Broadway history. Among the shows playing on Broadway in 1956 were My Fair Lady, The Most Happy Fella, Leonard Bernstein’s Candide, Roasalind Russell in Auntie Mame, Paul Muni in Inherit the Wind, and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Of all those shows, we were the only one that featured beautifully choreographed violent battles, murder, mayhem, and torture. So in retrospect, it was probably not the right play for the theater groups from Long Island.
It does appear that the play got a few very favorable reviews, though I’ve also seen some reviews that were not so flattering in nature. Shatner was probably more right than wrong in his assessment that the timing of such a production just wasn’t the best. It certainly seems like a play that might have been better suited for Stratford or the London stage.
Despite the show’s short run and Shatner’s relatively small roll in it, Tamburlaine garnered him some serious attention. For the first time in his young career he was courted by agents and studios looking to sign him to lucrative contracts, incredible dollars and security compared to the small amount he was making up at the CBC in Toronto. The night before he was to accept a particularly appealing film contract offer from MGM, Shatner talked to another actor who advised him not to sign it, which Shatner said “Somehow that made sense to me.” The next morning he turned down the contract.
Maybe I wasn’t the toast of Broadway, but I certainly was a shot glass of whisky of Broadway. An extraordinary world was opening up for me, I had made it to Broadway, the New York columnists were writing stories about me, agents were calling. I just didn’t want to give up control of my career even before it had really started. The mystical dreams of the actor had conquered the prosaic needs of the commerce student from McGill.
My ambition was to be a serious actor.
To Shatner, being a serious actor meant the stage…not necessarily the silver screen and certainly not television. Plays and live productions were where it was at and television was just a means to an end…though TV of the day often consisted of live filmed plays and teleplays that helped keep the young actor sharp…and employed. The MGM contract might possibly have led to stardom, but Hollywood of the day was littered with actors who never actually became big stars yet were bound by multi-year contracts that restricted their abilities to completely control their own career paths. Locking in now would have been smart financially, but may have been disastrous professionally. On the other hand, it could have led to movie-star Shatner of the 1950’s…we (and he) shall never know.
What we do know is that William Shatner made the choice to stay independent (although I believe he kept an agent…) and return to Toronto and eventually to Stratford. However, before that 1956 Shakespeare summer season would come a CBC production that would ultimately change Shatner’s life profoundly and forever. Tune in next time! Same Bat-time, same Bat-channel!
R.I.P. Adam West, you glorious Bat-bastard…
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It’s time to detail all of the connections between Tamburlaine the Great and other Shatner appearances!
Pretty much the entire company of Tamburlaine appeared with Shatner at Stratford for multiple productions, as well as the Guthrie directed film version of Oedipus Rex in 1957. Rather than list all of those actors here, and name each and every production they appeared with Shatner in, I’m going to cherry-pick some of the more interesting connections.
Lloyd Bochner performed at Stratford for at least all three years Shatner was there. Bochner also appeared in a 1960 TV movie made for the CBC titled Point of Departure. They would work together again when he appeared on a 1965 episode of Shatner’s first TV series For the People, titled “Seized, Confined and Detained…” Ten years later, he would work with Le Shat in “Jesse Who?”, an episode of Shatner’s only live-action “Lost Years” TV series, Barbary Coast. Finally, they would both appear in the sprawling Canadian film, Riel, in 1979.
Tony Van Bridge would also appear in Riel.
Deborah Cass had previously appeared with Shatner in the General Motors Theatre episode “The Coming Out of Ellie Swan.” Almost 30 years later she would appear in the HBO mockumentary The Canadian Conspiracy along with many notable Canadians…the most notable being of course William F. Shatner.
This was the first of two times that the actress Colleen Dewhurst would appear with William Shatner. 22 years later she would work with him again on the film, The Third Walker.
Ted Follows would follow Shatner to a 1956 appearance of On Camera’s “Dreams,” as well as to Festival’s 1960 “Julius Caesar.”
Robert Goodier appeared with Shatner at Stratford for all three seasons The Shat was there, plus the 1957 film version of Oedipus Rex. In addition, he was in an episode of Omnibus with Shatner later in 1956, performing in Moliere’s School for Wives.
Eric House appeared in an episode of Scope, “The Verdict Was Treason”, as well as in the 1960 TV Movie, Point of Departure.
William Hutt had previously appeared in a 1955 episode of General Motors Theatre, “The Coming Out of Ellie Swan.”
James Manser also appeared with Shatner in “The Big Leap.”
Louis Negin had previously appeared in the CBC Theatre episode, “The Man Who Ran Away.”
Douglas Rain would play “Cassius” alongside Shatner’s “Marc Antony” in the “Julius Caesar” episode of Festival.
Neil Vipond would also work with Shatner in the 1958-1960 Broadway play, The World of Suzie Wong.
Tyrone Guthrie, the director of Tamburlaine the Great had previously directed Shatner in 1954’s Oedipus Rex and The Taming of the Shrew, as well as 1955’s King Oedipus and The Merchant of Venice. He would direct Shatner one more time after Tamburlaine the Great, in the film version of Oedipus Rex released in 1957.
You can read through the official Broadway program and look at more pictures of Tamburlaine the Great here. It looks like much of the program is used to discuss and promote the Stratford festival, which makes some amount of sense.