‘Hamlet’ at the Front

Source: ‘A Correspondent’, ‘”Hamlet” at the Front: Impromptu Acting by a Khaki Company’, The Times [London], 24 August 1915, p. 9

Production: William Shakespeare, Hamlet, somewhere in France, July/August 19115

Text: It is difficult to realise that before leaving France I saw Hamlet performed by soldiers of the British Expeditionary Force within a few hours’ distance of the firing line. An officer of high standing who saw the play hit off the situation: “Our men do not live by bully beef alone; they need some food for the mind, and there is nothing better for them than the great thoughts of our great writers.” The play was performed in costume, with scenery painted in camp, and with not a word misplaced or forgotten in the rendering.

Four scenes were chosen – the Ghost scene; the room in the castle where Hamlet decides on revenge; the great soliloquy and the graveyard. The cast was chosen on the spot, neighbouring towns and libraries were scoured for copies of the play, as there was no time to send to England. Luck turned our way, copies were secured, and in a town close by was a branch of a Paris theatrical costumier. Horatio looked more like Henry VIII on the Field of Gold than the friend of Hamlet; while Hamlet’s costume reminded one more of Madame Tussaud’s than of Sir J. Forbes-Robertson; but on active service one cannot be particular.

Scenery at Short Notice

The Colonel commanding the base was informed of what was in progress on the Saturday evening; he suggested scenery. Imagine the burst of joy when we discovered a sergeant-major who had been stage carpenter. We went altogether to the Y.M.C.A., where the play was to be performed; there we found two A.S.C. men working at the stage, and preparing footlights. The thrilling moment in the preparations came when two privates of the London Scottish offered to paint the scenery if we could find paint and brushes.The difficulty of bringing together all the equipment left us until Monday morning before we began, and I still wonder if there is anything in military or civil life to approach the calm confidence of these men who were to play Hamlet that night, and at 10 a.m. of the same day were faced with a few boxes of dry paint, some brushes, and several square yards of canvas stretched on tent poles; but they did it, and just before the play began the last scene was carefully slung up, still wet.

Long before the time of starting, a great queue assembled. The colonels and officers of the battalions represented honoured the production by their presence; also the matrons and nursing staff of the hospitals, and over a thousand men gained admission. The doors and the windows of the hut were opened so that the crowd outside could hear. Yet during this growing excitement we were shutting out the thought that any one of our company of actors and stage-hands might be called on duty any minute, for most of them were standing by waiting to go to the firing line. The curtains were drawn and, instead of the usual respectful silence that greets the opening of a scene in Hamlet, there were yells of full-throated applause.

Hamlet was embarrassed by the cheers of the gods at the splendid fresh colours in the scenery, for many of these men had not seen stage colours since they left home, and for the time being Hamlet’s scenery outshone Hamlet. Before the play was half through we breathed easily and knew the experiment to be justified. The life behind the scenes was distinctly of the emergency type. A careless gunner smudged out of existence a whole tower of Elsinore with his shirtsleeve. Men accustomed for many months to obey suddenly found themselves in command. One was told to stitch up a hole in silk hose with a darning needle; another wanted a belt; “Give him a puttee.” “My face is too white for the footlights”; “Here, stick on some red distemper”; and I believe the red distemper is still “stuck on.”

An Enthusiastic Audience

The company got itself together in an hour; it learnt its parts from two books in the spare time allowed in three days; it painted and erected its scenery in less then 12 hours and acted, in a way that baffled the keenest critics, to an audience whose vociferous approval would make any actor – Shakespearian or variety – green with envy. Hamlet will long be remembered; a 6ft. 2in. Horatio and limping with a convalescent ankle could not, through physical disparity, keep himself within his shadow; the Ghost wore a fine suit of old French armour shrouded in white muslin. The proceedings were brought to a close by Henry V, clothed in all his shining accoutrements before Harfleur. Flashing his great sword he cried out the famous speech before the battle –

Once more unto the breach dear friends, once more
Or close up the wall with your English dead.

and so on, right through breathlessly to

The game’s afoot, follow your spirit
And upon this charge
Cry God for Harry, England, and St. George!

The effect was electrical. Had the bugle sounded the charge every man would have rushed out of that building, as he was. All the latent warrior spirit of our race seemed to leap to a flame. As we went out into the still night our hearts were stronger, our minds brighter, our courage high, and in the quiet stars above brooded the certain promise of victorious and lasting peace.

Comments: The unsigned article naturally does not identify the location. J. Forbes Robertson was the most notable Shakespearean actor of the period.

Links: Copy at The Times (subscription site)

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