Ethel King

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.