1890s

A Female Hamlet

Source: Sydney Race, ‘A Female Hamlet’ in Ann Featherstone (ed.), The Journals of Sydney Race 1892-1900: A Provincial View of Popular Entertainment (London: Society for Theatre Research, 2007), pp. 131-134

Production: William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Grand Theatre, Nottingham, 26 October 1899

Text: October 26th, A Female Hamlet

At 9 o’clock tonight to the Grand Theatre to see Miss Clare Howard in Hamlet. The company appearing there this week is Mr George Daventry’s and with the exception of this one performance they are playing melodrama – The Indian Mutiny and Lost in Paris. In both these plays, I think – certainly in The Indian Mutiny Miss Howard takes a female character which she plays with much vigour to the great delight of ‘Grand’ audiences. Hamlet seems to have been added to her repertoire some time ago, to judge from the photographs I have seen about, but I had never heard of her until she appeared here. The scenery and the dresses look as though they were the company’s own, so they must be playing the tragedy elsewhere.

Miss Howard, who according to the Express, is Mr Daventry’s wife, is tall and has clear cut features with a well shaped nose. In Hamlet she wore a rather tight fitting gown, somewhat resembling a cassock, through which very occasionally we caught a glimpse of a black stockinged leg. Above this gown was a loose robe of the shape of an M.A.’s, and towards the end of the play she wrapped round her a dark heliotrope coloured cloak. At her waist was a dagger. The hair was worn loose over the shoulders.

Miss Howard has not very emotional features, and the only passion she can indicate is anger. She has a loud voice, obviously that of a queen of melodrama, but as it is by no means a feminine one, it is not unsuited to the role.

When I got to the theatre, a nicely spoken, and evidently well-educated, girl was reciting the last speech of the player queen. The close of this scene, Miss Howard too, I thought, in a much too hysterical fashion. From her place by Ophelia, she grovelled across the stage to the King and then yelled her words into his face. This was very unnatural. Miss Howard did the business with the pipe, which Mr Benson, I think, omitted, and at the finish there was a very effective tableau – Hamlet leaning over a table reciting the words:

Tis now the [very] Witching time of night.

and the black velvet curtains at the back parted to reveal the motionless figure of the Ghost. The Ghost at the Grand differed a little from the one at the Royal. Its garments were shaped more like ordinary mortals’ and they hone with the brilliancy of many silver spangles.

The scene with the mother was hardly taken in a right filial spirit – if Hamlet was chiefly mad ‘bending his eye on vacancy.’ Miss Nellie King, a rather stout lady, who was the Queen could not add any dignity to this scene. Unfortunately she would keep reminding me of the Lady queens in the ‘portables’ of my youth.

In Act 4 Scene 2 Miss Howard made plain a point which Mr Benson it seems to me missed. I mean the little passage where Hamlet calls the King his mother.

Hamlet Farewell, dear mother.
King Thy loving father, Hamlet.
Hamlet My mother: father and mother is man and wife; man and wife is one flesh; and so my mother.

The concluding words – ‘For England’ – were very vigorously delivered by our female Hamlet, and brought down the house. The preceding passage, ‘if your messenger find him not there, seek him i’ the other place yourself’ had also been delivered with much unction and was [in a] new light to me.

At the end of Act 4 Scene 3 Miss Howard introduced a new reading. The King sat down and wrote a letter for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to carry asking for Hamlet to be assassinated. Hamlet overhears this read, comes in and writes another letter, on similar parchment, asking for the messengers who carry it to be slain. Then Rosencrantz and Guildenstern appear, Hamlet asks to look at the parchment they carry, and before handing it back substitutes his own for it. For this scene the Express says Miss Howard has found her authority in an old folio. I should like, however, to make some examination of the old texts before passing any judgement on it. At the end of Act 4 the body of Ophelia was brought in on a bier, and after Laertes’ speech the curtain came down on his standing weeping over it. The applause was so great that it had to go up again, and then we saw the bier moving off with the grief stricken brother helped along after it – a very effective ending.

The churchyard scene was taken in on true low comedy vein by the two clowns. The only thing I did not like about the 1st grave digger was his slapping of the skulls with his hands which made the audience laugh immoderately. For the rest, he was rather good, and though his work was of a more common order than Mr Weir’s, yet in a theatre like this it was more effective, and I am half of an opinion that it was also more humorous.

The interment of Ophelia was not so well managed as at the Benson’s performance, for the body was lifted into the grave in our sight. The consequence was that the work not being done neatly, a number of the ‘gods’ took it into their heads to laugh, and the laughter was repeated when Laertes jumped into the grave a few minutes later and half lifted the body up again in wishing Ophelia farewell.

The message of Osric was delivered by the very nicely spoken girl I have mentioned as appearing as the Player Girl. Here, she looked very nice in her boy’s suit, besides acting the part charmingly. On the program I see the name of the Player Queen was given as Miss Marie Ellerton, Osric being down to somebody else entirely, but really, I believe, she was Miss Daventry, Miss Howard’s daughter. I was much pleased with her.

The last scene of all was very finely acted by Miss Howard, the death being especially well done. The fight was much more prolonged than at the Benson’s performance, and the two fought with long, stout swords, not rapiers. This gave an opportunity for sparks to fly, and for our enthusiasm to grow very high, and really, though there was not the same skill shown as by Mr Benson and his companion, the combat looked a dangerous one. After drinking the poisoned cup Miss Howard fell on her knees and made a fine end of it. At the words:

The potent poison doth steal about my soul

she gave a realistic shiver, and at last seemed hardly able to gasp out,

the rest is silence.

The stage had been darkened for this moment and a strong white light was thrown on her face to set off its agony. This was undoubtedly a capital piece of work. At the Benson rendering of the play there was so much confusion on the stage at the finish, that I have no idea how Hamlet died. It seems a point in Miss Howard’s favour that her death scene should have made so strong an impression on, a least, one spectator.

Undoubtedly this Hamlet of Miss Howard’s was a very interesting performance. As I have pointed out it had some strong points, and every now and then there was an introduction of impressive business, as for instance where the actress silently crossed herself at the words, ‘To what base uses we may return, Horatio’ (Act 5 Scene 1). Miss Howard showed herself to be possessed of a surprisingly powerful voice and she carried the whole play through with great vigour. The chief fault in the performance was that Hamlet was never made to appear mad or, perhaps as he really was, to be shamming a madness. On the contrary, he was a remarkably sane person, and one not very polite to his betters, to boot. If Miss Howard could rid herself of all traces of melodrama for this one play, and make Hamlet more of the moody scholar, she would give a capital representation of the character.

Polonius and the 1st gravedigger were taken, I think, by the same actor – Mr John Hignett, who makes a very useful player. Polonius both in looks and manner very much resembled the same individual in the Benson performance.

The King (Mr Magill Martyn), like the Queen, was too much extracted from melodrama to be satisfactory. Laertes (Mr George Daventry) was also of the common order, but acted very vigorously and much to the satisfaction of the ‘house.’ Mr Daventry wears a moustache and speaks with his mouth awry.

Miss Ethel King, the Ophelia, rather pleased me. She is young and the part was evidently a heavy task for her, but she managed it very nicely. The rest of the actors were a more or less feeble lot. For the first time in my experience of the stage I saw an actor (Guildenstern) who did not know What to do with his hands. Possibly, however, he was little more than a super.

There was a very good house in the popular parts to see the performance and the boxes and dress circle all had their occupants. It was quite apparent that the audience was much interested in the play, but it had not the same critical judgement as the house at the Benson performance. Here at the ‘Grand’ the ‘gods’ could not help laughing at the word ‘bloody’, and the noise had nearly grown into a roar before it was hushed down. At our other theatre a disturbance of this kind was not tolerated at its inception.

(PS. The short criticism in the Express of this performance is rubbish.)

Comments: Sydney Race (1875-1960) was the working-class son of a Nottingham cotton mill engineer. He worked as an insurance clerk, later in the Nottinghamshire Education Department. He was an keen contributor to Nottinghamshire newspapers and historical journals, and kept a journal in which records the many kinds of entertainment that he saw in Nottingham. He saw Hamlet at the Grand Theatre, Nottingham, on 26 October 1899. Clare Howard was a leading lady at the Pavilion Theatre, Whitechapel, specialising in melodramas with her husband George Daventry. My thanks to Ann Featherstone, editor of Race’s journals, for permission to reproduce this text.

A Victorian Playgoer

The new Her Majesty’s Theatre in 1897, via Wikipedia

Source: Kate Terry Gielgud (ed. Muriel St Claire Byrne), A Victorian Playgoer (London: Heinemann, 1980), pp. 51-52

Production: Gilbert Parker, The Seats of the Mighty, Her Majesty’s Theatre, London, 28 April 1897

Text: London has a new theatre, and a very fine one, and Mr. Tree and all those who have worked in its production deserve the heartiest congratulations. No pains have been spared to ensure good views of the stage throughout, and to make the front of the house comfortable. The theatre is very wide and somewhat shallow in proportion, with the circles pitched very high. and the effect is extremely good.

Mrs. Tree in the gorgeous dress of a lady of Louis XV’s Court stepped before the curtains and opened proceedings by delivering – very nervously – an ode especially composed by the Poet Laureate. It was very elaborate and patriotic but it really had not much to do with the theatre, and was not a brilliant piece of versification. Then came Miss Clara Butt and a choir to give a staccato rendering of the National Anthem, which took a very long time, and then, these forms and ceremonies being at an end we could settle down to enjoy and criticise the picture that Mr. Tree had thought fit to place first in this fine frame.

Since every one in the theatre-going world will inevitably go and see the new theatre, it cannot be wondered at that Mr. Tree should at first ‘work off’ a play that has not any very great individual attraction, keeping for later pieces of tho more importance. To be candid, Mr. Parker’s play is a bit tedious. The long arm of stage coincidence stretches so abnormally far, the play bears such evident signs of compression, events are piled together – with first rate melodramatic situations – but they are bewilderingly compressed without being concise, there are rough edges and threads picked up from nowhere in particular. It is a novelist’s play, the points are almost too dramatic for the stage except as lending themselves to triumphs of stage management, most impressive and praiseworthy on a previously untried field (excuse enough for the long waits, which, by the way, mattered nothing last night, as everyone wanted to look about the house and the audience.)

The plot is all very involved and hard to disentangle, and it seems a pity to waste so many dramatic moments in telling so invertebrate a story, for there is much that is good. Mr. Lewis Waller has an utterly bad part, a hero with never a chance being otherwise than passively heroic; he was most dignified and sympathetic and it is always a treat to hear him speak.

Making all allowance for the nervousness, the excitement of such a first night, I still think Mr. Tree has made too elaborate a study of Doltaire. He poses too perpetually, works his effects until they lost all spontaneity and, most important, he fails altogether to my mind, in presenting the strange fascination of the man. We cannot understand the secret of his power over then and women alike. His was the most artificial part in a palpably built-up play and I thought he accentuated rather than slurred over the artificiality. Mrs. Tree looked very well and acquitted herself well too, in no easy task. Her part begins with great promise; she has one good scene of cajolery and subsequent fury when Doltaire repels her advances, and then she drops out of the play – one of the ragged ends.

Miss Kate Rorke showed infinite tact and earnestness and made up in many ways for a a certain youthfulness that she lacks now. Her figure seemed the more matronly in juxtaposition with Mrs. Tree’s slight and graceful one, but the contrasts of art and simplicity, diplomacy and love. were at the same time heightened thereby.

It was a memorable evening altogether and one I should have been very sorry to miss; and if as an actor Mr. Tree hardly came up to his usual standard, as manager he excelled himself.

Comments: Kate Terry Gielgud (1868–1958) was the daughter of actress Kate Terry, niece of Ellen Terry, and the mother of the actor John Gielgud. Between 1892 and 1903 she wrote accounts of her visits to the London theatre as letters to an invalid friend who was unable to visit the theatre. The Her Majesty’s Theatre was built on the site of three earlier theatres. It was owned and managed by Herbert Beerbohm Tree, who also made the theatre his home. The opening play was an adaptation by Gilbert Parker of his popular novel The Seats of the Mighty, which Tree had previously presented in America in late 1896. Its subject is the British capture of Quebec under James Wolfe. The poet laureate was Alfred Austin.

‘Ghosts’ at the Royalty

Source: Anon., ‘Ghosts’ at the Royalty, The Daily Chronicle, 14 March 1891

Production: Henrik Ibsen, Gengangere [Ghosts], Royalty Theatre, London, 13 March 1891

Text: Mr. J.T. Grein, the “founder and literary manager,” and apparently general superintendent of “The Independent Theatre of London,” has, perhaps unconsciously, done the Lord Chamberlain’s department an exceedingly good turn. He last night at the Royalty demonstrated that there must be some value in an office that can save the general public — that is to say the public paying money at the doors of a theatre, and not always sure of the performance that is to be witnessed — from a domestic drama so revoltingly suggestive and so blasphemous as Ibsen’s “Ghosts.” By resorting to an invitation representation of this loathsome production, the disciples of the Norwegian playwright have at last carried out the idea they are believed to have long entertained, and the time has now arrived when it would be injurious to the interests of the English stage to do otherwise than speak plainly. The large audience, which included more females than might have been expected, considering the nature of a play of which very few persons knowing anything of the modern drama can be ignorant, consisted solely of members or guests of the “Independent Theatre” association, but this circumstance did not prevent one healthy-minded individual at the fall of the curtain on a deplorable picture of youthful insanity, constituting the inheritance of a father’s unbridled passion (they call it in “Ghosts” “The joy of life”), exclaiming, “It’s too horrible!” Mr. Grein, however, was loudly summoned by the more appreciative majority, and stating that he should like to explain his views respecting the “Independent Theatre,” proceeded to say that he desired to foster a more literary species of drama than that now prevailing on the English stage, that he intended to bring forward masterpieces for the benefit of our younger dramatists, and that generally he wished to stimulate more artistic productions. The hopes of the advanced school of dramatic authors — by which we mean those who in one way or another may be anxious to emulate Ibsen — must have been considerably raised by Mr. Grein’s further declaration that he should “stand firm” in his endeavour to elevate the literary standard of stage work. With a plea for help in his undertaking, and thanking the assemblage for their “gracious reception” of what he admitted was a terrible although artistic play, Mr. Grein retired. Some people appeared to consider this little march somewhat of a mistake, but there were others who were grateful to learn the speaker to which they are henceforward to look for the regeneration of the drama in this country.

We have alluded to “Ghosts” as revoltingly suggestive and blasphemous. Justification of the former term would involve a more detailed explanation of the relations of three of the characters towards each other than we care to enter upon; of the second charge it is sufficient perhaps to say that a vile elderly being, as distorted in person as he is in mind, whose darling design it is to employ a young girl — supposed by some to be his daughter, though he knows to the contrary — as a decoy at a “sailors’ tavern,” where there shall be “singing and dancing, and so forth,” is allowed to say to an extremely simple-minded clergyman, whom he is partly befooling and partly threatening, that he knows “a man that’s taken others’ sins upon himself before now,” emphasising the statement by raising his right hand to heaven. “Ghosts,” however, as a play contains greater faults even than those of lack of decency or of respect for religious convictions. The characters are either contradictory in themselves, uninteresting, or abhorrent. The only really respectable individual in the piece, Pastor Manders, is nerveless just when courage is required, is an easy prey to schemers, and is rather too addicted to figuratively bringing the pulpit into private houses. To Mrs. Alving — the long-patient wife of a dissolute husband — we should by no means like to pin our faith. She has loved the pastor, and in the course of conversation with him makes one or two remarks that are certainly not in good taste respecting what might have been in the past had the clergyman succumbed to temptation when she left her drunken spouse and sought Manders’s roof. Nor can we forgive her — although her life is bound up in that of her son — for not setting her face to the very end against the association of Oswald, “worm-eaten from his birth,” with Regina. As the just and outspoken critic last night declared, “It’s too horrible!” This Regina, it should be added, is quite as artful as Rebecca West in “Rosmersholm,” though she is less constant and more self-seeking. She attempts to captivate the son of the kindly woman who has dragged her from a life of squalor and degradation, but when she learns that Oswald is ill, and that she cannot wed him, coolly throws him over, and says, with a shrug of the shoulders, “A poor girl must make the best of her young days, or she’ll be left out in the cold before she knows where she is.” This same minx, when she learns that her mother was betrayed by her employer, says, “So mother was that kind of woman after all.” Of the reputed father of this girl and of the melancholy insane youth who persistently cries for “the sun” as the curtain descends, after he has striven to persuade his mother to give him a fatal dose of morphia to free him from the dread by which he is possessed, we have sufficiently spoken. The one is detestable in his craft and hypocrisy, the other a pitiful, mean, and abject creature in the exposition of the doctrine of heredity.

If anything could have made the play last night tolerable to those not stricken with the Ibsen fever it would have been the excellent acting it obtained. Few professional actresses could have given a more realistic or forcible impersonation of the distressed Mrs. Alving than Mrs. Theodore Wright; whilst the Oswald of Mr. Frank Lindo and the club-footed Jacob Engstrand of Mr. Sydney Howard were also embodiments that commanded approval for unswerving faithfulness to the cause in hand. Mr. Leonard Outram too did his best to avoid prosiness as the lecturing and eventually frightened Pastor Manders, and Miss Edith Kenward’s representation of Regina had several meritorious points. The interpretation, indeed, far exceeded in harmoniously artistic quality the worth of the play from the theatrical aspect. There were times last night when laughter was evoked by the commonplace utterances of some of the characters, but on the whole the audience behaved decorously. As there is such a tendency in the Ibsen “social dramas” to throw a strong light upon “the seamy side of life,” it is as well that occasionally — either purposely or by accident — excuse should be afforded for merriment. Finally, the experience of last night demonstrated that the official ban placed upon “Ghosts” as regards public performance was both wise and warranted.

Comments: Henrik Ibsen‘s Gengangere, given the title Ghosts by its English translator William Archer, was written in 1881 and first staged in Chicago in 1882 by a Danish touring company, after it had been rejected by Scandanavian theatre companies, alarmed by its themes of free love, syphilis, incest and its attacks on religion. It enjoyed some performances in continental Europe through the 1880s, but the first British production (using Archer’s translation) was not until 13 March 1891, in a private performance by the subscription-based Independent Theatre Society (founded by critic Jacob Grien). It was held at the small Royalty Theatre in Soho, in defiance of the Lord Chamberlain’s ban on the play. The outrage caused by the single performance is encapsulated in the above review.

Links: Copy at All About Henrik Ibsen (National Library of Norway)

Childhood Years

Postcard of the original Kabuki-za before it was rebuilt in 1911, via Wikipedia

Postcard of the original Kabuki-za before it was rebuilt in 1911, via Wikipedia

Source: Junichiro Tanizaki (trans. Paul McCarthy), Childhood Years: A Memoir (London: Collins, 1990, orig. pub. 1957), pp. 147-148

Text: My guess is that, since our family finances had worsened greatly over the previous two years, going frequently to the Kabuki was a luxury we could no longer afford. According to the Yearbook the admission fees at the Kabukiza in those days were four yen fifty sen for a first-class box, three yen fifty for a good raised box in the orchestra, two yen fifty for an ordinary box in the orchestra, thirty-five sen per person for seats in a second-class box, and twenty sen per person for seats in the boxes on the third tier. And though Mother still seemed to go from time to time at my uncle’s invitation, I was now included in these parties less and less often; presumably, as I got older and bigger, it became a nuisance to try to find space for me in one of the good raised boxes that we always rented.

I can still remember how it felt to go with Mother by rickshaw from Minami Kayaba-cho toward Tsukiji, where the Kabukiza was, my heart beating fast with excitement as we raced along. Mother still referred to Shintomi-cho, which in the 1870s had housed a licensed quarter called the ‘New Shimabara,’ by that name; and so, crossing Sakurabashi bridge, we passed through ‘Shimabara,’ where the Shintomi Theater now stood, turned south along the bank of the river just in front of Tsukiji bridge, and, approaching Kameibashi bridge, caught our first glimpse of the large, cylindrical section crowning the roof of the Kabukiza. The theater had been built in 1889, so it was only four or five years old at the time. Nearby were some eleven teahouses affiliated with the theater, and these displayed bright flowered hangings on their second floors whenever the Kabukiza was open. We always left our rickshaw at an establishment called Kikuoka and then, with hardly a moment to rest in the guest room, we were hustled off by the maids. Slipping into the ‘lucky’ rush sandals supplied by the teahouse, we crossed a wooden-floored corridor and entered the theater. I remember how, after we had slipped off our sandals and stepped up into the theater corridor, the smoothly polished wooden floors felt strangely cool even through the thick soles of my tabi socks. Generally one felt a kind of chill in the air as one came in, with a breath of wind as cool as mint entering from the sleeves and from below one’s holiday kimono and prickling the underarms and nape of the neck. The slight sensation of chilliness was like the fresh, bright days of plum-blossom viewing in very early spring, making one shiver pleasantly.

‘The curtain’s going up!’ Mother would call, and I would hurry so as not to be late, running down the cool corridors.

I remember that often as we returned from the play it was raining. Perhaps this made our visit to the theater all the more memorable for me. The rickshaw in which we rode was fitted out with an oilcloth awning – the same material as those table covers used in Chinese restaurants. The odors of the oilcloth and the oil in my mother’s hair blended with the sweet fragrance of her kimono, filling the darkened cab. As I took in these smells and listened to the sound of the rain beating upon the awning, the images of the various actors we had seen on stage that day, the sounds of their voices, and the stage music came alive again for me there in that dark, enclosed world. On nights when I had watched scenes of a woman about the same age as my mother having to part with a beloved child, or stabbed by a furious husband, or driven to kill herself for the sake of fidelity or chastity, I asked myself what Mother would do if she found herself in such straits. Would she too abandon me or let me be killed for some principle? Thinking such thoughts, I passed along the streets that led toward home, swaying with the motion of the rickshaw.

Comments: Jun’ichirō Tanizaki (1886-1965) was a major Japanese novelist, author of Tade kuu mushi (Some Prefer Nettles), Yoshinokuzu (Arrowroot), Sasameyuki (The Makioka Sisters) and translations of The Tale of Genji. His childhood memoirs includes many references to theatrical entertainments in Tokyo, in particular visits to the Kabuki-za.

Adventures and Letters of Richard Harding Davis

Source: Charles Belmont Davis (ed.), Adventures and Letters of Richard Harding Davis (New York: Scribner’s, 1917), pp. 223-226

Production: Nellie Farren Testimonial Benefit Fund event, Drury Lane, London, 17 March 1898

Text: London, March 20, 1898

Dear Mother,

The Nellie Farren benefit was the finest thing I have seen this year past. It was more remarkable than the Coronation, or the Jubilee. It began at twelve o’clock on Thursday, but at ten o’clock Wednesday night, the crowd began to gather around Drury Lane, and spent the night on the sidewalk playing cards and reading and sleeping. Ten hours later they were admitted, or a few of them were, as many as the galleries would hold. Arthur Collins, the manager of the Drury Lane and the man who organized the benefit, could not get a stall for his mother the day before the benefit. They were then not to be had, the last having sold for twelve guineas. I got two the morning of the benefit for three pounds each, and now people believe that I did get into the Coronation! The people who had stalls got there at ten o’clock, and the streets were blocked for “blocks” up to Covent Garden with hansoms and royal carriages and holders of tickets at fifty dollars apiece. It lasted six hours and brought in thirty thousand dollars. Kate Vaughan came back and danced after an absence from the stage of twelve years. Irving recited The Dream of Eugene Aram, Terry played Ophelia, Chevalier sang Mrs. Hawkins, Dan Leno gave Hamlet, Marie Tempest sang The Jewel of Asia and Hayden Coffin sang Tommy Atkins, the audience of three thousand people joining in the chorus, and for an encore singing “Oh, Nellie, Nellie Farren, may your love be ever faithful, may your pals be ever true, so God bless you Nellie Farren, here’s the best of luck to you.” In Trial by Jury, Gilbert played an associate judge; the barristers were all playwrights, the jury the principal comedians, the chorus girls were real chorus girls from the Gaiety mixed in with leading ladies like Miss Jeffries and Miss Hanbury, who could not keep in step. But the best part of it was the pantomime. Ellaline came up a trap with a diamond dress and her hair down her back and electric lights all over her, and said, “I am the Fairy Queen,” and waved her wand, at which the “First Boy” in the pantomime said, “Go long, now, do, we know your tricks, you’re Ellaline Terriss”; and the clown said, “You’re wrong, she’s not, she’s Mrs. Seymour Hicks.” Then Letty Lind came on as Columbine in black tulle, and Arthur Roberts as the policeman, and Eddy Payne as the clown and Storey as Pantaloon.

The rest of it brought on everybody. Sam Sothern played a “swell” and stole a fish. Louis Freear, a housemaid, and all the leading men appeared as policemen. No one had more than a line to speak which just gave the audience time to recognize him or her. The composers and orchestra leaders came on as a German band, each playing an instrument, and they got half through the Washington Post before the policemen beat them off. Then Marie Lloyd and all the Music Hall stars appeared as street girls and danced to the music of a hand-organ. Hayden Coffin, Plunkett
Greene and Ben Davies sang as street musicians and the clown beat them with stuffed bricks. After that there was a revue of all the burlesques and comic operas, then the curtain was raised from the middle of the stage, and Nellie Farren was discovered seated at a table on a high stage with all the “legitimates” in frock-coats and walking dresses rising on benches around her.

The set was a beautiful wood scene well lighted. Wyndham stood on one side of her, and he said the yell that went up when the curtain rose was worse than the rebel yell he had heard in battles. In front of her, below the stage, were all the people who had taken part in the revue, forming a most interesting picture. There was no one in the group who had not been known for a year by posters or photographs: Letty Lind as the Geisha, Arthur Roberts as Dandy Dan. The French Girl and all the officers from The Geisha, the ballet girls from the pantomime, the bare-back-riders from The Circus Girl; the Empire costumes and the monks from La Poupee, and all the Chinese and Japanese costumes from The Geisha. Everybody on the stage cried and all the old rounders in the boxes cried.

It was really a wonderfully dramatic spectacle to see the clown and officers and Geisha girls weeping down their grease paint. Nellie Farren’s great song was one about a street Arab with the words: “Let me hold your nag, sir, carry your little bag, sir, anything you please to give – thank’ee, sir!” She used to close her hand, then open it and look at the palm, then touch her cap with a very wonderful smile, and laugh when she said, “Thank’ee, sir!” This song was reproduced for weeks before the benefit, and played all over London, and when the curtain rose on her, the orchestra struck into it and the people shouted as though it was the national anthem. Wyndham made a very good address and so did Terry, then Wyndham said he would try to get her to speak. She has lost the use of her hands and legs and can only walk with crutches, so he put his arm around her and her son lifted her from the other side and then brought her to her feet, both crying like children. You could hear the people sobbing, it was so still. She said, “Ladies and Gentleman,” looking at the stalls and boxes, then she turned her head to the people on the stage below her and said, “Brothers and Sisters,” then she stood looking for a long time at the gallery gods who had been waiting there twenty hours. You could hear a long “Ah” from the gallery when she looked up there, and then a “hush” from all over it and there was absolute silence. Then she smiled and raised her finger to her bonnet and said, “Thank’ee, sir,” and sank back in her chair. It was the most dramatic thing I ever saw on a stage. The orchestra struck up “Auld Lang Syne” and they gave three cheers on the stage and in the house. The papers got out special editions, and said it was the greatest theatrical event there had ever been in London.

Comments: Richard Harding Davis (1864-1916) was a celebrated American journalist and novelist, known for his war reporting and sharp eye for a sensational subject. Ellen ‘Nellie’ Farren (1848-1904) was a British actor and singer, renowned for her principal boy performances in Gaiety Theatre productions, which attracted a huge, chiefly male, following. She was forced to retire through ill health in 1892. On 17 March 1898 a performance in aid of the Nellie Farren Testimonial Benefit Fund at Drury Lane drew an unprecedented cast of late Victorian stage greats, and raised an estimated £7,000. The show included a production of Gilbert and Sullivan‘s one act comic opera Trial by Jury, with Gilbert himself playing the Associate. Other accounts of the event state that Dan Leno appeared in a scene from the Drury Lane pantomime with Herbert Campbell, and not a scene from Hamlet.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

The Theatrical ‘World’ of 1895

(L-R) Allan Aynesworth, Evelyn Millard, Irene Vanbrugh and George Alexander, via Wikimedia Commons

(L-R) Allan Aynesworth, Evelyn Millard, Irene Vanbrugh and George Alexander, via Wikimedia Commons

Source: William Archer, The Theatrical ‘World’ of 1895 (London: W. Scott, 1896), pp. 456-60

Production: Oscar Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest, St James’s Theatre, London, 20 February 1895

Text: The dramatic critic is not only a philosopher, moralist, assthetician, and stylist, but also a labourer working for his hire. In this last capacity he cares nothing for the classifications of Aristotle, Polonius, or any other theorist, but instinctively makes a fourfold division of the works which come within his ken. These are his categories: (1) Plays which are good to see. (2) Plays which are good to write about. (3) Plays which are both. (4) Plays which are neither. Class 4 is naturally the largest; Class 3 the smallest; and Classes 1 and 2 balance each other pretty evenly. Mr. Oscar Wilde’s new comedy, The Importance of Being Earnest, belongs indubitably to the first class. It is delightful to see, it sends wave after wave of laughter curling and foaming round the theatre; but as a text for criticism it is barren and delusive. It is like a mirage-oasis in the desert, grateful and comforting to the weary eye — but when you come close up to it, behold! it is intangible, it eludes your grasp. What can a poor critic do with a play which raises no principle, whether of art or morals, creates its own canons and conventions, and is nothing but an absolutely wilful expression of an irrepressibly witty personality? Mr. Pater, I think (or is it some one else?), has an essay on the tendency of all art to verge towards, and merge in, the absolute art – music. He might have found an example in The Importance of Being Earnest, which imitates nothing, represents nothing, means nothing, is nothing, except a sort of rondo capriccioso, in which the artist’s fingers run with crisp irresponsibility up and down the keyboard of life. Why attempt to analyse and class such a play? Its theme, in other hands, would have made a capital farce; but “farce” is far too gross and commonplace a word to apply to such an iridescent filament of fantasy. Incidents of the same nature as Algy Moncrieffe’s [sic] “Bunburying” and John Worthing’s invention and subsequent suppression of his scapegrace brother Ernest have done duty in many a French vaudeville and English adaptation; but Mr. Wilde’s humour transmutes them into something entirely new and individual. Amid so much that is negative, however, criticism may find one positive remark to make. Behind all Mr. Wilde’s whim and even perversity, there lurks a very genuine science, or perhaps I should rather say instinct, of the theatre. In all his plays, and certainly not least in this one, the story is excellently told and illustrated with abundance of scenic detail. Monsieur Sarcey himself (if Mr. Wilde will forgive my saying so) would “chortle in his joy” over John Worthing’s entrance in deep mourning (even down to his cane) to announce the death of his brother Ernest, when we know that Ernest in the flesh — a false but undeniable Ernest — is at that moment in the house making love to Cecily. The audience does not instantly awaken to the meaning of his inky suit, but even as he marches solemnly down the stage, and before a word is spoken, you can feel the idea kindling from row to row, until a “sudden glory” of laughter fills the theatre. It is only the born playwright who can imagine and work up to such an effect. Not that the play is a masterpiece of construction. It seemed to me that the author’s invention languished a little after the middle of the second act, and that towards the close of that act there were even one or two brief patches of something almost like tediousness. But I have often noticed that the more successful the play, the more a first-night audience is apt to be troubled by inequalities of workmanship, of which subsequent audiences are barely conscious. The most happily-inspired scenes, coming to us with the gloss of novelty upon them, give us such keen pleasure, that passages which are only reasonably amusing are apt to seem, by contrast, positively dull. Later audiences, missing the shock of surprise which gave to the master-scenes their keenest zest, are also spared our sense of disappointment in the flatter passages, and enjoy the play more evenly all through. I myself, on seeing a play a second time, have often been greatly entertained by scenes which had gone near to boring me on the first night. When I see Mr. Wilde’s play again, I shall no doubt relish the last half of the second act more than I did on Thursday evening; and even then I differed from some of my colleagues who found the third act tedious. Mr. Wilde is least fortunate where he drops into Mr. Gilbert’s Palace-of-Truth mannerism, as he is apt to do in the characters of Gwendolen and Cecily. Strange what a fascination this trick seems to possess for the comic playwright! Mr. Pinero, Mr. Shaw, and now Mr. Wilde, have all dabbled in it, never to their advantage. In the hands of its inventor it produces pretty effects enough;

But Gilbert’s magic may not copied be;
Within that circle none should walk but he.

The acting is as hard to write about as the play. It is all good; but there is no opportunity for any striking excellence. The performers who are most happily suited are clearly Mr. Allan Aynesworth and Miss Rose Leclercq, both of whom are delightful. Mr. Alexander gives his ambition a rest, and fills his somewhat empty part with spirit and elegance. Miss Irene Vanbrugh makes a charmingly sophisticated maiden of Mayfair, and Miss Evelyn Millard, if not absolutely in her element as the unsophisticated Cecily, is at least graceful and pleasing. Mrs. Canninge and Mr. H.H. Vincent complete a very efficient cast.

Comments: William Archer (1856-1924) was a Scottish theatre critic and translator of Ibsen. His reviews for the World were collected in annual volumes as The Theatrical ‘World’ of… The first performance of Oscar Wilde‘s The Importance of Being Earnest at the St. James’s Theatre, London was on 14 February 1895. The cast included Allan Aynesworth (Algernon Moncrieff), George Alexander (John Worthing), Rose Leclercq (Lady Bracknell), Irene Vanbrugh (Gwendolen Fairfax), Evelyn Millard (Cecily Cardew), Mrs. George Canninge (Miss Prism) and H.H. Vincent (Canon Chasuble).

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

A Wanderer in London

Dan Leno, from his autobiography Dan Leno, Hys Booke (1899)

Dan Leno, from his autobiography Dan Leno, Hys Booke (1899)

Source: E.V. Lucas, A Wanderer in London (New York: The Macmillan company, 1918), pp. 62-64

Text: The ordinary low comedian of the Halls too often has only the machinery of humour and none of its spirit. It is when one thinks of so many of them that the greatness and goodness of poor Dan Leno, for so long the best thing that the Halls could give us, becomes more than ever to be desired and regretted. In Dan Leno England lost a man of genius whose untimely and melancholy end was yet another reminder that great wits are sure to madness near allied. Not that he was precisely a great wit: rather a great droll; but great within his limits he certainly was, and probably no one has ever caused more laughter or cleaner laughter.

That was, perhaps, Dan Leno’s greatest triumph, that the grimy sordid material of the Music Hall low comedian, which, with so many singers, remains grimy and sordid, and perhaps even becomes more grimy and more sordid, in his refining hands became radiant, joyous, a legitimate source of mirth. In its nakedness it was still drunkenness, quarrelsomeness, petty poverty; still hunger, even crime; but such was the native cleanness of this little, eager, sympathetic observer and reader of life, such was his gift of showing the comic, the unexpected side, that it emerged the most delicious, the gayest joke. He might be said to have been a crucible that transmuted mud to gold.

It was the strangest contrast — the quaint, old-fashioned, half-pathetic figure, dressed in his outlandish garbs, waving his battered umbrella, smashing his impossible hat, revealing the most squalid secrets of the slums; and the resultant effect of light and happiness, laughter irresistible, and yet never for a moment cruel, never at anything, but always with it. The man was immaculate.

In this childlike simplicity of emotion which he manifested we can probably see the secret of his complete failure in New York. In that sophisticated city his genial elemental raptures seemed trivial. The Americans looked for cynicism, or at least a complete destructive philosophy — such as their own funny men have at their finger-tips — and he gave them humour not too far removed from tears. He gave them fun, that rarest of qualities, rarer far than wit or humour; and, in their own idiom, they had “no use” for it.

In the deserts of pantomime he was comparatively lost: his true place was the stage of a small Music Hall, where he could get on terms with his audience in a moment. Part of his amazing success was his gift of taking you into his confidence. The soul of sympathy himself, he made you sympathetic too. He addressed a Hall as though it were one intimate friend. He told you his farcical troubles as earnestly as an unquiet soul tells its spiritual ones. You had to share them. His perplexities became yours — he gathered you in with his intimate and impressive “Mark you”; and you resigned yourself to be played upon as he would. The radiant security of his look told you that he trusted you, that you could not fail him. You shared his ecstasies too; and they were ecstasies!

No matter what Dan did to his face, its air of wistfulness always conquered the pigments. It was the face of a grown-up child rather than a man, with many traces upon it of early struggles. For he began in the poorest way, accompanying his parents as a stroller from town to town, and knowing every vicissitude. This face, with its expression of profound earnestness, pointed his jokes irresistibly. I recollect one song in the patter of which (and latterly his songs were mostly patter) he mentioned a firework explosion at home that carried both his parents through the roof. “I shall always remember it,” he said gravely, while his face lit with triumph and satisfaction, “because it was the only time that father and mother ever went out together.” That is quite a good specimen of his manner, with its hint of pathos underlying the gigantic and adorable absurdity.

Irish (of course) by extraction, his real name was George Galvin: he took Leno from his stepfather, and Dan from an inspired misprint. His first triumphs were as a clog-dancer, and he danced superbly to the end, long after his mind was partially gone. But he will be remembered as the sweetest-souled comedian that ever swayed an audience with grotesque nonsense based on natural facts.

Comments: Edward Verrall Lucas (1868-1938) was a British essayist who wrote several books on London and held an opinion on many things. Dan Leno, born George Wild Galvin (1860-1904), was one of the great music hall and pantomime performers of the late Victorian era. He became particularly well-known for his appearances in the annual Drury Lane Christmas pantomime. Leno’s performances in New York, for which he received mixed notices, were over a four week engagement at the Olympia Music Hall on Broadway in the Spring of 1897.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

Sarah Bernhardt as Hamlet

Postcard of Sarah Bernhardt as Hamlet, via Wikimedia Commons

Postcard of Sarah Bernhardt as Hamlet, via Wikimedia Commons

Source: Our Paris Correspondent, ‘Sarah Bernhardt as Hamlet’, The Era, 27 May 1899, p. 13

Production: William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Théâtre Sarah-Bernhardt, Paris, May 1899

Text: After triumphing brilliantly a couple of years ago as Alfred De Musset‘s youthful, effeminate Lorenzaccio – a Florentine Hamlet – Madame Bernhardt aspired to impersonate Shakespeare’s towering hero, and through this venturesome ordeal, on which the courageous artiste set her heart, she has passed with truly remarkable success. Not that the performance leaves no room for criticism – quite the reverse – but it is attractive, curiously fascinating in its singularity and will doubtless create much interest at your side. Here the new Hamlet has been received with enthusiasm, the actress’s thick and thin admirers going into the wildest ecstasies the first night, while succeeding audiences have cordially confirmed this favourable verdict. The new prose version of the play is to all intents and purposes a literal translation, written in sound style, and rather too accurate, perhaps, the close adhesion to the English text causing at times a certain amount of obscurity. But MM. Morand and Schwob’s reading, if somewhat heavy, must be pronounced far and away more satisfactory than that of Dumas and Maurice, which is in verse, or than that of MM. Cressonois and Samson, also in verse, which we saw at the Porte-St.-Martin some thirteen years since, when, by-the-way, Madame Sarah Bernhardt played Ophelia to the Hamlet of M. Philippe Garnier, a part that did not suit her talent. Excessive length is a drawback to the new play. No fewer than fifteen scenes were presented on Saturday, witha pretty long wait between each, shifting being still in its infancy on our stage, so that half-past one had struck before the curtain fell. Pruning and splicing have since been adopted, three scenes have been cut out, but still, starting at eight, the close is not reached until a quarter past twelve. And during all that time the spectators have eyes and ears (or nobody but Madame Bernhardt, though Ophelia’s mad scene, with Mdlle. Mellot’s pretty singing, seems to please them. So poor is the rest of the cast that the celebrated actress forms the sole attraction, and it must be said she proves equal to the occasion.

As a general rule, Madame Bernhardt throws herself into a rôle for ten minutes in each act; during the remainder of the time she merely dallies with it. In the present instance her energy never flags, and apart from occasional want of action, a manifest reluctance to express passion otherwise than by voice, remaining stock still when she should move about – as in the comparison of the portraits, which are painted (very badly) on the wall, not in lockets – the actress exerts herself with an intensity so untiring that it is marvellous how she can bear the strain of such arduous efforts. Her interpretation shows, as I have said, attractive singularity. Far from being “fat and short of breath,” the new Hamlet is a vivacious, excitable, almost fidgetty stripling, whose febrile agitation bears no resemblance to our ideal of the musing, melancholy Dane. I heard people say that this rendering of the part made it more comprehensible than any they had hitherto seen, and fully coincide in their view. The hesitation, the weakness, and the inability of such a slender youth to cope with the difficulties of the terrible task he has set himself are too obvious to need any explanation or reflection. They “jump to the eyes,” as the French say, simplifying exceedingly the signification of the complex rôle. But is this nervous, impetuous Hamlet Shakespeare’s? I think not. At Madame Bernhardt’s hands he loses his earnestness, the dreamy, tristful features of his character as good as disappear. Nay, he becomes so waggish, that even in the dialogue preceding the play some his gamierie prompts him to pluck the cap off the head of the candle lighter! Despite, however, blemishes of the sort that render Madame Bernhardt’s delineation untruthful, it is undoubtedly attractive. In the scenes with the Ghost she is admirably effective, and though the soliloquies – more especially the most famous of them – are delivered in the monotonous, clanking tones which the actress has adopted, her elocution is telling throughout, her attitudes and gestures are graceful. The performance is more emotional than impressive; feminine in its feverish restlessness and excessive juvenility.

Some of the “business” deserves notice. In the Play scene the King and Queen take their places on a sort of high dais, to which steps lead up on either side, the front resembling that of a pulpit, forming an inverted V with the point cut off. On the floor below Hamlet reclines on cushions by Ophelia’s side, and raising himself to watch Claudius, screens his face with the girl’s long flaxen tresses instead of with the traditional fan. In the end his excitement leads him to climb the barrier, and, when the conscience stricken monarch rises, Hamlet, seizing a torch from the footlights, thrusts it into the face of his father’s murderer, who rushes off screaming with terror. This arrangement of the scene struck me as fantastic, for, by having to peer over the balustrade, Hamlet is obliged to betray his purpose before it is attained, but Claudius does not seem to notice him, being intent on the play beyond. In the Churchyard scene, neither Laertes nor Hamlet leap into the grave, and at its close the latter falls on the heap of newly dug earth. Laertes and the Prince are each armed with a rapier and dagger in the concluding scene, but do not employ the latter weapon. Hamlet, when pinked in the hand, takes off his glove, and, perceiving Laertes start and shudder on seeing the blood flowing from the wound, divines the treachery. Setting upon his adversary in a furious bout, he disarms him, and as Laertes hastens to pick up his sword, prevents him by placing himself before it, offering him his own rapier with a glance and gesture too significant to be denied, taking the poison weapon himself. This modification to the customary exchange “while scuffling” seems to me an improvement.

Little else need, I think, he said of the performance. Madame Bernhardt’s company do not shine in it, and with the exception of Mdlle. Mellot, whose pleasing singing has been already noticed, but otherwise an insignificant Ophelia, there is not a name to mention, all being below mediocrity, provincial and stagy to a degree. The scenery is very handsome, the scenic arrangements faultless, and the costumes are in perfect taste, except that of the King, which is hideous; he looks like an old woman. Madame Bernhardt has fair hair falling low on the neck, and wears a short black satin tunic bordered with sable, long black hose, and a long, narrow silken black cloak which trails slightly. A soupçon of white ruffles on the breast is the only relief to this sombre garb, which makes the gifted actress look more slender than ever. Some impressive incidental music has been contributed by M. Gabriel Pierné, and Ophelia’s song is pretty.

Madame Bernhardt, I should not omit to mention, is not the first French actress who has played the part of the Danish Prince, Madame Judith having obtained considerable success in the rôle some thirty years since, and in her case Shakespeare’s hero was by no means a “Miss Hamlet.”

Comments: Sarah Bernhardt (1844-1923) first played Hamlet on 20 May 1899 at the Théâtre Sarah-Bernhardt in Paris, in a prose translation by Eugène Morand and Marcel Schwob which ran for around four hours. The production moved to the Adelphi Theatre in London on 12 June, with a single performance at the Memorial Theatre in Stratford on 29 June. The duel scene from the play was filmed, with accompanying sound effects, for the Phono-Cinéma-Théâtre, which was an attraction at the Paris Exposition of 1900. Mme Judith played Hamlet in 1867. The Era was a British theatrical trade journal, hence the reference to “at your side”.

Links: Copy at the British Newspaper Archive (subscription site)

Lotos-time in Japan

Source: Henry T. Finck, Lotos-time in Japan (New York: C. Scribner’s sons, 1895), pp. 91-99

Production: Unnamed kabuki drama, Shintomi-za theatre, Tokyo, 1890s

Text: During the hot lotos months the theatres of Japan, as of most countries, are closed. On July 7 and 8, however, there happened to be, for the benefit of sufferers from the failure of the rice crops, a special charity performance by the Danjiuro Association, at the Shintomi Theatre, to which foreigners were able to purchase tickets at two dollars each, and which was on no account to be missed, for Danjiuro is the greatest of Japanese actors. It was expected that a great many foreigners would be present, and for their benefit the principal play to be given had been abbreviated so that it would last only seven hours. For the same reason the performance was begun at three p.m. instead of at six o’clock in the morning, which is the orthodox Japanese hour for beginning a play that usually lasts till six in the evening, — sometimes like our newspaper serials, “to be continued” next day.

It was raining when we rode up to the theatre, which we found to be somewhat larger than ordinary Japanese buildings, but without any pretensions to architectural beauty, which would be too expensive a luxury in a city where destructive fires are as frequent as in Tokyo. Being already provided with tickets, we were able to dodge the custom indulged in by well-to-do Japanese, of securing their seats in an adjoining tea house, instead of at the box office. These tea houses also provide lunches during the intermissions of the play, and in various ways absorb a large share of the general theatrical profits, to which fact the frequent collapse of managers has been attributed.

Kurumas by the score discharged their foreign or native occupants at the door, while hundreds of other natives came along on clogs, that lifted them stilt-like above the mud of the unpaved streets. Before entering they left these clogs near the door, where a pile of at least a hundred pairs had accumulated, which servants were rapidly carrying to a corner within. Leaving our umbrellas — but not our shoes — in charge of an attendant, we were ushered up a flight of stairs to a gallery facing the stage, and provided with chairs — luckily, for it would have been torture to sit or squat for hours on the mats, as the natives did in the side galleries and in the parquet. This parquet was divided into small square boxes, somewhat as we divide the floor of a church into pews; there were, of course, no benches or chairs, but everybody knelt on mats during the whole performance.

On a first visit to a Japanese theatre the audience is quite as interesting as the play, for the reason that the family groups in the parquet behave very much as they would if they were between the paper walls and screens of their own homes. No one is so rude as to disturb others by coming or going during the continuance of an act; but between the acts the scenes in the parquet constitute an entertaining side-show. Every family group is provided with a lunch, which has either been brought along, or is ordered from an adjoining tea house. Two gangways, right and left, called hanamichi or flower paths, on a level with the stage, run from it to the other end of the hall, and from these gangways (which are also used sometimes for special entrances of the actors or for processions) male attendants distributed tea, cakes, and other refreshments to the audience. A number of the spectators took their lunch unceremoniously on the stage, in front of the curtain. Almost every man and woman was smoking a thimble-sized pipe, and this indulgence was not limited to the intermissions, but continued most of the time, except when the tears over a tragic situation threatened to put out the pipe.

Although many Japanese plays are very immoral, according to our notions of propriety, boys and girls of all ages are taken to them by their parents of the lower classes; but in justice to the Japanese, it must be added that until recently, on account of the coarseness of the stage, the upper classes did not frequent the ordinary theatre, but only certain ancient and highly respectable, unintelligible, and tiresome performances — quasi-operatic — known as . The actors of these were honored in society; but ordinary actors were held in such contempt that, as Professor Chamberlain tells us, “when a census was taken, they were spoken of with the numerals used in counting animals. … Those to whom Japanese is familiar will,” he adds, “appreciate the terrible sting of the insult.” The strictness of Japanese etiquette on this point is illustrated by the account given, only a few decades ago, by Sir Rutherford Alcock of a visit to a theatre, which he made in Osaka, prefaced by this information: “In Yeddo I had never been able to gratify my desire to see this illustration of national manners, because no person of rank can be seen in such places; and it would have been a breach of all rules of propriety for a minister to visit a theatre.” Within recent years there has been a change and improvement, in consequence of which theatres and actors are no longer tabooed, which is a fortunate circumstance, for the reason that, to quote Chamberlain once more, the theatre is “the only remaining place where the life of Old Japan can be studied in these radical latter days.”

Apart from us foreigners seated on chairs in one gallery and our method of applause, which the Japanese have adopted in their public places, there was nothing in this theatre that could not have been seen in Old Japan. The dresses of the spectators may have been less sombre in former days; but this sombreness only served to enhance, by contrast, the beautiful colors and patterns of the accurate historic costumes worn by the actors. I cannot add “and actresses”; for even yet women are not considered to be fit to appear in a first-class play, and their parts are still taken by men — admirably taken by them, it must be confessed, with a grace truly feminine. Of the men’s costumes the oddest were the trailing trousers — those most extraordinary garments, which were part of the court costume until a few decades ago, and which amazed Sir Rutherford Alcock when he was received by the Shogun. He relates that facing him were fifty officials,

“all in gauze and silks. …. The most singular part of the whole costume, and that which, added to the headgear, gave an irresistibly comic air to the whole presentment, was the immeasurable prolongation of the silk trousers. These, instead of stopping short at the heels, are unconscionably lengthened and left to trail two or three feet behind them, so that their feet, as they advanced, seemed pushed into what should have been the knees of the garment.”

These trailing trousers played a conspicuous role in the drama we saw at the Shintomi. It has been suggested that, as such a garment must make its wearer clumsy and helpless, it was prescribed by the rulers to ward off the danger of assassination. But when I asked Mr. Shugio what he thought was the original object of this strange costume, he replied that it was to give the impression that the Shogun’s subjects were on their knees even when walking. The Japanese are indeed always on their knees, both for courtesy and comfort, except when walking or sleeping, and it would not be inappropriate to entitle a book on them, The Kneeling Nation. If one of them wrote a book on us, he would probably be tempted to entitle it, The Sitting Nation; for kneeling and walking are fast becoming lost arts among us.

Our performance consisted of a tragedy in four acts, a short comedy, and a dance in four acts, in which last the Misses Fukiko and Jitsuko, daughters of Danjiuro, took part — models of elegance in appearance and grace in gesture. An English program was distributed, containing the “dramatic (sic) personae” and a brief sketch of the tragic plot, the scene of which was placed at the beginning of the seventeenth century, and which had a good deal to do with fighting and plotting and poisoned cakes. I have never seen better acting than that in the poisoning scene of this play. However much the Japanese may differ from us in customs and etiquette, in the expression of grief and joy their faces are like ours, and their actors have such wonderful mimetic powers that I found no difficulty whatever in following the plot, both in the tragedy and the comedy. Danjiuro might come to America and act in his own language, as Salvini has done; he is the Salvini of Japan, and would be a popular idol anywhere. One of our party had intended to return to Yokohama at six, but I heard him say that he liked the play (of which he could not understand a word) so well that he had decided to stay to the end — four hours more, including an hour’s intermission for supper.

The only disagreeable feature of the performance was the tone in which the actors spoke their parts. In ordinary conversation the Japanese speak in a low, musical voice and with natural inflections, but on the stage they have adopted the idiotic Chinese sing-song, squeaking falsetto, unearthly yells, and other extraordinary sounds which make a Chinese theatre seem like an improvised lunatic asylum. Almost everything that is really absurd in Japan comes from China, and prominent among the absurdities which ought to yield as soon as possible to Occidental influences is the stage falsetto. I was surprised by another peculiarity of the theatrical diction. My grammars had told me thatthe Japanese have practically no verbal or oratorical accent, every syllable and word having about the same emphasis. But it seemed to me that these actors positively swooped down on certain syllables and words, with an emphatic sforzando. I had also noticed previously that railway guards often accented one syllable much more strongly than the others; for instance, Kamákura.

In its scenic features the Japanese stage has gone far beyond the Chinese, which is still in the primitive condition of Shakspere’s [sic] time when a board with “This is a Forest,” or whatever else was to be suggested, took the place of real or painted trees, mountains, and so on. It would be strange, indeed, if, with their passionate love of nature, which makes them paint a maple branch or a Fuji on every fan, screen, and teapot, the Japanese had been willing to dispense with a scenic background on the stage. Episodes of street life, domestic interiors, dogs, horses, boats, moats, and castles, forest scenes — are all painted, or bodily introduced, with an art that is thoroughly realistic, and illusory in its perspective. What is more, to save time, or rather, to shorten intermissions, the Japanese were the first to invent a revolving stage, which makes it possible to set up one scene while another is in use, thus facilitating rapid changes. The curtain is sometimes raised, as in our theatres, sometimes dropped out of sight, or again pushed aside and closed, as at Bayreuth. The Shintomi has two ornamental curtains, — one Dutch, the other the gift of a Hawaiian monarch.

But again, just as the splendid acting is marred by the silly Chinese intonation, so the scenic illusion is destroyed by incongruities. One might forgive the gangways running from the stage across the parquet, and the occasional appearance of actors on them, especially when they are arrayed in their most gorgeous costumes, genuine works of art which have few counterparts at the present day, and which can be better seen this way than on the stage itself; but one fails to understand how the Japanese can tolerate the Chinese nuisance of allowing stage attendants to walk about among the actors, light up their faces with candles, prompt them from an open book, bring on or remove furniture, etc., in an obtrusive manner which destroys all illusion. What is amusing about this farce is the Oriental naiveté of supposing these attendants to be invisible, as is indicated by their wearing black garments and veils. An explanation of this absurdity may perhaps be found in the fact that until recently the Japanese theatre was frequented only by the lower classes, whose illusion is not easily marred.

Shall I attempt to describe the music which accompanied the tragedy? It must be admitted that the Japanese, as well as the Chinese, anticipated Wagner in the idea that a tragedy needs a musical accompaniment. It is their way of carrying out this idea that Western ears object to. I frankly confess that I found a certain charm in the barbarous music of the Chinese theatre in San Francisco after I had heard it four or five times. If this Japanese dramatic music gave me less pleasure, it may be owing to the fact that it was too deep to be understood at first hearing. I will give it the benefit of the doubt, — the more willingly as I did subsequently hear samisen and koto playing which was truly musical in its way. What was surprising in the play at the Shintomi Theatre was the variety of musical effects and groupings. To the left of the stage was a sort of menagerie cage with bars, the occupants of which kept up a monotonous strumming on their samisens in accompanying the dialogue. In a row on the back of the stage there were some flute players and more samisenists, whose performance sometimes assumed a well-defined rhythmic form. In a sort of proscenium box on our right, ten feet above the stage, there were two more samisen players, besides two doleful vocalists, looking, with their shaven crowns, like Buddhist priests. Their song consisted of an occasional melodic bud, with a great deal of garnishing that it would be impossible to indicate in our musical notation. But the prima donna of the occasion was the fellow with the big drum. He had his innings when a ghost came on the stage, and again, when the ghost made his exit. That drummer could give points to a thunderstorm in the Alps. It is said that the Japanese do not stand in real awe of ghosts, but look upon their possible appearance with a certain kindly interest; yet I fancy that when accompanied by such an unearthly drum solo, a ghost must be awful even to them.

If I have neglected to mention the name of the play or its writer, that is not my fault. No name or author was given on the playbill, it being the custom to ascribe new dramas to the manager who produces them. Many of the plays are the result of the co-operation of a writer with the actors, scene painters, and carpenters, and there is much improvisation during the performance. Such a thing, after all, is not unknown in our own theatres. I have been told that of the original “Black Crook” nothing whatever remains but the name; yet the author still draws his royalty.

Comments: Henry Theophilus Finck (1854-1926) was an American music critic. Ichikawa Danjūrō IX (1838-1903) was among the greatest of Japanese Kabuki theatre performers, ninth in a line of actors all bearing the sane name. According to the http://www.kabuki21.com site, the names of his two acting daughters were Ichikawa Suisen II and Ichikawa Kyokubai II. Women  would occasionally perform in Kabuki, but in minor roles only.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

Hamlet

Source: Jack Howison, Hamlet: a descriptive account of its performance witnessed by Jack Howison (Philadelphia, 1894)

Production: William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Girard Avenue Theatre, Philadelphia, 22 October 1893

Text: The other night I went to see Hamlet at the Girard avenue theater. I think it was Oct 22 1893.

The first scene was where two men were on guard and they heard some one coming and said stand and unfold your self it was Marcellows you come most careful on your hour said the guards. They were not there long before Marcellows said look look what comes speak to it one of the guard said speak speak I pray you speak I charge you speak no it will not speak said Marcellows it is offended so the ghost went away. It was the finest ghost I ever saw. Then Marcellows and the guards went right to Hamlet’s house and told him all about what they had seen the night before. Hamlet said I will be there betwix eleven and twelve so the next night Hamlet was there when the clock struct twelve and then the ghost came in Hamlet said to it speak speak and the ghost turned around and made motions for Hamlet to come with it. Marcellows did not want Hamlet to go but he would and he followed it till it came to a certain spot where it stoped and said I am thy father spirit who was killed by my own brother.

Doomed to walk the earth for a certain time but soft me thinks I smell the scent of the morning air I must away.

2 scene} Then Hamlet went back to the castle and was not there long before Ophilia’s father came in and Hamlet said to him have you not a daughter and the old man said he is harping on my daughter again. Ophilia came in and her father would not let her stay long but made her go away with him Hamlet was in love with her but she thought he did not love her but in a little while Ophilia came in again and Hamlet was talking to her when her father came and took her away. The next act was where Hamlet and his mother were in the room together and Hamlet told her to pray over his father and after that he showed her the picture of his father which he carried on a chain around his neck and said this was your husband and pointed to the picture on the wall and said this is your husband now and Hamlet thought the king was coming in the door so he drew his sword out and stabbed Ophilia’s father instead of the king after that Ophilla went crazy and very soon after drowned herself. The next act was church and grave yard the old grave diger was diging a grave Hamlet and Marcellows came and asked whose grave this is the old fellow said it is my grave Hamlet said I mean who is going to be hurried there A young lady said the old grave diger the old fellow dug a skull up out of the grave and Hamlet asked him whose it was the old fellow looked at it for a while and said it was David Garrick and Hamlet looked at it and showed it to Marcellows and then handed it back to the grave diger. The old fellow sings while he digs the grave in a little while the bell toles and the funeral comes in first six women carring the coffin and then her brother and the King and Queen and some others they open the lid of the coffin and look at her and close it again and the old grave diger lets the coffin down the hole the Queen throws a few flowers down in the grave Hamlet and Marcellows are hiding behind a tree and they see it all.

I forgot to put in where Hamlet stabbes Ophilia’s father behind the bed curtains he thought it was the king. In a very little while the white light’s go out and they show blue light on the stage to represent night this made me nervious. While Hamlet and his mother are in the room the ghost comes in and Hamlet asks his mother wheather she sees it and she thinks he has gone crazy. I thought it was the best play I ever saw the ghost was a dandy and Creston Clarke played his part so very well and the scenery was very pretty.

And another thing I forgot to say that Ophilia comes in the room where the king and Queen is with her hair hanging drown her back and with some flowers in her hand and she gets down on the floor and spreads flowers all around in a circle and after that gets up and goes out.

Near the first act Hamlet and some others get up a play to scare the King. They play that a man was lying down a sleep in his garden and some one comes and pours some poisen liquid in his ear that kills him They do this to remind the King how he killed Hamlet’s father and so he gets scared and runs out and every body wonders what is the matter with him The last act was a scene in the palace the King and Queen was sitting on the throne and a good many others are around the King had fixed it up with Ophilia’s brother to be there to fight a duel with Hamlet so he took two cups and put some good wine in one cup and some poisen in the other cup so the time came for Hamlet and Ophilia’s brother to fight the duel and so they began. Hamlet got the best of him the first time and the King said I drink to Hamlet but he did not mean it so they commense again and Hamlet wounded him and so the King handed Hamlet the poisen cup to Hamlet but he would not take it and the Queen says I will drink to Hamlet and so she takes it and says Hamlet I am poisned, and Hamlet runs right up to the King and stabbed him And so the play of Hamlet ended. 1 think it was the best play that Shaksphere or any body else ever wrote. The dresses were very pretty but looked queer to me though I suppose that was the way they looked in Shakspere time. I think Shakspere must have been a very great man and writer to have thought out such a great play.

I think it is just right I don’t think any body could improve this play.

I hear that he has written a great many more good plays but I don’t think any of them could be a fine as HAMLET I hope I will see some more of his plays sometime soon.

Comments: Jack Howiston (c.1882) was twelve-year-old boy living in Philadelphia when he wrote this account of having seen Hamlet in performance at the Girard Avenue Theatre, Philadelphia, on 22 October 1893. The introduction to this pamphlet (written by ‘S.A.B.’) states that he knew nothing of the play beforehand, and “for some days after the performance he amused and interested those of us in his family by reciting various passages, and illustrating the manner of the actors he had seen.” The family decided to publish his recollections privately, in this pamphlet, with spelling and punctuation unchanged. Creston Clarke, who played Hamlet, was a nephew of Edwin Booth.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust