Princess’s Theatre (London)

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

A Visit to Charles Dickens

Source: Hans Christian Andersen, ‘A Visit to Charles Dickens’, Temple Bar, vol. 31, 1871, pp. 38-40

Production: William Shakespeare, The Tempest, Princess’s Theatre, London, 1 July 1857

Text: Respecting the mise en scène — and I must say even to exaggeration — one may obtain an idea in London by the grand and fantastic splendour with which Shakespeare’s plays were placed on the stage by Charles Kean. Kean, the son of the celebrated actor, but not comparable to his father in genius, had the genuine merit to have applied real talent and profound historical studies in order to produce the plays of Shakespeare in such a style as was never before witnessed, and would never have been conceived by the poet himself. He also adhered to the original with a pious fidelity heretofore unknown. In former times, managers had no scruples about omitting the Fool in ‘King Lear,’ one of the most important figures in the chief tragic group. Dickens told me that Macready had been the first to restore this essential character. At the time of my visit people were thronging to see the first representation of the ‘Tempest,’ which had been placed on the stage after innumerable rehearsals, and at an immense outlay. The theatre was crowded. The theatre is not large, and it is quite wonderful what human will and genius have been enabled to accomplish. Painter and machinist had perfectly caught the spirit of the piece: the mise en scène seemed inspired by the fancy of Shakespeare himself. During the overture, the music of which expresses the storm with an accompaniment of roaring thunder, shrieks and cries were heard from within. The whole prelude was thus given before the raising of the curtain. When this took place heavy billows came rolling against the footlights. The whole stage was a tumultuous sea: a large vessel was tossed to and fro — it occupied the larger part of the scene; sailors and passengers ran confusedly about; cries of agony and anguish resounded; the masts fell, and soon the vessel itself disappeared in the foaming brine. Dickens told me, that the ship was made of inflated air-tight canvas, the air being let out of which the entire huge body collapses at once, and is hidden by the waves, which were half the height of the scene.

The first appearance of Ariel was poetically beautiful to a high degree: as Prospero summoned him a shooting star fell from heaven; it touched the grass, it shone in blue and green flames, and rose suddenly before us as Ariel’s beautiful and angel-like form; he stood there in white garments, with wings from his shoulders down to the ground; it was as if he and the starry meteor had floated through heaven at the same moment. Every appearance of Ariel was different, and all were beautiful: now he appeared clinging by his hand to the tendrils of a vine, now floating across the scene by some mechanism not easy to be discovered. No cord or rod was visible, yet something of this nature upbore him in his attitude of flight. In one act we saw a bleak winter landscape, changing gradually at the outbreak of sunbeams to an aspect of the utmost luxuriance; the trees became arrayed in leaves, flowers, and fruit; the springs gushed abundantly, and water-nymphs, light as a swan’s feathers upon the billows, danced down the foaming waterfalls. In another scene Olympus shone forth with all its classic beauty; the aerial background was filled with hovering genii. Juno came borne along in her chariot by peacocks, whose trains glistened with radiance. The signs of the zodiac moved in procession: the entire scene was a perfect kaleidoscope phantasmagoria. The splendour of a single act would have drawn crowded houses to witness even the poorest play, and it was lavished upon five acts of Shakespeare — it was too much! Yes! we even sailed with the Ares in the gliding boat, and saw heir thoughts embodied. The whole background moved by — landscape succeeded landscape — a complete moving panorama.

The final scene was undeniably the most effective. It represented an open sea, rippled by the wind. Prospero, who is quitting his island, stood in the stern of the vessel, which moved from the background towards the foot-lights. The sails swelled, and when the parting epilogue had been spoken the ship glided slowly behind the side-scenes, and Ariel appeared, floating over the surface of the water and wafting his parting farewell. All the light fell upon him, insomuch that he, isolated by the electric ray, shed a meteoric splendour over the scene; a beautiful rainbow beamed away from him over the watery mirror. The moon that had shone brightly faded in the sunny radiance, and the rainbow glory beaming from him in the moment of departure. The enchanted public forgave the long intervals between the acts, and the interminable duration of the piece; which lasted on the first representation from 7 to 12.30. Everything had been done that scenery and mise en scene could effect; and yet, after seeing all we felt overwhelmed, weary, and empty. Shakespeare himself was sacrificed to the lust of the eye. Bold poetry became petrified into prosaic illustration. The living word evaporated, and the nectarean food was forgotten in the golden dish in which it was served up.

None of the actors appeared to me remarkable as dramatic artists, except the representation of Caliban. Ariel, which was performed by a lady, was a lovely figure; in naming these I have mentioned the only two of any importance. Kean declaimed in the style of a preacher, and his organ was not fine. I should more enjoy a representation of Shakespeare’s in a wooden theatre than here, where the play was lost in the properties.

Comments: Hans Christian Andersen (1805-1875) was a Danish author, best known for his fairy tales. He visited Charles Dickens at the latter’s home in Gad’s Hill, Kent over June-July 1857, greatly outstaying his welcome, to the annoyance of Dickens’s family. He visited London with Dickens on a number of occasions, though it is not absolutely certain that Dickens himself was present at this production of The Tempest at the Princess’s Theatre, London, 1 July 1857. Charles Kean was the son of the actor Edmund Kean, but inherited few of his father’s gifts as an actor. He was actor-manager at the Princess’s Theatre in London 1851-1859. Kean stressed painstaking, supposed historical accuracy in sets and costumes for his Shakespeare productions, combined with elaborate scenic effects (requiring over 140 stagehands). With scene changes between the acts, the entire production of The Tempest lasted for nearly five hours, despite substantial cuts to the text. Kean played Prospero, Kate Terry was Ariel, and John Ryder played Caliban.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

At the Princess’s

Source: Matthew Arnold, ‘At the Princess’s’, in Essays in Criticism: Second Series – Contributions to ‘The Pall Mall Gazette’ and Discourses in America (London: Macmillan, 1903), pp. 250-254, originally published in The Pall Mall Gazette, 6 December 1882, p. 4

Production: Henry Arthur Jones and Henry Herman, The Silver King, Princess’s Theatre, London, December 1882

Text: An ‘Old Playgoer’ sends the following:-

I am a sexagenarian who used to go much to the Princess’s some five-and-thirty years ago, when Macready had an engagement there. I remember it as if it were yesterday. In spite of his faults and his mannerism, Macready brought to his work so much intellect, study, energy, and power, that one admired him when he was living, and remembers him now he is dead. During the engagement I speak of, Macready acted, I think, all his great Shaksperian [sic] parts. But he was ill-supported, the house was shabby and dingy, and by no means full; there was something melancholy about the whole thing. You had before you great pieces and a powerful actor; but the theater needs the glow of public and popular interest to brighten it, and in England the theater was at that time not in fashion. After an absence of many years I found myself at the Princess’s again. The piece was The Silver King. Perhaps I ought to have gone to see The Lights o’ London; but the lyric of Mr. Sims with which the streets were placarded in order to charm us to The Lights o’ London, had to my aged mind, an unpleasant touch of le faux – that danger, as the critic tells us, of the romantic artist:- ‘Comme chaque genre de composition a son écueil particulier, celui du genre romanesque, c’est le faux.’ At any rate I resisted the charm of Mr. Sims, and stayed away from The Lights o’ London. But The Silver King I have just now been to see, and I should like to record some of my impressions from it while they are fresh.

It was another world from the old Princess’s of my remembrance. The theater itself was renewed and transformed; instead of shabby and dingy, it had become decorated and brilliant. But the real revival was not in the paint and gilding, it was in the presence of the public. The public was there; not alone the old, peculiar public of the pit and gallery, but with a certain number of the rich and refined in the boxes and stalls, and with whole, solid classes of English society conspicuous by their absence. No, it was a representative public, furnisht [sic] from all classes, and showing that English society at large had now taken to the theater.

Equally new was the high general level of the acting. Instead of the company with a single powerful and intelligent performer, with two or three middling ones, and the rest moping and mowing in what was not to be called English but rather stagese, here was a whole company of actors, able to speak English, playing intelligently, supporting one another effectively. Mr. Wilson Barrett, as Wilfred Denver, is so excellent that his primacy cannot be doubted. Next after him, so far as the piece now acting is concerned, I should be inclined to put Mr. Charles Coote, as Henry Corkett. But it is the great merit of the piece that the whole is so effective, and that one is little disposed to make distinctions between the several actors, all of them do their work so well.

And the piece itself! It is not Shakspeare [sic], it is melodrama. I have seen it praised as tho it were not melodrama, not sensational drama at all, but drama of a new and superior kind, bordering upon poetic drama, and even passing into it. With this praise I cannot quite agree. The essential difference between melodrama and poetic drama is that one relies for its main effect upon an inner drama of thought and passion, the other upon an outer drama of, as the phrase is, sensational incidents. The Silver King relies for its main effect upon an outer drama of sensational incidents, and so far is clearly melodrama, transpontine melodrama. But for this outer drama, no less than for the inner drama which we have opposed to it, there is needed an exposition by means of words and sentiments; and in the exposition of the melodrama of Messrs. Jones and Herman, there is nothing transpontine. The critics are right, therefore, in thinking that in this work they have something new and highly praiseworthy, though it is not exactly what they suppose. They have a sensational drama in which the diction and sentiments do not overstep the modesty of nature. In general, in drama of this kind, the diction and sentiments, like the incidents, are extravagant, impossible, transpontine; here they are not. This is a very great merit, a very great advantage. The imagination can lend itself to almost any incidents, however violent; but good taste will always revolt against transpontine diction and sentiments. Instead of giving to their audience transpontine diction and sentiments, Messrs. Jones and Herman give them literature. Faults there are in The Silver King; Denver’s drunkenness is made too much of, his dream is superfluous, the peasantry are a little tiresome, Denver’s triumphant exit from Black Brake Wharf puzzles us.

But in general throughout the piece the diction and sentiments are natural, they have sobriety and propriety, they are literature. It is an excellent and hopeful sign to find playwrights capable of writing in this style, actors capable of rendering it, a public capable of enjoying it.

Another excellent sign should be noticed too. As everybody was said to know how the city of the Ephesians was a worshipper of the great goddess Diana, so may we say that everybody knows that, if not the city of the French, yet their modern drama, like their lighter newspapers, their novels, and their art in general, is a worshipper of the great goddess Lubricity. We imitate and adapt French pieces, and whether the adapter wishes it or not, some traces of the goddess can hardly fail to pass into his work. It is refreshing to find a native piece without the vestige of an appeal to her; and to find this piece, too, admirably given by the actors, passionately enjoyed by the audience. So at least it seems to your obedient servant.

December 6, 1882.

Comments: Matthew Arnold (1822-1888) was an English poet, critic and essayist. His ‘Letters of an Old Playgoer’ is five short essay-reviews written 1882-1884 for The Pall Mall Gazette. Henry Arthur Jones and Henry Herman‘s The Silver King was a hugely successful melodrama, which opened at the Princess’s Theatre on 16 November 1882 and ran for a year. Actor-manager Wilson Barrett became particularly associated with melodramas, including The Lights o’ London and The Silver King.

Links: Copy at Internet Archive