Hamlet

The Private Journal of Aaron Burr

Source: Matthew L. Davis (ed.), The Private Journal of Aaron Burr, during his residence of four years in Europe: with selections from his correspondence (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1838), vol. 1, p. 362

Production: William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Theatre au Palais, Hanover, 17 December 1809

Text: To the theatre. Hamlet. I admire very much the Theatre au Palais, where I was to see Hamlet in German, translated from Shakspeare. There is parterre and five rows of boxes. No gallery. As in Edinburgh, there is a place assigned for les courtisannes. The curtain is, of the ornament of the theatre, the thing most worthy of notice. I will endeavour to get a description for you. It is about the size of that in Philadelphia; but in every part of the house you hear distinctly. I saw nothing very remarkable in the performers. The style of acting a good deal like that in England. Stayed only two acts …

Comments: Aaron Burr (1756-1836) was Vice President of the United States (1801–1805), serving under Thomas Jefferson. He is best known for having killed a political rival, Alexander Hamilton, in a duel. After the scandal, and later charges of treason, he went on a long tour of Europe. His letters and journal record numerous visits to the theatre. Prostitutes commonly operated in theatres at this time.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

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.

The Black Man: His Antecedents, His Genius, and His Achievements

Portrait of Ira Aldridge in 1858 by Taras Shevchenko, via Wikimedia Commons

Source: William Wells Brown, The Black Man: His Antecedents, His Genius, and His Achievements (New York: Thomas Hamilton, 1863), pp. 118-121

Text: On looking over the columns of The Times, one morning, I saw it announced under the head of “Amusements,” that “Ira Aldridge, the African Roscius,” was to appear in the character of Othello, in Shakspeare’s celebrated tragedy of that name, and, having long wished to see my sable countryman, I resolved at once to attend. Though the doors had been open but a short time when I reached the Royal Haymarket, the theatre where the performance was to take place, the house was well filled, and among the audience I recognized the faces of several distinguished persons of the nobility, the most noted of whom was Sir Edward Bulwer Lytton, the renowned novelist — his figure neat, trim, hair done up in the latest fashion — looking as if he had just come out of a band-box. He is a great lover of the drama, and has a private theatre at one of his country seats, to which he often invites his friends, and presses them into the different characters.

As the time approached for the curtain to rise, it was evident that the house was to be “jammed.” Stuart, the best Iago since the days of Young, in company with Roderigo, came upon the stage as soon as the green curtain went up. Iago looked the villain, and acted it to the highest conception of the character. The scene is changed, all eyes are turned to the right door, and thunders of applause greet the appearance of Othello. Mr. Aldridge is of the middle size, and appeared to be about three quarters African; has a pleasant countenance, frame well knit, and seemed to me the best Othello that I had ever seen. As Iago began to work upon his feelings, the Moor’s eyes flashed fire, and, further on in the play, he looked the very demon of despair. When he seized the deceiver by the throat, and exclaimed, “Villain! be sure thou prove my love false: be sure of it — give me the ocular proof — or, by the worth of my eternal soul, thou hadst better have been born a dog, Iago, than answer my waked wrath,” the audience, with one impulse, rose to their feet amid the wildest enthusiasm. At the end of the third act, Othello was called before the curtain, and received the applause of the delighted multitude. I watched the countenance and every motion of Bulwer Lytton with almost as much interest as I did that of the Moor of Venice, and saw that none appeared to be better pleased than he. The following evening I went to witness his Hamlet, and was surprised to find him as perfect in that as he had been in Othello; for I had been led to believe that the latter was his greatest character. The whole court of Denmark was before us; but till the words, “‘Tis not alone my inky cloak, good mother,” fell from the lips of Mr. Aldridge, was the general ear charmed, or the general tongue arrested. The voice was so low, and sad, and sweet, the modulation so tender, the dignity so natural, the grace so consummate, that all yielded themselves silently to the delicious enchantment. When Horatio told him that he had come to see his father’s funeral, the deep melancholy that took possession of his face showed the great dramatic power of Mr. Aldridge. “I pray thee do not mock me, fellow-student,” seemed to come from his inmost soul. The animation with which his countenance was lighted up, during Horatio’s recital of the visits that the ghost had paid him and his companions, was beyond description. “Angels and ministers of grace defend us,” as the ghost appeared in the fourth scene, sent a thrill through the whole assembly. His rendering of the “Soliloquy on Death,” which Edmund Kean, Charles Kemble, and William C. Macready have reaped such unfading laurels from, was one of his best efforts. He read it infinitely better than Charles Kean, whom I had heard at the “Princess,” but a few nights previous. The vigorous starts of thought, which in the midst of his personal sorrows rise with such beautiful and striking suddenness from the ever-wakeful mind of the humanitarian philosopher, are delivered with that varying emphasis that characterizes the truthful delineator, when he exclaims, “Frailty, thy name is woman!” In the second scene of the second act, when revealing to Guildenstern the melancholy which preys upon his mind, the beautiful and powerful words in which Hamlet explains his feelings are made very effective in Mr. Aldridge’s rendering: “This most excellent canopy, the air, the brave o’erhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted with golden fire …. What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason! how infinite in faculties! in form and moving how express and admirable! in action how like an angel! in apprehension how like a God!” In the last scene of the second act, when Hamlet’s imagination, influenced by the interview with the actors, suggests to his rich mind so many eloquent reflections, Mr. Aldridge enters fully into the spirit of the scene, warms up, and when he exclaims, “He would drown the stage with tears, and cleave the general ear with horrid speech, — make mad the guilty, and appall the free,” he is very effective; and when this warmth mounts into a paroxysm of rage, and he calls the King “Bloody, bawdy villain! Remorseless, treacherous, lecherous, kindless villain!” he sweeps the audience with him, and brings down deserved applause. The fervent soul and restless imagination, which are ever stirring at the bottom of the fountain, and sending bright bubbles to the top, find a glowing reflection on the animated surface of Mr. Aldridge’s colored face. I thought Hamlet one of his best characters, though I saw him afterwards in several others.

Comments: William Wells Brown (c.1844-1884) was an African-American abolitionist lecturer, historian, playwright and novelist. He spent 1849 to 1854 living in Britain. However, there are problems with his account of seeing the great African-American actor Ira Aldridge (1807-1867). Although Aldridge performed in Britain around that time, most of his performances were in provincial theatres, and he did not play Othello at the Haymarket until 1865, two years after Brown’s account was published. The performance may have been an Othello at the Lyceum in 1858, when his reputation was greater and Stuart played Iago, but Brown does not appear to have been in Britain at that date. Nor did Aldridge play Hamlet at this time.

Links: Copy at the Internet Archive

An Apology for the Life of Mr. Colley Cibber

Thomas Betterton as Hamlet, seeing the Ghost in his mother’s chamber, from Nicholas Rowe’s edition of Shakespeare’s works (1709), via Wikimedia Commons

Source: Colley Cibber (ed. Robert W. Lowe), An Apology for the Life of Mr. Colley Cibber, written by himself (London: John C. Nimmo, 1889 [orig. pub. 1740), vol. 1, pp. 99-105

Text: Betterton was an Actor, as Shakespear was an Author, both without Competitors! form’d for the mutual Assistance and Illustration of each others Genius! How Shakespear wrote, all Men who have a Taste for Nature may read and know — but with what higher Rapture would he still be read could they conceive how Betterton playd him! Then might they know the one was born alone to speak what the other only knew to write! Pity it is that the momentary Beauties flowing from an harmonious Elocution cannot, like those of Poetry, be their own Record! That the animated Graces of the Player can live no longer than the instant Breath and Motion that presents them, or at best can but faintly glimmer through the Memory or imperfect Attestation of a few surviving Spectators. Could how Betterton spoke be as easily known as what he spoke, then might you see the Muse of Shakespear in her Triumph, with all her Beauties in their best Array rising into real Life and charming her Beholders. But alas! since all this is so far out of the reach of Description, how shall I shew you Betterton? Should I therefore tell you that all the Othellos, Hamlets, Hotspurs, Mackbeths, and Brutus‘s whom you may have seen since his Time, have fallen far short of him; this still would give you no Idea of his particular Excellence. Let us see then what a particular Comparison may do! whether that may yet draw him nearer to you?

You have seen a Hamlet perhaps, who, on the first Appearance of his Father’s Spirit, has thrown himself into all the straining Vociferation requisite to express Rage and Fury, and the House has thunder’d with Applause; tho’ the mis-guided Actor was all the while (as Shakespear terms it) tearing a Passion into Rags – I am the more bold to offer you this particular Instance, because the late Mr. Addison, while I sate by him to see this Scene acted, made the same Observation, asking me, with some Surprize, if I thought Hamlet should be in so violent a Passion with the Ghost, which, tho’ it might have astonish’d, it had not provok’d him? for you may observe that in this beautiful Speech the Passion never rises beyond an almost breathless Astonishment, or an Impatience, limited by filial Reverence, to enquire into the suspected Wrongs that may have rais’d him from his peaceful Tomb! and a Desire to know what a Spirit so seemingly distrest might wish or enjoin a sorrowful Son to execute towards his future Quiet in the Grave? This was the Light into which Betterton threw this Scene; which he open’d with a Pause of mute Amazement! then rising slowly to a solemn, trembling Voice, he made the Ghost equally terrible to the Spectator as to himself! and in the descriptive Part of the natural Emotions which the ghastly Vision gave him, the boldness of his Expostulation was still govern’d by Decency, manly, but not braving; his Voice never rising into that seeming Outrage or wild Defiance of what he naturally rever’d. But alas! to preserve this medium, between mouthing and meaning too little, to keep the Attention more pleasingly awake by a temper’d Spirit than by meer Vehemence of Voice, is of all the Master-strokes of an Actor the most difficult to reach. In this none yet have equall’d Betterton. But I am unwilling to shew his Superiority only by recounting the Errors of those who now cannot answer to them, let their farther Failings therefore be forgotten! or rather, shall I in some measure excuse them? For I am not yet sure that they might not be as much owing to the false Judgment of the Spectator as the Actor. While the Million are so apt to be transported when the Drum of their Ear is so roundly rattled; while they take the Life of Elocution to lie in the Strength of the Lungs, it is no wonder the Actor, whose end is Applause, should be also tempted at this easy rate to excite it. Shall I go a little farther? and allow that this Extreme is more pardonable than its opposite Error? I mean that dangerous Affectation of the Monotone, or solemn Sameness of Pronounciation, which, to my Ear, is insupportable; for of all Faults that so frequently pass upon the Vulgar, that of Flatness will have the fewest Admirers. That this is an Error of ancient standing seems evident by what Hamlet says, in his Instructions to the Players, viz.

Be not too tame, neither, &c.

The Actor, doubtless, is as strongly ty’d down to the Rules of Horace as the Writer.

Si vis me flere, dolendum est
Primum ipsi tibi –

He that feels not himself the Passion he would raise, will talk to a sleeping Audience: But this never was the Fault of Betterton; and it has often amaz’d me to see those who soon came after him throw out, in some Parts of a Character, a just and graceful Spirit which Betterton himself could not but have applauded. And yet in the equally shining Passages of the same Character have heavily dragg’d the Sentiment along like a dead Weight, with a long-ton’d Voice and absent Eye, as if they had fairly forgot what they were about: If you have never made this Observation, I am contented you should not know where to apply it.

A farther Excellence in Betterton was, that he could vary his Spirit to the different Characters he acted. Those wild impatient Starts, that fierce and flashing Fire, which he threw into Hotspur, never came from the unruffled Temper of his Brutus (for I have more than once seen a Brutus as warm as Hotspur): when the Betterton Brutus was provok’d in his Dispute with Cassius, his Spirit flew only to his Eye; his steady Look alone supply’d that Terror which he disdain’d an Intemperance in his Voice should rise to. Thus, with a settled Dignity of Contempt, like an unheeding Rock he repelled upon himself the Foam of Cassius. Perhaps the very Words of Shakespear will better let you into my Meaning:

Must I give way and room to your rash Choler?
Shall I be frighted when a Madman stares?

And a little after,

There is no Terror, Cassius, in your Looks! &c.

Not but in some part of this Scene, where he reproaches Cassius, his Temper is not under this Suppression, but opens into that Warmth which becomes a Man of Virtue; yet this is that Hasty Spark of Anger which Brutus himself endeavours to excuse.

But with whatever strength of Nature we see the Poet shew at once the Philosopher and the Heroe, yet the Image of the Actor’s Excellence will be still imperfect to you unless Language could put Colours in our Words to paint the Voice with.

Et, si vis similem pijigere, pinge sonum, is enjoyning an impossibility. The most that a Vandyke can arrive at, is to make his Portraits of great Persons seem to think; a Shakespear goes farther yet, and tells you what his Pictures thought; a Betterton steps beyond ’em both, and calls them from the Grave to breathe and be themselves again in Feature, Speech, and Motion. When the skilful Actor shews you all these Powers at once united, and gratifies at once your Eye, your Ear, your Understanding: To conceive the Pleasure rising from such Harmony, you must have been present at it! ’tis not to be told you!

Comments: Colley Cibber (1671-1757) was an English actor-manager, playwright and poet laureate, whose engaging memoir Apology for the Life of Colley Cibber is one of the best accounts we have of the theatre of his times. He began his acting career in Thomas Betterton‘s company in 1690, and rose in the profession to become manager of Drury Lane Theatre in 1710. Thomas Betterton (c.1635-1710) was the leading English male actor of his time, who frequently played Shakespearean roles (generally in adaptations by writers of the period, including Betterton himself). Going by the rough chronology of Cibber’s memoir, he is referring to performances of Betterton in Hamlet in the 1690s.

Links: Copy at the Internet Archive

Hamlet Once More

Source: Matthew Arnold, ‘Hamlet Once More’, in Essays in Criticism: Second Series – Contributions to ‘The Pall Mall Gazette’ and Discourses in America (London: Macmillan, 1903), pp. 271-275, originally published in The Pall Mall Gazette, p. 4

Production: William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Princess’s Theatre, London, October 1884

Text: At the very moment when Mr. Wilson Barrett is bringing out Hamlet at the Princess’s, there comes into my hands Shakspeare and Montaigne, an Endeavour to explain the Tendency of ‘Hamlet’ from Allusions in Contemporary Works, by Mr. Jacob Feis, an author not known to me. Mr. Feis seeks to establish that Shakspeare [sic] in Hamlet identifies Montaigne’s philosophy with madness, branding it as a pernicious one, as contrary to the intellectual conquests his own English nation has made when breaking with the Romanist dogma. ‘Shakspeare,’ says Mr. Feis, ‘wished to warn his contemporaries that the attempt of reconciling two opposite circles of ideas – namely, on the one hand the doctrine that we are to be guided by the laws of nature, and on the other the yielding ourselves up to superstitious dogmas which declare human nature to be sinful, must inevitably produce deeds of madness.’

Mr. Feis’s name has a German look, and the first instinct of the ‘genuine British narrowness’ will be to say that here is another German critic who has discovered a mare’s nest. ‘Hamlet dies wounded and poisoned, as if Shakspeare had intended expressing his abhorrence of so vacillating a character, who places the treacherous excesses of passion above the power of that human reason in whose free service alone Greeks and Romans did their most exalted deeds of virtue.’

Shakspeare is ‘the great humanist,’ in sympathy with the clear unwarped reason of ‘a living Horace or Horatio,’ an Horatio intrepid as the author of ‘non vultus instantis tyranni.’ This is fantastic. Far from abhorring Hamlet, Shakspeare was probably in considerable sympathy with him: nor is he likely to have thought either that salvation for mankind was to be had from the Odes of Horace.

Mr. Feis is too entire, too absolute. Nevertheless his book is of real interest and value. He has proved the preoccupation of Shakspeare’s mind when he made Hamlet with Montaigne’s Essays. John Sterling had inferred it, but Mr. Feis has established it. He shows how passage after passage in the second quarto of Hamlet, published in 1604, has been altered and expanded in correspondence with things in the first English translation of Montaigne’s Essays, Florio’s, published in 1603.

The Essays had already passed through many editions in French, and were known to Shakspeare in that language. Their publication in English was an event in the brilliant and intellectual London world, then keenly interested in the playhouses; and Shakspeare, in revising his Hamlet in 1604, gives proof of the actual occupation of his patrons with the Englished Montaigne, and confirms, too, the fact of his own occupation with the Essays previously.

For me the interest of this discovery does not lie in its showing that Shakspeare thought Montaigne a dangerous author, and meant to give in Hamlet a shocking example of what Montaigne’s teaching led to. It lies in its explaining how it comes about that Hamlet, in spite of the prodigious mental and poetic power shown in it, is really so tantalising and ineffective a play. To the common public Hamlet is a famous piece by a famous poet, with crime, a ghost, battle, and carnage; and that is sufficient. To the youthful enthusiast Hamlet is a piece handling the mystery of the universe, and having throughout cadences, phrases, and words full of divinest Shakspearian magic; and that, too, is sufficient. To the pedant, finally, Hamlet is an occasion for airing his psychology; and what does pedant require more? But to the spectator who loves true and powerful drama, and can judge whether he gets it or not, Hamlet is a piece which opens, indeed, simply and admirably, and then: ‘The rest is puzzle’!

The reason is, apparently, that Shakspeare conceived this play with his mind running on Montaigne, and placed its action and its hero in Montaigne’s atmosphere and world. What is that world? It is the world of man viewed as a being ondoyant et divers, balancing and indeterminate, the plaything of cross motives and shifting impulses, swayed by a thousand subtle influences, physiological and pathological. Certainly the action and hero of the original Hamlet story are not such as to compel the poet to place them in this world and no other, but they admit of being placed there, Shakspeare resolved to place them there, and they lent themselves to his resolve. The resolve once taken to place the action in this world of problem, the problem became brightened by all the force of Shakspeare’s faculties, of Shakspeare’s subtlety. Hamlet thus comes at last to be not a drama followed with perfect comprehension and profoundest emotion, which is the ideal for tragedy, but a problem soliciting interpretation and solution.

It will never, therefore, be a piece to be seen with pure satisfaction by those who will not deceive themselves. But such is its power and such is its fame that it will always continue to be acted, and we shall all of us continue to go and see it. Mr. Wilson Barrett has put it effectively and finely on the stage. In general the critics have marked his merits with perfect justice. He is successful with his King and Queen. The King in Hamlet is too often a blatant horror, and his Queen is to match. Mr. Willard and Miss Leighton are a King and Queen whom one sees and hears with pleasure. Ophelia, too what suffering have Ophelias caused us! And nothing can make this part advantageous to an actress or enjoyable for the spectator. I confess, therefore, that I trembled at each of Miss Eastlake’s entrances; but the impression finally left, by the madness scene more especially, was one of approval and respect. Mr. Wilson Barrett himself, as Hamlet, is fresh, natural, young, prepossessing, animated, coherent; the piece moves. All Hamlets whom I have seen dissatisfy us in something. Macready wanted person, Charles Kean mind, Fechter English; Mr. Wilson Barrett wants elocution. No ingenuity will ever enable us to follow the drama of Hamlet as we follow the first part of Faust, but we may be made to feel the noble poetry.

Perhaps John Kemble, in spite of his limitations, was the best Hamlet after all. But John Kemble is beyond reach of the memory of even

AN OLD PLAYGOER.

October 23, 1884.

Comments: Matthew Arnold (1822-1888) was an English poet, critic and essayist. His ‘Letters of an Old Playgoer’, five short essay-reviews written 1882-1884 for The Pall Mall Gazette. The Princess’s Theatre production of Hamlet featured Wilson Barrett as Hamlet, Edward Willard (Claudius), Margaret Leighton (Gertrude) and Mary Eastlake (Ophelia).

Links: Copy at Internet Archive

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

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)

Put Money in Thy Purse

Source: Micheál Mac Liammóir, Put Money in Thy Purse: The Diary of the Film of Othello (London: Methuen, 1952), p. 212

Production: William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Théâtre Marigny, 11 December 1949

Text: December 11th. Spent morning cutting Earnest, and after lunch Hilton and I experienced keenest disappointment of the year by seeing Jean-Louis Barrault’s Hamlet at the Marigny. ‘Twenty-ish production, all ingenuity and grey tabs and set-pieces pulled and pushed hither and thither to indicate changes of location, and J-L.B. in the same mood, a slick, vivacious Puck of a Prince. H. cheered me up after the shock of the first court scene by muttering in my ear ‘Harlequin, Prince of Denmark’; but general impression one of disillusion too deep for jokes: so fine an artist brilliantly engaged on so palpable a misconception. He treated the ghost as a leprechaun, and the friendship with Horatio as a mild Alma Mater flirtation, and Ophelia as if she were pestering him for an autograph. Saw dear Tanya Moiseiwitsch for a few minutes in an interval, came away early and dined with Orson, wild-eyed and in hell’s-a-poppin’ form.

Comments: Micheál Mac Liammóir (1899-1978) was an English actor, born Alfred Willmore, who in adult life adopted an Irish name. His lifelong partner was the actor Hilton Edwards. Both acted in Orson Welles’ feature film Othello (1951), whose peripatetic production in Morocco and Italy is documented in Mac Liammóir’s published diary, Put Money in Thy Purse (he played Iago). He and Hilton were in Paris during a gap in film production, preparing for a stage production of The Importance of Being Earnest, when they saw this production of Hamlet at the Théâtre Marigny. Jean-Louis Barrault was a French stage and film actor, director and mime artist, renowned for his appearance in the 1945 film Les Enfants du Paradis and for his performances at the Comédie-Française.

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

Pepys’ Diary

Source: Diary of Samuel Pepys, 27 November 1661

Production: William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Vere Street Theatre, London, 27 November 1661

Text: This morning our maid Dorothy and my wife parted, which though she be a wench for her tongue not to be borne with, yet I was loth to part with her, but I took my leave kindly of her and went out to Savill’s, the painter, and there sat the first time for my face with him; thence to dinner with my Lady; and so after an hour or two’s talk in divinity with my Lady, Captain Ferrers and Mr. Moore and I to the Theatre, and there saw “Hamlett” very well done, and so I home, and found that my wife had been with my aunt Wight and Ferrers to wait on my Lady to-day this afternoon, and there danced and were very merry, and my Lady very fond as she is always of my wife. So to bed.

Comments: Samuel Pepys (1633-1703) was a British naval administrator and diarist. He saw Shakespeare‘s Hamlet, at the Vere Street Theatre, London on 27 November 1661. The Vere Street Theatre, variously referred to as the King’s House, King’s Theatre and Theatre Royal, was a real tennis court that was used as a theatre 1660-1663. The diarist John Evelyn saw the same production of Hamlet the day before Pepys.

Links: http://www.pepysdiary.com/diary/1661/11/27